Back pain

“The social” – a brief look at family


Our most important relationships, the ones we learn most from, probably occur in families (Bowlby, 1978). As kids, even before we begin to speak, we observe our family members – and there’s reasonable evidence showing that how well these early relationships develop influences our experience of pain and how we express it.

I had the occasion to read a little about adolescent and children’s pain, and the influence of parents on young people as they grow up. There’s a great deal of research interest in children’s pain because children with persistent pain grow up to be adults – usually also with persistent pain. And good evidence that parents with persistent pain can, through mechanisms including depression and catastrophising, influence pain and disability in their children (Brown et al., 2022; Brown et al., 2021).

The research is fascinating. Some studies investigating predictors of chronic pain in children, some investigating disability – and a small number of studies looking at what we can do to help parents cope with the pain their children are experiencing. Not many studies (54 in a 2021 scoping review – see Lee et al., 2021). And sooooo many studies focusing exclusively, or close to, the influence of Mothers on children. Where’s Dad? Can I repeat that: where’s Dad?

More recent studies indicate the number of Fathers and Mothers – yay, we’re getting an idea of how many are recruited into these studies – and yet overwhelmingly, it’s Mothers who form the majority of participants. I wonder what effect having a Dad with chronic pain might have on a kid? And it’s only recently that oh darn animal models actually include females… it’s those pesky hormones dammit!

Turning to the next most important relationship, apart from parents, there’s a good deal of research looking at partners. Again, there exists a bias towards heterosexual couples, so we’re a little biased here. There is a wealth of material to review in this area of pain, with some brilliant research designs such as repeated interviews over 18 months, followed by 22 days of repeated daily measures (eg Martire et al., 2019); investigating people with pain problems as common as knee osteoarthritis and chronic low back pain; and examining relationships between things like sleep, caregiving burden, catastrophising, relationship satisfaction, agreement about pain intensity between partners, beliefs and perceptions about pain on interactions, anger, stress. HEAPS of fascinating research to delve into.

And yet, how many clinicians, and programmes, routinely include partners? How accessible are treatment sessions for couples to attend? Who, in a pain management team consisting of largely physiotherapy plus a dollop of psychology, looks after this aspect of living with persistent pain? Waaay back in the day, like the mid-2010s, the facility I worked in had a social worker with experience in family systems and relationships – but there are few social workers working in pain management in New Zealand/Aotearoa, and unless something has changed that I don’t know about, our national insurer doesn’t recognise the value of social workers (and, for that matter, the need to include partners in therapy for chronic pain).

When I review the many studies of this part of “the social” and compare the findings from these investigations against current clinical practice, I see an enormous knowledge and skill gap. If the questions we ask people with pain about their relationship are “how is your relationship with your partner?” we’re probably going to hear “oh they’re really supportive” or “I don’t let them know how I am”. Without adequate knowledge about the kinds of factors that negatively influence the partner’s response to the person with pain we’re likely to be oblivious to the risk of partner abuse (56% of people in this study reported past partner abuse, while 29% of the respondents had been abused in the previous year – Craner et al., 2020); we might not be aware that spouses with poor sleep because their partner was sore, were more likely to be angry (Marini, et al., 2020); that 52% of partners without pain reported high-to-severe burden of having to do more both at work and home because their partner was sore (Suso-Ribera et al., 2020) – or that if a spouse without pain did not have confidence in the pain management of their partner with pain, they were more negative (Nah et al., 2020) or that when a spouse without pain thought their partner’s pain “was a mystery” they were more critical and made more invalidating responses (Burns et al., 2019).

You see, while “the social” is complex, difficult to research, and very broad – ranging from employment status, occupation, educational status, ethnicity, culture, gender, sex – it also includes the very intimate and formative relationships we have with our family. In New Zealand/Aotearoa, with our emphasis on Te Whare Tapa Whā as a model of health and for chronic pain, where relationships with whanau are vital, isn’t it time we addressed this lack?

Bowlby, J. (1978). Attachment theory and its therapeutic implications. Adolescent Psychiatry, 6, 5-33.

Brown, D. T., Claus, B. B., Konning, A., & Wager, J. (2022, Mar). Unified multifactorial model of parental factors in community-based pediatric chronic pain. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 47(2), 121-131. https://doi.org/doi: 10.1093/jpepsy/jsab085

Brown, D., Rosenthal, N., Konning, A., & Wager, J. (2021, Feb). Intergenerational transmission of chronic pain-related disability: The explanatory effects of depressive symptoms. Pain, 162(2), 653-662. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002066

Burns, J. W., Post, K. M., Smith, D. A., Porter, L. S., Buvanendran, A., Fras, A. M., & Keefe, F. J. (2019, Oct). Spouse and patient beliefs and perceptions about chronic pain: Effects on couple interactions and patient pain behavior. The Journal of Pain, 20(10), 1176-1186. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2019.04.001

Craner, J. R., Lake, E. S., Bancroft, K. E., & Hanson, K. M. (2020, Nov). Partner abuse among treatment-seeking individuals with chronic pain: Prevalence, characteristics, and association with pain-related outcomes. Pain Medicine, 21(11), 2789-2798. https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnaa126

Donnelly, T. J., Palermo, T. M., & Newton-John, T. R. O. (2020, Jul). Parent cognitive, behavioural, and affective factors and their relation to child pain and functioning in pediatric chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Pain, 161(7), 1401-1419. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001833

Lee, S., Dick, B. D., Jordan, A., & McMurtry, C. (2021, Nov). Psychological interventions for parents of youth with chronic pain: A scoping review. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 37(11), 825-844. https://doi.org/10.1097/AJP.0000000000000977

Marini, C. M., Martire, L. M., Jones, D. R., Zhaoyang, R., & Buxton, O. M. (2020, Jun). Daily links between sleep and anger among spouses of chronic pain patients. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 75(5), 927-936. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gby111

Martire, L. M., Zhaoyang, R., Marini, C. M., Nah, S., & Darnall, B. D. (2019). Daily and bidirectional linkages between pain catastrophizing and spouse responses. Pain, 160(12), 2841-2847. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001673

Meredith, P., Ownsworth, T., & Strong, J. (2008, Mar). A review of the evidence linking adult attachment theory and chronic pain: presenting a conceptual model. Clinical Psychology Review, 28(3), 407-429.

Nah, S., Martire, L. M., & Zhaoyang, R. (2020, Oct). Perceived patient pain and spousal caregivers’ negative affect: The moderating role of spouse confidence in patients’ pain management. Journal of Aging and Health, 32(9), 1282-1290. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898264320919631

Suso-Ribera, C., Yakobov, E., Carriere, J. S., & Garcia-Palacios, A. (2020, Oct). The impact of chronic pain on patients and spouses: Consequences on occupational status, distribution of household chores and care-giving burden. European Journal of Pain, 24(9), 1730-1740. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejp.1616

Biopsychological pain management is not enough


I recently read a preprint of an editorial for Pain, the IASP journal. It was written by Prof Michael Nicholas, and the title reads “The biopsychosocial model of pain 40 years on: time for a reappraisal?” The paper outlines when and how pain became conceptualised within a biopsychosocial framework by the pioneers of interprofessional pain management: John Loeser (1982) and Gordon Waddell (1984). Nicholas points out the arguments against a biopsychosocial model with some people considering that despite it being a “holistic” framework, it often gets applied in a biomedical and psychological way. In other words, that biomedical concerns are prioritised, with the psychosocial factors relegated to second place and only after the biomedical treatments have not helped. Still others separate the relationships between “bio” “psycho” and “social” such that the interdependent nature of these factors is not recognisable.

Nicholas declares, too:

“… that cognitive behavioural therapy interventions that did not also include workplace modifications or service coordination components were not effective in helping workers with mental health conditions in RTW. That means, just like in the case of reducing time lost at school for children in pain, the treatment providers for adults in pain for whom RTW is a goal should liaise closely with the workplace. Unfortunately, as the studies from the systematic reviews examined earlier for a range of common pain therapies indicated, engaging with the workplace as part of the treatment seems to be rarely attempted.

I find this confusing. In 1999 I completed my MSc thesis looking at this very thing: pain management combined with a focus on using pain management approaches in the workplace. The programme was called “WorkAbilities” and included visits to the workplace, liaison with employers and even job seeking for those who didn’t have a job to return to. The confusion for me lies in the fact that I’ve been doing pain rehabilitation within the workplace since the mid-1980’s – and that while today’s approach for people funded by ACC is separated from pain management (more is the pity), there are many clinicians actively working in pain rehabilitation in the context of returning to work here in New Zealand.

I’m further puzzled by the complete lack of inclusion by Nicholas of occupational therapy’s contribution to “the social” aspects of learning to live well with pain. This, despite the many studies showing occupational therapists are intimately connected with social context: the things people do in their daily lives, with the people and environmental contexts in which they do them. You see, occupational therapists do this routinely. We work with the person in their own environment and this includes home, work, leisure.

For those that remain unaware of what occupational therapists offer people with pain, I put it like this: Occupational therapists provide contextualised therapy, our work is in knowledge translation or generalising the things people learn in gyms, and in clinics, and helping people do these things in their life, their way.

An example might help.

Joe (not his real name) had a sore back, he’d had it for about three months and was seeing a physiotherapist and a psychologist funded by ACC (NZ’s national insurer). Not much was changing. He remained fearful of moving especially in his workplace where he was a heavy diesel mechanic and was under pressure from a newly promoted workshop manager to get things done quickly. Joe was sore and cranky, didn’t sleep well, and his partner was getting fed up. Joe’s problems were:

  • guarding his lower back when moving
  • fear he would further hurt his back if he lifted heavy things, or worked in a bent-over position, or the usual awkward positions diesel mechanics adopt
  • avoiding said movements and positions, or doing them with gritted teeth and a lot of guarding
  • poor sleep despite the sleep hygiene his psychologist had prescribed
  • irritability
  • thoroughly enjoying the gym-based exercise programme
  • hating mindfulness and any of the CBT-based strategies the psychologist was offering him, because as he put it “I never did homework when I went to school, do you think I’m going to do it now? and this mindfulness thing doesn’t work!”

The occupational therapist visited Joe at home. She went through his daily routine and noticed that he didn’t spend any time on “fun” things or with his mates. His intimacy with his partner was scant because the medications he was on were making it hard for him to even get an erection, and his partner was scared he’d be hurt when they made love. Besides, she was fed up with all the time he had to spend going in to the gym after work when he wasn’t doing simple things around home, like mowing lawns, or helping with grocery shopping.

She went into his workplace and found it was a small four-person operation, with one workshop manager, two mechanics and one apprentice. The workshop was a health and safety hazard, messy and cramped, and open to the weather. The relationships between the team were strained with unpleasant digs at his failure to keep up the pace. The workshop manager said that he’d do his best to help Joe out – but in the end he needed to get the work out on time. The other mechanic, an old hand, meanwhile was telling Joe to suck it up and be a man, but also to watch out because Joe shouldn’t do as he’d done and shagged his back.

What did our erstwhile occupational therapist do? Absolutely nothing new that the physiotherapist and psychologist hadn’t taught Joe – but she worked out when, where and how Joe could USE the strategies they’d discussed in his life contexts. She went through the way he moved in the workshop and guided him to relax a little and find some new movement patterns to be able to do his work. She graded the challenges for him, and stayed with him as he experimented. She discussed alternating the tasks he did, interspersing tasks that involved bending forward with those where he could stand upright or even work above his head (in the pit). She discussed how he could use being fully present at various times during the day (mindfulness) to check in with his body and go for a brisk walk if he felt himself tensing up. She worked through communication strategies that they rehearsed and he implemented to let his manager know what he could – and could not – do.

They discussed his home life, and ways he could begin doing some of the household tasks he’d been avoiding, and she showed him how to go about this. They worked out the best time of day to do this – and to vary the exercise he did so that it wasn’t all about the gym. He started to walk over rough ground to get more confident for when he went fishing again, and he got himself a little stool to sit on from time to time. Joe and his occupational therapist talked about his relationship with his partner, and they met together with her so they could share what his back pain meant, the restrictions he had, what he could do, and how else they could be intimate. Joe was encouraged to rehearse and then tell his doctor about the effect of his meds on his sex life.

The minutiae of daily life, translating what is learned in a clinic to that person’s own world is, and always has been, the province of occupational therapy. It’s just a little sad that such a prominent researcher and author hasn’t included any of this in this editorial.

Just a small sample of research in which occupational therapists are involved in RTW.

Bardo, J., Asiello, J., & Sleight, A. (2022). Supporting Health for the Long Haul: a literature synthesis and proposed occupational therapy self-management virtual group intervention for return-to-work. World Federation of Occupational Therapists Bulletin, 1-10.

Berglund, E., Anderzén, I., Andersén, Å., Carlsson, L., Gustavsson, C., Wallman, T., & Lytsy, P. (2018). Multidisciplinary intervention and acceptance and commitment therapy for return-to-work and increased employability among patients with mental illness and/or chronic pain: a randomized controlled trial. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(11), 2424.

Cullen K, Irvin E, Collie A, Clay F, Gensby U, Jennings P, Hogg-Johnson S, Kristman V, Laberge M, McKenzie D. Effectiveness of workplace interventions in return-to-work for musculoskeletal, pain-related and mental health conditions: an update of the evidence and messages for practitioners. J Occup Rehabil 2018;28:1–15.

Grant, M., Rees, S., Underwood, M. et al. Obstacles to returning to work with chronic pain: in-depth interviews with people who are off work due to chronic pain and employers. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 486 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2877-5

Fischer, M. R., Persson, E. B., Stålnacke, B. M., Schult, M. L., & Löfgren, M. (2019). Return to work after interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation: one-and two-year follow-up study based on the swedish quality registry for pain rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 51(4), 281-289.

Fischer, M. R., Schults, M. L., Stålnacke, B. M., Ekholm, J., Persson, E. B., & Löfgren, M. (2020). Variability in patient characteristics and service provision of interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation: A study using? the Swedish national quality registry for pain rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 52(11), 1-10.

Ibrahim, M.E., Weber, K., Courvoisier, D.S. et al. Recovering the capability to work among patients with chronic low Back pain after a four-week, multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilitation program: 18-month follow-up study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 439 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2831-6

Marom, B. S., Ratzon, N. Z., Carel, R. S., & Sharabi, M. (2019). Return-to-work barriers among manual workers after hand injuries: 1-year follow-up cohort study. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 100(3), 422-432.

Michel, C., Guêné, V., Michon, E., Roquelaure, Y., & Petit, A. (2018). Return to work after rehabilitation in chronic low back pain workers. Does the interprofessional collaboration work?. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 32(4), 521-524

Nicholas, M.K. (in press). The biopsychosocial model of pain 40 years on: time for a reappraisal? Pain.

Skyline

Your patient has psychosocial risk factors: what now?


Congratulations! You’re an insightful clinician who’s offered your patient a screening assessment to find out if she or he has psychosocial risk factors – and yes! they do! Well done. Now what?

Do you…

  • send your patient to the nearest psychologist?
  • spend at least one treatment session offering pain neurobiology education?
  • scramble to find a “psychologically informed physio” to send them to, because it takes really highly trained and special clinicians to work with these people
  • give your patient the same exercise prescription you were going to anyway because, after all, they still have things going on in their tissues (or is it their nervous system? I forget – whatever, they just need to move, dammit!)
  • throw your hands up in horror and say “I never wanted to deal with people in pain anyway!”

You’d have to be hiding beneath a rock to avoid learning that people with musculoskeletal pain with psychosocial risk factors such as feeling that back pain is terrible and it isn’t going to get better, believing that it’s not safe to move or exercise with back pain, having worrying thoughts going through their mind, or not enjoying things very much should have special attention when they seek help for their pain. And we’ve all read studies showing that many of our frontline clinicians who see people with musculoskeletal pain aren’t comfortable, confident or clear about what to do with people who are, frankly, scared and distressed.

Papers like Caneiro, Bunzli & O’Sulllivan’s (2021) Masterclass clearly show that messages people with pain get told include avoiding certain movements to prevent damage, being advised that special exercises ‘protect’ the body, and that clinicians believe that certain postures and movements are inherently unsafe (bending, lifting with a rounded back). At the same time, Sajid, Parkunan & Frost (2021) found that only 11.8% of people referred by GPs for musculoskeletal MRIs had their mental health problems addressed, while only 16.7% of the MRI results were correctly interpreted by GPs and in 65.4% of cases were referred for “spurious overperception of surgical targets.”

Worse, Nicola, Correia, Ditchburn & Drummond (2021) conducted a systematic review of the effects of pain invalidation on individuals – invalidation from family, friends and healthcare individuals, and the person themselves. They found five themes: not being believed, lack of compassion, lack of pain awareness and understanding, feeling stigmatised and critical self-judgement. Perceived social unacceptability of experiencing pain was found to have an impact on the emotional state and self-image of those with persistent pain. Ya think?!

If I return to the case I presented last week, Angelina, a pretty common case of someone with a neck pain who is having trouble sleeping and generally handles her pain independently, we could assume that she doesn’t have significant psychosocial risk factors. After all, she’s managing to stay working, does a bit of self-help, and she’s not depressed though she’s a bit irritable.

What would you do?

I guess my first thought is: would Angelina even get a screening assessment to see whether she has any psychosocial risk factors? Might she present superficially well enough for her therapist to think she’s fine, let’s just treat the neck?

Of all the neck pain treatments available, what would she be given? And what might she be told about the rationale for that treatment? A recent systematic review with meta-analysis pointed out that while specific exercises helped in the short to medium term, the quality of that evidence was low (Villaneuva-Ruiz, Falla, Lascurain-Aquirrebena, 2021), while a systematic review with network meta-analysis of 40 RCTs found “There is not one superior type of physical exercise for people with chronic non-specific neck pain.
Rather, there is very low quality evidence that motor control, yoga/Pilates/Tai Chi/Qigong and strengthening exercises are equally effective.” (de Zoete, Armfield, McAuley, Chen, & Sterling, 2020).

More than this: would her sleep and relationship concerns be discussed? What about her safety while driving? How about how she manages her work, and her belief that perhaps her pain is happening because of a period at work where she wasn’t positioned “correctly”?

You see, at the moment in our musculoskeletal treatment literature, the focus has been almost entirely on grouped data. And this, folks, is where Steven Hayes points out that the ergodic theorum is violated. Ergodic theory is “…the idea that a point of a moving system, either a dynamical system or a stochastic process, will eventually visit all parts of the space that the system moves in, in a uniform and random sense. This implies that the average behavior of the system can be deduced from the trajectory of a “typical” point. Equivalently, a sufficiently large collection of random samples from a process can represent the average statistical properties of the entire process.” (I stole that from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergodicity).

Hayes, Hofmann & Ciarrochi (2020) point out that “We cannot assume that the behavior of collectives (e.g., a volume of gas) models the behavior of an individual element (e.g., a molecule of gas) unless the material involved is “ergodic” and thus all elements are identical and are unaffected by change processes.” Humans are not ergodic (only a few noble gases are…) and what this means is that “statistical techniques based on inter-individual variation cannot properly assess the contribution of given elements to phenotypic change.” In other words: humans actively respond and change to what they’re exposed to – each of us presents to treatment with our own incredibly unique range of responses and past history, and these influence how we respond to a treatment. And perhaps this explains why most of our treatments (RCTs, using grouped data and uniformly applied and consistent treatments) particularly for persistent pain problems end up showing pretty small effect sizes. We’re violating the assumptions of the ergodic theorum. What we need are more sophisticated ways to analyse the impact of any therapy, and far fewer algorithms and cookie cutter treatments.

Where does this leave us? I have loads of ideas about where to from here, but not nearly enough space today to write about them!

My first suggestion is to avoid blindly following a treatment algorithm that fails to support YOU to sensitively and reflexively offer treatments that fit for your patient.

My second is to avoid measuring the impact of what you do only at the end of treatment (or worse, not at all!). Measure often, and measure things that matter – either to how you get to the end outcome, or that the person values. Or both.

And third: Get reading outside of your profession. Dig into psychology (I especially recommend Hayes); look at sociology (try Jutel); anthropology (try Sarah Pink’s “Sensuous futures: re-thinking the concept of trust in design anthropology”); make 2022 the year that you lean into uncertainty. I know the past two years have been incredibly unsettling – but this is the perfect time to continue on this journey into new ideas, fresh concepts, and ambiguity.

Caneiro, J. P., Bunzli, S., & O’Sullivan, P. (2021). Beliefs about the body and pain: the critical role in musculoskeletal pain management. Braz J Phys Ther, 25(1), 17-29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bjpt.2020.06.003

Nicola, M., Correia, H., Ditchburn, G., & Drummond, P. (2021, Mar). Invalidation of chronic pain: a thematic analysis of pain narratives. Disability and Rehabilitation, 43(6), 861-869. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2019.1636888

Sarah Pink (2021) Sensuous futures: re-thinking the concept of trust in design anthropology, The Senses and Society, 16:2, 193-202, DOI: 10.1080/17458927.2020.1858655

Sajid, I. M., Parkunan, A., & Frost, K. (2021, Jul). Unintended consequences: quantifying the benefits, iatrogenic harms and downstream cascade costs of musculoskeletal MRI in UK primary care. BMJ Open Quality, 10(3). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjoq-2020-001287

Villanueva-Ruiz, Iker, Falla, Deborah, Lascurain-Aguirrebeña, Ion. (2021) Effectiveness of Specific Neck Exercise for Nonspecific Neck Pain; Usefulness of Strategies for Patient Selection and Tailored Exercise—A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis, Physical Therapy, 2021;, pzab259, https://doi-org.cmezproxy.chmeds.ac.nz/10.1093/ptj/pzab259

de Zoete, R. M., Armfield, N. R., McAuley, J. H., Chen, K., & Sterling, M. (2020, Nov 2). Comparative effectiveness of physical exercise interventions for chronic non-specific neck pain: a systematic review with network meta-analysis of 40 randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2020-102664

Adam’s slow recovery


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

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

NICE suggest these steps:

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

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

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

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

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

No acupuncture, no electrotherapy.

Maybe use psychological therapies in conjunction with exercise.

Add in some NSAIDs

And don’t do much else…

In other words – exactly what Adam has been doing.

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

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

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

Seriously, folks. Watching the responses gives me nightmares.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When therapists get hurt


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family and friends matter


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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean for a behavioural approach?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modifying pain behaviour (2)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do about acute low back pain


I should add another line to that heading: in one easy step! And I’d be inundated with hits and if I could cash in on them I’d be rich! And wrong.

If there was a simple recipe for success, I’d expect that by now we’d have it. The very fact that SO MANY options for managing a bout of low back pain exist is a good reason for skepticism should you ever get tempted to take a headline like mine as a cause for celebration. However I do want to talk about acute low back pain because I think clinicians are often probably doing it wrong.

First of all, low back pain doesn’t include pain that also goes down the leg. Let’s get the definitions clear before we talk! In 2008 a Delphi study by Dione, Dunn, Croft, Nachemson, Buchbinder, Walker and colleagues (2008) developed two definitions: a minimal definition, and an optimal definition. These definitions were developed for epidemiological studies and the minimal definition is very simple – “In the past 4 weeks, have you had pain in your low back?” and “If yes, was this pain bad enough to limit your usual activities of change your daily routine for more than one day?”

from Dionne, Dunn, Croft, Nachemson, Buchbinder, Walker et al, (2008)

Now when it comes to defining a first bout of acute low back pain, Ardakani, Leboeuf-Yde & Walker (2019) raise some very interesting points: researchers investigating acute low back pain don’t clearly distinguish between the factors associated with the disease of low back pain (as they put it, the onset of the very first episode) from its recurring episodes – as they put it, “the continued manifestations of the “disease”.” In fact, in their systematic review for identifying risk factors from “triggers” (their term for subsequent episodes), they could find only one study dealing with the true incidence of first time low back pain – and this was low back pain caused by sports injury. All the remaining studies either explored new episodes, or recurring episodes. The major problem with these studies? They didn’t define how long a person should have had no low back pain at baseline. And given many of us develop back pain in adolescence (see Franz, Wedderkopp, Jespersen, Texen and Leboeuf-Yde, 2014, or Jones & MacFarlane, 2005) for example) it’s probable that studies investigating those over 18 years old will include a lot of people who have had that first bout already.

The trajectories for those of us who do develop low back pain are also reasonably murky because of the challenges around definitions, and there are several studies with slightly different results as you’d expect. Essentially, though, most researchers find that there are three or four patterns that emerge from longitudinal studies: lucky ones who have one bout and no or low levels of pain thereafter; those who have persisting mild pain, those who have fluctuating bouts over time, and those who develop persistent and severe pain. Chen and colleagues (2018) found that “lower social class”, higher pain intensity at the beginning, the person’s perceptions of more challenging consequences and longer pain duration, and greater “passive” behavioural coping were most significantly associated with the more severe trajectory over five years.

So, what does this mean for clinicians – and how well are we doing?

Acute low back pain can really frightening for people, especially if the pain is severe. As clinicians generally choose this work because we care about people, we get hooked into wanting to reduce pain and help. There’s nothing wrong about this – unless it means we also get hooked into trying to offer something we cannot. We’re inclined to believe that people seek help for their back pain because of the pain – but as Mannion, Wieser & Elfering (2013) found from a study of over 1,000 people with back pain at the time of the survey, 72% hadn’t sought care over the previous four weeks; 28% had sought care – and most from more than one provider. Women were more likely to seek care, those who had experienced more previous bouts, those who had trouble with activities of daily living and more trouble with work activities. While pain intensity did feature, it wasn’t as much of a predictor as many clinicians would expect. Indeed, an earlier meta-analysis by Ferreira and colleagues (2010) found that disability was a stronger predictor for seeking treatment than pain intensity.

So what do clinicians focus on? I suspect, though I aim to be proven incorrect, that almost every clinician will ask “what is your pain intensity on a scale from 0 – 10?” Frankly, this question is one that irritates me no end because how on earth do you rate pain? Seriously. Yes, there are a lot of clinicians who then ask about activities a person wants to be able to do (yay!) though when we look at the treatments offered, I wonder how many follow through with practical goal-setting for daily activities like getting shoes and socks on, carrying the groceries, sitting while driving the car or at work… And treatments? the arguments on social media between clinicians would be fun to watch if only they weren’t accompanied by such vehemence!

What I don’t see are conversations about how we help people recognise that they’re likely to follow one of those four trajectories, and what we do to help people self manage a life alongside low back pain.

I don’t see much attention paid to helping people sleep well.

Lots of conversations about pain neurobiology – in an attempt to use this explanation to bring someone on board to engage in treatments.

I don’t see a lot of discussion about how to ask about the person’s main concern – perhaps it’s nothing to do with pain, but more about “my niece is coming to visit and I’m not sure I can cope with entertaining her and managing my back pain”, or “we’re coming up to the busy time at work and I can’t not go in, but when I get home I’m trashed, how can I manage that?”, or “Monday’s are our busiest day, and I have to keep going because the team needs me, what do I do?”

I wonder whether clinicians could be persuaded to get out of the way and stop confusing people with recipes or algorithms or “special exercises” that “must be done this way” – I wonder if we could offer some very simple steps: specific answers to the person’s main concerns (best form of reassurance there is!); goal setting around the things the person needs and wants to do over the first six to eight weeks; sleep strategies including some mindfulness because that’s likely to help long-term; and lots of encouragement as the person returns to activity. Developing a relationship with the person doesn’t need lots of prescriptive steps or cookie cutter programmes, it does mean listening, showing trust in the person’s own capabilities, and willingness to let go of a few sticky thoughts we’ve acquired during our training. Maybe 2021 could be the year clinicians get back to basics and begin to support resilience in the people we see – firstly by showing them that we trust they have the capabilities.

Ardakani, E. M., Leboeuf-Yde, C., & Walker, B. F. (2019). Can We Trust the Literature on Risk Factors and Triggers for Low Back Pain? A Systematic Review of a Sample of Contemporary Literature. Pain Res Manag, 2019, 6959631. doi: 10.1155/2019/6959631

Dionne, C. E., Dunn, K. M., Croft, P. R., Nachemson, A. L., Buchbinder, R., Walker, B. F., . . . Von Korff, M. (2008). A consensus approach toward the standardization of back pain definitions for use in prevalence studies. Spine, 33(1), 95-103.

Franz, C., Wedderkopp, N., Jespersen, E., Rexen, C. T., & Leboeuf-Yde, C. (2014). Back pain in children surveyed with weekly text messages-a 2.5 year prospective school cohort study. Chiropractic & Manual Therapies, 22(1), 35.

Jones, G. T., & MacFarlane, G. J. (2005). Epidemiology of low back pain in children and adolescents. Archives of disease in childhood, 90(3), 312-316.

Mannion, A. F., Wieser, S., & Elfering, A. (2013). Association between beliefs and care-seeking behavior for low back pain. Spine, 38(12), 1016–1025

Reconciling uncertainty and the drive to diagnose


Recently it was suggested to me that even though I’m an occupational therapist, I might “diagnose”. Not so much diagnose disease, but “determine if a patient is depressed, anxious, catastrophising, fear avoidant etc?” The author goes on to say “isn’t that diagnosis too?” The comment was made in the context of a lengthy Twitter discussion about so-called “non-specific” low back pain. Over the course of I think about five weeks now, a large number of highly educated, erudite and passionate clinicians have argued the toss about whether it’s possible to identify the “cause” of nonspecific low back pain. On the odd occasion I’ve put my oar in to mention psychosocial aspects and that people seek help for many reasons, one of which may be pain intensity, but mostly people ask for help because either the pain is interfering with being able to do things, or because the person interprets their pain as an indication, perhaps, of something nasty.

I mention this context, because over the many tweets, I was struck by the degree of certainty demanded by various commentators on both sides of the discussion. “Where’s the gold standard?”; “What’s the evidence”; “Yes”; “No” – and in many respects, diagnosis is a practice based on degrees of certainty. You either have a disease – or you don’t. You have the signs and symptoms – or you don’t. Unless, of course, it’s the creeping edge of “pre-diagnosis” like my “pre-diabetes”.

In October I wrote about clinical enquiry, which is described by Engebretsen and colleagues (2015) as a complicated process (sure is!) of 4 overlapping, intertwined phases: (a) data collection – of self reported sensations, observations, otherwise known as “something is wrong and needs explaining”; (b) data interpreting “what might this mean?” by synthesising the data and working to recognise possible answers, or understanding; (c) weighing up alternative interpretations by judging; and (d) deciding what to do next, “what is the right thing to do”, or deliberation.

For, irrespective of our certainty about the precision of any particular test or ultimately a diagnosis, all of our work involves two people who must collaborate to follow the process outlined by Engebretsen and colleagues. That is, the person seeking help notices “something is wrong and needs explaining”, he or she communicates selected information to a knowledgeable person (a clinician) and that clinician will typically seek more information, and assemble this in some way (synthesise). In my case I like to do this assemblage in collaboration with the person so we can weigh up or judge various interpretations of that data. I bring some knowledge from my training and ongoing learning, while the person brings his or her intimate knowledge of what it is like to be experiencing that “something is wrong.” There are times when we are both in the dark and we need to collect some more information: for while the person knows what it is like to be in this predicament, there are likely factors not yet incorporated (or noticed) into the picture. For example, guided discovery or Socratic questioning usually involves exploring something the person is aware of but hadn’t considered relevant, or hadn’t joined the dots. I don’t think it takes rocket science to see just how messy and complex this communication and information synthesising process can be – it only takes a person to fail to provide a piece of information (because they don’t think it’s relevant) for the analysis to go awry.

I like the depiction of the diagnostic process described in Britannica.com because throughout the process, the diagnosis is held lightly. It’s provisional. The process of diagnosing is seen as a series of hypotheses that are tested as the treatment progresses. In other words, despite beginning treatment, clinicians are constantly testing the adequacy and accuracy of their clinical reasoning, being ready to change tack should the outcome not quite stack up.

As a clinician and commentator who focuses on the relationship between people with pain and the clinicians they see, it strikes me yet again that the process of diagnosis is often one of relative uncertainty. While it’s pretty easy to determine that a bone is fractured, when pain is the presenting problem and because imaging cannot show pain (and when there are few other clear-cut signs), the clinical reasoning process is far more uncertain.

As I would expect, I’m not the first person to ponder the certainty and uncertainty dilemma in diagnosis. Some of my favourite authors, Kersti Malterud and colleagues (and especially Anne-Marie Jutel!) wrote an editorial for the British Journal of General Practice in which they argue that uncertainty, far from being “the new Achilles heel of general practice (Jones, 2016), instead is absolutely typical of the complexity involved in general practice diagnostic work. They go on to say “The nature of clinical knowledge rests on interpretation and judgment of bits and pieces of information which will always be partial and situated. In this commentary, we argue that the quality of diagnosis in general practice is compromised by believing that uncertainty can, and should, be eliminated.” (p. 244).

In their editorial, Malterud and colleagues point out that the person’s story is essential for diagnosis – and that people have all sorts of reasons for not disclosing everything a clinician might want to know. One of those reasons may well be the clinician’s capability for demonstrating willingness to listen. They also argue that models of disease are social and therefore dynamic (ie what we consider to be disease shifts – pre-diabetes is a good example). People who don’t fit the received model of “what a symptom should be” may not be heard (think of women with heart disease may not present in the same way as men), while those with “medically unexplained” problems just do not fit a disease model.

They make the point that clinicians need to recognise that clinical testing “does not eliminate uncertainty, rather the opposite as it introduces false positive and negative results.” For my money, diagnostic testing should only be used if, as a result of that diagnosis, clinical management will change – and just to add another dollop of my opinion, I’d rather avoid testing if not only does clinical management not change, but outcomes are no different!

I think the call for certainty emerges from what Malterud and co describe as “The rationalist tradition” which “seeks to provide a world of apparent security where certainty is readily achievable.” The problems of both low back pain and many types of mental illness demonstrate very clearly that knowledge allowing us to be certain only covers a tiny amount of the territory of ill health. There is more unknown and uncertain than certain.

I’ll end with this quote from Malterud and co’s paper “Clinical practice must therefore develop and rely on epistemological rules beyond prediction and accuracy, acknowledging uncertainty as an important feature of knowledge and decision making. Nowotny (2016) suggests the notion ‘cunning of uncertainty’ as a strategy where we get to know uncertainty and acquire the skills to live with it.” In occupational therapy practice, uncertainty is always present in our problem-solving process – and consequently I don’t “diagnose”. I never know the effect of a tendency to “think the worst” or “worry” or “avoid because I’m scared” – the constructs it was suggested that I “diagnose”. Firstly because while I might recognise a pattern or tendency – I don’t know when, where, how or why the person may do that thing. And context, purpose, motivation and response all matter when it comes to people and what they do. And secondly, diagnosing suggests that we have a clear and specific approach to treat – and in most of my clinical work, certainty around outcome is definitely not a thing. We never really know if our suggestions are “right” because most of the impact of what we suggest is on the person within his or her own life. In my practice the outcomes ultimately determine how well I’ve worked with someone. Perhaps NSLBP is another of these human predicaments where being certain is less advantageous than embracing uncertainty and an unfolding narrative in someone’s life.



Engebretsen, E., Vøllestad, N. K., Wahl, A. K., Robinson, H. S., & Heggen, K. (2015). Unpacking the process of interpretation in evidence‐based decision making. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 21(3), 529-531.

Malterud, K., Guassora, A. D., Reventlow, S., & Jutel, A. (2017). Embracing uncertainty to advance diagnosis in general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 67(659), 244-245. doi:10.3399/bjgp17X690941

Nowotny H. The cunning of uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016

Expectations – and communicating


There are times when I look at the research on persistent pain and treatment, and I begin to wonder why I’m still so positive about this field! After all, it seems that although a biopsychosocial or multidimensional framework for pain has been around since the 1970’s, I’m still encountering reasonably recently-graduated clinicians who sincerely believe that whatever treatment they’ve learned is the Bee’s Knees, and Will Truly Fix All Pain. And people who firmly believe that All Pain Is X. Or Y. Or Z. And surely we should do what they say (pay the fee, get the certificate, perhaps even levels 3, 4 and 5!) and the people we see will get completely cured.

Maybe I’m just being a Grinch because it’s coming into Christmas.

Perhaps, too, we’ve all forgotten that treatments for persistent pain don’t happen in a vacuum. The people we work with have first had to recognise that their problem is something they think should be treated. Then they’ve chosen to see someone – and maybe chosen to see us, or been referred to us by someone else. These two steps in treatment response alone make an incredible difference to outcomes.

Imagine if I’m someone who thinks my lumbago is normal, something everyone gets, and don’t see it as something unusual. I might choose not to seek treatment until I’m about to embark on a long trip. I choose to see an osteopath because I think they’re more gentle than a physio (who will only give me exercises), or a chiropractor (who will hurt me!), and I don’t like needles so I avoid acupuncture. I don’t think my problem is serious enough to go see a medical practitioner and besides I think my GP will just send me to the physio.

Now imagine instead that I’m a young woman who loves to dance. I’ve had little niggles in my back before, but last night I got on the dance floor and partied like it’s 1999 (oh, that’s right, we’ve been there, done that!). Anyway I partied the night away until I slipped on some beer on the floor, landed on my butt and now my back is really bothering me. I head to my GP feeling pretty hung over and like I cannot walk because my back is SO sore.

Two reasonably common stories.

Now let’s take a look at a study looking at expectations from people seeking help for chronic pain (persistent pain). Wiering, de Boer, Krol , Wieberneit-Tolman and Delnoij (2018) examined the results of data collected from people with persistent pain. Over 2000 people took part in this study, mainly between the ages of 55 – 64. Most were women, most had been living with pain for a long time (on average 14.9 years). Most (50.7%) obtained treatment intended to reduce or stabilise (27%) their pain, and for many people the pain did stabilise (26%), or reduced to a degree (29.4% + 34% to a lesser degree). BUT, and here’s the thing: 41.8% expected a better result, while 33.3% got a better result than they thought they would.


The killer point is that although nearly 70% of people achieved or did better than they expected, and nearly 40% of patients didn’t expect very much, 30% of people were unsatisfied.

Curiously, there was little relationship between how the clinician communicated and the accuracy of the person’s expectations. It didn’t matter whether the clinicians used shared decision-making, patients felt their outcomes should be better than they were.

BUT importantly, attentive listening, having time available for the person, whether the patient trusted the clinician, and whether the patient thought the clinician had done all he or she could were important predictors of satisfaction.

What points do the authors make about communication and expectations? Well, one is that although communication is important only certain aspects of communication really rated with patients: clinicians thought “instrumental” communication was important. This is things like seeking information, asking questions of the person, asking for consent. Instead what actually helped was “affective” communication: responding to the person’s emotional subtext. Things like taking time to listen, building trust, giving people the idea that the clinician is doing all that he or she can.


There’s a caveat though, and I’ll quote directly “Low scores on the important communication aspects were related to expectations that were too high, while high scores were related to too low expectations. Apparently the perfect level of communication is somewhere in the middle. The relationship between low patient expectations and good affective communication may be a sign that it worries patients if health care providers show too much empathy and therefore come across as concerned.” (p. 6)

What can we do with this information? Well I think we can begin by recognising that helping people establish what’s important to them – what is the outcome they most value – is something often not tabled by us. We think we’re communicating clearly, but maybe not. We should also personalise treatments – help people realise that we’re not just delivering some sort of template or algorithm, but that we’re concerned about their unique needs, wants and lifestyles. We should also be warned that people seeking help from us have very high hopes that we’ll be able to achieve a lot. And of course, if we read the research, we should recognise that in general we don’t have a great track record in persistent pain. Let’s not over-promise!

I think using personalised outcome measures like the Patient Specific Functional Scale or the Canadian Occupational Performance Measure, or Goal Attainment Scaling could help us be more focused on what people want from their treatment. While pain reduction is the ideal – it’s not the only outcome! What point is there to have no pain if you’re still afraid to do things you want to do?

Wiering, B., de Boer, D., Krol, M., Wieberneit-Tolman, H., & Delnoij, D. (2018). Entertaining accurate treatment expectations while suffering from chronic pain: an exploration of treatment expectations and the relationship with patient- provider communication. BMC Health Serv Res, 18(1), 706. doi:10.1186/s12913-018-3497-8