Pain conditions

International Chronic Pain Virtual Summit 2020


I am so happy to be part of this virtual summit especially under our current COVID19 disruptions! It’s FREE and more than 20 speakers from around the world are talking about the things that matter in pain rehabilitation and management. I might even drop in a word or two about occupational therapy….!
Click the link and find out more! – click

Just to give you an idea of the speakers involved, you’ll get to hear from:

Professor Peter O’Sullivan

Professor Tasha Stanton

Lissanthea Taylor

Vidyamala Burch

Dr Stephen Grinstead

Kathy Hubble

Pete Moore

Prof Kim Burton

Prof Ann Taylor

Dr Adriaan Louw

Dr Shilpa Patel

Dr Saurab Sharma

5 Things I Learned from Lock-down


As New Zealand emerges from the most severe lock-down levels to greater freedom (but still not back to life as usual) I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned – no, not a new language, new baking skills, or sudden competence in using R (see here for a great tutorial), but things about myself. Odd though it may seem, I’m leaving lock-down with a sense of wistfulness. You see, the time from the end of March to end of April has been a lovely time for me.

I’m lucky, I have a good job, my work hasn’t changed much (well, a bit), my family are safe, I live close to the beach and a park, and the weather has been kind. It’s autumn in Christchurch, and it’s been mainly fine. The bird life has been flourishing. The foot traffic past my house has been families – Mum, Dad, kids on bikes and in pushchairs. Apart from the occasional drop-kick lighting fireworks or playing the Zombie Apocalypse Siren, and hammering from 7.00am to 11.30pm, our neighbourhood has been peaceful. And yet I know so many people in New Zealand and around the globe who are really struggling. Strange times indeed. So what have I learned?

  1. Solitude is not the same as loneliness. Solitude is being alone and being OK with it. Loneliness is being alone when you don’t want to be. Being with my own thoughts, listening to the murmuring of sounds around me, letting my mind wander then gently bringing it back to focus is a pleasure, almost an indulgence. Having headspace to let what passes through my mind just pass by, without music or talking or anything interrupting my musing is a pleasure. Better still: being with someone who also appreciates being together in silence. I’ve learned to love solitude.
  2. Some kids will remember this time with gratitude. I’ve watched whole families walking together, making huts from driftwood, spotting the teddies in the windows, making low-tech memories of time being together. I have a fairy door (and a fairy) at my gate, and watching the little kids search for the fairy (who flies from tree to tree each day!) is such a joy. I’ve seen Mums and Dads out cycling with their kids then heading home to do the DIY together. What a treasure! I’ve learned (again) that families need time being families.
  3. Some things stay the same – especially if you live with pain. Even though my days have been peaceful, my pain has not. With changes to my routine, the weather, sleep, and world events playing on my mind, my life with fibromyalgia still needs managing. I’ve had aches in places I don’t usually have aches, and the things I do to live alongside my pain still need doing. For me these things are: making sure I carry on with mindfulness (I savour those moments when I can be with my thoughts but not part of them), go for my walk for headspace and body movement, keep my sleep/wake routine reasonably consistent, and eat normally (hah! there’s chocolate and alcohol and crisps. I may have slipped up a little there…). I’ve learned that pain management is really life management.
  4. Comparing myself with others is a waste of time. Yes, there are people out there learning new things, self-improving all over the place, doing their on-line socialising (and CPD), being creative and producing a lot. Good for them! I admire their achievements, and I’ve even contributed to a few of those online Zoom talks. Meanwhile, I thought I’d have been truly productive in the studio making loads of silver jewelry (those of you who don’t know – that’s my ‘hobby’ that seems to have taken over my photography, painting, sewing and everything else!). I’ve created a few pieces – but when I caught myself feeling pressured to come up with a “COVID19 Collection” I realised that this pressure wasn’t me. It was my mind being competitive and wanting to prove something to others. The need to belong can lead me to also want to be acknowledged as Something Special. Better than. As good as. Because, of course, underneath that is “I’m not good enough as I am”. So I decided to let that rope go. I don’t have to compete. There isn’t a prize for She Who Produces The Most because in the end, life is a process not a goal. I’ve learned (again) that comparisons are one way my mind beats up on me, and my mind doesn’t know everything.
  5. Resilient people are adaptable people. Resilience is a word many people in Christchurch, NZ, are well and truly over. Since 2010, and the 10,000 earthquakes since, plus the Port Hills fire, and the terror attack on Al Noor Mosque, people in Christchurch have been challenged more than many in our wee country. Resilience doesn’t mean we’re unchanged. Resilience means we change with circumstances and we develop new ways of being, ways of expressing who we are and what matters to us. I sometimes think people believe resilience means “Oh you’ve bounced back and life goes on as it was” but for me the events since 2010 have had a profound effect on my life. I can’t walk through my city without seeing earthquake-wrought changes. I see bumper stickers saying “they are us” and “kia kaha“. I walk past the memorial wall Oi Manawa when I head in to work. The new streetscapes, city buildings, ongoing roadworks and repairs – all part of the way my city has changed. That underground subversive element in Christchurch has touched so much of our lives. Resilient people have found ways to express who they are despite the enormous impact of events over the past 10 years. I’ve learned that holding on to what I value while finding new ways to express these has given me freedom and growth – but I’ve had to let go of the form, the habitual, the routines that used to frame them. It’s painful. It’s tiring. It’s real and raw and hard work.

How does all this fit into a blog about pain? If pain doesn’t challenge clinicians and people experiencing it, I’ve wasted the last 30-odd years of my clinical career, not to mention my hours of social media involvement!

Change, as a clinician, can be tough – letting go of the form of what we offer (because … science) while holding on to why we ever started working as clinicians requires flexibility.

And solitude – to reflect on what it is we really want. We do it for families, those closest to our hearts (our own families, and others), so people can be who they really are.

Comparing ourselves with others leads to a popularity contest, and the self-management approach to pain is most definitely not a popular meme. I am not part of the Instagram/Twitter/TikTok/whatever meme culture. I don’t do short, snappy sound bites. There are, as far as I can see, no short-cuts or quick fixes for learning to live well with pain. There are only connections between people who care, who are willing to be vulnerable, who will let go of some things in order to take on new things in the pursuit of what matters.

This is what I’ve learned from Lock-down.

On labels and boundaries


What we call a disease matters. It matters to the person because a diagnosis is a marker: this problem is known, it’s recognised, it’s real (Mengshoel, Sim, Ahlsen & Madden, 2017). It matters to the clinician, particularly medical practitioners, but also those clinicians working within a largely “disease-oriented” framework (for example, physiotherapists, osteopaths) (Haskins, Osmotherly, Rivett, 2015; Kennedy, 2017). It matters also to insurance companies, or funding providers – who is in, and who is out.

The diagnostic label itself hides a great many assumptions. The ways in which diagnostic labels are grouped reflects assumptions about underlying similarities (and distinctions) between groups of symptoms. Added to this complex situation is uncertainty in how the person presents: are they a “typical” presentation? Who decides what is ‘typical’? Think of the classic signs of chest pain signifying myocardial infarct – but this applies to males, and less so to females. Women are less likely to be resuscitated after chest pain, and also less likely to be transported to the Emergency Department using lights and sirens (Lewis, Zeger, Li, Mann, Newgard, Haynes et al, 2019).

It is the physician’s quest for certainty and the patient’s illusion of certainty, however, that leads to many of the current decision-making techniques in the practice of medicine. Evidenced-based medicine seeks to provide information to physicians and patients to allow for more informed recommendations, and yet our current evidence base is imperfect owing to unreliable clinical data, incomplete taxonomy of disease, and a weaker focus on clinical reasoning.

Correia, Tiago. (2017). Revisiting Medicalization: A Critique of the Assumptions of What Counts As Medical Knowledge. Frontiers in Sociology, 2. doi: 10.3389/fsoc.2017.00014

With any luck, clinicians working in persistent pain management will have moved beyond a simple medical diagnosis when working with someone. While a diagnosis is crucial for acute management, once the pain has been hanging around for a while the illness-based aspects of dealing with pain become more important.

What do I mean by this? Illness is about the personal experience of living with a disease. If we think of disease as being about biological aspects, illness is about the “what it is like to live with” the disease. Talcott Parsons, a sociologist at Harvard University wrote that illness could be considered “deviant” behaviour: “…behaviour which is defined in sociological terms as failing in some way to fulfill the institutionally defined expectations of one or more of the roles in which the individual is implicated in the society.”(Parsons, 1951). While Parson’s language and some of his concepts represent the outdated views of society at the time, the notion of illness being “what it is like to” live with a disease is an important distinction for us as clinicians.

For clinicians working in pain management/rehabilitation, particularly with people who have been living with pain for months or years, understanding that on top of the biomedical label, each person also has months or years of the stress of dealing with that problem. For any of us, experiencing pain even for a short time can be puzzling, represents changes in how we view our bodies, often elicits irritation or anger, sometimes sadness and typically, actions to avoid or control the problem.

Now here’s the point of my writing this blog today. If any of us face an unnamed challenge, or if our situation doesn’t change despite “following all the rules” (thinking Covid-19 maybe?), whatever typical stress response we get is likely to be elicited. If we’re inclined to worry, we’ll probably worry. If we’re inclined to withdraw from being with others, we’ll probably do that. If we tend to have trouble sleeping, we might do that. If we get irritated and tetchy when we’re stress, well we’re probably going to do that too. This is normal.

Now if someone saw you and me today, and went through a structured clinical interview for diagnosis, I’m sure I’d at least begin to show signs of anxiety or depression. Two weeks of saturation coverage of Covid-19 will do that to you, and add the challenges of being penned up in my home without any shops open, and I’m probably going to be not my usual self.

Let’s think about the person we see who has been living with persistent pain for a few years. This person is enduring pain every single day. Has possibly looked everywhere for something to help – usually we’d think of this person as pretty motivated, but for some clinicians this begins to look like “doctor shopping”. The person might have fallen out with one or two previous clinicians who persisted in treating the problem the same way they’d treat an acute pain problem. This begins to look like “difficult patient” territory. Add to this some mood problems, lots of anxiety about everything else in life – and lo! we have a person ripe for a psychiatric diagnosis. Or at the least, “yellow flags” (risk factors for prolonged disability).

Now, the whole idea of risk factors for ongoing disability was intended to help us as clinicians pay attention to doing some different for people with those risk factors in their lives. That’s right: for clinicians to take on the responsibility for either assessing in more detail, reviewing more frequently, integrating active coping strategies into treatment, and perhaps referring for specialised care if that was warranted.

Yellow flags are not some kind of warning for clinicians to negatively label, perhaps even diagnose, a person as being “difficult”. Yellow flags should elicit from clinicians (us) an awareness that this person is vulnerable. That’s right, vulnerable – and needing more care.

I’ve heard talk over the years of clinicians stepping out of their scope of practice when looking at psychosocial risk factors. I’ve always thought that it’s a good thing to be aware of risk factors so that something can be done about them, because this person is a greater risk of poor outcomes. The problem arises when someone, without appropriate training, gives a person a psychiatric label. There are a few labels that spring to mind: personality disordered, especially borderline personality disordered; attachment disordered; somatic disorder…

The problem with labels is that they don’t get erased when the clinician who gave them that diagnosis discharges them. Those labels live forever on clinical files, insurance files, claims files, medical and hospital notes. Those labels can, and often do, invoke highly discriminatory behaviour. One person sent to Emergency Department with chest pain was told they should come back when they have a real problem (duh, chest pain = real problem) because, sitting at the top of the list of diagnoses was “somatic disorder”.

Clinicians – do not use labels without thought. Don’t use labels that sound technical (thinking ‘catastrophising’), don’t make a diagnosis that is outside of your scope, don’t over-interpret a questionnaire score, don’t judge people because today they’re distressed and cranky, or worried and tearful. For goodness’ sake: stick to your clinical boundaries!

Haskins, R., Osmotherly, P. G., & Rivett, D. A. (2015). Diagnostic clinical prediction rules for specific subtypes of low back pain: a systematic review. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 45(2), 61-76, A61-64.

Kennedy, Ashley Graham. (2017). Managing uncertainty in diagnostic practice. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 23(5), 959-963.

Lewis, J. F., Zeger, S. L., Li, X., Mann, N. C., Newgard, C. D., Haynes, S., . . . McCarthy, M. L. (2019). Gender Differences in the Quality of EMS Care Nationwide for Chest Pain and Out-of-Hospital Cardiac Arrest. Womens Health Issues, 29(2), 116-124. doi: 10.1016/j.whi.2018.10.007

Mengshoel, Anne Marit, Sim, Julius, Ahlsen, Birgitte, & Madden, Sue. (2017). Diagnostic experience of patients with fibromyalgia – A meta-ethnography. Chronic Illness, 14(3), 194-211. doi: 10.1177/1742395317718035

Parsons, Talcott. (1951). Illness and the role of the physician: a sociological perspective. American Journal of orthopsychiatry, 21(3), 452.

Coronavirus (COVID19), catastrophising – and caution


I don’t often leap aboard a popular topic and blog about it, but I’m making an exception right now because, although COVID19 is new – catastrophising is not.

There are a number of people who really do not like the term “catastrophising”. There are comments that this is a pejorative term, used to deny the validity of a person’s experience. That it means the person is exaggerating or being melodramatic or in some way not believable.

But as I read the many, many headlines about COVID19, including the international toilet paper frenzy, reading about Vitamin C or “anti-inflammatory foods” to combat it, I even saw a serious post about using hands-on therapy to “shift the toxins”…. And I wonder whether we can take a good hard look at ourselves and our response to this virus.

Firstly, getting accurate information about COVID19 has been difficult. There are some authoritative sources “out there” but they’re not necessarily the most sexy sites to visit. Not many memes coming out of our Ministry of Health in New Zealand! Much of the information we read on a daily basis is in the general news media, giving a “personal story” slant on “what COVID19 means”. Some really good information coming from our politicians in NZ – but also some scaremongering from the political opposition.

Does this sound familiar? Where does the good, accurate and evidence-based information about persistent pain come from? And in the absence of readily accessible and “memeific” information, where do people go to learn about pain?

Secondly, it’s not the virus itself that’s causing the majority of trouble for people – except for the small percentage for whom the virus is deadly, mainly because of comorbidity, and health vulnerability. People who are older, already have immune compromise, and who are not able to access good healthcare are most at risk. The rest of us are experiencing the fallout of containment measures, economic insecurity, and lack of toilet paper. Sorry, couldn’t resist that last one. Seriously, most of us are being affected by the cancellation of meetings, by the need to self-isolate, by travel restrictions, by people having less money to spend because suddenly their jobs are less secure – watching my savings melt day by day…

Sounds quite similar to the experiences of people with persistent pain: often it’s not the pain itself that’s so awful, but the effects of losing contact with people you love, of having to take medications to reduce pain that leave you feeling dreadful, of not being able to play sports or do work – the loss of income security, access to healthcare, connection with people who matter. These are amongst the most debilitating aspects of living with persistent pain, let along the pain…

If you’ve found it hard to think of anything else but COVID19. If you’ve had trouble taking your mind off how you’re going to get by if patients can’t come to see you because they’re worried about giving you COVID19, or of catching it from you – that’s rumination, or brooding on it.

If you’ve caught yourself heading to the supermarket to get some extra pantry staples “just in case”. If you’ve found yourself checking in to see what your local health authorities are recommending. If you’ve been wondering if you should shut your business down for a while – and then been wondering what you’re going to do for a income if you do that. If you’ve looked up your bank balance and wondered what you’re going to do if your kids are off school for the next month, while you’re meant to be at work and there’s no-one to look after them…. you’re magnifying, or estimating that the demands of this situation might well exceed your current resources to deal with it.

If it all feels a bit overwhelming and you’re not really sure what to do next. If you’re feeling pretty stuck and getting a bit panicky. If this feels just way too much to handle – that’s hopelessness, or feeling really overloaded.

And each of these three clusters of cognitions, emotions and behaviours are part of the catastrophising construct.

Do they feel normal to you? Do you think you’re exaggerating? Do you think your reaction is over the top? No? Well you’d be (generally) quite right (except maybe the toilet paper hoarding… that’s just weird). Thinking the worst is normal in the face of uncertainty. Some commentators and researchers believe it’s one way we learn to convey our need for social support (Bailey, McWilliams & Dick, 2012; Lackner & Gurtman, 2004; Thorn, Keefe & Anderson, 2004).

At the same time, I want to take a pragmatic and contextual look at catastrophising.

From a pragmatic perspective, right now it’s completely appropriate to be a bit discombobulated by COVID19. And many of us have a lot of things to consider over the next few days/weeks as the situation changes on a daily and even hourly basis. The things we’re doing right now to plan for the worst are largely useful. That’s the point of being able to catastrophise – in the right context, in a rapidly evolving health and economic crisis, being able to consider the various futures and put plans in place to deal with them is probably a good thing. That’s the action part of the catastrophising construct.

The difficulty NOT checking your news media feed, and feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all seems to be a fairly reasonable response to an unreasonable situation. Logic, right?

So, from a pragmatic perspective right now, in the face of uncertainty, most of us are doing exactly what has got humans out of trouble many times in our history.

Now, what if we shift the context to 24 months in the future. COVID19 has now been largely contained, a vaccine is available, the virus hasn’t evolved, and while the economy is slowed, it is gradually picking up. What if, at that time, we have a friend who is still nervously scanning the headlines for the latest information on the virus? What if that friend is still stockpiling pasta and toilet paper and hand cleanser? What if that friend is still feeling like there’s not much they can do except hunker down and hide?

Now, my guess is that many of us would think this is being a bit extreme. Maybe even a bit OTT. Especially given that there’s likely to have been a LOT of media coverage of the COVID19 vaccine, and most economic activity will be returning. We might begin suggesting (gently) to the person doing the stockpiling that maybe it’s not necessary to keep on doing so. We’d think it’s a good idea to give them the new information about COVID19. We’d probably suggest that although they’re freaking out, maybe it’s time to reconsider the threat.

Context matters – catastrophising can be useful right now. In 24 months: not so much. New information will likely help us take a more realistic look at what’s going on with COVID19. It’s not that individual people won’t be personally affected if they get sick, but probably the crisis that’s happening right now will be over.

What about the validity of the person’s emotional response to their feared situation? Would we be dismissive? I hope not – because anyone who is still freaking out about COVID19 in 24 months time is still in distress! But we might be more willing to share the good news about recovery with them, so they don’t continue feeling overwhelmed and distressed. We’d not be likely to let them carry on thinking the worst, and we certainly wouldn’t be telling them their response is perfectly valid and appropriate for the threat.

What of the person experiencing pain and thinking the worst, feeling pretty awful and hopeless? Would we support them to stay in that highly distressed state? Would we say “there, there, you’re really feeling bad, aren’t you, here’s a tissue” – and walk away? Would we hesitate to suggest that perhaps they’re magnifying the problem and that they might have some other options?
Think about it. Catastrophising is a well-validated and studied construct. Hundreds of studies have shown that catastrophising is associated with poorer outcomes in so many situations – childbirth, knee replacements, hip replacements, multi-trauma orthopaedics, discomfort during internal atrial cardioversion, length of hospital stay after knee replacement, use of medications – on and on and on.

Catastrophising gets a bad rap. And woe betide anyone who TELLS someone “you’re catastrophising” because you seriously deserve a slap. Sheesh! But take a moment to consider the adverse impact on the person of thinking the worst… sleepless nights, endlessly checking their body, feeling overwhelmed and overloaded, having trouble thinking of anything else, perhaps anxious and depressed… this is not a recipe for recovery.

Call it what you will – over-estimating the threat of something, and under-estimating your resources can act as a galvaniser for preparation and action in the short term and in the context of uncertainty. When there are ways to move forward, and the threat is maybe not so great as you thought, and maybe you can do something to help yourself – then it’s probably time for us to show strong compassion. That’s compassion that cares enough to have difficult conversations, that helps another person consider their response in light of new information, and is willing to be there to help the person re-evaluate their next best steps.

Keep safe. Keep your social distance. Wash your hands. Don’t go out if you’re sick. Be sensible with the toilet paper.

Bailey, S. J., McWilliams, L. A., & Dick, B. D. (2012). Expanding the social communication model of pain: are adult attachment characteristics associated with observers’ pain-related evaluations? Rehabil Psychol, 57(1), 27-34. doi: 10.1037/a0026237

Lackner, Jeffrey M., & Gurtman, Michael B. (2004). Pain catastrophizing and interpersonal problems: a circumplex analysis of the communal coping model. Pain, 110(3), 597-604. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2004.04.011

Thorn, Beverly E., Keefe, Francis J., & Anderson, Timothy. (2004). The communal coping model and interpersonal context: Problems or process? Pain, 110(3), 505-507.

“Intuition” – and clinical reasoning


Intuition is one of two main modes of thinking, according to Daniel Kahneman. Intuition is fast, considers the whole rather than components of the whole, and intuition feels effortless. Intuition can also be wrong – but often isn’t (Gruppen, Woolliscroft & Wolf, 1988).

We use intuition well when we’ve been exposed to many examples of the phenomenon under consideration – for example, if we’ve seen a lot of patients with similar health problems. We don’t use intuition well when we buy into biases or stereotypes.

The alternative to intuition is slower thinking, that typically breaks the considerations into smaller pieces, often following a linear process where data (information) is collected and assembled. This kind of thinking is reasonably easy to investigate, whereas intuition is much more difficult to study (it’s fast, people can’t describe how they arrived at a conclusion, so it’s not amenable to self-report).

Why worry about it? Well, intuition is the key strategy described by allied health, particularly physiotherapists, when considering whether a person needs further assessment for those pesky psychosocial factors (Man, Kumar, Jones & Edwards, 2019). What this means in practical terms is that a patient who doesn’t fit the stereotypical “risky yellow flags patient” may have to fail at conventional treatment before being directed towards a multidisciplinary, or biopsychosocial, approach.

What might be an alternative?

I’m pretty fortunate in that I work in a service where participants to my group programme have already completed a series of questionnaires as a requirement to participate in pain rehabilitation and management. So everyone I see will have some information I can draw on without my needing to add anything more. Of course, I can argue that some of the questionnaires don’t help me very much because they’re fairly biased towards a CBT model of chronic pain management. But the principle is pretty clear: everyone gets to complete the questionnaires ahead of time.

Practically, this isn’t always easy. Many people don’t have good literacy skills, don’t have a computer, hate the thought of paperwork (even in electronic form), and some of the questions don’t work very well/aren’t relevant to the people I see, so they choose not to fill them in. There’s no opportunity to discuss the responses with a clinician, so it’s not easy to decide whether the questions apply.

But what happens when we leave the questionnaires to luck, intuition or “the psychologist”?

Firstly, we know the relevance of psychosocial risk factors. We know this so well – it’s been a theme throughout the years I’ve worked as a clinician in pain rehabilitation and management. If we don’t include these in our formulation (treatment planning), we’re probably not including them as key predictors for outcomes…

We can’t rely on our intuition because for many of us, those people who do have risk factors will only overtly show these once they’ve failed to progress – it’s at that time they’re more distressed, frustrated and afraid, so behavioural markers for psychosocial risk factors are more evident. This also means someone will have to work with the person who is now more distressed than they needed to be.

We don’t use our team to best advantage. Why refer someone to an occupational therapist, to a psychologist, to a counsellor if we don’t know why the person needs to see them? This can lead to a distinct lack of briefing or information about the referral to the person with pain – and sometimes, it seems, to the person deciding they don’t need, or want, that referral even when it would be in their best interests.

Mostly, though, I think it begins to bias our thinking. We can become judgemental – why doesn’t this person do their home-based exercise programme? Why are they just going through the motions? Why do they keep on complaining about their pain? We can begin to question the person’s motivation, their lifestyle, the validity of their perspective.

The real problem?

Our clinical reasoning models don’t help us very much when it comes to synthesising psychosocial factors. When we’re dealing with those factors using “intuition” we don’t have to incorporate them into our models – because intuition isn’t explicit, it’s quick and difficult to articulate. To date there are very few transprofessional models of pain management, and even fewer that attempt to link theoretical constructs with what we see in front of us. That synthesis of biological, social and psychological constructs that uniquely explains why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what factors may be maintaining this person’s predicament. It’s no wonder that, in a recent study my colleagues and I have been conducting, we’ve found very few clinicians collaborating on a case formulation.

My suspicion is that until we develop a collaborative case formulation clinical reasoning approach that can integrate these many factors in a sensible and logical way, our “intuition” is likely to leave us floundering. The casualties of this particular mess are the people we hope to treat. I wonder if it’s time to work together, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and medical practitioners (and all other variants of health practitioner!). Do we need to create a synthesis that works as a transprofessional model of pain?

Gruppen LD, Woolliscroft JO, Wolf FM. The contribution of different components of the clinical encounter in generating and eliminating diagnostic hypotheses. In research in medical education: proceedings of the annual conference. Med Educ. 1988;27:242‐247.

Man, Isabella, Kumar, Saravana, Jones, Mark, & Edwards, Ian. (2019). An exploration of psychosocial practice within private practice musculoskeletal physiotherapy: A cross-sectional survey. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 43, 58-63. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.msksp.2019.06.004

Widerström, Birgitta, Rasmussen-Barr, Eva, & Boström, Carina. (2019). Aspects influencing clinical reasoning and decision-making when matching treatment to patients with low back pain in primary healthcare. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 41, 6-14. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.msksp.2019.02.003

Undergraduate pain curriculum: What needs to be included and what doesn’t?


One of the prominent themes in social media discussions about pain is that the subjects are not given sufficient attention at undergraduate level. The results of this omission are that many entry-level clinicians don’t have the necessary knowledge, skills or attitudes for working with people who experience pain. (As an aside, it also makes my job as a postgraduate Academic Leader much more difficult: where do I start when developing a programme?!)

Luckily there is an IASP Pain Curriculum. Actually there are many of them, for many disciplines, and they provide educators with great guidance. The problem is, however, there is so much that could be included in this kind of education – and we usually don’t have much room in a programme to include it all.

The main problems with the curriculum are: the content and levels of competency required at an undergraduate level aren’t specified; most research into this area targets postgraduates, with less attention for undergraduate pain education. Most curriculum for pain have been discipline-specific, and while a consensus on the content and desired competencies of an interprofessional pain curriculum at a pre-licence or undergraduate level has been discussed, an a-priori defined competency level across professions for the items in the IASP curriculum hasn’t been established. We need cross profession agreed competencies to allow for good collaboration. (see van Lankveld, Afram, Staal, van der Sande, 2020).

In my role as Academic Coordinator for Postgrad Programmes in Pain and Pain Management, one aspect of the interprofessional curriculum that is quite difficult to navigate is how to turn topic headings into knowledge, skills and attitudes. I’m wary of teaching directly to subject (knowledge) without accompanying this with appropriate skills and attitudes – particularly at postgraduate level, given knowledge (topics) are continuing to change over time. There’s clearly some material that is highly valued by one profession over other professions – and this is normal for every discipline! And I’m not sure we can ever hope to cover every single thing.

One consistent theme in research into attitudes and beliefs among musculoskeletal clinicians is that confidence to assess and then use information from the psychosocial domain is low (Alexanders, Anderson & Henderson, 2015; Buchbinder, Staples & Jolley, 2009; Miki, Kondo, Takebayashi & Takasaki, 2020; Singla, Jones, Edwards & Kumar, 2015). This problem is not isolated to physiotherapists, but cuts across all professions, including psychologists referred patients with “medically unexplained symptoms” (Brittni & Williams, 2020). I wondered if this area has been given sufficient emphasis in our curriculum, and most especially, whether opportunities to develop skills and attitudes that support equitable and effective pain management are developed.

van Lankveld, Afram, Staal, van der Sande (2020) used interprofessional expert panel groups, followed Delphi process, and incorporated a measure of competency (the Dublin Descriptors), to establish which of the many areas of the pain curriculum should be prioritised. This makes for interesting reading, as some of the areas considered integral to better pain management, such as the socio-political and ethical were not considered crucial, while those related to Epidemiology, Development of Pain Theories, and Mechanisms were all thought crucial. I find this interesting as stigma, equity of access to treatment, ethical use of analgesics are all areas of healthcare that directly influence what we do in treatment and in particular, what gets funded and what does not.

Developing a teaching programme from a list of topics considered important involves opinions, values, and an understanding of pedagogy. Given we live in an ever-changing information environment, I think skills and attitudes towards what is today considered “fact” need to be emphasised – how do we learn to think critically? At least part of critical thinking is reading around a topic to become familiar with current and historic models and knowledge. I also think that some of the more complex issues we need to deal with as societies are often those attitudes towards people who violate our assumptions about who is and isn’t “other”. Learning is not only about content, it’s about attitudes towards the subject matter. And some of these attitudes are buried deeply beneath community assumptions and values. To uncover these attitudes, then help people reflect critically on them and their clinical implications is, I think, one of the tasks educators need to address.

For that reason, in my 5th year undergraduate medical teaching, I ask students to undertake a case study where their job is to listen to the person with pain, identify risk factors and protective factors for recovery and return to optimal functioning and participation, and then offer individually tailored recommendations to the person, in language the person will understand. My hope is that these future medical practitioners will have developed some empathy and strategies for caring for and encouraging patients with pain to be less afraid of their pain, and more able to go on with their lives.

What should go in undergraduate training? I think we can weave all the content of these curriculum into our undergraduate training, but we should also leave students with the certain knowledge, skills and attitudes that this area of study is going to change. And that means lifelong learning about pain, people, science and self.

Alexanders, J., Anderson, A., & Henderson, S. (2015). Musculoskeletal physiotherapists’ use of psychological interventions: a systematic review of therapists’ perceptions and practice. Physiotherapy, 101(2), 95-102. doi: 10.1016/j.physio.2014.03.008

Buchbinder, R., Staples, M., & Jolley, D. (2009). Doctors with a special interest in back pain have poorer knowledge about how to treat back pain. Spine (Phila Pa 1976), 34(11), 1218-1226; discussion 1227. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e318195d688

Crawford, C., Ryan, K., & Shipton, E. (2007). Exploring general practitioner identification and management of psychosocial Yellow Flags in acute low back pain. N Z Med J, 120(1254), U2536.

Cowell, I., O’Sullivan, P., O’Sullivan, K., Poyton, R., McGregor, A., & Murtagh, G. (2018). Perceptions of physiotherapists towards the management of non-specific chronic low back pain from a biopsychosocial perspective: A qualitative study. Musculoskelet Sci Pract, 38, 113-119. doi: 10.1016/j.msksp.2018.10.006

Jones, Brittni, & Williams, Amanda C. de C. (2020). Psychological therapists’ judgments of pain and treatment decisions: The impact of ‘medically unexplained symptoms’. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 131, 109937. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2020.109937

Miki, T., Kondo, Y., Takebayashi, T., & Takasaki, H. (2020). Difference between physical therapist estimation and psychological patient-reported outcome measures in patients with low back pain. PLoS One, 15(1), e0227999. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0227999

Singla, Mukul, Jones, Mark, Edwards, Ian, & Kumar, Saravana. (2015). Physiotherapists’ assessment of patients’ psychosocial status: are we standing on thin ice? A qualitative descriptive study. Manual therapy, 20(2), 328-334.

van Lankveld, W., Afram, B., Staal, J. B., & van der Sande, R. (2020). The IASP pain curriculum for undergraduate allied health professionals: educators defining competence level using Dublin descriptors. BMC Med Educ, 20(1), 60. doi: 10.1186/s12909-020-1978-z

Did you miss me?


It’s been a while since I last posted on my blog, as I’ve had other projects on the go this summer. Over this time I’ve been pondering, as I usually do, why pain management/rehabilitation has so many problems. Conceptually, I can understand that pain is a complex experience that we’re a long way from understanding. I get that it’s a philosophically challenging subject. That because it’s subjective (like love, disgust, fatigue or hunger) it’s difficult to examine dispassionately.

I also get that it’s big business. Pain is one aspect of being human that captures the entrepreneur’s imagination. People don’t like pain (on the whole), and even those who seek pain (I’m not thinking fetishes – just sports people!) aren’t inclined to want it to hang around. There’s a ready market for anything that helps “get rid of” pain – even though it’s impossible to fully “get rid of” pain without simultaneously creating other problems!

Some of us clinicians focus almost exclusively on finding a presumed cause. The search can go on for weeks, months, years. Professionals will use tests, investigations, even treatments to see whether they’re on the right track to find what’s initiating the experience. And clinicians can believe, because a treatment was followed by a reduction in pain, that they’ve found it! Happy customer, happy therapist.

Huge arguments are waged across social media platforms. The proponents of one view argue against the proponents of another view. The pendulum is said to swing violently from one side to the other. “Too much bio” “Too much psychosocial” “but what about the bio” “the bio’s always in there, it’s even in the name” – and so on.

I’m a clinician who rarely gets caught up in the “but what about the bio” argument – because I’m unashamedly clear that I don’t treat pain. I don’t attempt to change pain. I don’t try to find the cause. I don’t really look at the diagnosis very much. I don’t try to explain what’s going on. Not because I don’t have some ideas about what might be going on, but because the people I see have usually had “the bio” so extensively investigated that it’s moot. Given that most of our treatments for persisting pain are pretty mediocre, I figure that by the time someone gets to see me (on average two years after the onset) it’s time to focus more on living alongside pain. And if pain does happen to change or go, that’s a total bonus. I’d argue that being able to do that even in the early stages might go a long way towards reducing the overwhelming impact of pain on the daily lives of people.

But in not focusing on pain reduction, not locating the supposed “source” of the problem, some people are horrified. “But look at my success” or “this person suffered for X years and then I solved the problem and their pain went!”. You know, that’s awesome and I think it’s fabulous when someone finds something that reduces pain. It’s just that I don’t think it’s necessary to prioritise pain reduction over living life – I think the two can be done concurrently, albeit with care.

The energy people put in to arguing their position, whichever orientation they prefer, is extraordinary. And it’s this that makes me feel somewhat worried. When we put so much effort into defending a position, we argue ourselves into a stance that’s difficult to change. And we become less sensitive to information that doesn’t fit with our argument. We hold onto our beliefs more strongly, while filtering everything we see and hear through a lens that skews our view of our world.

I’ve argued that clinicians need to hold their beliefs about what we think we know fairly lightly. When we recognise that pretty much all we think we know is provisional and should be subject to more testing, it’s worth remembering that something we assume we know for sure could be wrong.

Take rest for low back pain: from the late 1880’s until around 1986ish, rest for seven days was The Treatment. It’s only through testing and vigorous (really vigorous) arguments that we’ve arrived at the situation we have now, where it’s pretty clear that bed rest isn’t a good option (See the two refs below!). But OH the angst over the years 1975 – 2004! Much argument and rage and frustration and even litigation…

Now we have the era of exercise is good for back pain (well, everything if you read the headlines!). But is “exercise” the panacea? How does exercise help? What are the mechanisms, and can they be activated in other ways? What if you don’t enjoy “exercise” as administered by so many therapists? (see Searle, et al, 2015, below).

I think we’ve learned a great deal about what doesn’t work in pain rehabilitation/management. Mostly, our effect sizes are modest to tiny. And what we haven’t dealt with is how do we help people move from being patients to being people. To being people with lives they want to live. Transferring what seems to help into a person’s OWN life, not the one we think they ought to live.

This year’s blogging is likely to continue my tradition of grasshoppering from topic to topic, but at the heart of my writing is my desire to see people with pain being able to live their own lives, in their own way, with their own priorities and values, and in their own context. Maybe it’s time to step outside our clinic doors, and remember the reason people come to see us: they want to be able to do what’s important in their life. The rest of this philosophical and methodological and factionistic arguing is beside the point.

Hagen, K.B., et al., Bed rest for acute low‐back pain and sciatica. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2004(4).

Searle, Angela, et al. Exercise interventions for the treatment of chronic low back pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Clinical rehabilitation 29.12 (2015): 1155-1167.

Waddell, G., G. Feder, and M. Lewis, Systematic reviews of bed rest and advice to stay active for acute low back pain. British Journal of General Practice, 1997. 47(423): p. 647-652.

Cannabis questions… so many questions!


Recently I wrote a summary of my readings around cannabis for pain. It’s a hot topic in New Zealand because we’re holding a referendum on cannabis law reform next year, and as expected, all the lobby groups are out in force! My interest is sparked because so many of the people I work with as patients also use cannabis – and the evidence from RCTs is pretty poor. And YET as a recent study colleagues and I carried out with people who have spinal cord injury and neuropathic pain, cannabis is something that holds appeal, and interestingly, seems to provide some useful effects.

The study we conducted (see it here: https://rdcu.be/bTuup) was a qualitative investigation of people with spinal cord injury who used and found cannabis helpful.

We found that people mainly trialled “conventional” pain relief such as gabapentin, pregabalin, nortriptyline, amitriptyline, and a range of opioids before they started testing cannabis and derivatives. The side effects and poor effect on pain of these pharmaceuticals have been well-documented so I wasn’t at all surprised to hear our participants describe feeling “foggy”, “unable to think”, and limited effect on their pain. This is common because neuropathic pain is such an extraordinary problem – there’s no single mechanism involved, there’s a cascade of effects, many of them in the brain and that means drugs effective on on those mechanisms are also likely to have side effects on cognitive alertness.

Our participants (and remember that cannabis is currently illegal in New Zealand but widely available in the hidden green market) researched their options carefully. They tried various forms of cannabis, often erroneously believing that CBD-heavy forms are (a) easy to identify from phenotype and (b) have an effect on pain. This isn’t the case – it’s the THC-CBD combination that appears to have greatest effect, with the THC being the heavy lifter when it comes to pain reduction.

Not only did our participants try a range of cannabis plants, they also tried various ways to use the product. Vaping, smoking, oil capsules, canna-chocolate, canna-cookies, chopped up in a salad, rubbed on in an ointment – virtually every route possible!

Importantly, every one of our participants denied wanting to feel stoned or high. In fact, they said that was the opposite of their intention – after all, if they wanted altered consciousness they all had access to prescribed medications that could do the trick! No, our participants wanted to do what we all want: take part in their own lives on their own terms. They wanted to participate in family life, do the shopping, play with their kids, just to function.

So, did it work? Well here’s where things get analytically tricky. Yes, almost all participants said cannabis acted quickly, alleviated their pain and gave them good sleep. BUT they also said their pain was altered, changed – they could more easily distance themselves from their pain. So was reduced pain intensity the critical effect, or was it more about feeling differently towards the pain? One participant described being able to “get in the zone” to meditate more easily. And from my perspective, being able to sleep better may itself provide important benefits on pain reduction (Kukushin & Poluektov, 2019).

So my question is whether pain intensity is the right metric in studies examining cannabis for pain relief? RCTs show very small effect sizes of cannabis/THC+CBD on pain intensity, and the research quality is pretty dismal (Campbell, Stockings & Neilsen, 2019).

If cannabis doesn’t reduce pain terribly much, then why are people so passionate about having it as an option? And why do they say it helps? This, my friends, is the real question I think we need to be answering.

Our study showed that participants reported doing more. And isn’t the reason for prescribing analgesia precisely so that people have less pain – and can do more? Our study also hinted at something else important: people using cannabis chose when, where and how they used this drug. To me this is something rarely discussed in pharmaceutical research. CHOICE allows people to make their own decisions. Making a decision for oneself is an important concept in New Zealand – autonomy, self efficacy, self determination. For people from whom so many freedoms have been lost (independent mobility, self cares, cooking, financial independence) being able to choose how to use a drug that alters pain even just a little is an important point.

When digging more deeply into the experiences our participants had when taking cannabis, I was struck by some intriguing points. Most acknowledged that while pain changed, it didn’t disappear. The effect was rapid when the product was vaped, or smoked. Dose didn’t escalate. There was a ritual aspect to using it – the same routine every day. There weren’t high expectations that it would help initially, but they grew quickly once participants tried it. All of which leads me to wonder at the influence of the meaning response (especially when people favoured what they thought were CBD varieties, when CBD isn’t as effective on pain as it is on anxiety).

Some additional points: many of our participants had to navigate a green, underground market. One with which they were unfamiliar and often uncomfortable with. Supply was erratic and fraught with concern about things like traveling with cannabis and cannabinoid products, the fear of discovery, the need to encounter people who are working on the wrong side of the NZ law. Supplies may, or may not, be pure or contain what the consumer wants. Many of our participants had never tried cannabis before their spinal cord injury. Information, accurate information, especially from health professionals, was scarce – and yet many medical practitioners were giving at least tacit approval (in an information vacuum). Our participants said they didn’t rely on what they were told by health professionals: they’d rather believe the grower, the naturopath, their friends, the internet.

All of these things should give health professionals, and law-makers, some food for thought. An underground market means no regulation. No regulation means cannabis is off topic for health educators. Absence of quality information means risks as well as benefits are unavailable. Lack of trust emerges when those who are usually respected for their opinions cannot, or will not, provide clear direction. And our medical practitioners may have trained in the days when popular belief was that cannabis is a ‘gateway’ drug to harder, more dangerous ones. At the very least, the attitudes towards people who use cannabis recreationally has infused our society such that to call someone a “stoner” is equivalent to calling them a “loser”.

For what it’s worth, I do not currently support medical prescribing of cannabis the plant. I think doctors need to know the effects, side effects, interactions, indication, doses, and contraindications of a drug before they put their signature on the line. After all, their responsibility is “first do no harm”. Yes I know cannabis is thought to be a safe drug – but there are adverse effects, the active components do interact with other drugs, and when it’s unknown how much to take, or the best route for administration, then I think it’s unfair to place that burden on a medical practitioner. Does this mean I think cannabis should remain illegal? Not at all! The current legal situation is absolutely doing harm. Regulation, information and maybe allowing people to make their own informed decisions about cannabis might be a better option. After all, alcohol is an analgesic – but we don’t march down to our doctors asking for a prescription for gin and tonic, now do we? We don’t need to because alcohol with all its harms is legal.

Where do we go from here? I think there’s merit in at least two questions being explored. (1) What is the effect of cannabis on pain – not on intensity, but on the experience of pain? Does cannabis help people achieve a meditation state? Does cannabis help via reduced anxiety? Does cannabis help via improved sleep? and (2) How does cannabis use influence participation? Is it through being able to choose when, where, and how cannabis is used? Is it indirectly through reduced anxiety?

And of course, if much of the effect is via a meaning response, what does this tell us about how we can harness our own endogenous opioid and cannabinoid systems? Can we do it without needing to use agents like cannabis?

Campbell, G., Stockings, E., & Nielsen, S. (2019). Understanding the evidence for medical cannabis and cannabis-based medicines for the treatment of chronic non-cancer pain. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience, 269(1), 135-144.

Kukushkin, M. L., & Poluektov, M. G. (2019). Current Views on Chronic Pain and Its Relationship to the State of Sleep. Neuroscience and Behavioral Physiology, 49(1), 13-19. doi: 10.1007/s11055-018-0684-3

Why are there not more occupational therapists in pain rehabilitation?


A question I’ve asked myself many times! As a small profession with a long history (as long as physiotherapy, TBH), it does seem odd that there are many, many pain rehabilitation services where never an occupational therapist has darkened the door.

Some of the reasons lie within the profession: in general, occupational therapists are busy being clinicians and have little time for research. In New Zealand, few occupational therapists pursue higher degrees, and many avoid statistical analyses, experimental design, randomised controlled studies. In fact, some occupational therapists have argued that the tailored approach used by therapists means randomised controlled trials are impossible – our interventions too complex, too individualised.

And it is difficult to describe occupational therapy in the kind of broad terms used to describe physiotherapy (movement), psychology (mind, emotions, behaviour), medicine or nursing. Occupational therapists often deal with the everyday. Things like organising a day or a week, getting a good night’s sleep, returning to work, managing household activities. Not sexy things with technical names!

So… what does a good occupational therapist offer in pain rehabilitation? These are only some of the things I’ve contributed over the years:

  • graded exposure in daily life contexts like the shopping mall, supermarket, walking at the beach, fishing, catching a bus, driving
  • self regulation using biofeedback, hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation in daily life contexts like getting off to sleep, at work in between clients, while doing the grocery shopping, while driving
  • effective communication with partners, children, employers, co-workers, health professionals in daily life contexts
  • guided discovery of factors that increase and reduce pain in daily life contexts like the end of a working day, over the weekend, at the rugby, in the pub, on your own, in a crowd, at home
  • information on proposed neurobiological mechanisms as they influence pain and doing/participating in daily life contexts, things like attention capture, distraction, memory, emotions, stress, excitement
  • values clarification about what is important to a person’s sense of who they are in their daily life
  • progressive meaningful movement in daily life contexts
  • goal setting, planning, managing and progressing overall activity levels in daily life
  • positive, pleasurable activities to boost mood, reduce anxiety and live a life more like the person wants

What characterises all that I offer? It’s context. One of the major challenges in all our pain rehabilitation is that people feel safe when in safe surroundings, with people who elicit feelings of safety. When things are predictable – like in a clinic setting – and when clinicians are present, people feel OK to do things they simply can’t do (or won’t do) elsewhere.

Life is complex. Contexts are highly variable, often chaotic, multiple demands on attention, priorities, values – and when a skill is developed in a controlled environment, like a clinic or office, it’s nothing like the real world. This, folks, is the unique contribution of a good occupational therapist.

Someone posted an image once, on the one side was physical therapy. On the other was psychology. And the question was posed: who bridges the gap between these two professions? I say definitively that this is the occupational therapy space. We are knowledge translators. We are the bridge between clinic and daily life. It is our domain, the entire specialty area of this profession. And it has been since the professions’ inception, way back in the early 1900s.

There are occupational therapists who let us down. These are the therapists who focus exclusively on occupational participation without factoring in that we are also a rehabilitation profession. These occupational therapists provide equipment to people who are sore: the new bed, the shower stool and rails, the kitchen stool and trolley, the bed and chair raisers. Now there may be good reason for installing these gadgets – in the short term. They might keep someone safe in their environment so they can do what’s important. AT the same time they can, and do, reinforce the idea that this person cannot do, and certainly cannot change. While installing these things can mean a person is able to do – the person also learns to avoid doing these movements. This is such an important concept in pain rehabilitation – because progressively working towards being able to manage normal activities without aids is what we’re aiming for! An occupational therapist installing these things without reviewing and supporting the person to no longer need these things is just like a physiotherapist offering a person a back brace or splint and never reviewing whether it’s needed.

Why is it difficult to acknowledge occupational therapy’s contributions? Partly our rejection of a biomedical model based on diagnosing disease. Occupational therapists are about the person’s illness experience, our model is wholistic, biopsychosocial, integrative. It’s hard to articulate our contributions without using a lot of words! Or making it seem so dumbed down that people view the exterior actions (cleaning teeth, having a shower) without recognising the myriad contributing factors that influence whether this action is carried out successfully.

Occupational therapists have relied on qualitative research to examine the lived experience of people dealing with persistent pain. Rather than pointing to randomised controlled trials of broad concepts like “exercise”, we’ve tended to describe the individual and unique experiences of people as they regain their sense of self. Not something easily measured like range of movement or cardiovascular fitness, or even simple measures of disability and self efficacy. Peek behind these descriptions you’ll find synthesised strategies that integrate values, committed actions, sense of self, cognitive defusion, behavioural approaches – messy things that aren’t readily translated into simple cause and effect experiments. Multifactorial approaches that recognise that life is a contextual experience.

I contend that one of the major failings in pain rehabilitation is helping people reclaim their sense of self again. Self concept is ignored in favour of changing a person from a couch spud to a gym attender. Even psychologists can forget that when instilling new strategies, the person in front of them has to learn to integrate these new things into their world – and that means adjusting their sense of who they are. That’s the hidden work people living with persistent pain have to do, rarely supported. And yet it’s the thing people most want to resolve when they’re dealing with this experience. Who am I? Can I be me again? If I can’t be the old me, can I at least get something of what was important to me back again?

What I’d like to see are more occupational therapists being confident about what our profession offers, being willing to step up and be the resource we know is needed. We don’t need to be defensive about this – but we do need to be sure about the validity and relevance of why our contribution is so important. I think the results from research showing how short-lived positive results of pain rehabilitation really are speak for themselves. Maybe the missing link is knowledge translation into daily life contexts?

Flare-ups and how to handle them


If you live with persistent pain of any kind, you’ll know what a flare-up is. Periods of time when pain is exacerbated and sustained at a higher than average level over at least a few days, often longer. Flare-ups always settle down – but oh my, it can feel like they’re going on forever!

Handling a flare-up is not quite the same as handling everyday pain. Everyday pain, for those of us who manage it independently of healthcare professionals, usually needs a generally steady routine, not too many surprises. A regimen of movement, relaxation, fun, mindfulness, plodding on and managing stress. A little boring, if you will. Most people will add or subtract some medication (if there is some to help) and vary the activity level depending on the demands of the day.

But when a flare-up happens, some people can find themselves side-swiped and confidence can plummet, while the usual everyday coping can feel like it’s not quite cutting it. For some people, it can be a complete surprise to find that on one day everything feels “normal” yet the next can be a flare-up.

What health professionals do during a flare-up is important, because how we respond and our attitude towards flare-ups can build confidence, or knock it even further.

Identify your early warning signs

Even though a flare-up can feel like it’s come from out of the blue, mostly there are early warning signs that perhaps haven’t quite been recognised (or have been ignored because something else is more important than pain intensity). It can be a period of feeling really good (so that the normal coping strategies don’t feel quite as relevant, and are just a bit easier to forget to do). It can be fatigue, or feeling a little overloaded. It can be a rotten night’s sleep, or a really busy day without the normal recovery time.

An early warning sign can be being more achey than normal, a little stiff and less keen to move. For some it can be feeling a little irritable, or a little down.

There may be parts of the body that don’t typically get sore – but during a flare-up, they begin to join in the action. The quality of the pain may be different: burning, deeper, achier.

Noting these “flare-up early warning signs” in a diary can be a great way to develop an alert system to remind us to focus on keeping on with the strategies that we’ve found useful – like a reminder not to suddenly stop what’s working!

Rescue Remedy

No – I don’t mean the drops you can get! Please no!! The rescue remedy I advocate is to develop a set of strategies, a plan, that is written down ahead of when it’s needed. During a flare-up, thinking straight can be difficult, so pre-planning can reduce the effort at the time.

I always begin by developed a “Can Cope” card. This is a business-card sized card with four or five simple steps that can be used immediately and may even abort a flare-up before it begins. The first instruction is always “Breathe out!” followed by using a calming word like “relax” or “I’m fine” or “chill out”. Three to five out breaths can help to interrupt stressful thinking, enough to move on to the next step that I pretty much always include: notice. Noticing in this instance is a few minutes of body scanning to notice just what is happening in the body in the here and now. A body scan allows an opportunity to recognise where any additional tension is held, to notice and stop rushing if that’s part of the problem, to simply be for a moment or two.

I then like to include a few actions like get up and stretch, or go grab a drink of water, something that allows for some whole body movement – maybe a walk around the block. And finally, I end the Can Cope Card with a reminder that these flare-ups do end!

Working out why it happened

It’s tempting to try and find out what went wrong and why a flare-up happened, but it’s not uncommon to be unable to put a finger on it. So many variables are likely to influence! As I mentioned at the start of this blog, it can be a night of rotten sleep, a busy day, maybe a change in routine, feeling overloaded, maybe even having had a period of feeling really good.

If flare-ups don’t trouble the person very much, analysing how and why it happened may be counter-productive. It’s common for us to think firstly about movements or activities that are out of the ordinary, or perhaps more demanding than normal. These are the easiest flare-ups to identify. They can even be predicted, so can be built in to the weekly planning.

Other contributors can be much more difficult to identify – especially those involving emotional factors, stress, or enjoyable activities. For me, sitting for long periods, as in a conference, or travelling to a conference can be a flare-up initiator. Holidays not so much, but it’s not uncommon for me to feel sore in the days before heading away on holiday – all that rushing around, getting things ready!

Often it can be a cumulative series of seemingly irrelevant decisions. A whole cascade of tiny changes to routine that eventually tips the balance over – maybe working late a few nights in a week, combined with not as much time for exercising, and little more stress at work and not doing mindfulness or taking time out. On their own, they don’t seem much – but they erode the reserves needed to deal with pain on a daily basis.

If pain flare-ups like this do bother the person (or you!), it’s worth taking some time to track activities and mood, fatigue, sleep, and habits for a while. Simply tracking can be enough of a reminder to keep the habits going! But analysing what happens to energy, pain, mood can mean better capability for preparing and noticing in advance. That way, while a flare-up can be on the cards, gradually the person can get better at predicting what things set it off, and can make an active choice about whether it’s worth doing.

Health professionals

If we aim to prevent flare-ups, we’re on a hiding to nowhere. While there’s not a lot of research about on flare-ups, what research there is shows that flare-ups are common – 51% of people interviewed by telephone, all of whom had chronic low back pain, reported flare-ups (Suri, Saunders & Von Korff, 2012). It may be a matter of language: flare-ups can be called “breakthrough pain” (although this applies to cancer pain, when pain ‘breaks through’ the opioid dose, and shouldn’t be applied to noncancer pain); flare-ups can be called relapses or exacerbations or fluctuations. Whatever they’re called, there just doesn’t seem to be much in the research literature although qualitative studies do seem to show flare-ups as important.

If flare-ups are common, what are we doing as health professionals, to help people with pain learn to roll with the fluctuations? I think this depends a great deal on our own fears about pain. If we feel uncomfortable about pain, worry that our patients are “doing harm”, or feel concerned that they may get distressed because of pain, we may inadvertently convey this to them. We may try to dig deep into what may be causing the flare-up, we may ask the person to stop doing things, or alter their programme to prevent the flare-ups from “getting worse”. Or we may simply avoid discussing them at all. None of these approaches seem helpful to me.

I think (yep, opinion time!) that we need to convey our confidence that this person has the skills, capability and confidence to manage this themselves. I think it’s useful not to rush in to try to “fix” the problem, or to help the person out too quickly. This doesn’t convey the message that we are confident they can manage! It doesn’t mean ignoring the person, but it does mean we might want to think about asking the person what they can do to get through. And we can let people know how good it is that they’ve come in to see us even though it’s a high pain day. We can remind people of the skills they have and think of asking them which options they’d like to use. This might sound contradictory after I’ve just said not to rush in to “fix”, but to me the difference is that in one we’re supplying the answers and doing to, but in the latter we’re reminding people and giving the choice back to them.

I also think it’s worth avoiding analysing all the possible contributors, at least initially. Why? Because our temptation will probably be to focus on movements or activity changes that “caused” the flare-up, but it’s probable that many tiny decisions, multiple factors are the real issue. And if we focus on physical factors, we’re conveying yet again that pain is a problem of “the physical” – which may not be the case.

I’ve often said that if someone hasn’t had a flare-up while we’ve been working together, then I haven’t done my job. Flare-ups are part of living with persistent pain, and learning to roll with them is a skill I think everyone who lives with persistent pain can develop. Even though I know it’s difficult. But as people with persistent pain know, we are tough!

Suri, P , Saunders, & Von Korff, M., (2012). Prevalence and Characteristics of Flare-ups of Chronic Nonspecific Back Pain in Primary Care: A Telephone Survey. Clinical Journal of Pain, 28(7), 573-580.