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.

“Just a little scratch”


If you’ve had a blood test, flu jab or Covid-19 vax (please do, not just for you but for the vulnerable) you’ll probably have heard those words “Just a little scratch” then the needle goes in and ouch! I’ve wondered why phlebotomists and vaccinators use those words: is it to reduce the pain? give you some warning so you don’t pull away? why use the word “scratch” when it’s not a scratch?!

I suspect, though I haven’t read up on it, that the reason people say “just a little scratch” is to influence expectancies. Expectancies are defined as “cognitions regarding the probability of future experiences, events, and behaviour” (Peerdeman, van Laarhoven, Peters & Evers, 2016). In other words, what we expect to experience, happen or do influences what we actually experience, what happens, and what we do. Expectancies are really important when we consider placebo – and nocebo. Despite commentators who don’t consider placebo to be a thing (the response to being in a treatment ritual, over and above the effects of any active therapeutic agent), in pain, it is most definitely a thing, and one we need to be aware of as clinicians.

Back to expectancies.

Mostly, what we expect is what we experience. If we expect something to REALLY HURT then it’s likely to REALLY HURT! But what happens when we don’t expect something and it happens? Or when we expect something not to really hurt, but it actually does?

Peerdeman, Geers, Porta, Veldhuijzen and Kirsch (2021) investigated this mismatch between what we expect and what actually happens. It’s fascinating because the results weren’t quite in line with what the researchers thought…

What did they do?

The authors selected 82 healthy adults, aged between 18 and 30, with no health problems (physical or psychologist), no chronic pain, no current pain, no medications, no pacemakers, and no pregnancy. The participants weren’t allowed to use any medication, alcohol or other drugs in the 24 hours before the experiment.

Two experimenters undertook the experiments – one wasn’t aware of who was getting what, while the other was unaware of what was getting what until just before she gave the verbal suggestion. The experimenter who was blinded left the room before the second one gave the suggestion, in order to remain blinded throughout.

The participants were wired up to record heart rate, skin conductance, and then thermal and nociceptive perception thresholds were identified – at least in part to give participants a chance to get used to the heat stimulus. The experimenters went in to increase the heat to identify the temperature where participants indicated the pain was “moderately high” (who volunteers for these experiments? Oh – they recruited from around the university and on social media...). Then the experimenters got to work: participants were randomised to get either a suggestion of “no pain” (they’d already had three occasions where the thermal stimulus wasn’t painful, and three where it was), or a suggestion of moderately high pain. Then the stimulus was applied four times, with participants having to rate the expected pain intensity, how certain they were of this prediction, and how afraid they were. Afterwards, they were asked to rate pain intensity and unpleasantness.

For all the details of this experiment, head to the paper itself – it’s very detailed, and could be replicated.

Results

One person dropped out before the trial began – it was too painful – leaving 81 people remaining. The average age was 22 years, but the investigators don’t report gender.

When people were told “it’s not going to hurt” participants rated the pain lower than those who were told it was going to hurt, and while the ratings changed depending on what they experienced, when it was again suggested they’d feel no pain – again their pain ratings were lower than expected. Who knew pain intensity could vary so much? Reported pain intensity in the people who were told they wouldn’t experience pain was 4/10 points lower than the other group who were told it would hurt, and a bit over 2 points lower the second time (on a 0 – 10 numeric rating scale). That’s a thumping great amount of pain reduction! Add to this, these participants also were less afraid of their pain than the other group.

BUT, and this is important, participants in the “it’s not going to hurt” group reported less trust in the experimenter (who would have thought, huh?!). So beware: if you tell someone “oh this won’t hurt a bit” – they may experience less pain, but they’ll look at you sideways and be a bit wary of you because you violated their trust.

Discussion

I haven’t described the second experiment because of space, but go ahead and read it. Essentially they added some more participants, varied the procedure a little to reduce the memory burden on participants, and added a “medium” underprediction element into the process. The results showed similar outcomes – lower ratings of pain in both the “you won’t feel a thing” and the “it’ll hurt but not much” experiments, and yet again, less trust in the experimenter suggesting that it wouldn’t hurt.

Lessons to learn?

Think carefully about inflating how much pain relief someone will experience, especially if you’re going to see that person again. While people might experience less pain, losing someone’s trust in a therapeutic setting is a serious problem. The authors point out that healthy volunteers in a lab setting, getting short-term pain, is not like a therapeutic setting where it’s probable that trust is well-established. We don’t know what effect violating trust in a longer-term relationship might have.

At the same time – it does strike me as intriguing that simply being told “it won’t hurt” can influence pain intensity rating. What’s going on? How can a communication stimulus influence an experience? How could a psychological input change the way we perceive a noxious stimulus? Perhaps the way forward might be to use neutral language or, more positively, suggest that the person can handle it? “Just a little sting and you’ll get through”

Peerdeman, K. J., Geers, A. L., Della Porta, D., Veldhuijzen, D. S., & Kirsch, I. (2021, Jul 1). Underpredicting pain: an experimental investigation into the benefits and risks. Pain, 162(7), 2024-2035. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002199

Peerdeman KJ, van Laarhoven AI, Peters ML, Evers AW. An Integrative Review of the Influence of Expectancies on Pain. Front Psychol. 2016;7:1270. Published 2016 Aug 23. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01270

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

The stigma of being a woman in pain


Women, it is often thought, must be much tougher than men when it comes to dealing with pain – after all, don’t women have babies without anaesthetic? Don’t men faint at the sight of a needle?

Ummmm, not quite so fast. Now before I begin, in this post I’m referring to cis-gender females, and in the experiments, participants were selected on the basis that they believed that negative gender discrimination was a thing. And as I write this post, I want to be clear that sometimes we have to begin with a very simplified model before research can be conducted on a much more messy cohort – and that this doesn’t negate the incredibly harmful and known effects of gender discrimination, and trans/inter/queer experiences. I can only hope that by starting this kind of research, as a community we’ll begin to understand the terrible impact that stigma has on people.

This paper investigated whether stigma related to one’s identity influenced the perception of nociceptive stimulation. It’s written off the back of earlier research showing that when people are excluded socially, their experience of nociceptive stimulation was greater (ie people didn’t need as much stimulation for it to be perceived as painful) (Eisenberger, Jarcho, Lieberman & Naliboff, 2006). Other studies have shown that people with low back pain who perceive themselves as stigmatised reported greater pain intensity, and that stigmatisation is the main source of social consequences for this group of people (Zhang, Barreto & Doyle, 2020).

These researchers (Zhang, Zhang, Li, Hu, Kong & Su, 2021) conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that stigmatised women would experience greater pain intensity with nociceptive stimulation.
The first experiment used tonic cold pain (cold pressor test) in participants who had already been selected because they believed they had been stigmatised as a woman, asked them to immerse their hand in icy cold water (1 degree C) for as long as they could (to a maximum of 3 minutes), then take part in a mock online job interview. Some of the participants were told that was the end of the study; another group were told they were successful in the interview; and a third group were told that “woman are generally not suitable candidates for these kinds of jobs”; and the final group were simply told “you didn’t get the job” with no reason given. The latter three groups then underwent another cold pressor test as before. And finally they were all debriefed.

The researchers found that those who were told “women are generally not suitable for this kind of work” did feel more stigmatised than the others, and not only reported more sensitivity to cold (threshold) but also showed lower tolerance to the pain experienced in the cold pressor test.

The second experiment involved women who were selected as above. This group of women were shown images downloaded from Google – one set was of content showing devaluing of women, while another set were control or neutral images. The authors used a heat stimulation this time, and randomly showed either neutral or stigmatising images just before the heat was applied. Participants rated the pain after each stimulation.

The results of this experiment showed that when participants were shown the stigmatising content, they reported higher pain intensity from the same nociceptive stimulation. In other words – stigma-inducing images led to these women reporting more pain when given the same amount of heat stimulus.

Not content with this, the researchers conducted a third experiment, this time examining nociceptive-evoked brain responses. They used the same experimental design as for the second experiment, but instead of self-reporting, participants had EEG signals recorded during each heat stimulation.

The results of this experiment once again showed that when participants were shown stigmatising images, they rated their pain experience more highly, and that this was reflected in the EEG results they obtained. N1 amplitude and P2 latency in time and LEP magnitude in the time-frequency domain were influenced by the stigmatising cues.

What does this all mean?

Well, for one thing it’s nice to see research being conducted in women (there’s a bit of a bias against women being involved in basic science pain research because of that pesky old hormone thing – see Samuloitz, Gremyr, Eriksson & Hensing (2018) for more). And for a study to have positive findings.

I’m particularly interested in the brain responses – simply by manipulating the sense of stigma, the same nociceptive stimulation was processed differently. Now this isn’t the same as saying “psychological factors cause pain” because this study is not looking at that – nociceptive stimulation was included – but the same nociceptive stimulation was prioritised in parts of the brain usually active in emotional responses, while P2 is an area involved in the “advanced stage of perceptual processing” was activated sooner in the stigmatised manipulation than in the control condition. The authors argue that because stigma is a threat to sense of self, and because this sense of threat can lead to vigilance about potentially stigmatising cues, greater attentional processing is allocated to threat information, and this in turn, enhances the experience of pain. The greater N1 amplitude demonstrate that attention was drawn to stigmatising material and then influenced the subsequent nociceptive information.

Let’s take a moment to consider the implications of this. Many women have reported their feelings of being devalued both because of their gender as well as their reports of pain. Women may be told “there’s no cure for being a woman” and given inadequate pain relief for period pain (true story). Women do report more pain, are more likely to develop persistent pain, and seek help for pain more readily than men. The latter can be seen as a bad thing – shouldn’t we just “cope”?

Implicit attitudes towards women remain throughout our society, despite the efforts of Kate Sheppard who was one of the women who worked so hard to enable women to vote (in New Zealand, in 19 September 1893). People with pain are also often stigmatised. My post last week is intriguing in that I pointed out that we cannot determine who is, or isn’t, “faking”. It’s the only post I’ve had with nearly 40 votes, but a total score of 2/5. It’s unplatable to some to think that a subjective experience is just that – subjective, not able to be measured, and for clinicians, that we need to accept what a person says without judgement. Stigma is judgement – let’s not do it.

N. I. Eisenberger, J. M. Jarcho, M. D. Lieberman, and B. D. Naliboff, (2006)“An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection,” Pain, 126(1), pp. 132– 138.

Samulowitz, A., Gremyr, I., Eriksson, E., & Hensing, G. (2018). “Brave men” and “emotional women”: A theory-guided literature review on gender bias in health care and gendered norms towards patients with chronic pain. Pain Research and Management, 2018.

Waugh, O. C., Byrne, D. G., & Nicholas, M. K. (2014). Internalized stigma in people living with chronic pain. The Journal of Pain, 15(5), 550-e1.

M. Zhang, M. Barreto, and D. Doyle, (2020) “Stigma-based rejection experiences affect trust in others,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(3), pp. 308–316, 2020.

Zhang, M., Zhang, Y., Li, Z., Hu, L., Kong, Y., & Su, J. (2021). Sexism-Related Stigma Affects Pain Perception. Neural Plasticity, 2021, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/6612456

Family and friends matter


I’m going back to my series on behavioural approaches to pain management (it’s a slow process!). For the first two go here and here. Now I want to talk about the impact of family and friends on people living with pain.

The people we live with are so influential on what we do and believe about pain. It’s our parents who first taught us the relationship between the word “pain” and the experience we know as pain. It’s our parents and family who responded when we cried, who kissed it better (or not), who told us to “harden up” (or not), who took us to the doctor (or not), who showed us, through their own behaviour, how to “do pain.”

There’s a good deal of research investigating the impact of friends and family on pain behaviour (remember the distinction I make between pain-the-experience and pain behaviour or what we do when we’re sore? click). For instance, a systematic review by Snippen, de Vries, van der Burg-Vermeulen, Hagedoorn and Brouwer (2019) looked at people with chronic diseases, and the attitudes and beliefs of significant others. They found that “positive and encouraging attitudes regarding work participation, encouragement and motivating behaviour and open communication with patients” were facilitators for work participation while “positive attitudes towards sickness absence and advise, encouragement or pressure to refrain from work” were barriers to returning to work.

In another study, Burns, Post, Smith, Porter and colleagues (2019) observed spouse dyads behaviour after arguing then the person with pain undergoing a pain induction task. Spouses that believed that the patient’s pain was a mystery were significantly more likely to be perceived by the patient as giving critical/invalidating responses toward the patient during the discussion; while spouse perceptions that the patient’s pain was a mystery were related to internal and negative attributions spouses made while observing patients display pain behaviors during the structured pain behavior task (p. 1176).

In another study, this one a daily diary study with people living with osteoarthritis in their knee, found that on days when the person with pain reported more thinking the worst, their spouses were more unhappy during the day. And on the days when the partner was more irritated with the person living with pain, that person reported more thinking the worst the next morning. The link? The people with pain who were thinking the worst were also more grumpy through the day, and this was rubbing off on their partner. (Martier, Zhaoyang, Marini, Nah & Darnell, 2019).

Makes sense, doesn’t it? That when we see our loved one demonstrate that they’re sore, and they’re grumpy – and if we’re not sure they’re for real – we might be less supportive as partners than if we think their pain is for real. And over time the pattern of being sympathetic might wear thin – in fact, Chris Main (psychologist) describes a pattern of initial solicitous behaviour (the “there, there dear, I’ll fetch you a cup of tea”), then resentment (“surely you’ve recovered now?”), then anger and punitive behaviour (ignoring the person, getting irritated with them), but then feeling guilty about this (“OMG I know, it’s not your fault and I’ve been so mean”), returning to being solicitous – until the next time the partner feels fed up.

What does this mean for a behavioural approach?

Well, it’s not surprising that if one of the partners thinks the other “should be well now”, they’re likely to be unsympathetic as we begin changing the person’s behaviour. Often we’re attempting to help someone be consistent with their daily activities, and this can often begin by reducing how much should be attempted so the person can “do no more on a good day, and do no less on a bad day.”

And if the partner is really worried about the person with pain, and afraid that doing more is going to increase pain and prolong disability, it’s also not surprising that the partner is likely to be worried about us asking the person to do things differently (especially exercise!).

And don’t forget that during this time, both partners are probably trying to keep some semblance of normal going. They still have the usual household tasks to get done, to pay the bills, to get the kids to and from school, to keep in touch with extended family and friends and so on.

It’s stressful. And we add to the burden when we ask the person to do something different, whether this be doing exercises, using a mindfulness or relaxation technique, perhaps go to various appointments all around town…and if we don’t include the impact of what we expect on the partner, we’re possibly not going to have “the team” on board with the rehabilitation programme.

The very best option is to ask the person’s partner to come in to at least one of our treatment sessions, so we can spend some time talking about what we’re asking the person with pain to do, and getting an indication from the partner about their willingness to follow the programme. The next best option is to write the programme down, and include “things family can do to help” – listing the kinds of things family and friends can do (and what they should avoid doing).

You see, people we see for help never live in a vacuum. They always have a context of friends, family, home, responsibilities, expectations from them, expectations for the work we do. Forgetting about this and expecting a good result fails to recognise the embedded nature of life. Contextual factors are important, no person is an island.

Burns, J. W., Post, K. M., Smith, D. A., Porter, L. S., Buvanendran, A., Fras, A. M., & Keefe, F. J. (2019). Spouse and patient beliefs and perceptions about chronic pain: effects on couple interactions and patient pain behavior. The Journal of Pain, 20(10), 1176-1186.

Martire, L. M., Zhaoyang, R., Marini, C. M., Nah, S., & Darnall, B. D. (2019). Daily and bidirectional linkages between pain catastrophizing and spouse responses. Pain, 160(12), 2841.

Snippen, N. C., de Vries, H. J., van der Burg-Vermeulen, S. J., Hagedoorn, M., & Brouwer, S. (2019). Influence of significant others on work participation of individuals with chronic diseases: a systematic review. BMJ Open, 9(1), e021742. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2018-021742

Pain model – helping to target change


In my recent post on behavioural approaches to pain management, I had a number of commentators ask why do it, why not focus on pain intensity, and aren’t I invalidating a person’s experience if I target a person’s response to their experience. Today’s post will explore some of these points.

I suppose my first point needs to distinguish between pain as an experience, and pain behaviour – or what we do when we experience pain. I like to use a pretty old “model” or diagram to help untangle these concepts. It’s drawn from Loeser’s “Onion ring” model, and he wrote about this way back in the early 1980’s. This is my interpretation of that way of thinking about the person experiencing pain. It’s not intended to represent Truth – but to help us to get our heads around an individual’s truth, or their experience. It’s one way to consider the factors we’ve learned are associated with human pain. It should be evaluated in terms of its utility and practical usefulness for a person experiencing pain, and for clinicians hoping to help them.

The “BIO”

Firstly, we have all the neurobiological processes involved in transmitting nociceptive information throughout the body. Much of this information never reaches conscious awareness – activity in nociceptors occurs all the time, and we have rapid reflexive responses to this such as blinking, shifting in a chair, swaying while standing and so on. A whole lot of neurobiological activity occurs as this information reaches conscious awareness – much of this activity occurs above the brainstem. In fact, if we look carefully at neurobiological activity, much of the reason we never notice reflex responses to nociception is because we have a pretty effective inhibitory system that’s operating constantly to limit how much nociceptive activity hits consciousness. That’s all part of cortical and brainstem (yeah – BRAIN) processes. If anyone learns neurobiology of pain and doesn’t include attention, motivation, emotion, expectations then they’re missing an enormous chunk of what nociception and pain are about.

Added to this neurobiological information are another whole bunch of physiological and hormonal responses – and these are incredibly complex and often omitted from our discussions. For example, men and women differ in their hormone production, and this means more women experience persistent pain, women have lower pain tolerance, and respond to nociceptive information more quickly and at lower thresholds than men.

Suffice to say, there are a whole bunch of biological processes that are integral to our experience of pain and to nociceptive transmission, transduction and perception. So if anyone should suggest that a “biopsychosocial” model of pain does not include BIO – go wash your mouth out please.

Pain-the-experience

The next aspect of pain that Loeser included was “pain-the-experience” – the subjective, personal, unshareable “what it is like to experience pain” part. This encompasses the qualia – the sensory qualities of pain, and includes intensity and location. Pain is always experienced as having a negative or aversive quality, so we know that the urge to avoid or take action to reduce, and indeed our tendency to attend to this experience is part of a human experience of pain. Note that Loeser (and I) don’t include appraisal at this point! In other words, this is the “ouch” that a baby feels when we perform a Guthrie heel prick test. It’s that moment when scalding coffee hits your lap, before you’ve realised you’ve spilled your coffee.

But just to complicate things here – unless we’re newborns, we’re always aware of context and pretty much once we learn language, we’re interpreting when/where/how/why events are happening. This means that factors such as expectations, past learning, predictions we make about “what next” always inform “pain-the-experience”. Even before we’re consciously aware of these influences! So technically, as soon as we recognise “ouch” we’re already invoking a whole bunch of higher cortical processes into our experience. This matters because pain is a conscious experience, and requires perception before it can be experienced.

Judgement or appraisal

The next “ring” of Loeser’s model was called “suffering” – I’ve translated this into a cognitive process of “appraisal” because while pain is inherently tainted with negative emotional valence and a motivational urge to avoid, it’s also possible to view our experience of pain in different ways. Some commonplace examples are the jab from a vaccination – many of us will welcome that nociceptive input, and judge the pain to be negligible. Others who may be less comfortable with a vaccination might view it more negatively and be more aware of that pain. People who run or train in a gym might appraise the pain from working hard “feel the burn” as a sign that they’ve done enough to make performance gains. And some of us who live with persistent pain such as fibromyalgia might notice pain and consider it to be “just a nuisance”.

Suffering is an interesting concept, and I prefer to take Erik Cassel’s definition of it: suffering refers to the loss of a sense of self. A paper cut typically doesn’t lead to a loss of sense of self, while low back pain that remains for many months might be far more likely to erode that sense of “who I am and what I can do”.

Judgements and appraisals are influenced by a whole lot of factors – socio-cultural norms (I’m in a rugby-mad country, if a rugby player experiences pain on the field, he or she may well grit teeth and keep going, believing that it’s not OK to “give in” to pain – the appraisal might be “this isn’t so bad, I can still keep going”. Socio-cultural norms are often implicit – we absorb them effortlessly within our own cultural context, and we’re quite capable of holding different implicit norms depending on our current proximity to our social group. Consider the rugby player who will brush off an on-the-field injury but when getting a splinter might feel a little sick. The meanings we attribute to our pain influence how willing we are to go with them – tattoos and body piercings and body suspensions are really good examples of times when we’re OK to experience pain in the pursuit of something else, similarly post-surgical pain after joint arthroplasty.

When appraisals are unhelpful is when we get tripped up. When a person holds an inaccurate understanding of what’s happening – thinking, perhaps, that this back pain is a sign of cancer metastasising, or the end of a career as a sportsman, or an indication of some dire outcome, then a couple of things happen. Firstly, negative emotions are likely to rise, along with sympathetic arousal (the two systems are linked in the experience of pain), and then what we do about pain also begin to turn to short-term over long-term outcomes.

Pain behaviours

Pain behaviours are what we do when we experience pain, and they’re shaped both by evolution and by socio-cultural norms, as well as what we think is going on. I wrote about pain behaviour recently – click

Pain behaviours are the only part of “what it is like to experience pain” that we can observe.

Let me say that again – what we do about pain is the only part of the pain experience that a person who is NOT The Person In Pain that we can share.

Pain behaviour includes everything a person does and says in relation to their pain, both reflexive and automatic actions that we’re not aware of, as well as those we are aware of. Some of the behaviours we do are reflex responses (blinking and tearing up), some of them are not. Some of them are well-learned – we’ve been doing them since we were tiny kids. Others are things we’ve learned to do, perhaps on the advice of someone else, or because we’ve observed someone else, or because we think it might help or it’s worked once before.

The thing is – pain behaviours are malleable. They can and do change. Again, read my earlier post on how pain behaviours can be changed, and know that just because a behaviour has changed, the person’s experience of pain may not. In other words, while I move pretty normally, and to many onlookers I don’t appear to have pain – I still do.

Social context

I’ve already alluded to the influence of contextual factors. Things we’re aware of – prevailing attitudes in our immediate social group, our community, our spouse, our treatment providers. Things we’re often less aware – of implicit attitudes about gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status, supposed pain mechanisms, visibility of tissue damage and so on. And we are ALL influenced by these implicit socially constructed attitudes and beliefs, people with pain and their clinicians and their families and their communities….

I often use this way of exploring factors involved in why a person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be done to reduce distress and disability. I might package the conversation in various ways – perhaps more complex if I expand on some aspects, perhaps less so if the person doesn’t want or need to explore something (often this is the neurobiological part). While it’s imperfect remember that the purpose of a model like this is contextual. I am not hoping to represent Truth as a universal law about “how pain works”. I AM hoping to explore useful elements for a particular purpose. One purpose might be to demonstrate that emotions and appraisals influence pain behaviour. Another might be to introduce medical students to the complex factors that might be involved in their interpretation of a patient’s distress. And another to help someone understand why he avoids a movement in one context but not in another. And even another might be to help someone know why she has such a panicky feeling when she’s in the middle of a flare-up.

As a pragmatist, and basing my practice on approaches that might help this person achieve a specific something in this moment, I use models like these to build therapeutic alliance, to enable the person to be willing to play with new ways of being, and to help them recognise that the target for change might not be what they initially think is relevant.

Loeser, JD. (1980). Perspectives on pain. In P. Turner (Ed.), Clinical Pharmay & Therapeutics (pp. 313-316). London: Macmillan.

Loeser, JD. (1982). Concepts of pain. In M. Stanton-Hicks & R. Boas (Eds.), Chronic low back pain (pp. 145-148). New York: Raven Press.

…the “so what” question and why it matters to take a break from work


At the conclusion of each of the courses I teach at University of Otago, I ask students the “so what” question. So what that we learned about neurobiology? So what that we discussed social constructs and how they shape pain behaviour? So what that we learn that thoughts and beliefs influence our pain experience? What does it all mean when we’re sitting with a person experiencing pain?

This last week I’ve been on a brief trip to the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand Aotearoa. It is a wild and isolated part of our country. So wild that in parts the annual rainfall is over 6,000mm (see the map below!), and the wind blows so that the trees grow almost horizontally. For two days there was no power (and thus no internet, no cellphone cover!) and the gravel road to our campsite was closed until 7.00pm while the power lines were being replaced… I won’t talk about the sandflies and mosquitoes – the size of helicopters!! Well perhaps I exaggerate…

Taking a break from talking pain brings me to my “so what” question. Why do I spend my time trying to help people, especially clinicians, learn about pain? Why am I so focused on bringing a narrative that says “we can’t reduce or remove all pain” and at the same time “it’s possible to live well with pain”? What is my “so what”?

Stepping back from the crabby discourse I see so often on social media – like whether hands on or hands off is preferable, whether pain is sensation or perception, whether exercise should be this or that – I think my purpose is to remind everyone, and especially clinicians, that when we’re working with someone who has weird pain that hangs around our job is to find out what this person’s main concern is. And to remember that irrespective of how much we help someone change their pain, ultimately, they will go on to live their own life. Not ours. Theirs.

It struck me from time to time as I swatted sandflies (helicopter sized ones, of course), that many of us work within inflexible processes and systems that demand we identify goals after only just meeting a person. It struck me that the people who develop policy and who get involved in establishing processes are not engaged in public discourse, at least, not in social media where so many of “us” hang out. I pondered how it is that the collective weight of allied health – numbering far more than our medical colleagues – has not yet shifted our conversations about best ways to help people with pain away from symptom reduction, despite our lack of success when it comes to pain. How we continually fixate on “if the pain goes, the person will go back to normal”. How we tout exercise as The Cure despite such small effect sizes on pain intensity, quality and disability. And for exercise, we could substitute needles, manual therapy, taping, medications…. How we want simple recipes, algorithms that sort people into “responders” and “non-responders” while failing to acknowledge that so far we haven’t achieved this and besides these approaches assume that everyone wants the same outcome.

Taking a break from work offers me a chance to refresh my perspective. My pain, it must be said, doesn’t take a break. And that, folks, is the reality for so many people in our communities. Because persistent pain persists. When we’re at work, and when we’re on holiday. When we’re trying to sleep, and when we’re busy with family. And we all come from what was our normal lifestyle. And some clinicians think that if only we would – understand pain neurobiology, pace, exercise, eat right, use mindfulness, check our thinking and get rid of maladaptive beliefs… then life would be fine. But would that life be what I want? Would it look like my life? Would I be able to be ME inside that regimen of all those things?

Clinicians, we can often omit to ask “what’s your main concern about your pain?” And we often forget to find out what that person values in their life. Our goal setting turns out to be OUR goals, often based on pain reduction – or focused on achieving X, Y, Z. Doing this means attention is paid to the end point – but then the process of getting there is left out. And life is a process (OK a journey) not a goal (OK a destination).

As I approach my teaching this year, and my interactions online, I want to emphasise respecting the autonomy and strengths people living with pain bring with them. That a person’s life and choices are theirs to make – and if we try to change people, we’ll fail. We can invite people to experiment with, play with, test, try out different ways of being, but unless we understand a person’s values and work with them, we’re probably not going get more than superficial compliance. Let’s be respectful and honour the complexity of each individual we encounter – and let’s not treat them as part of an algorithm.

Modifying pain behaviour (1)


In my post last week I talked about pain behaviour and why pain behaviours are often a good treatment target in pain rehabilitation. I also talked about pain intensity rating scales and how, because rating scales are a form of communication, the numbers we obtain from them aren’t a true measure of pain: they reflect what the person wants to communicate about their pain to someone at that time and in that context.

This week I want to discuss modifying pain behaviour, and believe me, we are all in the business of modifying behaviour even if we think we’re doing something completely different!

Ethics

One of the issues about modifying behaviour is addressed right at the beginning of Fordyce’s chapter on “Techniques of behavioral analysis and behavior change” and this is the ethical issue of informed consent. It’s important because behaviour change using behaviour modification techniques can operate without the person’s awareness (and does so All The Time). As clinicians, though, we have an obligation to ensure we obtain informed consent from our patient/client before we embark on any treatment. Of course, you and I know that this doesn’t happen in the way that I’d like to see it! When I’m a patient, I’d like to have my options laid out in front of me, with the pro’s and con’s over both short and long term clearly explained. Then I can choose the option that I prefer. But actually, most of the time I’ve received treatment from any clinician, I’ve been given little or no information about alternatives – it’s been assumed that I’ll go along with what the clinician has chosen for me. How’s that for informed consent?

Back to behaviour change. Fordyce clearly details the approach he prefers which is clear discussion with the person about what is proposed – that “well” behaviour will be reinforced via social interaction and “praise”, and “unwell” behaviour will either be ignored or redirected.

Behaviour change done badly

Where I’ve seen behaviour modification done badly is where the clinician fails to indicate to the person that this is the approach being taken (ie no informed consent), where this is applied to all people irrespective of their treatment goals and without discriminating the types of behaviours to be modified, and where it’s applied without empathy or compassion. The kind of “one size fits all” approach. More about this in a minute.

Fordyce points out that “almost every behaviour change problem can be analysed into one or a combination of these three possibilities: 1) Some behaviour is not occurring often enough and needs to be increased or strengthened; 2) some behaviour is occurring too frequently and needs to be diminished in frequency or strength or eliminated; and 3) there is behaviour missing from the person’s repertoire that is needed and that therefore must be learned or acquired.”

Behavioural analysis (lite – more to come in another post!)

So we can work out which behaviours to focus on, as clinicians we need to do some behavioural analysis. This is often best carried out by observing the person – best in his or her natural environment because the contextual cues are present there – but at a pinch, in a clinic setting. I like video for analysing behaviour, particularly something like limping or guarding or compensatory movements, but larger repertoires of behaviour can be self-reported. For example, if someone recognises that they’re resting more often than they want (especially useful if the person values returning to work), then the person can time how long they rest for and work to reduce that time. Fitness trackers or movement trackers can be great for monitoring this. Other options include asking the person’s family about the particular behaviours they notice as indicators that the person is having trouble with their pain: people around the person with pain often know what’s happening well before the person has said anything!

Now this raises my earlier point about lacking empathy or compassion. It doesn’t feel normal to ignore someone who is wincing, looking “pained” or talking about how much they hurt. And this is why, I think, many clinicians don’t enjoy using behaviour modification in a deliberate way – it either feels unsympathetic, so we avoid it, or we do a 180 turn and we apply “ignore all pain behaviour” indiscriminately. Fordyce definitely did NOT suggest this!

Being human in behaviour change

So, how do we approach a person who is distressed? Do we ignore them or comfort them or what? In true time-honoured tradition, I’m going to say “It depends.”

First, we need to analyse the function of the distress in this context, and in the context of our treatment goals. Remember informed consent! We need to clearly articulate and obtain agreement for our behavioural target, and if someone is distressed and this isn’t our target, then we need to respond in an empathic and supportive way. If we’ve observed, however, that the person we’re working with is often distressed as we begin a new activity, perhaps one that pulls the person towards doing something unfamiliar or a bit scary, then we might have a conversation with the person about what we’ve seen, and with agreement, begin to modify our response.

When I describe “function” of distress in this context, I mean “what does the distress elicit from us, and for the person?” – what are the consequences of that distress for the person? If we reduce our expectations from the person, or the person avoids doing the new activity, then we can probably identify that the distress is functioning to reduce the demands we’re putting on the person. Our behaviour as a clinician is being modified by the behaviour of the person – and probably unwittingly. Reducing demands reduces anxiety, a bit, and it may be anxiety about doing that movement (or experiencing pain as a result of doing that movement) that’s eliciting distress. I wouldn’t say being distressed in this context is deliberate – but it’s functioning to draw us away from maintaining the treatment goals we developed with the person.

So what can we do? In this instance, we might remind the person of our agreement to stick to our plan of activity, we can acknowledge that they’re feeling anxious (that’s probably why we’re doing this activity in the first place!), we can reassure the person that we trust that they can do this (boosting self-efficacy via verbal encouragement), and we can maintain our treatment goal.

That’s hard!

Yep. Using this approach is not for the faint-hearted. It means we need to be observant, to always be thinking not just about the form of behaviour we’re seeing, but about its function. We need to monitor our own behaviour (verbal, facial expressions, subtle body shifts, all the non-verbal “tells” we make), and we need to change our own responses to what the person does. And often we find this self-awareness difficult to do. Most of our responses are “automatic” or habitual, and behaviour modification means we need to interrupt our habitual responses so we can help our patient/client do what matters to them.

For a brilliant description of Fordcye’s approach as applied in a case study, Fordyce, Shelton & Dundore (1982) is a great example of how a seriously disabled person was helped via this approach. Remember, this was carried out with the person’s full consent! Chapter 4 of Fordyce’s Behavioral Methods for Chronic Pain and Illness gives the best blow-by-blow description of how to go about this. And for a rebuttal to some of the criticisms of a behavioural approach to pain management, Fordyce, Roberts and Sternbach (1985) offer some very helpful points. That paper also offers some of the best analyses of pain behaviour and why it’s needed as part of pain rehabilitation.

Fordyce, W. E., Shelton, J. L., & Dundore, D. E. (1982). The modification of avoidance learning pain behaviors. Journal of behavioral medicine, 5(4), 405-414.

Fordyce, W. E., Roberts, A. H., & Sternbach, R. A. (1985). The behavioral management of chronic pain: a response to critics. Pain, 22(2), 113-125.

Pain behaviour: what is it and what do we do about it?


I’m re-reading Fordyce’s classic Behavioral Methods for Chronic Pain and Illness and once again I’m struck by how many of the concepts he introduced and systematically investigated are either mis-interpreted and ignored in our current approaches to helping people with persistent pain. Today I’ll explore just a tiny portion of what Fordyce described.

Pain behaviour refers to all the observable actions we do in relation to experiencing pain (NB some people include thoughts as well, but for today I’ll just focus on observable actions). There are roughly two groups of actions: those involuntary ones that we can call nocifensive responses that include reflex withdrawal underpinned by spinal reflexes but including brainstem circuits (see Barik, Hunter Thompson, Seltzer, Ghitani & Chesler, 2018); and those that are developed and shaped by learning (operant conditioning as well as social learning).

When I write about learning, I often have comments about this suggesting people have a choice about what they do, and that this learning must involve conscious awareness – the upshot of these comments is the idea that if we just tell someone that they’re doing something, information alone will be sufficient to change how often they’re doing it. Well, I don’t know about you, but if you’ve ever chewed your nails, changed your diet, decided to go on a social media diet, or do more exercise, you’ll know that there’s an enormous gap between knowing about and being able to follow through. So let me review some of the processes involved in learning and pain behaviour.

Pain behaviour probably has evolutionary significance. What we do when we’re sore acts as a signal to others, whether those actions are voluntary or involuntary. For example, while limping off-loads weight from the sore limb, it can also function to let other people know there’s something wrong. Groaning or sighing also lets people around us know that we’re not OK. Remembering that we’re a social species, being able to let others know that we need help – or not to do what we just did – means we’re more likely to receive attention, and also to warn others about potential danger. Of course, by eliciting help, we’re kinda obligated to help others when they do the same, which may be why when we see someone demonstrating prolonged pain behaviours we tend to feel annoyed: we might be asking ourselves “If they’re not going to reciprocate, why would I help? Dem’s the rules”

Now pain behaviour is also subject to learning principles. In other words, the specific behaviours we do develop in form and frequency depending on context. The underlying analysis goes like this: an antecedent is present (maybe it’s a particular person, location, or occasion), the behaviour occurs, then something in the environment/context occurs – and it’s this “something in the environment/context” that influences whether the behaviour is repeated, and/or the frequency of that behaviour. The easiest example of this is when you watch a three-year-old playing just a little distance from Mum and Dad. When she trips and falls, she’ll probably get up and brush herself down – and then you’ll see her look for Mum or Dad, and if they’re close enough, she’ll probably let out a bit of wail. In the context of Mum and Dad and her falling over, she’s learned that if she cries she’s likely to get a cuddle or some attention, and this is nice. In the absence of Mum and Dad, if she trips she’s less likely to cry because she’s not likely to get that cuddle. Clever huh?

So if that kind of learning occurs from the time we’re little, it’s easy to see how rapidly this pattern of behaving can become habitual, and when it’s habitual it’s unlikely to be something the child is aware she’s doing. Crying, or seeking attention, when we’re sore is something we’ve learned to do from an early age and while the form of that attention likely differs as we mature, the underlying mechanisms still apply (please don’t scream the place down when you go get your Covid vaccination! It’s OK for babies to cry, but not quite so socially appropriate for grown-ups to cry!).

How does the form of that behaviour change? It’s called “shaping” and it is something that occurs naturally through social learning, and it can also occur in a planned way. Take the example of the three-year-old falling and crying: crying is probably OK outdoors where there’s plenty of room and not too much attention being paid to the interactions between parents and child. Take that same behaviour indoors, perhaps in a supermarket or worse – a quiet waiting room – and it’s likely the parents will shush the child more quickly, and be a little more firm about any ongoing wailing. The context is different, the parents respond differently, and the child learns that it’s not OK to cry loudly where there are other people who might not approve. Over time children learn that in different contexts, different ways to attract attention are required. Clearly there’s more technical language we can use to describe this process, but for our purposes this is enough.

Why do we care about this?

Pain behaviour is normal. It’s something we all do. Mostly it functions in a positive way. We signal to others that we need help, we protect the sore body part, and gradually we recover and resume normal life. In some contexts, though, the tendency to continue doing pain behaviours outlives its welcome. In persistent pain it’s particularly problematic, but it’s also problematic in acute pain situations.

Let’s take the example of the dreaded pain rating scale. The 0 = no pain to 10 = most severe pain I can imagine scale. In the context of an emergency room, being asked to rate pain is a quick and very practical way for clinicians to decide how severe the presumed injury/tissue damage is, whether the person needs analgesia, and whether they’re responding to it. Give a number less than 3 or 4 and you’re probably not going to get a lot of pain relief. Give a number closer to 10, and you’ll get something. Give a number greater than 10 and you may get raised eyebrows. In an experiment by Herta Flor (Flor, Knost & Birbaumer, 2002), participants were given an electric shock and asked to rate their pain intensity (also nociceptive detection threshold (aka pain threshold) and pain tolerance). After they’d rated their pain over several trials, they were given one of two conditions: one in which they were given smiley faces and money when their rating was higher than their average rating for the previous trials, and one in which they were given a sad smiley when their rating was lower than their average. Flor and colleagues found that those people who had been given positive smiley faces for higher pain ratings rated their pain intensity significantly higher than those who had been given neutral or negative smileys.

This experiment doesn’t reflect changes in pain intensity. And this is a critical point to note! The stimuli were the same across both groups. What changed was the response offered to participants after they rated their pain. In other words, behaviour associated with experiencing pain and the resultant rewards given for higher ratings was reinforced.

This experiment, along with a large number of others, is one reason why I don’t like pain intensity measures being taken at every treatment session. Pain intensity ratings are behaviours subject to the contingencies that all behaviour is subject to – people learn what to do, and they do it. And they’re unaware of this process.

We often rely on pain intensity ratings in both experimental studies and clinical practice. Unfortunately, while a numeric rating scale or visual analogue scale are quick and dirty, they’re not like a pain thermometer. We just don’t have an objective measure of pain intensity. And we forget this.

Where am I going with this?

A couple of points. I don’t think we can always influence a person’s experience of their pain. This means that we’re often needing to influence what they do about it – because prolonged distress and disability is not good for anyone. Given the social nature of our species, and the involuntary nature of our response to another person’s distress, we’re inclined to try to reduce distress by offering comfort. Nothing wrong with that except where it gets in the way of the person beginning to do things for themselves. As clinicians we need to reinforce actions a person does to increase their capabilities. We also need to limit our reinforcement of illness behaviour, and we need to do this with the consent of the person – being open about why we’re doing this. Remember people learn this stuff without knowing they’re learning it! This means that as clinicians we must stop judging people and what they do in response to pain. Pain behaviour is learned over a loooong time, and it’s reinforced in so many places. People don’t do pain behaviour on purpose. So we can’t judge people as being “non-copers” or having “exaggerated illness behaviour” – we can just gently show the person what happens, why it happens, and what the effect of that pattern of behaving is having on their life.

The second point is that we can’t treat pain ratings as Truth with a T, and think that we’re getting a pure measure of pain intensity – because rating pain on a scale is a behaviour, and it’s influenced in exactly the same way as all behaviours are. This doesn’t mean ignoring someone’s pain intensity – it just means we need to listen to what the person is trying to communicate.

Barik, A., Thompson, J. H., Seltzer, M., Ghitani, N., & Chesler, A. T. (2018). A Brainstem-Spinal Circuit Controlling Nocifensive Behavior. Neuron, 100(6), 1491-1503 e1493. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.10.037

Flor, Herta, Knost, Bärbel, & Birbaumer, Niels. (2002). The role of operant conditioning in chronic pain: an experimental investigation. Pain, 95(1), 111-118. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0304-3959(01)00385-2