Assessment

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

Why do people with pain report differently on questionnaires than they do in physical performance testing?


One of the topics thrown around by people who don’t have an up-to-date understanding of pain is why people say one thing on a questionnaire, for example, what they can and can’t do, and perform quite differently when asked to do the same task in a clinic. It’s a good question, on the face of it: after all, people should know what they can and can’t do, and be consistent. If there is a difference, well obviously the physical performance test is far more objective than self-report – the therapist is right there watching, so there’s no room for doubt about which measure is The Most Accurate.

The main reason, according to these clinicians, for someone doing differently in the clinic compared with self-reporting, has to be because they’re biased. The person wants to misrepresent what they can and can’t do. Of course.

Superficially, and if you’re not knowledgeable about pain, behaviour, context and human interaction, you could be forgiven for accepting the idea that what you see in clinic is consistent with what’s being done in every day life. The physical movements are pretty much the same and the person is just being asked to do something they do all the time.

BUT – and it’s an enormous exception – humans are not robots. Not body bits that move when they’re pulled like a puppet on a string. People are meaning making, interpreting, social creatures with rapidly responding body systems that represent contexts in relation to memories, predictions and current demands.

I wrote a talk recently on some research that made my heart sing a bit. As an occupational therapist, my profession has long recognised that doing activities (occupations) that hold meaning is quite a different thing from doing a-contextual, meaningless movements. This is why occupational therapists are known to ask about what matters to you, and to use meaningful activities/occupations both as therapy and as outcome (Hitch & Pepin, 2021). The research I referred to was a proposal for an “ecologically grounded functional practice” within rehabilitation (Vaz, Silva, Mancini, Carello & Kinsella-Shaw, 2017). In this paper, the authors point out that “improvements at one level of functioning might not transfer immediately to other levels” and by this they mean that elbow flexion/extension improvements may not transfer into a person being able to feed themselves. They also pointed out that when people perform well-rehearsed activities in the context of goal pursuit – such as getting dressed, ready for work; catching a ball as part of a fast-moving game of netball; hammering a nail – the movements are not just about motor control, they’re about goal-directed behaviour in a context with an interaction between the person, the environment, any tools, the purpose of the activity and so on.

For example, if I want to eat soup, I not only need to have sufficient elbow flexion/extension, I also need to know where the soup bowl is (tried eating soup while lying down?), the texture of the soup (is it thick, thin, lumpy?), the heat of the soup (hot, cold, spicy) and even the social context – I might be OK slurping when I’m on my own, but I’m less inclined to slurp when in polite company. The way in which I carry out the flexion/extension will be very different with each contextual variation.

OK. So context matters, and both the what and why of movement will influence how I go about my performance.
What else?

Well, with a painful condition and especially when I’m not confident I can do it without increasing my pain, I’m much more likely to attempt a difficult movement task in the presence of someone who can monitor what I’m doing. Firstly that person might stop me if they think I’m doing something harmful (professional liability insurance offers some protection!). Secondly, it’s a lot harder to say “no” to someone who is right there in the room! This is called “demand characteristics” and has been associated with problems of the rubber hand illusion (Lush, Vazier & Holcombe, 2020). If someone expects you to do something, you’ll probably do it – because we social creatures don’t like to offend, because the person may inadvertently signal the response they want (see link).

There are other reasons people don’t report the same level of disability on a questionnaire and in physical performance testing: they don’t measure the same things, people forget (especially if they haven’t tried in a while), the day of physical performance testing could be a bad day (or a good day), in physical performance testing the person is usually asked to do it maybe once or twice – in daily life that same activity might be carried out many times across a day, week, month. The environment in a clinical testing environment is typically well-lit, the space around the person is clear, the noise level is usually reasonably low, the floor surface is flat and usually hard lino and free of rugs or pets, there’s minimal distraction, the only thing the person has to think of is this one movement – they’re not picking up the washing off the floor while rushing to put it in the washing machine before dashing out the door to pick the kids up from school.

Even the questions are different – “does pain interfere with…?” is a different question from “can you step up onto this step using a hand rail?”

And don’t let me even start on the meaning of performance either way – for example, if the person is really keen on getting knee surgery, might “good” performance mean they, without even knowing it, alter how they do a movement? What if the person is apprehensive about how the results of this testing might affect their rehabilitation and return to work – again without even knowing it, might this not have some influence on how the person performs?

Testing and measurement is a core skill and research area in psychology. Dang, King & Inzlicht (2020) offer some really good insights into the reasons responses differ between self-report and performance, and to be fair, they don’t even consider the influence of pain and physical capability as I have above. Pain-related performance is a specialty area of its own, nonetheless we can still draw from their paper because many of the problems they recount are absolutely part of pain and disability self-report and physical performance.

They describe the reliability paradox (that reliability = variance between individuals divided by variance between individuals + error variance) – in other words, we need low levels of between-person variability so that any experimental manipulation is maximised. But in real life, we almost always exhibit variability in our performance – so the reliability of two measures limits the correlations that can be observed between then, with lower reliability leading to weaker observed correlations.

The authors also describe the very different response processes involved in self report and performance – as I mentioned above, self-report measures ask people to reflect on what they do in real life in many different contexts that are unstructured. Performance measures take a snapshot based on performance in specific and highly structured situations. Self-report measures capture a person’s perception of their capabilities whereas physical performance reflects the observations of someone else. And performance assessments generally tap into peak performance, not daily performance – tapping into some of the discrepancies we see between “can do” and “will do” (competence-performance discrepancy).

So, when you read arguments on social media from well-known physiotherapists suggesting that the person who reports a difference between what they perceive they can do, and what they have done in a physical performance test is “biased”: know that we have absolutely NO WAY to determine “bias”, “malingering”, “faking bad”, “faking good” – and that there are many well-understood reasons for the difference in performance. Read this paper for more on why we can’t detect “malingering” in people with pain: Tuck, N. L., Johnson, M. H., & Bean, D. J. (2019, Feb). You’d Better Believe It: The Conceptual and Practical Challenges of Assessing Malingering in Patients With Chronic Pain. J Pain, 20(2), 133-145. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2018.07.002

Dang, J., King, K. M., & Inzlicht, M. (2020). Why are self-report and behavioral measures weakly correlated?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 24(4), 267-269.

Hitch, D & Pepin, G. (2021) Doing, being, becoming and belonging at the heart of occupational therapy: An analysis of theoretical ways of knowing, Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy, 28:1, 13-25, DOI: 10.1080/11038128.2020.1726454

Lush, P., Vazire, S., & Holcombe, A. (2020). Demand characteristics confound the rubber hand illusion. Collabra: Psychology, 6(1).

https://methods.sagepub.com/reference/the-sage-encyclopedia-of-communication-research-methods/i4252.xml

Not all pain is the same


When I started working in the field of persistent pain, many of the approaches used were based on the idea that every pain was the same. Oh yes, of course we had neuropathic pain and inflammatory pain, but our treatments tended to approach each person as if they were pretty similar. We later refined that approach and started to look at people in groups. In the service I worked in, we used the Westhaven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory which generates three main psychologically-based profiles – and for a long time this was a very useful way of establishing who needed the three-week residential programme, and who would do well with a briefer outpatient programme.

Well things change over time, and we’ve become more aware of what Clifford Woolf describes as a “mechanism-based” classification approach (Woolf, 2004). In this approach, clinicians try to establish the dominant mechanistic group in which a person’s pain might be classified, then suit the treatment to that mechanism. This means clinicians diagnose inflammatory pain, neuropathic pain, and nociplastic pain – and use what looks like the best combination of medications to suit the mechanisms. For example, for neuropathic pain it’s more likely people will be given gabapentin/pregabalin and a tricyclic antidepressant in combination than an opioid.

There’s a problem, though – in fact, TWO problems I can see.

Methods for identifying pain mechanistic groups

The first problem is that we don’t have wonderful methods for establishing the main mechanistic groups.

In fact, in a recent very large and thorough review of methods used to discriminate between each category, the authors found that “few methods have been validated for discrimination between pain mechanism categories”, and although there was “general convergence” between methods, there was also “some disagreement” (not that this is unfamiliar to anyone who reads research!) Shraim, Masse-Alarie, & Hodges, 2021).

What was interesting, albeit not too unexpected, was the overlap of findings between categories because people present with mixed types of pain; and that many of the studies attempted to only discriminate between two of the groups, rather than more. Having said this, the authors identified five groups of method used to help clinicians and researchers distinguish between pain mechanisms: clinical examination; quantitative sensory testing; imaging; diagnostic and laboratory tests; and questionnaires asking participants to describe their experiences.

Now I know that research studies aim to be a little more rigorous than clinical practice, but that should sound an alarm when we begin looking at what we need to do in clinical practice. “Subjective” pain examination included aggravating and easing factors, pain location and pain characteristics (can anyone tell me when pain is NOT subjective?). It also included psychological factors (although my radar went off at this – more of this later!). Physical examination (is this supposed to be ‘objective’ pain examination?) included general clinical assessment, general neurological testing, nerve provocation testing and neurodynamics, clinical bedside somatosensory function testing, movement and functional testing. Quantitative sensory testing had no greater degree of sensitive, specificity and reliability than physical examination and “subjective” history, and laboratory testing was pretty poor despite superficially looking more “accurate.” A similar state exists for questionnaires – oh lordy!

So these authors found 200 methods that could be used to determine which pain fits into a specific box, but overall the results are pretty underwhelming for clinicians wanting a direction for their approach. It’s not helped that the current “gold standard” used is – wait for it – clinician-based diagnosis.

Where are we left? Well, I think we’re not that far away from where we were in the 1990’s and early 2000s. We really don’t have a clear way to distinguish between the various mechanisms, and many people likely present with pain that includes more than mechanism. However – these authors provide a table summarising the commonly used, and possibly most likely approaches to diagnose pain mechanisms, and this is useful for those of us who want the “best guess” for now.

Problem two

At the beginning of this piece, I said there were two problems with using mechanistic descriptors. You can see the problems with reliability, specificity and so on – and the lack of agreement in the research and likely “mixed” presentations we will see in clinic – from my comments above (do read the whole article, though, it’s well worth it).

The second problem is that these descriptors, even when accurate and reliable, don’t tell us anything about the person experiencing pain. Unless, and until we have effective treatments for each of these mechanisms, we are inevitably running experiments to see what might work for this person in front of us. And this means we find less utility in diagnosis than we would if we drew on a case formulation approach.

What’s the difference? Diagnosis allows us to group “like with like” – on the basis of similar underlying mechanisms. We can then treat those mechanisms, and voila! the person recovers! It works well with fractures, with infectious diseases, and even with diabetes. It doesn’t work as well when we don’t have treatments we can use on the mechanisms. For example, although we can diagnose many neurological disorders, for so many of them we have very poor treatments. This means people live with their disease – and this is where a diagnosis falls down. It does not tell us HOW this person will experience their disease. Diagnosis doesn’t explain illness, disability, functional status, or participation.

And, because all of us are unique, this means that a one-size-fits-all approach to persistent pain (or even an algorithm, subtype, or subgroup) isn’t likely to offer clinicians or the person with pain a useful path towards well-being.

You’ll remember I said my radar went off with the psychological assessments included in the methods used to identify a pain mechanism. My reason is this: pain is a stressor. Even a paper-cut captures my attention (albeit just a little until I use a hand sanitiser!), my heart rate goes up a bit, I’m alerted to the experience and want to get away from it. Now imagine if that pain continued. Maybe variably, maybe constantly, maybe intermittently. And imagine if I couldn’t get a good understanding of what’s going on. And perhaps I was being questioned by my clinicians – and maybe even stigmatised. “What do you mean, you have pain we can’t diagnose, we can’t image, we can’t treat?” I’m guessing by now, perhaps some months after my pain started, I’d be feeling a bit irritated, perhaps a bit low in mood, my sleep might not be great, I might find it hard to do what matters to me because I’m not sure if I’m doing myself some harm.

What we don’t know in many studies of pain “predictors” is whether they are cause or effect. There is undoubtedly an association between various measures of pain-related anxiety, avoidance, low mood, thinking the worst. What we do not know is whether this was present before the pain came on – or whether it came afterwards.

So, to my mind, using psychological factors as part of diagnosis risks labelling people and what are probably normal responses to abnormal experiences. Let’s not do that.

Where am I left after reading this paper? I’m glad someone set about doing this review. I think it offers a good summary of the state of play, and identifies some of the current problems with a mechanistic approach. We need to get consensus on definitions, we need far better methods, we need to stop using the word “subjective pain examination” (because ALL pain is subjective), and we need to leave psychological factors out of diagnosis until we can clearly identify which came first.

Shraim, M. A., Masse-Alarie, H., & Hodges, P. W. (2021, Apr 1). Methods to discriminate between mechanism-based categories of pain experienced in the musculoskeletal system: a systematic review. Pain, 162(4), 1007-1037. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002113

Woolf CJ. Pain: moving from symptom control toward mechanism-specific pharmacologic management. Ann Intern Med 2004;140:441–51.

Modifying pain behaviour (2)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking beyond the immediate


When I graduated as an occupational therapist, I was told that my profession was “problem-solving” and “motivation”. At the time (early 1980’s) Lela Llorens‘ problem solving process was the fundamental approach taught during our training. This approach is straightforward: identify the problem, identify solutions, select a solution, implement the solution, and review. I’m not sure if this approach is still taught but it’s stayed with me (and those memories of painstakingly completing the problem solving process documentation…).

There’s one small step that I think is either not fully articulated, or maybe gets lost in the iterative process of identifying solutions, implementing them and reviewing: and that’s the process of identifying contributors to the problem. Let me take you through a case study as an example.

Luke is in his mid-20’s with widespread pain. He’s off work, and his diagnosis is “fibromyalgia”. It started when he hurt his back working on cars (he’s a true petrol-head!) about a year ago, and now his pain dominates his life as he finds his pain has permeated his body. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him, and thinks that his pain is because someone didn’t “fix” him when he first hurt his back.

The main thing he wants to be able to do is get back to driving and working on cars. It’s all he’s ever wanted to do, apart from play computer games, and he’s most happy at the moment when he’s watching motor racing on the net, preferably with a can of some high-sugar, high caffeine drink and a bit of weed. He otherwise doesn’t smoke tobacco, drinks on occasion, but he’s isolated and feels at a loose end.

The referral to an occupational therapist read “Luke wants to get back driving, will you assess, and provide appropriate intervention?” Implied, but not explicitly stated in the referral is that if Luke can return to driving, it will help him in his job search. Luke isn’t terribly interested in returning to work right now, because his focus is on what’s wrong with him and driving for fun.

The occupational therapist saw Luke, and assessed his ability to sit in the car, reverse the car, and drive over normal highway conditions. She thought he needed a seat insert so he was more ergonomically positioned, and she also thought that he could do with a better chair in the lounge because he usually sat slouched on the sofa playing his video games.

So she found him a suitable cushion and ergonomic backrest for his car, and he was also provided with chair raisers to lift his sofa up, and some cushions behind him so he was in a more upright position.

Luke was happy with the changes, though secretly a bit worried that his mates would think he was soft if he had a special seat cushion, and that old people used chair raisers, so he wasn’t at all keen on them in his lounge. But he took them anyway.

Job done.

Oh really? Yes, the occupational therapist addressed his seating and yes, he can now drive a bit more comfortably and even play his video games and watch TV, but did she really identify the problems?

You see, she identified the problem as “Luke can’t drive the car”, and she even dug a little deeper and identified that “Luke can’t drive the car or play his video games because he’s in pain.”

And that much is true – he was sore, told her he was sore, and pointed out that the position he used in the car and on the sofa was the same.

The problem is that – that wasn’t the problem.

There were a few more questions the therapist could have asked if her focus went beyond the immediate “problem” and she unpacked the next question which might have been “why is pain such a problem for Luke, and why is it getting in the way of Luke’s driving?” She might have added another question too – “why is Luke presenting in this way at this time, and what is maintaining his situation?”

Luke is a fictitious character, but “Luke’s” are everywhere. People who present with problems of occupational performance, but the problems contributing to those problems are the real issue. And yet, I’ve seen so many occupational therapy reports recommending “solutions” for similar problems that solve very little and probably compound the problem.

Where did our fictitious occupational therapist go wrong? Well, included in the problem solving process (and the variants developed since then) is a section called “assessment”. What exactly should be assessed in this part? Of course the assessment components will differ depending on the model of “what’s going on” held by the occupational therapist. When a simplistic biomechanical model of pain is being used, all the understanding of Luke’s values and beliefs, all the importance he places on being able to drive, the environment (his car seating, his sofa) – so much of what’s commonly included in an occupational therapy assessment might have very little to do with the problems Luke is having in daily occupation.

Leaping in to solve the problem of being able to drive focuses our minds on that as the key problem – but what if we looked at it as a symptom, or an expression of, other problems? This means, as occupational therapists, we might need to do a couple of things: firstly, we might need to assess more widely than “driving” or even “sitting” as the occupational performance problem. While referrers use this kind of approach to ask us to help, it doesn’t do much for our professional clinical reasoning. It tends to anchor us on “The Problem” as defined by someone else.

Even being person-centred, and asking Luke what he needs and wants to do may mislead us if we forget to look at the wider impact of pain on daily doing. If, as occupational therapists, we’re ignorant of the bigger picture of what’s going on when someone is disabled and distressed by their pain. If we forget that there are underlying processes we are well-equipped to deal with. If we forget the wider body of research into pain as an experience.

Perhaps occupational therapists could take some time to think about our contribution to the pain management team. I’ve been banging on about our knowledge translation skills, our awareness of context and how much daily life context differs from a gym or a clinic or an office. I’m not seeing that knowledge being demonstrated by occupational therapists in practice. What I’m seeing are stop-gap solutions that skim the surface of how pain impacts a person’s daily doing.

If occupational therapists recognised what our profession can offer a team, we might look at how someone like Luke could benefit from our in-depth assessment of what he thinks is going on, of how he communicates when he’s seeing other health professionals, of how he’s coping with his pain and how these strategies are taking him away from what matters in his life. We’d look at not just his occupational performance, but also those pain-specific factors well-established in research: his beliefs, his attitudes, his emotional responses, his social context, his habits and routines, his way of processing what he learns from others. We’d begin to look at him as a whole person. We might even look at how he’s integrating into his daily life all the things other clinicians in the team are offering.

Occupational therapy is a profession with so much to offer AND we need to develop our confidence and knowledge about what we do and about pain. We need to step outside of the narrow focus on “finding solutions and implementing them” and extend our assessments to identify the problems contributing to occupational performance difficulties.

Secondary gain: really?


One of my most popular posts ever is one I wrote many years ago on malingering. Secondary gain, like malingering or symptom magnification is one of those terms used by people who don’t live with persistent pain, and commonly used when a person with pain doesn’t seem to be progressing “as expected”. The term is an old one, originating in the psychoanalytic literature, brought into compensation and insurance environments but never really examined (Fishbain, Rosomoff, Cutler & Rosomoff, 1995) until well after it had become a popular label.

Freud first identified the potential for gains from being unwell – primary gains referred to the direct gains obtained from developing a psychiatric illness in the face of unresolved psychic conflict while secondary gains were considered to be “an interpersonal or social advantage attained by the patient as a consequence of his/her illness”.

The sick role, or illness behaviour, is a sociological phenomenon (Bradby, 2009). As a society we permit people who are unwell to take time off responsibilities of paid employment, caring for others, socialising and doing the everyday life activities that people do. We also, in some cases, pay people to stay away from work, both to undertake recovery and to protect others from the illness in the form of sick leave entitlements and compensation. To ensure “fairness” or a sort of moral agreement between the ill person and society, humans have used healers, shaman or religious authorities to ensure the person has an authentic problem: ie, that they are morally fit to receive our help.

To most of us, particularly people in Australia and New Zealand, UK, Canada with largely socialised healthcare systems, the idea of sharing the burden of ill health through socially sanctioned support seems natural. We allow people a period of time to get well and then, when recovered, the person can return to normal activities. If the person sustains some nasty event, like spinal cord injury or brain injury, leaving him or her with ongoing ill health, we support ongoing payments (some more than others, depending on the funding bucket used). It’s easy to justify this when the person’s problems are visible – but for people with less visible, or truly invisible disabilities, our moral compass starts going awry.

For example, we have Mobility Parking: but woe betide the person with an invisible disability such as irritable bowel disorder, or panic disorder, using the park even when displaying the appropriate sticker! Tut! tut! tut! It is even more difficult with an invisible problem such as persistent pain, and even more so when the person’s problem hangs around. Secondary gain is the word whispered in the wind as people judge whether this person really has a problem – or is it “secondary gain”?

Let’s unpack the notion of secondary gain. From a behavioural perspective, behaviour is repeated if (1) something introduced afterwards increases the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated, eg a tearful child is cuddled after tripping, meaning the next time the child trips, he will look for someone to cuddle him; (2) something unpleasant is removed as a result of the initial behaviour, eg the pain of a grazed knee reduces with some topical analgesia. In these situations, the child is not usually aware that the contingency offered changes what they do – they just do what makes sense.

It’s when we start looking at people who don’t fit the typical response curve after an injury, that commentators begin flinging the term “secondary gain” around as if the person deliberately chooses to remain ill. Of course, insurers who fund compensation received by the person have a vested interest in reducing their payments and, given persistent pain can’t be objectively measured either directly or indirectly (Tuck, Johnson & Bean, 2019), will question the motives of a person who doesn’t recover. And therein lies our problem.

In our societies, medical practitioners are pseudo priests in many ways. The word of a doctor holds a great deal of weight: medical certificates, death certificates, oh and judgements about diagnosis and recovery. When it comes to insurers, the opinion of a doctor is used to verify that a person really has the problem they say they have, and can then continue receiving payment. The problem with pain is, yet again, having no direct objective measure of pain. The doctor is assumed to have special powers to detect whether a person really has pain – and yet there is considerable evidence that many medical practitioners have very little training in pain and even less in persistent pain in their training (Shipton, Bate, Garrick, Steketee, Shipton & Visser, 2018).

How is the term “secondary gain” experienced by the person living with persistent pain? Lang, Igler, Defenderfer, Uihlein, Brimeye & Davies (2018) undertook an intriguing study of how the various ways pain in adolescents can be “dismissed” by clinicians. They report that 40% of adolescents indicate their pain was dismissed by others, with almost 30% of those individuals stating this was done by a physician (p. 664). It’s probably not surprising that this kind of dismissal happens more often to female adolescents! Their study established that no, the sense of being dismissed wasn’t an indication of adolescents being “too sensitive”, but rather, that being dismissed by either misbelief (you don’t really have this pain); minimising (you have pain but it’s not as bad as you think it is); secondary gain (you’re using this as a way to avoid something like school); and psychogenic (it’s your emotional state that’s the real problem and cause) – are all likely to lead adolescents to look for another opinion, and to feel stigmatised.

So – is secondary gain a real thing? I like to look at it through a different lens. Taking the moral judgement tone out of the equation (that belief that only people who truly ‘deserve’ help should get it), I like to look at the problem of delayed recovery through a lens of problem solving.

Yes, there can be some gains from being unwell – who doesn’t like a bit of fussing or to be excused from doing something you don’t enjoy. The question is whether these gains come at the expense of other things – and there’s pretty compelling evidence that the losses outweigh any possible gains (Worzer, Kishino & Gatchel, 2009). At the same time, telling someone “you’re just doing this because you don’t want to get better” or words to that effect is not likely to help them have any desire to change what they’re doing – it seems to shift the person towards resisting any change in how they’re coping. It’s counter-productive.

Let’s look at a few losses:

  • employment (and people DO value working for reasons other than money! – think self concept, identity, social interaction, daily routine…)
  • relationship loss (partners, family roles, friendships – some of the most profound stories I hear come from men saying they no longer have mates they spend time with)
  • emotional impact (depression, anxiety, anger, demoralisation, shame, guilt)
  • financial loss (with loss of employment and increased healthcare costs) (Worzer, Kishino & Gatchel, 2009)

What traps someone into these losses? What might maintain someone’s helplessness and demoralisation? Pain, of course, but so too does shame; stigma from time away from work (employers want to know if you have a “bad back” – then run a mile); lack of confidence about capabilities (am I reliable? can I be counted on?); disability (there are some things I cannot do); limited communication (how do I ask for help?) and a myriad of other things. For the avoidance of doubt, people do not magically “get better” once they obtain their insurance payout (Fishbain, Rosomoff, Goldberg, Cutler, Abdel-Moty, Khalil, et al, 1993).

What can we do?

  1. First do no harm, that means avoiding moral judgements about motives for ongoing disability. It doesn’t help and does harm.
  2. Second, begin working on the actual problems the person is experiencing – things like building consistency in activity levels; improving communication skills; increasing confidence.
  3. Third, start addressing the social stigma associated with persistent pain. This means taking a long, hard look at ourselves as clinicians, and at our workplaces and social scenes, and insurers or funders.

Why do we run from the conversation that yes, pain does persist for a good number of people? Why don’t we acknowledge that even the best treatment in the world may not reduce pain – and that this is not the person’s fault for not trying?

This doesn’t mean researchers and clinicians should stop searching for pain reduction approaches – it does mean giving those who are not helped the chance to view living well with pain as a viable option.

Bradby, H. (2009). Defining health, defining disease. In Medical sociology: An introduction (pp. 51-64). London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781446211724.n4

Fishbain, D. A., Rosomoff, H. L., Cutler, R. B., & Rosomoff, R. S. (1995). Secondary gain concept: a review of the scientific evidence. The Clinical journal of pain.

Fishbain, D. A., Rosomoff, H. L., Goldberg, M., Cutler, R., Abdel-
Moty, E., Khalil, T. M., et al. (1993). The prediction of return to
the workplace after multidisciplinary pain center treatment.
Clinical Journal of Pain, 9, 3–15.

Shipton, Elspeth E, Bate, Frank, Garrick, Raymond, Steketee, Carole, Shipton, Edward A, & Visser, Eric J. (2018). Systematic review of pain medicine content, teaching, and assessment in medical school curricula internationally. Pain and therapy, 1-23.

Tuck, Natalie L., Johnson, Malcolm H., & Bean, Debbie J. (2019). You’d Better Believe It: The Conceptual and Practical Challenges of Assessing Malingering in Patients With Chronic Pain. Journal of Pain, 20(2), 133-145. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2018.07.002

Worzer, W. E., Kishino, N. D., & Gatchel, R. J. (2009). Primary, secondary, and tertiary losses in chronic pain patients. Psychological Injury and Law, 2(3-4), 215-224.

On labels and boundaries


What we call a disease matters. It matters to the person because a diagnosis is a marker: this problem is known, it’s recognised, it’s real (Mengshoel, Sim, Ahlsen & Madden, 2017). It matters to the clinician, particularly medical practitioners, but also those clinicians working within a largely “disease-oriented” framework (for example, physiotherapists, osteopaths) (Haskins, Osmotherly, Rivett, 2015; Kennedy, 2017). It matters also to insurance companies, or funding providers – who is in, and who is out.

The diagnostic label itself hides a great many assumptions. The ways in which diagnostic labels are grouped reflects assumptions about underlying similarities (and distinctions) between groups of symptoms. Added to this complex situation is uncertainty in how the person presents: are they a “typical” presentation? Who decides what is ‘typical’? Think of the classic signs of chest pain signifying myocardial infarct – but this applies to males, and less so to females. Women are less likely to be resuscitated after chest pain, and also less likely to be transported to the Emergency Department using lights and sirens (Lewis, Zeger, Li, Mann, Newgard, Haynes et al, 2019).

It is the physician’s quest for certainty and the patient’s illusion of certainty, however, that leads to many of the current decision-making techniques in the practice of medicine. Evidenced-based medicine seeks to provide information to physicians and patients to allow for more informed recommendations, and yet our current evidence base is imperfect owing to unreliable clinical data, incomplete taxonomy of disease, and a weaker focus on clinical reasoning.

Correia, Tiago. (2017). Revisiting Medicalization: A Critique of the Assumptions of What Counts As Medical Knowledge. Frontiers in Sociology, 2. doi: 10.3389/fsoc.2017.00014

With any luck, clinicians working in persistent pain management will have moved beyond a simple medical diagnosis when working with someone. While a diagnosis is crucial for acute management, once the pain has been hanging around for a while the illness-based aspects of dealing with pain become more important.

What do I mean by this? Illness is about the personal experience of living with a disease. If we think of disease as being about biological aspects, illness is about the “what it is like to live with” the disease. Talcott Parsons, a sociologist at Harvard University wrote that illness could be considered “deviant” behaviour: “…behaviour which is defined in sociological terms as failing in some way to fulfill the institutionally defined expectations of one or more of the roles in which the individual is implicated in the society.”(Parsons, 1951). While Parson’s language and some of his concepts represent the outdated views of society at the time, the notion of illness being “what it is like to” live with a disease is an important distinction for us as clinicians.

For clinicians working in pain management/rehabilitation, particularly with people who have been living with pain for months or years, understanding that on top of the biomedical label, each person also has months or years of the stress of dealing with that problem. For any of us, experiencing pain even for a short time can be puzzling, represents changes in how we view our bodies, often elicits irritation or anger, sometimes sadness and typically, actions to avoid or control the problem.

Now here’s the point of my writing this blog today. If any of us face an unnamed challenge, or if our situation doesn’t change despite “following all the rules” (thinking Covid-19 maybe?), whatever typical stress response we get is likely to be elicited. If we’re inclined to worry, we’ll probably worry. If we’re inclined to withdraw from being with others, we’ll probably do that. If we tend to have trouble sleeping, we might do that. If we get irritated and tetchy when we’re stress, well we’re probably going to do that too. This is normal.

Now if someone saw you and me today, and went through a structured clinical interview for diagnosis, I’m sure I’d at least begin to show signs of anxiety or depression. Two weeks of saturation coverage of Covid-19 will do that to you, and add the challenges of being penned up in my home without any shops open, and I’m probably going to be not my usual self.

Let’s think about the person we see who has been living with persistent pain for a few years. This person is enduring pain every single day. Has possibly looked everywhere for something to help – usually we’d think of this person as pretty motivated, but for some clinicians this begins to look like “doctor shopping”. The person might have fallen out with one or two previous clinicians who persisted in treating the problem the same way they’d treat an acute pain problem. This begins to look like “difficult patient” territory. Add to this some mood problems, lots of anxiety about everything else in life – and lo! we have a person ripe for a psychiatric diagnosis. Or at the least, “yellow flags” (risk factors for prolonged disability).

Now, the whole idea of risk factors for ongoing disability was intended to help us as clinicians pay attention to doing some different for people with those risk factors in their lives. That’s right: for clinicians to take on the responsibility for either assessing in more detail, reviewing more frequently, integrating active coping strategies into treatment, and perhaps referring for specialised care if that was warranted.

Yellow flags are not some kind of warning for clinicians to negatively label, perhaps even diagnose, a person as being “difficult”. Yellow flags should elicit from clinicians (us) an awareness that this person is vulnerable. That’s right, vulnerable – and needing more care.

I’ve heard talk over the years of clinicians stepping out of their scope of practice when looking at psychosocial risk factors. I’ve always thought that it’s a good thing to be aware of risk factors so that something can be done about them, because this person is a greater risk of poor outcomes. The problem arises when someone, without appropriate training, gives a person a psychiatric label. There are a few labels that spring to mind: personality disordered, especially borderline personality disordered; attachment disordered; somatic disorder…

The problem with labels is that they don’t get erased when the clinician who gave them that diagnosis discharges them. Those labels live forever on clinical files, insurance files, claims files, medical and hospital notes. Those labels can, and often do, invoke highly discriminatory behaviour. One person sent to Emergency Department with chest pain was told they should come back when they have a real problem (duh, chest pain = real problem) because, sitting at the top of the list of diagnoses was “somatic disorder”.

Clinicians – do not use labels without thought. Don’t use labels that sound technical (thinking ‘catastrophising’), don’t make a diagnosis that is outside of your scope, don’t over-interpret a questionnaire score, don’t judge people because today they’re distressed and cranky, or worried and tearful. For goodness’ sake: stick to your clinical boundaries!

Haskins, R., Osmotherly, P. G., & Rivett, D. A. (2015). Diagnostic clinical prediction rules for specific subtypes of low back pain: a systematic review. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 45(2), 61-76, A61-64.

Kennedy, Ashley Graham. (2017). Managing uncertainty in diagnostic practice. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 23(5), 959-963.

Lewis, J. F., Zeger, S. L., Li, X., Mann, N. C., Newgard, C. D., Haynes, S., . . . McCarthy, M. L. (2019). Gender Differences in the Quality of EMS Care Nationwide for Chest Pain and Out-of-Hospital Cardiac Arrest. Womens Health Issues, 29(2), 116-124. doi: 10.1016/j.whi.2018.10.007

Mengshoel, Anne Marit, Sim, Julius, Ahlsen, Birgitte, & Madden, Sue. (2017). Diagnostic experience of patients with fibromyalgia – A meta-ethnography. Chronic Illness, 14(3), 194-211. doi: 10.1177/1742395317718035

Parsons, Talcott. (1951). Illness and the role of the physician: a sociological perspective. American Journal of orthopsychiatry, 21(3), 452.

“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

Clinical reasoning models: what’s wrong with them?


I’ve been interested in clinical reasoning and models used in clinical reasoning for quite some time. Occupational therapy has several models, including the “occupational therapy problem solving process” by Lela Llorens, the Model of Human Occupation by Gary Kielhofner, and the Canadian Model of Occupational Performance by Polatajko, Townsend and Craik in 2007. All of these models were designed to support occupational therapy clinical reasoning processes, and to capture the essence of what occupational therapy is about.

When it comes to pain rehabilitation, I’ve found the occupational therapy models a little lacking in specificity for my clinical reasoning. I’ve also noticed similar problems with proposed clinical reasoning models for physiotherapy when considering pain.

Here’s the thing: if pain involves so many factors (call them biopsychosocial for want of a better all-encompassing term), and we don’t know which factors are relevant for this person at this time, clinical reasoning in pain rehabilitation is complex. Why? Well the problem with pain is that it’s full of ambiguity. Not so much for the person experiencing them, but certainly for the clinician trying to help.

Bear with me a minute. To me, clinical reasoning models help shape the factors we include and those we omit.

In writing that sentence I realise I’m assuming something crucial: that models are designed to help us predict and control what’s going on. Is that the purpose of a model? I quickly did a search and found this definition: “In science, a model is a representation of an idea, an object or even a process or a system that is used to describe and explain phenomena that cannot be experienced directly. Models are central to what scientists do, both in their research as well as when communicating their explanations… Models are a mentally visual way of linking theory with experiment, and they guide research by being simplified representations of an imagined reality that enable predictions to be developed and tested by experiment.” It’s from here.

OK, so in clinical reasoning what utility does a model need? I think a model needs to generate hypotheses that explain the unique presentation of this person, their problems, at this time. A nomothetic representation of what might be going on for this unique person.

Occupational therapists and physiotherapists, and probably psychologists, are all concerned less about impairment (that’s damage or dysfunction at the body structure level) than we are about the impact this has on functional limitations and on participation. This doesn’t mean we’re not interested in impairment, but our focus is much more likely to be on “and what impact does that have on what you need and want to do”. Occupational therapists, in particular, are concerned about “and how does this affect the way you participate in our world”.

But if we look at clinical reasoning models in our various professions I think there are some gaps. I don’t think our models invite us to generate hypotheses because the various clusters of information don’t seem to link together in a terribly coherent way. Yet – with all the information around us, there are some causal (or bidirectional) relationships we can consider.

For example, we know that if someone is very fearful of their pain, they’re likely to describe elevated physiological arousal, and they’re not as inclined to engage in movements they believe will exacerbate their pain.

A line of reasoning goes from Fear -> Physiological arousal and Fear -> Avoidance.

This simple set of hypotheses generates some ideas about what might help. Firstly we’d test the presence of fear – is it just happening in this moment, or is it something that’s been present consistently? Mostly we ask the person, but we could use a questionnaire measure of fear of pain. We could also test for physiological arousal – is this present? How do we know? We could use various biofeedback devices, or we could simply ask (or use a questionnaire). And of course we can test for fear-avoidance as a combined construct via questionnaire and/or behavioural testing.

This set of steps really just determines whether our hypotheses are present, so now we need to generate some treatments. In this case, we also draw on research and think about providing information – this, we hypothesise, should reduce reported fear. So we embark on some explanations about what’s going on – and we should see a reduction of fear on a measure of pain-related fear. But perhaps not on avoidance because we know that behaviour change requires more than simply information. We might also help the person down-regulate their excitable nervous system, reducing that “fear -> arousal” relationship. And finally we might begin doing some exposure work which acts on reducing fear in the presence of doing something scary (movements) and so reduce the relationship between fear -> avoidance.

What the example above shows us is what might happen once we’ve identified some potential phenomena that may be present. What it doesn’t show, and something I struggle to find in many clinical reasoning models, is how clinicians identify those phenomena. Why would someone think to ask about fear of pain? Especially if we believe that our job is to help reduce pain and pain’s the only reason the person isn’t doing things. And even more – if we think our job is to deal with “physical” and fail to recognise the relationship between “physical” and “feelings, beliefs”.

You see, I think broad “groups of factors to consider” belongs in the assessment, but we need something more tangible when formulating an individualised explanation. We need to be generating hypotheses about how these various factors interact and lead to a presentation – and while much of this will be conjecture initially, by generating various hypotheses we can then go on to test them – and ultimately establish the priorities for treatment in collaboration with the person. That’s much easier to do when we’ve fleshed out why the person isn’t able to do what’s important to them, and we’ve synthesised all the known factors in some explanatory model.

Is this complex? Yes – but who said it had to be easy? This is why we do the work we do, because it’s complex and “common sense” doesn’t cut it. And if our various professions really want to adopt a sociopsychobiological framework for pain, maybe our clinical reasoning models need to synthesise all these factors in some coherent way rather than simply plonking the groups of factors down without integrating what’s known about the relationships between variables from different domains.

Wacker, J. G. (1998). A definition of theory: research guidelines for different theory-building research methods in operations management. Journal of Operations Management, 16(4), 361-385.

Yazdani, S., Hosseinzadeh, M., & Hosseini, F. (2017). Models of clinical reasoning with a focus on general practice: A critical review. Journal of advances in medical education & professionalism, 5(4), 177-184.

The “onion ring” model of pain


Clinicians constantly search for a better way to describe the tangled mess that constitutes ways to explore pain. Today I’m hoping to add another way, but hopefully one that might help disentangle certain aspects of pain for ease of learning. And as usual, it’s largely not my own model, but one first developed by Professor John Loeser, eminent neurologist and neurosurgeon and Director of the Multidisciplinary Pain Center from 1982-1997 at the University of Washington.

There are many different versions of the ‘Onion ring’ model – Gordon Waddell, orthopaedic surgeon and contemporary of Loeser also developed one, and more recently we’ve seen a version from Lorimer Moseley and colleagues in NOI publications. I’m going back to Loeser’s one because I think it’s useful – and in the case of conceptual models like this utility is the measure by which we decide to adopt a model or not. You be the judge. This is my public announcement that this is not intended to be a scientific model for generating and testing hypotheses: it’s meant to be an explanatory metaphor, if you like.

OK, so what is this model?

Like any onion, the model has inner to outer layers, but unlike an onion, these layers are permeable, and slightly fuzzy. They interact with one another, and the resultant whole is intended to reflect the experience of pain, along with the aspects that you and I might see – and includes various factors thought to influence the experience. It’s incomplete because much of what is known about pain is incomplete. It can’t explain everything, because no metaphor can – but it does provide some hooks for our minds to grab onto when we’re accessing new information and we want to establish relevance and recognition.

Loeser’s Onion Ring Model (1983)

The purple ring in the centre is all about neurobiology for me. Loeser’s original model labeled this “nociception”, but since 1983 we’ve learned a great deal more about the neurobiology of pain and we know that pain in the absence of nociception is probably a product of something gone awry in the way our nociceptive system is interpreting information. It could be neuropathic pain (where there is an identifiable lesion of the somatosensory system), or it might be nociplastic pain ( “pain that arises from altered nociception despite no clear evidence of actual or threatened tissue damage causing the activation of peripheral nociceptors or evidence for disease or lesion of the somatosensory system causing the pain.” – click). At this level of the model this is not pain. This inner ring refers only to biological processes prior to conscious awareness.

The next ring (dark blue) refers to the conscious experience we have of pain. This is the part we personally experience – it’s subjective, unpleasant, sensory and emotional, and we learn to associate this experience with potential or actual tissue damage, or we describe it in similar ways. In many respects this is the quale – the quality of what-it-is-like to experience pain – although others would argue it is an aporia (In philosophy, Aporia means literally ‘impasse, difficulty in passage, lack of resources, puzzlement’). However we like to define it, this part of Loeser’s model refers to the experience once our brain/mind has deemed it relevant to our predicament.

But, as the saying goes, wait! There’s more!

Because this dark blue ring is experiential, we can’t share it, or even know about another’s experience unless we do something about it, and before we do something about it, we appraise or judge it. With some provisos (told you this was a metaphor not a testable model!).

Drawing from cognitive models, Loeser then wraps another ring around the experience “pain” – this is what he described as suffering, but I prefer to describe as “judgement” or “appraisal”. Suffering is a judgement that this experience is threatening our essential self, our future (Cassel, 1999). So while there are certain behaviours that occur prior to awareness or judgement (see this) as soon as we are consciously aware of pain we’re judging that experience. And probably, because brains don’t just sit there waiting for information to come towards it, there is a good deal of permeability between the neurobiology ring, the pain-experience ring, and this ring. But for simplicity’s sake, let’s take it that when we experience “ouch” we typically check it out and interpret the meaning of that ouch in context of where we are, what we’re currently doing, who we’re with, and our past experiences. This interpretation or judgement phase can augment the meaning of pain to increase its threat value, or vice versa (OMG that was a snake bite! or Oh that was a bruise I didn’t need).

Wrapping around that “judgement” ring is a further ring – and this is possibly the one we most need to come to grips with. This ring is the behavioural response to our appraised experience. Pain behaviour or what we do when we recognise and judge our experience of pain is complex. It’s complex because all human behaviour is complex. It’s also complicated because we naively judge one another on the basis of what we see – and our own assumptions about what that behaviour might mean.

Behaviours include nocifensive responses, but don’t stop there. As we develop and mature from babyhood to adulthood, we embroider and alter our behavioural response to pain, just as we do with our appraisals. As babies we’re likely to scream our lungs out at the heel prick test at birth. I hope we don’t do that when we get a flu jab (and I truly hope you DO get a flu jab, and if you’re in Christchurch New Zealand that you get a measles immunisation pronto). We learn what to do from watching others (social learning), from others responses to us (operant conditioning), and from events that occur at the same time as our pain occurs (classical conditioning). Social learning is powerful – within different cultural groups, peer groups and family groups, we learn what is normal and OK to do when we’re sore. We also get rewarded (or not) for the way we behave. Little kids get told “stop that crying, it’s nothing” when they stub a toe, or they might get cuddled instead. Footballers get extra time if they roll around on the ground with an injury during a match; rugby players get adulation when they carry on playing despite a rib fracture or two. And for some people, associating a movement with pain can lead to longstanding limitations and avoiding that same movement in case it brings the pain on.

Pain behaviours include language and even that old “pain rating scale”. We use language and nonverbal behaviour to communicate. So when someone says “my pain is 12/10” what they’re really saying is “this is more than I can bear, help me”. We do not have a pure measure of how intense a pain is – and any measure of intensity is likely filtered through a process of judgement “what does this mean for me?” and communication “what will happen if I say X number?” So stop judging someone if they say their pain is 12/10 – it means they’re freaking out, and need comfort.

If you’re smart you’ll notice that I’ve sneakily been discussing the final onion ring, and to be fair, Loeser didn’t include this in his version – it’s one that Waddell, Main, and others have added and I think it’s integral to understanding what’s going on so I’ve added it too. The outer ring refers to the social context because this influences what people do (pain behaviours) as I’ve just outlined. It also includes social factors such as the workplace and compensation, legislation covering what is and isn’t covered in insurance plans, our community attitudes towards people who are experiencing pain, stigma and social isolation and sense of online community and such.

Loeser’s onion ring provides me with some nice ways to separate parts of my understanding of pain so I can explain how and why we need to examine them and influence them separately. Health professionals are always and inevitably influencing the judgement, behaviour, and social aspects of pain. Sometimes we get to influence the neurobiology and through interactions between all these layers, sometimes the experience of pain is reduced. Other times it is not. At the same time, if we can begin to shift the judgements and what we do about pain and yes, the social contexts in which experiencing weird unexplained pain is viewed as a moral failing or attempt to “get secondary gain”, maybe then we can help people live better lives despite their pain.

Cassell, E. J. (1999). Diagnosing Suffering: A Perspective. Annals of Internal Medicine, 131(7), 531-534. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-131-7-199910050-00009

Loeser JD, Ford WE. Chronic Pain. In: Carr JE, Dengerink HA, (eds). Behavioral Science in the Practice of Medicine. New York: Elsevier Biomedical:1983:331-345