Back pain

Great expectations – and low back pain

Have you ever wondered why there are so many treatments for low back pain? Like there are actually hundreds of different ways to “treat” back pain… yet the truth is, none of them work for everyone. Actually, most of them seem to help pass the time until low back pain settles of its own accord. Until it’s back again (no pun intended!).

This post is prompted after reading a string of general news articles discussing the common non-specific low back pain – under various guises of “dead butt syndrome“, “Dr Tom: Ouch I’ve hurt my back” and the like – I think it’s time for a frank discussion about the natural history of low back pain, as found in large epidemiological studies. There’s no doubt that low back pain is a problem around the world, and I think it’s partly due to unmet expectations (along with a whole lot of other variables). The Global Burden of Disease found low back pain to be the most common reason for days lived with disability around the world – that’s more than anaemia, depression, hearing loss, migraine!

Low back pain is common in every single country in the world.

Dunn, Hestbaek & Cassidy (2013) examined the prevalence of low back pain across the life span – they found that many of us view low back pain as a simple “yes/no” question – do you have it, or don’t you. They point out that people with no back pain at the time of a survey are not all the same: some might never have had a bout ever, while some might have had several bouts but just don’t have one right now. These presentations are not the same! Those who have had a previous episode will have developed an understanding of back pain on the basis of what happened, and this will influence their expectations, and subsequent response, to treatments.

Dunn, Hestbaek & Cassidy found that children/adolescents have a point prevalence (ie at the time of the survey, they reported they had back pain) of 12%. As people get older the prevalence continues to be around 12%. The elderly, those over 60 (that doesn’t really feel old to me!), seem to have a prevalence similar to people in middle age, and activities affected by low back pain seem to increase as we age.

Given the lifetime prevalence of low back pain is around 80% (or more), following people up over time seems to paint a different picture from the point prevalence studies: it’s not the same 12% of people that has low back pain all the time. Some studies show that at least 40% of people do recover within a year of an episode (see Hestbaek, Leboeuf-Yde, & Manniche, 2003). A Danish study with 5 year follow-up found around 23% of people consistently reported no pain days during the previous year (during the study) but around 10% reported more than 30 days of back pain every time they were asked. So, while long-term low back pain isn’t common in the adult population, most people do have a couple of bouts over long periods of time.

What are the risk factors? Well one clear risk factor is having had a previous episode, although this isn’t a consistent predictor for long-term back pain. Perhaps we should take a look more closely at the natural course of acute neck and low back pain – from the Norwegian longitudinal studies. From one city in Norway, these researchers screened 9056 people between 20 – 67 years old to identify those with a brand new bout of neck or back pain in the previous month – 219 people were identified, then followed for 12 months. What these researchers found was pain decreasing rapidly in the first month, irrespective of treatment, thereafter though, back pain didn’t change for the rest of the year especially for those with pain in the neck as well as the back at the first assessment, and for those who had 4 or more pain sites in the beginning.

Now what’s really interesting about this study is that the pain reduction people experienced, particularly in low back pain, was pretty close to the pain reduction people achieved whether they had treatment, or not. Hmmmm. Next question: what if we look at all the treatments people get, and those who are in the control group, and pooled that information to find out what happens? Artus, van der Windt, Jordan & Croft examined whether just taking part in a study on low back pain might influence outcomes – so they pooled 70 RCTs and 19 cohort studies, and both sets of data showed “a rapid improvement in the first six weeks followed by a smaller further improvement until 52 weeks. there was no statistically significant different in pooled standardised mean change (a measure used to compared the pooled within-group change in pain in RCTs with cohort studies) – get this, at any time point.

But wait, there’s more!

Axen & Leboeuf-Yde (2013) looked at the trajectories of low back pain over time. They summarised four studies in primary care or the general population, finding that over the course of between 12 weeks and 12 months, participants could be divided into two to four groups: one group remained uncomfortable, perhaps staying that way over the whole 12 months (around 10 – 21%); one group also remained uncomfortable but they reported their pain as “moderate” or “mild” – around 36%; another approximately 30% experienced fluctuating or intermittent low back pain; and finally, the group we love – those who recovered and remained that way, around 30 – 58%.

This is not the picture we hear in the media. This is not what we were taught. And yes, I know there are problems with pooled data because individualised responses get ironed out. But what all this says to me is – our patients come to us expecting that low back pain should completely resolve. The reality is that for a lot of people, back pain will come and go throughout the lifetime.

What does this mean to me?

Isn’t it time to give people an idea that if they have a bout of back pain, chances are high they’ll have another. Complete resolution of low back pain may not occur for a large number of people. A new bout of low back pain may not mean a new “injury” (given we don’t know why many people develop back pain in the first place). Learning to self-manage a bout of back pain is likely to save people a load of heartache, not to mention a lot of money. And maybe it’s the latter that means it’s very hard to find clear, effective messages about just how safe a painful back is. It’s far easier to sell a message of vulnerability, of the need for treatment for that “unhappy spine” as a chiropractor in Christchurch calls it. And of course, if we continue to allow the expectation that all pain should be gone, we’re going to be in business for a very long time…


Artus, M., van der Windt, D., Jordan, K.P., & Croft, P.R. (2014). The clinical course of low back pain: A meta-analysis comparing outcomes in randomised clinical trials (rcts) and observational studies. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 15, 68.

Axén, I., & Leboeuf-Yde, C. (2013). Trajectories of low back pain. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 601-612. doi:

Dunn, K.M., Hestbaek, L., & Cassidy, J.D. (2013). Low back pain across the life course. Best Practice & Research in Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 591-600.

Hestbaek L, Leboeuf-Yde C, Engberg M, Lauritzen T, Bruun NH, Manniche C. (2003). The course of low back pain in a general population. Results from a 5-year prospective study. Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics, 26(4):213–9.

Hestbaek L, Leboeuf-Yde C, Manniche C. (2003). Low back pain: what is the long-term course? A review of studies of general patient populations. European Spine Journal, 12(2):149–65.

Vasseljen, O., Woodhouse, A., Bjorngaard, J.H., & Leivseth, L. (2013). Natural course of acute neck and low back pain in the general population: The HUNT study. Pain, 154(8), 1237-1244.

Exercise? Who me? Yoga or physiotherapy or education…

Exercise, while one of The Most Important self management approaches for persistent pain, is not an easy sell to someone who is experiencing pain. Especially not if that exercise looks like huffing and puffing, hauling on bits of metal in a gym, or wearing lycra. Not to mention the “sports drinks”…  Those things aside, exercising is a good thing. You heard it from me, and I have declared my body an exercise free zone! The thing is, what kind of exercise, for what purpose, and how to get introduced to it.

Personally I’m a fan of exercise that achieves something else other than “getting fit”. I like gardening, I love dancing, I enjoy cycling (especially to the store to get a GREAT coffee!). Walking the dog is fun. Swimming (especially snorkeling) is awesome! I like my exercise to do more than bring on the endorphins, especially as I don’t get much of that post-exertional analgesia that many people do – and believe me, they do (Ellinson, Stegner, Schwabacher, Koltyn & Cook, 2016). I like my exercise to look like the things I need or want to do, so that when I need to do ’em, I’m in fit state to get on and do ’em.

So what kind of exercise works best? One sage told me “the exercise the person does!” and there is some truth to that, so when I begin talking to someone about exercise, I’m looking for something they can do regularly, that fits into their lifestyle, that makes them feel good, and has some other benefit to them. That benefit might be the social thing – going to a box-fit class with a group of others all bent on getting their fix of play-fighting. It might be the solitary thing – long walks along the beach with the dog for company. It might be the music – in my case, it’s belly dance (and I dare anyone to do a 5 minute shimmy drill while keeping an isolated upper body, a loose shimmy and smile!).

I like the idea of having variety – who says we need to do the same kind of exercise every day? So it’s a wet day and I don’t fancy taking my bike out in the rain, I can turn to my dance practice, or do the dusting, or vacuum the floors. It’s a frosty day and I can go for a brisk walk and take photographs of gorgeous sparkly frosty droplets while Sheba-the-wonderdog huffs steam and sniffs at the local scents. If it’s a warm day, why not head to the pool for a lap or two? If it’s a busy day and I don’t have time, what about some “exercise snacks”? Five minutes of exercise every 25 minutes adds some pretty quickly, so it’s lunges and chair dips and wall presses and shimmy practice in between writing.

Over time we’re seeing more research looking particularly at yoga for persistent pain of all kinds. Yoga comes in many different forms, and in this case I’m guessing the more extreme forms of hot yoga and contortion is not being studied. Some of the studies are appearing in rather eminent journals, like this one from the Annals of Internal Medicine and authored by a very large team including Saper, Lemaster, Delitto and colleagues (2017).

This study is a “non-inferiority” study, looking to establish whether yoga or physiotherapy, or indeed education, can help people living with chronic low back pain. Now I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow analysis of the study, that’s for you to do. What I am going to do is look at what the yoga consisted of – and see why, perhaps, yoga is getting so much research interest. BTW, yoga was found to be non-inferior to physiotherapy, and both yoga and PT were more likely than education to have a clinically meaningful response, although neither yoga nor PT were superior to education.

This is the basic format of the yoga class: Each class began with relaxation and meditation exercises, yoga breathing, and yoga philosophy. It continued with yoga poses and
concluded with relaxation. Pose variations and aids (such as chair, strap, and blocks) accommodated various abilities. Thirty minutes of daily home practice, facilitated by a DVD, a manual, and take-home yoga supplies, was strongly encouraged.

Yoga appeals to many because it seems to begin where people are at – it’s not huffy-puffy, things don’t jiggle, and generally the classes begin and end with the ritual of breathing and meditation. I like the idea of yoga (and yes, I’ve done a class or two!), because it doesn’t involve a lot of gadgets, you can do it alone or in a group, and it feels good. What I don’t like about yoga is the need to get effective and consistent feedback about how well you’re performing the poses, especially in the beginning, which means it can be difficult to do on your own without a teacher.

For people who find exercising both difficult and painful, yoga is a good place to start. I think attending classes is crucial (or at least having an instructor and a mirror!). Learning to use the meditation and breathing is integral to the exercise – and it’s this that I think makes yoga an effective addition to the exercise toolkit. What I’m less sure of is whether it’s better than any other form of exercise – or, in my case, the many different types of movements that I use in my weekly routine. And there’s the rub. As an occupational therapist, exercise is something people choose to do as a form of occupation (valued and meaningful activity). I also enjoy a bunch of other movement-based occupations, and to me these are as valid as yoga or the PT exercises included in this study. What my approach lacks, however, is a researched basis for it.

But here’s the thing: to date the research supporting exercise for people with persistent pain shows modest effects. And those effects are completely lost if the person doesn’t do the exercise. So why not have a wide range of whole-body movement practices to draw on, allowing the person to pick and choose and get out and do something every day, even if it doesn’t fit with our modern notions of what exercise should be?



Ellingson, L. D., Stegner, A. J., Schwabacher, I. J., Koltyn, K. F., & Cook, D. B. (2016). Exercise Strengthens Central Nervous System Modulation of Pain in Fibromyalgia. Brain Sciences, 6(1), 8.

Saper, R. B., Lemaster, C., Delitto, A., & et al. (2017). Yoga, physical therapy, or education for chronic low back pain: A randomized noninferiority trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. doi:10.7326/M16-2579

Targeting the people who need it most

A couple of things came to mind today as I thought about this post: the first was an article in the local newspaper about a man complaining that the government is “promoting disability” because he couldn’t get surgery for a disc prolapse – and the pain was affecting his ability to work. The second was how to direct the right treatment at the right person at the right time – and how we can be derailed by either wholesale over-servicing “everyone needs treatment X”, or by overburdening people with assessment just to give a fairly basic treatment.

Now with the first man, I don’t know his clinical situation – what I do know is that there are many people every day who must learn to live with their pain because there simply is not an effective treatment of any kind, and that amongst these people are those go on to live wonderful lives despite their pain. I wonder if this man has ever been offered comprehensive self management for while he waits for his surgery. Whether the government could spread some funding away from surgery as the primary option for such pain problems – and instead provide better funding for the wider range of approaches offered through the interdisciplinary pain management centres (approaches which include injection procedures, physiotherapy, psychology, occupational therapy and medications). When there is an effective treatment (and this is arguable in the case of disc prolapse – in fact, it’s difficult to know whether even MRI imaging can give a clear indication of who might respond best to what treatment (Steffens, Hancock, Pereira et al, 2016), we should be able to give it, provided it fits within our country’s health budget. Ahh – that’s the problem, isn’t it… expensive treatments mean fewer people can get basic treatment. And with lumbar disc prolapse, the evidence for surgery is less favourable than many people recognise (Deyo & Mirza, 2016) – they state:

“Patients with severe or progressive neurologic deficits require a referral for surgery. Elective surgery is an option for patients with congruent clinical and MRI findings and a condition that does not improve within 6 weeks. The major benefit of surgery is relief of sciatica that is faster than relief with conservative treatment, but results of early surgical and prolonged conservative treatment tend to be similar at 1 year of follow-up. Patients and physicians should share in decision making.”

So here we have a person with lots of pain, experiencing a great deal of distress, and reducing his work because of pain and disability. My question now (and not for this person in particular) is whether being distressed is equivalent to needing psychological help. How would we know?

There’s been a tendency in pain management to bring in psychologists to help people in this kind of situation. Sometimes people being referred for such help feel aggrieved: “My problem isn’t psychological!” they say, and they’re quite correct. But having a problem that isn’t psychological doesn’t mean some psychological help can’t be useful – unless by doing so, we deny people who have serious psychological health problems from being seen. And in New Zealand there are incredible shortages in mental health service delivery – in Christchurch alone we’ve had an increase in use of mental health services of more than 60% over the past six years since the massive 2010/2011 earthquakes (The Press).

People living with persistent pain often do experience depression, anxiety, poor sleep, challenges to relationships and in general, feeling demoralised and frustrated.  In a recent study of those attending a specialist pain management centre, 60% met criteria for “probable depression” while 33.8% met criteria for “severe depression” (Rayner, Hotopf, Petkova, Matcham, Simpson & McCracken, 2016). BUT that’s 40% who don’t – and it’s my belief that providing psychological services to this group is allocating resources away from people who really need it.

So, what do we do? Well one step forward might be to use effective screening tools to establish who has a serious psychological need and who may respond just as well to reactivation and return to usual activities with the support of the less expensive (but no less skilled) occupational therapy and physiotherapy teams. Vaegter, Handberg, & Kent (in press) have just published a study showing that brief psychological screening measures can be useful for ruling out those with psychological conditions. While we would never use just a questionnaire for diagnosis, when combined with clinical assessment and interview, brief forms of questionnaires can be really helpful for establishing risk and areas for further assessment. This study provides some support for using single item questions to identify those who need more in-depth assessment, and those who don’t need this level of attention. I like that! The idea that we can triage those who probably don’t need the whole toolbox hurled at them is a great idea.

Perhaps the New Zealand politicians, as they begin the downhill towards general elections at the end of the year, could be asked to thoughtfully consider rational distribution of healthcare, and a greater emphasis on targeted use of allied health and expensive surgery.


Deyo, R. A., & Mirza, S. K. (2016). Herniated Lumbar Intervertebral Disk. New England Journal of Medicine, 374(18), 1763-1772.

Hahne, A. J., Ford, J. J., & McMeeken, J. M. (2010). Conservative management of lumbar disc herniation with associated radiculopathy: A systematic review. Spine, 35(11), E488-504.

Koffel, E., Kroenke, K., Bair, M. J., Leverty, D., Polusny, M. A., & Krebs, E. E. (2016). The bidirectional relationship between sleep complaints and pain: Analysis of data from a randomized trial. Health Psychology, 35(1), 41-49.

Rayner L, Hotopf M, Petkova H, Matcham F, Simpson A, McCracken LM. Depression in patients with chronic pain attending a specialised pain treatment centre: prevalence and impact on health care costs. Pain. 2016;157(7):1472-1479. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000542

Steffens, D., Hancock, M.J., Pereira, L.S. et al.(2016) Do MRI findings identify patients with low back pain or sciatica who respond better to particular interventions? A systematic review. European Spine Journal 25: 1170. doi:10.1007/s00586-015-4195-4

Vaegter, H. B. P., Handberg, G. M. D., & Kent, P. P. Brief psychological screening questions can be useful for ruling out psychological conditions in patients with chronic pain. Clinical Journal of Pain.

Mulling over the pain management vs pain reduction divide

I’ve worked in persistent pain management for most of my career. This means I am biased towards pain management. At times this creates tension when I begin talking to clinicians who work in acute or subacute musculoskeletal pain, because they wonder whether what I talk about is relevant to them. After all, why would someone need to know about ongoing management when hopefully their pain will completely go?

I have sympathy for this position – for many people, a bout of tendonosis, or a strained muscle or even radicular pain can ebb away, leaving the person feeling as good as new. While it might take a few months for these pain problems to settle, in many instances there’s not too much need for long-term changes in how the person lives their life.

On the other hand, there are many, many people who either don’t have simple musculoskeletal problems (ie they’re complicated by other health conditions, or they have concurrent issues that make dealing with pain a bit of a challenge), or they have conditions that simply do not resolve. Good examples of these include osteoarthritis (hip, knee, shoulder, thumbs, fingers) and grumbly old lower back pain, or peripheral neuropathy (diabetic or otherwise). In these cases the potential for pain to carry on is very present, and I sometimes wonder how well we are set up to help them.

Let’s take the case of osteoarthritis. Because our overall population is aging, and because of, perhaps, obesity and inactivity, osteoarthritis of the knee is becoming a problem. People can develop OA knee early in their life after sustaining trauma to the knee (those rugby tackles, falling off motorcycles, falling off horses, running injuries), or later in life as they age – so OA knee is a problem of middle to later age. People living with knee OA describe being concerned about pain, especially pain that goes on after they’ve stopped activities; they’re worried about walking, bending and maintaining independence – and are kinda pessimistic about the future thinking that  “in 10 years their health would be worse and their arthritis would be a major problem” (Burks, 2002).

To someone living with osteoarthritis, especially knee osteoarthritis, it can seem that there is only one solution: get a knee replacement. People are told that knee replacements are a good thing, but also warned that knee replacements shouldn’t be done “too soon”, leaving them feeling a bit stranded (Demierre, Castelao & Piot-Ziegler, 2011). Conversations about osteoarthritis are not prioritised in healthcare consultations – in part because people with knee osteoarthritis believe that knee pain is “just part of normal aging”, that there’s little to be done about it, and medications are thought to be unpleasant and not especially helpful (Jinks, Ong & Richardson, 2007).

I wonder how many healthcare professionals feel the same as the participants in the studies I’ve cited above. Do we think that knee OA is just something to “live with” because the problem is just part of old age, there’s an eventual solution, and meanwhile there’s not a lot we can do about it?

When I think about our approach to managing the pain of osteoarthritis, I also wonder about our approach to other pains that don’t settle the way we think they should. Is part of our reluctance to talk about pain that persists because we don’t feel we know enough to help? Or that we feel we’ve failed? Or that it’s just part of life and people should just get on with it? Is it about our feelings of powerlessness?

In the flush of enthusiasm for explaining the mechanisms of pain neurobiology, have we become somewhat insensitive to what it feels like to be on the receiving end when the “education” doesn’t reduce pain? And what do we do when our efforts to reduce pain fail to produce the kind of results we hope for? And the critical point, when do we begin talking about adapting to living well alongside pain?

What does a conversation about learning to adapt to pain look like – or do we just quietly let the person stop coming to see us once we establish their pain isn’t subsiding? I rather fancy it might be the latter.

Here’s a couple of thoughts about how we might broach the subject of learning to live with persistent pain rather than focusing exclusively on reducing pain:

  • “What would you be doing if pain was less of a problem?” My old standby because in talking about this I can begin to see underlying values and valued activities that I can help the person look at starting, albeit maybe doing them differently.
  • “What do you think are the chances of this pain completely going away?” Some might say this is about expectancy and I’m setting up a “nocebic” effect, but I argue that understanding the person’s own perspective is helpful. And sometimes, when a person has persistent pain and a diagnosis like osteoarthritis, their appraisal is less about catastrophising and more about holding a realistic view about their own body. It’s not about the appraisal – it’s about what we do about this. And we can use this perspective to built confidence and increase the importance of learning coping strategies.
  • “If I could show you some ways to deal with pain fluctuations, would you be interested in learning more?” All episodes of pain that persists will have times when pain is more intense than others – flare-ups are a normal part of recovering from, and living with persistent pain. Everyone needs to know some ways of going with, being flexible about or coping with flare-ups. I teach people not to focus exclusively on reducing pain during these flare-up periods. This is because even during rehabilitation we don’t want to use pain as a guide (it can be a cruel task-master). We know that rehabilitation can increase (temporarily) pain while the body habituates to new movement patterns, the brain gets used to new input, and the homunculus gets redefined. It’s great to be able to teach strategies that increase the sense of safety, security and down-regulation that can be lost in the initial onslaught of pain.

To summarise, not all pain problems settle. We can help everyone to be more resilient if we begin talking about ways of coping with flare-ups even during subacute pain, particularly if we avoid an excessive focus on trying to avoid them. Instead, we can begin to help people feel confident that flare-ups always settle down, and that they can manage them effectively by using effective self management.


Burks, K. (2002). Health concerns of men with osteoarthritis of the knee. Orthopaedic Nursing, 21(4), 28-34.

Cohen, E., & Lee, Y. C. (2015). A mechanism-based approach to the management of osteoarthritis pain. Current Osteoporosis Reports, 13(6), 399-406.

Demierre, M., Castelao, E., & Piot-Ziegler, C. (2011). The long and painful path towards arthroplasty: A qualitative study. J Health Psychol, 16(4), 549-560. doi:10.1177/1359105310385365

Jinks, C., Ong, B. N., & Richardson, J. (2007). A mixed methods study to investigate needs assessment for knee pain and disability: Population and individual perspectives. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 8, 59.

What to do with the results from the PCS

The Pain Catastrophising Scale is one of the more popular measures used in pain assessment. It’s popular because catastrophising (thinking the worst) has been identified as an especially important risk factor for slow recovery from pain (Abbott, Tyni-Lenne & Hedlund, 2010), for reporting high levels of pain intensity (Langley, 2011), and for ongoing disability (Elfving, Andersoon & Grooten, 2007). I could have cited hundreds more references to support these claims, BTW.

The problem is, once the PCS is administered and scored: what then? What difference does it make in how we go about helping a person think a little more positively about their pain, do more and feel more confident?

If you haven’t seen my earlier posts about the PCS, take a look at this, this, and this for more details.

Anyway, so someone has high scores on rumination, helplessness and magnifying – what does this mean? Let’s say we have two people attending the clinic, one has really high scores on all three subscales, while the other has low or average scores. Both have grumbly old low back pain, both have had exercises in the past, both are finding it tough to do normal daily activities right now.

For a good, general pain management approach to low back pain, and once red flags are excluded (yes, the “bio” comes first!) this is what I do. I establish what the person thinks is going on and ask if it’s OK to talk about pain neurobiology. Together we’ll generate a pain formulation, which is really a spaghetti diagram showing the experience as described by the person (I used guided discovery to develop it). I then ask the person what they’d be doing if their pain wasn’t such a problem for them, perhaps what they’re finding the most frustrating thing about their situation at the moment. Often it will be sleep, or driving or cooking dinner, or perhaps even getting clothes on (shoes and socks!). I’ll then begin with helping the person develop good relaxed breathing (for using with painful movements), and start by encouraging movement into the painful zone while remaining relaxed, and tie this in with one of the common activities (occupations) the person needs or wants to do. For example, I’ll encourage bending forward to put shoes and socks on while breathing in a relaxed and calm way. I’ll be watching and also encourage relaxing the shoulders and any other tense parts of the body. For someone who is just generally sore but doesn’t report high pain catastrophising, I will also encourage some daily movements doing something they enjoy – it might be walking, yoga, dancing, gardening, whatever they enjoy and will do regularly every day for whatever they can manage. Sometimes people need to start small so 5 minutes might be enough. I suggest being consistent, doing some relaxation afterwards, and building up only once the person has maintained four or five days of consistent activity. And doing the activity the person has been finding difficult.

If the person I’m seeing has high scores on the PCS I’ll begin in a similar way, but I’ll teach a couple of additional things, and I’ll expect to set a much lower target – and probably provide far more support. Catastrophising is often associated with having trouble disengaging from thinking about pain (ruminating), so I’ll teach the person some ways to deal with persistent thoughts that hang around.

A couple to try: mindfulness, although this practice requires practice! It’s not intended to help the person become relaxed! It’s intended to help them discipline their mind to attend to one thing without judgement and to notice and be gentle with the mind when it gets off track, which it will. I ask people to practice this at least four times a day, or whenever they’re waiting for something – like the jug to boil, or while cleaning teeth, or perhaps waiting for a traffic light.

Another is to use a “15 minutes of worry” practice. I ask the person to set a time in the evening to sit down and worry, usually from 7.00 – 7.15pm. Throughout the day I ask the person to notice when they’re ruminating on their situation. I ask them to remind themselves that they’re going to worry about that tonight and deliberately put that worry aside until their appointment with worry. Then, at 7.00pm they are asked to get a piece of paper and write ALL their worries down for a solid 15 minutes. No stopping until 15 minutes is over! It’s really hard. Then when they go to sleep, I ask them to remind themselves that they’ve now worried all their worries, and they can gently set those thoughts aside because they won’t forget their worry, it’s written down (I think worry is one way a mind tries hard to stop you from forgetting to DO something about the worry!). People can throw the paper away in the morning because then it begins all over again.

Usually people who score high on the PCS also find it hard to be realistic about their pain, they’ll use words that are really emotive and often fail to notice parts of the body that aren’t in pain. By noticing the worst, they find it tough to notice the best.  I like to guide people to notice the unloved parts of their body, the bits that don’t hurt – like the earlobes, or the belly button. I’ll offer guidance as to what to notice while we’re doing things, in particular, I like to guide people to notice those parts of the body that are moving smoothly, comfortably and that look relaxed. This is intended to support selective attention to good things – rather than only noticing pain.

Finally, I give more support to those who tend to be more worried about their pain than others. So I might set the goals a little lower – walking for five times a week, two days off for good behaviour rather than every day. Walking for five minutes rather than ten. And I’ll check in with them more often – by text, email or setting appointments closer together. It’s important for people who fear the worst to experience some success, so setting small goals that are achieved can build self efficacy – especially when I try hard to offer encouragement in terms of what the person has done despite the odds. So, if the person says they’ve had a real flare-up, I’ll try to boost confidence by acknowledging that they’ve come in to see me even though it’s a bad pain day, that they’ve tried to do something instead of nothing, that talking to me about the challenge shows guts and determination.

People who see the glass as half empty rather than half full are just people. Like you and I, they’re people who have a cognitive bias. With support, we can help people view their pain differently – and that process applies to all of us, not just those with high scores on the PCS.


Abbott, A. D., Tyni-Lenne, R., & Hedlund, R. (2010). The influence of psychological factors on pre-operative levels of pain intensity, disability and health-related quality of life in lumbar spinal fusion surgery patients. Physiotherapy, 96(3), 213-221. doi:10.1016/

Elfving, B., Andersson, T., & Grooten, W. J. (2007). Low levels of physical activity in back pain patients are associated with high levels of fear-avoidance beliefs and pain catastrophizing. Physiotherapy Research International, 12(1), 14-24.

Langley, P. C. (2011). The prevalence, correlates and treatment of pain in the european union. Curr Med Res Opin, 27(2), 463-480. doi:10.1185/03007995.2010.542136

Clinical reasoning “think aloud”

Occupational therapists are keen on helping people return to doing the things they value – meaningful activity, or participating in valued occupations (same thing, essentially). So, a person might come to see me because they have low back pain and want to work out how to get to work.

My first step is to understand what it is about the back pain that seems to be stopping the person from doing the tasks involved in their work. I usually begin by taking a history – what does the person understand about how their back pain came on, what’s their theory as to why it’s there, what have they done to help their recovery, how are they managing the everyday things they need to do right now. I ask about sleep, sex, personal care, daily routine, and in doing so I’m finding out about the person’s beliefs and attitudes towards their pain, their ability to regulate their arousal level, their mood, their confidence, the influence of others around them (both supportive – and those more subtle influences like their response when the person does something). I’m very careful to try to understand the contexts in which the person is having trouble – and what factors in the context might be supporting change.

In my mind I’m trying to establish a set of possible reasons for this person coming to see me at this time and in this way. I’m running through the various influences I know affect a person’s ability to engage in normal daily activities. Because I have a strong psychology background, I’ll consider functional behavioural analysis, but I’m also sensitive to personal values, cultural norms, and yes, even biological factors such as strength, range of movement, and motor control.

I can try to influence two things: the demands of the tasks in the context of work, and the capabilities of the person, but I need to keep a couple of things in mind.

  1. What is the effect of my intervention in the medium to long-term, not just the short-term?
  2. What does this person need in this context right now?

Depending on my clinical formulation, and the overall theoretical model I’m using, I can approach the decision-making in many different ways. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a fan of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, so my end goal is to help this person develop the ability to respond flexibly to the demands of any situation. I want to keep in mind that what I do now can have a long-term influence on what they’ll do over time. Some occupational therapists may instead focus primarily on “what will solve the problem for this person right now” without always thinking about the long-term impact.  As a result, we can see some people with low back pain being given special seating, perhaps a new bed, some adaptive equipment so they can achieve the goal of “doing” – but at the same time, being unaware of the constraints this can put on the person being able to participate in other contexts.

For example, if my client is having trouble getting to work because he thinks his car’s seat should be fixed. If my focus was purely on helping him drive his car in comfort, I could consider assessing his car and giving him some cushioning to make it more supportive. There, problem fixed! But, let’s take a look at the effect of that intervention in the medium term. While he can drive to and from work, he’s learned that he “needs” a special seat or cushioning to help stop his discomfort. He’s also learned that his back pain is something he “shouldn’t” experience.

Based on what he’s learned from my intervention, what do you think can happen if he continues to experience back pain in the work setting?

His personal model of pain will have developed a couple of interesting quirks (and ones we often see in clients) – he’s learned that posture influences his back pain, and that there is a posture that “fixes” it. He’s learned that he should have his back in a particular position to be comfortable. He’s also learned that because he can influence his sitting position in the car, he “should” be able to influence his sitting position in other contexts – like, perhaps, his office desk or the seat in his digger. He might even, if his belief that his back “should” be in a particular position is especially strong, begin to try to keep his back in this position while doing other activities like walking or carrying things, or using tools. Most insidiously, he has learned that his back pain is something he should not have. It’s a sign to him that he has to “fix” his sitting position or he’s doing something wrong. But back pain is common, many factors influence it, and it often doesn’t settle completely.

If I instead want him to be able to respond flexibly to many different settings, I’ll need to think more carefully about my intervention. My underlying reasoning has to capture the workability of any suggestions I make – and workability not just in the car while driving, but at work, while doing other tasks, at other times.

I may work together with him to find out what it is about the pain in his back that particularly bothers him. Pain itself is usually not the problem – it’s what the pain represents, the effect on doing things both here and now, and in the future. In my client’s case, perhaps his back pain is particularly frustrating for him because he values getting to work and feeling ready for anything. He doesn’t want to feel like his goals are being blocked (he doesn’t want to feel exhausted and not ready for work), he doesn’t want his back pain, and his mind is telling him he needs to be “ready for anything” even though he is in the middle of a bout of back pain. In ACT terms, he’s avoiding the negative feeling of frustration, of potential failure, of feeling exhausted and his back pain, and he’s doing what all humans do – trying to control those emotions so that he doesn’t feel them! Makes perfect sense – except that the solution (giving him a cushion for his vehicle) could pose its own problems.

I can position my intervention in a couple of different ways. Honouring the value he places on being ready for anything at work, I can talk to him about how well that’s working for him right now, given he’s having a bout of back pain. Could he be willing to allow himself to be less “ready for anything” while he recovers from his back pain? I could also suggest that he could take the time to be present to his back pain, to be aware of and experience his back – and his feet, arms, shoulders and breath – while driving to work, so that he can notice the times when it’s really bothering him, and when it bothers him less, and that along with his back pain he also has areas of comfort and strength. I could provide him with a cushion – but ask him to think about what happens when he has to sit in other chairs, and ask about the workability of carrying a cushion wherever he goes.

The point is that while occupational therapists can help people do the things they want and need to do, some of our efforts can constrain people’s options over time. We don’t live the lives of our clients – but sometimes we can assume the client’s priority is to solve an immediate problem, while overlooking the other competing values the person also holds dear.

I’ve included some readings that have informed this blog post – while they’re not directly referenced in my post, they help inform my clinical reasoning.

Damsgard, E., Dewar, A., Roe, C., & Hamran, T. (2011). Staying active despite pain: Pain beliefs and experiences with activity-related pain in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 108-116. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6712.2010.00798.x

DeGood, Douglas E., & Cook, Andrew J. (2011). Psychosocial assessment: Comprehensive measures and measures specific to pain beliefs and coping. Turk, Dennis C [Ed], 67-97.

McCracken, Lance M., & Vowles, Kevin E. (2014). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness for Chronic Pain: Model, Process, and Progress. American Psychologist, 69(2), 178-187.

Stenberg, Gunilla, Fjellman-Wiklund, Anncristine, & Ahlgren, Christina. (2014). ‘I am afraid to make the damage worse’ – fear of engaging in physical activity among patients with neck or back pain – a gender perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 28(1), 146-154. doi: 10.1111/scs.12043

Trompetter, Hester R., ten Klooster, Peter M., Schreurs, Karlein M., Fledderus, Martine, Westerhof, Gerben J., & Bohlmeijer, Ernst T. (2013). Measuring values and committed action with the Engaged Living Scale (ELS): Psychometric evaluation in a nonclinical sample and a chronic pain sample. Psychological Assessment, 25(4), 1235-1246.

van Huet, H, & Williams, D. (2007). Self-Beliefs About Pain and Occupational Performance: A Comparison of Two Measures Used in a Pain Management Program. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health Vol 27(1) Win 2007, 4-12.

What should we do about acute low back pain?

There’s no doubt that low back pain presents a major healthcare problem in all parts of the world. It’s probably the most common form of musculoskeletal pain around, it can be highly disabling – and its management is one of the most contentious imaginable. As someone once said “if there was an effective treatment for low back pain, there wouldn’t be such a range of treatments available!”

I want to take a step back and consider people living with nonspecific low back pain only, it’s by far the most prevalent, and while no-one would say there is a single diagnosis that can be applied to all forms of back pain, there seem to be some similarities in how this kind of pain responds.

What we’ve learned over the past year is that acetaminophen hardly touches the pain of nonspecific low back pain Machado, Maher, Ferreira, Pinheiro et al, 2015). This means anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are the most likely group of medications to be prescribed, or perhaps codeine. Exercise was the recommended treatment for osteoarthritis of the hip and knee, suggesting that this approach might also be recommended for low back pain.

Turning to exercise, it seems that there is no clear indication that any particular type of exercise is any better than any other exercise for low back pain (not even motor control exercise)(Saragiotto, Maher, Yamato Tie, Costa et al, 2016), and all exercise improves pain and disability – and even recurrences (Machado, Bostick & Maher, 2013). What seems important is that people get moving again, and do so quickly after the onset of their back pain.

Graded exposure has also been in the news, latest being a study using graded exposure for elderly people living with chronic low back pain, where it was found to not only improve function (reduce disability) but also found to reduce pain (Leonhardt, Kuss, Becker, Basler et al, in press). OK, pain reduction wasn’t reduced a great deal, but neither have many treatments – and at least this one has few adverse effects and improves disability.

Where am I going with this?

Well, recently I made some apparently radical suggestions: I said that

  1. sub-typing low back pain doesn’t yet seem to be consistent;
  2. that no particular exercise type seems better than anything else;
  3. that ongoing disability is predicted more by psychosocial factors than by physical findings – even when injection treatments are used (van Wijk, Geurts, Lousberg,Wynne, Hammink, et al, 2008).
  4. that people with low back pain seem to get better for a while, and often find their back pain returns or grumbles along without any particular provocation;
  5. and that perhaps treatment should focus LESS on reducing pain (which doesn’t seem to be very effective) and LESS on trying to identify particular types of exercise that will suit particular people and MORE simply on graded return to normal activity.
  6. Along with really good information about what we know about low back pain (which isn’t much in terms of mechanics or anatomy, but quite a lot about what’s harmful and what doesn’t help at all), maybe all we need to do is help people get back to their usual activities.

For my sins I was asked not to remain involved in the group planning health system pathways (I also suggested maybe osteopaths, chiropractors, massage therapists and both occupational therapists and psychologists might also be good to be involved – maybe that was the radical part because I can’t see an awful lot radical about my other suggestions!).

Here’s my suggestion – when one of the most difficult aspects of low back pain management is helping people return to normal activities within their own environment (work, home, leisure), why not call in the experts in this area? I’m talking about YOU, occupational therapists! So far I haven’t been able to find a randomised controlled trial of occupational therapy graded exposure for low back pain. I’m sorry about this – it’s possibly a reflection of the difficulty there is in even suggesting that DOING NOTHING (ie not attempting to change the tissues, just helping people return to normal activity) might be an active form of treatment, and one that could work.

I don’t want to denigrate the wonderful work many clinicians do in the field of low back pain, but I suspect much of what seems to work is “meaning response” – well-meaning clinicians who believe in their treatments, patients who believe in their therapists, treatments that appear plausible within the general zeitgeist of “why we have low back pain”, all leading to a ritual in which people feel helped and begin to do things again.

Many of us have read Ben Darlow’s paper on The Enduring Impact of What Clinicians Say to People with Low Back Pain (Darlow, Dowell, Baxter, Mathieson, Perry & Dean, 2013). We have yet to count the cost of well-meaning clinicians feeding misinformed and unhelpful beliefs (and behaviours) to people with acute low back pain. I think the cost will be extremely high.

I just wonder if we might not be able to cut out much of the palaver about low back pain if we went directly to the “feeling helped and begin to do things again” without the misinformation and cost of the rituals involved. While other clinicians can contribute – the process of doing in the context of daily life is where occupational therapy research, experience and models have focused for the discipline’s history. That’s the professional magic of occupational therapy.


Darlow, B., Dowell, A., Baxter, G. D., Mathieson, F., Perry, M., & Dean, S. (2013). The enduring impact of what clinicians say to people with low back pain. Annals of Family Medicine, 11(6), 527-534. doi:10.1370/afm.1518

Leonhardt C, Kuss K, Becker A, Basler HD, de Jong J, Flatau B, Laekeman M, Mattenklodt P, Schuler M, Vlaeyen J, Quint S.(in press). Graded Exposure for Chronic Low Back Pain in Older Adults: A Pilot Study. Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy.

Macedo, L. G., Bostick, G. P., & Maher, C. G. (2013). Exercise for prevention of recurrences of nonspecific low back pain. Physical Therapy, 93(12), 1587-1591.

Machado, G. C., Maher, C. G., Ferreira, P. H., Pinheiro, M. B., Lin, C.-W. C., Day, R. O., . . . Ferreira, M. L. (2015). Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials (Vol. 350).

Saragiotto Bruno, T., Maher Christopher, G., Yamato Tiê, P., Costa Leonardo, O. P., Menezes Costa Luciola, C., Ostelo Raymond, W. J. G., & Macedo Luciana, G. (2016). Motor control exercise for chronic non-specific low-back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (1). doi:10.1002/14651858.CD012004

van Wijk, R. M. A. W., Geurts, J. W. M., Lousberg, R., Wynne, H. J., Hammink, E., Knape, J. T. A., & Groen, G. J. (2008). Psychological predictors of substantial pain reduction after minimally invasive radiofrequency and injection treatments for chronic low back pain. Pain Medicine, 9(2), 212-221.

Your brain has no delete button

Yesterday, nearly five years after the devastating earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, we had another rude reminder that we live on an active fault zone. A 5.7 magnitude earthquake hit just after lunch, throwing me to the ground, breaking our pendant lights, and a bottle toppled off the shelf beside the toilet, falling into the toilet and smashing the rim (lesson to the men in the house: do not leave the toilet seat up!). Needless to say, my heart was racing for a wee while afterwards!

People living in our fair city have had thousands of quakes to deal with over the past five years, most of them not as powerful as yesterday’s one, but nevertheless rather unsettling. In reflecting on the experience I’m reminded that our nervous system is wired more towards learning and reacting to immediate threat – and anything that represents a threat – than it is to calming and soothing the beast within. In fact, there’s good evidence to suggest that we don’t ever “unlearn” a learned response, instead we develop new pathways that can become stronger and more heavily myelinated than the learned paths – but given a similar context we’re as likely as not to activate that same old set of neural impulses and some researchers suggest this is because of epigenetic changes. (Take a look at this study in rats for one reason – it seems contextual memory triggered by cues is more powerful than we thought!)

As I mused on my startle response which is as well-developed as ever (though I jump less often at trucks going past than I did in the months just after the big quake), I thought about our experience of low back pain – or indeed any other chronic pain. While we’ve got very excited about neuroplasticity, and I think we should, I also think we need to temper our enthusiasm with some reality checks. Even though we seem to be able to reduce pain by using neuroplasticity within our treatments (see Pelletier, Higgins and Bourbonnais, 2015, among others), we need to remember that the pathways associated with chronic pain are many – and not just those to and from the sore part! In fact, because we’re fantastic learning creatures, there are many, many ways in which we encode an experience.

We have already seen that seeing a painful limb can increase the experience of pain in people with CRPS and vice versa (Sumitani, Shibita, Iwakura, Matsuda, Sakaue, Inoue et al, 2007), and this phenomenon has been used in mirror therapy and virtual reality treatments for people with CRPS and some other forms of pain (Foell, Bekrater-Bodmann, Diers & Flor, 2014). As a result of this fascinating finding, treatments using laterality, graded motor imagery and novel movements have all become very popular with varying degrees of effectiveness (especially outside the clinic!).

What perhaps we’ve forgotten is that because we’re incredibly good at learning, we’ve associated not just the “internal” location/intensity/quality of that experience, but also a whole bunch of other associations – words (pain, ouch, suffer, back, leg, doing, lifting, crumbling, disc – and others!), movements (sitting, walking, turning, twisting, crouching, climbing), emotions (happy, sad, glad, awestruck, helpless), images (of a back, leg, someone else sitting or walking or moving), locations (treatment facilities, workplace, the garage, making the bed, the pill bottles in the bathroom) – the list goes on! Even the smell of liniment or whatever rubbing lotion was used can bring all those associations back into consciousness.

And each association branches off and associates with other things in a never-ending network of related experiences and memories and relationships. Is it any wonder that some people don’t miraculously “get better” when we decide to “educate” someone about their pain? Especially if we haven’t given them the respect of listening to how they’ve made sense of their situation…

Now in the series of earthquakes from 2011 until now, I haven’t ever really become overwhelmed with anxiety and helplessness. Yes I have been fed up, frustrated, saddened, and I’ve grieved, got angry at bureaucracy and thought that things surely could be done more quickly. Until yesterday, when the growing anxiety (because the houses being built close to us mean there are many hundreds of thumps and thuds as foundations are hammered into the ground far deeper than ever before) I’d been feeling over the past month or so really got triggered by a very real and unexpected event.

Intellectually I know this quake is just another in the same series as we’ve been having. Nothing terribly awful happened. No-one got hurt. BUT my jitters are back – and every time I look at cracks in the ring foundation, the smashed toilet, look at my broken vase, or go to use the Pyrex jug that got smashed, I’m reminded that this event has happened – and could again. Pictures of the cliffs falling at Sumner, clouds of dust rising from them as they tumbled into the sea; images of broken crockery at Briscoes and wine and beer at the local supermarket; the news, and friends talking on Facebook – all of these remind me of what we’ve just been through and have been for so long.

Now picture the person you’re about to see today. That person with the painful back. The person who flicks through the magazines in your waiting room and sees adverts for lotions, analgesia. Who smells the scents in your area. The one who finds it so hard to roll over in bed every night. Or to sit and watch TV. Just remember that you may be able to develop new and novel pathways for moving so that the pain itself isn’t triggered by movements – but all these other associations are still there, and will be from now on. And think beyond the clinic door and into your patient’s daily life. How will you help them transfer the feeling of safety that being with YOU evokes into a feeling of safety everywhere they are? This is why developing effective self management skills, especially becoming nonjudgemental despite experiencing pain is so very, very important.


Foell, J., Bekrater-Bodmann, R., Diers, M., & Flor, H. (2014). Mirror therapy for phantom limb pain: Brain changes and the role of body representation. European Journal of Pain, 18(5), 729-739. doi:10.1002/j.1532-2149.2013.00433.x

Pelletier, R., Higgins, J., & Bourbonnais, D. (2015). Addressing neuroplastic changes in distributed areas of the nervous system associated with chronic musculoskeletal disorders. Physical Therapy, 95(11), 1582-1591.

Sumitani, M., Shibata, M., Iwakura, T., Matsuda, Y., Sakaue, G., Inoue, T., . . . Miyauchi, S. (2007). Pathologic pain distorts visuospatial perception. Neurology, 68(2), 152-154.

Waitangi Day – or how to live together in unity

Today is New Zealand’s Waitangi Day ‘Mondayisation’ – the actual day was Saturday 6th Feb. It’s an important day in New Zealand because it’s the day when two completely different nations signed a treaty allowing certain rights between them – and allowed my ancestors to travel from Ireland and England to settle in the country I call my home. Unlike many country’s celebrations of nationhood, Waitangi Day is almost always a time of turbulence, dissension and debate. This is not a bad thing because over the years I think the way in which Maori (Tangata Whenua, or original settlers) and non-Maori settlers (Tangata Tiriti) relate in our country is a fantastic example of living together well. Not perfectly – but certainly in a more integrated way than many other countries where two completely different cultures blend.

Thinking of Waitangi Day, I’m reminded of the way in which the multidimensional model of pain attempts to integrate biological, psychological and social factors to help explain this experience and how such a primitive response to threat can ultimately lead to adaptation and learning – in most cases – or the most profound misery and disability in others.

Like the treaty relationship in New Zealand, there’s much room for discussion and debate as to the relative weight to place on various components of the model.  And like the treaty relationship, there are times when each part is accused of dominating and not giving the other/s due credit. Truth, at least to me, is, we need all of us (and all the factors) to integrate – not to become some bland nothing, but to express the components fully.

Just last week I was astonished to find that a clinician thought that I believed low back pain is “psychological”. Absolutely astonished because this has never been my position! While this blog and much of my teaching and reading is around psychological and more recently social factors influencing pain and disability, my position has never been to elevate the influence of these factors over the biological. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – it’s hard to deal with the state of play in our understanding of low back pain which finds that many of the assumed causal mechanisms (like disc prolapses, poor “core” muscles, the biomechanics of lifting and so on) just don’t apply. It’s also really difficult to know that so far there are no particular exercise treatments that work more effectively than any other. Cognitive dissonance anyone? Just because these factors are less relevant than presumed does not mean that (a) I think low back pain is psychological and (b) that all biological factors are irrelevant. What it does mean is that we don’t know. I’ll say that again. We. Don’t. Know. Most back pain falls into this “nonspecific” group – and by calling it “nonspecific” we are actually admitting that We. Don’t. Know.

How do people assume that because I point out that we don’t know the causal mechanisms of low back pain but we DO know the critical importance of psychosocial factors on disability associated with low back pain – and the treatments that can mitigate these factors – that I believe back pain is psychological? I think it’s a simple fallacy – some people believe that because a person responds to psychosocial interventions this therefore means their problem is psychological. This is not true – and here are some examples. Exercise (a physical modality) is shown to be an effective treatment for depression. Does this mean depression is a purely biological disorder? Biofeedback provides visual or auditory information related to physical aspects of the body like blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension – does this mean that blood pressure is “psychological”? Diabetes management often includes learning to resist the urge, or “urge surf” the impulse to eat foods that increase blood sugar levels – does this mean diabetes is psychological?

Here’s my real position on nonspecific low back pain, which is let me remind you, the most common form of low back pain.

Causes – not known (Golob & Wipf, 2014), risk factors for onset are mainly equivocal but one study found the major predictor of an onset was – prior history of low back pain, with “limited evidence that the combination of postural risk factors and job strain is associated with the onset of LBP” (Janwantanakul, Sitthipornvorakul,  & Paksaichol, 2012), exercise may prevent recurrence but mechanisms of LBP remain unclear (Macedo, Bostick and Maher, 2013), while subgroup analysis carried out by therapists were “underpowered, are only able to provide exploratory or insufficient findings, and have rather poor quality of reporting” (Mistry, Patel, Wan Hee, Stallard & Underwood, 2014).

My take from this brief review? The mechanisms presumed to be involved in nonspecific low back pain are unknown.

Treatments – mainly ineffective but self-management provides small effects on pain and disability (moderate quality) (Oliveira, Ferreira, Maher, Pinto, Refshauge & Ferreira, 2012), “the evidence on acupuncture for acute LBP is sparse despite our comprehensive literature search” (Lee, Choi, Lee, Lee, Shin & Lee, 2013), no definitive evidence supports the use of orthoses for spine pain (Zarghooni, Beyer, Siewe & Eysel, 2013), acetaminophen is not effective for pain relief (Machado, Maher, Ferreira, Pinheiro, Lin, Day et al, 2015), and no specific exercises are better than any other for either pain relief or recovery – not even motor control exercises (Saragiotto, Maher, Yamato, Costa et al, 2016).

My take from this set of references is that movement is good – any movement, but no particular form of exercise is better than any other. In fact, the main limitation to exercise is adherence (or actually continuing exercising after the pain has settled).

The factors known to predict poor recovery are pretty clear – catastrophising, or thinking the worst (Kim, Cho, Kang, Chang, Lee, & Yeom, 2015), avoidance (usually arising from unhelpful beliefs about the problem – see commentary by Schofferman, 2015), low mood – which has also been found to predict reporting or treatment seeking of low back pain (see this post from Body in Mind, and this one).

What can I take from all of this? Well, my view is that because psychosocial factors exert their influence at multiple levels including our nervous system (see Borkum, 2010), but also our community understanding of what is and isn’t “illness” (Jutel, 2011) and who to see and what to do about it, the problem of nonspecific low back pain is one of the purest forms of an integrated biopsychosocial and multifactorial health concern in human life. I therefore rest my case: nonspecific low back pain is not psychological, but neither is it biomechanical or biological only. It is a biopsychosocial multifactorial experience to which humans are prone.

The best we can do with our current knowledge base is (1) limit and avoid the use of nocebic language and attempts to explain low back pain via biomechanical or muscle control mechanisms, (2) be honest about the likelihood of low back pain recurring and our treatments essentially doing very little, and (3) encourage return to normal activity by doing normal activity including exercise. Being honest about the state of play in our knowledge is a good starting point for better understanding – sounds a lot like race relations, doesn’t it?


Borkum, J. M. (2010). Maladaptive cognitions and chronic pain: Epidemiology, neurobiology, and treatment. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 28(1), 4-24. doi:

Golob, A. L., & Wipf, J. E. (2014). Low back pain. Medical Clinics of North America, 98(3), 405-428.

Janwantanakul, P., Sitthipornvorakul, E., & Paksaichol, A. (2012). Risk factors for the onset of nonspecific low back pain in office workers: A systematic review of prospective cohort studies. Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics, 35(7), 568-577.

Jutel, A. (2011). Classification, disease, and diagnosis. Perspectives in Biology & Medicine, 54(2), 189-205.

Kim, H.-J., Cho, C.-H., Kang, K.-T., Chang, B.-S., Lee, C.-K., & Yeom, J. S. (2015). The significance of pain catastrophizing in clinical manifestations of patients with lumbar spinal stenosis: Mediation analysis with bootstrapping. The Spine Journal, 15(2), 238-246. doi:

Lee, J. H., Choi, T. Y., Lee, M. S., Lee, H., Shin, B. C., & Lee, H. (2013). Acupuncture for acute low back pain: A systematic review. Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(2), 172-185.

Macedo, L. G., Bostick, G. P., & Maher, C. G. (2013). Exercise for prevention of recurrences of nonspecific low back pain. Physical Therapy, 93(12), 1587-1591.

Machado, G. C., Maher, C. G., Ferreira, P. H., Pinheiro, M. B., Lin, C.-W. C., Day, R. O., . . . Ferreira, M. L. (2015). Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials. BMJ, 350, h1225.

Mistry, D., Patel, S., Hee, S. W., Stallard, N., & Underwood, M. (2014). Evaluating the quality of subgroup analyses in randomized controlled trials of therapist-delivered interventions for nonspecific low back pain: A systematic review. Spine, 39(7), 618-629.

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

Saragiotto Bruno, T., Maher Christopher, G., Yamato Tiê, P., Costa Leonardo, O. P., Menezes Costa Luciola, C., Ostelo Raymond, W. J. G., & Macedo Luciana, G. (2016). Motor control exercise for chronic non-specific low-back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (1).

Schofferman, J. A. (2015). Commentary on the significance of pain catastrophizing in clinical manifestations of patients with lumbar spinal stenosis: Mediation analysis with bootstrapping. The Spine Journal, 15(2), 247-248. doi:

Zarghooni, K., Beyer, F., Siewe, J., & Eysel, P. (2013). The orthotic treatment of acute and chronic disease of the cervical and lumbar spine. Deutsches Arzteblatt International, 110(44), 737-742.

Using a new avoidance measure in the clinic

A new measure of avoidance is a pretty good thing. Until now we’ve used self report questionnaires (such as the Tampa Scale for Kinesiophobia, or the Pain Catastrophising Scale), often combined with a measure of disability like the Oswestry Disability Index to determine who might be unnecessarily restricting daily activities out of fear of pain or injury. These are useful instruments, but don’t give us the full picture because many people with back pain don’t see that their avoidance might be because of pain-related fear – after all, it makes sense to not do movements that hurt or could be harmful, right?

Behavioural avoidance tests (BAT) are measures developed to assess observable avoidance behaviour. They’ve been used for many years for things like OCD and phobias for both assessments and treatments. The person is asked to approach a feared stimulus in a standardised environment to generate fear-related behaviours without the biases that arise from self-report (like not wanting to look bad, or being unaware of a fear).

This new measure involves asking a person to carry out 10 repetitions of certain movements designed to provoke avoidance. The link for the full instructions for this test is this: click

Essentially, the person is shown how to carry out the movements (demonstrated by the examiner/clinician), then they are asked to do the same set of movements ten times.  Each set of movements is rated 0 = performs exactly as the clinician does; 1 = movement is performed but the client uses safety behaviours such as holding the breath, taking medication before doing the task, asking for help, or motor behaviours such as keeping the back straight (rotation and bending movements are involved); 2 = the person avoids doing the movement, and if the person performs fewer than 10 repetitions, those that are not completed are also coded 2. The range of scores obtainable are 0 – 60.

How and when would you use this test?

It’s tempting to rush in and use a new test simply because it’s new and groovy, so some caution is required.

My questions are: (1) does it help me (or the person) obtain a deeper understanding of the contributing factors to their problem? (2) Is it more reliable or more valid than other tests? (3) Is it able to be used in a clinical setting? (4) Does it help me generate better hypotheses as to what’s going on for this person? (5) I also ask about cost, time required, scoring and whether special training is required.

This test is very useful for answering question (1). It provides me with a greater opportunity to review the thoughts, beliefs and behaviours of a person in the moment. This means I can very quickly identify even the subtle safety behaviours, and obtain the “what’s going through your mind” of the person. If I record the movements, I can show the person what’s going on. NB This is NOT intended to be a test of biomechanical efficiency, or to identify “flaws” in movement patterns. This is NOT a physical performance test, it’s a test of behaviour and belief. Don’t even try to use it as a traditional performance test, or I will find you and I will kill (oops, wrong story).

It is more valid than other tests – the authors indicate it is more strongly associated with measures of disability than measures of pain-related fear and avoidance behaviour. This is expected, because it’s possible to be afraid of something but actually do it (public speaking anyone?), and measures of disability don’t consider the cause of that disability (it could be wonky knees, or a dicky ticker!).

It’s easy to do in a clinical setting – A crate of water bottles (~8 kg) and a table (heights ~68 cm) are needed to conduct the BAT-Back. The crate weighed  7.8 kg including six one-litre plastic bottles. One could argue that people might find doing this test in a clinic is less threatening than doing it in real life, and this is quite correct. The setting is contained, there’s a health professional around, the load won’t break and there’s no time pressure, so it’s not ecologically valid for many real world settings – but it’s better than doing a ROM assessment, or just asking the person!

Does it help me generate better hypotheses? Yes it certainly does, provided I take my biomechanical hat off and don’t mix up a BAT with a physical performance assessment. We know that biomechanics are important in some instances, but when it comes to low back pain it doesn’t seem to have as much influence as a person’s thoughts and beliefs – and more importantly, their tendency to just not do certain movements. This test allows me to go through the thoughts that flash through a person’s mind as they do the movement, thus helping me and the person more accurately identify what it is about the movement that’s bothering them. Then we can go on to test their belief and establish whether the consequences are, in fact, worse than the effects of avoidance.

Finally, is it cost-effective? Overall I’d say yes – with a caveat. You need to be very good at spotting safety behaviours, and you need to have a very clear understanding about the purpose of this test, and you may need training to develop these skills and the underlying conceptual understanding of behavioural analysis.

When would I use it? Any time I suspect a person is profoundly disabled as a result of their back pain, but does not present with depression, other tissue changes (limb fracture, wonky knees or ankles etc) that would influence the level of disability. If a person has elevated scores on the TSK or PCS. If they have elevated scores on measures of disability. If I think they may respond to a behavioural approach.

Oh, the authors say very clearly that one of the confounds of this test is when a person has biological factors such as bony changes to the vertebrae, shortened muscles, arthritic knees and so on. So you can put your biomechanical hat on – but remember the overall purpose of this test is to understand what’s going on in the person’s mind when they perform these movements.

Scoring and normative data has not yet been compiled. Perhaps that’s a Masters research project for someone?

Holzapfel, S., Riecke, J., Rief, W., Schneider, J., & Glombiewski, J. A. (in press). Development and validation of the behavioral avoidance test – back pain (bat-back) for patients with chronic low back pain. Clinical Journal of Pain.