Coping strategies

Clinical reasoning in persistent pain management

I think we need to take a cold hard look at clinical reasoning in pain management and especially at how we can integrate all the various factors influencing the person sitting in front of us. There are too few papers really addressing how different professions can put their assessment findings together to generate a truly multi-faceted model of why this person is having trouble with their pain. I could find only one paper detailing interprofessional clinical reasoning for chronic pain – and it’s inside a textbook dates from 2008 (Linton & Nicholas, 2008). So it’s no wonder, when a team gets together, that we collectively find it difficult to work together.

The approach discussed by Linton and Nicholas was the way I was trained to work, so I’m biased. Nevertheless I think this is a practical and useful way of putting the jigsaw puzzle together to see how each factor influences every other factor. I’m not suggesting that every case should be formulated this way – but I do find myself using the same strategy for every person I see.

We all do a bunch of assessments when we first see a person. But then what do we do with all that material? As Linton and Nicholas say, most assessments are used to document the intensity of the problem. Case formulations try to identify the main problems experienced by the person – and then generate hypotheses about the mechanisms supporting those problems for this person sitting in front of me.

So here’s a question for y’all – if you have information on the person’s pain intensity, how much it is interfering in their life, how depressed they are, as well as understanding their fear-avoidance beliefs and catastrophising; and if you know how their family responds to them, should we simply provide our standard treatment package ( e.g. analgesic medication, home exercises, and relaxation training)?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to only target catastrophising if they seem to add to the person’s problems? And wouldn’t it be better to add home exercises only if the person seems to be avoiding activities?

Or have we got to the place where everyone gets exactly the same solutions to what, for them, is a very unique and individual problem?

A key part of case formulation is involving the individual in the process. I think it’s crucial to actively be putting their perspective into generating the hypotheses about the factors maintaining their problem – this helps them see the relevance of each piece of the treatment puzzle, and ensures we don’t over-interpret (or under-interpret) factors.

Another really good reason for case formulation is to counter our cognitive biases. We know we jump to conclusions, find patterns where there aren’t any, look for things that confirm our own beliefs, look for simple options and ignore complex and ambiguous options – and so on, and case formulation can buy us time to avoid some of these really significant problems.

So, how do they work. Linton and Nicholas use a “spaghetti diagram” – looks like a bunch of arrows connecting various factors together. It looks a bit like this:

I personally use something that looks a bit different because I like Tim Sharp’s reformulation of a CBT model.

Whatever the approach, having a structure, taking time to “fill in the gaps”, including the person living with pain, and understanding the literature that clarifies those factors important in pain and disability, will allow us to avoid some of the major cognitive bias traps. Using a common formulation across all the clinicians involved really helps all of the team know why they’re doing what they’re doing – and why the other members of the team are so important. That means we can support one another!

But the bit missing, for me, is the “what do you do when you see these patterns?” To me, it’s about identifying the person’s main concerns – what are they primarily concerned about? Often it’s not the pain intensity, but instead it’s whether they’ll be able to still work, or their sleep, or their family reactions, or loss of roles. So we need to look for factors that are influencing these aspects of their situation so we actually address the problems that the person identified (rather than our own preference!). Shock and horror ensues! That might mean the person doesn’t need to see a physio for an exercise programme – they might prefer to work on sleep management, or work.

And if the person doesn’t avoid because they’re not too bothered by their pain, why would we need to give them “pain education”? Perhaps we’d do better to treat their depression, or help with their sleep. Similarly, if someone isn’t distressed, isn’t avoiding and just needs some medication – shouldn’t they get just that? Do we seriously need them to see a psychologist, occupational therapist, physiotherapist and go to the gym four days a week? Maybe less can be more.

I guess some of my frustration lies with the fact that despite all this talk of integrating the various parts of pain management, what we often end up with is a formulaic “education, exercise and mindfulness” for everyone – irrespective of their actual needs. Is it time to talk about what we might do differently for the person who might have a tendency to catastrophise but isn’t avoiding, or for the person who is very fit but doesn’t want to sit, or the person who is having such trouble sleeping because of their pain? Let’s be a bit nuanced, folks!

Linton, S. J., & Nicholas, M. K. (2008). After assessment, then what? Integrating findings for successful case formulation and treatment tailoring. Clinical Pain Management Second Edition: Practice and Procedures, 4, 1095.

Everyday hassles of fibromyalgia

This post has been on my mind for a while now. I live with fibromyalgia (FM) and want to share some of the everyday hassles I face. This isn’t a “oh woe is me” kind of post, it’s more of a “if you’re a clinician working with someone who has fibromyalgia, these are some things to ponder”.


I worked in chronic pain management for almost 20 years before I recognised that the pains I’d been experiencing most of my adult life actually added up to “…a syndrome of diffuse body pain with associations of fatigue, sleep disturbance, cognitive changes, mood disturbance, and other variable somatic symptoms”(Fitzcharles, Ste-Marie, Goldenberg et al, 2012). I’d hurt my back in my early 20’s, thankfully been seen by Dr Mike Butler and given the Melzack & Wall book “The Challenge of Chronic Pain” to read, so I wasn’t afraid of my pain and just accepted it as part of life. What I hadn’t really recognised was that not only was the pain in my lower back part of the picture, so too was the pain in my neck, shoulders, arms, hips, legs, feet, and the irritable bowel, and the gastro discomfort, and the migraines and the dysmenorrhoea. Not to mention the fatigue, rotten sleep, foggy thoughts, and low mood.

Diagnosis for people living with fibromyalgia is often delayed.  People with fibromyalgia may resist going to the GP for what seem to be short-term but painful bouts in various parts of the body. There for a couple of weeks, then shifting to another part of the body. As one person said to me “You feel a fool going to see a Dr about a pain that’s not consistent to say ‘Oh Doctor and I have pain here, and here and here and last week I had one here…especially when it might be gone next week, and that other one has already gone.'”. This experience is echoed in qualitative research where, for example in a study by Undeland and Malterud (2007) people said that although having a label was reassuring (it’s not something that will kill you!), the label itself was often difficult to obtain (doctors not being keen to label something so nebulous as FM), and even with a label health professionals and the general public “pay no attention to the name, or blatantly regard them as too cheerful or healthy looking” (Undeland & Malterud, 2007).


One of the problems with getting the diagnosis is that very few people get relief from medication. Those that do may find their pain settles almost completely, but many others have no effective analgesia despite trying numerous combinations. I’m one of them. What this means is that “self management” is the order of the day – yet in many places this is not even considered, let alone having services to help people develop such skills.

I’ve learned that my body feels best when I maintain a consistent level of activity irrespective of the day of the week. I enjoy stretching, walking, cycling and dancing, but I also love gardening, fishing, walking the dog – and I guess I can add in doing the housework and working as part of the mix. New activities are bound to give me aches and pains that last for weeks, while stopping my usual routine also brings me aches and pains that last for weeks. So boring consistency is the name of the game. And as I’ve previously blogged that means I look for a variety of different movement options in my repertoire.

Everyday hassles

The one thing that makes my life difficult is when I develop a new pain in a part of my body that doesn’t usually feel uncomfortable. Like most people living with persistent pain, I’ve developed an awareness of “my normal” (see this study by Strong & Large, 1995, for a nice description of this aspect of living with pain, one that is not often discussed). I know the usual pattern of my pains – bellyache, low back pain, neck and upper back pain, wrists and fingers, and often, knees, headaches and facial pain. These are my normal – but when should I seek help for a new pain? After all, it could be simply a manifestation of my fibromyalgia (ie there is nothing medically to be found, and no real change in management). At the same time, these are new pains – one in my shoulder that feels like an impingement (painful arc), and one that’s possibly an adductor tendon thing that’s very localised and hasn’t moved for over 7 months.

The question that keeps coming back to me is whether I’m overlooking something that can be treated, or whether it’ll just settle down like most of my pains do. Essentially I’ve just kept doing what I do and ignoring it.

The difference between my situation and those of people who are not painiacs, who don’t know that their pain is largely unrelated to the state of the tissues, is that I’m immersed in pain research all day, every day. I’m not overly bothered by these new pains. I’m continuing to exercise as normal and these pains aren’t interfering with what I need and want to do in daily life (well, perhaps a little…).

I can understand why someone might ask for help for a new pain. There are no rules saying that just because you have a persistent pain disorder you’re immune from acute musculoskeletal disorders. And sometimes by treating a new pain as an acute pain, it will vanish. Though, it must be said that outcomes for people with more than 3 or 4 persistent areas of pain with low back pain are not as good as those who only have one or two (Nordstoga, Nilsen, Vasseljen et al, 2017), nor of recovery and benefit from total hip and knee replacement (Wylde, Sayers, Odutola, Gooberman-Hill et al, 2017).

Points to ponder

So how do we as clinicians help people who must live with persistent pain?

  • Do we consider the meaning of the labels we give? And do we read around the experiences of those who have been given the diagnosis? Or do we, instead, rely on our own beliefs and biases when thinking about the way we handle diagnosis?
  • Do we give people an explanation for their pain that they can understand, or do we rely on currently favoured language and models without really considering what this means to the person? And do we ever check out how they’ve interpreted our explanations?
  • Do we ever discuss how to self-manage pain? Do we think about the practical implications of needing to learn to modify every aspect of life in the face of pain that will not just go away? When I compare the tasks of living well with persistent pain against those needed to cope with other disorders, pain can interfere with everything – do we talk about the impact on sex? on relaxation? on having a holiday?
  • Do we talk about what to do when a new pain turns up? Do we think about how someone can decide whether their pain is worth seeing someone about, or one they can handle? And do we even talk about the effect of having a persistent pain problem and then going on to have surgery? Do we teach people to recognise their “normal” pain, or are we afraid to teach people this because it might focus their attention on their pain?

I don’t have researched answers to these questions. I have my experience. And I’ve been working in this field a long time – yet somehow the voices of people living successfully with this pain are rarely heard.


Fitzcharles, M.-A., Ste-Marie, P. A., Goldenberg, D. L., Pereira, J. X., Abbey, S., Choinière, M., . . . Proulx, J. 2012 canadian guidelines for the diagnosis and management of fibromyalgia syndrome.

Nordstoga, A. L., Nilsen, T. I. L., Vasseljen, O., Unsgaard-Tøndel, M., & Mork, P. J. (2017). The influence of multisite pain and psychological comorbidity on prognosis of chronic low back pain: Longitudinal data from the norwegian hunt study. BMJ open, 7(5). doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2016-015312

Strong, J., & Large, R. (1995). Coping with chronic low back pain: An idiographic exploration through focus groups. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 25(4), 371-387. doi:10.2190/H4P9-U5NB-2KJU-4TBN

Undeland, M., & Malterud, K. (2007). The fibromyalgia diagnosis – hardly helpful for the patients? Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care, 25(4), 250-255. doi:10.1080/02813430701706568

Wylde, V., Sayers, A., Odutola, A., Gooberman‐Hill, R., Dieppe, P., & Blom, A. (2017). Central sensitization as a determinant of patients’ benefit from total hip and knee replacement. European Journal of Pain, 21(2), 357-365.

Exercise? Who me? Yoga or physiotherapy or education…

Exercise, while one of The Most Important self management approaches for persistent pain, is not an easy sell to someone who is experiencing pain. Especially not if that exercise looks like huffing and puffing, hauling on bits of metal in a gym, or wearing lycra. Not to mention the “sports drinks”…  Those things aside, exercising is a good thing. You heard it from me, and I have declared my body an exercise free zone! The thing is, what kind of exercise, for what purpose, and how to get introduced to it.

Personally I’m a fan of exercise that achieves something else other than “getting fit”. I like gardening, I love dancing, I enjoy cycling (especially to the store to get a GREAT coffee!). Walking the dog is fun. Swimming (especially snorkeling) is awesome! I like my exercise to do more than bring on the endorphins, especially as I don’t get much of that post-exertional analgesia that many people do – and believe me, they do (Ellinson, Stegner, Schwabacher, Koltyn & Cook, 2016). I like my exercise to look like the things I need or want to do, so that when I need to do ’em, I’m in fit state to get on and do ’em.

So what kind of exercise works best? One sage told me “the exercise the person does!” and there is some truth to that, so when I begin talking to someone about exercise, I’m looking for something they can do regularly, that fits into their lifestyle, that makes them feel good, and has some other benefit to them. That benefit might be the social thing – going to a box-fit class with a group of others all bent on getting their fix of play-fighting. It might be the solitary thing – long walks along the beach with the dog for company. It might be the music – in my case, it’s belly dance (and I dare anyone to do a 5 minute shimmy drill while keeping an isolated upper body, a loose shimmy and smile!).

I like the idea of having variety – who says we need to do the same kind of exercise every day? So it’s a wet day and I don’t fancy taking my bike out in the rain, I can turn to my dance practice, or do the dusting, or vacuum the floors. It’s a frosty day and I can go for a brisk walk and take photographs of gorgeous sparkly frosty droplets while Sheba-the-wonderdog huffs steam and sniffs at the local scents. If it’s a warm day, why not head to the pool for a lap or two? If it’s a busy day and I don’t have time, what about some “exercise snacks”? Five minutes of exercise every 25 minutes adds some pretty quickly, so it’s lunges and chair dips and wall presses and shimmy practice in between writing.

Over time we’re seeing more research looking particularly at yoga for persistent pain of all kinds. Yoga comes in many different forms, and in this case I’m guessing the more extreme forms of hot yoga and contortion is not being studied. Some of the studies are appearing in rather eminent journals, like this one from the Annals of Internal Medicine and authored by a very large team including Saper, Lemaster, Delitto and colleagues (2017).

This study is a “non-inferiority” study, looking to establish whether yoga or physiotherapy, or indeed education, can help people living with chronic low back pain. Now I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow analysis of the study, that’s for you to do. What I am going to do is look at what the yoga consisted of – and see why, perhaps, yoga is getting so much research interest. BTW, yoga was found to be non-inferior to physiotherapy, and both yoga and PT were more likely than education to have a clinically meaningful response, although neither yoga nor PT were superior to education.

This is the basic format of the yoga class: Each class began with relaxation and meditation exercises, yoga breathing, and yoga philosophy. It continued with yoga poses and
concluded with relaxation. Pose variations and aids (such as chair, strap, and blocks) accommodated various abilities. Thirty minutes of daily home practice, facilitated by a DVD, a manual, and take-home yoga supplies, was strongly encouraged.

Yoga appeals to many because it seems to begin where people are at – it’s not huffy-puffy, things don’t jiggle, and generally the classes begin and end with the ritual of breathing and meditation. I like the idea of yoga (and yes, I’ve done a class or two!), because it doesn’t involve a lot of gadgets, you can do it alone or in a group, and it feels good. What I don’t like about yoga is the need to get effective and consistent feedback about how well you’re performing the poses, especially in the beginning, which means it can be difficult to do on your own without a teacher.

For people who find exercising both difficult and painful, yoga is a good place to start. I think attending classes is crucial (or at least having an instructor and a mirror!). Learning to use the meditation and breathing is integral to the exercise – and it’s this that I think makes yoga an effective addition to the exercise toolkit. What I’m less sure of is whether it’s better than any other form of exercise – or, in my case, the many different types of movements that I use in my weekly routine. And there’s the rub. As an occupational therapist, exercise is something people choose to do as a form of occupation (valued and meaningful activity). I also enjoy a bunch of other movement-based occupations, and to me these are as valid as yoga or the PT exercises included in this study. What my approach lacks, however, is a researched basis for it.

But here’s the thing: to date the research supporting exercise for people with persistent pain shows modest effects. And those effects are completely lost if the person doesn’t do the exercise. So why not have a wide range of whole-body movement practices to draw on, allowing the person to pick and choose and get out and do something every day, even if it doesn’t fit with our modern notions of what exercise should be?



Ellingson, L. D., Stegner, A. J., Schwabacher, I. J., Koltyn, K. F., & Cook, D. B. (2016). Exercise Strengthens Central Nervous System Modulation of Pain in Fibromyalgia. Brain Sciences, 6(1), 8.

Saper, R. B., Lemaster, C., Delitto, A., & et al. (2017). Yoga, physical therapy, or education for chronic low back pain: A randomized noninferiority trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. doi:10.7326/M16-2579

Pacing, pacing, pacing – good, bad, or…?

There’s nothing that pain peeps seem to like more than a good dispute over whether something is good, or not so good for treatment. Pacing is a perennial topic for this kind of vexed discussion. Advocates say “But look at what it does for me! I can do more without getting my pain out of control!” Those not quite as convinced say “But look at how little you’re doing, and you keep letting pain get in the way of what you really want to do!”

Defining and measuring pacing is just as vexed as deciding whether it’s a good thing or not. Pacing isn’t well-defined and there are several definitions to hand. The paper I’m discussing today identifies five themes of pacing, and based this on Delphi technique followed by a psychometric study to ensure the items make sense. The three aspects of pacing are: activity adjustment, activity consistency, activity progression, activity planning and activity acceptance.

Activity adjustment is about adjusting how we go about doing things – approaches like breaking a task down, using rest breaks, and alternating activities.

Activity consistency is about undertaking a consistent amount of activity each day – the “do no more on good days, do no less on bad” approach.

Activity progression refers to gradually increasing activities that have been avoided in the past, as well as gradually increasing the time spent on each task.

Activity planning involves setting activity levels, setting time limits to avoid “over-doing”, and setting meaningful goals.

Finally, activity acceptance is about accepting what can be done, and what can’t, setting realistic goals, adapting targets, and being able to say no to some activities.

In terms of covering the scope of “activity pacing”, I think these five factors look pretty good – capturing both the lay sense of pacing, as well as some of the ideas about consistency and progression.

On to the study itself, conducted by Deborah Antcliffe, Malcolm Campbell, Steve Woby and Philip Keeley from Manchester and Huddersfield.  Participants in this study were attending physiotherapy through the NHS (yay for socialised healthcare! – Let’s keep that way, shall we?!), and had diagnoses of chronic low back pain, chronic widespread pain, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.  They completed the questionnaire either while on a waiting list, or after completing treatment, as a way to generalise findings – so this isn’t a measure of change (at least, not at this point).

Along with the APQ (the Activity Pacing Questionnaire – original name huh?!), participants completed a numeric rating scale, the Chalder Fatigue Questionnaire, Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, Pain Anxiety Symptoms Scale, and the Short-Form 12.  Some lovely number crunching was used – hierarchicial (sequential) multiple regression models with five separate multiple regression models of the symptoms of current pain, physical fatigue, depression, avoidance and physical functioning.

One of the confusing problems with  measuring pacing is that people may vary their use of different forms of pacing, depending on their symptoms at the time. So in this analysis, factors like pain and fatigue could be a dependent variable (ie I use pacing techniques and feel less fatigued and I’m in less pain), or they could be a confounding variable (ie I feel sore and tired, so I use these techniques).  Needless to say, the statistical analysis is complex and I don’t have a hope of explaining it!

The results, however, are very intriguing. 257 people completed the questionnaires in full, from an overall number of 311 participants. About half had completed their physiotherapy, while the other half had yet to start (ie waiting list). As usual, more people with low back pain than other conditions, and 2/3 were female. On first pass through the data, to establish correlations for inclusion in the regression  models (did your eyes just glaze over?!), the findings showed activity adjustment was associated with higher levels of current pain, depression, and avoidance, and lower levels of physical function. Activity consistency was associated with lower levels of physical fatigue, depression, and avoidance. and higher levels of physical function. Activity progression was associated with higher levels of current pain. Activity planning was significantly associated with lower levels of physical fatigue, and activity acceptance was associated with higher levels of current pain and avoidance.

Then things changed. As these researchers began adjusting for other independent variables, the patterns changed – Activity adjustment was significantly associated with higher levels of depression and avoidance and lower levels of physical function as before, but after adjustment, the association with pain was no longer significant; instead, it was significantly related to higher levels of physical fatigue. Activity consistency remained significantly associated with lower levels of physical fatigue, depression, and avoidance, and higher levels of physical function, but became significantly associated with lower levels of current pain. There were now no significant partial correlations between activity progression and any of the symptoms, whereas activity planning retained its significant association with lower levels of physical fatigue. Activity acceptance lost its significant association with current pain but retained its significant association with higher levels of avoidance.

Ok, Ok, what does that all mean? Firstly – engrave this on your forehead “Correlation does not mean causation”! What seems to be the case is that different themes or forms of pacing are associated with different symptoms. The items associated with adjusting or limiting activities were generally associated with more symptoms. So the more pain and fatigue a person experiences, it seems the more likely it is for them to choose to limit or adjust how much they do. Pacing themes involving consistency and planning were associated with improved symptoms. Using path analysis, the authors identify that activity adjustment and activity consistency play the most important parts in the relationship  between pacing and symptoms.

The take-home messages from this study are these:

  • We can’t define pacing as a unidimensional process – it seems clear to me that different people describe pacing in different ways, and that this messy definitional complexity makes current studies into the use of pacing rather challenging.
  • It seems that avoiding activities, reducing activities in response to pain or fatigue – the idea of an “envelope” of time/energy that needs to be managed to get through the day – is associated with more severe symptoms. Whether people choose this approach only when their symptoms are severe, and revert to activity adjustment and consistency when in less discomfort is not clear (correlation does not equal causation!)
  • Planning activities seems to be associated with some improved symptoms and the authors suggest that planning activities in advance might help people avoid a “boom and bust” scenario. giving a better shape to the day, a greater sense of control and achievement. Then again, it could be that when people feel better, they’re more able to plan their day, and again this study doesn’t help us much.
  • Activity progression, where the overall amount of activity gradually increases over time, wasn’t associated with either more or less pain and fatigue. I think it’s time we had a good look at whether progression helps people – or doesn’t. Rehabilitation philosophy suggests that it “should” – but do we know?
  • And finally, activity consistency was the aspect of pacing that was associated with improved symptoms – and this is certainly something I’ve found true in my own pain management.

The authors maintain that describing pacing as a multi-faceted construct is the only way forward – clearly we’re not going to agree that “pacing is X” when five different forms of pacing were derived from the Delphi study on which the APQ is based. It seems to me that we could benefit from applying this kind of nuanced definition in more areas than just pacing in pain management!

Antcliff, D., Campbell, M., Woby, S., & Keeley, P. (2017). Activity pacing is associated with better and worse symptoms for patients with long-term conditions. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 33(3), 205-214. doi:10.1097/ajp.0000000000000401

Targeting the people who need it most

A couple of things came to mind today as I thought about this post: the first was an article in the local newspaper about a man complaining that the government is “promoting disability” because he couldn’t get surgery for a disc prolapse – and the pain was affecting his ability to work. The second was how to direct the right treatment at the right person at the right time – and how we can be derailed by either wholesale over-servicing “everyone needs treatment X”, or by overburdening people with assessment just to give a fairly basic treatment.

Now with the first man, I don’t know his clinical situation – what I do know is that there are many people every day who must learn to live with their pain because there simply is not an effective treatment of any kind, and that amongst these people are those go on to live wonderful lives despite their pain. I wonder if this man has ever been offered comprehensive self management for while he waits for his surgery. Whether the government could spread some funding away from surgery as the primary option for such pain problems – and instead provide better funding for the wider range of approaches offered through the interdisciplinary pain management centres (approaches which include injection procedures, physiotherapy, psychology, occupational therapy and medications). When there is an effective treatment (and this is arguable in the case of disc prolapse – in fact, it’s difficult to know whether even MRI imaging can give a clear indication of who might respond best to what treatment (Steffens, Hancock, Pereira et al, 2016), we should be able to give it, provided it fits within our country’s health budget. Ahh – that’s the problem, isn’t it… expensive treatments mean fewer people can get basic treatment. And with lumbar disc prolapse, the evidence for surgery is less favourable than many people recognise (Deyo & Mirza, 2016) – they state:

“Patients with severe or progressive neurologic deficits require a referral for surgery. Elective surgery is an option for patients with congruent clinical and MRI findings and a condition that does not improve within 6 weeks. The major benefit of surgery is relief of sciatica that is faster than relief with conservative treatment, but results of early surgical and prolonged conservative treatment tend to be similar at 1 year of follow-up. Patients and physicians should share in decision making.”

So here we have a person with lots of pain, experiencing a great deal of distress, and reducing his work because of pain and disability. My question now (and not for this person in particular) is whether being distressed is equivalent to needing psychological help. How would we know?

There’s been a tendency in pain management to bring in psychologists to help people in this kind of situation. Sometimes people being referred for such help feel aggrieved: “My problem isn’t psychological!” they say, and they’re quite correct. But having a problem that isn’t psychological doesn’t mean some psychological help can’t be useful – unless by doing so, we deny people who have serious psychological health problems from being seen. And in New Zealand there are incredible shortages in mental health service delivery – in Christchurch alone we’ve had an increase in use of mental health services of more than 60% over the past six years since the massive 2010/2011 earthquakes (The Press).

People living with persistent pain often do experience depression, anxiety, poor sleep, challenges to relationships and in general, feeling demoralised and frustrated.  In a recent study of those attending a specialist pain management centre, 60% met criteria for “probable depression” while 33.8% met criteria for “severe depression” (Rayner, Hotopf, Petkova, Matcham, Simpson & McCracken, 2016). BUT that’s 40% who don’t – and it’s my belief that providing psychological services to this group is allocating resources away from people who really need it.

So, what do we do? Well one step forward might be to use effective screening tools to establish who has a serious psychological need and who may respond just as well to reactivation and return to usual activities with the support of the less expensive (but no less skilled) occupational therapy and physiotherapy teams. Vaegter, Handberg, & Kent (in press) have just published a study showing that brief psychological screening measures can be useful for ruling out those with psychological conditions. While we would never use just a questionnaire for diagnosis, when combined with clinical assessment and interview, brief forms of questionnaires can be really helpful for establishing risk and areas for further assessment. This study provides some support for using single item questions to identify those who need more in-depth assessment, and those who don’t need this level of attention. I like that! The idea that we can triage those who probably don’t need the whole toolbox hurled at them is a great idea.

Perhaps the New Zealand politicians, as they begin the downhill towards general elections at the end of the year, could be asked to thoughtfully consider rational distribution of healthcare, and a greater emphasis on targeted use of allied health and expensive surgery.


Deyo, R. A., & Mirza, S. K. (2016). Herniated Lumbar Intervertebral Disk. New England Journal of Medicine, 374(18), 1763-1772.

Hahne, A. J., Ford, J. J., & McMeeken, J. M. (2010). Conservative management of lumbar disc herniation with associated radiculopathy: A systematic review. Spine, 35(11), E488-504.

Koffel, E., Kroenke, K., Bair, M. J., Leverty, D., Polusny, M. A., & Krebs, E. E. (2016). The bidirectional relationship between sleep complaints and pain: Analysis of data from a randomized trial. Health Psychology, 35(1), 41-49.

Rayner L, Hotopf M, Petkova H, Matcham F, Simpson A, McCracken LM. Depression in patients with chronic pain attending a specialised pain treatment centre: prevalence and impact on health care costs. Pain. 2016;157(7):1472-1479. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000542

Steffens, D., Hancock, M.J., Pereira, L.S. et al.(2016) Do MRI findings identify patients with low back pain or sciatica who respond better to particular interventions? A systematic review. European Spine Journal 25: 1170. doi:10.1007/s00586-015-4195-4

Vaegter, H. B. P., Handberg, G. M. D., & Kent, P. P. Brief psychological screening questions can be useful for ruling out psychological conditions in patients with chronic pain. Clinical Journal of Pain.

Being mindful about mindfulness

I’m generally a supporter of mindfulness practice. It’s been a great discipline for me as I deal with everyday life and everything. I don’t admit to being incredibly disciplined about “making time for meditation” every day – that is, I don’t sit down and do the whole thing at a set time each day – but I do dip in and out of mindfulness throughout my day. While I’m brushing my teeth, slurping on a coffee, driving, sitting in the sun, looking at the leaves on the trees, cuddling my Sheba-dog I’ll bring myself to the present moment and take a couple of minutes to be fully present. Oddly enough I don’t do this nearly as often when I’m cold (like this morning when it’s about 8 degrees in my office!), or when I’m eating parsnip (ewwwww!), or waiting to see a dentist. Or perhaps that’s not odd at all, because I wonder if we have a skewed view on mindfulness and what it’s about.

My reason for writing this post comes from reading Anhever, Haller, Barth, Lauche, Dobos & Cramer (2017) recent review of mindfulness-based stress reduction for treating low back pain. In it, they found “MBSR was associated with short-term improvements in pain intensity (4 RCTs; mean difference [MD], −0.96 point on a numerical rating scale [95% CI, −1.64 to −0.34 point]; standardized mean difference [SMD], −0.48 point [CI, −0.82 to −0.14 point]) and physical functioning (2 RCTs; MD, 2.50 [CI, 0.90 to 4.10 point]; SMD, 0.25 [CI, 0.09 to 0.41 point]) that were not sustained in the long term.” There were only seven RCTs included in the study, with a total of only 864 participants, and many of the studies had no active control groups, so my interpretation is that there are flaws in many of the studies examining MBSR, and that it’s difficult to draw any conclusions, let alone strong conclusions.

Where do we go wrong with mindfulness? The first point about the studies included in Anhever and colleagues paper is that there is a difference between mindfulness in general and mindfulness based stress reduction – and although the difference may be minimal, it’s nevertheless worth understanding. MBSR is a full programme that includes mindfulness as one element (Kabat-Zinn, 1982). Mindfulness is a key component, yes, but the programmes include other elements.  The second point is that perhaps we’re assuming mindfulness to be something that it isn’t –  I suspect, from reading numerous articles in both the popular media and research papers, that mindfulness is being applied as another form of relaxation.

Relaxation training was introduced as part of a behavioural approach to managing stress. In pain management it’s been part of programmes since the 1970’s, particularly using forms of progressive muscle relaxation (See Dawn & Seers, 1998). The intention is to provide an experience that is incompatible with tension, and to develop the capability to down-regulate the body and mind to mitigate the stress response that is so often part of persistent pain.

Relaxation training can take many forms, and breath control is a common component. I use it often for myself, and when working with clients – I’m aiming to show people that although they may not be able to control heart rate or blood pressure, they can control breath and muscle tension. It’s useful especially as part of sleep management.

The thing with relaxation training is it’s entire purpose is to help downregulate an upregulated nervous system. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is not.

What is mindfulness about if it’s not about relaxation? Well, mindfulness has been defined in many different ways, but the one I especially like is by Kabat-Zinn (1990) “a process of bringing a certain quality of attention to moment-by-moment experience”.  This definition can be further unpacked by examining its components: “Mindfulness begins by bringing awareness to current experience—observing and attending to the changing field of thoughts, feelings, and sensations from moment to moment—by regulating the focus of attention.” (italics are mine) –  this quote is from Bishop, Lau, Shapiro and colleagues (2004) and is from a paper looking at defining mindfulness in an operational way (so we can be aware of what it means in practice, or as we teach others). These authors go on to say that this process leads to a feeling of being very alert to what is occurring in the here and now. I like to remind people that it’s about being here rather than remembering or anticipating what might.

So at least one part of mindfulness is learning how to attend to what YOU want to attend to, rather than being dragged back to memories, or forward to predictions, or to experiences or moments that you don’t want to notice at that moment.  The definition also points to noticing and experiencing what is happening, rather than thoughts or ruminations about what you’re experiencing. For people living with persistent pain, I think this is an invaluable tool for dealing with the interruptive effects of pain on attention.

A second aspect of mindfulness is an attitude – one of curiosity. When being mindful, you’re not trying to produce any particular state, instead you’re being curious about what you are experiencing, whether it’s something you’d ordinarily want to experience – or not. This approach to experience is really similar to what we’re aiming for in persistent pain management – acknowledging and being willing to experience what is, rather than attempting to avoid that experience, or quickly change it to something more palatable.

Now this aspect of mindfulness is often brought to bear on new and pleasant experiences – sometimes people are asked to mindfully eat a raisin, or mindfully examine a ballpoint pen (one of my favourites). But it’s also just as valid to bring this attitude to bear on less than pleasant experiences like my cold fingers and legs (it’s cold in my office this morning). Or to pain and where it is – and where it isn’t.

So I wonder if part of our approach to using mindfulness in pain management is incorrect. If we’re intending people to come away from mindfulness feeling relaxed and calm, perhaps we’re doing it wrong. If we think people should feel better after mindfulness, again, perhaps we’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, yes, these are the effects we’ll have. Other times, not so much. What we will always develop, over time, however, is better ability to focus attention where we want it to go, and more openness to being present to what is rather than struggling against it. And I think those are incredibly valuable tools in life, not just persistent pain management. And perhaps, just perhaps, if we began viewing our use of mindfulness in these ways, the outcomes from RCTs of mindfulness might show more of what it can do.


Anheyer, D., Haller, H., Barth, J., Lauche, R., Dobos, G., & Cramer, H. (2017). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for treating low back pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine, 1-9. doi:10.7326/M16-1997

Dawn, Carroll, and Kate Seers. “Relaxation for the relief of chronic pain: a systematic review.” Journal of advanced nursing 27.3 (1998): 476-487.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your mind to face stress, pain and illness. New York:Dell.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (1982). An outpatient program in behavioral medicine for chronic pain patients based on the practice of mindfulness meditation: Theoretical considerations and preliminary results. General hospital psychiatry, 4(1), 33-47. doi:

Mulling over the pain management vs pain reduction divide

I’ve worked in persistent pain management for most of my career. This means I am biased towards pain management. At times this creates tension when I begin talking to clinicians who work in acute or subacute musculoskeletal pain, because they wonder whether what I talk about is relevant to them. After all, why would someone need to know about ongoing management when hopefully their pain will completely go?

I have sympathy for this position – for many people, a bout of tendonosis, or a strained muscle or even radicular pain can ebb away, leaving the person feeling as good as new. While it might take a few months for these pain problems to settle, in many instances there’s not too much need for long-term changes in how the person lives their life.

On the other hand, there are many, many people who either don’t have simple musculoskeletal problems (ie they’re complicated by other health conditions, or they have concurrent issues that make dealing with pain a bit of a challenge), or they have conditions that simply do not resolve. Good examples of these include osteoarthritis (hip, knee, shoulder, thumbs, fingers) and grumbly old lower back pain, or peripheral neuropathy (diabetic or otherwise). In these cases the potential for pain to carry on is very present, and I sometimes wonder how well we are set up to help them.

Let’s take the case of osteoarthritis. Because our overall population is aging, and because of, perhaps, obesity and inactivity, osteoarthritis of the knee is becoming a problem. People can develop OA knee early in their life after sustaining trauma to the knee (those rugby tackles, falling off motorcycles, falling off horses, running injuries), or later in life as they age – so OA knee is a problem of middle to later age. People living with knee OA describe being concerned about pain, especially pain that goes on after they’ve stopped activities; they’re worried about walking, bending and maintaining independence – and are kinda pessimistic about the future thinking that  “in 10 years their health would be worse and their arthritis would be a major problem” (Burks, 2002).

To someone living with osteoarthritis, especially knee osteoarthritis, it can seem that there is only one solution: get a knee replacement. People are told that knee replacements are a good thing, but also warned that knee replacements shouldn’t be done “too soon”, leaving them feeling a bit stranded (Demierre, Castelao & Piot-Ziegler, 2011). Conversations about osteoarthritis are not prioritised in healthcare consultations – in part because people with knee osteoarthritis believe that knee pain is “just part of normal aging”, that there’s little to be done about it, and medications are thought to be unpleasant and not especially helpful (Jinks, Ong & Richardson, 2007).

I wonder how many healthcare professionals feel the same as the participants in the studies I’ve cited above. Do we think that knee OA is just something to “live with” because the problem is just part of old age, there’s an eventual solution, and meanwhile there’s not a lot we can do about it?

When I think about our approach to managing the pain of osteoarthritis, I also wonder about our approach to other pains that don’t settle the way we think they should. Is part of our reluctance to talk about pain that persists because we don’t feel we know enough to help? Or that we feel we’ve failed? Or that it’s just part of life and people should just get on with it? Is it about our feelings of powerlessness?

In the flush of enthusiasm for explaining the mechanisms of pain neurobiology, have we become somewhat insensitive to what it feels like to be on the receiving end when the “education” doesn’t reduce pain? And what do we do when our efforts to reduce pain fail to produce the kind of results we hope for? And the critical point, when do we begin talking about adapting to living well alongside pain?

What does a conversation about learning to adapt to pain look like – or do we just quietly let the person stop coming to see us once we establish their pain isn’t subsiding? I rather fancy it might be the latter.

Here’s a couple of thoughts about how we might broach the subject of learning to live with persistent pain rather than focusing exclusively on reducing pain:

  • “What would you be doing if pain was less of a problem?” My old standby because in talking about this I can begin to see underlying values and valued activities that I can help the person look at starting, albeit maybe doing them differently.
  • “What do you think are the chances of this pain completely going away?” Some might say this is about expectancy and I’m setting up a “nocebic” effect, but I argue that understanding the person’s own perspective is helpful. And sometimes, when a person has persistent pain and a diagnosis like osteoarthritis, their appraisal is less about catastrophising and more about holding a realistic view about their own body. It’s not about the appraisal – it’s about what we do about this. And we can use this perspective to built confidence and increase the importance of learning coping strategies.
  • “If I could show you some ways to deal with pain fluctuations, would you be interested in learning more?” All episodes of pain that persists will have times when pain is more intense than others – flare-ups are a normal part of recovering from, and living with persistent pain. Everyone needs to know some ways of going with, being flexible about or coping with flare-ups. I teach people not to focus exclusively on reducing pain during these flare-up periods. This is because even during rehabilitation we don’t want to use pain as a guide (it can be a cruel task-master). We know that rehabilitation can increase (temporarily) pain while the body habituates to new movement patterns, the brain gets used to new input, and the homunculus gets redefined. It’s great to be able to teach strategies that increase the sense of safety, security and down-regulation that can be lost in the initial onslaught of pain.

To summarise, not all pain problems settle. We can help everyone to be more resilient if we begin talking about ways of coping with flare-ups even during subacute pain, particularly if we avoid an excessive focus on trying to avoid them. Instead, we can begin to help people feel confident that flare-ups always settle down, and that they can manage them effectively by using effective self management.


Burks, K. (2002). Health concerns of men with osteoarthritis of the knee. Orthopaedic Nursing, 21(4), 28-34.

Cohen, E., & Lee, Y. C. (2015). A mechanism-based approach to the management of osteoarthritis pain. Current Osteoporosis Reports, 13(6), 399-406.

Demierre, M., Castelao, E., & Piot-Ziegler, C. (2011). The long and painful path towards arthroplasty: A qualitative study. J Health Psychol, 16(4), 549-560. doi:10.1177/1359105310385365

Jinks, C., Ong, B. N., & Richardson, J. (2007). A mixed methods study to investigate needs assessment for knee pain and disability: Population and individual perspectives. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 8, 59.

…and now what we’ve all been waiting for: What do to about central sensitisation in the clinic

For the last couple of weeks I’ve posted about central sensitisation; what it is, and how to assess for it. Today I’m going to turn to the “so what” question, and talk about what this might mean when we’re in the clinic.  Remember that most of this material comes from Jo Nijs’ recent talks at the New Zealand Pain Society.
Firstly, remember that pain is an experience that people have, underpinned by neurobiology, but also, depending on the level of analysis, on interactions with others, on systems and how they work, on culture, on individual experiences, and of course, on interacting within a body within an environment or context. Everything I say from here on is based on these assumptions.

The first point Jo Nijs makes is that when we know a bit more about the neurobiology of persistent pain associated with central sensitisation, we can use this knowledge wisely when we help someone make sense of their pain. This doesn’t mean wholesale and broadcast “I-will-tell-you-all-I-know-about-pain-neurobiology-because-I-know-you-need-to-know-it-because-I-know-it-and-think-it’s-important” which is, truth to tell, a lot more about the know-it-all than the person in front of them! We need to earn the right to give information – that means establishing that we’ve heard the other person’s story and the current meanings they’ve made from their experience. It also means asking permission to share new information. It means thinking about WHY we want to share new information.

So what if the person doesn’t use the same groovy language we use to describe his or her understanding?! So what if they’ve got some of the newer ideas slightly skewed. In the end, what’s important is that the person understands these things:

  • Pain isn’t a direct reflection of what’s happening in the tissues.
  • Pain can be influenced by many things, some of which are physical forces (heat, pressure and so forth), some of which are ideas, and some are emotions. And there are a bunch of other variables that can influence the experience, including what else is going on around the person.
  • The brain is intimately involved with our experience of pain, and it’s a two-way street from body to brain and brain to body.
  • Persistent pain is more about neurobiology than tissue damage per se (but not exclusively about neurobiology).

Our job is to make sure the person understands these things, rather than our job being about “educating” people. The end result matters, rather than any particular process.

If we look at the evidence for helping people reconceptualise their pain, there’s plenty to show that this approach is useful – it’s been a key tenet of a self-management cognitive behavioural approach to pain management since at least the late 1970’s. The later research (from Butler, Moseley and Louw et al) is simply looking at this approach within a slightly different cohort and in a different context. Rather than being integrated with an interdisciplinary pain management programme, research from these guys shows that physiotherapists (in particular) can deliver this kind of information very effectively – and that it helps reduce the fear and subsequent efforts to avoid pain (such as not moving, seeking healthcare, and being worried about pain). Yay!

It’s true that there are many different ways to influence the descending modulatory system, and release endorphins. One of them is to help people understand their pain and be more confident about moving. Another is to place hands on the person – hence massage therapy, manual therapies, manipulations and so on. Nijs believes hands on therapy has best effect after you’ve gone through some of the reconceptualisation that’s often needed (Bishop, Torres-Cueco, Gay, Lluch-Girbes, Beneciuk, & Bialosky, 2015).

Similar arguments can be made for considering sleep management and stress management as an integral part of pain management. (To be perfectly honest, I always thought this was part of what we did…). So here’s the argument: we know most people with persistent pain experience rotten sleep. We also know that people are stressed by their experience of pain. Because poor sleep is associated with increased activation of glia in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, and therefore are pro-inflammatory, pain is often increased after a poor night’s sleep. Sleep medications interfere with the sleep architecture, so it’s useful to consider nonpharmacological approaches to sleep management.

Three strategies to consider:

  • CBT for insomnia – here’s one resource to use
  • ACT or acceptance and commitment therapy – I’ve written a great deal about ACT, just use the search function on this blog for more
  • Exercise – OMG yes, exercise is effective! (just not right before bedtime, kthx)

Stress management is tougher. We can’t avoid experiencing stress – and neither can we live in a bubble where we don’t ever get exposed to stress. Instead, we probably all could do with learning multiple ways of managing stress. Things like realistic evaluations of the situation, increasing our capabilities for regulating our response to stress via biofeedback if need be, and using mindfulness as a strategy for being with stress instead of fighting against it, or folding beneath it.

I haven’t cited many references in this post – not because there aren’t many, but because there are SO many! And I’ll post more next week when I start looking at the rather sexy neurobiological examinations of processes used in pain management for years (yes, we’ve been doing it for a long time, we now have great explanations for how these things might work – though effect sizes are still small.)


Bishop, M. D., Torres-Cueco, R., Gay, C. W., Lluch-Girbés, E., Beneciuk, J. M., & Bialosky, J. E. (2015). What effect can manual therapy have on a patient’s pain experience?. Pain, 5(6), 455-464.


A surfeit of learning

It’s been a busy few weeks as I’ve been at the San Diego Pain Summit and then the New Zealand Pain Society meeting where wonderful speakers presented on topics like exercise for pain, cognitive functional therapy, central sensitisation, opioid use in New Zealand, sensory profiles and other such topics. The chance to meet and spend time with clinicians who are passionate to not only learn about pain, but apply what they’ve learned in clinical practice is something I can’t miss.

What’s difficult, though, is deciding what to apply on Monday morning after having been to meetings or events where there’s so much new material to absorb. And that’s one of the problems, I think, in our clinical practice today. The years when it was relatively easy to do the same old, same old, have (thankfully!) gone – but in its place is the challenge of sifting through that new information and deciding what and how to do it.

So today I thought I’d go through some of the practices I’ve used – maybe it will help someone else?

Firstly, I try to take just one thing away from a meeting. If I absorb more than this, it’s fine, but one new thing is usually quite enough for me! Someone made the point that changing habits is hard – and, just for a moment, think about what we expect the people we treat to do, and then think about that last conference and what you intended to do, but just didn’t… Without  intention, planning and support to change what you do, you’ll carry on doing what’s easy, what’s worked before, and what feels “comfortable”. So be kind to yourself and pick just one thing. For me, that one thing is to feel OK about teaching people to ask “and what does that mean to you?” when someone is telling me their story about their pain.

Next, I let the rest of the information I heard just sit and percolate a while. This means I might casually read something related, or I might review the speaker’s slides or recordings, but I don’t do this in a way that I’m madly trying to cram in action points. This is because I’ve chosen one thing to do, and that’s enough. The rest of the information won’t just disappear because I’m letting it rest, it’s just going to connect with other concepts and pop out later when I stumble on it while reading something else.

To apply what I’ve learned, I plan. Yep, you heard it, I plan! Just like our clients, we need to make specific action plans if we’re going to do things differently. I think there are two factors to apply: the first is how important I think the concept/action is to me, the second is how confident I am to make a change.

  1. Importance: While simply selecting the single thing I take away from a meeting implies that I think it’s important, it’s worth considering why I decided it’s so important. So I list a few reasons I valued that concept. For me, it was the idea that we can uncover more of the real concerns of a person if we ask what it means to them, we can be more able to hear what the person really wants. I also took the idea that anyone: PT, OT, MT, Osteo, Chiro, Doc, Nurse ANYONE can ask this question. This is important to me because if that question isn’t asked, the person may go on fearing the worst even if they appear to be “doing well”. And we cannot rely on “someone else” asking this question. Even if we’re not psychologists, and so think that beliefs and attitudes are out of scope, we ARE experts in how the human body works. We know structure and function. This means we have a responsibility to help people understand what’s going on their body rather than living in ignorance or confusion.
  2. Confidence: It’s not enough to think that something is important. We need to make it easy to make a change. This means identifying what might get in the way of change and planning around that. It also means identifying what might make it easy to change and structuring life so it’s not hard. It could mean writing some “cheat sheets” giving brief phrases to use (Alison Sim and I used this approach in our recent workshop), or it might mean a poster in a prominent place to act as a reminder. It might mean removing something from the environment so you don’t use it as easily. It could mean simplifying for a couple of times. For me it will mean working through possible arguments people make against asking those questions about meaning, using open-ended questions. Often the questions relate to time available in clinic, scope of practice questions, “opening Pandora’s box” questions, “what do I say next” questions, or the “it’s not my focus” questions. I’ll work on responses to these in advance so I can explore what these mean to the clinician before asking if it’s OK to explain my perspective.

I ask myself “what would it look like if I applied this new strategy?”, or “how would I know I was using this strategy?”. I also take time to review how I’ve gone using that new strategy – recording myself, asking someone to sit in on a session, even just reviewing against the “cheat sheet” to see what I used, and what I could have used.

If you take a moment to review my process, hopefully you’ll see the elements of a motivational approach to behaviour change. I’ve written quite a bit about motivation – hope this helps you too!


What to do with the results from the PCS

The Pain Catastrophising Scale is one of the more popular measures used in pain assessment. It’s popular because catastrophising (thinking the worst) has been identified as an especially important risk factor for slow recovery from pain (Abbott, Tyni-Lenne & Hedlund, 2010), for reporting high levels of pain intensity (Langley, 2011), and for ongoing disability (Elfving, Andersoon & Grooten, 2007). I could have cited hundreds more references to support these claims, BTW.

The problem is, once the PCS is administered and scored: what then? What difference does it make in how we go about helping a person think a little more positively about their pain, do more and feel more confident?

If you haven’t seen my earlier posts about the PCS, take a look at this, this, and this for more details.

Anyway, so someone has high scores on rumination, helplessness and magnifying – what does this mean? Let’s say we have two people attending the clinic, one has really high scores on all three subscales, while the other has low or average scores. Both have grumbly old low back pain, both have had exercises in the past, both are finding it tough to do normal daily activities right now.

For a good, general pain management approach to low back pain, and once red flags are excluded (yes, the “bio” comes first!) this is what I do. I establish what the person thinks is going on and ask if it’s OK to talk about pain neurobiology. Together we’ll generate a pain formulation, which is really a spaghetti diagram showing the experience as described by the person (I used guided discovery to develop it). I then ask the person what they’d be doing if their pain wasn’t such a problem for them, perhaps what they’re finding the most frustrating thing about their situation at the moment. Often it will be sleep, or driving or cooking dinner, or perhaps even getting clothes on (shoes and socks!). I’ll then begin with helping the person develop good relaxed breathing (for using with painful movements), and start by encouraging movement into the painful zone while remaining relaxed, and tie this in with one of the common activities (occupations) the person needs or wants to do. For example, I’ll encourage bending forward to put shoes and socks on while breathing in a relaxed and calm way. I’ll be watching and also encourage relaxing the shoulders and any other tense parts of the body. For someone who is just generally sore but doesn’t report high pain catastrophising, I will also encourage some daily movements doing something they enjoy – it might be walking, yoga, dancing, gardening, whatever they enjoy and will do regularly every day for whatever they can manage. Sometimes people need to start small so 5 minutes might be enough. I suggest being consistent, doing some relaxation afterwards, and building up only once the person has maintained four or five days of consistent activity. And doing the activity the person has been finding difficult.

If the person I’m seeing has high scores on the PCS I’ll begin in a similar way, but I’ll teach a couple of additional things, and I’ll expect to set a much lower target – and probably provide far more support. Catastrophising is often associated with having trouble disengaging from thinking about pain (ruminating), so I’ll teach the person some ways to deal with persistent thoughts that hang around.

A couple to try: mindfulness, although this practice requires practice! It’s not intended to help the person become relaxed! It’s intended to help them discipline their mind to attend to one thing without judgement and to notice and be gentle with the mind when it gets off track, which it will. I ask people to practice this at least four times a day, or whenever they’re waiting for something – like the jug to boil, or while cleaning teeth, or perhaps waiting for a traffic light.

Another is to use a “15 minutes of worry” practice. I ask the person to set a time in the evening to sit down and worry, usually from 7.00 – 7.15pm. Throughout the day I ask the person to notice when they’re ruminating on their situation. I ask them to remind themselves that they’re going to worry about that tonight and deliberately put that worry aside until their appointment with worry. Then, at 7.00pm they are asked to get a piece of paper and write ALL their worries down for a solid 15 minutes. No stopping until 15 minutes is over! It’s really hard. Then when they go to sleep, I ask them to remind themselves that they’ve now worried all their worries, and they can gently set those thoughts aside because they won’t forget their worry, it’s written down (I think worry is one way a mind tries hard to stop you from forgetting to DO something about the worry!). People can throw the paper away in the morning because then it begins all over again.

Usually people who score high on the PCS also find it hard to be realistic about their pain, they’ll use words that are really emotive and often fail to notice parts of the body that aren’t in pain. By noticing the worst, they find it tough to notice the best.  I like to guide people to notice the unloved parts of their body, the bits that don’t hurt – like the earlobes, or the belly button. I’ll offer guidance as to what to notice while we’re doing things, in particular, I like to guide people to notice those parts of the body that are moving smoothly, comfortably and that look relaxed. This is intended to support selective attention to good things – rather than only noticing pain.

Finally, I give more support to those who tend to be more worried about their pain than others. So I might set the goals a little lower – walking for five times a week, two days off for good behaviour rather than every day. Walking for five minutes rather than ten. And I’ll check in with them more often – by text, email or setting appointments closer together. It’s important for people who fear the worst to experience some success, so setting small goals that are achieved can build self efficacy – especially when I try hard to offer encouragement in terms of what the person has done despite the odds. So, if the person says they’ve had a real flare-up, I’ll try to boost confidence by acknowledging that they’ve come in to see me even though it’s a bad pain day, that they’ve tried to do something instead of nothing, that talking to me about the challenge shows guts and determination.

People who see the glass as half empty rather than half full are just people. Like you and I, they’re people who have a cognitive bias. With support, we can help people view their pain differently – and that process applies to all of us, not just those with high scores on the PCS.


Abbott, A. D., Tyni-Lenne, R., & Hedlund, R. (2010). The influence of psychological factors on pre-operative levels of pain intensity, disability and health-related quality of life in lumbar spinal fusion surgery patients. Physiotherapy, 96(3), 213-221. doi:10.1016/

Elfving, B., Andersson, T., & Grooten, W. J. (2007). Low levels of physical activity in back pain patients are associated with high levels of fear-avoidance beliefs and pain catastrophizing. Physiotherapy Research International, 12(1), 14-24.

Langley, P. C. (2011). The prevalence, correlates and treatment of pain in the european union. Curr Med Res Opin, 27(2), 463-480. doi:10.1185/03007995.2010.542136