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


Ways to avoid “othering”

After my last post on “othering” I thought I should write something about what we know reduces the distancing that othering produces. To refresh your memory, othering is what happens when we identify positive characteristics about ourselves and simultaneously identify the absence of these positives in another person. Othering is a common part of any interaction but it seems to become less helpful as views become more polarised.

Lehti, Fjellman-Wiklund, Stalnacke and colleagues (2016) describe “walking down ‘Via Dolorosa'” as the “way of pain and suffering… from primary healthcare to [a] specialty rehabilitation clinic.” This depiction also captured the way gender and sociocultural context influenced that journey: chronic pain is a ‘low status’ illness (especially compared with high status diseases like cancer, heart disease, orthopaedic problems), while those patients with higher education and similarities to treating clinicians were viewed as “easier to interact with”. This study provides an insight into the norms expected as part of “being a proper patient – ready for change”.

Norms are a part of culture, assumptions about what “is done” in a particular context. Just as health professionals learn to “be professionals”, people seeking help for their health are also expected to behave in certain ways. Othering is, as I’ve indicated above, a normal or common part of interactions – some authors suggest we need an “other” in order to for our self to “know itself and define its boundaries” (Krumer-Nevo, 2012). At the same time, once the “other” is identified in less positive terms than “self”, it’s far easier to distance oneself from the other person.

One step towards reducing the distancing between “us” as health professionals and “them” seeking help is to create moments of “belongingness”. What this means is using overt means to help people feel welcome. In New Zealand, this may mean ensuring signs are written in both Maori and English. For people with pain, it may mean explicitly indicating to people with pain that it’s OK to stand up and move around during an initial assessment.

Another way is to raise the idea of the person living with pain as an expert. “Expert?” I hear you say…Yes, expert in “what it is like to be this person living with this pain in this context”. For us to demonstrate our understanding that the person living with pain is the expert on his or her experience, we need to provide safe and welcoming opportunities for the person to tell us what it is like. Narrative medicine, if you like.

Tonini and Chesi (2018) used Charon and Remen’s definition of narrative medicine “a way of dealing with the disease through narration, aimed at understanding the complexity of the patient that will no longer be seen as a set of objective data but as a unique individual with needs” in a study of the stories given by people living with migraine. The stories were of people with a chaotic narrative where migraine was a mystery, full of disorientation and few solutions, moving through to restitution where knowledge and efffective treatment allowed the person to progress. Other narratives were “stable” leading to improvement in understanding and management, and regression, where people gave up and remained disoriented.

How might this help us reduce our sense of “othering”? In one way, learning to hear what people have to say should be fairly simple for health professionals. We’re trained to listen carefully. But what we’re often focusing on is some sort of diagnosis: “what is going on here, what’s going wrong, what’s the pathology?” Hearing another’s narrative is a different process: this involves empathising with, understanding the journey from feeling unwell to seeking help, beginning to acknowledge the similarities between this person and ourselves. How might we respond to illness if we were faced with the same circumstances? the same prior history? the same choices?

Lajos Brons, philosopher (Brons, 2015), argues that charity, or the “reasonableness argument” could help us to deal with othering. Reasonableness is an assumption that the other person has rational, coherent, and true reasons for doing and saying what they do – even if, at first, we may not discern the underlying reasons. By invoking a charitable interpretation on another’s actions, we are in turn asked to question our own preconceptions, our assumptions about the reasons the person did what they did.

Imagine that kind of humanity being brought into our judgements of people who are apparently “lacking motivation”, or “seeking secondary gain”, or “noncompliant”?

Brons, Lajos. (2015). Othering: An analysis. Transcience, 6(1), p. 69 – 90

Krumer-Nevo, M. (2012). Researching against othering. Qualitative inquiry and the politics of advocacy, 7.

Lehti, A., Fjellman-Wiklund, A., Stalnacke, B.-M., Hammarstrom, A., & Wiklund, M. (2017). Walking down ‘Via Dolorosa’ from primary health care to the specialty pain clinic-Patient and professional perceptions of inequity in rehabilitation of chronic pain. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 31(1), 45-53.

Tonini, M. C., & Chesi, P. (2018). Narrative medicine, an innovative approach to migraine management. Neurological Sciences, 39(Suppl 1), S137-S138.

On the problem of coping

Coping. Lots of meanings, lots of negative connotations, used widely by health professionals, rejected by others (why would you need coping skills if you can get rid of your pain?).

I’ll bet one of the problems with coping is that we don’t really know what we’re defining. Is coping the result of dealing with something? Or is it the process of dealing with something? Or is it the range of strategies used when dealing with something? What if, after having dealt with the ‘something’ that shook our world, the world doesn’t go back to the way it was? What if ‘coping’ becomes a way of living?

The reason this topic came up for me is having just written a review for Paincloud on activity patterns (Cane, Nielson & Mazmanian, 2018), I got to thinking about the way we conceptualise ‘problems’ in life.  It’s like we imagine that life is going along its merry way, then all of a sudden and out of the blue – WHAM! An event happens to stop us in our tracks and we have to deal with it.

But let’s step back for a minute: how many of us have a well-ordered, bimbling existence where life is going along without any hiccoughs?!

Back to coping. The concept of coping is defined by Lazarus and Folkman (1980) as “the cognitive and behavioral efforts made to master, tolerate, or reduce external and internal demands and conflicts among them.” It’s identified as a transactional process and one that occurs within a context where the person has both resources and constraints, and a direction in which he or she wants to go.

By contrast, if we look at the research into coping in people with persistent pain, most of the attention is on the “what the person does” and the resources he or she has (see for example Rosenstiel & Keefe, 1983; Jensen, Turner, Romano & Karoly, 1991; Snow-Turkey, Norris & Tan, 1996; and much more recently, measures of coping by Sleijswer-Koehorst, Bijker, Cuijpers, Scholten-Peeters & Coppieters, in press). There are some studies exploring the goals set by the person (Schmitz, Saile & Nilges, 1996), but few studies examine the context in which the person is coping – nor what happens once the coping efforts are successful.

Measuring coping falls into three main buckets: the repertoire (how many strategies do you have?); the variation (which ones do you use and do they match the demands?); and the fitness approach (the choice of strategy depends on the way a person appraises the situation) (Kato, 2012). Out of these three, Kato chose to develop a measure of coping flexibility. Coping flexibility refers to “the ability to discontinue an ineffective coping strategy, and produce and implement an alternative coping strategy”. The Coping Flexibility Scale aims to measure this ability, based on the idea that by appraising the situation, implementing a strategy, then appraising the effectiveness of that strategy and applying a new one, the person is more effective at dealing with the challenge.

One of the most popular measures of coping for pain is the 14-item Coping Strategies Questionnaire (Riddle & Jensen, 2013). It suggests different ways of coping, some of which are seen as helpful, while others are not. Oddly enough, and why I started writing this blog, it doesn’t include the way we go about daily activities – activity patterns. In the study by Cane, Nielson & Maxmanian (2018), two main forms of activity pattern were found: avoidant-pacing, and  overdoing (as measured by the Patterns of Activity Measure – Pain). The avoidant-pacing group used pacing for daily activity management, but did so with the intention of avoiding flare-ups. The overdoing group just did a lot of activity. After treatment, some people moved group – from the two original groups, two more emerged: avoidant-pacing, pacing, mixed and overdoing. The pacing group basically did what everyone says is a great way to manage pain: picking out the right level of activity and sticking with it, using a quote-based approach. The definition used in this study was “… preplanned strategy that involved breaking activities into smaller parts, alternating periods of activity and rest (or an alternate activity), and using predetermined time intervals (or quotas) to establish when to stop an activity. The description of activity pacing provided to patients identified the goal or function of activity pacing as facilitating the completion of activities and ultimately increasing overall activity and functioning.”

As usual there are vulnerabilities in the way this study was conducted, and the main one for me is the follow-up period is non-existent. The reason I worry about this is that in my daily life, as I’m sure happens in many of yours, my pattern of activity varies wildly from week to week. Some weeks, like the weeks just before I headed to Sunderland for Paincloud, and the weeks just after I got back, were incredibly busy. I pushed myself to get things done because there were a heap of deadlines! This week I plan to have some down-time – this afternoon, in fact, because I want to play with some silversmithing.

And it occurred to me that we expect such a lot from the people we work with who live with pain. We ask all sorts of intrusive questions about daily life and we expect people to be able to recall what they did, why they did it, and to make changes and be consistent about these until we’re satisfied they’re “coping”.

But what if coping is actually the way we live our lives? What if coping involves all the myriad self-evaluative activities we all do – like, how hungry, tired, irritable, frustrated, rushed, achey, restless, enthusiastic, apologetic we feel – and endlessly and constantly adjusting the actions and behaviours we do so we can do what, for a moment or two, we think is The Most Important thing for now.

Life is a constant flowing forward. It’s a stream, an avalanche, a train going one way only. We can’t stop the world to get off. And once we’ve “coped” with something, life doesn’t return to “normal” because we’re different. Maybe our priorities change, or our circumstances have, or we have a new insight into what we want, or we work out the goal we had is more important than we thought. What if we are expecting the people who live with pain to do something we’re not even capable of?

I suppose part of my musing is related to mindfulness. Mindfulness involves continually returning to what I want to pay attention to, and doing so without judgement, and also observing without judgement. But it always involves coming back to what I intend to attend to. On and on and on. And the lovely thing about it is that it’s endlessly gentle and forgiving. Let go of the things I forgot to do, or the rushing towards what needs doing. I wonder what would happen if we encouraged people to be mindful for brief moments throughout the day all day long. Would that encourage coping flexibility? Would it encourage using a broader repertoire of ways of dealing with things? Would it help people to be more aware of everyday choosing and prioritising and managing actions to meet what’s valued in life?

To summarise: currently coping is measured using a “catalogue” of actions, often out of the context of daily decision-making and activity management. Activity management can vary from day to day, hour to hour, month to month. Being flexible with how we go about life seems, at least to me, to depend on my being aware of what’s important to me, what my energy is like, and the context in which I life. How well do we measure these constructs in pain management?

Cane, D., Nielson, W. R., & Mazmanian, D. (2018). Patterns of pain-related activity: replicability, treatment-related changes, and relationship to functioning. Pain, 159(12), 2522-2529.

Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1980). An Analysis of Coping in a Middle-Aged Community Sample. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 21(3), 219-239. doi:10.2307/2136617

Jensen, M. P., Turner, J. A., Romano, J. M., & Karoly, P. (1991). Coping with chronic pain: A critical review of the literature. Pain, 47(3), 249-283. doi:

Kato, T. (2012). Development of the Coping Flexibility Scale: Evidence for the coping flexibility hypothesis. Journal of counseling psychology, 59(2), 262-273.

Riddle, D.L &  Jensen, M.P. (2013). Construct and criterion-based validity of brief pain coping scales in persons with chronic knee osteoarthritis pain. Pain Medicine 14(2):265-275. doi:10.1111/pmc.12007

Rosenstiel, A. K., & Keefe, F. J. (1983). The use of coping strategies in chronic low back pain patients: relationship to patient characteristics and current adjustment. Pain, 17(1), 33-44.

Schmitz, U., Saile, H., & Nilges, P. (1996). Coping with chronic pain: flexible goal adjustment as an interactive buffer against pain-related distress. Pain, 67(1), 41-51.

Sleijser-Koehorst, M. L. S., Bijker, L., Cuijpers, p., Scholten-Peeters, G. G. M., & Coppieters, M. Preferred self-administered questionnaires to assess fear of movement, coping, self-efficacy and catastrophizing in patients with musculoskeletal pain – A modified Delphi study. Pain. in press

Snow-Turek, A. L., Norris, M. P., & Tan, G. (1996). Active and passive coping strategies in chronic pain patients. Pain, 64(3), 455-462. doi:10.1016/0304-3959(95)00190-5

Pain science is not a thing

Today’s post is occasioned by reading several discussions on various forums where the term “pain science” and various adjectives to describe this kind of practice. For those who don’t want to read the rest of my ramblings: no, it’s not a thing, science is an approach to understanding phenomena, and I would have thought all health professionals would use a science-based approach to treatment.

I went on to Google, as you do, to find out when this term began its rise in popularity. Google wasn’t particularly helpful but did show that it’s been around since 2004 at least, and seems to have been centred around the US, UK and Australia in roughly May 2004. I can’t grab data from earlier than this, sadly, but I think it’s interesting to take a look at the popularity peaks and troughs…

So, what does “pain science” mean to commentators? I haven’t delved in too deeply to the social media use of the term, but given I’m a social animal and have written my blog since 2007 (which is mainly on “pain science”) I’ve encountered it many times. It seems to be related to using a neurobiological explanation for pain as an experience (referring to the phenomenon and the underlying biological processes involved) rather than focusing purely on biomechanics or tissue damage/nociception as the key force. And it does seem to tie in with the emergence of “Explain pain” as one way of helping people reconceptualise their experience as something they can influence rather than something other people need to “fix”.

Commentators who aren’t in love with the “explain pain” thing have said things like “the pain science camp” or as one person put it “There’s your manual PTs, your pain science PTs, and your just load it PTs etc”

I went on to Twitter and the hashtag #painscience was paired with #BPSModel and #PT and #physicaltherapy (or variations), #chronicpain #exercise #lowbackpain – and so on.

So what do I think pain science means if it’s not a neurobiological approach to pain management? Well – pain science is a lot like cardio-respiratory science, and neurological science, and psychological science – it’s about applying a scientific approach to understanding pain. Science has been defined as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” In this instance, Google is your friend. So science is about systematically studying phenomena through observation and experimenting. If we apply this to pain – it’s the systematic study of structure and behaviour of the phenomenon we call ‘pain’ through observation and experiment. For what it’s worth, scientific study of pain has been going on since… oh at least Descartes, but probably much earlier given that pain is a ubiquitous and essential part of human experience.

To me, understanding pain involves multiple disciplines: yes to biology, and especially neurobiology because the experience (as we understand it now) involves neurobiological processing. But it’s also about psychology
the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context; sociology – the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society; the humanities – the study of how people process and document the human experience; politics – the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power; and Anthropology –  the study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life.

So to describe an entire approach to understanding a phenomenon as if it’s a “movement” or “camp” or “dogma” or even “tribe” suggests serious  misunderstanding of both science and of an intervention.

What is “explain pain” then, or pain neurobiology education? – it’s an explanation of some of the biological elements of our nociceptive system as they combine to produce the experience we know as pain. For some people it’s the first time anyone took the trouble to explain why the pain of a papercut feels so bad compared with, for example, the pain of a sprained ankle; and why they still experience pain despite having no “damage” as visible on imaging. It’s an attempt to give people a frame of reference from which to understand their own journey towards recovering from a painful injury/disease/problem. In itself it’s not new: explanations for pain have been used in pain management programmes since the 1970’s (and earlier, if we consider that Fordyce used explanations in his behavioural approaches to pain management), and have routinely drawn on current pain research to help provide explanations that make sense to both the person and the clinician. The distinction between earlier explanations which drew heavily on the gate control theory, and this latest iteration is that the explanations are more complex, pain is considered to be an “output” that emerges from multiple interactions between brain and body, and that’s about it. Oh and it’s been picked up and enthusiastically used by physiotherapists (and other primarily body therapists) around the world.

What’s the evidence for this approach? Well, IMHO it’s not intended to be a stand-alone “treatment” for most people experiencing pain. I see giving an explanation as integral to usual practice, just as we do when we explain why it’s not a good idea to go running on a newly sprained ankle or why we’re suggesting a mindfulness to someone with a panic disorder. So far there have been a lot of studies examining variants of “explaining pain” alone or in combination with a number of other treatments including exercise. A recent systematic review and meta-analsyis of “pain neuroscience education” for chronic low back pain found eight papers (with 615 participants) showing that in the short-term, this kind of education reduces disability (by 2.28 points on the Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire which is a 24 point scale) in the short-term and a slightly lesser effect in the long-term  (2.18). There were greater effects when this was combined with physiotherapy, though we often don’t know exactly what is included in “physiotherapy”.  There was some evidence that this kind of education helps reduce pain scores (by 1.32) but only in combination with other physiotherapy interventions. The authors pointed out that the strength of evidence for education on pain in the short term was low to moderate, but that it doesn’t have much of an impact on pain-related fear and avoidance, or on pain catastrophising (Wood & Hendrick, in press).

To compare this with another active treatment, exposure therapy for fear of movement/reinjury in chronic low back pain, de Jong, Vlaeyen, Onghena, Goossens, Geilen & Mulder (2005) performed a careful study of six individuals, using a single case experimental design. (If you’re not familiar with this approach to research – it’s extremely rigorous and useful in a clinical setting, this link takes you to a chapter discussing its use).  The aim was to establish which part of treatment “did the work” to change behaviour, but also measured pain intensity, and fear of pain and movement.  The treatments were information about pain and mechanisms, and the activities were those the person particularly wanted to be able to do. Their findings identified that explanations do little to pain intensity, avoidance or fear – but what actually worked was doing graded exposure. In other words, experiencing something different, DOING that something different in the real world, was more effective than talking about why someone shouldn’t be afraid. A much more recent replication of this study was conducted by Schemer, Vlaeyen, Doerr, Skoluda, Nater, Rief & Glombiewski (2018) and shows the same result: doing trumps talking about doing.

When we sit down and take a cold hard look at what we do in pain management we can see that the field has to draw on a huge range of disciplines and fields of study to understand the problems people experiencing pain have. This is, in fact, why Bonica and colleagues first established the International Association for the Study of Pain, and why multidisciplinary (and now interprofessional) pain management teams and approaches were established. None of us can possibly hold all the knowledge needed to work effectively in the area. At the same time, as health professionals working with people, we do need to have some foundation knowledge about biology, disease, illness, psychology, sociology and anthropology. These areas of study inform us as we work hard to help people get their heads around their pain. Do we need to be experts in all of these fields? Yes – if you work completely in isolation. No – if you work within an extended team (whether co-located or otherwise). Pain research will continue to push our understanding ahead – and to be responsible health professionals, we must incorporate new understandings into our practice or we risk being unprofessional and irrelevant. I would go as far as to say we’re irresponsible and harming patients if we fail to incorporate what is known about pain as a multidimensional experience. It’s time to back away from temporary guruism and move towards a far more nuanced, and perhaps less flighty approach to understanding pain.

Pain science. No, it’s not a thing. Pain being examined through multiple scientific lenses: definitely a thing.

NB for the avoidance of doubt: pain is never a “thing” but examining pain through multiple scientific lenses involves many “things”. (Merriam-Webster – click)

de Jong, J. R. M., Vlaeyen, J. W. S. P., Onghena, P. P., Goossens, M. E. J. B. P., Geilen, M. P. T., & Mulder, H. O. T. (2005). Fear of Movement/(Re)injury in Chronic Low Back Pain: Education or Exposure In Vivo as Mediator to Fear Reduction? [Article]. Clinical Journal of Pain Special Topic Series: Cognitive Behavioral Treatment for Chronic Pain January/February, 21(1), 9-17.

Schemer, L., Vlaeyen, J. W., Doerr, J. M., Skoluda, N., Nater, U. M., Rief, W., & Glombiewski, J. A. (2018). Treatment processes during exposure and cognitive-behavioral therapy for chronic back pain: A single-case experimental design with multiple baselines. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 108, 58-67.

Wood, L., & Hendrick, P. A. A systematic review and meta-analysis of pain neuroscience education for chronic low back pain: Short-and long-term outcomes of pain and disability. European Journal of Pain, 0(0). doi:doi:10.1002/ejp.1314

From the particular to the general – Clinical reasoning in the real world

From the particular to the general –
Clinical reasoning in the real world

I make no secret of my adherence to evidence-based healthcare. I think using research-based treatments, choosing from those known to be effective in a particular group of people in a specific context helps provide better healthcare. But I also recognise problems with this approach: people in clinical practice do not look like the “average” patient. That means using a cookie cutter, or algorithm as a way to reduce uncertainty in practice doesn’t, in my humble opinion, do much for the unique person in front of me.

I’ve been reading Trisha Greenhalgh’s recent paper “Of lamp posts, keys, and fabled drunkards: A perspectival tale of 4 guidelines”, where she describes her experience of receiving treatment based on the original description given for her “fall”. The “fall” was a high-impact cycle accident with subsequent limb fractures, and at age 55 years, she was offered a “falls prevention” treatment because she’d been considered “an older person with a fall”. Great guidelines practice – wrong application!

Greenhalgh goes on to say “we should avoid using evidence-based guidelines in the manner of the fabled drunkard who searched under the lamp post for his keys because that was where the light was – even though he knew he’d lost his key somewhere else”

Greenhalgh (2018), quoting Sir John Grimley Evans

When someone comes to see us in the clinic, our first step is to ask “what can I do for you?” or words to that effect. What we’re looking for is the person’s “presenting symptoms”, with some indication of the problem we’re dealing with. Depending on our clinical model, we may be looking for a diagnostic label “rheumatoid arthritis” or a problem “not sleeping until three hours after I go to bed”.

What we do next is crucial: We begin by asking more questions… but when we do, what questions do we ask?

Do we follow a linear pattern recognition path, where we hypothesise that “rheumatoid arthritis” is the problem and work to confirm our hypothesis?

Our questions might therefore be: “tell me about your hands, where do they hurt?” and we’ll be looking for bilateral swelling and perhaps fatigue and family history and any previous episodes.

Or do we expand the range of questions, and try to understand the path this person took to seek help: How did you decide to come and see me now? Why me? Why now?

Our questions might then be: “what do you think is going on? what’s bothering you so much?”

Different narratives for different purposes

Greenhalgh reminds us of Lonergan (a Canadian philosopher), as described by Engebretsen and colleagues (2015), where clinical enquiry is described as a complicated process (sure is!) of 4 overlapping, intertwined phases: (a) data collection – of self reported sensations, observations, otherwise known as “something is wrong and needs explaining”; (b) data interpreting “what might this mean?” by synthesising the data and working to recognise possible answers, or understanding; (c) weighing up alternative interpretations by judging; and (d) deciding what to do next, “what is the right thing to do”, or deliberation.

Engebretsen and colleagues emphasise the need to work from information from the individual to general models or diagnoses (I’d call this abductive reasoning), and argue that this process in the clinic should be “reflexive” and “informed by scientific evidence” but warn that scientific evidence can’t be replaced simply by reflexive approaches.

The reason for conceptualising clinical reasoning in this way is that a narrative primarily based on confirming a suspicion will likely reduce the number of options, narrow the range of options considered, and if it’s focused on diagnosis, may well over-ride the person’s main concern. A person may seek help, not because he or she wants a name or even treatment, but because of worries about work, the impact on family, or fears it could be something awful. And without directly addressing those main concerns, all the evidence-based treatments in the world will not help.

Guidelines and algorithms

Guidelines, as many people know, are an amalgamation of RCT’s and usually assembled by an esteemed group of experts in an attempt to reduce unintended consequences of following poorly reasoned treatment. They’re supposed to be used to guide treatment,  supporting clinical reasoning with options that, within a particular population, should optimise outcomes.

Algorithms are also assembled by experts and aim to provide a clinical decision-making process where, by following the decision tree, clinicians end up providing appropriate and effective treatment.

I suppose as a rather idiosyncratic and noncomformist individual, I’ve bitterly complained that algorithms fail to acknowledge the individual; they simplify the clinical reasoning process to the point where the clinician may not have to think critically about why they’re suggesting what they’re suggesting. At the same time I’ve been an advocate of guidelines – can I be this contrary?!

Here’s the thing: if we put guidelines in their rightful place, as a support or guide to help clinicians choose useful treatment options, they’re helpful. They’re not intended to be applied without first carefully assessing the person – listening to their story, following the four-step process of data collection, data interpretation, judging alternatives, and deciding on what to do.

Algorithms are also intended to support clinical decision-making, but not replace it! I think, however, that algorithms are more readily followed… it’s temptingly easy to go “yes” “no” and make a choice by following the algorithm rather than going back to the complex and messy business of obtaining, synthesising, judging and deciding.

Perhaps it’s time to replace the term “subjective” in our assessment process. Subjective has notions of “biased”, “emotional”, “irrational”; while objective implies “impartial”, “neutral”, “dispassionate”, “rational”. Perhaps if we replaced these terms with the more neutral terms “data collection” or “interview and clinical testing” we might treat what the person says as the specific – and only then move to the general to see if the general fits the specific, not the other way around.


Engebretsen, E., Vøllestad, N. K., Wahl, A. K., Robinson, H. S., & Heggen, K. (2015). Unpacking the process of interpretation in evidence‐based decision making. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 21(3), 529-531.

Greenhalgh, T. (2018). Of lamp posts, keys, and fabled drunkards: A perspectival tale of 4 guidelines. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 24(5), 1132-1138. doi:doi:10.1111/jep.12925

Myths about exposure therapy

Exposure therapy is an effective approach for pain-related anxiety, fear and avoidance, but exposure therapy is used less often than other evidence-based treatments, there is a great deal of confusion about graded exposure, and when it is used, it is not always well-conducted. It’s not a treatment to be used by every therapist – some of us need to challenge our own beliefs about pain, and whether it’s OK to go “into” the pain a little, or even slightly increase pain temporarily!

Below are some common misconceptions and suggestions for how to overcome them:

Misconception: Exposure therapy causes clients undue distress and has adverse consequences.

Suggestions: Although exposure therapy can lead to temporary increases in anxiety and pain, it is important to remember that these symptoms are not dangerous, and that exposure is generally carried out in a very gradual and predictable way. Exposure very rarely causes clients harm, but it is important to know your clients’ medical histories. For example, a client with a respiratory condition would not be asked to complete an exposure designed to elicit hyperventilation.

I usually begin with a really clear explanation for using this approach, basing my explanation on what the person has already said to me. By using Socratic or guided discovery, I try to understand the logic behind the person’s fear: what is it the person is most worried about? Often it’s not hurt or harm, it’s worrying that they won’t sleep, or they’ll have a flare-up that will last a looooong time – and they won’t be able to handle it. These are fundamental fears about having pain and vital to work through if the person is going to need to live with persistent pain for any length of time.

Once I’ve understood the person’s reasons for being bothered by the movements and pain, then I work on developing some coping strategies. These must be carefully carried out because it’s so easy to inadvertently coach people into using “safety behaviours” or “cues” that work to limit their contact with the full experience. Things like breath control, positive self-statements, any special ways of moving, or even ways of recovering after completing the task may serve to control or reduce contact with both anxiety and pain. I typically draw on mindfulness because it helps people focus on what IS happening, not what may have happened in the past – or may happen in the future. By really noticing what comes up before, during and after a graded exposure task, and being willing to experience them as they are, people can recognise that anticipating what might happen is often far worse than what does happen.

Finally, I’ll work through the scenario’s – either pictures of movements and activities, or descriptions of the same things. I prefer photographs (based on the Photographs of Daily Activity), because these elicit all the contextual details such as the other people, weather, flooring or surface and so on that are often factors increasing a person’s concerns. We begin with the activity that least bothers the person and consistently work up from there, with practice in the real world between sessions. I’ll go out to the places the person is most concerned about, we’ll do it together at first, then the person can carry on by themselves afterwards.

Misconception: Exposure therapy undermines the therapeutic relationship and leads to high dropout.

Suggestions: If you give your person a clear reason for using this approach and deliver it well,  the person is more likely to achieve success – and this in turn strengthens your relationship. Additionally, there is evidence that dropout rates for exposure are comparable to other treatments.

There is something about achieving a difficult thing that bonds us humans, and if you approach graded exposure with compassion, curiosity, and celebration, you may find your relationship is far more rewarding and deeper than if you simply prescribe the same old same old.

Misconception: Exposure therapy can lead to lawsuits against therapists.

Suggestions: Survey data suggest that lawsuits against therapists using exposure are extremely rare. As with any kind of therapy, you can take several steps to protect yourself from a legal standpoint. Don’t forget to obtain informed consent, ensure your treatment is delivered with competency, professionalism, and ethical consideration.

The best book/resource by far for graded exposure is Pain-Related Fear: Exposure-Based Treatment for Chronic Pain, (click) by Johan W.S. Vlaeyen, Stephen J. Morley, Steven J. Linton, Katja Boersma, and Jeroen de Jong.

Before you begin carrying out this kind of treatment, check you have these skills (from the book I’ve referenced):

Vlaeyen, Johan, Morley, Stephen, Linton, Steven, Boersma, Katja, & de Jong, Jeroen. (2012a). Pain-related Fear. Seattle: IASP Press.

Assessing problems with sleep and pain – ii

Last week I wrote about my approach to assessing sleep problems in those with persistent pain. As an ex-insomniac I’ve spent a while learning about sleep so I can understand what’s going on, and why sleep can be such a problem. In this week’s post I want to dig a little deeper into what’s going on with poor sleep, as well as some of the unique features of sleep in people experiencing persistent pain.

Having reviewed the five main areas that are fundamental (and can/should be assessed by anyone working with people who experience persistent pain), the next area I want to look at with people is mood. There are two primary psychopathological contributors to poor sleep: the first we’ve dealt with last week (Question 4 – what’s going through your mind…) which is by far and away the most common initiator and maintainer of insomnia, and it doesn’t even need to be a diagnosable anxiety disorder! The second, you’ll probably have guessed, is depression.

Depression is common in people with both rotten sleep and ongoing pain (Boakye, Olechowski, Rashiq, Verrier, Kerr, Witmans et al, 2016), and there are some suggestions that pain and depression may be related and similar neurobiological processes may be involved for both (increased limbic activity being one of them). In depression, there is increased activity in the HPA Axis, reduced BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), and reduced 5HT with increased pro-inflammatory cytokines . In persistent pain, there may be activity in the HPA Axis, there is certainly reduced BDNF except in the spinal cord, and reduced 5HT, along with increased pro-inflammatory cytokines. And in sleep disturbances there is also increased activity in the HPA Axis, redced BDNF, reduced 5HT and guess what… increased pro-inflammatory cytokines. And all three interact with one another so that if you happen to be depressed, you’re more likely to experience pain that goes on, and your sleep will also reduce your mood and increase your pain. And the reverse. All very messy indeed!.

What this means is that assessing for low mood and the impact on sleep is important – if someone’s describing waking well before they usually do, in the wee small hours (anywhere from 3 – 5am if they usually wake at 7.00am) I’m ready to screen for low mood. To be honest I always assess for that anyway! Depression is also associated with low motivation and loss of “get up and go” so this is likely to interact with poor sleep, creating a very tired person.

There are three other very important aspects of sleep I like to assess for: sleep apnoea, where someone stops breathing for seconds to minutes at a time, often snorting awake, and this may be associated with snoring and daytime sleepiness. Often the person won’t be aware of their sleep apnoea, so it can be helpful for a bed-partner to let you know whether this is a feature of your patient’s sleep.

The next are a group of movement disorders of sleep, many of which are associated with the third area I assess, which are medications.

Movement disorders of sleep include restless leg syndrome – that feeling of absolutely having to move the legs, usually at night, and relieved by getting up to walk around, but in doing so, making it difficult to sleep. Another is periodic limb movement disorder of sleep, which can be every 5 – 30 seconds of leg twitching all night long, and in some cases, whole body twitching though this is less frequent and less rhythmic. This latter problem may not be noticed by the person – but their bed-mate will know about it! – and this problem may be associated with both sleep apnoea and restless leg, AND some doses of antidepressants. Another common contributor to these problems is low iron levels – worth checking both iron and medications!

Finally with medications, I like to understand not only what the person is taking, but also when they’re taking them. Several points are important here: some medications are usually sedating such as tricyclic antidepressants but in some people nortriptyline can paradoxically increase alertness! If that’s the case, timing the dose is really important and should be discussed with either the prescribing doctor, or a clinical pharmacist. Opioids depress respiration (ie slow breathing down) so can be problematic if the person has sleep apnoea AND is taking opioids, the drive to inhale may be less, causing more frequent and deeper periods without breathing normally. For restless legs and periodic limb movement disorder, some antidepressants (venlafaxine is one of them) in high doses can cause the twitching and once the dose is reduced, this fades away, at least a bit.  There is a very small amount of research suggesting that NSAIDs can influence sleep quality in some people also.

The effects of poor sleep are many: anything from micro-sleeps during the day (problematic while driving or operating machinery!), to more irritability, sluggish responses, less concentration and more difficulty solving problems. Pain is associated with more frequent micro-wakenings during the night (Bjurstrom & Irwin, 2016) but findings with respect to whether deep sleep, REM sleep or light sleep were consistently more affected weren’t clear.

Having completed my assessment, more or less, I can also use a few pen and paper measures: Wolff’s Morning Questions (Wolff, 1974), Kryger’s Subjective Measurements (1991), Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (Bysse, Reynolds, Monk et al, 1989) and the Sleep Disturbance Questionnaire (Domino, Blair,& Bridges, 1984) are all useful. Speaking to the partner is an excellent idea because I don’t know about you but I never snore but my partner swears I do! Who do you believe?!

People experiencing insomnia are not very reliable when describing their own sleep habits – we’re terrible at noticing when we’re actually asleep or awake in those early stages of sleep, so we typically think we’ve slept less than we actually have. We also do a whole lot of things to avoid not sleeping – and these can actually prolong and extend our sleeplessness!

We’ll discuss what to do about the factors you may have identified in your sleep assessment in next week’s instalment, but you can rest assured it’s not crucial for you to do anything yourself about some things. For example, if someone has sleep apnoea, referring for a sleep study is important, but not something YOU need to do! But please make sure a referral is suggested to someone who can make it happen. Similarly with medications and sleep movement disorders, it’s not something you should tackle on your own – please discuss managing these with a specialist sleep consultant, psychiatrist, or the person’s own GP. Mood problems – treat as you would any time you find someone with a mood problem.

Next week – off to the Land of Nod: A roadmap?!


Boakye, P. A., Olechowski, C., Rashiq, S., Verrier, M. J., Kerr, B., Witmans, M., . . . Dick, B. D. (2016). A critical review of neurobiological factors involved in the interactions between chronic pain, depression, and sleep disruption. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(4), 327-336.

Buysse DJ, Reynolds CF 3rd, Monk TH, et al. The Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index: a new instrument for psychiatric practice and research. Psychiatry Res 1989; 28(2):193–213.

Domino G, Blair G, Bridges A. Subjective assessment of sleep by Sleep Questionnaire. Percept Mot Skills 1984;59(1):163–70.

Kryger MH, Steljes D, Pouliot Z, et al. Subjective versus objective evaluation of hypnotic efficacy: experience with zolpidem. Sleep 1991;14(5):399–407.

Moul DE, Hall M, Pilkonis PA, et al. Self-report measures of insomnia in adults: rationales, choices, and needs. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 2004;8(3):177–98.

Wolff BB. Evaluation of hypnotics in outpatients with insomnia using a questionnaire and a self-rating technique. Clin Pharmacol Ther 1974;15(2):130–40.

Clinical reasoning – and cognitions

Possibly one of the most hotly discussed aspects of clinical reasoning and pain relates to thoughts and beliefs held by both people experiencing pain and the clinicians who work with them. It’s difficult to avoid reading papers about “pain education”, “catastrophising”, “maladaptive thinking”, but quite another to find a deeper analysis of when and why it might be useful to help people think differently about their pain, or to deal with their thoughts about their experience in a different way.

Cognition is defined by the APA Dictionary of Psychology as

1. all forms of knowing and awareness, such as perceiving, conceiving, remembering, reasoning, judging, imagining, and problem solving. Along with affect and conation, it is one of the three traditionally identified components of mind.

2. an individual percept, idea, memory, or the like. —cognitional adj. —cognitive adj.

Cognitions are arguable The Thing most accessible to ourselves and most distinctive about humans – indeed, we call ourselves “homo sapiens” or “wise man” possibly because we can recognise we have thoughts! Although, as you can see from the definition above, many aspects of cognition are not as readily available to consciousness as we might imagine.

From the early days of pain management, explanations about the biology of pain have been included. Indeed, since 1965 when Melzack and Wall introduced the Gate Control Theory, in which modulation and descending control were identified, clinicians working in pain management centres have actively included these aspects of pain biology as part of an attempt to help people with pain understand the distinction between hurting – and being harmed (see Bonica, 1993).

The purpose behind the original approaches to “explaining pain” were to provide a coherent explanation to people in pain as to the “benign” nature of their experience: in other words, by changing the understanding people held about their pain, people were more likely to willingly engage in rehabilitation – and this rehabilitation largely involved gradually increasing “up time” and reducing unhelpful positions or activity levels. Sound familiar? (see Moseley & Butler, 2015).

Of course, in the early days of pain management, specific relationships between thoughts and both automatic and volitional behaviour were unclear. What we know now is that if I wire someone up to a biofeedback machine, measuring say heart rate variability, respiration and skin conductance, and then I mention something related to the person’s appraisals of their pain – maybe “Oh this really hurts”, or “I don’t think I’ll sleep tonight with this pain” those parameters I’m measuring will fluctuate wildly. Typically, people will experience an increase of physiological arousal in response to thinking those kinds of thoughts. In turn, that elevated arousal can lead to an increased perception of pain – and increased attention to pain with difficulty taking attention off pain (see Lanzetta, Cartwright-Smith & Eleck, 1976; Crombez, Viane, Eccleston, Devuler & Goubert, 2013).

So, the relationship between what we think and both attention to pain and physiological response to those thoughts is reasonably well-established, such that if someone reports high levels of catastrophising, we can expect to find high levels of disability, and reports of higher levels of pain. So far, so good. BUT how do we integrate these findings into our clinical reasoning, especially if we’re not primarily psychologically-oriented in our treatments?

The answer has been to dish out “pain education” to everyone – giving an explanation of some of the biological underpinnings of our experience. But for some of our patients this isn’t useful, especially if they have already heard the “pain talk” – but it has only hit the head and not the heart.

As Wilbert Fordyce was known to say “Information is to behaviour change as spaghetti is to a brick”. In other words – it might hit the brick and cover it, but it doesn’t change the brick, and neither does it move the brick!

You see, cognitions are not just “thoughts”, nor thoughts we are consciously aware of. Cognitions include implicit understanding, attention, the “feeling of what it is like to” and so on. And as occupational therapists and educators have found over the years, experiential learning (learning by doing) is one of the most powerful forms of behaviour change available (Kolb, 2014). People learn by experiencing something different. This is why cognitive behavioural approaches such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) so strongly endorse experiential elements.

Rather than attempting to change someone’s head knowledge of pain=harm, it might be more useful to help them experience doing something different and help them explore and generate their own conclusions from the experience.

I think both occupational therapists and clinicians who provide opportunities for movements and experiences (such as massage therapists, physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors, myotherapists etc) are in an ideal position to guide people through new experiences – and then help them explore those new experiences. Rather than telling people what to think or believe (especially amongst those folks who are unconvinced by “book learning”!) we’re in a good position to help them work out what’s going through their minds – and what it feels like to do something differently. Instead of convincing, we can help people ponder for themselves. This is the essence of graded exposure: going from “OMG I can’t do that!” to “Oh yeah, I can master this”. It’s the difference between reading about how to ride a bicycle – and actually getting on a bike to learn to ride.

I agree that cognitive processes are really important in understanding a person’s experience of pain. I think, though, we’ve focused on overt thoughts to the detriment of trying to understand other aspects of cognition. We need to spend some more time exploring attention and distraction from pain; memories and how these influence pain; and to examine some of the implicit features of our understanding – and instead of approaching changes to thinking/understanding via the hammer of information dumping, maybe we can ponder the opportunities that arise from helping people experience something different and new.



Bonica, J. J. (1993). Evolution and current status of pain programs. Journal of Pharmaceutical Care in Pain & Symptom Control, 1(2), 31-44. doi:10.1300/J088v01n02_03

Crombez, G., Viane, I., Eccleston, C., Devulder, J., & Goubert, L. (2013). Attention to pain and fear of pain in patients with chronic pain. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 36(4), 371-378.
Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (2nd Ed), Pearson Education: New Jersey.
Lanzetta, J. T., Cartwright-Smith, J., & Eleck, R. E. (1976). Effects of nonverbal dissimulation on emotional experience and autonomic arousal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33(3), 354.

Moseley, G. L., & Butler, D. S. (2015). Fifteen years of explaining pain: The past, present, and future. Journal of Pain, 16(9), 807-813. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2015.05.005

Clinical reasoning in pain – emotions

The current definition of pain includes the words “unpleasant sensory and emotional experience” so we would be surprised if we encountered a person with pain who wasn’t feeling some sort of negative emotion, am I right? Yet… when we look at common pain assessments used for low back pain, items about emotions or worries are almost always included as indicators of negative outcomes (for example, STarTBack – Worrying thoughts have been going through my mind a lot of the time, I feel that my back pain is terrible and it’s never going to get any better, In general I have not enjoyed all the things I used to enjoy). And while the screening questionnaires have been validated, particularly for predictive validity (ie higher scores obtained on these measures are associated with poorer outcomes), I wonder how much we know, or think we know, about the relationship between emotions and pain. Perhaps its time for a quick review…

Firstly, let’s define emotions (seems easy!) “Emotions are multicomponent phenomena; (2) emotions are two-step processes involving emotion elicitation mechanisms that produce emotional responses; (3) emotions have relevant objects; and (4) emotions have a brief duration.” (Sander, 2013). There are thought to be six evolutionarily shaped basic emotions such as joy, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, and surprise (Ekman, 1992); but as usual there are complications to this because emotions are also examined in terms of their valence – negative or positive – and arousal (similar to intensity, but in terms of how much our physiology gets excited).

There are two main brain areas involved in processing both pain and unpleasant stimuli in general are the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. These areas don’t exclusively deal with pain but with stimuli that are especially salient to people (remember last week’s post?), and researchers are still arguing over whether particular areas are responsible for certain emotions, or whether “emotions emerge when people make meaning out of sensory input from the body and from the world using knowledge of prior experience” based on basic psychological operations that are not specific to emotions (Lindquist et al., 2012, p. 129) . I’m quoting from an excellent book “The neuroscience of pain, stress and emotions” by Al, M. Absi, M.A. Flaten, and M. Rogers.

Now researchers have, for years, been interested in the effects of emotions on pain – there is an enormous body of literature but luckily some good reviews – see Bushnell et al., 2013; Roy, 2015 ;  Wiech and Tracey, 2009. What this research shows, essentially, is that pain is reduced by positive emotions, and increased by negative emotions. Now we need to be somewhat cautious about over-interpreting these results because they’re mainly conducted in experimental designs with acute experimental pain – people are shown pictures that elicit certain emotions, then poked or zapped, and asked to rate their pain (and their emotions, usually). It’s thought that the way these emotions influence pain is via our descending inhibitory pathways. Now the situation with real people experiencing pain that is not experimentally administered is probably slightly different – a lot more salient, a lot more worrying, and far less controlled. Nevertheless it’s worth knowing that when you’re feeling down, you’re likely to rate your pain more highly. If the emotion-eliciting stimuli are particularly arousing (ie they’re REALLY interesting) then the effect on pain ratings is greater. Experimenters also found pain reduces responses to pleasant stimuli, but there isn’t such a strong relationship with negative stimuli.

The valence (positiveness or negativeness – if that’s a word LOL) activates motivational systems either pleasant = appetitive, or unpleasant = defensive. Arousal or alertness gives us a clue as to how much motivation we have to either move towards or away from the stimulus. The degree of arousal affects our pain experience – so the more negative and angry we are, we rate our pain more highly; while the happier and jollier we are, we rate our pain as less intense. BUT, as for most things in pain, it’s complex – so once we get more than moderately angry/alert/aroused, the less we experience pain. The diagram below shows this kind of relationship – from the same book I quoted above (it’s worth getting!).

Does this mean we should freak people out so they experience less pain? Don’t be dumb! Being that alert is really exhausting. But what this diagram can explain is why some people, when they’re first attending therapy and are asked to do something out of the ordinary and just so slightly threatening (like lifting weights, or jumping on a treadmill) might report higher pain intensity – because we’ve caught them at the moderate arousal level where pain is facilitated.

Clinically, what this information means is that if we’re hoping to improve someone’s pain via pleasant or positive emotions, we’d better make sure they’re fairly high energy/arousing – a hilarious comedy perhaps – because lower intensity pleasure doesn’t affect pain much.

We should, at all costs, avoid eliciting fear and worry, or anger in the people we treat – because this increases pain intensity. This means giving people time to get used to our setting, what we’re asking them to do, and the intensity of whatever activity we’re going to do with them. In graded exposure, we should give people skills in mindfulness well before we begin doing the exposure component – because it’s likely to evoke higher than usual pain intensity if they can’t “be with” the increased anxiety that emerges during this kind of treatment.

And finally, if someone is experiencing anger, depression, sadness or anxiety – this is a normal psychological reaction integral to our experience of pain. It’s not necessarily pathological – though it probably increases the pain intensity the person reports.

I think we could promote far more scheduling pleasurable experiences as a routine part of therapy. What makes people smile, feel joy, have a good belly laugh? When was the last time they watched a comedy or joked with their family? Therapy can be fun, just see my friend Alice Hortop’s work on comedy as therapy (!



Ekman, P.  (1992). An argument for basic emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 6, 169–200.




Flaten, M. A. (2016). The neuroscience of pain, stress, and emotion : Psychological and clinical implications. In Al, M. Absi, M. A. Flaten, & M. Rogers (Eds.), Neuroscience of Pain, Stress, and Emotion: Amsterdam, Netherlands : Elsevier.

K.A. Lindquist, T.D. Wager, H. Kober, E. Bliss-Moreau, L.F. Barrett, (2012). The brain basis of emotion: a meta-analytic review. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 35 (03),  121–143



Roy, M. (2015). Cerebral and spinal modulation of pain by emotions and attention. Pain, Emotion and Cognition, 35–52.


Sander, D. (2013). Models of emotion: the affective neuroscience approach. in J.L. Armony, P. Vuilleumier (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of human affective neuroscience, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 5–56




Clinical reasoning and why models of low back pain need to be integrated

Clinical reasoning has been defined as “the process by which a therapist interacts with a patient, collecting information, generating and testing hypotheses, and determining optimal diagnosis and treatment based on the information obtained.” (thanks to The model or lens through which we do these processes naturally has a major influence on our relationship with the person, the information we think is relevant, the hypotheses we develop, and ultimately the problems we identify and how we treat them. No arguments so far, yes?

So when we come to thinking about pain, particularly where a “diagnosis” can’t be readily established – or where the treatment doesn’t directly address a proposed causal factor – clinical reasoning should be led by some sort of model, but how explicit is our model, really? And, what’s more, how well does the research support our model, and the relationships between variables?

I’m thinking about my approach as an occupational therapist where my interest in assessment is to identify why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining their current predicament; and my aim is to identify what can be done to reduce distress and disability, while promoting participation in daily occupations (activities, things that need to be done or the person wants to do). For many years now I’ve used a cognitive behavioural model first developed by Dr Tim Sharp who has now moved into Positive Psychology. His reformulation of the cognitive behavioural model works from the “experience” of pain through to responses to that experience, but incorporates some of the cyclical interactions between constructs. The model doesn’t include inputs to the “experience” component from the nociceptive system – but it could.

Many other models exist. Some of them are quite recent – the STarT Back Tool, for example, provides a very simplified screening approach to low back pain that some people have identified as a clinical reasoning model. Another is by Tousignant-Laflamme, Martel, Joshi & Cook (2017), and is a model aimed at pulling all the various approaches together – and does so with a beautifully-coloured diagram.


You knew there would be one! What I think these two models omit is to generate some relationships between the constructs, particularly the psychological ones. You see, while it’s a cyclical interaction, there are some relationships that we can identify.  And over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about some of the known associations, just to begin to build a picture of the relationships we can assess before we begin generating hypotheses.

For example, we know that the nervous system, and in particular our mind/brain, is never inactive and is therefore never a completely blank slate just waiting for information to come into it, but we also know there are relationships between the intensity/salience/novelty of a stimulus that attract attention, and that this competes with whatever cognitive set we have operating at the time (Legrain, Van Damme, Eccleston, Davis, Seminowicz & Crombez, 2009). So one relationship we need to assess is current contexts (and there are always many), and the times when a person is more or less aware of their pain.

Now, what increases the salience of a stimulus? For humans it’s all about meaning. We attribute meaning to even random patterns (ever seen dragons and horses in the clouds?!), so it’s unsurprising that as we experience something (or watch someone else experiencing something) we make meaning of it. And we generate meanings by relating concepts to other concepts – for a really good introduction to a very geeky subject, head here to read about relational frame theory. Relational frame theory is used to explain how we generate language and meanings by relating events with one another (The Bronnie translation! – for an easier version go here). Wicksell and Vowles (2015) describe this, and I’m going to quote it in full:

As described by relational frame theory, the theoretical framework underlying ACT, stimulus functions are continuously acquired via direct experiences, but also through their relations with other stimuli [5]. This implies that a behavioral response is not due to just one stimuli but rather the relational network of stimuli. Pain as an interoceptive stimulus is associated with a large number of other stimuli, and the actions taken depend on the psychological function(s) of that relational network of stimuli. A seemingly trivial situation may therefore elicit very strong reactions due to the associations being made: a relatively modest pain sensation from the neck trigger thoughts like “pain in the neck is bad,” which in turn are related to ideas such as “it may be a fragile disk,” and “something is terribly wrong,” that eventually lead to fatalistic conclusions like “I will end up in a wheelchair.” Thus, even if the initial stimulus is modest, it may activate a relational network of stimuli with very aversive psychological functions.

In other words, we develop these networks of meaning from the time we’re little until we die, and these mean any experience (situation, context, stimulus, event, action) holds meaning unique and particular to the individual. And these networks of meaning are constructed effortlessly and usually without any overt awareness. Each event/experience (yeah and the rest) then has further influence on how we experience any subsequent event/experience. So if you’ve learned that back pain is a Very Bad Thing, and you’ve done so since you were a kid because your Mother had back pain and took herself to the doctor and then stopped playing with you, you may have a very strong network of relationships built between low back pain, resting, healthcare, abandonment, sadness, anger, loneliness, fear, mother, father, pills, treatment – and the this goes on.

So when we’re beginning to construct a clinical reasoning model for something like low back pain we cannot exclude the “what does it mean” relationship. Every time someone experiences “ouch!” they’re processing a network of associations and relationships and behaviours that go on to influence their response to that experience – and affect attention to it and subsequent response to it.

Over 1000 words and I’ve not even started on emotions and pain!

Take home message: Even if we think we’re not addressing “psychological” stuff – we ARE. Omitting the “what does it mean to you?” and failing to factor that in to our clinical reasoning and subsequent treatment means we’re walking uphill on a scree slope. Oh, and telling someone they’re safe does not change those associations, especially if they’re longstanding. There’s more needed.


Legrain V, Damme SV, Eccleston C, Davis KD, Seminowicz DA, & Crombez G (2009). A neurocognitive model of attention to pain: behavioral and neuroimaging evidence. Pain, 144 (3), 230-2 PMID: 19376654

Sharp, T. J. (2001). Chronic pain: A reformulation of the cognitive-behavioural model. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(7), 787-800. doi:

Tousignant-Laflamme, Y., Martel, M. O., Joshi, A. B., & Cook, C. E. (2017). Rehabilitation management of low back pain – it’s time to pull it all together! Journal of Pain Research, 10, 2373-2385. doi:10.2147/JPR.S146485

Wicksell, R. K., & Vowles, K. E. (2015). The role and function of acceptance and commitment therapy and behavioral flexibility in pain management. Pain Management, 5(5), 319-322. doi:10.2217/pmt.15.32