Low back pain

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/j.physio.2009.11.013

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

What do we do with those questionnaires (ii)

In my last post I wrote about the Pain Catastrophising Scale and a little about what the results might mean. I discussed the overall score suggesting a general tendency to “think the worst”, with the three subscales of magnifying or over-estimating the risk; ruminating or brooding on the experience; and helplessness or feeling overwhelmed and that there’s nothing to be done.  At the end of the post I briefly talked about how difficult it is to find a clinical reasoning model in physiotherapy or occupational therapy where this construct is integrated – making it difficult for us to know what to do differently in a clinical setting when a person presents with elevated scores.

In this post I want to show how I might use this questionnaire in my clinical reasoning.

Alison is a woman with low back pain, she’s been getting this niggling ache for some months, but last week she was weeding her garden and when she stood up she felt a sharp pain in her lower back that hasn’t settled since. She’s a busy schoolteacher with her own two children aged 8 and 10, and doesn’t have much time for exercise after teaching a full day, and bringing children’s work home to grade at night. She’s completed the PCS and obtained an overall score of 33, with her elevated scores on the magnifying subscale contributing the most to her total score.

Her twin sister Belinda has coincidentally developed low back pain at the same time, only hers started after she had to change the tyre on her car over the weekend. She’s a busy retail manager preparing for the upcoming Christmas season, and also has two children just a bit younger than her sister’s two. She’s completed the PCS and obtained an overall score of 34, but her score on ruminating is much higher than her scores on the other two scales, and this is the main reason her overall score is high.

What difference does Belinda’s elevated score on ruminating mean for us as clinicians? What do we do when we see Alison’s overall elevated score?

Common themes

Both Alison and Belinda live busy lives, and have lots of stressors within their lives. While they both have similar presentations, we might go about helping them regain confidence in their bodies slightly differently. I’ll begin with Belinda who might, because of the elevated ruminating score, have trouble getting off to sleep and might spend more time attending to her back pain than her sister. Ruminating is that endless brainworm that keeps on dragging our attention back to the thing we’re worried about (or perhaps the problem we’re trying to solve).  Alison, on the other hand, might be more inclined to monitor her back pain and imagine all sorts of dire outcomes – perhaps that the pain will never go away, that it’s going to “cripple” her, and that it’s going to be a major problem while she’s at work.

While both sisters would benefit from learning to move with more confidence, to relax the muscle tension that occurs when back pain is present, and to return to their usual daily activities, we probably need to help Alison learn more about her back pain (for example, explain that most back pain settles down quite quickly, that it’s helped by moving again in a graduated way, and that we’ve ruled out any sinister reason for her developing her pain). During treatment sessions where we help her learn to move more normally, we might spend more time giving neutral messages about fluctuations in her pain (for example, we might let her know that it’s normal to have a temporary increase in pain when we start moving again, and that this is a good sign that she’s beginning to use her body normally). If we notice her looking anxious during a new movement or exercise we might take a moment to ask her about her concerns and provide her with neutral and clear information about what’s going on so she becomes more realistic in her judgements about what her pain means.

For Belinda I might be inclined to help her deal with her thoughts in a mindful way, so she can notice her thoughts and her body sensations without judging them, bringing her mind back to breathing, or to noticing the equally present but less “alerting” body sensations she may be experiencing. For example I might ask her to do a mindfulness of breath exercise where, as she notices her mind wandering off to worries or concerns, I would ask her to gently notice that this has happened, acknowledge her mind for trying to help solve an insoluble problem, and bring her attention back to her breathing. I might ask her to notice body sensations including those that are uncomfortable and around the area of her most intense pain, taking care to be aware not only of the painful sensations she’s experiencing, but also associated body responses such as breath holding, or muscle tension. I might guide her to also be aware of a neutral but generally unloved area like her left earlobe (when did you last attend to what your left earlobe felt like?), or her navel. Because at the same time as she’s noticing the painful areas of her body, she’s likely to be trying hard to avoid “going there” with the result that her mind (trying really hard to help her protect herself) actually goes there more often! (don’t believe me? Don’t think of a big fat spider crawling down your shoulder – betcha did!!). Belinda can use the same approach when she’s trying to get off to sleep – by non-judgmentally noticing her body and what’s going on, she can be aware of what it feels like – but not get hooked up in alarming appraisals of what “might” happen. In a clinic setting I might ask her to use this same mindfulness approach when we’re doing a new exercise, or returning to a new activity. She could take time to really feel the movements, to be “in” her body rather than her head, and in doing so gradually reduce the tendency for her mind to take off in new and frightening directions.

Using the PCS is not about becoming psychologists: it’s about being aware of what the person in front of us is telling us about their experience, and then tuning into that and responding appropriately while we do what we do. Our job isn’t to replace a psychologist’s contribution – but to use the results of psychometric questionnaires to augment and support the work we do in a setting where people are actively engaged in learning about their bodies. I think that’s a priceless opportunity.

Schutze, R., Slater, H., O’Sullivan, P., Thornton, J., Finlay-Jones, A., & Rees, C. S. (2014). Mindfulness-based functional therapy: A preliminary open trial of an integrated model of care for people with persistent low back pain. Frontiers in Psychology Vol 5 Aug 2014, ArtID 839, 5.

Tsui, P., Day, M., Thorn, B., Rubin, N., Alexander, C., & Jones, R. (2012). The communal coping model of catastrophizing: Patient-health provider interactions. Pain Medicine, 13(1), 66-79.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The thing is, pain ≠ suffering.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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.

Why does “doing exercise” work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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). http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD012004/abstract 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:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10942-010-0109-x

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:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.spinee.2014.09.002

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:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.spinee.2014.11.003

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.



How good is the TSK as a measure of “kinesiophobia”?

The Tampa Scale for Kinesiophobia is a measure commonly used to determine whether a person is afraid of moving because of beliefs about harm or damage, with a second scale assessing current avoidance behaviour. It has been a popular measure along with the pain-related fear and avoidance model and together with the model and measures of disability, catastrophising and pain-related anxiety, has become one of the mainstays within pain assessment.

There have been numerous questions raised about this measure in terms of reliability and validity, but the measure continues to be one that is widely used. The problems with reliability relate mainly to a long version (TSK-17) in which several items are reverse scored. Reverse scored items often state a negative version of one of the concepts being assessed by the measure, but pose problems to people completing the measure because it’s hard to respond to a double negative.  In terms of validity, although the measure has been used a great deal and the original studies examining the psychometric properties of the instrument showed predictive validity, the TSK’s ability to predict response to treatment hasn’t been evaluated.

Chris Gregg and colleagues from The Back Institute and CBI Health Group studied a cohort of 313 people with low back pain attending one of the rehabilitation clinics in New Zealand. Participants completed the TSK at the beginning of treatment, and again at programme completion.  Along with the TSK, participants also completed a numeric pain scale, a modified Low Back Outcome score, and indicated whether they were working or not. These latter measures were considered to be “Quality of Life” measures, although they’re not officially QoL scales.

Before I turn to the study design and statistics, I’ll take a look at the modified Low Back Outcome score. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever searched for something like this, but believe me when I say there are SO many versions of SO many different “modified” back pain questionnaires, it’s really hard to work out exactly which one is the one used in this study, nor how it was modified. I’m assuming that it’s the one mentioned in Holt, Shaw, Shetty and Greenough (2002) because it’s mentioned in the references, but I don’t know the modifications made to it.  The LBOS is a fairly brief 12 item measure looking at pain intensity “on average” over the last week, work status, functional activities, rest, treatment seeking, analgesic use, and another five broad activities (sex life, sleeping, walking, traveling and dressing). It’s been described as having good internal consistency and test-retest reliability but validity isn’t mentioned in the 2002 paper.

Now, coming to this study, overall people improved at the completion of the programme. Pain reduced by 1.84 on the NPS, m-LBOS scores increased by 10.4 (a 28% improvement), and the TSK scores also improved by 5.5. Of course, we’d hope that at the end of a programme people would be doing better – though I’d prefer to see outcomes measured at least another three to 9 months after programme completion.

The authors looked at the relationship between the TSK and initial scores – there were small  statistical relationships between these measures. They then examined the scores between pre-treatment TSK and QoL measures at the end of treatment to establish whether there was a relationship between kinesiophobia and eventual outcome. There wasn’t. At least, not much of a relationship. These authors conclude that the TSK is therefore not a good measure to employ to predict those at high risk of chronicity due to fear of movement. I was a bit disappointed to see that a subscale analysis of the TSK wasn’t carried out – so it’s not possible to know whether change was associated with reduced beliefs about fear of harm/reinjury or whether it was due to reduced avoidance, or both.

Now here’s where I get a bit tangled up. Wouldn’t you expect the underlying constructs of the TSK (fear of harm/reinjury, and avoidance) to be the targets of a back pain related treatment? Especially one that includes cognitive behavioural therapy, education and movement? If we’re using a measure I think we should USE it within our clinical reasoning, and deliberately target those factors thought to be associated with poor outcomes. If we’re successful, then we should be able to see a change in domains thought to be associated with those constructs. In this programme, given that people were given treatment based on sub-typing, including education and CBT, I would hope that pain-related fear and avoidance would be directly targeted so that people develop effective ways of dealing with unhelpful beliefs and behaviours. To establish whether that had happened I’d want to look at the association between post-treatment TSK and measures of function or disability.

And getting back to the timing of outcome assessment, given that we’re interested in people managing any residual back pain (and in this study people were left with pain scores on the NPS of 3.4 (+/- 2.4) they still had some pain), wouldn’t you be interested in how they were managing a bit further down the track? We can (almost) guarantee that people will make changes directly as an effect of attention and structured activities. Measuring what occurs immediately at the completion of a programme may not show us much about what happens once that person has carried on by him or herself for a few months. My experience with chronic pain programmes shows a typical pattern of improvement immediately at the end of a programme, then six weeks later, what can be called regression to the mean, or what we often described as “the dip” or “the slump” as reality hits the road. At a further six months down the track, results had improved a bit, and these were usually sustained (or thereabouts) at the following twelve month follow-up.

So, does this study provide us with evidence that the TSK isn’t useful as a predictive tool? I’m not so sure. I think it does show that there are improvements in TSK, pain, disability and work status immediately at the end of a programme. Unfortunately TSK scores at the end of the programme are not analysed into subscales, so we don’t know which aspects of pain-related fear and avoidance were affected – but we know that they were.

For clinicians working in chronic pain programmes, where people are referred after having remained disabled and/or distressed despite having had prior treatment, the TSK may not be the most useful tool ever. The problems I’ve had with it are that scores in the fear of injury/reinjury subscale are lower when people have been given good pain “education” – but often present with a combined high score because of very high scores on the avoidance subscale.

A lovely study by Bunzli, Smith, Watkins, Schütze and O’Sullivan (2014) looked at what people actually believe about their pain and the associated TSK items. They found that many people DO believe their pain indicates harm, and they also found that people were worried about the effect pain would have on other things – and it’s this part that I find particularly interesting. It may not be the pain that matters as much as the anticipated losses and disruption to normal life that could occur.

The original authors of the “fear-avoidance” model, Vlaeyen and Linto (2012) reviewed the model after 12 years, and agree there is much to be done to refine assessment of pain-related fear. Self-report measures are only as good as the ability, insight and willingness of participants to complete them accurately.

So, is it time to throw the TSK out the window? I don’t think so – at least not yet. There’s more we need to do to understand pain-related fear and subsequent avoidance.


Chris D. Gregg, Greg McIntosh, Hamilton Hall, Heather Watson, David Williams, Chris Hoffman, The relationship between the tampa scale of kinesiophobia and low back pain rehabilitation outcomes, The Spine Journal (2015), http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1016/j.spinee.2015.08.018.

Bunzli, S., Smith, A., Watkins, R., Schütze, R., & O’Sullivan, P. (2014). “What Do People who Score Highly on the Tampa Scale of Kinesiophobia Really Believe? A Mixed Methods Investigation in People with Chronic Non Specific Low Back Pain The Clinical Journal of Pain DOI: 10.1097/AJP.0000000000000143

Vlaeyen, J. W., & Linton, S. J. (2012). Fear-avoidance model of chronic musculoskeletal pain: 12 years on. Pain, 153(6), 1144-1147. doi: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2011.12.009