Low back pain

Adam’s slow recovery


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

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

NICE suggest these steps:

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

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

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

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

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

No acupuncture, no electrotherapy.

Maybe use psychological therapies in conjunction with exercise.

Add in some NSAIDs

And don’t do much else…

In other words – exactly what Adam has been doing.

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

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

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

Seriously, folks. Watching the responses gives me nightmares.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When therapists get hurt


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When living with pain is too hard


**If you’re a person living with pain, and this headline caught your attention because you’re feeling it’s just too hard to carry on – PLEASE take a moment to seek help. If you’re feeling you can’t because they might judge you, or try to stop you feeling this way, at the very least give yourself an hour before you take any action. If that feels too long, give yourself a minute. Get through that, and give yourself another minute. And so on – until you’ve give yourself some time to let this awful feeling ease up a little. You can always revisit your decision to wait. Speak to someone – anonymously if you need to. There are helplines in every country. Phone one. Please.**

Living with persistent pain can be really hard, and clinicians, family and the person with pain can be worried about suicidal thoughts and possible actions. There’s good reason to be concerned, too, as a recent study from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey shows.

Grocott, Sommer and El-Gabalawy (2021) used the data obtained from this Canadian Health Survey to explore the relationships between pain intensity and suicidality in people with arthritis, migraines and low back pain.

The first question is how many people in the overall population involved in this study had any of the three diagnostic groups – and, as expected and in line with many epidemiological studies, between 10.3% (migraines) and 18.1% (low back pain) indicated they had been diagnosed. The “usual” pain levels across all three groups were between 25.9 – 27.7% indicating their pain was “mild”, 52.5 – 54.5% said it was “moderate”, and 19.7 – 20.9% described it as “severe”. This does not surprise me one bit – moderate levels of pain intensity are really common, and, albeit acknolwedging the difficulty of rating pain intensity on a numeric scale and the complex relationship between pain intensity and interference with daily life, demonstrate just how necessary persistent pain services are as a health services priority.

The team then identified the rates of “lifetime” suicidality – these were measured using the following questions.

“you seriously thought about committing suicide or taking your own life” (i.e., suicide ideation; yes, no), “you made a plan for committing suicide” (i.e., suicide plans; yes, no), or “you attempted suicide or tried to take your own life” (i.e., suicide attempts; yes, no).

It’s important to note that this question asked about whether the person had ever, during their life, had these thoughts – not that they were currently present. Remember this as you interpret this study, because suicidal thoughts are relatively common but acting on those thoughts is less common.

The authors found that people who were usually in pain were more likely to have suicidal thoughts, plans or had made an attempt than those who had periods of time without pain (ie intermittent pain). The different rates were reasonably large, too – just in terms of ideation, between 18.7 – 34.0% of people who were usually in pain had suicidal thoughts as opposed to those with intermittent pain (10.5-16.6%), and this association was particularly strong for people with migraine. For people with low back pain, having pain all the time was associated with much greater odds of suicidal thoughts (1.79, 95% CI [1.19-2.68], p<.05).

Pain intensity was also a factor – lifetime suicidality prevalence increased as pain intensity increased, and this was relevant to all pain conditions measured, and especially amongst people with severe pain and migraines.

A good question to ask is whether the odds were the same for people with current mental illness as for those without – and using the magic of statistics, the authors found that this only held for some forms of pain. People with arthritis (note they didn’t identify the kind of arthritis people had) reported lower levels of suicidality even in the presence of mental ill health.

The authors point out that this is an interesting study in that yes, suicidality was higher in people with migraines, and similar to other studies, but their intriguing finding was that differences in the intensity of usual pain increased the odds, along with elevated odds if people reported higher levels of pain intensity.

Why did I choose to summarise this paper?

A few reasons: one is that as health professionals, we may not be aware of just how many people in our communities live with pain. It’s a lot – and this study only included specific diagnoses. Yet, at least in New Zealand, pain management services for people with pain are scarce.

Most people in New Zealand will maybe get referred to a physiotherapist, but it’s often difficult for people with persistent pain to raise their issues with pain with their health provider and for those providers to respond with empathy (Thompson, Dowell, Hilder, Macdonald, Stubbe & Alchin, 2021). This means that many people may not be seen by clinicians with confidence to help people with psychosocial aspects of their pain (eg Holopainen, Simpson, Piirainen, Karppinen, Schutze, O’Sullivan & Ken, 2020, Zangoni & Thompson, 2017) if they even indicate that this is a concern for them during the consultation.

Another reason is that many clinicians who work mainly in “physical” health may not know what to do if someone does disclose suicidal thoughts. It is confronting to hear someone say they don’t want to live any more – and knowing what to do next can feel highly risky. How does this fit within my scope of practice? What if I say something wrong and the person goes ahead and attempts suicide?

Note though, that this study didn’t look at current levels of suicidal thought – it’s lifetime prevalence. Perhaps people who have had occasion to think about killing themselves have a greater degree of vulnerability for persistent pain, particularly when pain is intense. We don’t know – but the authors speculate. Worth reading the paper in full to find out their thoughts.

My thoughts (briefly!) are:

  • Prepare ahead of time. We’ll all likely encounter a person who is really distressed, at the end of their tether, and indicates they’re thinking of harming themselves. Being prepared makes responding to this situation much easier.
  • Preparation should include writing a policy for your practice or your setting. It should include a list of people to contact in a psychiatric emergency (when a person indicates they’re ready to take action to harm themselves), as well as specific actions to take when talking to the person.
  • We’re not all psychologists and it’s not our job to be psychologists – all we’re asked to do in this kind of situation is be a human. What I mean by this is – listen, affirm that the person is feeling really bad and support them to access the help they need. This might mean calling the psychologist if you have one you work with regularly, or calling the person’s family doctor, or calling psychiatric emergency services.
  • Ensure you hand the person to someone who will take care of them. This means not letting them go off in their car without letting their family doctor know, even if they say they’re fine. For your own reassurance this is important.
  • Take care of yourself. Don’t just go on to see the next person waiting for you. Take some time to process what’s happened, what you did, and debrief with someone you trust. It doesn’t need to be a trauma counsellor – it’s just as useful to talk to your colleagues who know you and the kind of work you do. Go have a cup of coffee, go for a walk, give yourself space to recognise that you just helped someone who was really distressed. That’s an important job.
  • Don’t ignore the person and pretend they didn’t just say that. Affirm that they’re feeling rotten. Don’t trivialise it and suggest they should just harden up, or it’s not really that bad, or that they’re at fault for feeling this way. Just be gentle and human, and recognise the privilege you have – this person trusts you enough to say how they’re really feeling. It’s an honour. So if you can’t think of anything to say, just sit with them and bear witness to their distress. Hand them a tissue. Be there for them.

Oh, and in that paper, while 18.7 – 34.0% had suicidal thoughts over their lifetime, 7.2–14.5% had made actual plans, while 6.6–14.7% had made attempts. Don’t trivialise suicidal thoughts, but at the same time, don’t freak out that the person is going to kill themselves – just take action to support them, and in most cases, the thoughts will fade as the person gains hope.

Grocott, B., Sommer, J. L., & El-Gabalawy, R. (2021, Jun 28). Usual presence and intensity of pain are differentially associated with suicidality across chronic pain conditions: A population-based study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 148, 110557. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2021.110557

Holopainen, M. R., Simpson, M. P., Piirainen, D. A., Karppinen, P. J., Schutze, D. R., Smith, P. A., O’Sullivan, P. P., & Kent, A. P. (2020, Jan 16). Physiotherapists’ perceptions of learning and implementing a biopsychosocial intervention to treat musculoskeletal pain conditions: a systematic review and metasynthesis of qualitative studies. Pain. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001809

Thompson, L., Dowell, A., Hilder, J., Macdonald, L., Stubbe, M., & Alchin, J. (2021, Jan 4). How do patients and General Practitioners talk about pain and negotiate empathy in consultations? A direct observational study. Health & Social Care in the Community. https://doi.org/10.1111/hsc.13259

Zangoni, G., & Thomson, O. P. (2017, 2//). ‘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. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.msksp.2016.12.015

Modifying pain behaviour (2)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do about acute low back pain


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.