What is pain for?

We’re told we need pain – without the experience, we risk harming our bodies and living short lives. With pain, and for most people, we learn to not go there, don’t do that, don’t do that AGAIN, and look at that person – don’t do what they’re doing! Thirst, hunger, fear, delicious tastes and smells, the feelings of belonging, of safety and security, of calm and comfort: all of these are experiences we learn about as we develop greater control over our bodies.

Pain is an experience we learn to associate with actual or possible threat to “self”. Let’s take a moment to think about what “self-hood” means.

If I ask you “who are you?” you’ll tell me your name, probably your occupation, maybe where you live and who you live with. Baumeister (1997) suggests our sense of self is about “the direct feeling each person has of privileged access to his or her own thoughts and feelings and sensations.” He goes on to say “it begins with the awareness of one’s own body and is augmented by the sense of being able to make choices and initiate action.” We learn about who we are through interacting with the environment, but also as we interact with other people and begin to sort through our roles, contributions and relationships.

Of course, our sense of self changes over time and is reciprocally influenced by choices we make as well as opportunities (and threats) around us, both environmental and social.

We work really hard to avoid threats to our sense of self. For example, I’ll be we’ve all seen that person who steadfastly refuses to stop colouring his hair, wearing the same clothing styles as he did in his 20’s, holding on to the same habits as he did at the same age even when he’s now in his 50’s, has a paunch, and still looks for partners 20 years younger than he is…  He still believes he’s that young stud despite the evidence in the mirror. And of course the same applies to women perhaps more so!

So what happens when our mind/body is threatened? How do we know it? And what do we do about it?

In this instance I’m not talking about social threats, though there’s interesting research suggesting that being socially excluded has similar neurobiological effects as being physically threatened (or experiencing pain – though this may reflect the distress we experience when we’re hurt and when we’re socially excluded – see Iannetti, Salomons, Moayedi, Mouraux & Davis, 2013; Eisenberger, 2015). I’m instead talking about threats to our physical body. Those threats may be violence from another person, physical trauma to the body, or the threat of physical harm to the body. When we experience these kinds of threats, and once an aspect of mind/body has disentangled the threat evaluation from whatever other goals we’re currently engaged in, we experience pain. Tabor, Keogh and Eccelston (Pain, in press) define pain in terms of action: an experience which, as part of a protective strategy, attempts to defend one’s self in the presence of inferred threat.

So pain is there to help us maintain an intact sense of self in the presence of threat – threat that we’ve inferred from our context (or drawn a conclusion from incomplete data). It’s part of a system that works to maintain “us” in the face of multiple threats that we encounter.

Tabor, Keogh and Eccleston also argue that pain is an experience designed to intrude on awareness to show that “boundaries have been reached and action must be taken”. Pain is one way our mind/body can give us an indication of boundary – just how much, or how little, we can do. For example, I experience pain when I bend my thumb down to reach my wrist – it’s one way I can learn how far I can bend without disrupting something! The purpose of that pain is to help “me” defend against doing really dumb things, like stretching my thumb out of joint!

Interestingly, when we feel overwhelmed by our pain, when we can’t defend against it (because it feels too intense, has meanings that threaten our deepest sense of self) we tend to withdraw from responding to everything else – our conversations stop, we don’t notice other people or events, we pull into ourselves and ultimately, we can lose consciousness (think of the accounts of early surgery without anaesthesia – the surgeons were kinda grateful when the patient lapsed into unconsciousness because at last they weren’t writhing to get away – see Joanna Bourke’s book “The Story of Pain” for some harrowing stories!).

When we lose consciousness, our sense of self disappears. We lose contact with the “what it is to be me”.

Our sense of self also disappears when we experience pain we can’t escape and we can’t make sense of. Throughout the time while people are trying to label their pain, establish the meaning of their symptoms, and while people are searching for a solution to their pain, people’s experience of both time and “who I am” is threatened (Hellstrom, 2001).

To me, this is one of the primary problems associated with pain – and one we’ve almost completely ignored in our healthcare treatments. All our treatments are aimed at helping “get rid of the pain” – but what isn’t so often incorporated in these efforts is a way of engaging and rebuilding a resilient sense of self. So while the pain may ebb away, the “self” remains feeling vulnerable and threatened, especially if there’s any hint of pain returning.

What can we do better? Perhaps talk about what vision a person has of themselves as a “self”. Help them work towards becoming the “self” they believe they are – or at least helping them express the underlying values that their “self” has previously been expressing. That way perhaps people can find flexible ways to express that “self” – which will make them more capable of living well under any circumstances.


Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Identity, self-concept, and self-esteem: The self lost and found. Hogan, Robert [Ed], 681-710.

Bourke, J. (2014). The story of pain: From prayer to painkillers: Oxford University Press.

Eisenberger, N. I. (2015). Social pain and the brain: Controversies, questions, and where to go from here. Annual review of psychology, 66, 601-629.

Hellstrom, C. (2001). Temporal dimensions of the self-concept: Entrapped and possible selves in chronic pain. Psychology & Health, 16(1), 111-124. doi:

Iannetti, G. D., Salomons, T. V., Moayedi, M., Mouraux, A., & Davis, K. D. (2013). Beyond metaphor: Contrasting mechanisms of social and physical pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(8), 371-378.

Tabor, A., Keogh, E. and Eccleston, C. (2016) Embodied pain— negotiating the boundaries of possible action. Pain. ISSN 0304- 3959 (In Press)


Empathy and catastrophising influence pain inhibition

When I went to occupational therapy school I was introduced to nociception and the biological underpinnings of pain. I wasn’t, at that time, taught anything about the brain, attention, emotions or any social responses to pain behaviour. Like most health professionals educated in the early 1980’s, pain was a biological and physical phenomenon. I suppose that’s why it can be so hard for some of my colleagues to unlearn the things they learned way back then, and begin to integrate what we know about psychological and social aspects of our pain experience. Because pain is a truly biopsychosocial experience. Those pesky psychosocial factors aren’t just present in people who have difficulty recovering from pain, they’re actually integral to the entire experience.

Anyway, ’nuff said.

Today I stumbled across a cool study exploring two of the psychosocial phenomena that we’ve learned are involved in pain. The first is catastrophising. And if you haven’t got your head around catastrophising it’s probably time to do so. It’s one of the strongest predictors of disability (Edwards, Dworkin, Sullivan, Turk & Wasan, 2016). Catastrophising is the tendency to “think the worst” and consists of ruminating (brooding on), magnifying (over-estimating the negative impact) and helplessness (feeling as if there’s nothing you can do).  The second is empathy, or the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Empathy is not the same as sympathy which seems to be about the emotions a person experiences while observing another’s emotional state. In fact, separate parts of the brain are involved in the two experiences (Cuff, Brown, Taylor & Howat, 2014).

Back to the study. This study examined conditioned pain modulation in partners observing their partner undergoing a painful experience. It was carried out by Gougeon, Gaumond, Goffaux, Potvin and Marchand (2016) in an attempt to understand what happens to the pain experience of people watching their loved ones in pain. The experimental protocol was (1) baseline; (2) assessing pain VAS 50; (3) pre-CPT heat pain testing (thermode preimmersion at a fixed temperature); (4) CPT (either at 201Cor71C); and (5) post-CPT heat testing (thermode postimmersion at the same fixed temperature). What they did was ask the participants to submerge their right hand in a freezing cold waterbath while video recording them. They then asked their partners to place their right hand in lukewarm water while watching the video recording. Participants were asked to rate their pain intensity.

What they found was the higher the catastrophizing score was, stronger was their descending pain inhibition when they were watching either themselves or their spouse in pain. In women, the more empathic the women were, the better was their descending pain inhibition when they observed their spouse in pain.

This is extraordinary. Firstly, the finding that there was a correlation between catastrophising score and descending inhibition contradicts other research studies – Gougeon, Gaumond, Goffaux, Potvin and Marchand suggest that although cognitive and emotional processes underlying catastrophising increase pain perception and decrease inhibition, their experimental design may have increased pain perception during the conditioned stimulus which may have triggered more conditioned pain modulation. They also suggest that the catastrophising level of participants increases their perceived pain, explaining why it correlates with conditioned pain modulation efficiency.

Secondly, women were more distraught than men by observing pain in others. Adopting the perspective of a loved-one elicited stronger activation in regions involved in the “pain” matrix than adopting the stranger’s perspective (Cheng et al), and the authors suggest that empathy is a powerful factor involved in pain modulation while observing someone in pain. This shows that descending inhibition is influenced by physical stimulus characteristics (such as intensity or location), as well as personal cognitive dimensions. A far cry from the notion that psychosocial factors play little part in modulating our pain experience.

What does this actually mean for us?

Well, to me it suggests that we need to be aware of our own empathic response to observing someone else who is experiencing pain. Let’s put it this way: if I’m an especially empathic person (and especially if I tend to catastrophise) and I see people who are experiencing pain in my clinical practice, my own emotional and cognitive response to seeing people may influence my behaviour and practice. For example, I might be less willing to tell people that I don’t have a way to reduce their pain. I might pursue more “heroic” healthcare – send people off for more treatments, try for longer with unsuccessful treatments “just in case”, I might even send people away from my care because I find it hard to tolerate being around someone who “doesn’t respond”.

You see, being empathic and catastrophising tends to elevate feelings of distress in the presence of pain. If we don’t have effective ways to manage our own distress when we are in the presence of someone who is indicating they’re sore, we’re at greater risk of developing burnout and of feeling frustrated (Gleichgerrcht & Decety, 2014).

For this reason I’m a fan of using mindfulness because it does help people to step back from the emotional judgements of experience, and in particular the negative impact such judgements have on both interactions and emotions (Dobkin, Bernardi & Bagnis, 2016).


Cheng Y, Chen C, Lin CP, et al. Love hurts: an fMRI study. Neuroimage. 2010;51:923–929.

Cuff, B. M. P., Brown, S. J., Taylor, L., & Howat, D. J. (2014). Empathy: A review of the concept. Emotion Review, 8(2), 144-153. doi:10.1177/1754073914558466

Decety, J., Yang, C.-Y., & Cheng, Y. (2010). Physicians down-regulate their pain empathy response: An event-related brain potential study. Neuroimage, 50(4), 1676-1682.

Dobkin, P. L., Bernardi, N. F., & Bagnis, C. I. (2016). Enhancing clinicians’ well-being and patient-centered care through mindfulness. Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 36(1), 11-16.

Edwards, R. R., Dworkin, R. H., Sullivan, M. D., Turk, D. C., & Wasan, A. D. (2016). The role of psychosocial processes in the development and maintenance of chronic pain. The Journal of Pain, 17(9, Suppl), T70-T92.

Gleichgerrcht, E., & Decety, J. (2014). The relationship between different facets of empathy, pain perception and compassion fatigue among physicians. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 8, 243.

Gougeon, V. M., Gaumond, I. P., Goffaux, P. P., Potvin, S. P., & Marchand, S. P. (2016). Triggering descending pain inhibition by observing ourselves or a loved-one in pain. Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(3), 238-245.


What do we do with those questionnaires?

Courtesy of many influences in pain management practice, you’d have to have been hiding under a rock or maybe be some sort of dinosaur not to have noticed the increasing emphasis on using questionnaires to measure factors such as pain catastrophising, depression or avoidance. The problem is I’m not sure we’ve all been certain about what to do with the results. It’s not uncommon for me to hear people saying “Oh but once I see psychosocial factors there, I just refer on”, or “they’re useful when the person’s not responding to my treatment, but otherwise…”, “we use them for outcome measures, but they’re not much use for my treatment planning”.

I think many clinicians think psychosocial questionnaires are all very well – but “intuition”  will do “…and what difference would it make to my treatment anyway?”

Today I thought I’d deconstruct the Pain Catastrophising Scale and show what it really means in clinical practice.

The Pain Catastrophising Scale is a well-known and very useful measure of an individual’s tendency to “think the worst” when they’re considering their pain. Catastrophising is defined as “an exaggerated negative mental set brought to bear during actual or anticipated painful experience” (Sullivan et al., 2001). The questionnaire was first developed by Sullivan, Bishop and Pivik in 1995, and the full copy including an extensive manual is available here. Keep returning to that page because updates are made frequently, providing more information about the utility of the measure.

The questionnaire itself is a 13-item measure using a 0 – 4 Likert-type scale from 0 = “not at all” to 4 = “all the time”. Respondents are instructed to “indicate the degree to which you have these thoughts and feelings when you are experiencing pain”.

There are three subscales measuring three major dimensions of catastrophising: rumination “I can’t stop thinking about how much it hurts”; magnification “I worry that something serious may happen”; and helplessness “It’s awful and I feel that it overwhelms me”.

To score the instrument, simply sum all the responses to all 13 items, but to get a better idea of how to help a person, the subscale calculations involve the following:

Rumination: sum items 8,9,10, and 11

Magnification: sum items 6,7, and 13

Helplessness: sum items 1,2,3,4,5, and 12

There’s not a lot of point in having numbers without knowing what they mean, so the manual provides means and standard deviations relating to a population individuals with injury leading to lost time from work in Nova Scotia, Canada.

thingClinicians are typically interested in whether the person sitting in front of them is likely to have trouble managing their pain, so the manual also provides “cut off”scores for what could be described as “clinically relevant” levels of catastrophising. A total score of 30 or more is thought to represent the 75th percentile of scores obtained by individuals with chronic pain.

The “so what” question

Cutting to the chase, the question is “so what”? What difference will getting this information from someone make to my clinical reasoning?

Leaving aside the enormous body of literature showing a relationship between high levels of catastrophising and generally poor responses to traditional treatments that address pain alone (including surgery for major joint replacement, recovery from multiple orthopaedic trauma, low back pain, shoulder pain etc), I think it’s helpful to dig down into what the three subscales tell us about the person we’re working with. It’s once we understand these tendencies that we can begin to work out how our approach with someone who has high levels of rumination might differ from what we’ll do when working with someone who has high levels of helplessness.

As an aside and being upfront, I think it’s important to remember that a questionnaire score will only tell you what a person wants you to know. Questionnaires are NOT X-rays of the mind! They’re just convenient ways to ask the same questions more than once, to collect the answers and compare what this person says with the responses from a whole lot of other people, and they allow us to organise information in a way that we might not think to do otherwise.  I also think it’s really important NOT to label a person as “a catastrophiser” as if this is a choice the person has made. People will have all sorts of reasons for tending to think the way they do, and judging someone is unprofessional and unethical.


Rumination is that thing we do when a thought just won’t get out of our mind. You know the one – the ear worm, the endless round and round, especially at night, when we can’t get our mind off the things we’re worrying about. If a person has trouble with being able to drag his or her attention away, there are some useful things we can suggest. One theory about rumination is that it’s there as a sort of problem solving strategy, but one that has gone haywire.

Mindfulness can help so that people can notice their thoughts but not get hooked up into them. I like to use this both as a thought strategy, but also as a way of scanning the body and just noticing not only where the pain is experienced, but also where it is not.

“Fifteen minutes of worry” can also help – setting aside one specific time of the day (I like 7.00pm – 7.15pm) where you have to write down everything you’re worried about for a whole fifteen minutes without stopping. By also telling yourself throughout the day “I’m not worrying about this until tonight” and afterwards saying “I’ve already worried about this so I don’t need to right now”, worrying and ruminating can be contained. By being present with the thoughts during that 15 minutes, the threat value of the thought content is also reduced.


This is the tendency to think of the worst possible thing rather than the most likely outcome, and it’s common! Magnification can really increase the distress and “freeze” response to a situation. If a person is thinking of all the worst possible outcomes it’s really hard for them to focus on what is actually happening in the here and now. There’s some adaptive features to magnification – if I’ve prepared for the worst, and it doesn’t happen, then I’m in a good situation to go on, but in some people this process becomes so overwhelming that their ability to plan is stopped in its tracks.

Once again, mindfulness can be really useful here, particularly paying attention to what is actually happening in the here and now, rather than what might happen or what has happened. Mindful attention to breathing, body and thoughts can help reduce the “freeze” response, and allow some space for problem solving.

Of course, accurate information presented in nonthreatening terms and in ways the person can process is important to de-threaten the experience of pain. This is at the heart of “explain pain” approaches – and it’s useful. What’s important, however, is to directly address the main concern of the person – and it may not be the pain itself, but the beliefs about what pain will mean in terms of being a good parent, holding down a job, maintaining intimacy, being responsible and reliable. It’s crucial to find out what the person is really concerned about – and then ensure your “reassurance” is really reassuring.


Helplessness is that feeling of “there’s nothing I can do to avoid this awful outcome so I won’t do anything”. It’s a precursor to feelings of depression and certainly part of feeling overwhelmed and out of control.

When a person is feeling helpless it’s important to help them regain a sense of self efficacy, or confidence that they CAN do something to help themselves, to exert some sort of control over their situation. It might be tempting to aim for focusing on pain intensity and helping them gain control over pain intensity, but because it’s often so variable and influenced by numerous factors, it might be more useful to help the person achieve some small goals that are definitely achievable. I often begin with breathing because it’s a foundation for mindfulness, relaxation and has a direct influence over physiological arousal.

You might also begin with some exercise or daily activities that are well within the capabilities of the person you’re seeing. I like walking as a first step (no pun intended) because it doesn’t require any equipment, it’s something we all do, and it can be readily titrated to add difficulty. It’s also something that can be generalised into so many different environments. In a physiotherapy situation I’d like to see PTs consider exercises as their medium for helping a person experience a sense of achievement, of control, rather than a means to an end (ie to “fix” some sort of deficit).

To conclude
Questionnaires don’t add value until they’re USED. I think it’s unethical to administer a questionnaire without knowing what it means, without using the results, and without integrating the results into clinical reasoning. The problem is that so many questionnaires are based on psychological models and these haven’t been integrated into physiotherapy or occupational therapy clinical reasoning models. Maybe it’s time to work out how do this?

Sullivan M J L, Bishop S, Pivik J. The Pain Catastrophizing Scale: Development and validation. Psychol Assess 1995, 7: 524-532.

Main, C. J., Foster, N., & Buchbinder, R. (2010). How important are back pain beliefs and expectations for satisfactory recovery from back pain? Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 24(2), 205-217. doi:doi:10.1016/j.berh.2009.12.012

Sturgeon, J. A., Zautra, A. J., & Arewasikporn, A. (2014). A multilevel structural equation modeling analysis of vulnerabilities and resilience resources influencing affective adaptation to chronic pain. PAIN®, 155(2), 292-298. doi:


Guide, don’t instruct: how we talk within sessions

Do you remember your favourite teacher in school? Mine was Mrs Jackson, teacher of my Form 2 class (I think I was 12 years old). She was an outstanding teacher because she expected that we’d do well. She also didn’t tell us what to do – she helped us explore. And if there was one thing I’d like to have happen in therapy sessions with clients, it would be that we learn how to guide instead of instructing.

It’s only recently that I’ve learned why guiding and facilitating is so much more helpful than telling or instructing, and yes it’s because I’ve been reading Villatte, Villatte & Hayes Mastering the Clinical Conversation.

Have you ever noticed that when we give an instruction like “Sit up straight” or “Use your core” our clients attend to how well they’re doing just that – sitting up straight, or using the core – and at the very same time, they no longer attend to other aspects of their movement (or the context, or even the purpose of the movement). It’s a human tendency to focus on a particular set of features of our environment – and it certainly helps us cognitively because it means we don’t have to attend to everything all at once. BUT at the same time, it means we become relatively insensitive to other features occurring at the same time.

Rules or instructions have their place, or they wouldn’t still be being used in therapy – but their utility depends on how rigidly they’re applied. It makes sense for a super athlete to really focus on certain aspects of their performance, especially when they’re training, and especially when there’s one particular set of movements that will maximise their performance. For people living with pain, however, life is not about a set of performance goals. Instead, it’s about being able to respond adeptly to the constantly changing demands of their lives. And one thing people living with pain often have trouble with is being able to notice what’s happening in their own bodies.

Let’s unpack this. People living with chronic pain live with ongoing pain in certain parts of the body – and human tendencies being what they are, we try to avoid experiencing those sore bits, so our attention either skips over the painful area or it focuses almost exclusively on the sore bits and not on other parts (technically this could be called experiential avoidance). By working hard to avoid experiencing the sore bits, or alternatively focusing entirely on those sore bits, people living with pain often fail to notice what actually happens during movement.

As therapists, we can complicate this. We can instruct people (give them rules) about the movements they “should” be doing. We try to ‘correct’ posture. We advise people to use specific lifting techniques. We say “use your core”.

The effect of these instructions is to further lead our patients away from experiencing what is happening in their body. Instead of becoming aware of the way their bodies move, they attend to how well they’re following our instructions. Which is fine – until the person experiences a flare-up, or moves into a new environment with different demands, or perhaps we complete our sessions and discharge them into the wild blue yonder.

So, people with chronic pain can progressively become less aware of how their body actually feels as they do movements, and at the same time, try to apply rules we’ve given them that may not be all that helpful in different contexts.

We end up with the plumber trying hard to crawl under a house, carrying all her tools, while at the same time being worried that she’s not “using her core”. Or the piano teacher trying to “sit up properly” while working with a student on a duet. And the nurse, working one day in a busy ward with heavy patients, and another day in a paediatric ward, trying to “lift properly” using the same technique.

If we want to help people respond effectively to the widely differing contexts they’ll experience in everyday life, perhaps we need to take some time to help people learn to trust their own body, to experience both painful areas – and those that aren’t painful. We might need to help people work out fundamental principles of movement to enable them to have movement variability and flexibility – and to adjust and adapt when the contexts change.

To do this, we need to think about the way we help people learn new ways of moving. There are two fundamentals, I think.

  1. Guiding people to attend to, or notice, what is – including being OK about noticing painful parts of the body. The purpose behind this is to help people become aware of the various movement options they have, and the effect of those options on how they feel. We might need to guide people to consider not only pain, but also feelings of strength, stability, responsiveness, reach, movement refinement, subtlety, delicacy and power. To achieve this, we might need to spend time developing mindfulness skills so people can experience rather than attempting to change what they experience. The art of being willing to make room for whatever experience is present – learning to feel pain AND feel strength; feel pain AND relaxation; feel comfort AND power.
  2. Guiding people to use their own experience as their guide to “good movement”. In part, this is more of the same. I use words like “experiment” as in “let’s try this as an experiment, what does it feel like to you?”, or “let’s give it a go and see what you think”, or “I wonder what would happen if….” For example, if a person tries to move a box on a ledge that’s just out of reach, how many of you have told the person “stand a bit closer?” While that’s one way of helping someone work out that they might be stronger if they’re close to a load, what happens if the ground underfoot is unstable? The box still needs to be moved but the “rule” of standing close to a box doesn’t work – what do you think might happen if the person was guided to “Let’s try working out how you can move the box. What’s happening in your body when you reach for it?” then “What do you think you might change to make you feel more confident?” (or strong, or stable, or able to change position?).

When we try guiding rather than instructing, we honour the person’s own choices and contexts while we’re also allowing them to develop a superior skill: that of learning to experience their own body and to trust their own judgement. This ultimately gives them more awareness of how their body functions, and the gift of being flexible in how they approach any movement task.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061


Dealing with distress

From time to time anyone who works with people trying to help them make changes in their lives will encounter someone who is overwhelmed, distressed and generally not willing to (or able to) take even a tiny step forward. It’s hard for us as therapists because, after all, we want to help people – but hey! This person in front of us just isn’t up to it!

I think many of us who weren’t trained in psychology can find it really hard to know what to do, and like all humans, we deal with feeling helpless by hoping to avoid it.

Some of us will tell people what to do – this is the way most of us were trained, so it’s what we do when under threat. We might couch this advice in fancy words, but essentially we try to get the person to make a change on the basis of our expertise and superior position. After all, the person came to us for help, right?

Some of us will feel stuck ourselves. Perhaps we’ll give up, or blame the person we’re sitting in front of. They’re not motivated/willing/ready so we stop trying and back off.

In both of these situations, the person’s actual needs at the time can be inadvertently ignored. They’re distressed and we either ignore and advise, or back off – when perhaps what they’re really wanting is someone to be present with them and offer them time to work together on the next best step they can take.

Here’s one way I’ve used to help people who are stuck, distressed and not certain.

  1. Be fully present and let them express what’s going on. This means listening, perhaps asking “can you tell me more about that?” or “it’s tough but are you willing to talk me through what’s going on for you right now?” or “what’s your theory on why you are feeling what you’re feeling?”
  2. Listen with an open and enquiring mind and heart. That means absorbing what they’re saying without trying to respond to it. At the most, you can reflect what you hear, perhaps saying things like “I think I understand that you’re feeling [sad, afraid, overwhelmed], do I have this right?”, or “From what you’re saying, you’re not sure [what’s going on with your rehab] and this is incredibly hard”, “if I’ve heard what you’re saying… is that what you mean?”
  3. Breathe and be mindful of your own response before charging on with the session. It’s OK to tear up if someone is saying something that would make you feel sad. It’s OK to feel aghast that this terrible thing is happening. It’s OK to notice your own body tighten up, your breathing change, not to know what to say. Just notice this in yourself BEFORE you respond. If you do feel something, respond naturally – normalise the experience described by the person as being something anyone in their shoes would feel, and reflect your own response to it. You can say things like “Oh that sounds like such a tough situation” or “I feel a bit tearful myself when I listen to what you’ve been through”, or “I really don’t know how to respond to what you’ve said, I’m lost for words, it’s really hard”.  The purpose behind doing this is to acknowledge that we’re human too, and get affected by what we hear. To be transparent and real so that the person is aware of your own readiness to “show up” and be fully present alongside them.  If you need a moment to catch your breath after they’ve told you something emotionally charged, say so.
  4. When you do respond, summarise what you’ve heard and ask them if that’s what they intended to mean. In motivational interviewing terms this can be called “giving a bouquet” – collecting together a summary of what the person has said, then offering it back to them to check you’ve understood (and it also shows them you’ve been listening).
  5. Before doing anything else, ask them “where does this leave you?” or “what do you think you should do right now?” or “what’s the next step for you now?” People have ideas about what to do next, most times, and we work more effectively with those ideas than if we try to bolt on some piece of advice without recognising their thoughts.

A couple of nice tools to use at this point are the choice point  , and the matrix by Dr Kevin Polk.

The hardest part of responding this way is often our own response. Because we feel uncomfortable, and we’re aware of timeframes, expectations, and because we probably don’t enjoy people crying or being angry in our sessions, we often don’t want to take the few moments needed to be present with someone who is in the middle of it all. Being present is about being there and not trying to change the situation, or rush away from it, or fix the problem – it’s about being willing to bear witness and honour the vulnerability that person has shown us. What a privilege!

It can be emotionally tough after a day of seeing people who are feeling distressed. I think this is where using mindfulness as I’ve described above can be really worthwhile. Noticing what our body is doing when someone is distressed can help us notice the work we do (and help explain why some of us don’t want to talk to anyone at the end of a hard day!). The odd thing is, that when we honour someone by being present and not trying to change their situation at the time, we often find the person is ready to move on and engage in therapy far more quickly than if we’d tried to “make” it happen. At least, that’s my experience!

A good clinician once told me “never be afraid of allowing someone to have a crisis, because after a crisis, shift happens”. I’ve found that to be true.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this post – I don’t have loads of references for it, but a couple that come to mind are:

Beach, Mary Catherine, Roter, Debra, Korthuis, P. Todd, Epstein, Ronald M., Sharp, Victoria, Ratanawongsa, Neda, . . . Saha, Somnath. (2013). A Multicenter Study of Physician Mindfulness and Health Care Quality. The Annals of Family Medicine, 11(5), 421-428. doi: 10.1370/afm.1507

Goubert, Liesbet, Craig, K., Vervoort, Tine, Morley, S., Sullivan, M., Williams, A., . . . Crombez, G. (2005). Facing others in pain: The effects of empathy. Pain, 118(3), 285-288. doi:


Flexibility: not just movement variability

For many therapists, learning the Right Way to treat a person experiencing pain means following rules. Observe this, identify that, follow the yellow brick road and end up with the right result. The problem is that people don’t always respond in the way the rules suggest meaning both clinician and patient can be confused about what to do next. While it’s normal to generate clinical heuristics, or rules of thumb, these can limit the way we approach helping someone.

I’ve been pondering this as I’m reading Villatte, Viullatte and Hayes Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. I posted last time I wrote about the problems that language can pose for us as we attend to the concepts and relationships those word generate for us rather than noticing what is actually happening right here and now. I was originally thinking of the people we work with and treat, but now I want to turn my attention to us – because we too can be imprisoned within rules that function well in one context – but hamper flexible responses in other contexts.

The rules we follow

Some of the rules we learn during our initial clinical training can be very helpful – for example, we learn that we need to attend to what people say and do; we learn to suppress our judgements about the person as “likeable” or “unlikable” (hopefully); we learn the importance of using correct terminology with one another. Other rules are far less helpful: in my case, learning that people “should” use a raised toilet seat after hip replacement (almost irrespective of the bathroom they have, the alternatives they’d already organised, or whether it actually reduced the risk of hip dislocation) meant that I tried to give the things out to people who didn’t actually need them. I quickly stopped doing that after I found too many of those toilet seats dumped on the roadside inorganic rubbish collection! And I became more sensitive to who, what, when and where. And I changed my thoughts once I read the research suggesting those “hip precautions” perhaps don’t hold up to scrutiny (for example: Schmidt-Braekling, Waldstein, Akalin, et al, 2015; Ververeli, Lebby, Tyler & Fouad, 2009).

We follow many other clinical rules – for example, we attend to certain features of a person’s presentation because we’ve been told it’s important. Depending on the model or theory we hold about the problem, we’ll attend to some things and not others.

Similarly in terms of our treatments – we’ve been told that some treatments are “good” and others not so. Some of us follow these rules very strictly – so patients are told to move in certain ways, to avoid certain movements, to do six repetitions of an exercise, to stop for a break every hour – and some of us have even been quite frustrated because the patients we’ve been advising tell us these rules aren’t working. We think “but they should”!

Explaining pain

A good example of this is the push to ensure every person experiencing pain gets an explanation for their pain. We’ve seen the evidence showing it’s a good thing, and we’ve even learned a set of phrases that we’ve been told “work”.

BUT is this a rule we should always follow?


In some instances giving pain education is unhelpful. Times I can think of are when a person is presenting with high pain intensity and in an acute situation – or when they’re stuck with an explanation they prefer and aren’t ready to consider another, or when they have other more important concerns.

Based on what I’ve been reading, perhaps we need to consider some alternative ways of looking at this “rule”.

Here’s the thing: for some people, at the right time, and when the person is being helped to discover for themselves, learning about pain neurobiology is a really good thing. But if we apply this as a rule, we risk becoming insensitive to other things the person might need AND to whether the education has had the intended effect. For some people, it’s not the right thing – the outcome for THAT person might be seen in increased resistance to your therapeutic approach, or arguing back, or them simply not returning because we “didn’t listen” or “told me it’s all in my head”. For others, this information might be useful but not as important as identifying that they’re really worried about their financial situation, or their family relationships, or their mood is getting them down, or they’re not sleeping…

Am I suggesting not to do pain education? Not at all. I’m suggesting that instead of developing a rule that “everyone must have pain education because it’s good” (or, for that matter, any other “must”), clinicians could try considering the context. Ask “is this important to the client right now?”, “what effect am I hoping for and am I measuring it?”, “how can I guide the person to draw their own conclusions instead of telling them?”

In other words, attending to those contextual cues might just help us think of a bunch of alternative ways to help this person achieve their goals. And if we then ask the person to collaborate on HOW to reach those goals, suggesting the plans are experiments that both of you can evaluate. This helps reduce our human tendency to latch onto an idea, and then create a rule that isn’t always helpful.


Schmidt-Braekling, T., Waldstein, W., Akalin, E. et al. Arch Orthop Trauma Surg (2015) 135: 271. doi:10.1007/s00402-014-2146-x

Ververeli P, Lebby E, Tyler C, Fouad C. Evaluation of Reducing Postoperative Hip Precautions in Total Hip Replacement: A Randomized Prospective Study. ORTHOPEDICS. 1; 32: doi: 10.3928/01477447-20091020-09 [link]

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061


Getting stuck with language

In my last post I talked about the ways in which humans learn to relate abstract concepts and experiences together (symbolic relations). I pointed out that we learn to take another person’s point of view as part of developing empathy, and that by interacting with our world we become aware of our place (here) and someone or something else’s place (there). We also learn “me” and “you” (not me), along with near and far, now and then and myriad other abstract concepts that our language can allow us to understand. I suggested that the flexibility of symbolic relations and the relational framing we develop as a result of this skill can be both a help and a hindrance.

Yes, we can remember that a pot can be used to cook, but we also can’t unlearn that relationship. And in being unable to unlearn a relationship we can find it difficult to consider alternative relationships between that pot and whatever else we could do with it. The pot will always be recognised as “something to cook with” although it might also become associated with a receptacle for water, a paperweight, a hat, and even a weapon – but when we’re first asked “what do you use a pot for?” we’ll almost always come up with “cooking”.

In relational frame theory, we develop the ability to empathise or adopt the view of another person based on perspective taking and contextual cues. Contextual cues help us learn the concepts of “I” and “you”  by moving from “here” to “there” to take the place of the other person. If a pen is here, and paper is there, when I go to the paper, it becomes “here” and the pen is “there”. In technical terms this is called deictic framing and this is how kids learn that some concepts only make sense from a given point of view – and here and there are two of those concepts.

How does this relate to pain?

Well, to enjoy being with others, you need to have sufficient deictic framing skills to “stand in another person’s moccasins”, to empathise with their feelings and to be willing to feel those feelings (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 32). The thing is, we don’t always want to feel what another person is feeling, especially if we’re angry with them, or they’re feeling sad or some other negative emotional state. We learn to put our ability to empathise on hold to avoid experiencing those feelings. We do this with our own emotions and experiences we’d rather not have. And it’s an adaptive thing – we don’t want to be completely immersed in another person’s experience all the time because it’s difficult to know what our own feelings are vs those of another. We also don’t want to experience all the negative things around us – we learn from them, true, but we don’t really want to feel them all the time. So we develop a skill called “experiential avoidance”. That is, we learn not avoid experiences we’d rather not have.

Experiential avoidance is a cool skill, it’s definitely helpful – it is a process that we use to avoid personal injury, unpleasant people, or situations we don’t feel comfortable in. BUT there’s a catch. Because we relate concepts to one another, we associate words with experiences and memories as well. This is also useful – we can recall the lovely feeling of summer even in the middle of a grey old winter! But at the same time, our most potent learning is often associated with unpleasant experiences, and so for me the sound of a rumbling truck can bring back all the memories of my house being jolted and struck by an earthquake. And because that experience is associated with feeling out of control, helpless, worried and unsettled, those emotions come back along with the memory of the earthquakes. All brought about by hearing a truck rumbling past! And talking about the earthquakes, for some people, is enough to bring back all those same memories.

No wonder, then, for some of the people we work with, just seeing someone walking by is enough to generate the memories, emotions and concerns they experience when they try to walk on a painful foot.

Because of our tendency to avoid experiences that don’t feel good, we naturally try to avoid coming into contact with those stimuli that evoke those negative feelings etc. For some people this can mean avoiding watching images on TV – I remember avoiding watching the tsunami in Japan that happened just after the quakes here in Christchurch. To me the emotions were too raw, I felt too overwhelmed by my own situation to feel I could empathise with those people in Japan.  In some of our clients, just talking about their own painful body can be overwhelming, bringing back unpleasant emotions, memories and thoughts. And indeed for some people, just seeing others doing the things they believe will hurt if they did them is enough to provoke both a negative emotional response AND an flare-up of their pain.

So. Experiential avoidance can help us avoid feeling overwhelmed…but it also stops us experiencing what is happening right now. And I think you can see how it can stop us learning, and it can limit the range of things we’re happy to do – not because there’s any threat right here and now, but because we remember what has happened, and we make predictions of what might happen in the future. The things that might happen – might not happen too! And the things that have happened have already occurred… but our brains are good at joining the dots and being a bit over-protective.

What this means for us as clinicians (and for us as people, too), is that we might need to be gentle but firm, and help people be present here and now. And gradually show people how to be OK with experiencing things that remind us of unpleasant events in the pursuit of something far more useful – flexible responses in a world that is always changing.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061

from Mahia

Words are never enough – but does that stop us?

Pain may be said to follow pleasure as its shadow; but the misfortune is that in this particular case, the substance belongs to the shadow, the emptiness to its cause. CHARLES CALEB COLTON, Lacon

I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning. HARUKI MURAKAMI, 1Q84

But pain … seems to me an insufficient reason not to embrace life. Being dead is quite painless. Pain, like time, is going to come on regardless. Question is, what glorious moments can you win from life in addition to the pain?  LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD, Barrayer

Language is not just words, but what those words symbolise. We use movements of lips, tongue and throat to produce symbols we relate to other things. We then use the relationships we learn through symbols to frame or structure our experiences – language is a “form of cooperation that builds on the social nature of humans groups and enhances a culture of eusociality in which humans thrive” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016. p. 28). What this means is that humans learn to connect concepts together through language which represents concepts only because of a shared social understanding – and in sharing this understanding we feel connected.

Why am I talking about language? Well, relational frame theory is a theory of human behaviour that helps us understand how language can exert an influence on us through the way we understand symbolic relations.We learn symbolic relationships by interacting with our world – children learn concepts of  “I – you” (that you and I are different, but that I can take your perspective by imagining I was in your place); “here-there” (that here is where I am, but there is another place – and I can move to that place); “now – then” (what is happening now will become then soon) by handling objects, ultimately understanding that the concepts only make sense within the context of “here”, or “I”, or “now”.   To be empathic, we need to learn to take the perspective of another, see and feel things from another person’s point of view, and be willing to experience those feelings (Villatte, Villattee & Hayes, p.32).

To be empathic to another’s pain, we need to take the perspective of another, to be willing to experience “what it might feel like” from the other person’s shoes.

Why are symbolic relations important?

In Christchurch, as many people know, over the past five years we have been through over 10,000 earthquakes of more than 3 on the Richter Scale. The thought of having an earthquake, to someone raised in NZ, is a distinct possibility. We have small ones all the time. Then in September 2010 we had the first big earthquake. It happened in the middle of the night (early morning), when all was dark, and it was violent! Later that day we had many aftershocks, and I can remember my heart pounding and feeling anxious in the aftermath. What has happened since, though, is that I’ve learned to associate the word “earthquake” with a whole lot of concepts – a rumbling noise from a truck driving past, the deep rumble of earthworks, EQC (our national insurer), road cones, detours, heritage buildings being knocked down, having no water or power. I keep a look out for exits, I brace at the rumble of a truck, one of the topics of conversation is “how is your house” and I remember the fatigue of constant aftershocks in the middle of the night.

Learning the associations (symbolic relations) between the experience at the time of an earthquake and all these other things such as words, movements, actions and emotions means that as a person living in Christchurch, the word “earthquake” and the sight of road cones and the rumble of a truck have all gained additional meaning or salience to me.

Simply by remembering a particular day (for us it was September 22, 2011), or by looking at a road cone, or diggers operating in a trench in a road, I have emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses. This is the power of a symbol, once learned.

And once learned, that association will never be unlearned – I will always remember that trucks rumbling by sound a lot like the start of an earthquake, and I will probably always have a quick little bracing response that I may not even notice (but hitch me up to biofeedback and I’ll be skin conductance will be increased).

What does this have to do with pain?

In the same way that I learned about earthquakes being associated with a whole bunch of things that hadn’t been connected before September 2010, from the time we are born we develop associations between our experiences of pain and other things including language.

For the most part we learn that pain is associated with something not so good happening to our body. We learn that it’s something we don’t really want to experience, and so we try to avoid it (mainly). We learn words that are associated with that experience – “ouch!”, “hurt”, “painful”, “ache”. We also develop emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses to this experience. We learn that certain movements bring pain on, while others alleviate it; we learn that some people respond with sympathy to our words or movements while others don’t respond.

The thing about symbolic relations is that “the simplest act of remembering by using names and symbols … means that anytime, anywhere, we can remember past painful or difficult events based on a few cues…the past can become present through symbolic relations” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 33). While nonhuman animals can become fearful in situations that are similar to those they’ve felt threatened in, humans can experience the same emotions and responses even when a word is spoken – like earthquake for me brings on a heightened awareness of how vulnerable I am when the ground shakes.

What this learned association means is that for all humans, there are many cues that will elicit the same response as the actual event. And given the ubiquity of pain and the words we use to describe pain – and the associations we develop since we’ve been children – it’s no wonder that changing some of the more unhelpful associations and responses we have to the experience is a challenge.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about relational frame theory and how this theory can help us understand why words can be used to help – and harm – and how to implement useful verbal strategies in sessions to help our clients see their pain from a different frame.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061


Ambiguity and uncertainty

Humans vary in how comfortable we are with uncertainty or ambiguity: Tolerance of ambiguity is a construct discussed in cognitive and experimental research literature, and refers to the willingness to prefer black and white situations, where “there is an aversive reaction to ambiguous situations because the lack of information makes it difficult to assess risk and correctly make a decision. These situations are perceived as a threat and source of discomfort. Reactions to the perceived threat are stress, avoidance, delay, suppression, or denial” (Furnham & Marks, 2013, p. 718).  Tolerance to uncertainty is often discussed in relation to response to stress and emotions associated with being in an ambiguous situation, or it may refer to a future-oriented trait where an individual is responding to an ambiguous situation in the present. Suffice to say, for some individuals the need to be certain and clear means they find it very difficult to be in situations where multiple outcomes are possible and where information is messy. As a result, they find ways to counter the unease, ranging from avoiding making a decision to authoritatively dictating what “should” be done (or not done).

How does this affect us in a clinical setting? Well, both parties in this setting can have varying degrees of comfort with ambiguity.

Our clients may find it difficult to deal with not knowing their diagnosis, the cause of their painful experience, the time-frame of its resolution, and managing the myriad uncertainties that occur when routines are disrupted by the unexpected. For example, workers from the UK were interviewed about their unemployment as a result of low back pain. Uncertainty (both physical and financial) was given as one of the major themes from interviews of their experience of unemployment (Patel, Greasley, Watson, 2007).  Annika Lillrank, in a study from 2003, found that resolving diagnostic uncertainty was a critical point in the trajectory of those living with low back pain (Lillrank, 2003).

But it’s not just clients who find it hard to deal with uncertainty – clinicians do too. Slade, Molloy and Keating (2011) found that physiotherapists believe patients want a clear diagnosis but feel challenged when they’re faced with diagnostic uncertainty. What then happens is a temptation to be critical of the patients if they fail to improve, to seek support from other more senior colleagues, and end up feeling unprepared by their training to deal with this common situation. The response to uncertainty, at least in this study, was for clinicians to “educate” care-seekers about their injury/diagnosis despite diagnostic uncertainty (my italics), and a strong desire to see rapid improvements, and tend to attribute lack of progress to the client when either the client doesn’t want “education” or fails to improve (Slade, Molloy & Keating, 2003).

Physiotherapists are not alone in this tendency: There is a large body of literature discussing so-called “medically unexplained diseases” which, naturally, include chronic pain disorders. For example Bekkelund and Salvesen (2006) found that more referrals were made to neurologists when the clinician felt uncertain about a diagnosis of migraine. GP’s, in a study by Rosser (1996) were more likely to refer to specialists in part because they were uncertain – while specialists, dealing as they do with a narrower range of symptoms and body systems, deal with less diagnostic uncertainty. Surprisingly, despite the difference in degree of uncertainty, GP’s order fewer tests and procedures yet often produce identical outcomes!

How do we manage uncertainty and ambiguity?

Some of us will want to apply subtypes, groupings, algorithms – means of controlling the degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in our clinical practice. Some of the findings from various tests (eg palpation or tender point examination) are used as reasons for following a certain clinical rule of thumb. In physiotherapy, medicine and to a certain extent my own field of occupational therapy, there is a tendency to “see nails because all I have is a hammer” in an attempt to fit a client into a certain clinical rule or process. We see endless publications identifying “subtypes” and various ways to cut down the uncertainty within our field, particularly with respect to low back pain where we really are dealing with uncertainty.

Some of these subgroupings may appear effective – I remember the enthusiasm for leg length discrepancies, muscle “imbalance”, and more recently neutral spine and core stability – because for some people these approaches were helpful! Over time, the enthusiasm has waned.

Others of us apply what we could call an eclectic approach – a bit of this, a bit of that, something I like to do, something that I just learned – and yes, even some of these approaches seem to work.

My concern is twofold. (1) What is the clinical reasoning behind adopting either a rule-governed algorithm or subtyping approach or an eclectic approach? Why use X instead of Y? And are we reasoning after the fact to justify our approach? (2) What do we do if it doesn’t work? Where does that leave us? As Slade, Molloy & Keating (2003), do we begin blaming the patient when our hammer fails to find a nail?

I’ve long advocated working to generate multiple hypotheses to explain how and why a person is presenting in this way at this time. It’s a case formulation approach where, collaborating with the person and informed by broad assessment across multiple domains that are known to be associated with pain, a set of possible explanations (hypotheses) are generated. Then we systematically test these either through further clinical assessment, or by virtue of providing an intervention and carefully monitoring the outcome. This approach doesn’t resolve uncertainty – but it does allow for some time to de-bias our clinical reasoning, it involves the client in sorting out what might be going on, it means we have more than one way to approach the problem (the one the client identifies, not just our own!), and it means we have some way of holding all this ambiguous and uncertain information in place so we can see what’s going on. I know case formulations are imperfect, and they don’t solve anything in themselves (see Delle-Vergini & Day (2016) for a recent review of case formulation in forensic practice – not too different from ordinary clinical practice in musculoskeletal management IMHO) . What they do is provide a systematic process to follow that can incorporate uncertainty without needing a clinician to jump to conclusions.

I’d love your thoughts on managing uncertainty as a clinician in your daily practice. How do you deal with it? Is there room for uncertainty and ambiguity? What would happen if we could sit with this uncertainty without jumping in to treat for just a little longer? Could mindfulness be useful? What if you’re someone who experiences a great deal of empathy for people who distressed – can you sit with not knowing while in the presence of someone who is hurting?


Bekkelund, S., & Salvesen, R. (2006). Is uncertain diagnosis a more frequent reason for referring migraine patients to neurologist than other headache syndromes? European Journal of Neurology, 13(12), 1370-1373. doi:
Delle-Vergini, V., & Day, A. (2016). Case formulation in forensic practice: Challenges and opportunities. The Journal of Forensic Practice, 18(3), null. doi:doi:10.1108/JFP-01-2016-0005
Furnham, A., & Marks, J. (2013). Tolerance of ambiguity: A review of the recent literature. Psychology, Vol.04No.09, 12. doi:10.4236/psych.2013.49102
Lillrank, A. (2003). Back pain and the resolution of diagnostic uncertainty in illness narratives. Social Science & Medicine, 57(6), 1045-1054. doi:
Patel, S., Greasley, K., Watson, P. J. (2007). Barriers to rehabilitation and return to work for unemployed chronic pain patients: A qualitative study. European Journal of Pain: Ejp, 11(8), 831-840.
Rosser, W. W. (1996). Approach to diagnosis by primary care clinicians and specialists: Is there a difference? Journal of Family Practice, 42(2), 139-144.
Slade, S. C., Molloy, E., & Keating, J. L. (2012). The dilemma of diagnostic uncertainty when treating people with chronic low back pain: A qualitative study. Clinical Rehabilitation, 26(6), 558-569. doi:10.1177/0269215511420179
daisy do

Did it help? Questions and debate in pain measurement

Pain intensity, quality and location are three important domains to consider in pain measurement. And in our kete*of assessment tools we have many to choose from! A current debate (ongoing debate?) in the august pages of Pain (International Association for the Study of Pain) journal shows that the issue of how best to collate the various facets of our experience of pain is far from decided – or even understood.

The McGill Pain Questionnaire (MPQ) is one of the most venerable old measurement instruments in the pain world.  It is designed to evaluate the qualities of pain – the “what does it feel like” of sensory-discriminative components, evaluative components, and cognitive-affective components. There are 20 categories in the tool, and these examine (or attempt to measure) mechanical qualities, thermal qualities, location and time.  Gracely (2016), in an editorial piece, compares the McGill to a set of paint colour samples – if pain intensity equals shades of grey, then the other qualities are other coloures – blue, green, red – in shades or tints, so we can mix and match to arrive at a unique understanding of what this pain is “like” for another person.

To begin to understand the MPQ, it’s important to understand how it was developed. Melzack recognised that pain intensity measurement, using a dolimeter (yes, there is such a thing – this is not an endorsement, just to prove it’s there), doesn’t equate with the qualities of pain experienced, nor of the impact of previous experiences. At the time, Melzack and Wall were working on their gate control theory of pain, so it’s useful to remember that this had not yet been published, and specificity theory was holding sway – specificity theory arguing that pain is a “specific modality of cutaneous sensation”, while pattern theory held that the experience reflects the nervous systems ability to “select and abstract” relevant information (Main, 2016).  So Melzack adopted a previous list of 44 words, carried out a literature review, and recorded the words used by his patients. Guided by his own three dimensional model of pain, he generate three groups of descriptors to begin to establish a sort of “quality intensity scale”. These were then whittled down to 78 words that have been used since, and by used I mean probably the most used instrument ever! Except for the VAS.

There are arguments against the MPQ – I’m one who doesn’t find it helpful, and this undoubtedly reflects that I work in a New Zealand context, with people who may not have the language repertoire of those that Melzack drew on. The people I work with don’t understand many of the words (‘Lancinating‘ anyone?), and like many pain measures, the importance or relevance of terms used in this measure are based on expert opinion rather than the views of those who are experiencing pain themselves. This means the measure may not actually tap into aspects of the experience of pain that means a lot to people living with it. Main (2016) also points out that interpreting the MPQ is problematic, and perhaps there are alternative measures that might be more useful in clinical practice. Some of the criticisms include the difficulty we have in separating the “perceptual” aspects of pain from the way pain functions in our lives, and the way we communicate it, and the MPQ doesn’t have any way to factor in the social context, or the motivational aspects of both pain and its communication.

In a letter to the editor of Pain, Okkels, Kyle and Bech (2016) propose that there should be three factors in the measurement – symptom burden (they suggest pain intensity), side effects (or medication – but what if there’s no medication available?), and improved quality of life (WHO-5). But as Sullivan and Ballantyne (2016) point out in their reply – surely the point of treatment is to improve patient’s lives – “we want to know if it is possible for the patient’s life to move forward again. However it is also important that we do not usurp patients’ authority to judge whether their life has improved” (p. 1574). What weighting we give to, for example, pain reduction vs improved quality of life? I concur. Even the MPQ with all its history doesn’t quite reflect the “what it means to me to experience this pain”.

Did it help? Answering this critical question is not easy. Pain measurement is needed for furthering our understanding of pain, to ensure clinical management is effective, and to allow us to compare treatment with treatment. But at this point, I don’t know whether our measures reflect relevant aspects of this common human experience.  Is it time to revisit some of these older measures of pain and disability, and critically appraise them in terms of how well they work from the perspectives of the people living with pain? Does this mean taking some time away from high tech measurement and back to conversations with people?


(*pronounced “keh-teh” – Maori word for kitbag, and often used to represent knowledge)

Gracely, R. H. (2016). Pain language and evaluation. Pain, 157(7), 1369-1372.

Main, C. J. (2016). Pain assessment in context: A state of the science review of the mcgill pain questionnaire 40 years on. Pain, 157(7), 1387-1399.

Okkels, N., Kyle, P. R., & Bech, P. (2016). Measuring chronic pain. Pain, 157(7), 1574.

Sullivan, M. D., & Ballantyne, J. (2016). Reply. Pain, 157(7), 1574-1575.