Coping strategies

The demise of practical pain management


Cast your mind back to the last time you decided to create a new habit. It might have been to eat more healthy food, to do daily mindfulness, to go for a walk each day. Something you chose, something you decided when, where and how you did it, something that you thought would be a great addition to your routine.

How did it go? How long did it take to become a habit you didn’t need to deliberately think about? How did you organise the rest of your life to create room for this new habit? What did other people say about you doing this?

While we all know a reasonable amount about motivation for change – importance and confidence being the two major drivers – and as clinicians most of us are in the business of helping people to make changes that we hope will become habitual, have you ever stopped to think about what we ask people with pain to do?

It’s not just “do some exercise”, it’s often “and some mindfulness”, and “you could probably eat more healthily”, and “organise your activities so you can pace them out” – and “take these medications at this and this time”, “attend these appointments”, “think about things differently”… the list continues.

Now, for a moment, cast your mind back to the last few research papers you read, maybe even a textbook of pain management, the most recent course you went on, the latest CPD.

Was there anything at all on how people with pain integrate all of these things into their life?

Lewis et al., (2019) reviewed inpatient pain management programmes over 5 decades. They found 104 studies spanning from 1970’s to 2010’s. Unsurprisingly the content, format and clinicians involved in these programmes has changed – but you might be surprised at some other changes… Lewis and colleagues found that physiotherapy (primarily exercise) remained at similar levels over time, but programmes gradually became less operant conditioning-based (ie behavioural reinforcement with a focus on changing behaviour) to become more cognitive behavioural (working with thoughts and beliefs, often without necessarily including real world behaviour change), with reduced emphasis on reducing medications and less family involvement. While the same numbers of physiotherapists, doctors and psychologists remain, nurses and occupational therapists are decreasingly involved.

What’s the problem with this? Isn’t this what the research tells us is “evidence-based”?

Let’s think for a moment about effect sizes in chronic pain. They’re small across all modalities when we look at outcomes across a group. There are some gaps in our understanding of what, and how, pain management programmes “work”. We know that movement is a good thing – but effect sizes are small. We don’t know how many people maintain their exercise programmes even six months after discharge. We also don’t know how well movements taught in a clinic transfer into daily life contexts, especially where fear and avoidance are being targeted. We don’t know who, if anyone, carries on using mindfulness, cognitive strategies such as thought reframing or reality testing, and we don’t know many people leave a programme thinking they’ve been told their pain is “in their head” (though, to be fair, this is something we’ve had problems with for at least the 30 years I’ve been doing this work!).

So while assessment might be more “holistic” and outcomes more likely to be about quality of life and disability, the minutiae of how people with persistent pain integrate and synthesise what they learn in pain management programmes into their own life contexts is invisible. It’s not even part of many pain management programmes.

We could turn to the qualitative literature for some insights. Mathias et al., (2014) interviewed people two weeks after completing a programme. Munday et al., (2021) selected people toward the end of a three week programme. Farr et al., (2021) talked to people up to 24 months after a programme – but in the context of a peer-led support group (which, by the way, I think are marvellous!), Penney et al., (2019) interviewed veterans to identify outcomes, barriers and facilitators to ongoing pain management – but don’t indicate how long after a programme their participants were interviewed. So we don’t know what pain management strategies “stick” and remain in use, integrated into daily life.

So many questions come up for me! Do pain questionnaires measure what matters to people? Can a 0 – 10 response on an item of the Pain Self Efficacy Questionnaire (Nicholas, 2007) represent how someone draws on, and uses, coping strategies to do what matters? Does a response on the 0 – 10 Pain Disability Index (Tait, Chibnall & Krause, 1990) adequately capture how a person does their daily life? If we help people “do exercise” but they don’t continue with these exercises once they resume their own life – what is the point? Why are family members not included any more? How does this fit with New Zealand’s Te Whare Tapa Whā model of health?

The problem/s?

The health profession that entirely focuses on helping people do what matters in their life (occupational therapists use occupation or daily doing as both therapy and outcome) has had trouble describing our contribution. We don’t, as a profession, fit well into a medical model of health. We focus almost exclusively on the “Function” and “Participation” parts of the ICF – and we focus on daily life contexts. Researching our contribution using RCTs is difficult because we offer unique solutions that help this person and their whanau in their own context, and no-one’s daily life looks the same as another’s. We are about meaning, expressing individuality and self concept through the way we do our lives. This doesn’t lend itself to a clinic-based practice, or a hospital, or a standardised treatment, or treatment algorithms. Our contribution has been eroded over time. Very few pain management programmes incorporate occupational therapy – most are physiotherapy + psychology. This is especially noticeable in NZs ACC community pain management programmes.

Pain management is often based on the assumption that if a person is told what to do, perhaps gets to do it in a clinic with a therapist, this is sufficient. And for some people, especially those who view themselves in the same way as therapists (ie, individual responsibility), and people with the psychological flexibility and internal resources to just do it, they may do quite well. BUT consider the people we know who don’t. People from different cultures, lower socio-economic living, neurodiverse, those with competing values, lack of confidence, lack of personal agency – these are the people who don’t do as well in all of our healthcare, and especially those programmes relying on “self-management”.

Programmes also assume that what is done in a clinic can readily transfer to daily life. Clinics are contained, often purpose-built, usually regulated, and have a therapist handy. People are there for the one purpose. Daily life, on the other hand, is highly variable, holds multiple competing demands, other people question what you’re doing and why, is quite chaotic and messy. And there is no therapist. How does a person decide what to do, when, how, and why?

Remember your challenges with developing one new habit. How you had to stake a claim in your own life to create space for this new activity. How you sometimes forgot. How a change in one part of your life undermined you doing this new thing. How this was only one change. Only one. And what do we ask people with pain to do? And we don’t even bother to find out what is still being done 12 months down the track.

Practical pain management is about helping someone work out how to organise their week so they can add in this new exercise programme that might help, alongside having time and energy to be a good Mum, pick the kids up from school, sort the washing, do the groceries, oh and the car needs a new warrant, and I need a new prescription for my meds.

It’s about working out the best time of day to do some mindfulness – when will it do the most good? when can I fit it in? how do I deal with my partner wanting to get out and start the day while I’m meditating?

It’s about communicating to my boss, my colleagues and my customers that I need to get up and walk around – and maybe say no to some new projects at the moment. Perhaps I need to be more assertive about my own needs. Perhaps I’m worried I’ll lose my job because I need to make these changes….

In the rush to streamline pain management to the bare bones, I wonder if we have forgotten who it is all about. He tangata, he tangata, he tangata – it is people, it is people, it is people. Let’s remember that coping strategies and exercise and all the psychological approaches need to be continued for months, and even years. And this means helping people work out what our suggestions look like in their own life. Let’s not omit the profession that puts people and what their daily life looks like as its reason for being.

Tait, R. C., Chibnall, J. T., & Krause, S. (1990). The pain disability index: psychometric properties. Pain, 40(2), 171-182.

Farr, M., Brant, H., Patel, R., Linton, M. J., Ambler, N., Vyas, S., Wedge, H., Watkins, S., & Horwood, J. (2021, Dec 11). Experiences of Patient-Led Chronic Pain Peer Support Groups After Pain Management Programs: A Qualitative Study. Pain Medicine, 22(12), 2884-2895. https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnab189

Lewis, G. N., Bean, D., & Mowat, R. (2019, Sep). How Have Chronic Pain Management Programs Progressed? A Mapping Review. Pain Practice, 19(7), 767-784. https://doi.org/10.1111/papr.12805

Mathias, B., Parry-Jones, B., & Huws, J. C. (2014). Individual experiences of an acceptance-based pain management programme: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Psychology & Health, 29(3), 279-296. https://doi.org/10.1080/08870446.2013.845667

Nicholas, M. K. (2007, Feb). The pain self-efficacy questionnaire: Taking pain into account. European Journal of Pain, 11(2), 153-163. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpain.2005.12.008

Penney, L. S., & Haro, E. (2019). Qualitative evaluation of an interdisciplinary chronic pain intervention: outcomes and barriers and facilitators to ongoing pain management. Journal of Pain Research, 12, 865-878. https://doi.org/10.2147/JPR.S185652

The complex world of identifying nociplastic pains


Towards the end of 2017, IASP put forward a new mechanistic classification: nociplastic pain. The definition is: “Pain that arises from altered nociception despite no clear evidence of actual or threatened tissue damage causing the activation of peripheral nociceptors or evidence for disease or lesion of the somatosensory system causing the pain.

Note: Patients can have a combination of nociceptive and nociplastic pain”.

This was great news! Prior to this, the term “central sensitisation” was used and abused to describe processes involved in ongoing pain that wasn’t inflammatory or neuropathic. Problem with that term is that it’s apparent in nociceptive mechanisms, as well as both inflammatory and neuropathic…. When the way people used the term was more akin to “well, the pain hasn’t settled down, so ‘something weird’ is going on and it must be in the central nervous system so we’ll adopt this term seeing as Clifford Woolf described it in the spinal cord” (Woolf, 1996, 2007).

In other words, any pain that seemed to radiate, hang around, and no respond to treatment was “centrally sensitised”. Perhaps so. Perhaps not. Suffice to say, people got confused because most of the typical central sensitisation from nociceptive/inflammatory processes subsides over time, but these “centrally sensitised” pains did not.

I, for one, am glad there’s a group in which weird pains that don’t appear to involve typical nociceptive, inflammatory or neuropathic mechanisms can be put.

Problem is: how do we know what fits into this group? We can be pretty certain when it comes to neuropathic pain, because the definition is very clear (though not so clear in the clinic) – “Pain caused by a lesion or disease of the somatosensory nervous system.” The notes go on to say that “neuropathic pain is a description, not a diagnosis” and I’d say the same about nociplastic pains (which is why I use the plural…). I also step out to say that I don’t think ALL nociplastic pains will be found to have the same biological mechanisms, especially given how widely variable neuropathic pains are.

Nevertheless, we need some way to decide which pains are in, and which are out of this group.

This table comes from Kosek et al., (2021) and summarises the findings from a consensus process within an expert group. They make the point that acute pain isn’t helpfully included in this group, and instead it should be used for pains that persist for 3 months or longer. They also point out that regional pain is included while discrete pain is typically not because of the central sensitisation processes involved (note: this is the correct use of the term! Confused? CS is a neurophysiological phenomenon, associated with more than nociplastic pain).

Looking at the above criteria, possible nociplastic pain is present if the person has criteria 1, and criteria 4. Probable nociplastic is present if the person has all the above.

There are some notes, of course: regional means the musculoskeletal pain is deep, regional or in several places or even widespread (not localised to one place), and each condition eg frozen shoulder and OA knee needs to be assessed separately. If there is an identifiable nociceptive source (or neuropathic source) then the pain needs to be more widespread than “usual” for that pathology. Finally, because nociplastic pain unlike neuropathic pain, has no definitive test currently, there is no “definite nociplastic” category – but once there is, this will be added.

What does this mean for us as clinicians?

Firstly it ought to stop people being thought as faking, malingering or otherwise not being believed. That should be a given but unsurprisingly because of legal and health systems and our own frustration at not being able to “fix” people, people with pain get that impression more often than they should. It also ought to stop psychopathologising people who have this kind of pain: we can’t distinguish between people with nociplastic pain and the DSM5 “Somatic Disorder” – so let’s just not add another unhelpful mental health label to what is already a stigmatised situation.

Then it ought to stop clinicians using treatments that simply don’t help – such as opioids for fibromyalgia. It might help clinicians pause before prescribing movement therapies at a level that is too intense for the person, because this only revs the nervous system up even more making the whole process unpleasant. Beginning at the level the person can manage and gradually increasing is crucial to success. And it ought to stop clinicians from administering “explanations” or “education” and expecting that alone to reduce pain. Because while cortical processes are part and parcel of every pain there is, it’s in this group of pains that some people think “top down” by thinking yourself out of pain is a thing. FWIW pain reduction is lovely and part of treatment, but shouldn’t ever be the only outcome (Ballantyne, 2015), and many times in this group of pains, may not even be an outcome.

Finally, it should stimulate helpful discussion about what “whole person” approaches to managing these pains looks like. The authors say “patients with nociplastic pain are likely to respond better to centrally than peripherally targeted therapies” and this does not mean talk therapy alone, or exercise alone, or indeed medications such as gabapentin or nortriptyline alone. To me, it means individualised, tailored, and integrated strategies to moving, managing daily life, restoring sleep, enjoying an intimate relationship, managing mood and memory, and these might best be offered by pain coaches rather than siloed “therapies” of physical, psychological or whatever other stripe there is.

Ballantyne, J. C., & Sullivan, M. D. (2015). Intensity of Chronic Pain — The Wrong Metric? New England Journal of Medicine, 373(22), 2098-2099. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMp1507136

Kosek, E., Clauw, D., Nijs, J., Baron, R., Gilron, I., Harris, R. E., Mico, J.-A., Rice, A. S. C., & Sterling, M. (2021). Chronic nociplastic pain affecting the musculoskeletal system: clinical criteria and grading system. Pain, 162(11), 2629-2634. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002324

Woolf, C. J. (1996). Windup and central sensitization are not equivalent. Pain, 66(2), 105-108.

Woolf, C. J. (2007). Central sensitization: uncovering the relation between pain and plasticity. The Journal of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, 106(4), 864-867.

Rehab Fails: What goes wrong in pain rehabilitation 3


I’m beginning to think this series could grow into a monster – so many #rehabfails to pick from!

Today’s post is about rehabilitation that doesn’t fit into the person’s life. Or that the person hasn’t been supported to fit the rehabilitation into their life. THEIR life, not ours!

You know what I mean: for six to twelve weeks, this person has been coming along to their treatment sessions, doing the things the therapist suggests. They make progress and it’s time to end the programme. “Good bye patient” the therapist says. And the patient skips off into the sunset, fixed for life.

Yeah right.

Roll that movie right back to the start.

At the first consultation, therapists often ask the person about what they’d like to achieve. Often the person doesn’t really know, after all most people don’t routinely set goals – and particularly if someone is experiencing the disruption of dealing with a painful problem that doesn’t go away like it should. It’s not for nothing that people describe this time as being in “zombie land” and dealing only with “the essentials” (Lennox Thompson, et al, 2019). Nevertheless, therapists ask and people are expected to come up with something that can then form the focus of subsequent therapy. A recent systematic review, however, found that many studies describing goal setting practices fail to implement all the components of effective goal setting – in particular, omitting “formulation of coping plan” and “follow up” (Kang, et al, 2022).

Now these two components are crucial for long-term adherence to rehabilitation, and especially in persisting pain where it’s probable the person will need to follow therapeutic practices for a very long time. The “coping plan” consists of identifying barriers and facilitators to doing the actions that lead to achieving goals, and also involves assessing confidence to do so, along with generating a plan to deal with unexpected situations. “Follow up” involves self-evaluating progress, evaluation, and adjusting the plan to suit. (Kang et al., 2022).

Why are these two components so important?

Well, think of one of your recent patients. Think about the things you (and others in your clinical team) asked that person to do. Are any of these things typical for this person? Are they habits, built into daily routines? Are they familiar? What is this person’s daily routine like? What does their family need to do and what does this person need to do for them? If the person usually works, and is still trying to maintain that on top of their usual home and family activities, how much are you and your colleagues asking the person to do on top of these? When they’re already struggling with the debilitating effects of their pain problem?

See why we might have trouble with adherence? Let alone ensuring that the person feels it’s worthwhile doing what it is we’re asking them to do!

I’ve seen this problem time and time again. Little, if any, consideration of this person’s usual daily life context. Little thought to the burden of trying to manage normal life and what the therapists is asking the person to do. No discussion about what might get in the way of fitting these therapy things into their life – and then I’ve heard clinicians have the audacity to suggest the person isn’t motivated!

So much for person centred rehabilitation. So much for helping the person work out how they might fit these things in, and how they might develop a routine or habit that they can continue once they leave the therapist’s care.

While I’ve looked at goal setting and therapy for persistent pain, what I notice is that even in acute musculoskeletal management, studies have shown that therapists don’t really understand goal setting. Alexanders and colleagues (2021) found that physiotherapists undertaking goal setting for anterior cruciate ligament rehabilitation might employ SMART goals – but didn’t understand the theory behind goal setting, didn’t know that expectations were important, and didn’t use feedback sufficiently. And this is for SMART goals that have already been found wanting (see Swann et al., 2022).

What do I suggest?

  1. Start by understanding the person’s current responsibilities in life, and the impact their pain problem is having. Recognise that those impacts will also have an impact on their capability for adding to their daily routine.
  2. With the person, establish the best time of day for them to do whatever it is you think they should do. Work through what might get in the way – and what might support them.
  3. You may need to help them develop some additional skills to deal with what might get in the way of undertaking your activities – maybe skills to communicate with family, or the boss, so they can take 10 minutes out to do the breathing practice you’ve suggested, maybe some work with thoughts to help them be OK with guilt for “not doing things as normal.”
  4. Assess their confidence to engage in this additional task. Use motivational interviewing to boost their confidence (and it probably would help you to consider the importance of what you’re asking them to do in the context of their values and activities).
  5. Check how much you’re asking the person to do – is it achievable in this person’s life? A certain intensity might be theoretically important for physiology, but if the person doesn’t do it because he or she can’t fit it in, it just won’t get done.
  6. Check in with the person in between appointments. If you see them once a week – send a text 3 days in to that week to see how they’re getting on. Or ask the person if they’ll send you a text to let you know. Give feedback, alter your plan, encourage, celebrate.
  7. And once the person is nearly ready for discharge, make sure you have a set-back or relapse prevention plan in place. What should this person do if things begin to go pear-shaped? Do they need to keep going at the same intensity as they have during your therapy? What are their warning signs for things beginning to fall apart? (clue: it’s often not when people are beginning to hurt again, it’s often because the person is feeling good and starts to drop the things that have helped!)

Don’t do #rehabfails

Kang, E., Kim, M. Y., Lipsey, K. L., & Foster, E. R. (2022). Person-Centered Goal Setting: A Systematic Review of Intervention Components and Level of Active Engagement in Rehabilitation Goal-Setting Interventions. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabiltation, 103(1), 121-130 e123. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr.2021.06.025

Lennox Thompson, B., Gage, J., & Kirk, R. (2019). Living well with chronic pain: a classical grounded theory. Disability and Rehabilitation, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2018.1517195

Lenzen SA, Daniels R, van Bokhoven MA, van der Weijden T, Beurskens A. (2017). Disentangling self-management goal setting and action planning: a scoping review. PloS One,12:e0188822.

Swann, C., Jackman, P. C., Lawrence, A., Hawkins, R. M., Goddard, S. G., Williamson, O., Schweickle, M. J., Vella, S. A., Rosenbaum, S., & Ekkekakis, P. (2022, Jan 31). The (over)use of SMART goals for physical activity promotion: A narrative review and critique. Health Psychology Review, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2021.2023608

What goes wrong in pain rehabilitation (2)


One size does not fit all. Cookie cutter treatments fail to take into account the huge variability each person brings into a clinical encounter, particularly when the person is living with persisting pain. Not really earth shattering news, is it?!

Let me unpack this one.

When we’re treating a person with an acute musculoskeletal injury, let’s say a lateral ankle sprain, I’m going to hazard a guess that most of the recovery occurs without our assistance (don’t shoot the messenger – go read Chen et al, 2019). In essence, we’re creating an environment that supports tissues to do what they do well – get on with healing. Because of this, there’s good reason to follow a basic treatment algorithm that will work for most people. That is, unless or until recovery stops for some reason.

It’s here that algorithms begin to lose utility, because the factors that are implicated in delayed recovery are many and varied – and it’s important to narrow down the particular factors involved for this person with their ankle.

So, IMHO, cookie cutter treatments begin to fall apart when recovery is slower than expected because there are a heap of variables involved. And yet what do I see? “Oh it failed but let’s do the same thing again but harder!” or “the person wasn’t doing their exercises” or “it must be psychosocial factors.”

Well, no, actually, perhaps psychosocial factors are involved, but they were there from the outset (just ignored because the tissue-based factors capture our attention). And no, doing the same thing again but harder leads to the same outcome, only more disappointing. And we have no idea whether the person was, or wasn’t doing their exercises – or whether the prescribed exercises were useful, or whether they even make much of a difference anyway! (again, don’t shoot the messenger, go read Wagemans, et al 2022).

But probably the most heartbreaking thing about using “one size fits all” is that this doesn’t take into account this person’s goals, lifestyle, current priorities, other contextual factors like workplace, family and friendship obligations that are integral to being a person, not just a lateral ankle sprain.

I once worked at a chronic pain centre where every person was assessed by three clinicians: a medical practitioner for diagnosis and medication management; a psychosocial clinician to understand life stressors and the person’s understanding of their pain and their current coping strategies; and a person who assessed how he or she was managing with daily life and functional activities. What I couldn’t understand was how almost every patient was given the same management plan: to try some drugs, see a psychologist, and do a home exercise programme. Come to the centre to see each clinician on a different day of the week. Irrespective of the unique presentation, the same recipe was given. The ingredients might have been a little different when the person was seen for treatment, but without fail, the basic elements were exactly the same.

How is this person-centred care? What if this person was a 4 wheeldrive off-roading enthusiast who loved to go fishing? What if this person was a traveling sales rep with a well-developed meditation practice? What if this person had five kids and couldn’t get to the pain centre for the twice weekly appointments? What if this person was hankering after spending some time with other people who were also living with pain so she could hear that she wasn’t alone, and could pick up tips from people who knew what it was like?

Today I still hear of people being given a copy of “Explain Pain”, get to do the “Protectometer” and then told to go see the physio and psychologist. Nothing about the person’s desire to work out the impact pain has on their daily life, nothing about the understanding the person already has about their own pain fluctuations, and nothing that’s tailored to what this person needs and wants to do.

Seriously folks, pain rehabilitation and management is all about tailored, bespoke, clever therapy based on what the person needs and wants to do, what they already know and bring to their own recovery, and it probably needs to include connection with other people who are in the same situation. Why? Because while “other people” might not give the advice the journal articles recommend, they offer advice from their own experience. And mostly, people with persisting pain need affirmation that they’re resilient, capable, knowledgeable and can work a way through this.

Maybe what we need to do is include people who live with pain in service design (Sandvin Olsson, et al., 2020) – and pain management delivery (Farr, et al., 2021). It seems to work.

Chen, E. , McInnis, K. & Borg-Stein, J. (2019). Ankle Sprains: Evaluation, Rehabilitation, and Prevention. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 18 (6), 217-223. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000603.

Farr, M., Brant, H., Patel, R., Linton, M. J., Ambler, N., Vyas, S., Wedge, H., Watkins, S., & Horwood, J. (2021, Dec 11). Experiences of Patient-Led Chronic Pain Peer Support Groups After Pain Management Programs: A Qualitative Study. Pain Med, 22(12), 2884-2895. https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnab189

Sandvin Olsson, A. B., Strom, A., Haaland-Overby, M., Fredriksen, K., & Stenberg, U. (2020, Aug). How can we describe impact of adult patient participation in health-service development? A scoping review. Patient Educ Couns, 103(8), 1453-1466. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2020.02.028

Wagemans, J., Bleakley, C., Taeymans, J., Schurz, A. P., Kuppens, K., Baur, H., & Vissers, D. (2022). Exercise-based rehabilitation reduces reinjury following acute lateral ankle sprain: A systematic review update with meta-analysis. PLoS One, 17(2)http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0262023

Rehab fails: What goes wrong in pain rehabilitation (1)


Well obviously I’m not going to cover everything that goes wrong – and certainly not in one post! But inspired by some conversations I’ve had recently, I thought I’d discuss some of the common #fails we do in rehabilitation. Things that might explain why people with pain are thought to be “unmotivated” or “noncompliant” – because if the rehab doesn’t ‘work’ of course it’s the person with pain who’s at fault, right? So for today, here goes.

Starting at the wrong intensity

One of the main things that happens when someone’s in pain is to reduce overall activity level. Pain has been called “activity intolerance” and it’s common for people to stop doing. So naturally when a clinician is developing an activity or exercise programme, the aim is often to simply increase how much movement a person does in a day. So far, so good. Muscles and cardiovascular systems improve when we use them.

But guess what? There’s a person inside that body! And people have minds. Minds with opinions about everything and in particular, anything to do with doing. There’s often a “should” about how much movement or activity to do. This rule might be based on “pain is a sign of tissue damage” so anything that increases pain clearly “should not be done”. There may equally be a “should” about how much exercise this person used to do, or wants to do, and often mental comments about “what kind of a person does this amount of exercise.”

I’ve heard good clinicians say that their patients “have unrealistic goals” – this is probably because the person’s mind has an opinion about what he or she “should” be able to do!

What can good therapists do about this? Well, firstly to ignore the person who inhabits the body is plain wrong. Secondly, flashy gadgets like coloured tapes or special elastics or foam thingies probably won’t do much for the person’s opinionated mind except to temporarily distract — oooh! shiny!!

Something I might do would be to ask the person what level they think they can begin at – beginning where the person is at, and moving at his or her pace is a solid foundation for developing a relationship where experimenting with movement becomes about the person and his or her relationship with their body. I think one of the aims of movement rehabilitation is to help the person develop trust in their own body and how it moves, so enhancing playfulness and experimentation can be a good start.

I might ask the person “what shows up when we begin doing this set of movements/exercises”? By “showing up” I’m talking about thoughts, images, sensations in the body that pop into a person’s mind (minds are soooo opinionated!). We might need to guide the person to notice quick thoughts or images, to put words to emotions and feelings, and to get in touch with fleeting sensations in the body.

Some of the things I’ve heard people say include: “only weak losers would call this exercise”, “I used to be able to lift 40kg sacks of cement and now all I can move is this pathetic 5kg dumbbell”, “he wants me to do what?! I hate boring exercises”, “but what am I going to feel like tomorrow?”

What do we do with these thoughts?

First: make room for them to be present. Don’t quickly deny them “Oh of course you’re not weak”, “5kg isn’t pathetic”, “exercise is great fun”, “you’ll be fine, you can do this”. Saying these sorts of things dismisses the validity of the person’s fears and won’t win you any friends.

Second: empathic reflection. Indicate that you’ve heard what the person has said, validate that this is their experience, their thoughts. Something like “it’s a long way from what you used to lift, and that’s hard”, “it’s tough beginning to build up again”, “you’re worried that this is going to be unrewarding”, “you’ve had pain flare-ups before, and it’s hard to deal with”.

Third: Ask the person where they’d like to begin, put them in control of the intensity. Then ask them “how do you think that’s going to pan out” – in other words, will their option get them to where they want to be? What’s good about it? What’s not so good about it? from their perspective not yours! The idea is to establish how workable the person’s starting point might be. It might be perfectly fine, even if it’s not your choice!

Fourth: Affirm that the choice is the person’s – and that this is an experiment that will be reviewed at the next session. You might say something like “So you’d like to try doing 5 minutes of walking instead of the treadmill that I suggested, because you think this shouldn’t flare your pain up as much. What’s your choice now that we’ve talked about the good and not so good? We can review it next time.”

Fifth: Review how it went at the next session! Note down the rationale the person had for the level of intensity they chose, and then review how well that intensity worked from this perspective. For example “you wanted to do 5 minutes of walking because it wouldn’t flare you pain up as much, what did you notice? What showed up? How well did it work?” Notice all the open-ended questions, the reminder that the person thought this intensity wouldn’t flare their pain as much, and the focus on workability. Because at the beginning of a movement or exercise programme, what you’re looking for is adherence, sticking to the level of intensity chosen. Habits take time to make, and often adhering to a programme is because the opinionated mind is having a go at the person, interfering with their willingness to stick with it. If we avoid that roadblock, we have at least one point on the board.

Your opinionated mind might now be telling you that “oh they’ll never make progress at that pace”, “they’ll do themselves an injury if they lift that much”, “this is just pandering to their lack of motivation”

Be careful! At this point you could reflect on what’s showing up for you. Are you worried their outcomes will reflect badly on you? Do you only have a few sessions with the person and need them to get somewhere or you’ll have failed? Make room for those uncomfortable feelings. Let them be present and listen to what your opinionated mind is telling you. Maybe remind yourself that outcomes don’t depend on you – they depend on the person sticking to the programme, and a programme that doesn’t start because the person’s mind tells them it’s not worth it is a #rehabfail Remember also that you’re aiming for the person to gain confidence in their body, learn to listen to what happens when they try something out – the repeated progress reviews you do with the person are the actual active ingredients in therapy, they’re the bits that help the person to reflect on what works, and what doesn’t. That’s gold.

ps The technique I’ve described above is – gasp! – a psychological approach, based on ACT and motivational interviewing. You won’t find a specific study examining this approach in journals (at least not in a cursory search like I did!), but it’s an application of well-studied approaches into a movement or exercise context. It’s the same approach I use in contextually-relevant occupational therapy. Reading Bailey et al, 2020, affirms to me that we have a way to go to define and measure adherence, so I feel justified in using these strategies!

Bailey, D. L., Holden, M. A., Foster, N. E., Quicke, J. G., Haywood, K. L., & Bishop, A. (2020, Mar). Defining adherence to therapeutic exercise for musculoskeletal pain: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med, 54(6), 326-331. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2017-098742

Eynon, M., Foad, J., Downey, J., Bowmer, Y., & Mills, H. (2019). Assessing the psychosocial factors associated with adherence to exercise referral schemes: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 29(5), 638-650. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13403

Levi, Y., Gottlieb, U., Shavit, R., & Springer, S. (2021). A matter of choice: Should students self-select exercise for their nonspecific chronic low back pain? A controlled study. Journal of American College Health, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2021.1960845

Making sense of pain


It’s been said many times, so many times I can’t locate the originator of the saying “humans are meaning-making machines” – no more so than when a person experiences pain. Whether it’s a stubbed toe, sprained ankle, thundering headache – or, in my case, weird and ongoing widespread body pain AKA fibromyalgia – we would like to make sense of what’s going on. And mostly we tell simple stories about what we were doing, what happened to the body and that’s that.

In the case of weird or persistent pains the challenge becomes harder. The original story might not fit any more, or because of that story, we limit what we do in case we do damage.

Now philosophers and other commentators have taken up the matter of what this experience really is: sensation or perception? Frankly, I don’t think this matters a jot to the people I see who are trying hard to make sense of what their pain means to them. One person I’ve seen recently said “I feel adrift, like a pingpong ball bobbing on the sea” – life is what isn’t making sense any more. And life, dear readers, is not as simple as sensation or perception.

One of the concepts used to understand what constitutes health is the construct “meaning in life.” Meaning in life is associated with resilience, better health outcomes, and very importantly, recovery from Covid and dealing with the stress of how Covid and other world events have played out over the past few years (Arlsan & Allen, 2021; King & Hicks, 2021; Lin, 2021). But where meaning in life has been extensively studied is….chronic pain.

This makes sense to me! Chronic pain is known to disrupt “normal” life for the person experiencing it. Movements that used to be done without thinking are now etched into memory. Sleep isn’t the respite from world cares it was – now it’s endless hours of aching. Assumptions about how quickly a person should recover from injury are smashed. Chronic, persisting, ongoing pain can disrupt life as we know it.

Meaning in life is thought to comprise three facets: coherence, purpose, and mattering. Coherence is about comprehending or “making sense of the past, present and imagined future aspects of life, being able to integrate their life story into a coherent whole (King & Hicks, 2021).” Purpose is “a central, self-organizing life aim that organizes and stimulates goals, manages behaviors, and provides a sense of meaning (McKnight & Kashdan, 2009).” Mattering is about how a person believes their life counts – a sort of transcendence beyond self to a bigger world.

All three of these constructs contribute to an overall belief that life makes sense, and that we are effective agents that contribute over and above our lifetime. You can see how this can erode when living with a meaningless pain like neuropathic pain, or ongoing migraines, or low back pain that just doesn’t settle.

Where does that leave us, if we’re clinicians working with someone experiencing weird pain? I think one of the most important parts of our work is to help people achieve a sense of coherence – that despite pain, it’s possible to still be “me” and that while the future may be different from what was previously imagined, it can still fit into a coherent whole. What this means is helping the person to establish what matters in their life, then figuring out ways for the person to resume those things, whether pain is present or not. This might look like helping the person come up with a story about their pain – a narrative that moves from damage to perhaps recognising that we don’t know why they hurt, but that they know of various factors that influence the severity, frequency and interference of their pain (Hadley & Novitch, 2021).

I also think we need to recognise that people living with pain may also find their purpose is challenged – and some of our work is helping people recognise their purpose in life and find ways to keep moving towards what matters to them. This is the part where we recognise values and life direction – perhaps “occupational drive” or the things that people want and need to do.

Finally, throughout our work with people, we need to remember that mattering matters. That the person we’re working with isn’t “the wonky knee” or “the shoulder” or “the bad back.” Being willing to see the person behind the eyes, the talk, and the pained body. This takes time, and most of all – listening with heart and curiosity.

Arslan, G., & Allen, K. A. (2021, Jan 25). Exploring the association between coronavirus stress, meaning in life, psychological flexibility, and subjective well-being. Psychology, Health and Medicine, 27(1), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1080/13548506.2021.1876892

Hadley, G., & Novitch, M. B. (2021, Apr 1). CBT and CFT for Chronic Pain. Current Pain and Headache Reports, 25(5), 35. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11916-021-00948-1

King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The science of meaning in life. Annual Review of Psychology, 72, 561-584.

Lin, L. (2021, May). Longitudinal associations of meaning in life and psychosocial adjustment to the COVID-19 outbreak in China. British Journal of Health Psychology, 26(2), 525-534. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjhp.12492

Experiential avoidance – and persistent pain


Most of us will recognise that when we experience a pain, we firstly notice where it is, and the sensory qualities of it. We automatically make judgements about that pain – some of this judgement is about whether we recognise this pain (have we had it before?), some is about whether it’s important enough to interrupt what we’re doing (should I drop this hot cup of coffee, or can I hold onto it long enough to place the cup carefully on the bench), and some is about how we feel emotionally (yes, swearing is common when we smack our thumb with a hammer!).

In our response to acute pain, we often want to avoid or escape whatever we think gave us the pain – unless, of course, it’s something we choose to do even though it hurts. You know, things like lifting really heavy weights, running distances, taking rugby tackles, eating chilli! But in most cases where the pain is unexpected we’re inclined to want to make it stop, get away from the thing that probably caused it, and take a few minutes (or longer) to not do the things that make it worse. So we avoid walking on a newly sprained ankle and we don’t keep poking and prodding at a cut or a bruise.

Avoiding is quite common and even helpful when we experience the initial onset of a pain.

So why do we talk about “fear avoidance” as if it’s a bad thing?

Well, it’s because avoiding beyond a useful period of time often leads to ongoing problems. Some of these problems are possibly over-stated: things like “deconditioning” are probably not as much of a problem as we once thought (see Andrews, Strong & Meredith, 2021; Tagliaferri, Armbrecht, Miller, Owen et al, 2020). While other forms of avoidance may never even be considered.

What do I mean?

For a moment, think of a “weekend warrior”. The kind of person who heroically plays sport on a Saturday, trains once or twice during the week, and otherwise works hard and plays hard. Let’s think of this person as a male, perhaps in his late 30’s, thinks of himself as a hard worker and a family man. When he sprains his wrist after a particularly hard tackle in a weekend rugby game, he’s the kind who shrugs it off, and just keeps going. After a few weeks and his wrist doesn’t get much better, he heads off to see his local physio.

We wouldn’t usually think of him as an “avoider”. He’s not pain-avoidant, but sometimes because he doesn’t stop to take care of his wrist sprain, he ends up with a more troublesome injury. He might even develop a “boom and bust” pattern of activity: on a day he’s feeling good he’ll push through, but then his wrist starts playing up and he needs to take a day or two off.

I’m going to call it like I see it: this bloke is avoiding. What he’s avoiding is the experience of being vulnerable, of seeking help, of being advised to stop pushing himself for a day or so.

You see, experiential avoidance is what we do to avoid feelings (emotions) and actions that we don’t like or don’t want.

We see experiential avoidance most often described in pain research in the group of people who don’t resume their usual daily activities in part because they’re afraid of their pain. Or they’re afraid of what their pain might mean, or the effect of their pain on other things they need or want to do. For example, Angelina (see here) might be worried about the effect of pain on her sleep. And we’re reasonably OK with offering these people some information about what might be going on in their tissues, and that the relationship between pain and what’s going on in the tissues might not be as straightforward as it is when we hit our thumb with a hammer.

What we might be less aware of, and perhaps struggle to deal with is when a person appears to be doing the right things, like they’re remaining active and staying at work, but might be overdoing it. What might this person be avoiding? Perhaps, as I’ve suggested in the example above, it’s about avoiding feeling vulnerable, feeling like he’ll be told to slow down for a bit. Slowing down might be a sign, at least to our weekend warrior, that he’s not as young as he used to be. Perhaps he’s afraid of stopping because that means his busy mind can start to plague him with unhelpful thoughts about things he’s worrying about.

Experiential avoidance, like avoidance when a painful injury first happens, isn’t always a negative. When it’s used as the key strategy for life, indiscriminately and with an eye only to short-term benefits and not long-term consequences, then it’s not so good.

You see I hope we can help people to develop psychological flexibility: the ability to choose a response to any given situation that maintains moving towards what matters even if this means doing what feels odd or even a backwards step.

I also think we might benefit from developing psychological flexibility ourselves as clinicians. If we continue using the same old, same old strategy even if the results aren’t what we hoped for, we’re not helping anyone.

Andrews NE, Strong J, Meredith PJ. (2012). Activity pacing, avoidance, endurance, and associations with
patient functioning in chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. 93(11): 2109–21.e7, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr.2012.05.029 PMID: 22728699

Tagliaferri, S., Armbrecht, G., Miller, C., Owen, P., Mundell, N., Felsenberg, D., Thomasius, F., & Belavy, D. (2020). Testing the deconditioning hypothesis of low back pain: A study in 1182 older women, European Journal of Sport Science, 20:1, 17-23, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2019.1606942

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! Part 4


In the previous few posts on what to do with all that assessment information I’ve talked about generating a formulation to guide treatment, and a little about how teams might work together to generate one. This post is a little different because I want to situation the discussion around the ultimate aim of therapy.

I usually work with people who have long-standing pain that hasn’t changed much and doesn’t seem to be disappearing. I’m not a nihilist, but I do wonder if clinicians are trying too hard to “change pain” when the body doesn’t seem to respond all that much to whatever we offer when it comes to musculoskeletal pain! Perhaps all we do is offer support to the person as their body gets on with the job of settling down…?

Anyway, my focus is to help people respond flexibly to what life has thrown at them – because while pain poses one of the greatest problems for people, often it’s not the pain as such but what we do to avoid or control pain – or, for that matter, what we do to avoid or control the results of avoiding or controlling pain. Confused? Let me unpack it a little with an example.

About the time I started this blog wayyyyy back in 2007 I had a concussion and developed post-concussion syndrome. I found it incredibly difficult to concentrate, find words, remember things, switch my attention from one thing to the next, and to deal with sensory overload. I was advised to rest and let my brain recover in its own time – all good. BUT I never expected that recovery to take almost two years! so I returned to part-time work after two weeks. In my head I was balancing my fatigue/headache/difficulty concentrating against my need to return to work, keep my employer happy, and do things that mattered.

If I flip that motivation on its head, I wanted to control both my symptoms and my fear/guilt of failing and perhaps losing my job/fear of sitting still and doing nothing/fear of feeling useless. After all, I was the vocational rehabilitation therapist for the service I worked in!

By trying to control my fear of not doing, I created a whole bunch of trouble for myself – I failed at controlling my symptoms – they grew out of hand and I eventually had to take some time off work, got quite depressed, and achieved exactly what I’d hope to avoid – needing to stay at home doing nothing!

When we think of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) for living with pain, we often think of the person working hard to control or avoid pain and our focus is on helping them to be willing to make room for pain and begin doing things – and yet I’ve met a great many people who have got caught up in a vicious cycle of over-doing and under-doing, or who “get on with it” with gritted teeth and sheer determination! So one thing we can be looking for in our “first contact” is to identify how workable are the ways the person is approaching this time in their life, a time when they’re dealing with pain and life restrictions, stress, balancing priorities, working, family and so on.

ACT provides a series of six processes that together offer a way to be flexible about how we handle what life throws at us, and help us do what matters in our life. In an ACT formulation, we’re looking for unhelpful patterns that constrain how flexibly we can do what matters. Some of the patterns we might see could be:

  1. Unwillingness to stop and create space for pain so the person gets stuck acting as if there is no pain, trying to do everything the same way as normal but either getting fatigued and stressed and just hanging on in there, or doing short bursts of “normal” and crashing periodically.
  2. Getting stuck with rigid beliefs about what’s going on like thinking the pain must be able to be fixed and quickly, or that the pain is the most horrible disaster ever and everything about life must be shelved until it’s fixed.
  3. Comparing what he or she can currently do against a previous level of performance and being frustrated and angry because this doesn’t fit with how they see themselves, and especially thinking that this is the way it’s going to be forever…
  4. Losing sight of important things like being with family, or seeing friends because of feeling irritable, sad, thinking they don’t want to see them like this, not being able to do the things they used to do, waiting for the pain to reduce, or looking for the fix.
  5. Anticipating calamity or remembering disasters either about “the last time I tried doing this” or “because I saw this happen to [name]” and then feeling utterly stuck.
  6. Casting about being erratic or just not sticking to a plan, getting off track maybe because results don’t happen, or maybe because it’s something new and feels unfamiliar, or perhaps because someone else suggested another option…

There are always other ways people respond to pain, not just the patterns I’ve listed here, but these are some common ones I’ve seen. In ACT we’re looking for unworkable patterns that don’t lead the person towards being the kind of person they want to be, doing the things that bring meaning in their life.

When I’m jotting these things down, I’m looking to identify the core things the person isn’t willing to experience: thoughts, emotions, memories, situations. I want to understand what the person does to avoid them – like things the person has stopped doing or deliberately avoids, the ways the person avoids or controls emotions associated with that thing (like drinking more alcohol, zoning out, lashing out), and what I observe during our initial assessment like skipping over topics that feel uncomfortable.

I want to understand the cost or “unworkability” from the person’s perspective: what’s the impact of responding in these ways. I need to understand what’s going on in the person’s context – their family life, employment situation, influence of case manager or insurance/compensation, friendships. And I want to look at the factors that might be adding to the person’s inflexible responses, and these are myriad and often include what we do as clinicians – like being told to stop doing a favourite hobby “because it might be damaging” (how many people with low back pain have been told to stop running, stop fishing, stop dancing, stop lifting, to sit in a certain way, walk in a certain way, lift in a certain way, stop slouching, walk faster, slower…?). And of course I want to understand a person’s strengths: have they had an experience like this before? Do they have strong values? Have they succeeded in some area in life? What brings them joy and takes them into the zone? How have they modified the way they do things so they can do what matters?

I like to do this in collaboration with the person (how else could I do it?!) and to look at the good and not so good of everything they’ve done along with the context. Because one thing that always resonates with me is that people do what they do because it’s worked in the past. Always. At least once.

For more on ACT, you can’t go past the Association for Contextual Behavioural Science – https://contextualscience.org/

And Chapter 2 from Lance McCracken’s book Mindfulness and Acceptance in Behavioral Medicine, 2011, Context Press, New Harbinger:

Vowles, K.E, & Thompson, M. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Chronic Pain, pp31 – 60.

Adam’s slow recovery


Not long ago I wrote about Adam Meakins back pain, and the astonishing response he’s had from fellow clinicians as he’s documented his recovery. Sadly, the polarised views of how therapists should approach a person with low back pain show me just how appallingly badly we adhere to low back pain guidelines… and worse, the kind of language and attitudes shown to a colleague who knows what he’s doing, demonstrates why change is so very slow.

What do I mean? Well, Adam has been following evidence-based low back pain guidelines that haven’t really changed a great deal since the advent of New Zealand’s “Yellow Flags” and guide to low back pain published waaaaay back in 1997. I’ve jumped to the NICE guidelines, as an example of one guideline, but you could look to many others.

NICE suggest these steps:

Assess for alternative diagnoses – in particular, “cancer, infection, trauma or inflammatory disease such as spondyloarthritis”

Risk assessment – basically, sorting people into those who are pretty OK with their pain, non-distressed and recommending those people receive “reassurance, advice to keep active and guidance on self-management.”

If Adam was distressed, or had a whole lot of risk factors for ongoing disability, then he might benefit from “more complex and intensive support for people with low back pain.” And yes, this mentions exercise programmes, manual therapy, psychological approaches.

Imaging – is not recommended, with imaging only used if the result is likely to change management.

Treatment – self-management, no orthotics or belts, no traction, and only offer manual therapy as part of an overall package that includes exercise.

No acupuncture, no electrotherapy.

Maybe use psychological therapies in conjunction with exercise.

Add in some NSAIDs

And don’t do much else…

In other words – exactly what Adam has been doing.

Why are there so many clinicians offering unsolicited opinions, without examining Adam, and without listening to his preferences, and without referring to the evidence?

What does this say about our clinical practice? What does it say about our confidence? What does it say about knowledge translation?

Most of all, what does this DO to the people we hope to help?

Seriously, folks. Watching the responses gives me nightmares.

I’ve been working in this field for 30 years now, and saying essentially the same thing about low back pain management for most of those years. I worry that an enormous business is built around scaring people, offering treatments with limited effect, for a condition that is common and responds well to doing normal movements.

In fact, one gripe I do have with the NICE guidelines is that they utterly and completely ignore daily life activities that a person needs to return to, and quickly. There’s nothing on managing sleep – and Adam’s described really rotten sleep until two days ago. There’s nothing on how to manage washing yourself, driving your car, sitting at a desk, doing the grocery shopping, preparing a meal, care for kids (or older parents) – absolutely nothing on the daily life activities that people need and want to do.

But, then again, I would say this – occupational therapists are the profession concerned about daily doing. The context of every day life. Knowledge translation from clinic/gym/exercise to what people actually do in their daily routines. It looks oh so simple – until you have to do it.

Back to Adam’s slow recovery. As I’ve watched Adam’s videos, I’m struck with the thought that many people just don’t know what to say – and so offer advice because that’s one way to deal with their own disquiet at helplessness. Clinicians, we need to develop better skills at managing our OWN emotional responses. We need to develop greater skills at sitting with our uncertainty. We need to stop leaping in with unsolicited advice that we offer just because we’re not comfortable doing nothing.

Could we just, for a moment, stop thinking about our reactions – and listen to what Adam (and I’m sure a whole bunch of our patients, too) says he wants? Listening means stopping that inner voice that’s got the “good” advice. It means really hearing what a person says. And only formulating a verbal response after we’ve digested the meaning the person is trying to convey.

Kia kaha Adam. You’re a brave man, a strong man, and I have much respect for you.

When therapists get hurt


“Physician, heal thyself” – usually used to suggest that the person should fix their own problems before trying to fix someone else. And when a therapist gets hurt all the armchair critics (social media proclamists) go off pointing the finger and telling that person what to do – even when the therapist is doing exactly what evidence suggests is the right thing to do.

Adam Meakins has hurt his back while lifting weights in the gym – he’s documenting his progress on social media, which I think is both a very brave thing to do and also something I’d love to see more of. If you want to follow his progress, head to The Sports Physio on Facebook where he’s posted footage of the onset, and now Days 1 and 2.

Why do I think it’s brave? Well because Adam’s outspoken and highly visible on social media. That means anything and everything he does about his LBP is likely to be scrutinised in detail. All manner of opinions have already been put forth. Diagnoses made (yeah, I know – over the interwebs…), and so many treatment options offered!

Adam’s predicament gets much more attention than Mrs Jones down the road who hurt her back the same day. Yet Adam knows what to do, is doing it, and holding strong to what research suggests is best.

Mrs Jones, on the other hand, is likely subject to some of the opinions that Adam’s getting (go on, take a look, especially on Instagram and Twitter) but without the background and experience Adam has to draw on. No wonder Mrs Jones feels confused.

Adam is brave because, as he pointed out today, having LBP means your mind leaps to unhelpful conclusions, often “thinks the worst” and in the dark of the night, it’s probable that doubts about whether he’s doing the right thing creep in. And if Adam’s recovery is slower than usual, I can hear the chorus of bystanders roar for his blood “You didn’t do what I said you should do”

Because isn’t it peculiar, and common, that when recovery doesn’t follow the standard trajectory, it’s the person’s fault…

Think of Mrs Jones – if her recovery goes the way so many people’s recovery goes and burbles along with flare-ups and periods where it settles, then she’s likely to carry on seeing at least one clinician, probably more. She’ll likely get a whole range of different ways to manage her low back pain – but usually starting with one approach and getting more of it until the clinician decides to change tack, and then onto another one until that clinician decides it’s not working and changes tack….And along the way she’ll acquire labels like “catastrophiser” or “avoidant” or “noncompliant”.

I also said that I’d love more clinicians to post about their recovery. I’ve seen a few, but couldn’t we do more? Why? Because showing how clinicians also “think the worst”, worry, have trouble sleeping, want to keep going but find it tough – despite our knowledge of pain, and all our experience working with people who have pain – is good for us as clinicians.

Because if you’ve never had a bout of back pain it’s relatively easy to think that the way a person reacts to their pain is abnormal. The label “catastrophising” gets bandied about, along with all the other psychosocial factors that can often get used and abused in a way that lays the fault for the person’s predicament on them.

But back pain is really common. Most of us will have a bout at some point in our life – maybe more severe than Adam’s, maybe less severe, maybe associated with heavy lifting as Adam’s was, maybe just bending to pick up a pair of socks. Some of us will be really fit like Adam, others of us will be less fit.

Back pain isn’t very choosy and this is why we haven’t yet found a way to prevent it from ever happening, we can only work with the person to prevent it hanging around and getting in the way of life.

Being honest enough to show that clinicians are human too helps other clinicians rethink the “them and us” divide that is common between people seeking help, and those who would offer help. Because how often do we hear that Mrs Jones was unfit, probably lazy, had a bad lifestyle, ate the wrong foods, did no exercise, and it was probable that she’d develop a back pain. Yet Adam is pretty fit, lives a healthy lifestyle, is certainly not lazy, and like Mrs Jones does not deserve a low back pain.

I hope that Adam doesn’t get the advice I’ve heard given to so many people: get fit, change your lifestyle, get back to work, do more. Mrs Jones might be working two physically demanding jobs (cleaning, and waiting tables). She might walk 20 minutes to get to the bus-stop, and is on her feet all the time she’s at work. She might leave home at 6.00am, get back at 5.00pm to prepare a meal for the rest of her household, then go out again for another three or four hours to her second job, finally arriving home to sleep at 9.00pm. And some youngster suggests she needs to “prioritise herself” and “do exercise”! Who else is going to do what Mrs Jones does for her family?

Finally, I really hope that people offer Mrs Jones a lot more of an empathic response than Adam has had. Anyone experiencing pain needs support – and don’t need a whole bunch of well-intentioned advice from people who don’t know them personally. And some of the comments offered to Adam are not well-intentioned. What does that kind of vicious behaviour show to the general public?

Below – just a small selection of the longitudinal studies exploring the trajectories of back pain in the population. Worth looking at if you think you’ve got The Answer to What To Do – because so far it’s not working.

Canizares, M., Rampersaud, Y. R., & Badley, E. M. (2019, Dec). Course of Back Pain in the Canadian Population: Trajectories, Predictors, and Outcomes. Arthritis care & research, 71(12), 1660-1670. https://doi.org/10.1002/acr.23811

Chen, Y., Campbell, P., Strauss, V. Y., Foster, N. E., Jordan, K. P., & Dunn, K. M. (2018, Feb). Trajectories and predictors of the long-term course of low back pain: cohort study with 5-year follow-up. Pain, 159(2), 252-260. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001097

Gatchel, R. J., Bevers, K., Licciardone, J. C., Su, J., Du, Y., & Brotto, M. (2018, May 17). Transitioning from Acute to Chronic Pain: An Examination of Different Trajectories of Low-Back Pain. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), 6(2). https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare6020048

Kongsted, A., Kent, P., Axen, I., Downie, A. S., & Dunn, K. M. (2016, May 21). What have we learned from ten years of trajectory research in low back pain? BMC Musculoskelet Disord, 17, 220. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-016-1071-2

Pico-Espinosa, O. J., Cote, P., Hogg-Johnson, S., Jensen, I., Axen, I., Holm, L. W., & Skillgate, E. (2019). Trajectories of Pain Intensity Over 1 Year in Adults With Disabling Subacute or Chronic Neck Pain [Journal: Article]. Clinical Journal of Pain, 35(8), 678-685.