Coping strategies

Adam’s slow recovery


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

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

NICE suggest these steps:

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

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

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

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

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

No acupuncture, no electrotherapy.

Maybe use psychological therapies in conjunction with exercise.

Add in some NSAIDs

And don’t do much else…

In other words – exactly what Adam has been doing.

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

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

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

Seriously, folks. Watching the responses gives me nightmares.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When therapists get hurt


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When living with pain is too hard


**If you’re a person living with pain, and this headline caught your attention because you’re feeling it’s just too hard to carry on – PLEASE take a moment to seek help. If you’re feeling you can’t because they might judge you, or try to stop you feeling this way, at the very least give yourself an hour before you take any action. If that feels too long, give yourself a minute. Get through that, and give yourself another minute. And so on – until you’ve give yourself some time to let this awful feeling ease up a little. You can always revisit your decision to wait. Speak to someone – anonymously if you need to. There are helplines in every country. Phone one. Please.**

Living with persistent pain can be really hard, and clinicians, family and the person with pain can be worried about suicidal thoughts and possible actions. There’s good reason to be concerned, too, as a recent study from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey shows.

Grocott, Sommer and El-Gabalawy (2021) used the data obtained from this Canadian Health Survey to explore the relationships between pain intensity and suicidality in people with arthritis, migraines and low back pain.

The first question is how many people in the overall population involved in this study had any of the three diagnostic groups – and, as expected and in line with many epidemiological studies, between 10.3% (migraines) and 18.1% (low back pain) indicated they had been diagnosed. The “usual” pain levels across all three groups were between 25.9 – 27.7% indicating their pain was “mild”, 52.5 – 54.5% said it was “moderate”, and 19.7 – 20.9% described it as “severe”. This does not surprise me one bit – moderate levels of pain intensity are really common, and, albeit acknolwedging the difficulty of rating pain intensity on a numeric scale and the complex relationship between pain intensity and interference with daily life, demonstrate just how necessary persistent pain services are as a health services priority.

The team then identified the rates of “lifetime” suicidality – these were measured using the following questions.

“you seriously thought about committing suicide or taking your own life” (i.e., suicide ideation; yes, no), “you made a plan for committing suicide” (i.e., suicide plans; yes, no), or “you attempted suicide or tried to take your own life” (i.e., suicide attempts; yes, no).

It’s important to note that this question asked about whether the person had ever, during their life, had these thoughts – not that they were currently present. Remember this as you interpret this study, because suicidal thoughts are relatively common but acting on those thoughts is less common.

The authors found that people who were usually in pain were more likely to have suicidal thoughts, plans or had made an attempt than those who had periods of time without pain (ie intermittent pain). The different rates were reasonably large, too – just in terms of ideation, between 18.7 – 34.0% of people who were usually in pain had suicidal thoughts as opposed to those with intermittent pain (10.5-16.6%), and this association was particularly strong for people with migraine. For people with low back pain, having pain all the time was associated with much greater odds of suicidal thoughts (1.79, 95% CI [1.19-2.68], p<.05).

Pain intensity was also a factor – lifetime suicidality prevalence increased as pain intensity increased, and this was relevant to all pain conditions measured, and especially amongst people with severe pain and migraines.

A good question to ask is whether the odds were the same for people with current mental illness as for those without – and using the magic of statistics, the authors found that this only held for some forms of pain. People with arthritis (note they didn’t identify the kind of arthritis people had) reported lower levels of suicidality even in the presence of mental ill health.

The authors point out that this is an interesting study in that yes, suicidality was higher in people with migraines, and similar to other studies, but their intriguing finding was that differences in the intensity of usual pain increased the odds, along with elevated odds if people reported higher levels of pain intensity.

Why did I choose to summarise this paper?

A few reasons: one is that as health professionals, we may not be aware of just how many people in our communities live with pain. It’s a lot – and this study only included specific diagnoses. Yet, at least in New Zealand, pain management services for people with pain are scarce.

Most people in New Zealand will maybe get referred to a physiotherapist, but it’s often difficult for people with persistent pain to raise their issues with pain with their health provider and for those providers to respond with empathy (Thompson, Dowell, Hilder, Macdonald, Stubbe & Alchin, 2021). This means that many people may not be seen by clinicians with confidence to help people with psychosocial aspects of their pain (eg Holopainen, Simpson, Piirainen, Karppinen, Schutze, O’Sullivan & Ken, 2020, Zangoni & Thompson, 2017) if they even indicate that this is a concern for them during the consultation.

Another reason is that many clinicians who work mainly in “physical” health may not know what to do if someone does disclose suicidal thoughts. It is confronting to hear someone say they don’t want to live any more – and knowing what to do next can feel highly risky. How does this fit within my scope of practice? What if I say something wrong and the person goes ahead and attempts suicide?

Note though, that this study didn’t look at current levels of suicidal thought – it’s lifetime prevalence. Perhaps people who have had occasion to think about killing themselves have a greater degree of vulnerability for persistent pain, particularly when pain is intense. We don’t know – but the authors speculate. Worth reading the paper in full to find out their thoughts.

My thoughts (briefly!) are:

  • Prepare ahead of time. We’ll all likely encounter a person who is really distressed, at the end of their tether, and indicates they’re thinking of harming themselves. Being prepared makes responding to this situation much easier.
  • Preparation should include writing a policy for your practice or your setting. It should include a list of people to contact in a psychiatric emergency (when a person indicates they’re ready to take action to harm themselves), as well as specific actions to take when talking to the person.
  • We’re not all psychologists and it’s not our job to be psychologists – all we’re asked to do in this kind of situation is be a human. What I mean by this is – listen, affirm that the person is feeling really bad and support them to access the help they need. This might mean calling the psychologist if you have one you work with regularly, or calling the person’s family doctor, or calling psychiatric emergency services.
  • Ensure you hand the person to someone who will take care of them. This means not letting them go off in their car without letting their family doctor know, even if they say they’re fine. For your own reassurance this is important.
  • Take care of yourself. Don’t just go on to see the next person waiting for you. Take some time to process what’s happened, what you did, and debrief with someone you trust. It doesn’t need to be a trauma counsellor – it’s just as useful to talk to your colleagues who know you and the kind of work you do. Go have a cup of coffee, go for a walk, give yourself space to recognise that you just helped someone who was really distressed. That’s an important job.
  • Don’t ignore the person and pretend they didn’t just say that. Affirm that they’re feeling rotten. Don’t trivialise it and suggest they should just harden up, or it’s not really that bad, or that they’re at fault for feeling this way. Just be gentle and human, and recognise the privilege you have – this person trusts you enough to say how they’re really feeling. It’s an honour. So if you can’t think of anything to say, just sit with them and bear witness to their distress. Hand them a tissue. Be there for them.

Oh, and in that paper, while 18.7 – 34.0% had suicidal thoughts over their lifetime, 7.2–14.5% had made actual plans, while 6.6–14.7% had made attempts. Don’t trivialise suicidal thoughts, but at the same time, don’t freak out that the person is going to kill themselves – just take action to support them, and in most cases, the thoughts will fade as the person gains hope.

Grocott, B., Sommer, J. L., & El-Gabalawy, R. (2021, Jun 28). Usual presence and intensity of pain are differentially associated with suicidality across chronic pain conditions: A population-based study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 148, 110557. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2021.110557

Holopainen, M. R., Simpson, M. P., Piirainen, D. A., Karppinen, P. J., Schutze, D. R., Smith, P. A., O’Sullivan, P. P., & Kent, A. P. (2020, Jan 16). Physiotherapists’ perceptions of learning and implementing a biopsychosocial intervention to treat musculoskeletal pain conditions: a systematic review and metasynthesis of qualitative studies. Pain. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001809

Thompson, L., Dowell, A., Hilder, J., Macdonald, L., Stubbe, M., & Alchin, J. (2021, Jan 4). How do patients and General Practitioners talk about pain and negotiate empathy in consultations? A direct observational study. Health & Social Care in the Community. https://doi.org/10.1111/hsc.13259

Zangoni, G., & Thomson, O. P. (2017, 2//). ‘I need to do another course’ – Italian physiotherapists’ knowledge and beliefs when assessing psychosocial factors in patients presenting with chronic low back pain. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 27, 71-77. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.msksp.2016.12.015

The stigma of being a woman in pain


Women, it is often thought, must be much tougher than men when it comes to dealing with pain – after all, don’t women have babies without anaesthetic? Don’t men faint at the sight of a needle?

Ummmm, not quite so fast. Now before I begin, in this post I’m referring to cis-gender females, and in the experiments, participants were selected on the basis that they believed that negative gender discrimination was a thing. And as I write this post, I want to be clear that sometimes we have to begin with a very simplified model before research can be conducted on a much more messy cohort – and that this doesn’t negate the incredibly harmful and known effects of gender discrimination, and trans/inter/queer experiences. I can only hope that by starting this kind of research, as a community we’ll begin to understand the terrible impact that stigma has on people.

This paper investigated whether stigma related to one’s identity influenced the perception of nociceptive stimulation. It’s written off the back of earlier research showing that when people are excluded socially, their experience of nociceptive stimulation was greater (ie people didn’t need as much stimulation for it to be perceived as painful) (Eisenberger, Jarcho, Lieberman & Naliboff, 2006). Other studies have shown that people with low back pain who perceive themselves as stigmatised reported greater pain intensity, and that stigmatisation is the main source of social consequences for this group of people (Zhang, Barreto & Doyle, 2020).

These researchers (Zhang, Zhang, Li, Hu, Kong & Su, 2021) conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that stigmatised women would experience greater pain intensity with nociceptive stimulation.
The first experiment used tonic cold pain (cold pressor test) in participants who had already been selected because they believed they had been stigmatised as a woman, asked them to immerse their hand in icy cold water (1 degree C) for as long as they could (to a maximum of 3 minutes), then take part in a mock online job interview. Some of the participants were told that was the end of the study; another group were told they were successful in the interview; and a third group were told that “woman are generally not suitable candidates for these kinds of jobs”; and the final group were simply told “you didn’t get the job” with no reason given. The latter three groups then underwent another cold pressor test as before. And finally they were all debriefed.

The researchers found that those who were told “women are generally not suitable for this kind of work” did feel more stigmatised than the others, and not only reported more sensitivity to cold (threshold) but also showed lower tolerance to the pain experienced in the cold pressor test.

The second experiment involved women who were selected as above. This group of women were shown images downloaded from Google – one set was of content showing devaluing of women, while another set were control or neutral images. The authors used a heat stimulation this time, and randomly showed either neutral or stigmatising images just before the heat was applied. Participants rated the pain after each stimulation.

The results of this experiment showed that when participants were shown the stigmatising content, they reported higher pain intensity from the same nociceptive stimulation. In other words – stigma-inducing images led to these women reporting more pain when given the same amount of heat stimulus.

Not content with this, the researchers conducted a third experiment, this time examining nociceptive-evoked brain responses. They used the same experimental design as for the second experiment, but instead of self-reporting, participants had EEG signals recorded during each heat stimulation.

The results of this experiment once again showed that when participants were shown stigmatising images, they rated their pain experience more highly, and that this was reflected in the EEG results they obtained. N1 amplitude and P2 latency in time and LEP magnitude in the time-frequency domain were influenced by the stigmatising cues.

What does this all mean?

Well, for one thing it’s nice to see research being conducted in women (there’s a bit of a bias against women being involved in basic science pain research because of that pesky old hormone thing – see Samuloitz, Gremyr, Eriksson & Hensing (2018) for more). And for a study to have positive findings.

I’m particularly interested in the brain responses – simply by manipulating the sense of stigma, the same nociceptive stimulation was processed differently. Now this isn’t the same as saying “psychological factors cause pain” because this study is not looking at that – nociceptive stimulation was included – but the same nociceptive stimulation was prioritised in parts of the brain usually active in emotional responses, while P2 is an area involved in the “advanced stage of perceptual processing” was activated sooner in the stigmatised manipulation than in the control condition. The authors argue that because stigma is a threat to sense of self, and because this sense of threat can lead to vigilance about potentially stigmatising cues, greater attentional processing is allocated to threat information, and this in turn, enhances the experience of pain. The greater N1 amplitude demonstrate that attention was drawn to stigmatising material and then influenced the subsequent nociceptive information.

Let’s take a moment to consider the implications of this. Many women have reported their feelings of being devalued both because of their gender as well as their reports of pain. Women may be told “there’s no cure for being a woman” and given inadequate pain relief for period pain (true story). Women do report more pain, are more likely to develop persistent pain, and seek help for pain more readily than men. The latter can be seen as a bad thing – shouldn’t we just “cope”?

Implicit attitudes towards women remain throughout our society, despite the efforts of Kate Sheppard who was one of the women who worked so hard to enable women to vote (in New Zealand, in 19 September 1893). People with pain are also often stigmatised. My post last week is intriguing in that I pointed out that we cannot determine who is, or isn’t, “faking”. It’s the only post I’ve had with nearly 40 votes, but a total score of 2/5. It’s unplatable to some to think that a subjective experience is just that – subjective, not able to be measured, and for clinicians, that we need to accept what a person says without judgement. Stigma is judgement – let’s not do it.

N. I. Eisenberger, J. M. Jarcho, M. D. Lieberman, and B. D. Naliboff, (2006)“An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection,” Pain, 126(1), pp. 132– 138.

Samulowitz, A., Gremyr, I., Eriksson, E., & Hensing, G. (2018). “Brave men” and “emotional women”: A theory-guided literature review on gender bias in health care and gendered norms towards patients with chronic pain. Pain Research and Management, 2018.

Waugh, O. C., Byrne, D. G., & Nicholas, M. K. (2014). Internalized stigma in people living with chronic pain. The Journal of Pain, 15(5), 550-e1.

M. Zhang, M. Barreto, and D. Doyle, (2020) “Stigma-based rejection experiences affect trust in others,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(3), pp. 308–316, 2020.

Zhang, M., Zhang, Y., Li, Z., Hu, L., Kong, Y., & Su, J. (2021). Sexism-Related Stigma Affects Pain Perception. Neural Plasticity, 2021, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/6612456

Why do people with pain report differently on questionnaires than they do in physical performance testing?


One of the topics thrown around by people who don’t have an up-to-date understanding of pain is why people say one thing on a questionnaire, for example, what they can and can’t do, and perform quite differently when asked to do the same task in a clinic. It’s a good question, on the face of it: after all, people should know what they can and can’t do, and be consistent. If there is a difference, well obviously the physical performance test is far more objective than self-report – the therapist is right there watching, so there’s no room for doubt about which measure is The Most Accurate.

The main reason, according to these clinicians, for someone doing differently in the clinic compared with self-reporting, has to be because they’re biased. The person wants to misrepresent what they can and can’t do. Of course.

Superficially, and if you’re not knowledgeable about pain, behaviour, context and human interaction, you could be forgiven for accepting the idea that what you see in clinic is consistent with what’s being done in every day life. The physical movements are pretty much the same and the person is just being asked to do something they do all the time.

BUT – and it’s an enormous exception – humans are not robots. Not body bits that move when they’re pulled like a puppet on a string. People are meaning making, interpreting, social creatures with rapidly responding body systems that represent contexts in relation to memories, predictions and current demands.

I wrote a talk recently on some research that made my heart sing a bit. As an occupational therapist, my profession has long recognised that doing activities (occupations) that hold meaning is quite a different thing from doing a-contextual, meaningless movements. This is why occupational therapists are known to ask about what matters to you, and to use meaningful activities/occupations both as therapy and as outcome (Hitch & Pepin, 2021). The research I referred to was a proposal for an “ecologically grounded functional practice” within rehabilitation (Vaz, Silva, Mancini, Carello & Kinsella-Shaw, 2017). In this paper, the authors point out that “improvements at one level of functioning might not transfer immediately to other levels” and by this they mean that elbow flexion/extension improvements may not transfer into a person being able to feed themselves. They also pointed out that when people perform well-rehearsed activities in the context of goal pursuit – such as getting dressed, ready for work; catching a ball as part of a fast-moving game of netball; hammering a nail – the movements are not just about motor control, they’re about goal-directed behaviour in a context with an interaction between the person, the environment, any tools, the purpose of the activity and so on.

For example, if I want to eat soup, I not only need to have sufficient elbow flexion/extension, I also need to know where the soup bowl is (tried eating soup while lying down?), the texture of the soup (is it thick, thin, lumpy?), the heat of the soup (hot, cold, spicy) and even the social context – I might be OK slurping when I’m on my own, but I’m less inclined to slurp when in polite company. The way in which I carry out the flexion/extension will be very different with each contextual variation.

OK. So context matters, and both the what and why of movement will influence how I go about my performance.
What else?

Well, with a painful condition and especially when I’m not confident I can do it without increasing my pain, I’m much more likely to attempt a difficult movement task in the presence of someone who can monitor what I’m doing. Firstly that person might stop me if they think I’m doing something harmful (professional liability insurance offers some protection!). Secondly, it’s a lot harder to say “no” to someone who is right there in the room! This is called “demand characteristics” and has been associated with problems of the rubber hand illusion (Lush, Vazier & Holcombe, 2020). If someone expects you to do something, you’ll probably do it – because we social creatures don’t like to offend, because the person may inadvertently signal the response they want (see link).

There are other reasons people don’t report the same level of disability on a questionnaire and in physical performance testing: they don’t measure the same things, people forget (especially if they haven’t tried in a while), the day of physical performance testing could be a bad day (or a good day), in physical performance testing the person is usually asked to do it maybe once or twice – in daily life that same activity might be carried out many times across a day, week, month. The environment in a clinical testing environment is typically well-lit, the space around the person is clear, the noise level is usually reasonably low, the floor surface is flat and usually hard lino and free of rugs or pets, there’s minimal distraction, the only thing the person has to think of is this one movement – they’re not picking up the washing off the floor while rushing to put it in the washing machine before dashing out the door to pick the kids up from school.

Even the questions are different – “does pain interfere with…?” is a different question from “can you step up onto this step using a hand rail?”

And don’t let me even start on the meaning of performance either way – for example, if the person is really keen on getting knee surgery, might “good” performance mean they, without even knowing it, alter how they do a movement? What if the person is apprehensive about how the results of this testing might affect their rehabilitation and return to work – again without even knowing it, might this not have some influence on how the person performs?

Testing and measurement is a core skill and research area in psychology. Dang, King & Inzlicht (2020) offer some really good insights into the reasons responses differ between self-report and performance, and to be fair, they don’t even consider the influence of pain and physical capability as I have above. Pain-related performance is a specialty area of its own, nonetheless we can still draw from their paper because many of the problems they recount are absolutely part of pain and disability self-report and physical performance.

They describe the reliability paradox (that reliability = variance between individuals divided by variance between individuals + error variance) – in other words, we need low levels of between-person variability so that any experimental manipulation is maximised. But in real life, we almost always exhibit variability in our performance – so the reliability of two measures limits the correlations that can be observed between then, with lower reliability leading to weaker observed correlations.

The authors also describe the very different response processes involved in self report and performance – as I mentioned above, self-report measures ask people to reflect on what they do in real life in many different contexts that are unstructured. Performance measures take a snapshot based on performance in specific and highly structured situations. Self-report measures capture a person’s perception of their capabilities whereas physical performance reflects the observations of someone else. And performance assessments generally tap into peak performance, not daily performance – tapping into some of the discrepancies we see between “can do” and “will do” (competence-performance discrepancy).

So, when you read arguments on social media from well-known physiotherapists suggesting that the person who reports a difference between what they perceive they can do, and what they have done in a physical performance test is “biased”: know that we have absolutely NO WAY to determine “bias”, “malingering”, “faking bad”, “faking good” – and that there are many well-understood reasons for the difference in performance. Read this paper for more on why we can’t detect “malingering” in people with pain: Tuck, N. L., Johnson, M. H., & Bean, D. J. (2019, Feb). You’d Better Believe It: The Conceptual and Practical Challenges of Assessing Malingering in Patients With Chronic Pain. J Pain, 20(2), 133-145. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2018.07.002

Dang, J., King, K. M., & Inzlicht, M. (2020). Why are self-report and behavioral measures weakly correlated?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 24(4), 267-269.

Hitch, D & Pepin, G. (2021) Doing, being, becoming and belonging at the heart of occupational therapy: An analysis of theoretical ways of knowing, Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 28:1, 13-25, DOI: 10.1080/11038128.2020.1726454

Lush, P., Vazire, S., & Holcombe, A. (2020). Demand characteristics confound the rubber hand illusion. Collabra: Psychology, 6(1).

https://methods.sagepub.com/reference/the-sage-encyclopedia-of-communication-research-methods/i4252.xml

Family and friends matter


I’m going back to my series on behavioural approaches to pain management (it’s a slow process!). For the first two go here and here. Now I want to talk about the impact of family and friends on people living with pain.

The people we live with are so influential on what we do and believe about pain. It’s our parents who first taught us the relationship between the word “pain” and the experience we know as pain. It’s our parents and family who responded when we cried, who kissed it better (or not), who told us to “harden up” (or not), who took us to the doctor (or not), who showed us, through their own behaviour, how to “do pain.”

There’s a good deal of research investigating the impact of friends and family on pain behaviour (remember the distinction I make between pain-the-experience and pain behaviour or what we do when we’re sore? click). For instance, a systematic review by Snippen, de Vries, van der Burg-Vermeulen, Hagedoorn and Brouwer (2019) looked at people with chronic diseases, and the attitudes and beliefs of significant others. They found that “positive and encouraging attitudes regarding work participation, encouragement and motivating behaviour and open communication with patients” were facilitators for work participation while “positive attitudes towards sickness absence and advise, encouragement or pressure to refrain from work” were barriers to returning to work.

In another study, Burns, Post, Smith, Porter and colleagues (2019) observed spouse dyads behaviour after arguing then the person with pain undergoing a pain induction task. Spouses that believed that the patient’s pain was a mystery were significantly more likely to be perceived by the patient as giving critical/invalidating responses toward the patient during the discussion; while spouse perceptions that the patient’s pain was a mystery were related to internal and negative attributions spouses made while observing patients display pain behaviors during the structured pain behavior task (p. 1176).

In another study, this one a daily diary study with people living with osteoarthritis in their knee, found that on days when the person with pain reported more thinking the worst, their spouses were more unhappy during the day. And on the days when the partner was more irritated with the person living with pain, that person reported more thinking the worst the next morning. The link? The people with pain who were thinking the worst were also more grumpy through the day, and this was rubbing off on their partner. (Martier, Zhaoyang, Marini, Nah & Darnell, 2019).

Makes sense, doesn’t it? That when we see our loved one demonstrate that they’re sore, and they’re grumpy – and if we’re not sure they’re for real – we might be less supportive as partners than if we think their pain is for real. And over time the pattern of being sympathetic might wear thin – in fact, Chris Main (psychologist) describes a pattern of initial solicitous behaviour (the “there, there dear, I’ll fetch you a cup of tea”), then resentment (“surely you’ve recovered now?”), then anger and punitive behaviour (ignoring the person, getting irritated with them), but then feeling guilty about this (“OMG I know, it’s not your fault and I’ve been so mean”), returning to being solicitous – until the next time the partner feels fed up.

What does this mean for a behavioural approach?

Well, it’s not surprising that if one of the partners thinks the other “should be well now”, they’re likely to be unsympathetic as we begin changing the person’s behaviour. Often we’re attempting to help someone be consistent with their daily activities, and this can often begin by reducing how much should be attempted so the person can “do no more on a good day, and do no less on a bad day.”

And if the partner is really worried about the person with pain, and afraid that doing more is going to increase pain and prolong disability, it’s also not surprising that the partner is likely to be worried about us asking the person to do things differently (especially exercise!).

And don’t forget that during this time, both partners are probably trying to keep some semblance of normal going. They still have the usual household tasks to get done, to pay the bills, to get the kids to and from school, to keep in touch with extended family and friends and so on.

It’s stressful. And we add to the burden when we ask the person to do something different, whether this be doing exercises, using a mindfulness or relaxation technique, perhaps go to various appointments all around town…and if we don’t include the impact of what we expect on the partner, we’re possibly not going to have “the team” on board with the rehabilitation programme.

The very best option is to ask the person’s partner to come in to at least one of our treatment sessions, so we can spend some time talking about what we’re asking the person with pain to do, and getting an indication from the partner about their willingness to follow the programme. The next best option is to write the programme down, and include “things family can do to help” – listing the kinds of things family and friends can do (and what they should avoid doing).

You see, people we see for help never live in a vacuum. They always have a context of friends, family, home, responsibilities, expectations from them, expectations for the work we do. Forgetting about this and expecting a good result fails to recognise the embedded nature of life. Contextual factors are important, no person is an island.

Burns, J. W., Post, K. M., Smith, D. A., Porter, L. S., Buvanendran, A., Fras, A. M., & Keefe, F. J. (2019). Spouse and patient beliefs and perceptions about chronic pain: effects on couple interactions and patient pain behavior. The Journal of Pain, 20(10), 1176-1186.

Martire, L. M., Zhaoyang, R., Marini, C. M., Nah, S., & Darnall, B. D. (2019). Daily and bidirectional linkages between pain catastrophizing and spouse responses. Pain, 160(12), 2841.

Snippen, N. C., de Vries, H. J., van der Burg-Vermeulen, S. J., Hagedoorn, M., & Brouwer, S. (2019). Influence of significant others on work participation of individuals with chronic diseases: a systematic review. BMJ Open, 9(1), e021742. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-021742

Self-care


No, not the Instagram “self-care” of floofy slippers and a glass of wine, or an excuse to indulge in chocolate. No, I’m talking about the gritty self-care that all of us humans need to do, only some of us need to it more regularly or we’ll experience Consequences.

Self-care for people living with pain is no luxury, and it does (occasionally) mean walking away from something enjoyable, setting boundaries on demands for time and energy, AND it means many other things too.

I’ll talk about my own self-care needs because I can’t talk authentically about anyone else. Most of you will know I live with fibromyalgia, and that I’m pretty happy with my lifestyle and dealing with pain. Mostly it’s just a nuisance that I live alongside, and make room for. Sometimes it’s a PITA, and over the last year it’s been more of that and less of the “just a nuisance”.

My fibromyalgia involves widespread body pain (currently neck/shoulder but randomly goes to other places – maybe for a holiday? Who would know!). I also experience fatigue. In fact, the pain is nothing to bother me because I know it’s not a sign I’ve harmed myself – it’s the fatigue that is a killer. Probably the most difficult thing to deal with.

So when I went to a conference, and had a few late nights it didn’t surprise me to feel exhausted. I’m lucky in that I can take a couple of days off for some downtime, and I slept and now I’m pretty much back to normal. Except that it’s a short week with Easter coming up, and I have a whole day out because of a procedure – and I’m teaching Thursday night while also having some other deadlines coming up.

Lurching from frantically catching up to crashing is called “boom and bust” in our persistent pain language. According to conventional pain management wisdom (based on books like Manage Your Pain by Prof Michael Nicholas) pacing is The Way to Go. And there’s some merit in the idea of being consistent in what to expect from yourself, building up from a baseline to what works for you in your life context, to reduce the number of times you have to apologise for not being able to do something because you’ve either flared or you’re fatigued.

The problem with pacing is that we still have little agreement on what we mean by the word (is it gradually increasing activity levels? is it stopping before we flare up? is it planning each moment of the day, breaking each task into 10 – 20 minutes with a break in between? is it about using time instead of pain/fatigue as the guide for what you do?). There’s even less evidence to support pacing as a strategy – few randomised trials of pacing and studies have shown associations between pacing and avoidance. Yet it remains one of the more popular and widely-endorsed strategies for living well with persistent pain.

Coming back to self-care, one of the issues for me is to understand how I get into the situation where my fatigue and pain begins to interfere with my plans. Is it my planning that’s awry? Should I say no more often? Should I ask for help more often? Am I bad for pushing myself? Am I over-reaching myself, spreading myself too thin?

And even as I ask these questions of myself, I feel my mind judging me. After all, I should know better! I’ve been living with pain most of my life. I teach people about pain. I’ve worked clinically. Seriously I ought not to do this to myself. I should be perfect!!

Well, as anyone who knows me is perfectly aware: I am not perfect. And I mess up. I did last week when I completely forgot an appointment with someone because my mind was fried.

Here’s the thing though. This amount of self-analysis, of questioning, of planning, of organising around something that I never asked for, is what anyone with persistent pain goes through. And the often-glib “go exercise” or “just pace” or “let’s ignore pain and pretend it’s not a thing” often fails to touch the constant demands that living with a chronic/ongoing health problem poses. The negative and critical mind is prone to sniping at the “who” I am, while onlookers, clinicians in particular, might not even be aware of just how brutal and energy-sapping this process is. Every. Single. Day.

I do not have a glib answer to how best to live well with pain, and as you can tell I’m still learning even 35 years down the track! I do know I’m determined, and that drawing on values and being flexible about how I do what matters in my life has meant I’ve stayed working (even in a demanding job), kept on playing (creative pursuits are like oil on dry skin), learned to keep my eyes on the prize and not sweat the small stuff…

This post is a plea to health professionals working with people who are in the early stages of living with persisting pain: don’t add things to a person’s life without thinking about the constant juggle the person will need to do often for the rest of their life. Don’t make up another list of exercises, or make suggestions about another technique to add in to their already busy daily life without asking yourself “Could I do this every day? In the presence of ongoing pain?” Ask yourself, too, whether you’re implying that this person is “doing it wrong.” Think hard about all the things each person needs and wants to do in their life – if you’re going to suggest adding yet another thing into their day, consider what this person might need to abandon to fit it in, think about when and where and how this person can do what you’re suggesting.

When we’re clinicians, we can be prone to suggesting that people with pain “aren’t motivated.” I reject this – motivation isn’t a trait, or a quantity we’re given or not given. Motivation is about importance, and confidence. And for so many people with pain, confidence is very very low. Saying no to things requires confidence. And sometimes saying no is the hardest thing.

Self-care. It’s a life-long commitment to being vigilant about the choices I make every day, because the consequences of not caring for myself can be tough to swallow. And yet it’s also OK to mess up and to be with that flare or fatigue, and remember what matters in life.

Modifying pain behaviour (2)


Two concepts that receive limited attention in the allied health literature are nomothetic and idiographic approaches. I’m discussing these concepts here because when we’re considering pain behaviour, I think we can focus much more on “generic” (nomothetic) concepts than we do idiographic ones – and yet we say we’re about the unique person in front of us.

Firstly, this site offers a good summary of the difference between nomothetic and idiographic – click

Essentially, nomothetic approaches focus on underlying generalities, perhaps traits, and are a solid part of the science of measurement in psychology. Given that much of our allied health measurement practice is based on psychological theories (such as using aggregated or grouped data to search for differences in means between two groups), it’s not surprising that we’ve tended to reach for a self-report measure when we want to understand what a person thinks and does when they’re sore. Think of the Oxford Knee Score, or the Oswestry Disability Index, for examples!

Here’s an item from the Oswestry Disability Index (Fairbank, Couper, Davies et al, 1980)

Section 5 – Sitting
I can sit in any chair as long as I like.
I can sit in my favorite chair as long as I like.
Pain prevents me from sitting for more than 1 hour.
Pain prevents me from sitting for more than ½ hour.
Pain prevents me from sitting for more than 10
minutes.
Pain prevents me from sitting at all.

When a person reads these items, they’re asked to indicate the answer that best fits their experience, but left unanswered are these points: what time of day? what kind of chair? what is the person doing in the chair? who is around that person? why is the person sitting for a long time? what is it about the pain that stops the person from sitting? what do they think is going on?

While the measure itself is based on rigorous methodology, has excellent psychometric properties and so on – it doesn’t investigate important dimensions that we need as clinicians to help this person perhaps alter their sitting tolerance.

Alternative measurement approaches are available: item response theory is one (click) and multi-level modelling is another (click) – but the former still considers latent traits (ie can we identify a general underlying response that underlies all the variability we see in the data), and multi-level modelling also assumes that the respondents still belong to a general population who will demonstrate similarities around the variable in question.

The problem is that people don’t always follow the rules. Here’s an example:

A woman I saw once had low back pain, and was very afraid to bend forward. She was particularly worried about bending down in the shower to wash her lower legs, and when she saw me she avoided putting her handbag on the floor because this would mean she’d need to bend down to pick it up.

To get around this concern, she’d learned to sit on the floor of her shower to wash her lower legs, used pull-on shoes with elastic laces, or court shoes for work, and she’d put socks and pantihose on while sitting on the floor.

At the same time, she was comfortable sitting for around an hour, was able to stand as a customer service person for an eight hour day, and was happy driving – but not happy about reaching into the back of her car (it was a two-door) because it meant she was bending.

For this woman, her score on the Oswestry was below 20% or considered to be “minimal disability” – and yet she was almost turning herself inside out to be able to do what mattered to her.

An idiographic approach to her situations looks a little more deeply at the function of behaviour in context. If we take a look at the amount of spine flexion within her activities of daily living, we can see that sitting on the floor to wash her legs, and to pull shoes and socks on involves just as much movement as if she was bending down. What was different? Well, she was really afraid she’d slip in the shower and land in an undignified heap on the floor, needing to be rescued – while being naked! She said she’d been told that she shouldn’t bend because she had a disc prolapse and she’d seen one of those spine models with the bright red disc bulge and thought this was going to be much worse if she bent over. She was very concerned about appearances as she worked in a customer service role, so developing a way to still get dressed while avoiding bending forward was really important to her – but it took her much longer to do, much more effort to do it, and she remained quite certain that this red jelly would ooze from her disc if she bent forward.

In a behavioural approach to pain management, it’s important to understand the antecedents and consequences of a behaviour, so we can understand what elicits the behaviour, and what consequences occur to maintain it. In this woman’s case, any context where she might need to lean forward – such as making her bed, picking clothes up from the floor, putting shoes and socks on from standing, picking her handbag up, reaching into the back of her car to fetch something – elicited a thought (image) for her of her disc oozing out. Combined with her interpretation of the advice not to bend when she first sought help, her response was one of fear – and one thing we learn very early on as humans is that we should avoid things that generate fear.

The consequences of her avoiding forward flexion were many: her fears weren’t allayed except in the moment, and she remained highly concerned about the disc bulge; she felt relieved in the moment as she avoided doing the movements she thought would harm her. This is negative reinforcement – fear (negative experience) is reduced (withdrawn) because she avoided the movement (relief – I’ve avoided a disaster!). She also avoided doing many things she’d enjoyed – like playing tennis (bending down to pick up a ball? No way!), picking her clothes up from the floor (she had a home helper do this, and do her washing), she’d changed the shoes she wore to avoid having to bend down to tie laces, and she sat on the floor of her shower to avoid having to bend down to wash her legs.

When we started to work on helping her move on with life, it was really important to understand the unique combination of context and function of her strategies for avoiding bending. Just telling her that her discs wouldn’t bulge out wouldn’t alter those powerful images in her mind! We can’t unlearn an association once we’ve learned it. And she’d been practicing this association between an image of disc bulge oozing and bending – and all the activities where we bend, and all the associations she’d made between jelly wobbling (because the disc is basically jelly, right?), and all the other things she knew about jelly – it’s not strong, it can smear over things, it wobbles, it can melt…. My approach was to help her experience doing without the dire consequences, starting from simple and moving to more challenging over time. More on this next week!

As clinicians, our words matter, as do the images and models we have in our clinics. We also must be mindful that the people we try to help will bring their history and the unique associations they’ve made between things they’ve been told, metaphors they’ve heard and the values that matter to them. Respecting all those vitally important and idiosyncratic aspects of being human is integral to a behavioural approach to pain rehabilitation. Let’s not put people into algorithms or groups or boxes, because if we take the time to learn about their uniqueness we can create more powerful – and fun! approaches to helping them live their lives again.

Fairbank J, Couper J, Davies J, et al. The Oswestry low back pain questionnaire.
Physiotherapy 1980;66:271–3.

Pain model – helping to target change


In my recent post on behavioural approaches to pain management, I had a number of commentators ask why do it, why not focus on pain intensity, and aren’t I invalidating a person’s experience if I target a person’s response to their experience. Today’s post will explore some of these points.

I suppose my first point needs to distinguish between pain as an experience, and pain behaviour – or what we do when we experience pain. I like to use a pretty old “model” or diagram to help untangle these concepts. It’s drawn from Loeser’s “Onion ring” model, and he wrote about this way back in the early 1980’s. This is my interpretation of that way of thinking about the person experiencing pain. It’s not intended to represent Truth – but to help us to get our heads around an individual’s truth, or their experience. It’s one way to consider the factors we’ve learned are associated with human pain. It should be evaluated in terms of its utility and practical usefulness for a person experiencing pain, and for clinicians hoping to help them.

The “BIO”

Firstly, we have all the neurobiological processes involved in transmitting nociceptive information throughout the body. Much of this information never reaches conscious awareness – activity in nociceptors occurs all the time, and we have rapid reflexive responses to this such as blinking, shifting in a chair, swaying while standing and so on. A whole lot of neurobiological activity occurs as this information reaches conscious awareness – much of this activity occurs above the brainstem. In fact, if we look carefully at neurobiological activity, much of the reason we never notice reflex responses to nociception is because we have a pretty effective inhibitory system that’s operating constantly to limit how much nociceptive activity hits consciousness. That’s all part of cortical and brainstem (yeah – BRAIN) processes. If anyone learns neurobiology of pain and doesn’t include attention, motivation, emotion, expectations then they’re missing an enormous chunk of what nociception and pain are about.

Added to this neurobiological information are another whole bunch of physiological and hormonal responses – and these are incredibly complex and often omitted from our discussions. For example, men and women differ in their hormone production, and this means more women experience persistent pain, women have lower pain tolerance, and respond to nociceptive information more quickly and at lower thresholds than men.

Suffice to say, there are a whole bunch of biological processes that are integral to our experience of pain and to nociceptive transmission, transduction and perception. So if anyone should suggest that a “biopsychosocial” model of pain does not include BIO – go wash your mouth out please.

Pain-the-experience

The next aspect of pain that Loeser included was “pain-the-experience” – the subjective, personal, unshareable “what it is like to experience pain” part. This encompasses the qualia – the sensory qualities of pain, and includes intensity and location. Pain is always experienced as having a negative or aversive quality, so we know that the urge to avoid or take action to reduce, and indeed our tendency to attend to this experience is part of a human experience of pain. Note that Loeser (and I) don’t include appraisal at this point! In other words, this is the “ouch” that a baby feels when we perform a Guthrie heel prick test. It’s that moment when scalding coffee hits your lap, before you’ve realised you’ve spilled your coffee.

But just to complicate things here – unless we’re newborns, we’re always aware of context and pretty much once we learn language, we’re interpreting when/where/how/why events are happening. This means that factors such as expectations, past learning, predictions we make about “what next” always inform “pain-the-experience”. Even before we’re consciously aware of these influences! So technically, as soon as we recognise “ouch” we’re already invoking a whole bunch of higher cortical processes into our experience. This matters because pain is a conscious experience, and requires perception before it can be experienced.

Judgement or appraisal

The next “ring” of Loeser’s model was called “suffering” – I’ve translated this into a cognitive process of “appraisal” because while pain is inherently tainted with negative emotional valence and a motivational urge to avoid, it’s also possible to view our experience of pain in different ways. Some commonplace examples are the jab from a vaccination – many of us will welcome that nociceptive input, and judge the pain to be negligible. Others who may be less comfortable with a vaccination might view it more negatively and be more aware of that pain. People who run or train in a gym might appraise the pain from working hard “feel the burn” as a sign that they’ve done enough to make performance gains. And some of us who live with persistent pain such as fibromyalgia might notice pain and consider it to be “just a nuisance”.

Suffering is an interesting concept, and I prefer to take Erik Cassel’s definition of it: suffering refers to the loss of a sense of self. A paper cut typically doesn’t lead to a loss of sense of self, while low back pain that remains for many months might be far more likely to erode that sense of “who I am and what I can do”.

Judgements and appraisals are influenced by a whole lot of factors – socio-cultural norms (I’m in a rugby-mad country, if a rugby player experiences pain on the field, he or she may well grit teeth and keep going, believing that it’s not OK to “give in” to pain – the appraisal might be “this isn’t so bad, I can still keep going”. Socio-cultural norms are often implicit – we absorb them effortlessly within our own cultural context, and we’re quite capable of holding different implicit norms depending on our current proximity to our social group. Consider the rugby player who will brush off an on-the-field injury but when getting a splinter might feel a little sick. The meanings we attribute to our pain influence how willing we are to go with them – tattoos and body piercings and body suspensions are really good examples of times when we’re OK to experience pain in the pursuit of something else, similarly post-surgical pain after joint arthroplasty.

When appraisals are unhelpful is when we get tripped up. When a person holds an inaccurate understanding of what’s happening – thinking, perhaps, that this back pain is a sign of cancer metastasising, or the end of a career as a sportsman, or an indication of some dire outcome, then a couple of things happen. Firstly, negative emotions are likely to rise, along with sympathetic arousal (the two systems are linked in the experience of pain), and then what we do about pain also begin to turn to short-term over long-term outcomes.

Pain behaviours

Pain behaviours are what we do when we experience pain, and they’re shaped both by evolution and by socio-cultural norms, as well as what we think is going on. I wrote about pain behaviour recently – click

Pain behaviours are the only part of “what it is like to experience pain” that we can observe.

Let me say that again – what we do about pain is the only part of the pain experience that a person who is NOT The Person In Pain that we can share.

Pain behaviour includes everything a person does and says in relation to their pain, both reflexive and automatic actions that we’re not aware of, as well as those we are aware of. Some of the behaviours we do are reflex responses (blinking and tearing up), some of them are not. Some of them are well-learned – we’ve been doing them since we were tiny kids. Others are things we’ve learned to do, perhaps on the advice of someone else, or because we’ve observed someone else, or because we think it might help or it’s worked once before.

The thing is – pain behaviours are malleable. They can and do change. Again, read my earlier post on how pain behaviours can be changed, and know that just because a behaviour has changed, the person’s experience of pain may not. In other words, while I move pretty normally, and to many onlookers I don’t appear to have pain – I still do.

Social context

I’ve already alluded to the influence of contextual factors. Things we’re aware of – prevailing attitudes in our immediate social group, our community, our spouse, our treatment providers. Things we’re often less aware – of implicit attitudes about gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, supposed pain mechanisms, visibility of tissue damage and so on. And we are ALL influenced by these implicit socially constructed attitudes and beliefs, people with pain and their clinicians and their families and their communities….

I often use this way of exploring factors involved in why a person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be done to reduce distress and disability. I might package the conversation in various ways – perhaps more complex if I expand on some aspects, perhaps less so if the person doesn’t want or need to explore something (often this is the neurobiological part). While it’s imperfect remember that the purpose of a model like this is contextual. I am not hoping to represent Truth as a universal law about “how pain works”. I AM hoping to explore useful elements for a particular purpose. One purpose might be to demonstrate that emotions and appraisals influence pain behaviour. Another might be to introduce medical students to the complex factors that might be involved in their interpretation of a patient’s distress. And another to help someone understand why he avoids a movement in one context but not in another. And even another might be to help someone know why she has such a panicky feeling when she’s in the middle of a flare-up.

As a pragmatist, and basing my practice on approaches that might help this person achieve a specific something in this moment, I use models like these to build therapeutic alliance, to enable the person to be willing to play with new ways of being, and to help them recognise that the target for change might not be what they initially think is relevant.

Loeser, JD. (1980). Perspectives on pain. In P. Turner (Ed.), Clinical Pharmay & Therapeutics (pp. 313-316). London: Macmillan.

Loeser, JD. (1982). Concepts of pain. In M. Stanton-Hicks & R. Boas (Eds.), Chronic low back pain (pp. 145-148). New York: Raven Press.

Pain behaviour: what is it and what do we do about it?


I’m re-reading Fordyce’s classic Behavioral Methods for Chronic Pain and Illness and once again I’m struck by how many of the concepts he introduced and systematically investigated are either mis-interpreted and ignored in our current approaches to helping people with persistent pain. Today I’ll explore just a tiny portion of what Fordyce described.

Pain behaviour refers to all the observable actions we do in relation to experiencing pain (NB some people include thoughts as well, but for today I’ll just focus on observable actions). There are roughly two groups of actions: those involuntary ones that we can call nocifensive responses that include reflex withdrawal underpinned by spinal reflexes but including brainstem circuits (see Barik, Hunter Thompson, Seltzer, Ghitani & Chesler, 2018); and those that are developed and shaped by learning (operant conditioning as well as social learning).

When I write about learning, I often have comments about this suggesting people have a choice about what they do, and that this learning must involve conscious awareness – the upshot of these comments is the idea that if we just tell someone that they’re doing something, information alone will be sufficient to change how often they’re doing it. Well, I don’t know about you, but if you’ve ever chewed your nails, changed your diet, decided to go on a social media diet, or do more exercise, you’ll know that there’s an enormous gap between knowing about and being able to follow through. So let me review some of the processes involved in learning and pain behaviour.

Pain behaviour probably has evolutionary significance. What we do when we’re sore acts as a signal to others, whether those actions are voluntary or involuntary. For example, while limping off-loads weight from the sore limb, it can also function to let other people know there’s something wrong. Groaning or sighing also lets people around us know that we’re not OK. Remembering that we’re a social species, being able to let others know that we need help – or not to do what we just did – means we’re more likely to receive attention, and also to warn others about potential danger. Of course, by eliciting help, we’re kinda obligated to help others when they do the same, which may be why when we see someone demonstrating prolonged pain behaviours we tend to feel annoyed: we might be asking ourselves “If they’re not going to reciprocate, why would I help? Dem’s the rules”

Now pain behaviour is also subject to learning principles. In other words, the specific behaviours we do develop in form and frequency depending on context. The underlying analysis goes like this: an antecedent is present (maybe it’s a particular person, location, or occasion), the behaviour occurs, then something in the environment/context occurs – and it’s this “something in the environment/context” that influences whether the behaviour is repeated, and/or the frequency of that behaviour. The easiest example of this is when you watch a three-year-old playing just a little distance from Mum and Dad. When she trips and falls, she’ll probably get up and brush herself down – and then you’ll see her look for Mum or Dad, and if they’re close enough, she’ll probably let out a bit of wail. In the context of Mum and Dad and her falling over, she’s learned that if she cries she’s likely to get a cuddle or some attention, and this is nice. In the absence of Mum and Dad, if she trips she’s less likely to cry because she’s not likely to get that cuddle. Clever huh?

So if that kind of learning occurs from the time we’re little, it’s easy to see how rapidly this pattern of behaving can become habitual, and when it’s habitual it’s unlikely to be something the child is aware she’s doing. Crying, or seeking attention, when we’re sore is something we’ve learned to do from an early age and while the form of that attention likely differs as we mature, the underlying mechanisms still apply (please don’t scream the place down when you go get your Covid vaccination! It’s OK for babies to cry, but not quite so socially appropriate for grown-ups to cry!).

How does the form of that behaviour change? It’s called “shaping” and it is something that occurs naturally through social learning, and it can also occur in a planned way. Take the example of the three-year-old falling and crying: crying is probably OK outdoors where there’s plenty of room and not too much attention being paid to the interactions between parents and child. Take that same behaviour indoors, perhaps in a supermarket or worse – a quiet waiting room – and it’s likely the parents will shush the child more quickly, and be a little more firm about any ongoing wailing. The context is different, the parents respond differently, and the child learns that it’s not OK to cry loudly where there are other people who might not approve. Over time children learn that in different contexts, different ways to attract attention are required. Clearly there’s more technical language we can use to describe this process, but for our purposes this is enough.

Why do we care about this?

Pain behaviour is normal. It’s something we all do. Mostly it functions in a positive way. We signal to others that we need help, we protect the sore body part, and gradually we recover and resume normal life. In some contexts, though, the tendency to continue doing pain behaviours outlives its welcome. In persistent pain it’s particularly problematic, but it’s also problematic in acute pain situations.

Let’s take the example of the dreaded pain rating scale. The 0 = no pain to 10 = most severe pain I can imagine scale. In the context of an emergency room, being asked to rate pain is a quick and very practical way for clinicians to decide how severe the presumed injury/tissue damage is, whether the person needs analgesia, and whether they’re responding to it. Give a number less than 3 or 4 and you’re probably not going to get a lot of pain relief. Give a number closer to 10, and you’ll get something. Give a number greater than 10 and you may get raised eyebrows. In an experiment by Herta Flor (Flor, Knost & Birbaumer, 2002), participants were given an electric shock and asked to rate their pain intensity (also nociceptive detection threshold (aka pain threshold) and pain tolerance). After they’d rated their pain over several trials, they were given one of two conditions: one in which they were given smiley faces and money when their rating was higher than their average rating for the previous trials, and one in which they were given a sad smiley when their rating was lower than their average. Flor and colleagues found that those people who had been given positive smiley faces for higher pain ratings rated their pain intensity significantly higher than those who had been given neutral or negative smileys.

This experiment doesn’t reflect changes in pain intensity. And this is a critical point to note! The stimuli were the same across both groups. What changed was the response offered to participants after they rated their pain. In other words, behaviour associated with experiencing pain and the resultant rewards given for higher ratings was reinforced.

This experiment, along with a large number of others, is one reason why I don’t like pain intensity measures being taken at every treatment session. Pain intensity ratings are behaviours subject to the contingencies that all behaviour is subject to – people learn what to do, and they do it. And they’re unaware of this process.

We often rely on pain intensity ratings in both experimental studies and clinical practice. Unfortunately, while a numeric rating scale or visual analogue scale are quick and dirty, they’re not like a pain thermometer. We just don’t have an objective measure of pain intensity. And we forget this.

Where am I going with this?

A couple of points. I don’t think we can always influence a person’s experience of their pain. This means that we’re often needing to influence what they do about it – because prolonged distress and disability is not good for anyone. Given the social nature of our species, and the involuntary nature of our response to another person’s distress, we’re inclined to try to reduce distress by offering comfort. Nothing wrong with that except where it gets in the way of the person beginning to do things for themselves. As clinicians we need to reinforce actions a person does to increase their capabilities. We also need to limit our reinforcement of illness behaviour, and we need to do this with the consent of the person – being open about why we’re doing this. Remember people learn this stuff without knowing they’re learning it! This means that as clinicians we must stop judging people and what they do in response to pain. Pain behaviour is learned over a loooong time, and it’s reinforced in so many places. People don’t do pain behaviour on purpose. So we can’t judge people as being “non-copers” or having “exaggerated illness behaviour” – we can just gently show the person what happens, why it happens, and what the effect of that pattern of behaving is having on their life.

The second point is that we can’t treat pain ratings as Truth with a T, and think that we’re getting a pure measure of pain intensity – because rating pain on a scale is a behaviour, and it’s influenced in exactly the same way as all behaviours are. This doesn’t mean ignoring someone’s pain intensity – it just means we need to listen to what the person is trying to communicate.

Barik, A., Thompson, J. H., Seltzer, M., Ghitani, N., & Chesler, A. T. (2018). A Brainstem-Spinal Circuit Controlling Nocifensive Behavior. Neuron, 100(6), 1491-1503 e1493. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.10.037

Flor, Herta, Knost, Bärbel, & Birbaumer, Niels. (2002). The role of operant conditioning in chronic pain: an experimental investigation. Pain, 95(1), 111-118. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0304-3959(01)00385-2