Professional topics

Coronavirus (COVID19), catastrophising – and caution


I don’t often leap aboard a popular topic and blog about it, but I’m making an exception right now because, although COVID19 is new – catastrophising is not.

There are a number of people who really do not like the term “catastrophising”. There are comments that this is a pejorative term, used to deny the validity of a person’s experience. That it means the person is exaggerating or being melodramatic or in some way not believable.

But as I read the many, many headlines about COVID19, including the international toilet paper frenzy, reading about Vitamin C or “anti-inflammatory foods” to combat it, I even saw a serious post about using hands-on therapy to “shift the toxins”…. And I wonder whether we can take a good hard look at ourselves and our response to this virus.

Firstly, getting accurate information about COVID19 has been difficult. There are some authoritative sources “out there” but they’re not necessarily the most sexy sites to visit. Not many memes coming out of our Ministry of Health in New Zealand! Much of the information we read on a daily basis is in the general news media, giving a “personal story” slant on “what COVID19 means”. Some really good information coming from our politicians in NZ – but also some scaremongering from the political opposition.

Does this sound familiar? Where does the good, accurate and evidence-based information about persistent pain come from? And in the absence of readily accessible and “memeific” information, where do people go to learn about pain?

Secondly, it’s not the virus itself that’s causing the majority of trouble for people – except for the small percentage for whom the virus is deadly, mainly because of comorbidity, and health vulnerability. People who are older, already have immune compromise, and who are not able to access good healthcare are most at risk. The rest of us are experiencing the fallout of containment measures, economic insecurity, and lack of toilet paper. Sorry, couldn’t resist that last one. Seriously, most of us are being affected by the cancellation of meetings, by the need to self-isolate, by travel restrictions, by people having less money to spend because suddenly their jobs are less secure – watching my savings melt day by day…

Sounds quite similar to the experiences of people with persistent pain: often it’s not the pain itself that’s so awful, but the effects of losing contact with people you love, of having to take medications to reduce pain that leave you feeling dreadful, of not being able to play sports or do work – the loss of income security, access to healthcare, connection with people who matter. These are amongst the most debilitating aspects of living with persistent pain, let along the pain…

If you’ve found it hard to think of anything else but COVID19. If you’ve had trouble taking your mind off how you’re going to get by if patients can’t come to see you because they’re worried about giving you COVID19, or of catching it from you – that’s rumination, or brooding on it.

If you’ve caught yourself heading to the supermarket to get some extra pantry staples “just in case”. If you’ve found yourself checking in to see what your local health authorities are recommending. If you’ve been wondering if you should shut your business down for a while – and then been wondering what you’re going to do for a income if you do that. If you’ve looked up your bank balance and wondered what you’re going to do if your kids are off school for the next month, while you’re meant to be at work and there’s no-one to look after them…. you’re magnifying, or estimating that the demands of this situation might well exceed your current resources to deal with it.

If it all feels a bit overwhelming and you’re not really sure what to do next. If you’re feeling pretty stuck and getting a bit panicky. If this feels just way too much to handle – that’s hopelessness, or feeling really overloaded.

And each of these three clusters of cognitions, emotions and behaviours are part of the catastrophising construct.

Do they feel normal to you? Do you think you’re exaggerating? Do you think your reaction is over the top? No? Well you’d be (generally) quite right (except maybe the toilet paper hoarding… that’s just weird). Thinking the worst is normal in the face of uncertainty. Some commentators and researchers believe it’s one way we learn to convey our need for social support (Bailey, McWilliams & Dick, 2012; Lackner & Gurtman, 2004; Thorn, Keefe & Anderson, 2004).

At the same time, I want to take a pragmatic and contextual look at catastrophising.

From a pragmatic perspective, right now it’s completely appropriate to be a bit discombobulated by COVID19. And many of us have a lot of things to consider over the next few days/weeks as the situation changes on a daily and even hourly basis. The things we’re doing right now to plan for the worst are largely useful. That’s the point of being able to catastrophise – in the right context, in a rapidly evolving health and economic crisis, being able to consider the various futures and put plans in place to deal with them is probably a good thing. That’s the action part of the catastrophising construct.

The difficulty NOT checking your news media feed, and feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all seems to be a fairly reasonable response to an unreasonable situation. Logic, right?

So, from a pragmatic perspective right now, in the face of uncertainty, most of us are doing exactly what has got humans out of trouble many times in our history.

Now, what if we shift the context to 24 months in the future. COVID19 has now been largely contained, a vaccine is available, the virus hasn’t evolved, and while the economy is slowed, it is gradually picking up. What if, at that time, we have a friend who is still nervously scanning the headlines for the latest information on the virus? What if that friend is still stockpiling pasta and toilet paper and hand cleanser? What if that friend is still feeling like there’s not much they can do except hunker down and hide?

Now, my guess is that many of us would think this is being a bit extreme. Maybe even a bit OTT. Especially given that there’s likely to have been a LOT of media coverage of the COVID19 vaccine, and most economic activity will be returning. We might begin suggesting (gently) to the person doing the stockpiling that maybe it’s not necessary to keep on doing so. We’d think it’s a good idea to give them the new information about COVID19. We’d probably suggest that although they’re freaking out, maybe it’s time to reconsider the threat.

Context matters – catastrophising can be useful right now. In 24 months: not so much. New information will likely help us take a more realistic look at what’s going on with COVID19. It’s not that individual people won’t be personally affected if they get sick, but probably the crisis that’s happening right now will be over.

What about the validity of the person’s emotional response to their feared situation? Would we be dismissive? I hope not – because anyone who is still freaking out about COVID19 in 24 months time is still in distress! But we might be more willing to share the good news about recovery with them, so they don’t continue feeling overwhelmed and distressed. We’d not be likely to let them carry on thinking the worst, and we certainly wouldn’t be telling them their response is perfectly valid and appropriate for the threat.

What of the person experiencing pain and thinking the worst, feeling pretty awful and hopeless? Would we support them to stay in that highly distressed state? Would we say “there, there, you’re really feeling bad, aren’t you, here’s a tissue” – and walk away? Would we hesitate to suggest that perhaps they’re magnifying the problem and that they might have some other options?
Think about it. Catastrophising is a well-validated and studied construct. Hundreds of studies have shown that catastrophising is associated with poorer outcomes in so many situations – childbirth, knee replacements, hip replacements, multi-trauma orthopaedics, discomfort during internal atrial cardioversion, length of hospital stay after knee replacement, use of medications – on and on and on.

Catastrophising gets a bad rap. And woe betide anyone who TELLS someone “you’re catastrophising” because you seriously deserve a slap. Sheesh! But take a moment to consider the adverse impact on the person of thinking the worst… sleepless nights, endlessly checking their body, feeling overwhelmed and overloaded, having trouble thinking of anything else, perhaps anxious and depressed… this is not a recipe for recovery.

Call it what you will – over-estimating the threat of something, and under-estimating your resources can act as a galvaniser for preparation and action in the short term and in the context of uncertainty. When there are ways to move forward, and the threat is maybe not so great as you thought, and maybe you can do something to help yourself – then it’s probably time for us to show strong compassion. That’s compassion that cares enough to have difficult conversations, that helps another person consider their response in light of new information, and is willing to be there to help the person re-evaluate their next best steps.

Keep safe. Keep your social distance. Wash your hands. Don’t go out if you’re sick. Be sensible with the toilet paper.

Bailey, S. J., McWilliams, L. A., & Dick, B. D. (2012). Expanding the social communication model of pain: are adult attachment characteristics associated with observers’ pain-related evaluations? Rehabil Psychol, 57(1), 27-34. doi: 10.1037/a0026237

Lackner, Jeffrey M., & Gurtman, Michael B. (2004). Pain catastrophizing and interpersonal problems: a circumplex analysis of the communal coping model. Pain, 110(3), 597-604. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2004.04.011

Thorn, Beverly E., Keefe, Francis J., & Anderson, Timothy. (2004). The communal coping model and interpersonal context: Problems or process? Pain, 110(3), 505-507.

“Intuition” – and clinical reasoning


Intuition is one of two main modes of thinking, according to Daniel Kahneman. Intuition is fast, considers the whole rather than components of the whole, and intuition feels effortless. Intuition can also be wrong – but often isn’t (Gruppen, Woolliscroft & Wolf, 1988).

We use intuition well when we’ve been exposed to many examples of the phenomenon under consideration – for example, if we’ve seen a lot of patients with similar health problems. We don’t use intuition well when we buy into biases or stereotypes.

The alternative to intuition is slower thinking, that typically breaks the considerations into smaller pieces, often following a linear process where data (information) is collected and assembled. This kind of thinking is reasonably easy to investigate, whereas intuition is much more difficult to study (it’s fast, people can’t describe how they arrived at a conclusion, so it’s not amenable to self-report).

Why worry about it? Well, intuition is the key strategy described by allied health, particularly physiotherapists, when considering whether a person needs further assessment for those pesky psychosocial factors (Man, Kumar, Jones & Edwards, 2019). What this means in practical terms is that a patient who doesn’t fit the stereotypical “risky yellow flags patient” may have to fail at conventional treatment before being directed towards a multidisciplinary, or biopsychosocial, approach.

What might be an alternative?

I’m pretty fortunate in that I work in a service where participants to my group programme have already completed a series of questionnaires as a requirement to participate in pain rehabilitation and management. So everyone I see will have some information I can draw on without my needing to add anything more. Of course, I can argue that some of the questionnaires don’t help me very much because they’re fairly biased towards a CBT model of chronic pain management. But the principle is pretty clear: everyone gets to complete the questionnaires ahead of time.

Practically, this isn’t always easy. Many people don’t have good literacy skills, don’t have a computer, hate the thought of paperwork (even in electronic form), and some of the questions don’t work very well/aren’t relevant to the people I see, so they choose not to fill them in. There’s no opportunity to discuss the responses with a clinician, so it’s not easy to decide whether the questions apply.

But what happens when we leave the questionnaires to luck, intuition or “the psychologist”?

Firstly, we know the relevance of psychosocial risk factors. We know this so well – it’s been a theme throughout the years I’ve worked as a clinician in pain rehabilitation and management. If we don’t include these in our formulation (treatment planning), we’re probably not including them as key predictors for outcomes…

We can’t rely on our intuition because for many of us, those people who do have risk factors will only overtly show these once they’ve failed to progress – it’s at that time they’re more distressed, frustrated and afraid, so behavioural markers for psychosocial risk factors are more evident. This also means someone will have to work with the person who is now more distressed than they needed to be.

We don’t use our team to best advantage. Why refer someone to an occupational therapist, to a psychologist, to a counsellor if we don’t know why the person needs to see them? This can lead to a distinct lack of briefing or information about the referral to the person with pain – and sometimes, it seems, to the person deciding they don’t need, or want, that referral even when it would be in their best interests.

Mostly, though, I think it begins to bias our thinking. We can become judgemental – why doesn’t this person do their home-based exercise programme? Why are they just going through the motions? Why do they keep on complaining about their pain? We can begin to question the person’s motivation, their lifestyle, the validity of their perspective.

The real problem?

Our clinical reasoning models don’t help us very much when it comes to synthesising psychosocial factors. When we’re dealing with those factors using “intuition” we don’t have to incorporate them into our models – because intuition isn’t explicit, it’s quick and difficult to articulate. To date there are very few transprofessional models of pain management, and even fewer that attempt to link theoretical constructs with what we see in front of us. That synthesis of biological, social and psychological constructs that uniquely explains why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what factors may be maintaining this person’s predicament. It’s no wonder that, in a recent study my colleagues and I have been conducting, we’ve found very few clinicians collaborating on a case formulation.

My suspicion is that until we develop a collaborative case formulation clinical reasoning approach that can integrate these many factors in a sensible and logical way, our “intuition” is likely to leave us floundering. The casualties of this particular mess are the people we hope to treat. I wonder if it’s time to work together, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and medical practitioners (and all other variants of health practitioner!). Do we need to create a synthesis that works as a transprofessional model of pain?

Gruppen LD, Woolliscroft JO, Wolf FM. The contribution of different components of the clinical encounter in generating and eliminating diagnostic hypotheses. In research in medical education: proceedings of the annual conference. Med Educ. 1988;27:242‐247.

Man, Isabella, Kumar, Saravana, Jones, Mark, & Edwards, Ian. (2019). An exploration of psychosocial practice within private practice musculoskeletal physiotherapy: A cross-sectional survey. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 43, 58-63. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.msksp.2019.06.004

Widerström, Birgitta, Rasmussen-Barr, Eva, & Boström, Carina. (2019). Aspects influencing clinical reasoning and decision-making when matching treatment to patients with low back pain in primary healthcare. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 41, 6-14. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.msksp.2019.02.003

Undergraduate pain curriculum: What needs to be included and what doesn’t?


One of the prominent themes in social media discussions about pain is that the subjects are not given sufficient attention at undergraduate level. The results of this omission are that many entry-level clinicians don’t have the necessary knowledge, skills or attitudes for working with people who experience pain. (As an aside, it also makes my job as a postgraduate Academic Leader much more difficult: where do I start when developing a programme?!)

Luckily there is an IASP Pain Curriculum. Actually there are many of them, for many disciplines, and they provide educators with great guidance. The problem is, however, there is so much that could be included in this kind of education – and we usually don’t have much room in a programme to include it all.

The main problems with the curriculum are: the content and levels of competency required at an undergraduate level aren’t specified; most research into this area targets postgraduates, with less attention for undergraduate pain education. Most curriculum for pain have been discipline-specific, and while a consensus on the content and desired competencies of an interprofessional pain curriculum at a pre-licence or undergraduate level has been discussed, an a-priori defined competency level across professions for the items in the IASP curriculum hasn’t been established. We need cross profession agreed competencies to allow for good collaboration. (see van Lankveld, Afram, Staal, van der Sande, 2020).

In my role as Academic Coordinator for Postgrad Programmes in Pain and Pain Management, one aspect of the interprofessional curriculum that is quite difficult to navigate is how to turn topic headings into knowledge, skills and attitudes. I’m wary of teaching directly to subject (knowledge) without accompanying this with appropriate skills and attitudes – particularly at postgraduate level, given knowledge (topics) are continuing to change over time. There’s clearly some material that is highly valued by one profession over other professions – and this is normal for every discipline! And I’m not sure we can ever hope to cover every single thing.

One consistent theme in research into attitudes and beliefs among musculoskeletal clinicians is that confidence to assess and then use information from the psychosocial domain is low (Alexanders, Anderson & Henderson, 2015; Buchbinder, Staples & Jolley, 2009; Miki, Kondo, Takebayashi & Takasaki, 2020; Singla, Jones, Edwards & Kumar, 2015). This problem is not isolated to physiotherapists, but cuts across all professions, including psychologists referred patients with “medically unexplained symptoms” (Brittni & Williams, 2020). I wondered if this area has been given sufficient emphasis in our curriculum, and most especially, whether opportunities to develop skills and attitudes that support equitable and effective pain management are developed.

van Lankveld, Afram, Staal, van der Sande (2020) used interprofessional expert panel groups, followed Delphi process, and incorporated a measure of competency (the Dublin Descriptors), to establish which of the many areas of the pain curriculum should be prioritised. This makes for interesting reading, as some of the areas considered integral to better pain management, such as the socio-political and ethical were not considered crucial, while those related to Epidemiology, Development of Pain Theories, and Mechanisms were all thought crucial. I find this interesting as stigma, equity of access to treatment, ethical use of analgesics are all areas of healthcare that directly influence what we do in treatment and in particular, what gets funded and what does not.

Developing a teaching programme from a list of topics considered important involves opinions, values, and an understanding of pedagogy. Given we live in an ever-changing information environment, I think skills and attitudes towards what is today considered “fact” need to be emphasised – how do we learn to think critically? At least part of critical thinking is reading around a topic to become familiar with current and historic models and knowledge. I also think that some of the more complex issues we need to deal with as societies are often those attitudes towards people who violate our assumptions about who is and isn’t “other”. Learning is not only about content, it’s about attitudes towards the subject matter. And some of these attitudes are buried deeply beneath community assumptions and values. To uncover these attitudes, then help people reflect critically on them and their clinical implications is, I think, one of the tasks educators need to address.

For that reason, in my 5th year undergraduate medical teaching, I ask students to undertake a case study where their job is to listen to the person with pain, identify risk factors and protective factors for recovery and return to optimal functioning and participation, and then offer individually tailored recommendations to the person, in language the person will understand. My hope is that these future medical practitioners will have developed some empathy and strategies for caring for and encouraging patients with pain to be less afraid of their pain, and more able to go on with their lives.

What should go in undergraduate training? I think we can weave all the content of these curriculum into our undergraduate training, but we should also leave students with the certain knowledge, skills and attitudes that this area of study is going to change. And that means lifelong learning about pain, people, science and self.

Alexanders, J., Anderson, A., & Henderson, S. (2015). Musculoskeletal physiotherapists’ use of psychological interventions: a systematic review of therapists’ perceptions and practice. Physiotherapy, 101(2), 95-102. doi: 10.1016/j.physio.2014.03.008

Buchbinder, R., Staples, M., & Jolley, D. (2009). Doctors with a special interest in back pain have poorer knowledge about how to treat back pain. Spine (Phila Pa 1976), 34(11), 1218-1226; discussion 1227. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e318195d688

Crawford, C., Ryan, K., & Shipton, E. (2007). Exploring general practitioner identification and management of psychosocial Yellow Flags in acute low back pain. N Z Med J, 120(1254), U2536.

Cowell, I., O’Sullivan, P., O’Sullivan, K., Poyton, R., McGregor, A., & Murtagh, G. (2018). Perceptions of physiotherapists towards the management of non-specific chronic low back pain from a biopsychosocial perspective: A qualitative study. Musculoskelet Sci Pract, 38, 113-119. doi: 10.1016/j.msksp.2018.10.006

Jones, Brittni, & Williams, Amanda C. de C. (2020). Psychological therapists’ judgments of pain and treatment decisions: The impact of ‘medically unexplained symptoms’. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 131, 109937. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2020.109937

Miki, T., Kondo, Y., Takebayashi, T., & Takasaki, H. (2020). Difference between physical therapist estimation and psychological patient-reported outcome measures in patients with low back pain. PLoS One, 15(1), e0227999. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0227999

Singla, Mukul, Jones, Mark, Edwards, Ian, & Kumar, Saravana. (2015). Physiotherapists’ assessment of patients’ psychosocial status: are we standing on thin ice? A qualitative descriptive study. Manual therapy, 20(2), 328-334.

van Lankveld, W., Afram, B., Staal, J. B., & van der Sande, R. (2020). The IASP pain curriculum for undergraduate allied health professionals: educators defining competence level using Dublin descriptors. BMC Med Educ, 20(1), 60. doi: 10.1186/s12909-020-1978-z

Did you miss me?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are there not more occupational therapists in pain rehabilitation?


A question I’ve asked myself many times! As a small profession with a long history (as long as physiotherapy, TBH), it does seem odd that there are many, many pain rehabilitation services where never an occupational therapist has darkened the door.

Some of the reasons lie within the profession: in general, occupational therapists are busy being clinicians and have little time for research. In New Zealand, few occupational therapists pursue higher degrees, and many avoid statistical analyses, experimental design, randomised controlled studies. In fact, some occupational therapists have argued that the tailored approach used by therapists means randomised controlled trials are impossible – our interventions too complex, too individualised.

And it is difficult to describe occupational therapy in the kind of broad terms used to describe physiotherapy (movement), psychology (mind, emotions, behaviour), medicine or nursing. Occupational therapists often deal with the everyday. Things like organising a day or a week, getting a good night’s sleep, returning to work, managing household activities. Not sexy things with technical names!

So… what does a good occupational therapist offer in pain rehabilitation? These are only some of the things I’ve contributed over the years:

  • graded exposure in daily life contexts like the shopping mall, supermarket, walking at the beach, fishing, catching a bus, driving
  • self regulation using biofeedback, hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation in daily life contexts like getting off to sleep, at work in between clients, while doing the grocery shopping, while driving
  • effective communication with partners, children, employers, co-workers, health professionals in daily life contexts
  • guided discovery of factors that increase and reduce pain in daily life contexts like the end of a working day, over the weekend, at the rugby, in the pub, on your own, in a crowd, at home
  • information on proposed neurobiological mechanisms as they influence pain and doing/participating in daily life contexts, things like attention capture, distraction, memory, emotions, stress, excitement
  • values clarification about what is important to a person’s sense of who they are in their daily life
  • progressive meaningful movement in daily life contexts
  • goal setting, planning, managing and progressing overall activity levels in daily life
  • positive, pleasurable activities to boost mood, reduce anxiety and live a life more like the person wants

What characterises all that I offer? It’s context. One of the major challenges in all our pain rehabilitation is that people feel safe when in safe surroundings, with people who elicit feelings of safety. When things are predictable – like in a clinic setting – and when clinicians are present, people feel OK to do things they simply can’t do (or won’t do) elsewhere.

Life is complex. Contexts are highly variable, often chaotic, multiple demands on attention, priorities, values – and when a skill is developed in a controlled environment, like a clinic or office, it’s nothing like the real world. This, folks, is the unique contribution of a good occupational therapist.

Someone posted an image once, on the one side was physical therapy. On the other was psychology. And the question was posed: who bridges the gap between these two professions? I say definitively that this is the occupational therapy space. We are knowledge translators. We are the bridge between clinic and daily life. It is our domain, the entire specialty area of this profession. And it has been since the professions’ inception, way back in the early 1900s.

There are occupational therapists who let us down. These are the therapists who focus exclusively on occupational participation without factoring in that we are also a rehabilitation profession. These occupational therapists provide equipment to people who are sore: the new bed, the shower stool and rails, the kitchen stool and trolley, the bed and chair raisers. Now there may be good reason for installing these gadgets – in the short term. They might keep someone safe in their environment so they can do what’s important. AT the same time they can, and do, reinforce the idea that this person cannot do, and certainly cannot change. While installing these things can mean a person is able to do – the person also learns to avoid doing these movements. This is such an important concept in pain rehabilitation – because progressively working towards being able to manage normal activities without aids is what we’re aiming for! An occupational therapist installing these things without reviewing and supporting the person to no longer need these things is just like a physiotherapist offering a person a back brace or splint and never reviewing whether it’s needed.

Why is it difficult to acknowledge occupational therapy’s contributions? Partly our rejection of a biomedical model based on diagnosing disease. Occupational therapists are about the person’s illness experience, our model is wholistic, biopsychosocial, integrative. It’s hard to articulate our contributions without using a lot of words! Or making it seem so dumbed down that people view the exterior actions (cleaning teeth, having a shower) without recognising the myriad contributing factors that influence whether this action is carried out successfully.

Occupational therapists have relied on qualitative research to examine the lived experience of people dealing with persistent pain. Rather than pointing to randomised controlled trials of broad concepts like “exercise”, we’ve tended to describe the individual and unique experiences of people as they regain their sense of self. Not something easily measured like range of movement or cardiovascular fitness, or even simple measures of disability and self efficacy. Peek behind these descriptions you’ll find synthesised strategies that integrate values, committed actions, sense of self, cognitive defusion, behavioural approaches – messy things that aren’t readily translated into simple cause and effect experiments. Multifactorial approaches that recognise that life is a contextual experience.

I contend that one of the major failings in pain rehabilitation is helping people reclaim their sense of self again. Self concept is ignored in favour of changing a person from a couch spud to a gym attender. Even psychologists can forget that when instilling new strategies, the person in front of them has to learn to integrate these new things into their world – and that means adjusting their sense of who they are. That’s the hidden work people living with persistent pain have to do, rarely supported. And yet it’s the thing people most want to resolve when they’re dealing with this experience. Who am I? Can I be me again? If I can’t be the old me, can I at least get something of what was important to me back again?

What I’d like to see are more occupational therapists being confident about what our profession offers, being willing to step up and be the resource we know is needed. We don’t need to be defensive about this – but we do need to be sure about the validity and relevance of why our contribution is so important. I think the results from research showing how short-lived positive results of pain rehabilitation really are speak for themselves. Maybe the missing link is knowledge translation into daily life contexts?

Three letter acronyms and what they mean – CBT, DBT, CFT, ACT – not alphabet soup!


Once you begin to dip your toes into psychological therapies, it doesn’t take long before you begin to see TLAs all over the place. So today I’m going to post on two things: some of the TLAs, and why or how we might consider using these approaches in pain rehabilitation.

The first one is CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT grew out of two movements: behaviour therapy (Skinner and the pigeons, rats and all that behaviour modification stuff), and cognitive therapy (Ellis and Beck and the “cognitive triad” – more on this later). When the two approaches to therapy are combined, we have cognitive behavioural therapy where thoughts and their effect on emotions and actions are the focus of therapy, with a secondary focus on behaviour and how behaviour can be influenced by (and influence) thoughts and emotions.

In pain rehabilitation, cognitive behavioural therapy is used primarily by psychologists, while a cognitive behavioural approach is what underpins most of the multidisciplinary/interprofessional pain management programmes. These programmes were very popular and effective during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but have faded over time as insurers in the USA in particular, decided they were expensive and should instead be replaced by what I call “serial monotherapy” – that is, treatments that were provided in a synthesised way within interprofessional programmes are often now delivered alongside or parallel to one another, and typically with very limited synthesis (or case formulation). A question yet to be answered is what effect this change has had on outcomes – my current understanding is that the outcomes are weakened, and that this approach has turned out to be more expensive over time because each discipline involved is seeking outcomes that fit with their priorities, and there is far more opportunity for duplication and gaps in what is provided.

Cognitive behavioural approaches underpin the “Explain Pain” or pain neurobiology education approach. The theory is that people who hold unhelpful beliefs about their pain can become fearful of what the pain means. Once they hold more helpful or realistic beliefs about their pain, that emotional zing is reduced, and it’s less scary to begin moving.

Cognitive behavioural approaches also underpin cognitive functional therapy. In cognitive functional therapy, as a person begins to move, the therapist asks about what’s going through their mind, and establishes through both movement experiments and information, that they’re safe to move, and can do so without fear (O’Sullivan, Caneiro, O’Keeffe, Smith, Dankaerts, Fersum & O’Sullivan, 2018).

When carrying out graded exposure, in the way that Vlaeyen et al describe, a cognitive behavioural approach is integral. In this approach, the classic relationship between avoidance and a stimulus (bending forward, for example), is challenged in a series of behavioural experiments, beginning with movements the person fears the least, and progressing over time to those the person fears the most.

There’s good evidence from psychological therapies, and also from within pain rehabilitation research, that it’s the behavioural aspects of therapy that do the heavy lifting in pain rehabilitation (Schemer, Vlaeyen, Doerr, Skoluda, Nater, Rief & Glombiewski, 2018).

And, in the words of Wilbert Fordyce, psychologist who first started using a behavioural approach for persistent pain management “Information is to behaviour change as spaghetti is to a brick”.

So don’t expect disability (which involves changing behaviour) to shift too much without also including some strategies for helping someone DO something differently. And if a person doesn’t accept what you’re telling them – sometimes it’s more effective to try helping them do things differently first, and use that experiential process rather than talk, talk, talking.

ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), and DBT (dialectical behaviour therapy) are both what is known as “third wave” cognitive behavioural therapies. They both involve understanding the relationship between thoughts, emotions and behaviours, but add their own flavours to this. In the case of ACT, the flavour that’s added is “workability” and contextual behavioural analysis, with relational frame theory as the underpinning theoretical model. Instead of directly tackling the content of thoughts, ACT focuses on changing the relationship we have with thoughts, and shifts towards using values as directing the qualities of what we do (McCracken & Vowles, 2014). Dialectical behavioural therapy helps people build social relationships that support them, begin to recognise strengths and positive qualities about themselves, recognise unhelpful beliefs about themselves and shift towards more helpful beliefs, and to use coping strategies to help soothe and calm emotional responses. I draw on ACT as my primary framework for pain rehabilitation (actually for my own life too!), but I haven’t seen as much use of DBT in this area.

Compassion focused therapy, the other CFT, is also a psychotherapy designed to help people become compassionate towards themselves and others. The theory behind this are understanding three main “drives”: the threat and self-protection system, the drive and excitement system, and the contentment and social safeness system. When these are under-developed, or out of balance, unhelpful behaviours and unhappiness occur. CFT aims to help people bring the three systems into balance. Given that many of the people who experience persistent pain have also experienced early childhood trauma, and concurrently endure stigma and punitive responses from those around them because of their pain, CFT offers some strategies to help effect change on an unsettled and fearful system. CFT uses self appreciation, gratitude, savouring, as well as mindfulness (non-judgemental awareness), and compassion-focused imagery to help soothe the system (Penlington, 2019; Purdie & Morley, 2016).

Along with these TLAs, you can also find many others. I think for each approach, understanding the theory behind them is crucial. While some of these approaches appear very “psychological”, whenever we begin unpacking them, we can start to see how most of what we offer in physical or occupational therapeutic approaches require us to draw on them.

Skills like guided discovery, motivational interviewing, goal-setting, values clarification, graded activity, helping people experience difference in their own lives, soothe their own body, become more comfortable with a sense of self that has to grapple with pain – unless we’re knocking our patients unconscious, we’re going to be using these so-called “psychological” skills.

If we are doing good therapy, I think we need to be as excellent as we can in all the skills required. This includes being excellent at the way we thoughtfully and mindfully use communication.

Psychological therapies all incorporate communication, and responses to people who are fearful of something. Most of us are involved in helping people who are afraid of their pain – and as a result are not doing what matters to them. If we don’t help people do what’s important in their lives, what on earth ARE we doing? For this reason, we need to employ the most effective tools (ie psychological approaches) in just the same way we use goal-setting (psychological), respond with encouragement to someone attempting a new thing (psychological), start with something the person can only just do, then grade it up (psychological), help down-regulate an overly twitchy nervous system (psychological), teach new skills (uh, that’s quite right, psychological!). I could go on.

What don’t we do if we’re using psychological strategies? We don’t dig into deep trauma, substance abuse, criminal behaviour, self harm, psychopathology. Though, we do address some psychopathology if we recognise that depression and anxiety both respond quite nicely to scheduling positive activities, and meaningful movement (ie exercise). Perhaps our artificial divide between “physical” and “mental” needs to be altered?

McCracken, L. M., & Vowles, K. E. (2014). Acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness for chronic pain: Model, process, and progress. American Psychologist, 69(2), 178.

O’Sullivan, P. B., Caneiro, J. P., O’Keeffe, M., Smith, A., Dankaerts, W., Fersum, K., & O’Sullivan, K. (2018). Cognitive functional therapy: an integrated behavioral approach for the targeted management of disabling low back pain. Physical therapy, 98(5), 408-423.

Penlington, C. (2019). Exploring a compassion-focused intervention for persistent pain in a group setting. British journal of pain, 13(1), 59-66.

Purdie, F., & Morley, S. (2016). Compassion and chronic pain. Pain, 157(12), 2625-2627.

Schemer, Lea, Vlaeyen, Johan W., Doerr, Johanna M., Skoluda, Nadine, Nater, Urs M., Rief, Winfried, & Glombiewski, Julia A. (2018). Treatment processes during exposure and cognitive-behavioral therapy for chronic back pain: A single-case experimental design with multiple baselines. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 108, 58-67.

Toye, F., & Barker, K. (2010). ‘Could I be imagining this?’–the dialectic struggles of people with persistent unexplained back pain. Disability and rehabilitation, 32(21), 1722-1732.

Veehof, M. M., Trompetter, H. R., Bohlmeijer, E. T., & Schreurs, K. M. G. (2016). Acceptance-and mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of chronic pain: a meta-analytic review. Cognitive behaviour therapy, 45(1), 5-31.

Flare-ups and how to handle them


If you live with persistent pain of any kind, you’ll know what a flare-up is. Periods of time when pain is exacerbated and sustained at a higher than average level over at least a few days, often longer. Flare-ups always settle down – but oh my, it can feel like they’re going on forever!

Handling a flare-up is not quite the same as handling everyday pain. Everyday pain, for those of us who manage it independently of healthcare professionals, usually needs a generally steady routine, not too many surprises. A regimen of movement, relaxation, fun, mindfulness, plodding on and managing stress. A little boring, if you will. Most people will add or subtract some medication (if there is some to help) and vary the activity level depending on the demands of the day.

But when a flare-up happens, some people can find themselves side-swiped and confidence can plummet, while the usual everyday coping can feel like it’s not quite cutting it. For some people, it can be a complete surprise to find that on one day everything feels “normal” yet the next can be a flare-up.

What health professionals do during a flare-up is important, because how we respond and our attitude towards flare-ups can build confidence, or knock it even further.

Identify your early warning signs

Even though a flare-up can feel like it’s come from out of the blue, mostly there are early warning signs that perhaps haven’t quite been recognised (or have been ignored because something else is more important than pain intensity). It can be a period of feeling really good (so that the normal coping strategies don’t feel quite as relevant, and are just a bit easier to forget to do). It can be fatigue, or feeling a little overloaded. It can be a rotten night’s sleep, or a really busy day without the normal recovery time.

An early warning sign can be being more achey than normal, a little stiff and less keen to move. For some it can be feeling a little irritable, or a little down.

There may be parts of the body that don’t typically get sore – but during a flare-up, they begin to join in the action. The quality of the pain may be different: burning, deeper, achier.

Noting these “flare-up early warning signs” in a diary can be a great way to develop an alert system to remind us to focus on keeping on with the strategies that we’ve found useful – like a reminder not to suddenly stop what’s working!

Rescue Remedy

No – I don’t mean the drops you can get! Please no!! The rescue remedy I advocate is to develop a set of strategies, a plan, that is written down ahead of when it’s needed. During a flare-up, thinking straight can be difficult, so pre-planning can reduce the effort at the time.

I always begin by developed a “Can Cope” card. This is a business-card sized card with four or five simple steps that can be used immediately and may even abort a flare-up before it begins. The first instruction is always “Breathe out!” followed by using a calming word like “relax” or “I’m fine” or “chill out”. Three to five out breaths can help to interrupt stressful thinking, enough to move on to the next step that I pretty much always include: notice. Noticing in this instance is a few minutes of body scanning to notice just what is happening in the body in the here and now. A body scan allows an opportunity to recognise where any additional tension is held, to notice and stop rushing if that’s part of the problem, to simply be for a moment or two.

I then like to include a few actions like get up and stretch, or go grab a drink of water, something that allows for some whole body movement – maybe a walk around the block. And finally, I end the Can Cope Card with a reminder that these flare-ups do end!

Working out why it happened

It’s tempting to try and find out what went wrong and why a flare-up happened, but it’s not uncommon to be unable to put a finger on it. So many variables are likely to influence! As I mentioned at the start of this blog, it can be a night of rotten sleep, a busy day, maybe a change in routine, feeling overloaded, maybe even having had a period of feeling really good.

If flare-ups don’t trouble the person very much, analysing how and why it happened may be counter-productive. It’s common for us to think firstly about movements or activities that are out of the ordinary, or perhaps more demanding than normal. These are the easiest flare-ups to identify. They can even be predicted, so can be built in to the weekly planning.

Other contributors can be much more difficult to identify – especially those involving emotional factors, stress, or enjoyable activities. For me, sitting for long periods, as in a conference, or travelling to a conference can be a flare-up initiator. Holidays not so much, but it’s not uncommon for me to feel sore in the days before heading away on holiday – all that rushing around, getting things ready!

Often it can be a cumulative series of seemingly irrelevant decisions. A whole cascade of tiny changes to routine that eventually tips the balance over – maybe working late a few nights in a week, combined with not as much time for exercising, and little more stress at work and not doing mindfulness or taking time out. On their own, they don’t seem much – but they erode the reserves needed to deal with pain on a daily basis.

If pain flare-ups like this do bother the person (or you!), it’s worth taking some time to track activities and mood, fatigue, sleep, and habits for a while. Simply tracking can be enough of a reminder to keep the habits going! But analysing what happens to energy, pain, mood can mean better capability for preparing and noticing in advance. That way, while a flare-up can be on the cards, gradually the person can get better at predicting what things set it off, and can make an active choice about whether it’s worth doing.

Health professionals

If we aim to prevent flare-ups, we’re on a hiding to nowhere. While there’s not a lot of research about on flare-ups, what research there is shows that flare-ups are common – 51% of people interviewed by telephone, all of whom had chronic low back pain, reported flare-ups (Suri, Saunders & Von Korff, 2012). It may be a matter of language: flare-ups can be called “breakthrough pain” (although this applies to cancer pain, when pain ‘breaks through’ the opioid dose, and shouldn’t be applied to noncancer pain); flare-ups can be called relapses or exacerbations or fluctuations. Whatever they’re called, there just doesn’t seem to be much in the research literature although qualitative studies do seem to show flare-ups as important.

If flare-ups are common, what are we doing as health professionals, to help people with pain learn to roll with the fluctuations? I think this depends a great deal on our own fears about pain. If we feel uncomfortable about pain, worry that our patients are “doing harm”, or feel concerned that they may get distressed because of pain, we may inadvertently convey this to them. We may try to dig deep into what may be causing the flare-up, we may ask the person to stop doing things, or alter their programme to prevent the flare-ups from “getting worse”. Or we may simply avoid discussing them at all. None of these approaches seem helpful to me.

I think (yep, opinion time!) that we need to convey our confidence that this person has the skills, capability and confidence to manage this themselves. I think it’s useful not to rush in to try to “fix” the problem, or to help the person out too quickly. This doesn’t convey the message that we are confident they can manage! It doesn’t mean ignoring the person, but it does mean we might want to think about asking the person what they can do to get through. And we can let people know how good it is that they’ve come in to see us even though it’s a high pain day. We can remind people of the skills they have and think of asking them which options they’d like to use. This might sound contradictory after I’ve just said not to rush in to “fix”, but to me the difference is that in one we’re supplying the answers and doing to, but in the latter we’re reminding people and giving the choice back to them.

I also think it’s worth avoiding analysing all the possible contributors, at least initially. Why? Because our temptation will probably be to focus on movements or activity changes that “caused” the flare-up, but it’s probable that many tiny decisions, multiple factors are the real issue. And if we focus on physical factors, we’re conveying yet again that pain is a problem of “the physical” – which may not be the case.

I’ve often said that if someone hasn’t had a flare-up while we’ve been working together, then I haven’t done my job. Flare-ups are part of living with persistent pain, and learning to roll with them is a skill I think everyone who lives with persistent pain can develop. Even though I know it’s difficult. But as people with persistent pain know, we are tough!

Suri, P , Saunders, & Von Korff, M., (2012). Prevalence and Characteristics of Flare-ups of Chronic Nonspecific Back Pain in Primary Care: A Telephone Survey. Clinical Journal of Pain, 28(7), 573-580.

Who am I? The sense of self in chronic/persistent pain


One of the most pervasive descriptions of what it is like to live with persistent pain is the loss of sense of self. Time after time in qualitative research we read about people feeling they’re in “limbo land”, losing confidence that they can do what matters in their lives, feeling stigmatised and isolated – not themselves any more. An in-depth meta-ethnography of qualitative research showed that pain undermined participation, ability to carry out daily activities, stymied a sense of the future, and intruded on the sense of self (MacNeela, Doyle, O’Gorman, Ruane & McGuire, 2015).

To understand the idea of “self”, I poked about a little in the literature, and found a title I like “Becoming who you are” (Koole, Schlinkert, Maldei & Baumann, 2019). The theoretical propositions of this paper relate more to self-determination than self-concept – but that title “Becoming who you are” resonated strongly with me.

When I read through pain rehabilitation research and theory, especially that dealing with learning how to live well with pain, I rarely see anything written about how we might help people who feel alienated from their sense of self. Scarcely a word. Except in the psychological literature. There’s a bit about self-discrepancy theory (See E. Tory Higgins works for much more about self-discrepancy), where the “imagined self”, the “real self”, the “feared self” and the “ought self” don’t match – but not much about what to do about helping people restore a sense of self, particularly in physical and “functional” rehabilitation.

Silvia Sze Wai Kwok and colleagues (2016) argue that psychological flexibility can play a role in helping people adjust to chronic pain. They found that psychological flexibility mediated between self-discrepancy (how close is my current self to my feared or ideal self?) and pain outcomes (distress, disability and so on). In other words, the degree to which people could flexibly adjust their goals and actions to suit what they could and couldn’t do made a difference.

This seems like common sense. Kinda. As the authors put it: “recognition of self worth and self-values could be attuned through flexible (re)construction of self-concept in response to changing contexts. These adaptations and regulatory functions then in turn may predict the subjective feelings of pain interference, emotional distress and pain tolerance level perceived.”

So my question is: how often does this become openly discussed in pain rehabilitation? Particularly by occupational therapists and physiotherapists – the clinicians who most often work on goals and helping people achieve them?

Whether a person is “motivated” to pursue important goals depends on whether the goals are important to them and whether they think they’ll successfully achieve them. When someone is “non-compliant” it’s because either the rehabilitation activities are not as important as something else in the person’s life, OR they’re not at all confident they can be successful at it. An enormous part of our job as rehabilitation professionals is helping people re-examine what they want to do and helping them adjust how to achieve the underlying values, even if the particular goal isn’t possible – yet. So, for example, if a person really values being a conscientious worker but can’t sustain a full working day, we can either help them fell OK about being conscientious for fewer hours, or we can make the work less demanding. I see this as an especially valuable contribution from occupational therapists.

Should rehabilitation clinicians be involved in this kind of “self-concept” work? I think so – especially occupational therapists. Occupational therapists are about doing, being and becoming – by doing things, we express who we are, and what we choose to engage in also shapes our perceptions of ourselves. As therapists we can’t help but influence a person’s self-concept – if we’re hoping to increase self-efficacy, we’re automatically influencing self-concept. If we’re working on goals, we’re influencing self-concept. If we’re working on participation in life, we’re working on self-concept.

And physiotherapists? Self-concept? Yep – of course. If we’re helping someone do exercise, that’s going to influence that person’s beliefs about exercise and their capabilities – that in turn is going to influence self-concept. (psst! it might be even more powerful if movements are done in the context of daily life, where feedback is real, meaningful and ever-present).

Persistent pain challenges the automatic assumptions people hold about what they can and can’t do, what they’re good at, what’s important in life, and how to engage with “the world” at large. Our job as clinicians is to be sensitive to just how confronting it is to find that what used to be effortless and meaningful is now daunting and requires more concentration and thought than we ever believed. I think that’s part of our job, irrespective of professional labels.

Koole, Sander L., Schlinkert, Caroline, Maldei, Tobias, & Baumann, Nicola. (2019). Becoming who you are: An integrative review of self-determination theory and personality systems interactions theory. Journal of Personality, 87(1), 15-36. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12380

Kwok, Silvia Sze Wai, Chan, Esther Chin Chi, Chen, Phoon Ping, & Lo, Barbara Chuen Yee. (2016). The “self” in pain: The role of psychological inflexibility in chronic pain adjustment. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 39(5), 908-915.

MacNeela, Padraig, Doyle, Catherine, O’Gorman, David, Ruane, Nancy, & McGuire, Brian E. (2015). Experiences of chronic low back pain: a meta-ethnography of qualitative research. Health Psychology Review, 9(1), 63-82.

Having The Conversation…


Over the past few weeks I’ve been posing some of the curly questions that I don’t think have yet been answered in pain rehabilitation. In fact, some of them have yet to be investigated in any depth. Today I’m stepping out into the abyss to offer my current thoughts on one question that has been rattling around for some time: how do we have a conversation about pain and its persistence? I want to begin by stating very emphatically, that I do believe pain can change. And that the way a person views or interprets their experience can change, and there is reversibility in pain intensity and quality. Having a conversation about persistence doesn’t mean pain will inevitably hang around. So why talk about it?

One major reason comes from people living with pain. In a recent book (Meanings of Pain) I quoted several qualitative studies where “pain acceptance” and conversations about this were highly valued by people with pain – in fact, in my own research, learning that pain would either likely remain in its current form, or would be a feature in some way, was part of a turning point (Lennox Thompson, Gage & Kirk, 2019). The turning point was away from pursuing pain reduction as a primary goal, and towards living a life. “And then I finally said to myself, nothing’s going to work. I might as well try to live with it, and learn to live with it, and since then I haven’t tried pursuing any type of pain relief” (Henwood, Ellis, Logan, Dubouloz & D’Eon, 2012), “All the previous treatments dealt with taking
away the pain. This is the first time one gets a treatment that focuses on acceptance of the pain, and you really understand that this is chronic pain that will never disappear; it’s the first time one has received the message from this angle”
( Pietilä, Stålnacke, Enthoven, Stenberg, 2018)

I guess I don’t see this as a dichotomous choice. It’s not simply “pain reduction” OR “pain acceptance”. I think we can have more than one goal. It’s a matter of emphasis, where energy gets spent. Mark Sullivan and Betty Ferrell argue that health professionals need to reconceptualise their contribution to health: is it to treat disease, or to “advance the person’s capacity for personally meaningful action?” (Sullivan & Ferrell, 2005).

The issue is, that doing what matters can mean “doing what matters provided that pain isn’t present”, or “doing what matters provided that pain has gone”, or “doing what matters provided that it feels good”.

Back to the conversation. The purpose of the conversation is to allow some wiggle room around the “provided that”. Because, in the pursuit of pain reduction life can pass by. Jobs go, relationships fail, kids grow up and leave home, expertise and capability become obsolete, mates develop new pursuits and meanwhile, as people living with persistent pain have said, they’re living in “limbo land”. Reconnecting with values-based activities as one way to feel more whole again often means navigating the meaning of pain fluctuations. It can mean developing ways to allow pain to be present without trying to change the experience, or escape the experience.

Guiding the conversation

I routinely use guided discovery as my main form of therapeutic communication. My approach to The Conversation is to begin by finding out about the person’s theory of their pain – what do they think is going on? What have they been told and what sense have they made of this? What has it been like to have this experience bring attention to daily movements and activities? How are they going about daily life? What’s helped, what hasn’t? What have they given up? What new things have they had to do? What’s that been like?

I usually jot down the good and not so good of all of this – it helps to have a record both for the person and for me. I like to reassure people that they’re doing their very best in what can feel like an unrewarding endeavour. I also explore the impact of treatments on the person. What is it like to take medications, do exercises, have to make time to attend appointments? What is it like to tell one’s story to so many people – who often don’t reciprocate?

Drawing from both my clinical experience and from what I’ve learned about ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), I offer people a chance to reflect on the impact of not only pain, but also the process of getting treatment. On the work that goes into rehabilitation. I ask them what sense they make of life at the moment. What do they take from all of this?

And in that moment I also ask about what’s important in life. What matters. And how well is that person able to do at least something of what matters in their life? And is it possible to move towards doing more of what matters in life even in the presence of pain? And what sense does the person make of all we’ve discussed?

If I’m asked about whether pain will go, I am open about the possibility that it will not completely vanish. This reflects my understanding of neuroscience, the many many studies into all kinds of treatments, and from the words of people in qualitative studies who indicate that this is an important acknowledgement. I’m also not suggesting that anyone stop participating in pain reduction efforts, not at all. It’s not my decision. It’s never our decision – it’s the person with pain who must decide. I will point out, though, that I don’t think living well with pain is often offered to people as a positive option. It’s often delivered as “well if this doesn’t work, you can try doing some pain management”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Not even a neutral suggestion.

The Conversation isn’t about stopping treatment. It’s not about pain reduction vs pain management. It’s not about pain persistence as much as it is about ensuring rehabilitation focuses on what matters to people. For rehabilitation is not about eradicating the disease that caused the problem, it’s about restoring and optimising capabilities, enabling people to participate in their own lives as much as possible. Sometimes, in the pursuit of restoring capabilities, perhaps participating in life is forgotten.

Henwood P, Ellis J, Logan J, Dubouloz C-J, D’Eon J. Acceptance of chronic neuropathic pain in spinal cord injured persons: a qualitative approach. Pain Manag Nurs. 2012;13(4):215–22.

Lennox Thompson B, Gage J, Kirk R. Living well with chronic pain: a classical grounded theory. Disabil Rehabil. 2019:1–12.

Pietilä Holmner E, Stålnacke B-M, Enthoven P, Stenberg G. The acceptance. J Rehabil Med. 2018;50(1):73–9.

Sullivan, Mark, & Ferrell, Betty. (2005). Ethical Challenges in the Management of Chronic Nonmalignant Pain: Negotiating Through the Cloud of Doubt. The Journal of Pain, 6(1), 2-9.

There are two of us in this…


Today’s post is another one where there’s very little to guide my thinking… Have you ever wondered why we read so much research looking at the characteristics of the people who look for help with their pain – yet not nearly as much about us, the people who do the helping?

There are studies about us – thanks Ben – and others! (Darlow, Dowell, Baxter, Mathieson, Perr & Dean, 2013; Farin, Gramm & Schmidt, 2013; Parsons, Harding, Breen, Foster, Pincus, Vogel & Underwood, 2007). We know some things are helpful for people with pain: things like listening capabilities (Matthias, Bair, Nyland, Huffman, Stubbs, Damush & Kroenke, 2010); empathy (Roche & Harmon, 2017); trustworthiness (Sessa & Meconi, 2015); goal setting (Gardner, Refshague, McAuley, Hubscher, Goodall & Smith, 2018).

We also know that clinicians who are themselves fear-avoidant tend to avoid encouraging people to remain active, tend to recommend more time off work and more analgesia (see Farin, Gramm & Schmidt, 2013; but also Bartys, Frederiksen, Bendix & Burton, 2017). We also know there is very little investigation of our behaviours and attitudes (Henry & Matthias, 2018). It’s not a sexy area of study, sadly.

So, today I want to point out that there are two of us in a clinic room: yes, the person with all their concerns, catastrophising, depression, avoidance and psychological inflexibility, but we are also in the room. Just as we know couples will vary their behaviour in response to words and actions (Ballus-Creus, Rangel, Penarroya, Perez & Leff, 2014; Cano, Miller & Loree, 2009), I’m pretty certain that the same things happen between a clinician and a person with pain.

What if our attitudes towards pain made a difference? (we know it does). What if underneath our talk of helping people with pain lies a shadow-land where actually we are afraid of pain and distress, where we sincerely believe that it’s unethical to allow people to feel pain and distress because it makes us uncomfortable? And if we are uneasy with another’s distress, or if we are uneasy with another’s presumed distress (because we would be distressed in their place), what might this mean for our approach to pain rehabilitation?

We all think we’re being person-centred in our treatment, I’m sure. Yet at the same time, I think there’s a risk of failing to look at our own blind spots. One of these is our motivation to help. Why do we work in this space? Is it out of a hero complex? To be “the one” who can find the cause, fix the problem, reduce the pain and have a happy patient? Is it out of a desire to be loved? Or because it’s an endlessly fascinating area with so much new research and so much complexity?

What if we have to have a hard conversation? What if our conversation confronts OUR belief that pain is bad, that all pain can change if we just try hard enough and avoid “nocebic language”? In the face of seeing people who have done all the therapies, been the model patient, worked really hard to get well but still have intense and intrusive pain, could we be Pollyanna and change the world by suggesting that person do it all again? Or try yet another something?

How we handle this situation is not yet clear. We have so little guidance as to how best to help – in the past (from the 1980’s, 1990’s, 2000’s) the way forward was clear: “Hurt does not equal harm, we will help you do more despite your pain because pain may change but in the meantime life is carrying on and you’re missing out.” Then along came Moseley, Butler and Louw and acolytes telling us that just by explaining neurobiology and doing graded motor imagery or mirror therapy or graded desensitisation, pain could (read = would) change and because neuroplasticity, pain would go! In fact, some in this group have made it clear that a CBT approach to pain, where learning to live alongside pain, learning to accept that perhaps not all pain reduces, is “shortchanging” people with pain. Kind of like giving up.

But here’s the thing for me: what if, in the pursuit of pain reduction, people lose their relationships, their jobs and stop doing leisure things? What if the pain doesn’t change? What if the pain only changes a little? When does a person with pain decide when is enough?

You see, it is not sexy to admit that pain may not change despite our best efforts. Most of our treatments research shows a group of people who get some relief, a smaller group who get a lot of relief, a group who actually get worse, and most who make no change at all. I want to know how clinicians who really, truly believe in a treatment for all pain, and that all pain changes, handle the people who don’t respond? Because even with the very best approaches in all the world, there is nothing that provides a 100% positive response to pain (except death, and we don’t know what that feels like).

While we espouse person-centredness and informed consent, I think the option of learning to live well alongside pain is rarely given air time. What might be happening more commonly is a narrative where, to avoid our own distress and the risk of “nocebo” or giving up, clinicians present an ever-optimistic picture of “life without pain” if the person will only try hard enough. Driven in part by clinician’s shadow-land fear of pain (and assumption that it’s horrible, awful and a fate worse than…), and by the desire to be loved, thought of as heroic, perhaps compassionate – and nice and good person, and maybe even driven by fear of how to handle a disappointed, distressed person who may themselves feel let down because we don’t have easy answers to persistent pain.

We can dress this narrative up in many ways. We can call to neuroplasticity always being a thing (but remember that nerves that wire together, fire together … and remain there for all time, able to reactivate any time the alternate paths aren’t used) (Clem, & Schiller, 2016; Hayes & Hofmann, 2018). And of course, humans have the additional capability of language and the myriad neuronal connections that allow us to relate one word to many different experiences, objects, relationships. We can call it being positive, enhancing the placebo, being encouraging. We can say we’re on the patient’s side, we only want the best. We can say we know they can and will make changes if we’re positive enough, if we’re good at our therapy, if we believe….

But, is it ethical to present only half the picture? To talk about pain reduction as if it’s the only goal worth going for? To not discuss the “what if it doesn’t help?” To keep self-management, and acceptance and adjusting to an altered self concept out of our conversations, so that people living with pain may not ever know that it IS a thing and can be a very good thing? How is that providing informed consent?

In case anyone’s worrying, I’m honest about my stance on pain: it’s not that I don’t care (because I really do), but pain is often not the problem. Instead it’s having a good relationship with a partner, having fulfilling work, being able to relax and be grateful for a beautiful day or a soft dog or a child’s laugh. I encourage people to look not at what they can’t do, but what they can. At what we can make of what we have. At what’s important and how we can do more that’s aligned with our values. And of it being OK to feel sad when we can’t do things, and angry, and withdrawn and frustrated – because all of these emotions, like all our experiences, are part of life. What matters is how we handle these things. I hope we can allow them to be present, then let them fade as they do over time, making room for new and different experiences that will also come, and then go.

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