Low back pain

Did you miss me?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barriers to good pain rehabilitation


This is a long…… read

ooops, sorry, not.

Low back pain is, we know, the greatest contributor to days lived with disability (Rice, Smith & Blyth, 2016). And no-one anywhere in the world has found a good mix of services to reduce the number of days lived with disability as a result of this problem. And yet billions of dollars are used to fund research into the many contributors to a shift from acute low back pain to ongoing disability associated with low back pain.

At the same time, treatments that directly target disability, rather than pain (a target considered the most important outcome by Sullivan and Ballantyne, 2016) are difficult to access, by comparison with surgical solutions (or pharmaceutical or procedural). Overuse of unhelpful treatments is thought to occur when treatments are offered that are ineffective, pose high risks of harm, or where the balance between harms and benefits varies considerably (Brownlee, Chalkidou, Doust, Elshaug, Glasziou, Heath et al, 2017). Non-pharmcological, non-surgical, and non-procedural treatments fall into the large amorphous group of treatments often delivered by allied health clinicians.

When asked, clinicians (aka doctors, in this instance) were found in one study, to fall into three groups: Multimodel/Aggressive = 14%; Psychosocial/Nonopioid = 48%; and Low action = 38% (Phelan, van Ryn, Wall & Burgess, 2009). On the face of it, this looks reasonably good except when we have a look at what the numbers mean. The Low action group were more likely to move from prescribing one opioid to another opioid, suggest that patients take their opioids more regularly and at a higher dose, use a short-acting opioid, treat with a long-action opioid on a fixed basis, and order more diagnostic testing. The Psychosocial/Nonopioid group were more prepared to use psychosocial clinical approaches, refer elsewhere, not use opioids, and were happier to discuss emotional assessments, refer for physiotherapy, mental health evaluation, refer to pain specialists and so on. But their rationale was not to prescribe opioids because of their concern about tolerance, diversion and addiction. Finally, the Multimodal/Aggressive group combined the approaches of both the previous groups and the authors thought this most closely represented “the multimodal treatment strategy endorsed by proponents of the biopsychosocial model” (Phelan, van Ryn, Wall & Burgess, 2009, p. 1274).

I’m interested in why these clinicians chose the kinds of treatments they did – The authors analysed various aspects of each group and found the belief that pain has a physical cause (MA: 56%; PNO: 35%; LA: 31%; P chi-square < 0.01) and positive attitudes towards using opioids (MA: 3.5 [0.8]; PNO: 3.2 [0.8]; LA: 3.4 [0.8]; Pf-test < 0.01) differed by class. Added to this, the physician’s concern also different by class: High concern about drug use/abuse (MA: 39%; PNO: 47%; LA: 19%; Pchi-square < 0.001), and Concern about effectiveness of opioids (MA: 3.6 [1.0]; PNO: 3.4 [1.0]; LA: 3.2 [0.9]; Pf-test = 0.02). Adequate consultation/referral resources also differed by class (MA: 59%; PNO: 65%; LA: 42%; Pchi-square < 0.001).

Let’s look at this – inaccurate beliefs about pain and attitudes towards opioids featured in the choices made by doctors, while feeling there were inadequate consultation and referral resources were especially featured by the very group using these resources most readily!

Treatments that are available but are underused are as problematic for our health system (and the people seeking help) as over-using inappropriate treatments. Glasziou, Straus, Brownlee, Trevena, Dans, Guyatt, Elshaug & Janett et al (2017) describe four stages where people may not get or use helpful treatment:

  1. a total or partial lack of access to health care (because the system does not offer coverage or patients are unable to reach or pay for available care, or both);
  2. unavailability of effective services within the local health-care system;
  3. a failure of clinicians to deliver or prescribe effective, affordable interventions; and
  4. a failure of patients to commence or adhere to effective, affordable interventions. ” (p. 171).

As I look at these four stages, I can see that in New Zealand, 1, 2, 3 and or course 4 all apply. The ones that concern me most are the first three. Why are effective treatments not widely available? Think about the lack of pelvic pain services for men and women (yes, men have pelvises too) where, instead of evidence-based treatment, these people are offered repeated ineffective, invasive and non-evidence-based “exploratory” endoscopic surgeries. Who makes decisions not to fund so-called conservative interprofessional pain rehabilitation?

Why are ineffective services available despite evidence showing their lack of usefulness? Who makes decisions to continue funding ineffective treatments? What vested interests, what power relationships value the status quo even when it’s not helping people?

Why are clinicians failing to deliver effective, affordable treatments? Why is that GPs in New Zealand still don’t follow back pain guidelines, continue to offer imaging “for reassurance” (despite evidence that this kind of reassurance is not reassuring, Linton, McCracken & Vlaeyen, 2008), and fear talking about the psychosocial impact of persistent pain on people? (Darlow, Dowell, Baxter, Mathieson, Perry & Dean, 2013).

Before I have a bunch of aggrieved doctors jump on me for “blaming them”, let me assure you that I have incredible respect for general practitioners. They have an extraordinarily difficult job to do – and we don’t really understand why adopting guidelines is so difficult. Except… Webster, Courtney, Huang, Matz and Christiani (2005), Coudeyre, Rannou, Tubach, Baron, Coriat, Brin et al (2006); Crawford, Ryan & Shipton (2007), Hush (2008), Somerville, Hay, Lewis, Barber, van der Windt, Hill & Sowden (2008), Corbett, Foster, & Ong (2009), Finestone, Raveh, Mirovsky, Lahad & Milgrowm (2009), Fullen, Baxter, O’Donovan, Doody, Daly, & Hurley (2009), Phelan, van Ryn, Wall, M & Burgess (2009), MacNeela, Gibbons, McGuire & Murphy (2010), Williams, Maher, Hancock, McAuley, McLachlan, Britt, Fahridin, Harrison & Latimer (2010), Azevedo, Costa-Periera, Mendonca, Dias & Castra-Lopes (2013)…. OK I got tired of listing the many, many studies showing how deficient primary care of low back pain is. And that’s not even up to 2019!

Of course I could point the finger at many other health professionals as well – similar findings for physiotherapy, orthopaedic surgery, even pain services…

So WHY are unhelpful approaches so sticky? Why doesn’t practice change?

Me… wondering why

Here are my off the top of my head ideas (ideas based in reading a lot). Funding and policy for funding is, in New Zealand, governed by two main agencies: ACC (accidental injury) and Ministry of Health but devolved to local DHBs. Who sits on the decision-making committees? How many of these august people come from allied health backgrounds? What is the understanding of pain within these committees?

How do people get to be appointed to the committees and policy-making positions? Who makes those decisions? What are the hidden (and maybe not so hidden) vested interests within those groups? How many have holdings in medical companies? What exposure do these people have to evidence and to allied health?

Why do clinicians carry on with unhelpful approaches? I think there’s a lot to uncover: limited time, the push to replace face-to-face interaction with apps (when people really crave interaction!), lack of funding, fear of how to handle difficult conversations (possibly based on lack of training, but maybe because of a fear that the conversation will be misinterpreted – in turn, maybe that fear is because the clinician still holds a dualist model of pain), limited knowledge of what other clinicians offer, ties between companies stitching up who can be referred where, desire not to be different, and not to take more time….

Disheartened? Maybe it’s winter, but while there is a zeitgeist amongst physiotherapy believing that “we’ve reached a turning point” and aha! we will now move forward as enlightened pain rehabilitation beings! I’m inclined to look at the waves of change that have occurred over my clinical lifetime. The enthusiasm for multi and inter-professional treatments, the fervour for early intervention to prevent disability, the explain pain and it will lead to great outcomes… All good things, yet still the fundamental problem is, I believe, adherence to a mainly biomedical or biophysical model for what is a problem experienced by humans in all their myriad complexity. Until that reality is firmly fixed within the system (not just GPs!) I think change will be incrementally slow.

Either that, or I need to learn how to play the political game and get appointed to one or more of the decision-making committees in ACC, MoH and DHB-land.

Azevedo, L. F., Costa-Pereira, A., Mendonça, L., Dias, C. C., & Castro-Lopes, J. M. (2013). Chronic pain and health services utilization: is there overuse of diagnostic tests and inequalities in nonpharmacologic treatment methods utilization? Medical Care, 51(10), 859-869. doi:10.1097/MLR.0b013e3182a53e4e

Brownlee, S., Chalkidou, K., Doust, J., Elshaug, A. G., Glasziou, P., Heath, I., . . . Korenstein, D. (2017). Evidence for overuse of medical services around the world. The Lancet, 390(10090), 156-168. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(16)32585-5

Corbett, M., Foster, N., & Ong, B. N. (2009). GP attitudes and self-reported behaviour in primary care consultations for low back pain. Family Practice, 26(5), 359-364.

Coudeyre, E., Rannou, F., Tubach, F., Baron, G., Coriat, F., Brin, S., . . . Poiraudeau, S. (2006). General practitioners’ fear-avoidance beliefs influence their management of patients with low back pain. Pain Vol 124(3) Oct 2006, 330-337.

Crawford, C., Ryan, K., & Shipton, E. (2007). Exploring general practitioner identification and management of psychosocial Yellow Flags in acute low back pain. New Zealand Medical Journal, 120(1254), U2536.

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

Finestone, A. S., Raveh, A., Mirovsky, Y., Lahad, A., & Milgrom, C. (2009). Orthopaedists’ and family practitioners’ knowledge of simple low back pain management. Spine, 34(15), 1600-1603.

Fullen, B. M., Baxter, G. D., O’Donovan, B. G., Doody, C., Daly, L. E., & Hurley, D. A. (2009). Factors impacting on doctors’ management of acute low back pain: a systematic review. European Journal of Pain: Ejp, 13(9), 908-914.

Fullen, B. M., Baxter, G., Doody, C., Daly, L. E., & Hurley, D. A. (2011). General practitioners’ attitudes and beliefs regarding the management of chronic low back pain in Ireland: A cross-sectional national survey. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 27(6), 542-549.

Hush, J. M. (2008). Clinical management of occupational low back pain in Australia: what is the real picture? Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation, 18(4), 375-380.

Linton, S., McCracken, L., & Vlaeyen, J. (2008). Reassurance: Help or hinder in the treatment of pain. Pain, 134(1–2), 5-8. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2007.10.002

MacNeela, P., Gibbons, A., McGuire, B., & Murphy, A. (2010). “We need to get you focused”: General practitioners’ representations of chronic low back pain patients. Qualitative Health Research, 20(7), 977-986.

Phelan, S. M., van Ryn, M., Wall, M., & Burgess, D. (2009). Understanding primary care physicians’ treatment of chronic low back pain: The role of physician and practice factors. Pain Medicine, 10(7), 1270-1279. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1526-4637.2009.00717.x

Rice, A. S., Smith, B. H., & Blyth, F. M. (2016). Pain and the global burden of disease. Pain, 157(4), 791-796.

Somerville, S., Hay, E., Lewis, M., Barber, J., van der Windt, D., Hill, J., & Sowden, G. (2008). Content and outcome of usual primary care for back pain: a systematic review. British Journal of General Practice, 58(556), 790-797.

Sullivan, M. D., & Ballantyne, J. C. (2016). Must we reduce pain intensity to treat chronic pain?. Pain, 157(1), 65-69.

Webster, B. S., Courtney, T. K., Huang, Y. H., Matz, S., & Christiani, D. C. (2005). Physicians’ initial management of acute low back pain versus evidence-based guidelines. Influence of sciatica. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 20(12), 1132-1135.

Williams, C. M., Maher, C. G., Hancock, M. J., McAuley, J. H., McLachlan, A. J., Britt, H., . . . Latimer, J. (2010). Low back pain and best practice care: A survey of general practice physicians. Archives of Internal Medicine, 170(3), 271-277.

Reconciling uncertainty and the drive to diagnose


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Pain science is not a thing


Today’s post is occasioned by reading several discussions on various forums where the term “pain science” and various adjectives to describe this kind of practice. For those who don’t want to read the rest of my ramblings: no, it’s not a thing, science is an approach to understanding phenomena, and I would have thought all health professionals would use a science-based approach to treatment.

I went on to Google, as you do, to find out when this term began its rise in popularity. Google wasn’t particularly helpful but did show that it’s been around since 2004 at least, and seems to have been centred around the US, UK and Australia in roughly May 2004. I can’t grab data from earlier than this, sadly, but I think it’s interesting to take a look at the popularity peaks and troughs…

So, what does “pain science” mean to commentators? I haven’t delved in too deeply to the social media use of the term, but given I’m a social animal and have written my blog since 2007 (which is mainly on “pain science”) I’ve encountered it many times. It seems to be related to using a neurobiological explanation for pain as an experience (referring to the phenomenon and the underlying biological processes involved) rather than focusing purely on biomechanics or tissue damage/nociception as the key force. And it does seem to tie in with the emergence of “Explain pain” as one way of helping people reconceptualise their experience as something they can influence rather than something other people need to “fix”.

Commentators who aren’t in love with the “explain pain” thing have said things like “the pain science camp” or as one person put it “There’s your manual PTs, your pain science PTs, and your just load it PTs etc”

I went on to Twitter and the hashtag #painscience was paired with #BPSModel and #PT and #physicaltherapy (or variations), #chronicpain #exercise #lowbackpain – and so on.

So what do I think pain science means if it’s not a neurobiological approach to pain management? Well – pain science is a lot like cardio-respiratory science, and neurological science, and psychological science – it’s about applying a scientific approach to understanding pain. Science has been defined as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” In this instance, Google is your friend. So science is about systematically studying phenomena through observation and experimenting. If we apply this to pain – it’s the systematic study of structure and behaviour of the phenomenon we call ‘pain’ through observation and experiment. For what it’s worth, scientific study of pain has been going on since… oh at least Descartes, but probably much earlier given that pain is a ubiquitous and essential part of human experience.

To me, understanding pain involves multiple disciplines: yes to biology, and especially neurobiology because the experience (as we understand it now) involves neurobiological processing. But it’s also about psychology
the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context; sociology – the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society; the humanities – the study of how people process and document the human experience; politics – the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power; and Anthropology –  the study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life.

So to describe an entire approach to understanding a phenomenon as if it’s a “movement” or “camp” or “dogma” or even “tribe” suggests serious  misunderstanding of both science and of an intervention.

What is “explain pain” then, or pain neurobiology education? – it’s an explanation of some of the biological elements of our nociceptive system as they combine to produce the experience we know as pain. For some people it’s the first time anyone took the trouble to explain why the pain of a papercut feels so bad compared with, for example, the pain of a sprained ankle; and why they still experience pain despite having no “damage” as visible on imaging. It’s an attempt to give people a frame of reference from which to understand their own journey towards recovering from a painful injury/disease/problem. In itself it’s not new: explanations for pain have been used in pain management programmes since the 1970’s (and earlier, if we consider that Fordyce used explanations in his behavioural approaches to pain management), and have routinely drawn on current pain research to help provide explanations that make sense to both the person and the clinician. The distinction between earlier explanations which drew heavily on the gate control theory, and this latest iteration is that the explanations are more complex, pain is considered to be an “output” that emerges from multiple interactions between brain and body, and that’s about it. Oh and it’s been picked up and enthusiastically used by physiotherapists (and other primarily body therapists) around the world.

What’s the evidence for this approach? Well, IMHO it’s not intended to be a stand-alone “treatment” for most people experiencing pain. I see giving an explanation as integral to usual practice, just as we do when we explain why it’s not a good idea to go running on a newly sprained ankle or why we’re suggesting a mindfulness to someone with a panic disorder. So far there have been a lot of studies examining variants of “explaining pain” alone or in combination with a number of other treatments including exercise. A recent systematic review and meta-analsyis of “pain neuroscience education” for chronic low back pain found eight papers (with 615 participants) showing that in the short-term, this kind of education reduces disability (by 2.28 points on the Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire which is a 24 point scale) in the short-term and a slightly lesser effect in the long-term  (2.18). There were greater effects when this was combined with physiotherapy, though we often don’t know exactly what is included in “physiotherapy”.  There was some evidence that this kind of education helps reduce pain scores (by 1.32) but only in combination with other physiotherapy interventions. The authors pointed out that the strength of evidence for education on pain in the short term was low to moderate, but that it doesn’t have much of an impact on pain-related fear and avoidance, or on pain catastrophising (Wood & Hendrick, in press).

To compare this with another active treatment, exposure therapy for fear of movement/reinjury in chronic low back pain, de Jong, Vlaeyen, Onghena, Goossens, Geilen & Mulder (2005) performed a careful study of six individuals, using a single case experimental design. (If you’re not familiar with this approach to research – it’s extremely rigorous and useful in a clinical setting, this link takes you to a chapter discussing its use).  The aim was to establish which part of treatment “did the work” to change behaviour, but also measured pain intensity, and fear of pain and movement.  The treatments were information about pain and mechanisms, and the activities were those the person particularly wanted to be able to do. Their findings identified that explanations do little to pain intensity, avoidance or fear – but what actually worked was doing graded exposure. In other words, experiencing something different, DOING that something different in the real world, was more effective than talking about why someone shouldn’t be afraid. A much more recent replication of this study was conducted by Schemer, Vlaeyen, Doerr, Skoluda, Nater, Rief & Glombiewski (2018) and shows the same result: doing trumps talking about doing.

When we sit down and take a cold hard look at what we do in pain management we can see that the field has to draw on a huge range of disciplines and fields of study to understand the problems people experiencing pain have. This is, in fact, why Bonica and colleagues first established the International Association for the Study of Pain, and why multidisciplinary (and now interprofessional) pain management teams and approaches were established. None of us can possibly hold all the knowledge needed to work effectively in the area. At the same time, as health professionals working with people, we do need to have some foundation knowledge about biology, disease, illness, psychology, sociology and anthropology. These areas of study inform us as we work hard to help people get their heads around their pain. Do we need to be experts in all of these fields? Yes – if you work completely in isolation. No – if you work within an extended team (whether co-located or otherwise). Pain research will continue to push our understanding ahead – and to be responsible health professionals, we must incorporate new understandings into our practice or we risk being unprofessional and irrelevant. I would go as far as to say we’re irresponsible and harming patients if we fail to incorporate what is known about pain as a multidimensional experience. It’s time to back away from temporary guruism and move towards a far more nuanced, and perhaps less flighty approach to understanding pain.

Pain science. No, it’s not a thing. Pain being examined through multiple scientific lenses: definitely a thing.

NB for the avoidance of doubt: pain is never a “thing” but examining pain through multiple scientific lenses involves many “things”. (Merriam-Webster – click)


de Jong, J. R. M., Vlaeyen, J. W. S. P., Onghena, P. P., Goossens, M. E. J. B. P., Geilen, M. P. T., & Mulder, H. O. T. (2005). Fear of Movement/(Re)injury in Chronic Low Back Pain: Education or Exposure In Vivo as Mediator to Fear Reduction? [Article]. Clinical Journal of Pain Special Topic Series: Cognitive Behavioral Treatment for Chronic Pain January/February, 21(1), 9-17.

Schemer, L., Vlaeyen, J. W., Doerr, J. M., Skoluda, N., Nater, U. M., Rief, W., & Glombiewski, J. A. (2018). Treatment processes during exposure and cognitive-behavioral therapy for chronic back pain: A single-case experimental design with multiple baselines. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 108, 58-67.

Wood, L., & Hendrick, P. A. A systematic review and meta-analysis of pain neuroscience education for chronic low back pain: Short-and long-term outcomes of pain and disability. European Journal of Pain, 0(0). doi:doi:10.1002/ejp.1314


Wait and see…when do we “escalate” care for low back pain?


Prompted by reading a paper by Linton, Nicholas and Shaw (in press), today’s post is about various service delivery models for low back pain and not the content of back pain treatment.

Service delivery in New Zealand is assumed to be based on getting most bang for the buck: we have a mainly socialised healthcare system, along with a unique “no fault, 24 hour” insurance model for accidents whether at work or elsewhere, which means market forces existing in other countries are less dominant. There are, however, many other influences on what gets delivered and to whom.

Back to most bang for buck. With a limited healthcare budget, and seriously when is there ever NOT a limited budget in health, it would make sense to a thinking woman for healthcare to focus on high value treatments. Treatments that have large impact and are low cost. In low back pain, the techno-fix has limited application. Things like costly surgical approaches (synthetic disc replacements, fusions to stop vertebral movement) should be reserved for only those with clear indications for the procedure, and given on the basis of clinical need rather than in response to a distressed person. The outcomes just are not all that great (see Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder (2017) for a good review of nonspecific low back pain).

High value and low cost treatments are typically delivered by low status clinicians. Those “nonmedical” people like occupational therapists, physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors and the like. Maybe it’s for this reason that these treatments are relatively poorly funded. We lack lobby power.

Back to service delivery models. Currently in Christchurch, where I live, there is a health pathway (in other words, a service delivery model) developed in collaboration with GP’s, physiotherapists, osteopaths and secondary care. The model adopted applies to ALL episodes of low back pain, and uses the STarTBack tool to triage those who may need more intensive treatment under a biopsychosocial model (mainly because of the additional risk psychosocial factors pose for these people), and to continue with treatment as usual for those with lower risk as measured by this tool.

After about six weeks, if the person hasn’t responded to treatment, clinicians are meant to refer the person to a team for review and to see whether additional treatments or another pathway might be appropriate. Unfortunately, there is no indication of the makeup of that team, and no obligation for the clinician to send the person to it. I’m not sure about clinical audit of this pathway, and again this isn’t clear.

One of the problems (amongst many) with this approach is that six weeks without responding to treatment and the time needed after this to review the file, then be referred elsewhere is a very long time to someone experiencing back pain. A very long time. By six weeks it wouldn’t be surprising if the person’s sick leave is gone. If they’re receiving ACC the processes will have kicked in, but for the person who has typical grumpy back symptoms without an “accident” initiating it, there may be nothing.

Linton, Nicholas and Shaw point out that all of the triaging approaches for low back pain hold assumptions. The three are stepped care (begin with low intensity, once that hasn’t helped progress to more intensive and so on); stratified (triage those with high risk, and treat them accordingly, while low risk get lower intensity treatment); and matched care (treatments are administered according to an algorithm based on grouping people with similar characteristics).

Stepped care

The assumptions of stepped care include that people with basic acute low back pain will recover relatively easily, while those who need more help will be fine waiting for that additional level of care. There’s an assumption that factors leading to chronic disability occur in stages – the longer a person waits the more risk factors will appear – but this isn’t actually the case. Many people present with risk factors from the very beginning (and they can be identified), while waiting only allows those problems to be cemented in place. At the same time, we know acute low back pain is quite a rare thing: most people will have their first bout of back pain in adolescence, and will have learned good and not so good habits and attitudes from that experience. Another assumption is that duration of back pain doesn’t harm, but we know delayed attention to risk factors for chronicity is harmful. Stepped care can be useful because it’s efficient, easy to implement and overtreatment is less likely – but what about the person who appears with all the risk factors evident from the beginning? These people may not get adequate or appropriate treatment from the outset.

Stratified care

In stratified care, treatment is provided according to the category of risk the person presents with, maybe circumventing some of the problems from stepped care. Stratified care assumes we’re able to identify risk factors, and that they are stable from the outset rather than changing over time. It also assumes that risk factors exert a cumulative effect with more risk factors meaning greater risk. BUT while screening can identify some risks, and those at low risk get more adequate treatment while higher intensity treatment is given to those with more risk, this approach doesn’t identify underlying mechanisms, and more comprehensive treatments addressing specific issues may not be provided. This approach may not even consider the impact of workplace factors, family dynamics, social and recreational issues. It’s also pretty challenging to implement as I think the Christchurch example demonstrates.

Matched care

In matched care risk factors are identified and treatments are matched to the person’s needs, and like stratified care it assumes that risk factors can be identified, are stable, and that they can form a “profile” or subtype. This approach also assumes that tailoring interventions to individual risk will be more efficient than alternatives. There’s some support that screening can identify some risks, and that profiles can be constructed – but this continues to be a work under progress. Some of the limitations are the emerging nature of research into grouping people according to multiple indicators is complex, particularly at the beginning of treatment, and treatments matching profiles are therefore also under development. It’s a very complex approach to implement so I can understand why local health authorities may be reluctant to embark on this strategy. It’s also back to the problem of assuming that people’s risk profiles are stable over time.

What do we do?

One part of me thinks, well it doesn’t matter really because as a lowly nonmedical person I have very little influence over health systems, the perverse incentives that drive them, and absolutely no political clout whatsoever. BUT I know that the “wait and see” six weeks before reviewing progress is not helping. And the current considerations fail to integrate those important workplace, family, socio-economic and contextual factors that are hard to quantify.

We already know that low back pain guidelines are routinely ignored by most clinicians in favour of “what I do” and “it’s worked before” and “the guidelines are biased so I won’t follow them”. There’s also the fear that by identifying psychosocial risk factors we’re condemning people to the “back pain is really in your head” meme (it’s even something I’ve been accused of. FWIW I think low back pain is far more complex and is multifactorial. Psychosocial factors are certainly more useful at predicting disability than biomechanical or diagnostic ones, but this doesn’t mean the problem is purely psychological. <steps off soapbox>). Furthermore, it’s clear that not only do physiotherapists feel poorly-prepared to identify and work with psychosocial factors (Singla, Jones, Edwards & Kumar, 2015; Zangoni & Thomson, 2017), so also do medical practitioners although for different reasons (Coudeyre, Rannou, Tubach, Baron, Coriat, Brin et al, 2006). It’s difficult to open Pandora’s box when you only have 10 minutes with a patient.

As Linton, Nicholas and Shaw (in press) point out, training is needed before clinicians can feel both confident and efficient at screening and then managing low back pain via an integrated multidimensional model. “Role” delineation (who can contribute to the various aspects of treatment?) and the paucity of funding for allied health within primary care, especially in New Zealand makes this approach an aspiration. 

Naturally I’d like to see a range of different health professionals involved in developing health pathways. Not just professionals, but people well-versed in understanding the research literature and those with effective knowledge translation skills. I’d love to see high value and low cost treatments provided rather than techno-fix approaches, especially when the high value treatments are significantly safer and develop personal self efficacy and locus of control. Wouldn’t that be a thing to see?

  • Coudeyre, E., Rannou, F., Tubach, F., Baron, G., Coriat, F., Brin, S., … & Poiraudeau, S. (2006). General practitioners’ fear-avoidance beliefs influence their management of patients with low back pain. Pain, 124(3), 330-337.
  • Linton, S. J., Nicholas, M., & Shaw, W. Why wait to address high-risk cases of acute low back pain? A comparison of stepped, stratified, and matched care. Pain. in press
  • Maher, C., Underwood, M., & Buchbinder, R. (2017). Non-specific low back pain. The Lancet, 389(10070), 736-747.
  • Singla, M., Jones, M., Edwards, I., & Kumar, S. (2015). Physiotherapists’ assessment of patients’ psychosocial status: are we standing on thin ice? A qualitative descriptive study. Manual Therapy, 20(2), 328-334.
  • Zangoni, G., & Thomson, O. P. (2017). ‘I need to do another course’-Italian physiotherapists’ knowledge and beliefs when assessing psychosocial factors in patients presenting with chronic low back pain. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 27, 71-77.

Wandering back from the IASP World Congress


Meetings, meanderings, mind-expansions

I’ve been away for abut 10 days, attending the World Congress of the International Association for the Study of Pain. It was a time of meetings with wonderful people I’ve met via the interwebs, with researchers and clinicians, and most importantly, with people living with pain.

It was also a time for meanderings – around the very walkable city of Boston, embracing history and looking towards the future, and mind meanderings as well.

And because it was a conference, it was also mind-expanding. New ideas, new ways of investigating this human experience of pain, new discoveries, and new applications.

… and expanding the way we help people who live with pain.

What struck me between the eyeballs?

Good things: for the first time, people living with pain were included in the proceedings. I’m reminded of the old saying from the disabilities movement “Nothing about us without us” – well, it’s finally arrived at the World Congress! There are some concerns about this move amongst clinicians, and there’s no doubt that some of the people I’ve seen for whom the experience of being seen about their pain has been disheartening, stigmatising and frustrating, are very angry. I think, though, that continuing to avoid meeting with people who are in this space serves only to fuel their rage, and perhaps it’s time for us as clinicians to learn what it is about their experiences that we can learn from.

Professor Fiona Blyth talking about the Global Burden of Disability – 21%

Another “between the eyeballs” moment was when Professor Fiona Blyth discussed the knowledge that 21% of the total global burden of disability, and that this is increasing more quickly in developing countries because of the rapidly increasing percentage of older people (with multiple MSK comorbidities) – but here’s the kicker: There has been little-to-no change in funding policies to reflect this increasing burden of disease. You read that right. Funding goes to diseases that can kill you – but very little goes to the diseases that simply leave you disabled for the rest of your days.

Not so good things: Well, much of the research shows that change is incremental and that while strategies like exercise have reasonably good research support what actually matters is that exercise gets done: the form of exercise for persistent pain is a whole lot less more important than issues of adherence (Professor Kathleen Sluka’s plenary lecture showed this).

There was a good focus on behavioural science and pain, disability and response to treatment. And plenty of emphasis on sharing the responsibility for using psychologically-informed treatments with all health professionals, not just psychologists.

Why have I included this in my “not so good things”? Because a very recent Twitter discussion suggests that there continues to be a misperception that by using a psychologically-informed treatment, the aetiology of a pain problem is therefore assumed to be psychological.

There continues to be tussling over whether a biopsychosocial (or sociopsychobiological) model has sufficient emphasis on “the bio”, along with misinterpreting the historic origins of Engel’s thinking. Various people argue that “all is bio” or “but it’s reductionist” – yet readers of Engel’s original writings will recognise an interactional systems approach, where an effect in one factor will likely have flow-on effects everywhere else.

The final “not so good” for me was the dearth of discussion about occupational therapy’s historic and ongoing involvement in pain and pain management. There were at least 20 occupational therapists at the meeting, and despite Fordyce including occupational therapists in his original behavioural approach to disability (Fordyce, Fowler & Delateur, 1968), scant evidence of occupational therapy’s important contribution to this field over the years.

This is important because occupational therapy is one of the few professions to have adopted, retained and integrated a sociopsychobiological approach to healthcare. If you’re ever thinking about asking “how does one profession use the BPS model?” maybe talking with an occupational therapist will help you.

I was lucky to have a chance to offer a piece of research conducted by Brian Rutledge and me, looking at the function of an online discussion group (yes! Facebook!). The purpose was to establish whether the group Exploring Pain Science functions as a “Community of Practice“. The answer is a resounding Yes! and you can review the poster here – click

There will be a paper forthcoming, and some further analysis of the processes used in this group.

…Why look at Facebook groups?

Well, one reason is that there was a resounding call for knowledge translation – and all manner of ways thought to be useful in this pursuit. But as far as I am aware, using Facebook groups (especially ones that have emerged “organically”) is both a popular strategy – and one that has been under-examined in pain research – for people trying to implement what they’ve read or heard from research into their daily practice.

Hope this very brief tour through just a couple of the things I’ve been pondering since this World Congress will encourage YOU and others to join IASP. It truly represents the only global organisation that is transprofessional, wedded to a biopsychosocial model of pain, and one that is progressing our understanding of pain so much.


Fordyce, W. E., Fowler, R. S., & Delateur, B. (1968). An Application of Behavior Modification Technique to a Problem of Chronic Pain. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 6(1), 105-107.


The dynasty of the disc! More history in pain management


Low back pain, despite the multitude of explanations and increasing disability associated with it, has been with humans since forever. Who knows why and I’m not about to conjecture. What’s interesting is that despite ergonomic solutions (fail), increased fitness amongst many people (also a fail), surgical solutions (fail), hands on solutions (fail, fail), and a whole bunch of “special” exercises (fail, fail, fail) we still don’t have a handle on how to reduce disability from it.

I don’t think there will be many people who haven’t seen this:
I’ve never quite worked out why, when you search for imagines of disc bulges (or rather, prolapse of the nucleus pulposus – herniated or ruptured disc was the term preferred by Mixter and Ayer (1935) who proposed the notion of disc prolapse being the cause of “injuries to the spine” (Allan & Waddell, 1989), you end up with these nasty red glowing areas (see below). I think it’s because how else do you convey the idea that this is meant to be “the source of pain”.

Let’s dig back a little into history. Allan and Waddell (1989) describe the “modern” concept of the disc based on four papers: Goldthwaite (1911); Middleton & Teacher (1911); Dandy (1929) and Mixter and Barr (1934). Pathologists had described the presence of these prolapses when conducting postmortem examinations – but their patients couldn’t tell them whether they hurt, and neither was there any clinical awareness of any relationship between pain and disc prolapse. In 1911, two papers described patients with massive disc prolapses – one was a fatal case of paraplegia after a disc prolapse followed by Middleton and Teacher conducting lab experiments to see whether injury (force applied to the disc) could produce a prolapse (Middleton & Teacher, 1911). Goldthwaite described a case of paresis (not pain) after manipulation of the back, presuming that a “displaced sacroiliac joint” was responsible and identified that the nerve at the lumbosacral joint could be compressed – this was supported by later authors.

Cushing, a surgeon, performed a laminectomy which didn’t turn out well – but identified that “narrowing of the canal” might be responsible for the person’s pain, and from there the disc was blamed as the cause of “many cases of lumbago, sciatica and paraplegia”.  This narrative was followed up by other clinicians, and Mixter and Barr (1934) increased the attention given to these theories. Ultimately this led to a meeting of the minds where Mixter and Barr (Mixter being a neurologist, Barr an orthopaedic surgeon) carried out an investigation into enchondromas and and normal discs. What were thought to be tumours were mainly “normal cartilage”.  Mixter and Ayer (1935) went on to pursue the idea of disc prolapse being involved in not only cases where neurological changes were evident, but also low back pain.

Mixter and Ayer (1935) found that surgical responses were not very good – while leg pain was fixed patients still complained of a painful back. Their paper, however, emphasised that lesions of the disc were caused by “trauma” (even though history of even minor trauma was only found in 14 of their 23 cases). Canny men that they were, they noted that if trauma was involved it would “open up an interesting problem in industrial medicine”: who caused the trauma?

Well, like many ideas of the time, this one took root in an exciting climate of medical and surgical discovery – detailed descriptions of the techniques and procedures used were published, but even at that time outcome measures were not reported because, in their words “the question of liability, compensation and insurance loom large on the horizon and add complications compounded to an already knotty problem”. The meme of physical trauma to the back causing disc prolapse and subsequent back pain caught hold of the imagination, and although initially diagnosed using a myelogram, very quickly became replaced (in the name of avoiding complications, cost, discomfort and potentially missing ‘concealed’ discs) by clinical history and neurological examination.

Over the years 1930 – 1950, anaesthetics and surgery became safer and more routine – and accepted, after all look at how these surgeons patched up the brave soldiers! But by the 1970’s the enthusiasm began to wane as more patients reported adverse outcomes, and continued to experience pain.  So… it was decided disc prolapses should only be surgically managed in the case of sciatica rather than simply low back pain – but what about disc degeneration? Surely that could be the “cause”! And yes, we know that even though normal age-related changes were present, these were ignored, along with the somewhat tenuous relationship between disc changes and pain… Instead cadaver biomechanical studies were used to confirm that the disc could bulge with certain forces, and because the problem was now “degenerative” there was no cure – it would ‘inevitably’ progress. Thus the surgical fusion was brought in to play to reduce the “wear and tear” on the disc to “stabilise” the joint (though instability hadn’t been found, and fusion didn’t produce great results).

What was really striking was the move during this period towards rest as treatment. Previously bonesetters (predecessors of osteopathy and chiropractic and manual medicine) manipulated and then quickly mobilised people with low back pain. The hands-on treatment provided short-term relief but the real cure was to keep doing. Orthopaedics, however, based both on knowledge of fracture and tissue healing and ongoing use of surgery for low back pain, emphasised rest to allow “inflammation” to heal. Whether there was any inflammation is moot – what took root in the minds of medical and other practitioners was the need to rest until the pain was gone.

And that, dear ones, is how the epidemic of disability (the effect on function, limitations on what people can do, on participation) was born. It’s called iatrogenesis, or what health professionals can do to increase harm, inadvertently or not. And it’s still happening today.

We should not lay the blame for ongoing harm at the feet of orthopaedic surgeons and neurologists of the day. It was a perfect storm of media attention, community fascination with technology and miracles performed as a result of the war, the heroic soldiers and their equally heroic surgeons, the courts (in the case of industry as responsible for trauma to civilians), and of course the insurers – all over the period between 1880 – and until even today.  While outcomes are being more widely reported in orthopaedic surgery (and other treatments), changing clinical behaviour, community attitudes and the legacy of our history is slow. Cognitive dissonance is a thing… and even though 1965 saw gate control theory revolutionise our thinking about the way pain is produced, the implications are not yet fully accepted.

 

Allan, D. B., & Waddell, G. (1989). An historical perspective on low back pain and disability. Acta Orthopaedica Scandinavica, 60(sup234), 1-23.

Learning from old research (digging into history)


I recently submitted a manuscript to a journal. After the usual delay as the reviewers commented on my draft, I received the feedback – one comment stood out to me: “the references are quite old”. I scurried around to find some more recent references and resubmitted, but as I did, I started pondering this drive to continually draw on recent research even if the findings of the older references had not been superseded. There is a sense that maybe journal editors and perhaps people reading the journals think that old research has no merit.

As someone who relishes reading about the history of pain and pain management (If you haven’t yet read Melanie Thernstrom’s The Pain Chronicles or Joanna Bourke’s The Story of Pain, it’s time to do so!), and because some of the best and most revolutionary papers in pain and pain management were published in the 1980’s (Fordyce, W. E. (1988). Pain and suffering: A reappraisal. American Psychologist, 43(4), 276-283. ; Waddell, G. (1987). 1987 volvo award in clinical sciences: A new clinical model for the treatment of low-back pain. Spine, 12(7), 632-644. ; Waddell, G., Main, C. J., Morris, E. W., Paola, M. D. I., & Gray, I. C. (1984). Chronic low-back pain, psychologic distress, and illness behavior. Spine, 9(2), 209-213.), I find it extraordinary that some of the concepts being discussed today as New! Improved! Radical! are pretty much the same as those introduced waaaay back then…

Examples? Well one is the whole notion of helping people understand something of what’s know about neurobiology of pain. The “Pain Neuro Education” or “Explain Pain” thing. I’ve read several papers touting the idea that before Lorimer Moseley and colleagues published their paper on “intensive neurophysiology education in chronic low back pain” we never included information about what we knew about distinctions between acute and chronic pain. There’s this really weird disconnect between the practice discussed in the 1970’s and 1980’s where at the very least the Gate Control Theory was integral to helping people distinguish between hurt and harm – and this New! Improved! Radical! pain ‘education’. Seriously, incorporating what’s know about pain neurobiology has been part of a cognitive behavioural approach to pain management since the 1970’s if not earlier. It was even provided to me when I first developed chronic pain, and that was the mid-1980’s.

What can we learn from old research, and why does history matter?

Well, one of the things that strikes me about learning from history is that in the general population, and possibly even more so in the health professional population, there are “legacy models” of pain hanging on. Most of us will have encountered someone we’re treating/working with who holds a really strong belief that if there’s a problem with a disc (it’s degenerated, bulging, or otherwise misbehaving), then it just needs to be removed and maybe a new one put in, and everything will be just fine. Where does that come from? And some of us will point to our orthopaedic colleagues and suggest that it’s something “they’ve” encouraged. But perhaps if we take a closer look at the things that contributed to a shift away from “oh I can live with this aching back” to “it must be fixed” we might learn something about how to help shift beliefs back towards a more accommodating and accepting view of the problem.

The history of low back pain

Gordon Waddell, orthopaedic surgeon (Sept 21 1942 – April 20 2017) was, amongst many other things, a keen historian. His fascination came from his desire to understand how it was that low back pain went from being something most people experienced but were not troubled by, to the epidemic of disability that it had become – and still is.

David Allan and Gordon Waddell wrote a paper in 1989 for Acta Orthopaedica Scandinavica, called An historical perspective on low back pain and disability.  The paper was written to try to outline the genesis of the increasing epidemic of low back disability since World War II. In it, Allan and Waddell detail historic understandings of backache from as early as 1500 BC (Egypt) through Greek times (Galen, ~150AD) when back pain was described as “one of the fleeting pains that affected joints and muscles. Treatment was symptomatic. Spas, soothing local applications and counter irritants were used.” (p. 1). Back pain was not often talked about, possibly because it was so common and settled mainly by itself. Over the period 1493 (Paracelsus) to 1642 (Baillou) back pain was gradually classified as one of the diseases of “rheumatism” – a watery discharge or evil humour which flowed from the brain to cause pain in the joints or other parts of the body. Rheumatism was thought to be caused by damp and cold but not trauma – note that well!

By 1800, said Allan and Waddell, doctors started to seek a cause of low back pain itself. Maybe it was “rheumatic phlegm” – let’s rub the area, let’s heat it, let’s blister the area, let’s use cupping… And in 1828 a doctor from Glasgow (Brown) described “spinal irritation” and the vertebral column and nervous system could be the source of low back pain. This radical notion “swept Europe and had a profound effect on medical thinking for nearly thirty years”. The exact nature of “spinal irritation” was never shown… and the specific diagnosis faded away but by then and until today the idea that a painful spine “must somehow be irritable” remains.

Back pain and trauma

Chronic low back pain was not thought due to injury until the latter half of the 19th century. In other words – not all that long ago. And we can blame the industrial revolution and railways for the development of an association between back pain and trauma. In the fear that often arises during the introduction of new technology (remember RSI in the 1980’s and 1990’s? due to all these new-fangled computers we were using… and maybe, just maybe “text neck” could go the same way…) people attributed back pain and a number of other ailments on “minor injuries and cumulative trauma” to the spine because of the speed of early railway travel. This was when trauma and back pain became firmly linked.

But wait – there’s much more to come! Next week I’ll talk about the rise of the “Dynasty of the Disc” and why orthopaedic surgeons got in on the act…

 

Allan, D. B., & Waddell, G. (1989). An historical perspective on low back pain and disability. Acta Orthopaedica Scandinavica, 60(sup234), 1-23.

Moseley, G., Nicholas, M. K., & Hodges, P. W. (2004). A randomized controlled trial of intensive neurophysiology education in chronic low back pain. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 20(5), 324-330. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/00002508-200409000-00007

Clinical reasoning and why models of low back pain need to be integrated


Clinical reasoning has been defined as “the process by which a therapist interacts with a patient, collecting information, generating and testing hypotheses, and determining optimal diagnosis and treatment based on the information obtained.” (thanks to https://www.physio-pedia.com/Clinical_Reasoning#cite_note-Higgs-1). The model or lens through which we do these processes naturally has a major influence on our relationship with the person, the information we think is relevant, the hypotheses we develop, and ultimately the problems we identify and how we treat them. No arguments so far, yes?

So when we come to thinking about pain, particularly where a “diagnosis” can’t be readily established – or where the treatment doesn’t directly address a proposed causal factor – clinical reasoning should be led by some sort of model, but how explicit is our model, really? And, what’s more, how well does the research support our model, and the relationships between variables?

I’m thinking about my approach as an occupational therapist where my interest in assessment is to identify why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining their current predicament; and my aim is to identify what can be done to reduce distress and disability, while promoting participation in daily occupations (activities, things that need to be done or the person wants to do). For many years now I’ve used a cognitive behavioural model first developed by Dr Tim Sharp who has now moved into Positive Psychology. His reformulation of the cognitive behavioural model works from the “experience” of pain through to responses to that experience, but incorporates some of the cyclical interactions between constructs. The model doesn’t include inputs to the “experience” component from the nociceptive system – but it could.

Many other models exist. Some of them are quite recent – the STarT Back Tool, for example, provides a very simplified screening approach to low back pain that some people have identified as a clinical reasoning model. Another is by Tousignant-Laflamme, Martel, Joshi & Cook (2017), and is a model aimed at pulling all the various approaches together – and does so with a beautifully-coloured diagram.

But.

You knew there would be one! What I think these two models omit is to generate some relationships between the constructs, particularly the psychological ones. You see, while it’s a cyclical interaction, there are some relationships that we can identify.  And over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about some of the known associations, just to begin to build a picture of the relationships we can assess before we begin generating hypotheses.

For example, we know that the nervous system, and in particular our mind/brain, is never inactive and is therefore never a completely blank slate just waiting for information to come into it, but we also know there are relationships between the intensity/salience/novelty of a stimulus that attract attention, and that this competes with whatever cognitive set we have operating at the time (Legrain, Van Damme, Eccleston, Davis, Seminowicz & Crombez, 2009). So one relationship we need to assess is current contexts (and there are always many), and the times when a person is more or less aware of their pain.

Now, what increases the salience of a stimulus? For humans it’s all about meaning. We attribute meaning to even random patterns (ever seen dragons and horses in the clouds?!), so it’s unsurprising that as we experience something (or watch someone else experiencing something) we make meaning of it. And we generate meanings by relating concepts to other concepts – for a really good introduction to a very geeky subject, head here to read about relational frame theory. Relational frame theory is used to explain how we generate language and meanings by relating events with one another (The Bronnie translation! – for an easier version go here). Wicksell and Vowles (2015) describe this, and I’m going to quote it in full:

As described by relational frame theory, the theoretical framework underlying ACT, stimulus functions are continuously acquired via direct experiences, but also through their relations with other stimuli [5]. This implies that a behavioral response is not due to just one stimuli but rather the relational network of stimuli. Pain as an interoceptive stimulus is associated with a large number of other stimuli, and the actions taken depend on the psychological function(s) of that relational network of stimuli. A seemingly trivial situation may therefore elicit very strong reactions due to the associations being made: a relatively modest pain sensation from the neck trigger thoughts like “pain in the neck is bad,” which in turn are related to ideas such as “it may be a fragile disk,” and “something is terribly wrong,” that eventually lead to fatalistic conclusions like “I will end up in a wheelchair.” Thus, even if the initial stimulus is modest, it may activate a relational network of stimuli with very aversive psychological functions.

In other words, we develop these networks of meaning from the time we’re little until we die, and these mean any experience (situation, context, stimulus, event, action) holds meaning unique and particular to the individual. And these networks of meaning are constructed effortlessly and usually without any overt awareness. Each event/experience (yeah and the rest) then has further influence on how we experience any subsequent event/experience. So if you’ve learned that back pain is a Very Bad Thing, and you’ve done so since you were a kid because your Mother had back pain and took herself to the doctor and then stopped playing with you, you may have a very strong network of relationships built between low back pain, resting, healthcare, abandonment, sadness, anger, loneliness, fear, mother, father, pills, treatment – and the this goes on.

So when we’re beginning to construct a clinical reasoning model for something like low back pain we cannot exclude the “what does it mean” relationship. Every time someone experiences “ouch!” they’re processing a network of associations and relationships and behaviours that go on to influence their response to that experience – and affect attention to it and subsequent response to it.

Over 1000 words and I’ve not even started on emotions and pain!

Take home message: Even if we think we’re not addressing “psychological” stuff – we ARE. Omitting the “what does it mean to you?” and failing to factor that in to our clinical reasoning and subsequent treatment means we’re walking uphill on a scree slope. Oh, and telling someone they’re safe does not change those associations, especially if they’re longstanding. There’s more needed.

 

Legrain V, Damme SV, Eccleston C, Davis KD, Seminowicz DA, & Crombez G (2009). A neurocognitive model of attention to pain: behavioral and neuroimaging evidence. Pain, 144 (3), 230-2 PMID: 19376654

Sharp, T. J. (2001). Chronic pain: A reformulation of the cognitive-behavioural model. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(7), 787-800. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7967(00)00061-9

Tousignant-Laflamme, Y., Martel, M. O., Joshi, A. B., & Cook, C. E. (2017). Rehabilitation management of low back pain – it’s time to pull it all together! Journal of Pain Research, 10, 2373-2385. doi:10.2147/JPR.S146485

Wicksell, R. K., & Vowles, K. E. (2015). The role and function of acceptance and commitment therapy and behavioral flexibility in pain management. Pain Management, 5(5), 319-322. doi:10.2217/pmt.15.32

One way of using a biopsychosocial framework in pain management – vi


I could write about a BPS (biopsychosocial) model in every single post, but it’s time for me to explore other things happening in the pain management world, so this is my last post in this series for a while. But it’s a doozy! And thanks to Eric Bowman for sharing an incredibly relevant paper just in time for this post…

One of the problems in pain management is that there are so many assessments carried out by the professionals seeing a person – but very little discussed about pulling this information together to create an overall picture of the person we’re seeing. And it’s this aspect I want to look at today.

My view is that a BPS approach provides us with an orientation towards the multiple factors involved in why this person is presenting in this way at this time (and what is maintaining their presentation), and by integrating the factors involved, we’re able to establish a way to reduce both distress and disability. A BPS approach is like a large-scale framework, and then, based on scientific studies that postulate mechanisms thought to be involved, a clinician or team can generate some useful hypotheses through abductive reasoning, begin testing these – and then arrive at a plausible set of explanations for the person’s situation. By doing so, multiple different options for treatment can be integrated so the person can begin to find their way out of the complex mess that pain and disability can bring.

The “mechanisms” involved range from the biological (yes, all that cellular, genetic, biomechanical, muscle/nerve/brain research that some people think is omitted from a BPS approach IS included!), to the psychological (all the attention, emotion, behavioural, cognitive material that has possibly become the hallmark of a BPS approach), and eventually, to the social (interactions with family, friends, community, healthcare, people in the workplace, the way legislation is written, insurers, cultural factors and so on). That’s one mess of stuff to evaluate!

We do have a framework already for a BPS approach: the ICF (or International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health) provides one way of viewing what’s going on, although I can empathise with those who argue that it doesn’t provide a way to integrate these domains. I think that’s OK because, in pain and disability at least, we have research into each one of these domains although the social is still the most under-developed.

Tousignant-Laflamme, Martel, Joshi & Cook (2017) provide an approach to help structure the initial domains to explore – and a way to direct where attention needs to be paid to address both pain and disability.

What I like about this model (and I urge you to read the whole paper, please!) is that it triages the level of complexity and therefore the intervention needed without dividing the problem into “physical” and “psychosocial”. This is important because any contributing factor could be The One to most strongly influence outcome – and often an integrated approach is needed, rather than thinking “oh but the biological needs to be addressed separately”.

Another feature I like about this model is the attention paid to both pain and disability.

Beginning from the centre, each of the items in the area “A” is something that is either pretty common, and/or easily modified. So, for example, someone with low back pain that’s eased by flexion, maybe has some osteoarthritis, is feeling a bit demoralised and worries the pain is going to continue, has a job that’s not readily modified (and they’re not keen on returning) might need a physiotherapist to help work through movement patterns, some good information about pain to allay their worries, an occupational therapist to help with returning to work and sleeping, and maybe some medication if it helps.

If that same person has progressed to become quite slow to move and deconditioned, they’re experiencing allodynia and hyperalgesia, they have a history of migraine and irritable bowel, their sleep is pretty rotten, and they’re avoiding movements that “might” hurt – and their employer is pretty unhappy about them returning to work – then they may need a much more assertive approach, perhaps an intensive pain management programme, a review by a psychiatrist or psychologist, and probably some occupational therapy intervention at work plus a graded exposure to activities so they gain confidence despite pain persisting. Maybe they need medications to quieten the nervous system, perhaps some help with family relationships, and definitely the whole team must be on board with the same model of healthcare.

Some aspects are, I think, missing from this model. I’d like to see more attention paid to family and friends, social and leisure activities, and the person’s own values – because we know that values can be used to help a person be more willing to engage in things that are challenging. And I think the model is entirely deficits-based meaning the strengths a person brings to his or her situation aren’t incorporated.  Of course, too, this model hasn’t been tested in practice – and there are lots of gaps in terms of the measures that can be used to assess each of these domains. But as a heuristic or a template, this model seems to be practical, relatively simple to understand – and might stop us continuing to sub-type back pain on the basis of either psychosocial risk factors or not.

Clinicians pondering this model might now be wondering how to assess each of these domains – the paper provides some useful ideas, and if the framework gains traction, I think many others will add their tuppence-worth to it. I’m curious now to see how people who experience low back pain might view an assessment and management plan based on this: would it be acceptable? Does it help explain some of the difficulties people face? Would it be useful to people living with pain so they can explore the factors that are getting in the way of recovery?

Tousignant-Laflamme, Y., Martel, M. O., Joshi, A. B., & Cook, C. E. (2017). Rehabilitation management of low back pain – it’s time to pull it all together! Journal of Pain Research, 10, 2373-2385. doi:10.2147/JPR.S146485