Coping Skills

Back to basics about psychosocial factors and pain – iii

Last week I discussed some of the areas in the brain, and basic principles, that are currently thought to influence our pain experience. This week I thought I’d introduce one of my favourite ways of considering pain mechanisms, mainly because it helps me think through the four main kinds of mechanisms, and can influence our treatment approach. At this stage I want to raise my hand to acknowledge the following:

  • My gratitude to Dr John Alchin, longtime friend and colleague, who first pointed this paper out to me and has shared it with hundreds of people who go to see him at the local tertiary pain management centre.
  • We know this is a simplified, under-developed approach to mechanisms underpinning pain, but it’s helpful nevertheless.
  • Most of our patients will have a combination of mechanisms involved in their experience, not just one.
  • This approach to mechanisms doesn’t include the psychological or social – just the primary biological processes.
  • Throughout this blog, when I use the word “pain” I mean the experience we have once whatever mechanisms involved filter up through to our awareness. So while I talk about peripheral mechanisms, they’re only experienced as pain once we become aware of them – and that process involves a whole lot of what I discussed in my last post .

Clifford Woolf wrote this paper in 2010, and although the research into mechanisms has continued unabated, I think it provides clinicians with a reasonable guide to considering how best to tackle treatment. He begins by dividing the mechanisms into “useful” and “useless” pain – ie pain that is useful for adaptation, survival, warning, alerts. Just as it’s possible to have dysfunction or disease of our cardiac, pulmonary, gastro-intestinal, and skeletal systems, I think it’s just as plausible that we can have something go wrong with our nociceptive system. In fact, because of its complexity, it seems probable to me at least that there are many different ways this system can fail to work properly. But more about that shortly! Let’s begin with the useful pain.

Nociceptive pain – is considered to be pain that is, as Woolf puts it, our “early-warning physiological protective system”. When we touch something super cold, super hot, or a chemical that can harm us (think chilli pepper!), or meet a mechanical force that activates mechano receptors, our high threshold nociceptors are activated – well in advance of tissue damage, I quickly add. This process activates withdrawal – even in simple single-celled animals – and saves us from harm. When combined with behavioural responses including vocalisation, grimaces and other pain behaviours, we signal to everyone around us that we’re in danger, and others shouldn’t do what we’ve just done (Melzack, Dennis, Kosterlitz & Terenius, 1980).  For me, the cool thing about nociceptive pain is that once you’ve removed that stimulus (got rid of the chilli on your lips, let go of the ice-cube or the hot mug of coffee, or shifted in your seat to relieve your butt) the pain simply goes away. Just like that. How cool?!

Inflammatory pain – is also a useful pain to have. Unlike nociceptive pain, inflammation involves disruption to the tissues, triggering a release of a whole bunch of neurochemicals and cells that quickly lower the point at which nociceptors will fire (making you much more sensitive to mechanical, chemical and temperature input), and increasing the blood supply to allow foreign material, dead cells and spent neurochemicals to be whisked away. Inflammation is reasonably easy to see in the periphery (though not so easy in the internal organs because the innervation is more diffuse) and you’ll all have had it – think sunburn (I know you’re not meant to, but everyone gets sunburned at least once, especially in our NZ sun). With sunburn you’re red, hot and often swollen, and you really know it when you step into the shower! That experience of ouch! to your usual shower temperature (and the ouch! when you towel down) is allodynia, or the experience of pain when a usually comfortable stimulus is applied. You’ll experience hyperalgesia if your mate comes along and slaps you on your sunburned shoulders!

Now both of these mechanisms are useful because they alert us to threat, they make it more difficult to move around, and we often respond to them with changes in our behaviour that act as a signal to others around us. Let’s turn the attention to two mechanisms where there is something gone awry with the nervous system – in other words, useless pain.

Neuropathic pain – is defined by IASP as “pain caused by a lesion or disease of the somatosensory nervous system.” What this means is that there must be an identifiable lesion in the nervous system somewhere – something that can be imaged or tested to demonstrate damage. This could be in the periphery – think of radial nerve entrapment with its characteristic tingling, deep aching and burning over the distribution of the nerve. It could be in the spinal cord itself – think of a complete spinal cord injury where the person is unable to move from the lesion down, and who also gets the same tingling, aching, burning and electric shock pain over the same area. A simple example would be radicular pain where the nerve root is compressed – and this can be seen on imaging, and where the pain is experienced over the same nerve distribution. The final group in this nasty set of neuropathies is when someone has a stroke, where part of the brain is damaged leading to intractable, deep, aching pain with electric shock-like pain just to make it nastier. For a great paper reviewing neuropathic pain, Finnerup and colleagues wrote one published in 2016 (see below), describing a grading system to indicate possible, probable and confirmed neuropathic pain. The hallmark of this pain is that it doesn’t represent tissue damage except in the area of the nervous system where the lesion is located. In other words, that pain down the leg is not where the problem lies in radicular pain – it’s near the spinal cord. So this pain doesn’t have a function for survival – it’s just a horrid nuisance.

The final mechanism is poorly understood – even less well understood than neuropathic pain. This is where ostensibly the nervous system appears intact. The pain experience might be in multiple parts of the body, it could be just in the head (migraine, for example), or it could be just in the shoulder (frozen shoulder maybe?), or it might be everywhere (fibromyalgia). The name isn’t even completely determined – it’s called “dysfunctional” by Woolf, and he collapsed this and neuropathic pain into one mechanism, but I prefer to keep it separate because it’s more helpful for management especially when a neuropathy might be amenable to surgery. Another term, and one I like, is nociplastic – referring to the idea that it’s the unhelpful neuroplasticity of our nervous system that has over-responded to potential threat (Kosek, Cohen, Baron et al, 2016). Some would argue that this mechanism is partly a general tendency to a lower nociceptive threshold, maybe genetic, maybe behavioural (ie we’ve learned to monitor and respond to threat perhaps because of early life experiences), perhaps a diathesis-stress where the predisposition exists but it’s not brought into expression until a stressor, perhaps a virus or an injury, exerts an influence on homeostasis.

Ultimately, pain is an experience that we’ve all had, and one that has individual meaning for each of us based on our previous experiences, predictions for the future, current goals, culture and biology. What a mechanisms-based approach to pain management might mean is better and more accurate management for each one. So we’d be looking to remove that bunion so people can walk more easily; reduce the inflammation in an auto-immune disease; decompress a squished nerve in neuropathic pain and look to altering plasticity in nociplastic pain. But pain is weird and as I said at the very beginning, it’s entirely possible to have more than one mechanism involved – and because pain is not just biology, we’d be foolhardy to think that just by down-tuning the intensity, everyone so treated will go “back to normal”. More on that next week!



Finnerup NB, Haroutounian S, Kamerman P, et al. Neuropathic pain: an updated grading system for research and clinical practice. Pain. 2016;157(8):1599-1606. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000492.
Kosek, E., Cohen, M., Baron, R., Gebhart, G. F., Mico, J. A., Rice, A. S., … & Sluka, A. K. (2016). Do we need a third mechanistic descriptor for chronic pain states?. Pain, 157(7), 1382-1386.

Melzack, R., Dennis, S. G., Kosterlitz, H. W., & Terenius, L. Y. (1980). Phylogenetic evolution of pain-expression in animals. Pain and Society, 13-26.

Woolf CJ. What is this thing called pain? The Journal of Clinical Investigation. 2010;120(11):3742-3744. doi:10.1172/JCI45178.

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

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:

…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.


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

Ups and downs and rocking and rolling

What a week it has been! Not only an unexpected result in the US elections, but also a very large earthquake north of Christchurch, along with a tsunami alert for the entire eastern coastline of New Zealand. Luckily I live far enough away from the shoreline that I didn’t have to evacuate, but the sirens certainly work!

As a result of these events, which I firmly believe are NOT associated except in time, the post I was going to make seems a bit redundant, so I’m going to talk about resilience and what it really means.

For someone who has lived through thousands of earthquakes since September 2010, resilience is almost a dirty word. People living in Christchurch are a bit tired of being called resilient.  You see, it’s not the quakes that are the problem – it’s the aftermath. The “new normal” that we’ve been living through these past years. The thousands of road cones lining almost every street. The constant detours as bits of road are dug up and sewerage, storm water and water pipes relaid. The delays. The ongoing processing needed to work out “where am I?” in the streets we used to know so well.

Resilience is intended to refer to “bounce back”. The thing is, I don’t think we bounce back to exactly the way we were before – we’re irrevocably changed by all experiences, but especially ones as significant as the earthquakes, or even political changes. That we don’t “return to normal” is one of the main reasons I don’t believe reports of people “going back to normal” if pain is completely removed. Why? Because people actively process and make meaning from everything that happens to them – and the meanings that are given to experiences don’t ever completely go.  We know, for example, that we can’t “unwire” nerves that have fired together, so what actually happens is that alternative paths or connections between nerves are formed. This means that under the right circumstances, those original paths will fire again… And people who have experienced chronic pain will, even if their pain eventually goes, know exactly what that pain meant, how it affected them, and I’m certain will be very aware of any new pain that seems to be similar to the one that was just there.

Resilience to me is therefore not so much about “bouncing back” as it is about being able to take stock of what actually IS, determine the paths that lead on in the direction of important values, and then choosing to take those paths. And this can often mean taking detours because old paths aren’t negotiable any more. That can be, and is, disturbing. It can be frustrating, fatiguing and far more demanding than the idea usually invoked by the word “resilience”.

So, in the next days and weeks, let’s think less about being resilient, and more about being flexible – flexibly persisting, if you will. We need to persist to get anywhere, do anything. We need to be flexible about how we get there and how we do what we value. We’ll need passion, but more than passion, we’ll need commitment.


When do we need to say we’ve done enough?

This post is food for thought for both clinicians and people living with pain. It has come about because of a conversation on Facebook where some clinicians felt that people with pain are only being offered the option to “learn to live with pain” when their pain intensity could either be reduced or go completely.  And this conversation is one repeated countless times around the world when those living with persistent pain seek help for their disability and distress.

I’m going to declare my hand right now: I think a the problem in chronic pain management isn’t that people get offered “pain management” or “learning to live with pain” or “accepting pain” too often – I think it’s not happening often enough, nor soon enough. But let me unpack this a little more…

We know that in New Zealand at least one person in every six lives with chronic pain that has gone on for more than six months (Dominick, Blyth & Nicholas, 2011). We also know the seven day prevalence of low back pain in New Zealand is 35% (men) and 48% (women) (Petrie, Faasse, Crichton & Grey, 2014).

Treatments for painful conditions abound. From the simple over-the-counter approach (medication, anti-inflammatory creams, hot packs, cold packs) to hands-on therapies (massage, osteopathy, chiropractic, physiotherapy), to exercise therapies (Pilates, core strengthening, gym programmes, spin classes, walking, exercise in water), and finally to the multitude of invasive therapies (injections, neurotomies, decompression surgery, fusion). There is no shortage of treatments that aim to get rid of pain, fix the problem and get life back to normal. And for the most part these treatments provide modest improvement in both pain intensity and functional gains. For low back pain it seems there is no single wonderful treatment that works for everyone – hence the proliferation of treatments! (cos if there was a single treatment that worked, we’d all be offering it – like we do with a broken bone or appendicitis).

Here’s a question: if pain “management” (ie helping people learn to live with their pain) was the main offering to people living with pain, wouldn’t there be a heap of places to get this kind of treatment? At least in New Zealand there are relatively few pain management centres although there are many, many places to go for pain reduction.

I’ve tried to find studies looking at how people are told they have persistent pain that won’t be cured. Strangely, I have had incredible difficulty finding such studies. They may be there in the research literature – but they’re fairly uncommon and hard to find. And given how poorly low back pain guidelines are followed despite being promulgated since at least 1997, even if there were studies examining the best way to convey this news, I’d be surprised if anything was routinely incorporated into clinical practice.

So, in my opinion there are many more clinicians offering to help reduce pain than there are those offering to help people “learn how to live with pain”.

I was asked recently “when you do decide to stop pursuing pain reduction?” I think I said “it’s ultimately the decision of the person living with pain” – but it’s complicated by the way we as a culture perceive this option. I think most people would be horrified to think “I’m going to have a lifetime of living like this” when our beliefs about pain are influenced by and attitude that “pain = suffering”, “pain is unnatural”, “pain is a sign of something badly wrong”, “pain is something to get rid of”. I know when I was told “I’m sorry but there’s nothing more we can do for your pain” I was terribly upset thinking I had a lifetime of feeling awful to look forward to! I was 22 and had low back pain that would not go away after 18 months. I’m now 52 and I still have pain – but I can tell you that I have done almost everything I’ve wanted to including SCUBA diving, tramping, fishing, dancing, working full time (overtime), and parenting.

When do we begin to think about living with pain rather than curing it? I think we need to take a hard look at what this sentence means.

Firstly it means living. Life continues whether we’re feeling like we’re moving forward, or we’re putting things on hold to pursue a particular goal. Life doesn’t actually stop – but the things we want to experience, the things we want to do change over time. Our focus at the age of 22 is quite different from our focus at age 52 – and I hope it will change again at age 82! We don’t get to hit the replay button and live life all over again. We get one shot at it. This could feel quite awful if we’re contemplating a life where looking for pain relief is our primary goal – especially when that process involves an endless round of hope then despair as treatments are tried – and then don’t quite work out. Even the process of looking for treatments is slow, fraught with anxiety, and it eats up time in a week. For me, taking time out from living to pursue a treatment that may work means a process of weighing up the costs against the benefits. The costs include time, energy, emotional investment in the result, and the discomfort of the treatment itself. The benefits? Well, that depends.

The second part of that sentence is “with”. Living with pain. To me this means establishing my willingness to experience something I don’t enjoy – and believe me, I’m not a fan of pain! If all I have to look forward to is pain, pain, pain I’m not keen on doing it. BUT I am keen on living and bringing pain along with me (because frankly, my pain is coming along for the ride anyway). Living with pain to me means making room to experience pain fluctuations while doing things that bring value and meaning to my life. It means I ache – but I have a beautiful garden. I have sore legs – but I’ve been dancing. I have an aching back and neck and arms – but my house is clean. Here’s the thing: even if I didn’t work in my garden, dance or clean my house I’d STILL be sore! And I’d be bored, feel like I hadn’t achieved anything, and would have had to ask other people to help because many of those things still need doing.

The thing is, pain ≠ suffering.

When do we make a decision to stop pursuing pain reduction? Well, if I’m honest I’m still on the lookout for something that will help reduce my pain. And I think anyone who does live with persistent pain would agree that we don’t really want to have this experience, just like people who have cancer don’t want it, or diabetes or stroke or any of the myriad other chronic conditions humans are prone to getting, especially as we age. When asked, I’m sure most people with chronic pain would say “Yes” to pain reduction as a goal. BUT, and this is important, living life as fully and richly as we can is just as important.  I would bet that anyone with any of those chronic conditions would also just love to have them cured too.

But pain is a funny thing, there are myths and unhelpful beliefs coming from clinicians and our cultural norms about pain being a bad thing that must go. Compared with the beliefs and attitudes about other chronic conditions, this is unhelpful. We don’t find health professionals constantly pursuing treatments to “get rid of” diabetes, the focus is on management. And we accept that people who have cancer may choose to no longer accept treatment – and we support them by providing good hospice care. How often do people with chronic pain get (a) support to make a decision to live with their pain and (b) support to learn to do this well without feeling like second class citizens who have failed. We even have a group of clinicians calling people who haven’t responded to their treatments “failed back syndrome” as if the person’s back has failed rather than the treatment failing.

What makes me decide to pursue a new treatment that promises to reduce my pain? Well, it has to fit into my life. It can’t interfere with what’s important to me in terms of time, energy or discomfort. The odds need to be pretty good for me to even look at it – I want to see more than a single research paper showing its effectiveness. I would have to trust the clinician, and they’d have to respect me and my lifestyle and priorities. I’d want to make sure that clinician was going to stick with me and help me decide whether it’s worth doing. I’d want to see that the treatment would help me achieve my goals and priorities – otherwise I’m not really interested.

Is this because I’m weird (say yes!)? Or that I have less intense pain than other people? (nope, because you can’t compare my pain with anyone else’s, and because pain intensity ratings are strongly influenced by distress, mood, anxiety, how much pain interferes with life, attention, culture yada yada yada (Linton & Shaw, 2011). I think it’s because right now I’m too busy living, I get more joy and satisfaction from doing things that make me feel like myself. But remember I’ve been doing this since I was 22. And it’s a process. And I’m weird. I am a pain geek.

The thing is, unless clinicians promote living well with pain as an equally valid option to trying to get rid of it, people will continue to think that it’s impossible to have a really good life unless their pain is gone. And that, to me, is a tragedy, because we only have one life to live.


Dominick, C., Blyth, F., & Nicholas, M. (2011). Patterns of chronic pain in the New Zealand population. New Zealand Medical Journal, 124(1337), 63-76.

Linton, S. J., & Shaw, W. S. (2011). Impact of psychological factors in the experience of pain. Physical Therapy, 91(5), 700-711. doi:10.2522/ptj.20100330

Petrie KJ, Faasse K, Crichton F, Grey A. How Common Are Symptoms? Evidence from a New Zealand National Telephone Survey. BMJ Open. 2014;4(6). doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005374.

What is our goal in pain management?

One of the cool things about having worked in chronic pain management since the mid-1980’s is that I’ve seen a few things come and a few things go.  Some things remain, of course, and the things that seem most long-lived are debates about pain reduction vs living with pain. On one hand, there’s an enormous industry set up to help people reduce their pain experience through pharmacology, injection procedures, surgery, hands-on therapy, movement practice, and novel approaches like brain stimulation and even mirror therapy. On the other hand, there’s a smaller but equally well-established industry established to help people live with their pain, usually involving self-management of some sort and following a cognitive behavioural approach.

The two seem almost incompatible in many respects – why would someone choose to live with pain if their pain can be reduced or alleviated? What are the ethics of not offering pain reduction if it’s available? Why focus on hard work learning to live within the constraints of pain if there’s a way to get rid of it?

I wonder if it’s time to look at the underlying reasons for offering pain management. What is the goal? (BTW occasionally I might write “our” goal – and I do this deliberately because I think there are assumptions made by people who live with pain, and treatment providers, that may not always be explicit).

Why do we offer pain treatments?

Looking beneath the “oh but it’s a good way to earn a living” economic argument, I think some of the reasons we offer pain treatment is a sense of moral concern at seeing people in distress. As a society we’ve cast pain as a “thing” that needs to be fixed, a wrong that must be righted. We have cast ill health and disease as something that should not exist, and we use words like “war” or “battle” when we discuss treatments.  The Hippocratic Oath makes it clear that physicians “must not play at God” yet defining the limits of treatment is a challenge our society has yet to fully resolve.

At the same time as we view pain as an ill that must be removed, underneath the moral argument are a few other reasons – we think it’s wrong to allow someone to suffer. We think it’s wrong that people might not be able to do as they wish. We respect individual agency, the freedom to engage in life activities, to express the self, to participate in life fully and completely. And we think it’s important that, when disease or illness strikes, we offer something to reduce the restrictions imposed on individuals.

What’s wrong with these reasons for offering treatment?

Well, superficially and in the main, nothing. As humans we do have a sense of compassion, the desire to altruistically help others. Whether this is because, as a species, we hope someone will help us if we’re in the same situation, or whether we do it because of some other less selfish reason, I’m not sure. But there are problems with this way of viewing pain as an inevitably negative harmful experience. And I think it has to do with conflating (fusing together) the concepts of pain and suffering.

We offer people some treatments create suffering: I’ve just quickly skimmed a recent paper on using long-acting opioids for chronic noncancer pain where it was found that “prescription of long-acting opioids for chronic noncancer pain, compared with anticonvulsants or cyclic antidepressants, was associated with a significantly increased risk of all-cause mortality, including deaths from causes other than overdose, with a modest absolute risk difference” (Ray, Chung, Murray, Hall & Stein, 2016).

Given the poor response to pharmacological approaches experienced by so many people living with chronic pain (see Turk, Wilson & Cahana, 2011), not to mention “failed” surgery – the rates of persistent postsurgical chronic pain range from 12% (inguinal hernia) to 52% for thoracotomy (Reddi & Curran, 2014) – it surprises me that we often don’t discuss what to do (and when) if our treatments produce pain, or make it worse.

Nonmedical treatments can also be lumped in with these medical approaches – how many years of back-cracking, pulling, pushing, prodding, needling and exercising do people living with pain go through before someone pulls the plug and says “how about learning to live with your pain?”

What’s my goal in pain management?

When I see someone who is experiencing pain, whether it’s persistent or acute, my goal is for them to be able to respond to the demands of their situation with flexibility, and to live a life in which their values can be expressed.

That means no recipe for treatment, because each person is likely to have a whole bunch of different demands, things they’re avoiding, things that limit what they’re OK with doing. Values also differ enormously between people – we might all choose to work, but the reasons for working (and the kind of work we do) is informed by what we think is important. I’m intrigued by new learning, new information, and complexity. Others might be focused on ensuring their family is secure. Others still might be working to have a great social network. All of these values are relevant and  important.

Many of our treatments actually limit how flexibly people can respond to their situation – think of “safe” lifting techniques! And sometimes even the time people take away from living their normal life means their values are not able to be expressed. The thoughts and beliefs instilled by us as treatment providers (and from within our discourse about pain treatment) may also limit flexibility – think about “pain education” where we’ve inadvertently led people to believe that their pain “should” reduce because “know they know about neuroscience”.

At some point in the trajectory of a chronic pain problem, the person experiencing pain might need to ask themselves “Is what I’m doing helping me get closer to what I value, or is it getting in the way of this?” As clinicians we might need to stop for a minute, think of this part of the Hippocratic Oath “I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick”  and begin to talk about overall wellbeing rather than just treating “the problem”.

To alleviate suffering we may not need to eliminate pain – we may instead need to think about how we can help people move in the direction of their values


Reddi, D. and N. Curran, Chronic pain after surgery: pathophysiology, risk factors and prevention. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 2014. 90(1062): p. 222-7

Ray, W. A., Chung, C. P., Murray, K. T., Hall, K., & Stein, C. M. (2016). Prescription of long-acting opioids and mortality in patients with chronic noncancer pain. JAMA, 315(22), 2415-2423.

Turk, D. C., Wilson, H. D., & Cahana, A. (2011). Pain 2: Treatment of chronic non-cancer pain. The Lancet, 377(9784), 2226-2235. doi:10.111/j.1468-1331.2010.02999.x

Why does “doing exercise” work?

Bless all the physiotherapists in the world, they keep us doing exercises. And exercises are good because they get us doing the things we want to do in our daily lives. But how does it work?  This is not an exposition on exercise physiology – I’m not au fait enough with physiology to do that and there are many other people out there with vast amounts of knowledge giving us the benefit of their wisdom who have written at length about exercise and why it’s important. Instead I want to talk about some observations – and maybe pose some critical questions too.

For many years I’ve worked in a chronic pain management centre where people with chronic pain attend a three week intensive pain management programme. Staff members from outside the Pain Management Centre (we were located as an outpatient facility on the grounds of a rehabilitation hospital) always told us they could spot a person with pain the moment they saw them wandering from our building to the main cafeteria: people walking slowly, sometimes limping, but often just walking very slowly towards the cafe.

Over the course of the three weeks, this group of people would go from this slow amble to walking briskly and attending the hydrotherapy sessions, doing a daily exercise session (circuit-style); and in the final week of the programme, catching a bus to the shopping centre, purchasing food, coming back and preparing a shared barbecue for friends and family. What a turn-around!

Now, I said I wasn’t going to talk about physiology and I won’t, but I WILL point out that three weeks is not a long time. It’s so little time that it’s impossible for muscle length and strength to change significantly. And yet movements (measured using the six minute walking test and timed up and go) were quicker. Postures changed. People looked more alert and took more notice of the world around them. The question of how it is that this group of people could go from being recognisably “pain patients” to people who could do everyday activities has to be asked.

There are a couple of points to make before I do my thing. Firstly, while the people attending the programme were undeniably uncomfortable, clearly slow in their movements, and most definitely disabled, they weren’t, by usual measures “deconditioned”. In other words, they were of pretty average fitness – and indeed, many had been attending daily gym sessions at the behest of a case manager and under the supervision of a physiotherapist for months! At the same time they were not DOING much and felt extremely limited in their capabilities.

The second point is that although the programme had two “exercise” sessions each day, these were not high intensity sessions! The aim in most cases was to help people establish a baseline – or a reliable, consistent quota of exercise that they could do irrespective of their pain intensity. Most of the work within the exercise sessions was to help people become aware of their approach to activity, to modify this approach, and to then maintain it. Movement quality rather than quantity was the aim.

Here’s where I want to propose some of the mechanisms that might be involved.

  1. Humans like to, and almost need to, compare their performance with other people. It’s not something we choose to do, it’s an innate social bonding mechanism and whether we then modify what we do to match others – or deliberately try to do the opposite to mark out our own stance – we’ve based our behaviour on having observed what’s “normal” around us. And this applies even when people develop disability (Dunn, 2010), but perhaps more importantly, may well be fundamental to how we experience our world – and ourselves (Santiago Delefosse, 2011). When a group of people meet, their behaviour rapidly becomes more similar – similar gestures, similar body positions, and similar facial expressions. I wonder if one of the mechanisms involved in change within a group of people who live with chronic pain is this tendency to mirror one another’s behaviour.
  2. Having proposed that mirroring is one mechanism of change, why don’t groups of people with chronic pain ALL remain slowed and showing pain behaviour? Well, another mechanism involved in behaviour change is operant conditioning. When a group is performing exercise under the supervision of a “wise and caring authority” (ie a physiotherapist), many reinforcements are present. There’s the “no, that’s not quite the right movement” response, and the “oh you did it!” response. The “you can do it, just push a bit more” response, and the “if you can do that, how about another?” At the same time people are set quota or “the number of repetitions” to complete within a timeframe. Simply recording what is happening is sufficient to change behaviour – just ask someone who is on a diet to record their food intake for a week and you’ll likely see some changes! But add to this a very potent response from the wise and caring physiotherapist, and you’ll get warm fuzzies for doing more, and possibly cold pricklies if you don’t try.
  3. And finally, and possibly the most powerful of all, is the process of confronting feared movements – and doing them. Doing them without “safety behaviour” and doing them to specifically confront the thing that makes them scary. And doing them in many, many different settings, so as to alter the tendency to avoid them because they’re scary. A recently published systematic review and meta-analysis of graded activity (usually based on operant conditioning principles, and perhaps on cardiovascular fitness training principles) compared with graded exposure (deliberately confronting feared and avoided movements in a whole range of different contexts) found that graded exposure more effectively reduces catastrophising than just doing graded activation. This shouldn’t surprise us – one of the mechanisms involved in disability associated with nonspecific low back pain is avoiding doing things because people are fearful either of further injury, or of being unable to handle the effects of pain.

Where am I going with this post? Well, despite the face validity of exercise for reducing pain and disability, it’s not the physiological effects that first produce results. It can’t be because tissues do not adapt that quickly. What does appear to happen are a range of social-psychological processes that influence whether a person will (or won’t) do something. What this means is two things:

  • Physiotherapists, and indeed anyone who helps people do movements to reduce disability, really need to know their psychological processes because they’re inherent in the work done.
  • Becoming expert at analysing what a person wants and needs to do, and in being able to analyse then carefully titrate exposure to the contexts in which things need to be done is vital. That’s fundamental to occupational therapy theory, training and expertise.



Dunn, D. S. (2010). The social psychology of disability. In R. G. Frank, M. Rosenthal, & B. Caplan (Eds.), Handbook of rehabilitation psychology, (2 ed., pp. 379-390). Washington , DC: American Psychological Association

Lopez-de-Uralde-Villanueva, I., Munoz-Garcia, D., Gil-Martinez, A., Pardo-Montero, J., Munoz-Plata, R., Angulo-Diaz-Parreno, S., . . . La Touche, R. (2015). A systematic review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness of graded activity and graded exposure for chronic nonspecific low back pain. Pain Med. doi:10.1111/pme.12882

Santiago Delefosse, M. (2011). An embodied-socio-psychological perspective in health psychology? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(5), 220-230.

Self-managing chronic pain

I have long been a proponent of helping people who live with pain to take control of their situation and actively self-manage as much as possible. My rationale has been that people who feel they are in control of some parts of their life are more likely to feel confident when their pain flares up, or when they have a life set-back. Today I took a second look at some of the papers on self-management published over the past few years, and I think it’s time to be a little critical.

The first issue to deal with is defining self-management. To me, self-management means knowing as much as possible about the health condition (whatever it is), knowing as much as possible about various treatments, working hard to learn and integrate ways of coping so that I (because yes, self-management is something I use for my fibromyalgia) can do the things I most value. By doing this, I can be more like who I want to be, rather than being defined by my pain, or what other people expect from me. But, self-management isn’t nearly as clearly defined as this in many people’s minds.

Here’s one definition “We defined self-management as the strategies individuals undertake to promote health (e.g., healthy living, exercising), manage an illness (e.g., manage symptoms, medication, and lifestyle changes), and manage life with an illness (e.g., adapt leisure activities or deal with losses caused by illness)” (Audulv, Asplund & Norbergh, 2012). Morden, Jinks and Ong (2011) found from a study of individual’s perceptions that managing chronic conditions is not solely related to medical recommendations and that self-management is central to maintaining a sense of ‘normality’ in everyday life or to reasserting one’s position in the social world when living with a chronic illness and demonstrating competency from a moral perspective.

Interestingly, a definition from COPD management describes self -management as “… programmes that aim to teach the skills needed to carry out medical regimens specific to a long-term disease and to guide behaviour change to help patients control their own condition and improve their well-being”(Effing,  Bourbeau, Vercoulen, Apter, Coultas, Meek, et al.2012). The distinction between chronic pain self-management and other chronic illness self-management lies in the need to address broader “living” issues rather than just learning to “carry out medical regimens”. And that is both the problem and the distinction between chronic pain self-management and other chronic disease self-management approaches.

Let me unpack this: For people living with COPD, or diabetes, there are critical medical management practices that need to be learned and integrated into daily life so that the underlying medical condition doesn’t get worse and lead either to complications, or even early death. The focus on self-management in these situations seems to be on the medical tasks that must be undertaken. The end results are often measured in terms of reducing the number of extreme events – like having hyperglycaemia, or being admitted with a chest infection and needing oxygen.

Now if I turn to the qualitative literature on self-management in chronic pain, what is very obvious is that self-management isn’t about the medical procedures that must be followed. It’s far more about living life – and integrating ways of getting to do what’s important without too many flare-ups that get in the way of doing these things. In fact, Morden, Jinks & Ong (2011) found that in people living with knee osteoarthritis, self-management wasn’t something people identified with – what might have been classified by clinical people as “exercise” or losing weight or keeping active weren’t thought of as “self-management” by people living with knee OA. They thought this was “just getting on with it”. I particularly liked one comment : “because people perceived their activities to be an integral part of their daily routine they were not surfaced as deliberate action.” In other words, when people focus on living life, coping strategies become habits and routines that are secondary to the doing of life.

Mike Nicholas and colleagues have looked into coping and self-management extensively as part of ongoing research associated with the Royal North Shore Pain Management Programme. they were interested in whether it’s possible to find out if adhering to strategies introduced within a programme was predictive of outcome: in other words, did people who strongly adhered to what they learned during a programme ultimately gain better quality of life, lower pain, less disability and feel better? Surprisingly, they did – I say surprisingly because in a couple of meta-analyses (for example Kroon, an der Burg, Buchbinder, Osborne, Johnston & Pitt, 2014; Oliveira, Ferreira, Maher, Pinto et al, 2012) self-management approaches made very little, if any, difference to pain and disability both over the short and long-term.

What does this mean? Well, quite apart from the blurry definitions of self-management, and the lack of standardisation inside self-management programmes, I think we need to ponder on just what we’re asking people to do – and how they (we) regard the strategies we hope people will develop. Cutting to the chase, in chronic pain management we risk people knowing “about” strategies, but failing to adopt them in daily life because we haven’t really thought about daily life and what this is to each individual. When I think about the vast number of changes to self-concept that chronic pain wreaks on people, I think it’s hard to be ready to adopt these new techniques until “who I am” is included in the mix. Maybe one reason for the modest improvements after self-management is that we’re not thinking about self-identity and values and that these need attending to so that using coping strategies is worthwhile. It’s yet another reason I think occupational therapists offer a great deal in chronic pain self-management – who are you? what do you want your life to stand for? what things do you do (or want to do) that makes your life yours? Finally, to paraphrase as my colleague Ben Darlow, living with low back pain (read: any chronic pain) means balancing the need to minimise pain fluctuations with the things that make life worth living. That’s what I call “flexibly persisting”.

Audulv, A., Asplund, K., & Norbergh, K.-G. (2012). The integration of chronic illness self-management. Qualitative Health Research, 22(3), 332-345. doi:

Effing, T. W., Bourbeau, J., Vercoulen, J., Apter, A. J., Coultas, D., Meek, P., . . . van der Palen, J. (2012). Self-management programmes for copd moving forward. Chronic respiratory disease, 9(1), 27-35.

Morden, A., Jinks, C., & Bie Nio, O. (2011). Lay models of self-management: How do people manage knee osteoarthritis in context? Chronic Illness, 7(3), 185-200.

Nicholas, M., Asghari, A., Corbett, M., Smeets, R., Wood, B., Overton, S., . . . Beeston, L. (2012). Is adherence to pain self-management strategies associated with improved pain, depression and disability in those with disabling chronic pain? European Journal of Pain, 16(1), 93-104. doi:10.1016/j.ejpain.2011.06.005

Oliveira, V. C., Ferreira, P. H., Maher, C. G., Pinto, R. Z., Refshauge, K. M., & Ferreira, M. L. (2012). Effectiveness of self-management of low back pain: Systematic review with meta-analysis. Arthritis care & research, 64(11), 1739-1748.