Coping Skills

Occupational therapists’ knowledge of pain

I am mightily bothered by health professionals’ lack of knowledge about pain. Perhaps it’s my “teacher” orientation, but it seems to me that if we work in an area, we should grab as much information about that area as possible – and pain and pain management is such an important part of practice for every health professional that I wonder why it’s so often neglected. So, to begin exploring this, I completed a search looking at occupational therapists’ knowledge of pain – and struck gold,  kinda.

Angelica Reyes and Cary Brown conducted a survey of Canadian occupational therapists, to explore how well occupational therapists knew their stuff.

Members of the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists were asked to participate and a total of 354 therapists (mainly from Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia) took part. Curious that few were from British Columbia where I know of quite a few occupational therapists working in the area, but there you have it.  Over half of the respondents had 10 years or less experience – so they were fairly recent graduates and should reflect a “current” educational bias. Only 5% of the total number of members of CAOT responded, so this is a fraction of the occupational therapists working in Canada – but you’d think the motivated (ie knowledgeable) would be more likely to respond than those who don’t work in the area….

What they found was consistent with previous studies (prior to 2000) showing that these respondents, who were surveyed using the City of Boston’s Rehabilitation Professionals’ Knowledge and Attitude Survey (Rochman & Herbert, 2015), had disturbing “potential knowledge gaps” in the following areas:

  • children’s ability to feel pain;
  • use of analgesics in orthopedic pain
  • use of nondrug treatments
  • thermal modalities
  • prevalence of malingering
  • impact of therapists’ values on assessment of veracity
  • mind/body dualism in chronic pain
  • measurement of pain intensity
  • effect of under-treatment on chronicity
  • prevalence of patients who over-report pain
  • prevalence ofpatients who are likely to become addicted if treated with opioids.

Of particular concerns was 45.7% of participants believed that malingering is common; 38% believed that pain intensity can be objectively measured, 39.7% believed people with pain over-report their pain, and 59.8% believed that opioid addiction is likely to occur in more than 5% of the patient population.


So, it seems that these occupational therapists had some very outdated ideas about pain, and in particular, seem to have missed the point that because pain is a biopsychosocial experience, we have no way to determine whether someone is “faking” – or malingering.

Now, I will lay good money on a bet that if we were to carry out this very same survey amongst any other health profession, we’d still arrive at these rather unsavoury findings. Folks, I live in a pain nerd bubble and I still hear these kinds of discussions amongst knowledgeable health professionals, so it’s unsurprising that so many people hold these beliefs. Beliefs that will hamper developing good relationships with the people we want to help, and beliefs that fly in the face of what we know about pain.

I am SO not pointing the finger at Canadian occupational therapists, neither am I pointing the finger at my profession alone. I think this lack of understanding reflects many things:

  1. Pain is a complex experience, and the legacies of ancient models lingers everywhere (dualism, medical model, reductionism, etc);
  2. We devote very little time in our professional training to learning about pain – and often, it’s limited to “here is the nociceptive system”;
  3. The research around pain has exploded over the last 15 years – it’s hard to keep up, which is why I blog;
  4. The problem of persistent pain is under-estimated, so if a person works in paediatrics, older person’s health, neurology, brain injury, spinal cord injury – it’s quite probable that pain is almost completely ignored, because “it’s not relevant”. After all, pain is something for specialist pain services, yes? NO
  5. Prevailing attitudes within the healthcare community are that pain is a difficult area to understand – and “should” be treated with medication or surgery otherwise….

You can see that this year’s IASP Global Year for Excellence in Pain Education has much to do.

Did you know that IASP have produced NINE comprehensive curricula – including occupational therapy  (thank you to Emeritus Professor Jenny Strong, Professor Cary Brown and Dr Derek Jones for developing this wonderful resource). This means there is no reason for us not to begin integrating this import area of practice into our undergraduate training.

Research examining occupational therapy’s contribution within pain management is in its infancy – but oh how my occupational therapy heart went pit-a-pat when, at the Australian and New Zealand Pain Society Scientific Meeting I presented alongside two other occupational therapists with PhD’s (or nearly there!) to a room full of clinicians, not just occupational therapists. While we have little specifically occupational therapy research, occupational therapists have been and are continuing to be part of research efforts around the world. And what clinicians do is apply what is learned into the daily lives of the people we work with. That, friends, is what occupational therapy is about – helping people live full, rich lives doing what’s important to them.

Reyes, A. N., & Brown, C. A. (2016). Occupational therapists’ pain knowledge: A national survey. Disability and Rehabilitation: An International, Multidisciplinary Journal, 38(13), 1309-1317.

Rochman D, Herbert P. Rehabilitation professionals knowledge and attitudes regarding pain (COBS). Accessed 18 March 2015. Available from:


When it hurts – but it’s important to keep doing

To date, despite years of research and billions of dollars, there is no satisfactory way to reduce pain in all people. In fact, our pain reduction treatments for many forms of persistent pain are pretty poor whether we look at pharmaceuticals, surgery, psychological treatments or even exercise. What this means is there are a lot of disillusioned and frustrated people in our communities – yet life carries on, and people do keep doing!

In an effort to understand what might help people who don’t “find a cure”, researchers and clinicians have been looking at mediators. Mediators are factors that explain a relationship between two variables. In the study I’m examining today, the predictor is pain intensity, and the criterion variable is participating in valued life activities (the things we want or need to do). The research question was whether self-efficacy and/or pain acceptance mediated engaging in valued life activities.

Ahlstrand, Vaz, Falkmer, Thyberg and Bjork (2017) used a cross-sectional study to explore relationships between the variables above in a group of people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), drawn from three rheumatology registers in South East Sweden. Participants were required to have confirmed RA; be between 18 – 80 years; have had RA for four years or more; and have data included in the quality register – a total of 737 people agreed to take part (from a total of 1277 meeting entry criteria).

The researchers used the Swedish versions of Health Assessment Questionnaire (Wolfe, 1989) to establish degree of difficulty in daily activities, as well as the Valued Life Activities scale (Katz, Morris & Yellin, 2006); the Arthritis Self-Efficacy Scale (Lorig, Chastain, Ung, Shoor & Holman, 1989); and the Chronic Pain Acceptance Questionnaire (Wicksell, Olsson & Melin, 2009).
The statistical analyses included Chi-square tests of independence to identify significant differences in categorical factors due to gender, and steps were taken to establish whether there were gender differences for pain acceptance, self-efficacy and valued life activities. Pearson correlations were used to explore the relationships between acceptance, self efficacy and the valued life activities summary score, and then univariate regressions were undertaken to test each individual factor (eg pain, pain acceptance and self efficacy on valued life activities). Then, only the significant contributors in univariate analyses where entered into the hierarchical linear regression models. The tests were to establish whether self-efficacy would predict valued life activities after acceptance and pain scores were considered.

Finally, structural equation modelling was used to examine the contribution and influence of pain, activity engagement and self-efficacy on difficulties performing valued life activities. A note here: The authors used the structure of the ICF model to name the constructs in their structural equation model.

What did they find?

The people who responded to this survey tended to be less active than those who were on the registers but didn’t respond, so we need to keep this in mind when we interpret their results. They found that women reported slightly more pain than men, but there were no differences between men and women on all measures except that men scored more highly on the symptom control subscale of the self-efficacy measure. A point to note here is that, unlike the Pain Self Efficacy Questionaire, this measure includes attempts to reduce or control pain and/or disability, so it’s a slightly different construct from the PSEQ which measures confidence to engage in doing things despite the pain.

In terms of pain, pain acceptance, and arthritis self-efficacy, there were low to moderate associations between these and engaging in valued life activities. In fact, all pain acceptance and self-efficacy constructs measured in this study were associated with performing valued life activities. In other words, when people are confident, and willing to do things and engage in activities despite pain, the more valued activities they actually do. In fact, one of the more striking findings was a negative relationship between activity engagement and performing valued life activities – those with lower activity engagement scores reported great difficult engaging in what was important to them (not especially surprising given that both scales are about doing what’s important and getting on with life).

Now for the really geeky model: structural equation modeling found a rather complex relationship between all the variables – so complex I’m going to include the diagram.

What does it show? Well, there’s a relationship between pain intensity and valued activity engagement – the more pain, the less people do what’s important. BUT this is mediated by “personal factors” (remember the ICF labels). These personal factors are the pain acceptance activity engagement, self-efficacy for pain and self-efficacy for symptoms. Interestingly, pain willingness, the other subscale on the pain acceptance scale, wasn’t correlated.

Or is it surprising? To my mind there are some interesting conceptual issues with this study. Firstly, in a group that is self-selected and represents slightly more disability than those who didn’t respond, it’s not surprising that pain intensity and disability were correlated. This is something we see often pre-treatment in chronic pain settings. It’s also no surprise to me that the Arthritis self-efficacy scales were associated with valued activities, and with activity engagement – the arthritis self-efficacy scales ask “How certain are you that you can decrease your pain quite a bit?”; “How certain are you that you can that you can make a small-to moderate reduction in your arthritis pain by using methods other than taking extra medication?” amongst other questions. These suggest that pain reduction is a primary aim in arthritis management. The Chronic Pain Acceptance Questionnaire, however, is a very different beast. The Activity Engagement scale is about doing things that are valued (similar to the Valued Life Activity scale), while the  Willingness scale is about being willing to live life again despite pain – for example “I am getting on with the business of living no matter what my level of pain is.”; “It’s not necessary for me to control my pain in order to handle my life well.”.

While the authors argue that this study shows the value of self efficacy, stating “Active management promotes a sense of confidence, or self-efficacy, for dealing with pain that is associated with improved participation in daily activities and wellbeing.” I think the Arthritis Self-Efficacy Scale’s focus on controlling pain and other symptoms is incompatible with the constructs implied in the CPAQ. The ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) approach to pain is, as I’ve mentioned many times, a focus on engaging in valued activities irrespective of pain intensity – a more achievable goal for many than becoming confident to reduce pain as the ASES measures.

To their credit, the authors also indicate that men and women who continue to experience pain despite optimal medical treatment might benefit from strategies to increase their confidence to manage their own symptoms – but that a focus on pain control instead of participation despite pain is probably unhelpful. They go on to say that “by focusing on pain aceptance and activity engagement despite pain, self-management strategies may change the focus from pain control to a more flexible engagement in valued activities.” I couldn’t agree more – and I wish they’d used the Pain Self Efficacy Questionnaire instead of the ASES in this study. Maybe we need more discussion about appropriate measures in rheumatology research.


Ahlstrand, I., Vaz, S., Falkmer, T., Thyberg, I., & Björk, M. (2017). Self-efficacy and pain acceptance as mediators of the relationship between pain and performance of valued life activities in women and men with rheumatoid arthritis. Clinical Rehabilitation, 31(6), 824-834. doi:10.1177/0269215516646166

Katz PP, Morris A and Yelin EH. (2006). Prevalence and predictors of disability in valued life activities among individuals with rheumatoid arthritis. Annals of Rheumatology Diseases. 65: 763–769.

Lorig K, Chastain RL, Ung E, Shoor S and Holman HR. (1989). Development and evaluation of a scale to measure perceived self-efficacy in people with arthritis. Arthritis & Rheumatism, 32(1): 37–44.

Wicksell RK, Olsson GL and Melin L. (2009). The Chronic Pain Acceptance Questionnaire (CPAQ)-further validation including a confirmatory factor analysis and a comparison with the Tampa Scale of Kinesiophobia. European Journal of Pain, 13: 760–768.

Wolfe F. (1989). A brief clinical health assessment instrument: CLINHAQ. Arthritis & Rheumatism,  32 (suppl): S9

Using more than exercise for pain management

In the excitement and enthusiasm for exercise as a treatment for persistent pain, I wonder sometimes whether we’ve forgotten that “doing exercise” is a reasonably modern phenomenon. In fact, it’s something we’ve really only adopted since our lifestyle has moved from a fairly physically demanding one, to one more sedentary (Park, 1994). I also wonder if we’ve forgotten that exercise is intended to promote health – so we can do the things we really want or need to do. Remembering, of course, that some people find exercise actually exacerbates their pain (Lima, Abner & Sluka, 2017), and that many folks experience pain as an integral part of their exercise (think boxing, marathon running, even going to a gym – think of the pain of seeing That Much Lycra & Sweat).

While it’s become “exercise as medicine” in modern parlance (Pedersen & Saltin, 2015; Sallis, 2009; Sperling, Sadnesara, Kim & White, 2017), I wonder what would happen if we unpacked “exercise” and investigated what it is about exercise that makes it effective by comparison with, say, activities/occupations that incorporate whole body movement?

One of the factors that’s often omitted when investigating coping strategies or treatments, especially lifestyle/self management ones, is the context and meaning people give to the activity. Context is about the when, where and how, while meaning is the why. Whether the positives (meaning, and values people place on it) outweigh the negatives (let’s face it, the lycra and sweat and huffing and puffing does not inherently appeal) are factors that enhance (or not) adherence to exercise and activity. One positive is a sense of flow, or “an optimal subjective psychological state in which people are so involved in the activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”(Csikzentmihalyi, 1990, p. 4). I can think of a few things I lose myself in – reading a good book; fishing; paddling across a lake; photography; silversmithing; gardening…

Robinson, Kennedy & Harmon (2012) examined the experiences of flow and the relationship between flow and pain intensity in a group of people living with persistent pain. Their aim was to establish whether flow was an “optimal” experience of people with chronic pain. Now the methodology they used was particularly interesting (because I am a nerd and because this is one technique for understanding daily lived experiences and the relationships between variables over time). They used electronic momentary assessment (also known as ecological momentary assessment) where participants were randomly signaled seven times a day for one week to respond to a question about flow. Computationally challenging (because 1447 measurement moments were taken – that’s a lot of data!), although not using linear hierarchical modeling (sigh), they analysed one-way between group analyses of variance (ANOVA) to explore differences in pain, concentration, self-esteem, motivation, positive affect and potency across four named states “flow, apathy, relaxation and anxiety”. We could argue about both the pre-determined states, and the analysis, but let’s begin by looking at their findings.

What did they find?

People in this study were 30 individuals with persistent pain attending a chronic pain clinic. Their ages ranged from 21 – 77 years, but mean age was 51, and there were 20 women and 10 men (remember that proportion). People had a range of pain problems, and their pain had been present for on average 68 months.

The contexts (environments) in which people were monitored were at home, or “elsewhere”, and, unsurprisingly, 71% were at home when they were asked to respond. Activities were divided into self-care, work and leisure (slightly less time in work than in leisure or self care respectively).  The purpose of the activities were necessity (35%), desire (40%), or “nothing else to do” (18%). And most people were doing these things with either alone or with family, with very small percentages with friends, colleagues or the general public.

Now we’d expect that people doing things they feel so wrapped up in that nothing else matters should experience lower pain – but no, although this was hypothesised, pain intensity scores during flow trended lower – but didn’t actually reach significance. When we add the findings that concentration, self-esteem, motivation, and potency mean scores were highest in the flow state and mean scores were lowest in the apathy and anxiety states, we can begin to wonder whether engaging in absorbing activities has a major effect on pain intensity – or whether the value placed on doing the activities is actually the most important feature for people with pain. Interestingly, people felt their flow experiences while outside the home: this happened rather less often than being in the home, where apathy was most present. So… doing something absorbing is more likely to occur away from home, while remaining at home is associated with more apathy and perhaps boredom. Finally, flow occurred in work settings more than elsewhere, suggesting yet again that work is a really important feature in the lives of all people, including people living with pain. Of course that depends on the kind of work people are doing…and the authors of this paper indicate that people with persistent pain in this study have few places in which they can do highly engaging activities, even including work.

What does this mean for exercise prescription?

Engaging people in something that holds little meaning, has little challenge and may not be in the slightest bit enjoyable is probably the best way to lose friends and have clients who are “noncompliant”. I think this study suggests that activities that provide challenge, stimulation, movement possibilities, the opportunity to demonstrate and develop skill – and that people find intrinsically lead to flow – might be another way to embrace the “movement is medicine” mantra. I wonder what would happen if we abolished “exercises” and thought about “movement opportunities”, and especially movement opportunities in which people living with pain might experience flow? I, for one, would love to see occupational therapists begin to examine flow experiences for people living with pain and embraced the creativity these experiences offer for the profession.



Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Collins.

Lima, L. V., Abner, T. S., & Sluka, K. A. (2017). Does exercise increase or decrease pain? Central mechanisms underlying these two phenomena. The Journal of physiology, 595(13), 4141-4150.

Park, R. (1994). A Decade of the Body: Researching and Writing About The History of Health, Fitness, Exercise and Sport, 1983-1993. Journal of Sport History, 21(1), 59-82. Retrieved from

Pedersen, B. K., & Saltin, B. (2015). Exercise as medicine–evidence for prescribing exercise as therapy in 26 different chronic diseases. Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports, 25(S3), 1-72.

Robinson, K., Kennedy, N., & Harmon, D. (2012). The flow experiences of people with chronic pain. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health, 32(3), 104-112.

Sallis, R. E. (2009). Exercise is medicine and physicians need to prescribe it!. British journal of sports medicine, 43(1), 3-4.

Sperling, L. S., Sandesara, P. B., Kim, J. H., & White, P. D. (2017). Exercise Is Medicine. JACC: Cardiovascular Imaging, 10(12).

One-session instruction in pacing doesn’t work

If there’s one form of coping strategy that occupational therapists love, it has to be the idea of “pacing”. Of course, the concept of pacing is vexed: we don’t have a good definition that’s widely accepted so it’s difficult to know whether we’re doin’ it right, but the idea of chunking down the amount of activity carried out at any one time is widely used as one way for people to sustain activity involvement despite pain and fatigue.

Today I’m looking at an old paper (from 2016) where people with osteoarthritis (hip or knee) were given instruction in time-based activity pacing by an occupational therapist. Surprisingly, this was a three-arm randomised controlled study, where 193 people were randomised into tailored activity pacing, general activity pacing, or usual care. I say surprisingly because RCT’s are fairly rare in occupational therapy research in persistent pain, and nigh on impossible to get funding for (sigh).

The definition of pacing used in this study was “the regulation of activity level and/or rate in the service of an adaptive goal or goals” (Nielson, Jensen, Karsdorp & Vlaeyen, 2013) although the form of pacing offered by clinicians working in this field is still unclear. In this study, the “tailored” group underwent seven days of monitoring using an accelerometer, the results were downloaded, analysed and an individualised pacing plan developed by the therapists. The plan was intended to highlight times when the person had high or low levels of activity (as compared with their own average, and averages drawn from previous studies of people with the same diagnosis), and to point out associations between these activity levels and self reported symptoms. Participants were then provided with ideas for changing their activity levels to optimise their ability to sustain activity and minimise symptom fluctuation.

In the “general” pacing group, participants were given the same sorts of instructions, but instead of using objective data from their own activities, they were asked to recall their past situations and symptoms, and broad guidelines were given instead. Both groups had three sessions with comparable educational material.

In the usual care group, participants were instructed to carry on with their usual approach to activity, and were assessed at baseline, 10 weeks and six months, using the same assessment process as those in the experimental arms.

Outcome measures were fatigue, measured by the Brief Fatigue Inventory (Mendoza, Wang, Cleeland, Morrissey, Johnson, Wendt & Huber, 1999); and the 8-item PROMIS fatigue short form. Pain severity was measured using the pain subscale drawn from the WOMAC. Additional measures included the 6-minute walk test; the WOMAC physical disability short form scale; the Arthritis Self-Efficacy Scale; the CES-D depression measure, and various demographic and disease measures (joint space narrowing, osteophyte formation etc). Finally, to determine activity pacing adherence, the pacing subscale of the Chronic Pain Coping Inventory was used (Jensen, Turner, Romano & Strom, 1995).

What did they find?

Well, you may have guessed from the title of this post: although people given the pacing intervention said they benefited, and they changed the way they carried out daily activities, the results showed that although they did so, the only significant change on measures taken was for WOMAC pain, in which the people in the general pacing group reduced their pain over the first 10 weeks. BUT participants in the usual care group reduced their pain over six months!

What does this mean?

Should we all throw out the idea of paced activities? Should occupational therapists despair and go back to the drawing board?

I don’t think so, and here’s why.

I think targeting pain intensity is possibly the wrong outcome in a study like this. We already have a vast collection of studies showing that pain intensity and disability are not well-correlated. Pain intensity alone isn’t the main reason people stop doing things when they have osteoarthritis – it’s often fear that the pain signifies “bone on bone” and “wear and tear” and “cartilage disintegration” (Hendry, Williams, Markland, Wilkinson & Maddison, 2006). And we also know that people with osteoarthritis develop their own self-management strategies and that these focus on maintaining everyday social roles and valued activities (Morden, Jinks, Bie Nio, 2011). Values seem to help people engage in demanding activities, whether the demands are because the activities hurt, or they’re physically demanding, or they’re not our favourite thing to do (think vacuum cleaning when Mum is coming to visit!) (McCracken & Keogh, 2009).

Perhaps, by drawing attention to both activities and pain intensity, the therapists in this study created a situation where pain intensity became more salient to the participants. Perhaps, too, aiming to reduce pain doesn’t take into account the other values people may hold. For example, even if I’m sore I’ll rush around cleaning if I know my parents (or other visitors) are coming to visit. My pain intensity matters less than feeling embarrassed at an untidy house.

I think we need to revisit the aims of pacing activity. To me there are several reasons for having the strategy available when/if needed:

  1. If I want to work consistently at something that’s going to take a week or two to do. Example: I recently laid bricks under my cherry tree. I did this over three weekends because digging into really hard soil, heaving bags of sand, and placing the bricks is something that increases my pain quite a lot. Because I have other things to achieve over the weekend and during the week, and laying the bricks wasn’t a top priority, I chose to do about a metre square each day of each weekend.
  2. If I’m aiming to do something quite demanding – like go on a two-day tramp (hike). I’ll try to build my activity tolerance over similar terrain with similar loads in advance of the actual trip.
  3. If I really loathe the job and would otherwise avoid it… For example, vacuuming and mopping my floors. I’ll do a room at a time because I seriously do not enjoy housework!

Looking at activity management in isolation from what a person believes is important makes this strategy pretty unpalatable. Combine it with values, and we’re starting to see something that can be employed flexibly and when it’s workable.


Hendry, M., Williams, N. H., Markland, D., Wilkinson, C., & Maddison, P. (2006). Why should we exercise when our knees hurt? A qualitative study of primary care patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. Family Practice, 23(5), 558-567.

Jensen MP, Turner JA, Romano JM, Strom SE. (1995). The Chronic Pain Coping Inventory: development and preliminary validation. PAIN ;60, 203–16.

McCracken, L. M., & Keogh, E. (2009). Acceptance, mindfulness, and values-based action may counteract fear and avoidance of emotions in chronic pain: An analysis of anxiety sensitivity. The Journal of Pain, 10(4), 408-415. doi:

Mendoza TR, Wang XS, Cleeland CS, Morrissey M, Johnson BA, Wendt JK, Huber SL. (1999). The rapid assessment of fatigue severity in cancer patients: use of the Brief Fatigue Inventory. Cancer 85, 1186–96.

Murphy, S. L., Kratz, A. L., Kidwell, K., Lyden, A. K., Geisser, M. E., & Williams, D. A. (2016). Brief time-based activity pacing instruction as a singular behavioral intervention was not effective in participants with symptomatic osteoarthritis. Pain, 157(7), 1563-1573.

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.

Nielson WR, Jensen MP, Karsdorp PA, Vlaeyen JW. (2013). Activity pacing in chronic pain: concepts, evidence, and future directions. Clinical Journal of Pain, 29, 461–8.

Persson, D., Andersson, I., & Eklund, M. (2011). Defying aches and revaluating daily doing: Occupational perspectives on adjusting to chronic pain. Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 18(3), 188-197. doi:

Manage pain – or aim to cure? Why I’m committed to pain management

Prominent researchers, clinicians and commentators seem to suggest that aiming to help people live with their pain is aiming too low. That pain cure or at least reduction is The Thing To Do. It’s certainly got a bit of a ring to it – “I can help get rid of your pain” has a sex appeal that “I can help you live with your pain” doesn’t have. And I can recognise the appeal. Persistent pain can be a scourge for those who live with it; it can eat away at every part of life. Imagine waking up one day to find NO PAIN! Excited much?

So why do I keep hammering on about this not very glamorous, certainly very challenging and at times unrewarding area of practice?

Here’s the thing. Persistent pain is extremely common. Not only is low back pain responsible for the most years lived with disability globally (Hoy, Bain, Williams, March, Brooks, Blyth, Woolf, Vos & Buchbinder, 2012), painful disorders like osteoarthritis increase with an aging population, and post-surgical pain is a problem for ~ 12% of people undergoing hip replacement, between 20 – 50% women undergoing mastectomy, and we all recognise the pain after limb amputation (between 50 – 80%) (Reddi & Curran, 2014). In New Zealand one person in five experiences persistent pain that goes beyond three months…

And our treatments, whether they be pharmaceuticals, procedures, surgeries or even groovy new things like mirror therapy or graded motor imagery don’t guarantee complete pain relief for 100% of patients. In fact, each new wave of therapy provides some pain relief for some people some of the time. And we shouldn’t be completely surprised about this because our nociceptive system is extraordinarily complex – and needs to be active because without pain we’re not likely to live long…or prosper. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that our nociceptive system with associated thoughts, emotions and behavioural responses has built-in redundancy simply because it’s there to protect us against potential harm. And every body system has at least one disorder/disease/dysfunction, so why would we think our “pain” system is immune?

So why do I spend time learning about management when I could be focused on reducing pain?

Well one reason is my clinical orientation. I’m an occupational therapist at heart (true, warped by contact with psychologists and physiotherapists), but essentially I’m about helping people do the things they need and want to do in daily life. My tools of trade are first of all focused on helping people work out the occupations (activities) that make them feel like themselves and then helping them do those things – and secondarily, and as a result of this focus, on helping people deal with their pain experience. Sometimes the latter involves helping people develop awareness of exactly how much or how little of their body and life is taken up with pain, helping them develop “wiggle room” so they can feel they have a little more space to be who they are, helping them find new ways to do those occupations that make them feel like themselves so the pain doesn’t take up quite so much room in their sense of self. Sometimes I do focus on obvious ways that people respond to their experience that may actually be making that experience much more unpleasant than it needs to be.

Another reason for me is that with a primary focus on pain reduction, we can forget the reason people want pain reduced – which is to go on and live life. And when we’re unsuccessful at reducing pain – where do those people go for help? What does it feel like to seem to “fail” a treatment again? and again? Who helps those people have good quality of life when they feel demoralised, the treatment options are exhausted and the clinicians who so desperately want to help them have no more ideas?

And as I mentioned above – there are no absolute cures for most forms of persistent pain. Nothing in my reading of the research around the world suggests that researchers have hit upon a jackpot and found a way to eliminate persistent pain 100%. What that means is there are likely to be people who will never experience complete relief from their pain. And others for whom the treatment is unavailable because of cost, side effects, intrusion on life, or because the treatment violates their values.

And because there are people who need to live with persistent pain until we have a “universal cure”, researchers and clinicians still need to refine and innovate the pain management strategies that will need to be used.

I’m not the person to make the decision about whether pain reduction or pain management is the best option. That’s not my job as a clinician or a researcher – I’m there to help people weigh up the costs and the benefits of treatments, and examine how best we can help those who can’t get rid of their pain. The thing is: if clinicians don’t know that there are viable ways of living well with pain (or they reject these as inferior or second class in comparison with pain reduction or elimination) how will they support their patients to make their own decisions? Or will they neglect to offer the approaches they don’t know about? And what kind of a choice is that?




Hoy, D., C. Bain, G. Williams, L. March, P. Brooks, F. Blyth, A. Woolf, T. Vos and R. Buchbinder (2012). A systematic review of the global prevalence of low back pain. Arthritis & Rheumatology 64(6): 2028-2037.

Reddi, D., & Curran, N. (2014). Chronic pain after surgery: pathophysiology, risk factors and prevention. Postgraduate medical journal, 90(1062), 222-227.

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