Coping strategies

New year, new you! 10 Steps to Change Your Life!


Are you setting goals for this year? Did you decide to get fit? Eat healthier? Spend more time with your family? Be more mindful? Read on for my famous 10 steps to change your life!

Bah, humbug!

Reflect for a moment on what you’ve just read. Head to Google and do a search using the terms “New Year” and see what you come up with. My search page showed, amongst all the horrific news of car smashes and events for the holiday season, topics like “New Year Bootcamp: Get rid of your debt”, “cook something new every week”, “read more books”, “create a cleaning schedule you’ll stick to”…

Ever wonder why we do this? Every single year?

First, we buy into the idea that our life right now isn’t good enough. There are improvements we can [read ‘should’] make.

Then we decide what “good” looks like. Better finances, healthier diet, less time on devices, cleaner and tidier house…whatever.

We then read all the things we should do – apparently, improving body, mind and soul is good for… the soul.

The popular “experts” then tell us to use a planner, tick off daily fitness goals, and tackle small actions frequently.

Betcha like anything most of us will fail. Even if we begin with the best of intentions.

This year, I’m not doing “goals” – I’ve bought into the over-use of SMART goals for too long, and I’m rejecting them. Why? Because life begins to look like a whole bunch of tick boxes, things to do, keeping the “eye on the prize” at the end. But when is “the end”? Is it a set of “yes! I’ve done it” achievements? Little celebrations? Or do we feel coerced into setting yet another goal? Can goals prevent us from being present to the intrinsic nature of daily life? I think so, at least sometimes. A goal focus can take us away from appreciating what we have right now, while also detracting from the process of going through each day. We can lose the joy of running, for example, if we’re only looking to the finish line. We can forget the pleasure of fishing in beautiful natural surroundings if we’re only looking to hook a fish!

So, as a start to this year, I’m sitting still. I’m noticing my Monday morning routine as I slurp my coffee and sit at my computer to write my blog. I’m making a choice to be present with my thoughts and ponderings. I’m looking back at the blog posts I’ve made since 2007 – all 1262 of them! – and feeling proud of my accomplishment. I’m revisiting my “why” or the values that underpin my writing. I’m acknowledging that I’ve chosen to put my voice out there, whether others read what I write or not (FWIW readership is low compared with the heady days of 2008 and 2009!). These choices aren’t in a weird pseudo-spiritual mindful sort of way, just a nod to my habits and the underlying reasons for doing what I do.

I’ve been pondering the drive clinicians have to set goals with patients, and to record achievements. As if these exist outside of the person’s context and all the other influences on what a person can and does do. There are even posts declaiming patients for not “doing the work” even after the explanations and rationales are presented, as if the only factor involved in doing something is whether it has a good enough reason for it to be done. This attitude is especially pertinent when a person lives with persistent pain, and is embroiled in a compensation system with expectations for recovery.

I suppose I’m looking for more attention to be paid to strengths people demonstrate as they live with persistent pain. More awareness of the complexity of living with what persistent pain entails (see this post for more). And for us as clinicians to be more content with what is, despite limitations and uncertainty, ambiguity, frustration and limited ‘power’ to make changes happen.

Contentment is at the heart of “fulfillment in life” (Cordaro, et al., 2016). It’s an emotion with connotations of peace, life satisfaction, and, again according to Cordaro and colleagues, “a perception of completeness in the present moment.” In English, contentment invokes a sense of “having enough” and a sense of acceptance whether the situation is desirable or undesirable (Cordaro, et al, 2016, p.224). Contentment, in contrast to happiness, is considered a low arousal state: that is, when we feel content we experience reduced heart rate, skin conductance and is associated with serotonergic activity, while happiness in contrast activates higher arousal states including dopaminergic responses (Dustin et al., 2019). The table below gives some interesting comparisons between the “reward” and the “contentment” states in humans – take it with a grain of salt, but it makes for useful pondering.

When we think about helping people with persistent pain, how often do we consider contentment as a long-term outcome? To be content that, despite all the hard work the person and their healthcare team and their family and colleagues, this person has achieved what they can. Do we even have this conversation with the person? Giving them the right to call it quits with constantly striving for more.

How can we develop contentment for ourselves and for the people we work with? Should we guide people towards activities that foster contentment? These will likely be the leisure activities that take time, that involve giving without a focus on receiving, that calm people, that invoke nurturing (plants, animals, people), and probably those that involve moderate intensity movement practices (Wild & Woodward, 2019). I hope we’ll draw on occupational therapy research and practice, because these activities will likely be long-term practices for daily life contentment, and daily life is our occupational therapy focus.

For ourselves, I suspect fostering contentment will be more difficult. Our jobs, often, depend on finding out what is wrong and setting goals for a future state, not ideal for those wanting to be OK with what is. We often work in highly stressful and demanding contexts with numerous insults to our moral ideals and values. We debate ideas and approaches to our work with vigour. We make judgements about our own performance and that of others. We often find our expectations aren’t fulfilled and that we can’t do what we think/know would be better.

I’ll leave you with a series of statements about contentment compared with other states that can be related to contentment (Cordaro et al., 2016, p.229). It helps clarify, perhaps, what we might do for ourselves in this new year. Happy 2023 everyone!

Cordaro, D. T., Brackett, M., Glass, L., & Anderson, C. L. (2016). Contentment: Perceived Completeness across Cultures and Traditions. Review of General Psychology, 20(3), 221-235. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000082

Dustin, D. L., Zajchowski, C. A. B., & Schwab, K. A. (2019). The biochemistry behind human behavior: Implications for leisure sciences and services. Leisure Sciences, 41(6), 542-549. https://doi.org/10.1080/01490400.2019.1597793

Lustig, R. (2017). The hacking of the American mind: The science behind the corporate takeover of our bodies and brains. New York, NY: Avery.

Wild, K., & Woodward, A. (2019). Why are cyclists the happiest commuters? Health, pleasure and the e-bike. Journal of Transport & Health, 14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jth.2019.05.008

On making things easier…Occupational therapists and ‘compensatory’ approaches


If there is one part of occupational therapy practice that gets more of my middle-aged grumpiness than any other, it’s occupational therapists using compensatory approaches for managing pain. And like anything, it’s complicated and nuanced. So here’s my attempt to work my way through the quagmire.

Compensatory approaches consist of a whole range of interventions that aim to “make up for” a deficit in a person’s occupational performance (see Nicholson & Hayward (2022) for a discussion of compensatory approaches in “functional neurological disorder”). The rationale for compensatory approaches is that by employing these strategies, a person is able to do what they need and want to do in daily life: the raison d’etre for occupational therapy (WFOT, 2012). End of story, right? If the person wants to be able to use the toilet independently, then a piece of equipment (a rail, a toilet seat, a long-handled wiper, easily removed and replaced clothing) makes sense, surely?

Short answer is no, not always. And long answer is – well, it depends.

First of all, let’s take a quick look at compensatory approaches used with people experiencing pain. Remember that people seeing occupational therapists may have acute post-surgical pain (eg post arthroplasty pain) or they may have long-term pain from conditions like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis etc. In an acute hospital setting, it makes sense for someone to be helped to leave the hospital ward by providing them with a safe way to manage important daily life tasks such as using a toilet, shower/bath, getting dressed, making a meal. The intention behind using a compensatory approach is to give short-term strategies to foster independence, or to provide strategies to “make up for” functional deficits the person may never overcome.

The strategies can include adaptive equipment – I’ve mentioned the ubiquitous raised toilet seat and rails, but there are also chair raisers, bathboards, commodes, kitchen trolleys and so on. Strategies can also include “ergonomic”* approaches intended to reduce biomechanical demands, and often applied in the workplace such as adjustable office chairs, wrist rests, monitor height adjustment, sit/stand desks, lighting etc. Occupational therapists might discuss task simplification, where people are encouraged to consider whether a task needs to be done, needs to be done in a particular way, needs to be done right now, or needs to be done by that person. Activity pacing could be added to the list: choosing when and how to carry out various daily life tasks over the course of a day, a week, a month. So far, so good.

The problems arising from this approach lie in its long-term use, or use in a rehabilitation context. Let me unpack why.

In rehabilitation, our aims are to support a person to go through a process of change (relating to their health and the impact of a disease or disorder) that aims to enhance health outcomes including quality of life (Jehanne Dubouloz, et al., 2010). The person’s capabilities are in a state of flux during this process, and our intentions are (usually) to improve the person’s ability to do daily life tasks. Early rehabilitation might occur in a hospital setting, but generally the expectation is that the person will end up doing their daily life in their own context. In many cases, people don’t get admitted to a hospital, but receive all their rehabilitation as an outpatient, or in their own home.

In persistent pain management and rehabilitation, there are often two phases: 1) the secondary prevention phase, where the focus is on reducing or ameliorating the impact of pain on daily life and often focusing on reducing pain, increasing function, reducing healthcare use, reducing distress and enhancing quality of life. 2) the tertiary prevention phase, where the focus is less on reducing pain (although this is still part of the picture) and much more on helping the person do what matters in daily life in the presence of pain, increasing function, reducing healthcare use, reducing distress and enhancing quality of life. Good examples of occupational therapy for persistent pain are in the literature, although like most interventions, the results are equivocal (eg Nielsen, et al., 2021). The main distinction between these two phases lies in how much attention is paid to pain reduction or elimination. Perhaps this is where so many of our conversations about pain management and rehabilitation come unstuck, because the point at which we (the person and his or her clinician) discuss the likelihood of pain persisting despite all of our best efforts is pretty opaque. We simply don’t know, and we have very little to guide us, and furthermore, both clinicians and people living with pain are loath to talk about what is a highly challenging topic. More about that some other time!

For occupational therapists, offering compensatory equipment during the secondary prevention phase might be where we come unstuck. While they help the person do what matters to them, if they are not reviewed and gradually removed, they can foster remaining stuck with that technique or strategy with all its inherent limitations.

What are those limitations? Well, take the example of a raised toilet seat – great when it’s available for use in a person’s home, but pretty darned useless when that person is out doing the grocery shopping, visiting another family member, going to a restaurant or the cinema. Toilet seat raisers are not the easiest thing to carry around! Similarly with a cushion to make sitting easier: fabulous for reducing discomfort, but then you have to carry the thing around wherever you go!

My point is that when a person’s capabilities are changing, so must our solutions. Occupational therapists need to be responsive to changes in a person’s function, and change compensatory strategies accordingly. When this doesn’t occur, we risk working at odds with the rehabilitative approach used by other team members.

Am I saying don’t use compensatory approaches? Not at all! I’ll be very happy to use task simplification or a shower stool if I return home following hip or knee arthroplasty. And if my cognitive capabilities are limited as they were when I had post-concussion syndrome, I’m very happy to incorporate activity management, fatigue management and compensatory ‘aide memoirs’ (my ever-handy lists and diary!) as part of my life – until I don’t need them any more. Thankfully I had great therapists who helped fade or withdraw the range of compensatory supports I used as my recovery progressed.

Soon I’ll be writing about a framework occupational therapists (and other rehabilitation and pain management clinicians) can use to review their therapeutic approaches. In the meantime, it’s crucial for occupational therapists to take the time to understand the factors contributing to a person’s difficulty doing daily life. If those factors are able to be changed, and if the context is not constrained by “we must get this person out of hospital”, then perhaps we need to stop and think carefully about when, where and whether a compensatory approach is useful.

*I use the term “ergonomic” in quotes because technically, ergonomic approaches are not just about office equipment, but is actually a larger and almost philosophical practice of ensuring that work fits the person/humans doing the tasks. It sprang from work undertaken during the Second World War when it was found that dashboards on aeroplanes, and the machines that fabricated parts for them, did not work for most people. Essentially, it is a systems-based approach to ensuring human capabilities and limitations are considered during the design of workplaces to minimise errors, maximise productivity, reduce cognitive load, and enhance performance.

Jehanne Dubouloz, C., King, J., Ashe, B., Paterson, B., Chevrier, J., & Moldoveanu, M. (2010). The process of transformation in rehabilitation: what does it look like?. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 17(11), 604-615.

Nicholson, C., Hayward, K. (2022). Occupational Therapy: Focus on Function. In: LaFaver, K., Maurer, C.W., Nicholson, T.R., Perez, D.L. (eds) Functional Movement Disorder. Current Clinical Neurology. Humana, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-86495-8_24

Nielsen, S. S., Christensen, J. R., Søndergaard, J., Mogensen, V. O., Enemark Larsen, A., Skou, S. T., & Simonÿ, C. (2021). Feasibility assessment of an occupational therapy lifestyle intervention added to multidisciplinary chronic pain treatment at a Danish pain centre: a qualitative evaluation from the perspectives of patients and clinicians. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 16(1), 1949900.

World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Statement of occupational therapy. 2012. http://www.wfot.org/about-occupational-therapy.

Frustration in the clinic


I’m prompted to write this post because it’s something I see in social media so often – a clinician gets frustrated. Things don’t work. The person getting treatment doesn’t respond in the way that was expected. The person doesn’t look like what the clinician usually sees. The evidence doesn’t fit with practice. All the things! So I thought today I’d write about emotions and thoughts that might turn up – and what might underlie those feelings. (For people living with pain – we also have frustration in the clinic. Things don’t work out. The therapist isn’t what we expected. I’ll write more about this soon!)

Emotions are a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral and physiological elements (https://dictionary.apa.org/emotion). From a cognitive behavioural perspective, an event happens, we appraise it (judge it), and we experience an emotion – then we do something as a response. It’s much more complex than this, and each part interacts with the others – so we end up with a big diagram looking something like this: (from – https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Cognitive-behavioral-therapy-model-of-depression_fig1_338695579).

Instead of “depressive”, just put in “beliefs/expectations about who I am and what I can expect from myself”. This is a pretty generic model in CBT, and is well-established even if there are plenty of arguments about accuracy and adequacy!

Clinicians generally want to help. Yes, some are in it for fame or fortune (choose something else, kthx), but on the whole people enter a clinical profession because they think they can do some good, and people will “get better.” Our communities hold long-standing expectations about what seeing a health professional should entail: read Benedetti’s “The Patient’s Brain” for a much more detailed description of the historical and evolutionary basis for a therapeutic encounter.

Why does this matter? Because it sets the scene for how we think a therapeutic encounter should go.

Rules and assumptions about what “ought” to, or “should” happen often underlie emotions.

We’re happy when all the things line up and the patient does what we expect of patients while the clinician does things that work. When things don’t go to plan (ie our expectations are violated) that’s when we get some feelings, and they can be pretty big.

What do we expect from patients?

Despite moves towards person-centred care where patients are seen as people and clinicians offer options rather than dictate orders, our societies still hold expectations about the roles a patient and a clinician should play.

Patients are expected to seek help when they’re sick. They’re expected to be truthful about their symptoms, and tell clinicians everything that is relevant about their condition – AND about any other aspect of their health, even if it’s not immediately relevant to their current problem. Symptoms experienced by patients are expected to be what the clinician expects, and the disease a patient has should fit within “typical” parameters (usually based on males). Patients are also expected to follow instructions, not do things that go against instructions, and of course, to get better. Patients are meant to be grateful for their treatment, even if it’s disruptive, has unpleasant side effects, or isn’t 100% effective. Patients should do their best all the time.

As a corollary, clinicians have a huge number of expectations they take on (and are given!). Some of us have these explicitly handed to us during our training, while others find they’re an implicit set of assumptions that we adopt, perhaps in the guise of “being professional.”

What do we expect from clinicians?

Clinicians expect to be in control in the clinical encounter. We’re expected to know what to ask about, and from this, what to test for. We’re expected to have the answers, and be right. We’re also expected to be calm, caring and focused – even when our personal lives are topsy-turvy. We’re meant to know what the patient wants, and how to give that to them. We’re also expected to be up-to-date, do no harm, change our practice according to evidence (even when that evidence is contradictory, or just emerging), and to stay interested in our work even if we’ve been doing it for years.

We’re expected to know our scope of practice, but practice using a broad “whole person” framework even if we were never trained to do this. We think we should be compassionate and caring, even if we were selected for training on the basis of our academic prowess and not on emotional literacy. We must take on responsibility for outcomes, even though we’re not there to “make sure” the patient “does what they’re told” in their own time. We assume when we tell someone to do something, they’ll drop everything in their life to do it – because their health should matter most, and even when other things in their life matter more.

Clinicians can be expected to practice independently from the moment they qualify, and are either “right” or “wrong” and never shades of in between. Clinicians expect that if something goes wrong, and the person doesn’t get better, it’s either the person’s fault (they didn’t do what they should have done), or the clinician has done something wrong and made a wrong diagnosis, or chosen the wrong treatment (or the treatment was right but the intensity was wrong…. so just do it again). And clinicians shouldn’t ask for emotional help because that means they’re “too emotionally invested” or “not distanced enough.”

Expectations suck

We all have them. And the ones I’ve listed above, while not always present, often underpin the way we expect clinical encounters to go. Many of them are implicit, so we don’t even realise we hold them – until BAM! Something goes wrong.

When expectations are violated, we feel emotions and some of these can be pretty strong. Many are less strong, just little niggles, little irritations, a bit of cynicism, some disappointment, some frustration. And they go both ways: people seeking help, and people trying to help. Over time, violated expectations feel like your head hitting against a brick wall, or swimming against the tide, or just plain demoralisation or even burnout.

Ways through them

Some of us have professionally-endorsed support systems to help us. Occupational therapists and psychologists have mandatory clinical supervision with someone who is there for you, who supports your development as a clinician, who challenges your assumptions, who pokes and prods at your reactions, who encourages taking a broader view. Individual clinicians in other professions may also pick up on using supervision in this way.

Some of us don’t have that kind of support. So we seek it elsewhere – I suppose, in part, I started writing this blog those years ago to “find my tribe.” Social media is one way we get affirmation, validation and even (sometimes!) great ideas to help us shift our approach.

Some clinicians leave their profession, do something else that’s more lucrative and less emotional effort. Some move out of practice and into academia. Some use “outside work” interests to blow off steam, or give emotional space.

Some of us are a little fused with the assumptions we hold. It’s hard to create a little space around those assumptions, because they’re held so tightly (or they’re so deeply buried). When we do get a tap on the shoulder suggesting our beliefs are out of whack it can feel so terribly humiliating, so inherently WRONG that we shut off, or bite back.

Creating “wiggle room”

Slowing down is a good way to begin creating some space to feel what is showing up when we’re feeling frustration. This could be by taking one or two minutes at the end of a session to be present. Yes, a little mindfulness to notice what is present in the body. To be OK with being aware of emotions, thoughts, and body sensations. NOT TO CHANGE THEM! To simply be with them. (An explanation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9NkUomOO_w). This helps in many ways, but it does not (and isn’t intended to) reduce them. It helps you notice that you’re having feelings. It helps you pay attention to your own state of mind. It can create a moment to ask yourself “I wonder why I feel this way?” It can help you be more present with the next person you see because you’re not carrying those feelings into the next encounter.

Reflective practice is another way to create some space to be human, feel things, be curious about why they happen, and check in with your own values. A great resource that’s freely available is Positive Professional practice: a strength-based reflective practice teaching model – it might be a ‘teaching’ model, but clinicians teach All The Time!

Taking small steps, making small changes

The first step towards making a change is knowing that it’s needed. And the second is knowing that it’s possible. The third? Knowing what to do. I hope these suggestions help a little in this seldom-discussed aspect of practice. My own preference is to question WHY do we hold these expectations? WHO made them a thing? WHAT purpose do they serve? WHEN might those expectations be a good thing – and when might they not? WHERE can we nudge just a little to make change? And preferably, as clinicians, I think it’s OUR job to make the adjustments because we’re not ill or sore or seeking help.

Some references:

Dobkin, P. L., Bernardi, N. F., & Bagnis, C. I. (2016). Enhancing Clinicians’ Well-Being and Patient-Centered Care Through Mindfulness. Journal of Continuing Education in Health Professions, 36(1), 11-16. https://doi.org/10.1097/CEH.0000000000000021

Huft, J. (2022). The History and Future of the Sociology of Therapy: a Review and a Research Agenda. The American Sociologist, 53(3), 437-464. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-022-09534-3

McGarry, J., Aubeeluck, A., & De Oliveira, D. (2019). Evaluation of an evidence-based model of safeguarding clinical supervision within one healthcare organization in the United Kingdom. International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare, 17 Suppl 1, S29-S31. https://doi.org/10.1097/XEB.0000000000000180

Spencer, K. L. (2018). Transforming Patient Compliance Research in an Era of Biomedicalization. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 59(2), 170-184. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146518756860

Making sense: Does it help people with pain?


I love it when my biases are challenged (seriously, I do!). And in the study I’m talking about today, my biases are sorely challenged – but perhaps not as much as I initially thought.

Lance McCracken is one of my favourite researchers investigating processes of acceptance and living a good life in the presence of chronic pain. In this paper, he collaborates with a colleague currently involved in the INPUT pain management programme established at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS originally by Michael Nicholas who draws on a CBT model of pain management, and now more firmly in the third wave camp of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). The paper is ‘Making sense’ and describes a cross-sectional study of sense-making by people with chronic pain attending the INPUT programme.

Making sense is something humans do without even thinking about it. Humans are prone to (and probably for good adaptive reasons) generate patterns out of random information. We gaze at shadows at night and think we see faces or intruders, and we look at clouds and see dragons and kittens. When we’re sore we also try to make sense of what’s going on – does this ouch feel like something I’ve had before? does it feel mysterious or can I carry on? have other people I know had this same ouch and what did they do?

In the search for making sense out of pain that otherwise seems random, clinicians have, since time immemorial, generated all sorts of stories about what might be going on. The wandering uterus. The evil spirit. The slipped disc. The leg length discrepancy. Clinicians, when faced with their own uncertainty about what exactly pain represents, can encourage patients to seek diagnosis: some sort of “explanation” for the problem. When that’s insufficient, more recently we’ve seen the flourishing of explanations for pain from a neurobiological perspective, particularly “pain as an expression of threat to bodily integrity”, a decision that is “made by the brain”.

My own research, investigating the experiences of people who indicated they live well with pain, reflected this same process. They sought a name for their experience, they wanted to understand the impact of pain on daily doing – those fluctuations and variances that emerge during the days and weeks early in the journey of learning that this pain isn’t going anywhere soon (Lennox Thompson, et al., 2019). Note that the group of people I recruited had come to the point where they identified that they were living well with pain – this group of people represent a small percentage of those who live with chronic pain, and not those who are seeking treatment.

OK, so what did McCracken and Scott (2022) find?

Bear in mind that this study was designed to measure the construct of sense-making in people seeking treatment for chronic pain. Also bear in mind the authors come from a perspective of functional contextualism, or a philosophy of science that argues for “…studying the current and historical context in which behavior evolves … to develop analytic concepts and rules that are useful for predicting and changing psychological events in a variety of settings.” What this means to me is that the form of whatever behaviour we’re observing/measuring matters less that the purpose or function of that behaviour in a specific context.

OK, on with the study.

451 adults attending an interprofessional pain management programme were participants in this study, and the measures were taken before they started treatment. They completed a battery of measures including ones measuring acceptance, cognitive fusion, committed action, tolerance of uncertainty, and pain measures such as the Brief Pain Inventory, numeric rating scale.

The research aim was to investigate a way to measure not only the positives from sense-making, but also the potential adverse effects of doing so. Concurrent with developing the measure, analyses of the inflexible ways we make sense were carried out in relation to outcomes: pain interference, depression and participation.

In the results (read through the analysis, BTW, it’s beautifully detailed), women were found to overthink compared with men, older people tended to want to avoid a sense of incoherence, and more educated people also tended to overthink.

Now, a little theory: coherence can be either literal or functional. Literal coherence is like “common sense” – so if I interpret my pain as meaning something is damaged, and moving it is bad, this is literal coherence. Functional coherence might occur when I realise that I hurt whether I’m doing things, or not, and I decide “this is how it is, I might as well get on with life”. In effect, as McCracken and Scott say, “these terms reflect the difference between language, thoughts and behavior fitting together consistently, (thoughts agree with other thoughts and behavior) versus behavior and goals in life fitting together consistently (behavior patterns succeed in reaching goals even when this seems to contradict “good sense”).

In daily life, people consistently prefer to solve problems and avoid insoluble problems. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Why try to deal with things that won’t change, even if we try hard to change them? BUT then we have insoluble problems that don’t make sense: the earthquakes in Christchurch New Zealand in 2011-2013 were random and we hadn’t had earthquake activity in our city for centuries – consequently we had many crackpots coming up with “predictions” for the next swarm of earthquakes based on phases of the moon or fracking or climate change. Anything to help people feel like they had a sense of control over something that did not make sense.

Chronic pain is often an equally insoluble problem. Many times pain like this does not make sense at all. No injury precipitated my fibromyalgia. There’s no imaging or biomarker for pain intensity. Existing biomedical diagnoses based on structural or biochemical or neurological processes don’t tell us much about who might get chronic pain, how intense it might be, or the impact of that pain on a person’s life. But clinicians and people with pain earnestly seek something, something to explain what’s going on.

For both clinicians and people living with pain, constantly searching for The Thing to explain pain can be exhausting, demoralising and linked to unhelpful patterns of behaviour. Clinicians might repeat the same treatment even though it didn’t work the first time. They might refer the person for more investigations, just in case something was missed. They might refer the person to another clinician, or, worse, they may attribute the pain to “mental illness” or “psychosocial factors”. Many, many clinicians think that giving a person a book about how pain might be constructed “in the brain” will be enough for people to make sense of what’s going on. People with pain might be afraid to get on with life in case they’re doing harm, or because they’re hoping the fix might be around the corner and life can “get back to normal”. They may spend enormous sums of money, time and emotion on treatments to either diagnose the problem, or treat it. They might spend hours brooding on what it could be. Their lives often stop – people with pain have called this “the endless limbo”.

Now there is a measure of sense-making I guess we’ll find out more about this part of learning to live with pain. The three subscales identified were “avoidance of incoherence”, “overthinking”, and “functional coherence”, though the last subscale had poor psychometric properties so wasn’t included in the final analyses.

My wish, however, is that rather than applying this measure to people attempting to make sense of something outside of their experience, we might develop a measure of how rigidly clinicians stick to “coherence” in the face of puzzling pain problems. Perhaps what might be even more influential, we might develop a measure of what happens when a vulnerable person trying to make sense of their pain meets a clinician with a high level of inflexibility about “what is going on”, because despite all the research we have into people living with pain, we haven’t yet recognised the power of the clinician in perpetuating unhelpful inflexibility.

Lance M McCracken , Whitney Scott , Potential Misfortunes in ‘Making Sense’: A Cross-sectional Study in People with Chronic Pain, Journal of Pain (2022), doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2022.09.008

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

Biopsychological pain management is not enough


I recently read a preprint of an editorial for Pain, the IASP journal. It was written by Prof Michael Nicholas, and the title reads “The biopsychosocial model of pain 40 years on: time for a reappraisal?” The paper outlines when and how pain became conceptualised within a biopsychosocial framework by the pioneers of interprofessional pain management: John Loeser (1982) and Gordon Waddell (1984). Nicholas points out the arguments against a biopsychosocial model with some people considering that despite it being a “holistic” framework, it often gets applied in a biomedical and psychological way. In other words, that biomedical concerns are prioritised, with the psychosocial factors relegated to second place and only after the biomedical treatments have not helped. Still others separate the relationships between “bio” “psycho” and “social” such that the interdependent nature of these factors is not recognisable.

Nicholas declares, too:

“… that cognitive behavioural therapy interventions that did not also include workplace modifications or service coordination components were not effective in helping workers with mental health conditions in RTW. That means, just like in the case of reducing time lost at school for children in pain, the treatment providers for adults in pain for whom RTW is a goal should liaise closely with the workplace. Unfortunately, as the studies from the systematic reviews examined earlier for a range of common pain therapies indicated, engaging with the workplace as part of the treatment seems to be rarely attempted.

I find this confusing. In 1999 I completed my MSc thesis looking at this very thing: pain management combined with a focus on using pain management approaches in the workplace. The programme was called “WorkAbilities” and included visits to the workplace, liaison with employers and even job seeking for those who didn’t have a job to return to. The confusion for me lies in the fact that I’ve been doing pain rehabilitation within the workplace since the mid-1980’s – and that while today’s approach for people funded by ACC is separated from pain management (more is the pity), there are many clinicians actively working in pain rehabilitation in the context of returning to work here in New Zealand.

I’m further puzzled by the complete lack of inclusion by Nicholas of occupational therapy’s contribution to “the social” aspects of learning to live well with pain. This, despite the many studies showing occupational therapists are intimately connected with social context: the things people do in their daily lives, with the people and environmental contexts in which they do them. You see, occupational therapists do this routinely. We work with the person in their own environment and this includes home, work, leisure.

For those that remain unaware of what occupational therapists offer people with pain, I put it like this: Occupational therapists provide contextualised therapy, our work is in knowledge translation or generalising the things people learn in gyms, and in clinics, and helping people do these things in their life, their way.

An example might help.

Joe (not his real name) had a sore back, he’d had it for about three months and was seeing a physiotherapist and a psychologist funded by ACC (NZ’s national insurer). Not much was changing. He remained fearful of moving especially in his workplace where he was a heavy diesel mechanic and was under pressure from a newly promoted workshop manager to get things done quickly. Joe was sore and cranky, didn’t sleep well, and his partner was getting fed up. Joe’s problems were:

  • guarding his lower back when moving
  • fear he would further hurt his back if he lifted heavy things, or worked in a bent-over position, or the usual awkward positions diesel mechanics adopt
  • avoiding said movements and positions, or doing them with gritted teeth and a lot of guarding
  • poor sleep despite the sleep hygiene his psychologist had prescribed
  • irritability
  • thoroughly enjoying the gym-based exercise programme
  • hating mindfulness and any of the CBT-based strategies the psychologist was offering him, because as he put it “I never did homework when I went to school, do you think I’m going to do it now? and this mindfulness thing doesn’t work!”

The occupational therapist visited Joe at home. She went through his daily routine and noticed that he didn’t spend any time on “fun” things or with his mates. His intimacy with his partner was scant because the medications he was on were making it hard for him to even get an erection, and his partner was scared he’d be hurt when they made love. Besides, she was fed up with all the time he had to spend going in to the gym after work when he wasn’t doing simple things around home, like mowing lawns, or helping with grocery shopping.

She went into his workplace and found it was a small four-person operation, with one workshop manager, two mechanics and one apprentice. The workshop was a health and safety hazard, messy and cramped, and open to the weather. The relationships between the team were strained with unpleasant digs at his failure to keep up the pace. The workshop manager said that he’d do his best to help Joe out – but in the end he needed to get the work out on time. The other mechanic, an old hand, meanwhile was telling Joe to suck it up and be a man, but also to watch out because Joe shouldn’t do as he’d done and shagged his back.

What did our erstwhile occupational therapist do? Absolutely nothing new that the physiotherapist and psychologist hadn’t taught Joe – but she worked out when, where and how Joe could USE the strategies they’d discussed in his life contexts. She went through the way he moved in the workshop and guided him to relax a little and find some new movement patterns to be able to do his work. She graded the challenges for him, and stayed with him as he experimented. She discussed alternating the tasks he did, interspersing tasks that involved bending forward with those where he could stand upright or even work above his head (in the pit). She discussed how he could use being fully present at various times during the day (mindfulness) to check in with his body and go for a brisk walk if he felt himself tensing up. She worked through communication strategies that they rehearsed and he implemented to let his manager know what he could – and could not – do.

They discussed his home life, and ways he could begin doing some of the household tasks he’d been avoiding, and she showed him how to go about this. They worked out the best time of day to do this – and to vary the exercise he did so that it wasn’t all about the gym. He started to walk over rough ground to get more confident for when he went fishing again, and he got himself a little stool to sit on from time to time. Joe and his occupational therapist talked about his relationship with his partner, and they met together with her so they could share what his back pain meant, the restrictions he had, what he could do, and how else they could be intimate. Joe was encouraged to rehearse and then tell his doctor about the effect of his meds on his sex life.

The minutiae of daily life, translating what is learned in a clinic to that person’s own world is, and always has been, the province of occupational therapy. It’s just a little sad that such a prominent researcher and author hasn’t included any of this in this editorial.

Just a small sample of research in which occupational therapists are involved in RTW.

Bardo, J., Asiello, J., & Sleight, A. (2022). Supporting Health for the Long Haul: a literature synthesis and proposed occupational therapy self-management virtual group intervention for return-to-work. World Federation of Occupational Therapists Bulletin, 1-10.

Berglund, E., Anderzén, I., Andersén, Å., Carlsson, L., Gustavsson, C., Wallman, T., & Lytsy, P. (2018). Multidisciplinary intervention and acceptance and commitment therapy for return-to-work and increased employability among patients with mental illness and/or chronic pain: a randomized controlled trial. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(11), 2424.

Cullen K, Irvin E, Collie A, Clay F, Gensby U, Jennings P, Hogg-Johnson S, Kristman V, Laberge M, McKenzie D. Effectiveness of workplace interventions in return-to-work for musculoskeletal, pain-related and mental health conditions: an update of the evidence and messages for practitioners. J Occup Rehabil 2018;28:1–15.

Grant, M., Rees, S., Underwood, M. et al. Obstacles to returning to work with chronic pain: in-depth interviews with people who are off work due to chronic pain and employers. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 486 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2877-5

Fischer, M. R., Persson, E. B., Stålnacke, B. M., Schult, M. L., & Löfgren, M. (2019). Return to work after interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation: one-and two-year follow-up study based on the swedish quality registry for pain rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 51(4), 281-289.

Fischer, M. R., Schults, M. L., Stålnacke, B. M., Ekholm, J., Persson, E. B., & Löfgren, M. (2020). Variability in patient characteristics and service provision of interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation: A study using? the Swedish national quality registry for pain rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 52(11), 1-10.

Ibrahim, M.E., Weber, K., Courvoisier, D.S. et al. Recovering the capability to work among patients with chronic low Back pain after a four-week, multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilitation program: 18-month follow-up study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 439 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2831-6

Marom, B. S., Ratzon, N. Z., Carel, R. S., & Sharabi, M. (2019). Return-to-work barriers among manual workers after hand injuries: 1-year follow-up cohort study. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 100(3), 422-432.

Michel, C., Guêné, V., Michon, E., Roquelaure, Y., & Petit, A. (2018). Return to work after rehabilitation in chronic low back pain workers. Does the interprofessional collaboration work?. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 32(4), 521-524

Nicholas, M.K. (in press). The biopsychosocial model of pain 40 years on: time for a reappraisal? Pain.

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