Assessment

The complex world of identifying nociplastic pains


Towards the end of 2017, IASP put forward a new mechanistic classification: nociplastic pain. The definition is: “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.

Note: Patients can have a combination of nociceptive and nociplastic pain”.

This was great news! Prior to this, the term “central sensitisation” was used and abused to describe processes involved in ongoing pain that wasn’t inflammatory or neuropathic. Problem with that term is that it’s apparent in nociceptive mechanisms, as well as both inflammatory and neuropathic…. When the way people used the term was more akin to “well, the pain hasn’t settled down, so ‘something weird’ is going on and it must be in the central nervous system so we’ll adopt this term seeing as Clifford Woolf described it in the spinal cord” (Woolf, 1996, 2007).

In other words, any pain that seemed to radiate, hang around, and no respond to treatment was “centrally sensitised”. Perhaps so. Perhaps not. Suffice to say, people got confused because most of the typical central sensitisation from nociceptive/inflammatory processes subsides over time, but these “centrally sensitised” pains did not.

I, for one, am glad there’s a group in which weird pains that don’t appear to involve typical nociceptive, inflammatory or neuropathic mechanisms can be put.

Problem is: how do we know what fits into this group? We can be pretty certain when it comes to neuropathic pain, because the definition is very clear (though not so clear in the clinic) – “Pain caused by a lesion or disease of the somatosensory nervous system.” The notes go on to say that “neuropathic pain is a description, not a diagnosis” and I’d say the same about nociplastic pains (which is why I use the plural…). I also step out to say that I don’t think ALL nociplastic pains will be found to have the same biological mechanisms, especially given how widely variable neuropathic pains are.

Nevertheless, we need some way to decide which pains are in, and which are out of this group.

This table comes from Kosek et al., (2021) and summarises the findings from a consensus process within an expert group. They make the point that acute pain isn’t helpfully included in this group, and instead it should be used for pains that persist for 3 months or longer. They also point out that regional pain is included while discrete pain is typically not because of the central sensitisation processes involved (note: this is the correct use of the term! Confused? CS is a neurophysiological phenomenon, associated with more than nociplastic pain).

Looking at the above criteria, possible nociplastic pain is present if the person has criteria 1, and criteria 4. Probable nociplastic is present if the person has all the above.

There are some notes, of course: regional means the musculoskeletal pain is deep, regional or in several places or even widespread (not localised to one place), and each condition eg frozen shoulder and OA knee needs to be assessed separately. If there is an identifiable nociceptive source (or neuropathic source) then the pain needs to be more widespread than “usual” for that pathology. Finally, because nociplastic pain unlike neuropathic pain, has no definitive test currently, there is no “definite nociplastic” category – but once there is, this will be added.

What does this mean for us as clinicians?

Firstly it ought to stop people being thought as faking, malingering or otherwise not being believed. That should be a given but unsurprisingly because of legal and health systems and our own frustration at not being able to “fix” people, people with pain get that impression more often than they should. It also ought to stop psychopathologising people who have this kind of pain: we can’t distinguish between people with nociplastic pain and the DSM5 “Somatic Disorder” – so let’s just not add another unhelpful mental health label to what is already a stigmatised situation.

Then it ought to stop clinicians using treatments that simply don’t help – such as opioids for fibromyalgia. It might help clinicians pause before prescribing movement therapies at a level that is too intense for the person, because this only revs the nervous system up even more making the whole process unpleasant. Beginning at the level the person can manage and gradually increasing is crucial to success. And it ought to stop clinicians from administering “explanations” or “education” and expecting that alone to reduce pain. Because while cortical processes are part and parcel of every pain there is, it’s in this group of pains that some people think “top down” by thinking yourself out of pain is a thing. FWIW pain reduction is lovely and part of treatment, but shouldn’t ever be the only outcome (Ballantyne, 2015), and many times in this group of pains, may not even be an outcome.

Finally, it should stimulate helpful discussion about what “whole person” approaches to managing these pains looks like. The authors say “patients with nociplastic pain are likely to respond better to centrally than peripherally targeted therapies” and this does not mean talk therapy alone, or exercise alone, or indeed medications such as gabapentin or nortriptyline alone. To me, it means individualised, tailored, and integrated strategies to moving, managing daily life, restoring sleep, enjoying an intimate relationship, managing mood and memory, and these might best be offered by pain coaches rather than siloed “therapies” of physical, psychological or whatever other stripe there is.

Ballantyne, J. C., & Sullivan, M. D. (2015). Intensity of Chronic Pain — The Wrong Metric? New England Journal of Medicine, 373(22), 2098-2099. https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMp1507136

Kosek, E., Clauw, D., Nijs, J., Baron, R., Gilron, I., Harris, R. E., Mico, J.-A., Rice, A. S. C., & Sterling, M. (2021). Chronic nociplastic pain affecting the musculoskeletal system: clinical criteria and grading system. Pain, 162(11), 2629-2634. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002324

Woolf, C. J. (1996). Windup and central sensitization are not equivalent. Pain, 66(2), 105-108.

Woolf, C. J. (2007). Central sensitization: uncovering the relation between pain and plasticity. The Journal of the American Society of Anesthesiologists, 106(4), 864-867.

Rehab Fails: What goes wrong in pain rehabilitation 3


I’m beginning to think this series could grow into a monster – so many #rehabfails to pick from!

Today’s post is about rehabilitation that doesn’t fit into the person’s life. Or that the person hasn’t been supported to fit the rehabilitation into their life. THEIR life, not ours!

You know what I mean: for six to twelve weeks, this person has been coming along to their treatment sessions, doing the things the therapist suggests. They make progress and it’s time to end the programme. “Good bye patient” the therapist says. And the patient skips off into the sunset, fixed for life.

Yeah right.

Roll that movie right back to the start.

At the first consultation, therapists often ask the person about what they’d like to achieve. Often the person doesn’t really know, after all most people don’t routinely set goals – and particularly if someone is experiencing the disruption of dealing with a painful problem that doesn’t go away like it should. It’s not for nothing that people describe this time as being in “zombie land” and dealing only with “the essentials” (Lennox Thompson, et al, 2019). Nevertheless, therapists ask and people are expected to come up with something that can then form the focus of subsequent therapy. A recent systematic review, however, found that many studies describing goal setting practices fail to implement all the components of effective goal setting – in particular, omitting “formulation of coping plan” and “follow up” (Kang, et al, 2022).

Now these two components are crucial for long-term adherence to rehabilitation, and especially in persisting pain where it’s probable the person will need to follow therapeutic practices for a very long time. The “coping plan” consists of identifying barriers and facilitators to doing the actions that lead to achieving goals, and also involves assessing confidence to do so, along with generating a plan to deal with unexpected situations. “Follow up” involves self-evaluating progress, evaluation, and adjusting the plan to suit. (Kang et al., 2022).

Why are these two components so important?

Well, think of one of your recent patients. Think about the things you (and others in your clinical team) asked that person to do. Are any of these things typical for this person? Are they habits, built into daily routines? Are they familiar? What is this person’s daily routine like? What does their family need to do and what does this person need to do for them? If the person usually works, and is still trying to maintain that on top of their usual home and family activities, how much are you and your colleagues asking the person to do on top of these? When they’re already struggling with the debilitating effects of their pain problem?

See why we might have trouble with adherence? Let alone ensuring that the person feels it’s worthwhile doing what it is we’re asking them to do!

I’ve seen this problem time and time again. Little, if any, consideration of this person’s usual daily life context. Little thought to the burden of trying to manage normal life and what the therapists is asking the person to do. No discussion about what might get in the way of fitting these therapy things into their life – and then I’ve heard clinicians have the audacity to suggest the person isn’t motivated!

So much for person centred rehabilitation. So much for helping the person work out how they might fit these things in, and how they might develop a routine or habit that they can continue once they leave the therapist’s care.

While I’ve looked at goal setting and therapy for persistent pain, what I notice is that even in acute musculoskeletal management, studies have shown that therapists don’t really understand goal setting. Alexanders and colleagues (2021) found that physiotherapists undertaking goal setting for anterior cruciate ligament rehabilitation might employ SMART goals – but didn’t understand the theory behind goal setting, didn’t know that expectations were important, and didn’t use feedback sufficiently. And this is for SMART goals that have already been found wanting (see Swann et al., 2022).

What do I suggest?

  1. Start by understanding the person’s current responsibilities in life, and the impact their pain problem is having. Recognise that those impacts will also have an impact on their capability for adding to their daily routine.
  2. With the person, establish the best time of day for them to do whatever it is you think they should do. Work through what might get in the way – and what might support them.
  3. You may need to help them develop some additional skills to deal with what might get in the way of undertaking your activities – maybe skills to communicate with family, or the boss, so they can take 10 minutes out to do the breathing practice you’ve suggested, maybe some work with thoughts to help them be OK with guilt for “not doing things as normal.”
  4. Assess their confidence to engage in this additional task. Use motivational interviewing to boost their confidence (and it probably would help you to consider the importance of what you’re asking them to do in the context of their values and activities).
  5. Check how much you’re asking the person to do – is it achievable in this person’s life? A certain intensity might be theoretically important for physiology, but if the person doesn’t do it because he or she can’t fit it in, it just won’t get done.
  6. Check in with the person in between appointments. If you see them once a week – send a text 3 days in to that week to see how they’re getting on. Or ask the person if they’ll send you a text to let you know. Give feedback, alter your plan, encourage, celebrate.
  7. And once the person is nearly ready for discharge, make sure you have a set-back or relapse prevention plan in place. What should this person do if things begin to go pear-shaped? Do they need to keep going at the same intensity as they have during your therapy? What are their warning signs for things beginning to fall apart? (clue: it’s often not when people are beginning to hurt again, it’s often because the person is feeling good and starts to drop the things that have helped!)

Don’t do #rehabfails

Kang, E., Kim, M. Y., Lipsey, K. L., & Foster, E. R. (2022). Person-Centered Goal Setting: A Systematic Review of Intervention Components and Level of Active Engagement in Rehabilitation Goal-Setting Interventions. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabiltation, 103(1), 121-130 e123. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr.2021.06.025

Lennox Thompson, B., Gage, J., & Kirk, R. (2019). Living well with chronic pain: a classical grounded theory. Disability and Rehabilitation, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2018.1517195

Lenzen SA, Daniels R, van Bokhoven MA, van der Weijden T, Beurskens A. (2017). Disentangling self-management goal setting and action planning: a scoping review. PloS One,12:e0188822.

Swann, C., Jackman, P. C., Lawrence, A., Hawkins, R. M., Goddard, S. G., Williamson, O., Schweickle, M. J., Vella, S. A., Rosenbaum, S., & Ekkekakis, P. (2022, Jan 31). The (over)use of SMART goals for physical activity promotion: A narrative review and critique. Health Psychology Review, 1-16. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2021.2023608

Experiential avoidance – and persistent pain


Most of us will recognise that when we experience a pain, we firstly notice where it is, and the sensory qualities of it. We automatically make judgements about that pain – some of this judgement is about whether we recognise this pain (have we had it before?), some is about whether it’s important enough to interrupt what we’re doing (should I drop this hot cup of coffee, or can I hold onto it long enough to place the cup carefully on the bench), and some is about how we feel emotionally (yes, swearing is common when we smack our thumb with a hammer!).

In our response to acute pain, we often want to avoid or escape whatever we think gave us the pain – unless, of course, it’s something we choose to do even though it hurts. You know, things like lifting really heavy weights, running distances, taking rugby tackles, eating chilli! But in most cases where the pain is unexpected we’re inclined to want to make it stop, get away from the thing that probably caused it, and take a few minutes (or longer) to not do the things that make it worse. So we avoid walking on a newly sprained ankle and we don’t keep poking and prodding at a cut or a bruise.

Avoiding is quite common and even helpful when we experience the initial onset of a pain.

So why do we talk about “fear avoidance” as if it’s a bad thing?

Well, it’s because avoiding beyond a useful period of time often leads to ongoing problems. Some of these problems are possibly over-stated: things like “deconditioning” are probably not as much of a problem as we once thought (see Andrews, Strong & Meredith, 2021; Tagliaferri, Armbrecht, Miller, Owen et al, 2020). While other forms of avoidance may never even be considered.

What do I mean?

For a moment, think of a “weekend warrior”. The kind of person who heroically plays sport on a Saturday, trains once or twice during the week, and otherwise works hard and plays hard. Let’s think of this person as a male, perhaps in his late 30’s, thinks of himself as a hard worker and a family man. When he sprains his wrist after a particularly hard tackle in a weekend rugby game, he’s the kind who shrugs it off, and just keeps going. After a few weeks and his wrist doesn’t get much better, he heads off to see his local physio.

We wouldn’t usually think of him as an “avoider”. He’s not pain-avoidant, but sometimes because he doesn’t stop to take care of his wrist sprain, he ends up with a more troublesome injury. He might even develop a “boom and bust” pattern of activity: on a day he’s feeling good he’ll push through, but then his wrist starts playing up and he needs to take a day or two off.

I’m going to call it like I see it: this bloke is avoiding. What he’s avoiding is the experience of being vulnerable, of seeking help, of being advised to stop pushing himself for a day or so.

You see, experiential avoidance is what we do to avoid feelings (emotions) and actions that we don’t like or don’t want.

We see experiential avoidance most often described in pain research in the group of people who don’t resume their usual daily activities in part because they’re afraid of their pain. Or they’re afraid of what their pain might mean, or the effect of their pain on other things they need or want to do. For example, Angelina (see here) might be worried about the effect of pain on her sleep. And we’re reasonably OK with offering these people some information about what might be going on in their tissues, and that the relationship between pain and what’s going on in the tissues might not be as straightforward as it is when we hit our thumb with a hammer.

What we might be less aware of, and perhaps struggle to deal with is when a person appears to be doing the right things, like they’re remaining active and staying at work, but might be overdoing it. What might this person be avoiding? Perhaps, as I’ve suggested in the example above, it’s about avoiding feeling vulnerable, feeling like he’ll be told to slow down for a bit. Slowing down might be a sign, at least to our weekend warrior, that he’s not as young as he used to be. Perhaps he’s afraid of stopping because that means his busy mind can start to plague him with unhelpful thoughts about things he’s worrying about.

Experiential avoidance, like avoidance when a painful injury first happens, isn’t always a negative. When it’s used as the key strategy for life, indiscriminately and with an eye only to short-term benefits and not long-term consequences, then it’s not so good.

You see I hope we can help people to develop psychological flexibility: the ability to choose a response to any given situation that maintains moving towards what matters even if this means doing what feels odd or even a backwards step.

I also think we might benefit from developing psychological flexibility ourselves as clinicians. If we continue using the same old, same old strategy even if the results aren’t what we hoped for, we’re not helping anyone.

Andrews NE, Strong J, Meredith PJ. (2012). Activity pacing, avoidance, endurance, and associations with
patient functioning in chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. 93(11): 2109–21.e7, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr.2012.05.029 PMID: 22728699

Tagliaferri, S., Armbrecht, G., Miller, C., Owen, P., Mundell, N., Felsenberg, D., Thomasius, F., & Belavy, D. (2020). Testing the deconditioning hypothesis of low back pain: A study in 1182 older women, European Journal of Sport Science, 20:1, 17-23, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2019.1606942

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! Part 5


People come to see us because they have a problem. So the formulation approach I’m taking today begins from “the problem” and works back and forward. It’s called a “network” model, and is something many of us do without knowing that’s what we’re doing. The network model can also be called a functional analysis where we’re looking at what happens, and what a person does, and the ongoing consequences or loops that occur over time.

Angelina comes to see you because her neck is very sore. She’s not sure why it’s sore, or what happened to start it off, but she thinks it could be after working for a week at a new workstation where she had to look to the right to read documents, and straight ahead to work on the main monitor. It’s been there for over six months, and she’s come to see you now because she has a week of annual leave and some time to spend on herself. She’s played with changing her pillows because her neck is more uncomfortable in the morning, and it gets painful towards the end of the day just before she heads to sleep. She’s having trouble turning her head to reverse down her driveway, and looking up is almost her least favourite thing. Her sleep is OK once she’s got off to sleep, but initially it takes her a while to fall asleep because she can’t get comfortable. Her partner is getting frustrated with her because she doesn’t want to kiss him because that means she has to look up, and she doesn’t sit on the couch with him any more because he likes to rest his arm around her shoulders – and that increases her pain. She’s irritable and finds herself getting snappy at him. Angelina is in her mid-50’s, otherwise well, but has always lived with various aches and pains, most of which she ignores until they go away. She has had a painful shoulder and lateral elbow pain that lasted for over a year, but has gradually settled down – she didn’t do anything special to manage those after having only a small response to a steroid injection into her shoulder.

Angelina’s main concern is to establish whether her neck pain is anything to worry about, or whether it’s just more of the same, like her shoulder and elbow pain. Her other focus is on getting a comfortable position to go off to sleep because she thinks this is adding to her problem.

OK, so we have a lot of information about Angelina, and we can organise this information in many different ways. Given her main concern is her prognosis and then her sleep, we need to make sure the way we organise the information offers a possible explanation – a hypothesis.

Take a look at the network diagram below to see how I’ve sketched the information out – you’ll note that at this point I’m not trying to develop a diagnosis, I’m focusing on the problem as she sees it.

The matrix I’ve used here comes from Hofmann, Hayes & Lorscheid (2021) Learning Process-based Therapy, published by Context Press, New Harbinger.

What I’ve done is summarised the processes that I think might be relevant to Angelina’s presentation, and drawn the relationships between various aspects that she’s described. You might organise this information differently – and I’d usually do this in collaboration with the person.

If you look closely at the networks, you’ll see several loops that likely will continue if something doesn’t change. One to spot is this set below:

You can see that she’s worrying about her sleep, doesn’t get comfortable as she goes off to sleep, feels fed up, has changed her pillow (in line with her self-concept of someone who is a practical person), and the whole network will likely remain winding itself up unless “something” comes to disrupt this pattern.

This set of relationships raises some factors we need to consider when we’re thinking of interventions. As someone who sees herself as a practical person who doesn’t seek healthcare often, and has had previous bouts of pain that settled without specific treatment (though she sought it for her shoulder), we could interpret this as meaning she doesn’t panic about her situation too much – but we could also wonder if, because she’s seeking help now, she’s seeing her problem as different from previous pain problems and maybe this one is worrying her more than she’s ready to acknowledge. Just to the right of the loop I’ve shown above, you’ll see a box where she says “I’ll deal with it if it doesn’t get in the way of my family and relationship”. This is important – it’s an expression of how she sees herself, an important value, and her motivation for seeking help is also framed in terms of maintaining her loving relationship. For this reason, I’d be looking for interventions that either won’t intrude on her family life and routines, or I’ll be looking for ways to frame whatever treatment suggestions I make in terms of how this will support her relationship.

By drawing a network diagram showing potential processes that might be influencing Angelina’s presentation, I’m answering my question “why is she presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining her predicament” – she really wants a prognosis so she can establish a strategy to maintain her relationship with her family, keeps her “practical person” view of herself alive, and in a way that she can still fulfill her desire (and others’ expectations) to be fully productive at work.

I could analyse (or organise) Angelina’s information in lots of different ways. This is just one – and in some ways, the particular model I use to assemble her information is less important than ensuring Angelina is an equal partner in sketching out these relationships. I could have drawn the Tim Sharpe CBT model or used an ACT-based model and looked for patterns of psychological flexibility. I could have used Vlaeyen’s fear-avoidance model – and I’m sure there are plenty of others that might have been useful.
Irrespective of the model, what needs to be evident is using the information the person offers us, modifying the way we approach therapy as a result, and collaborating with the person to decide treatment priorities. This means we as clinicians need to be nimble, responsive, adaptive, and stop using treatment protocols! Any approach that suggests offering the same approach irrespective of the unique things influencing a person’s presentation is doomed to do a half-arsed job. These protocols might work for some, but they won’t work for all, and they may fail to address the real reason the person came to see us in the first place.

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! Part 4


In the previous few posts on what to do with all that assessment information I’ve talked about generating a formulation to guide treatment, and a little about how teams might work together to generate one. This post is a little different because I want to situation the discussion around the ultimate aim of therapy.

I usually work with people who have long-standing pain that hasn’t changed much and doesn’t seem to be disappearing. I’m not a nihilist, but I do wonder if clinicians are trying too hard to “change pain” when the body doesn’t seem to respond all that much to whatever we offer when it comes to musculoskeletal pain! Perhaps all we do is offer support to the person as their body gets on with the job of settling down…?

Anyway, my focus is to help people respond flexibly to what life has thrown at them – because while pain poses one of the greatest problems for people, often it’s not the pain as such but what we do to avoid or control pain – or, for that matter, what we do to avoid or control the results of avoiding or controlling pain. Confused? Let me unpack it a little with an example.

About the time I started this blog wayyyyy back in 2007 I had a concussion and developed post-concussion syndrome. I found it incredibly difficult to concentrate, find words, remember things, switch my attention from one thing to the next, and to deal with sensory overload. I was advised to rest and let my brain recover in its own time – all good. BUT I never expected that recovery to take almost two years! so I returned to part-time work after two weeks. In my head I was balancing my fatigue/headache/difficulty concentrating against my need to return to work, keep my employer happy, and do things that mattered.

If I flip that motivation on its head, I wanted to control both my symptoms and my fear/guilt of failing and perhaps losing my job/fear of sitting still and doing nothing/fear of feeling useless. After all, I was the vocational rehabilitation therapist for the service I worked in!

By trying to control my fear of not doing, I created a whole bunch of trouble for myself – I failed at controlling my symptoms – they grew out of hand and I eventually had to take some time off work, got quite depressed, and achieved exactly what I’d hope to avoid – needing to stay at home doing nothing!

When we think of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) for living with pain, we often think of the person working hard to control or avoid pain and our focus is on helping them to be willing to make room for pain and begin doing things – and yet I’ve met a great many people who have got caught up in a vicious cycle of over-doing and under-doing, or who “get on with it” with gritted teeth and sheer determination! So one thing we can be looking for in our “first contact” is to identify how workable are the ways the person is approaching this time in their life, a time when they’re dealing with pain and life restrictions, stress, balancing priorities, working, family and so on.

ACT provides a series of six processes that together offer a way to be flexible about how we handle what life throws at us, and help us do what matters in our life. In an ACT formulation, we’re looking for unhelpful patterns that constrain how flexibly we can do what matters. Some of the patterns we might see could be:

  1. Unwillingness to stop and create space for pain so the person gets stuck acting as if there is no pain, trying to do everything the same way as normal but either getting fatigued and stressed and just hanging on in there, or doing short bursts of “normal” and crashing periodically.
  2. Getting stuck with rigid beliefs about what’s going on like thinking the pain must be able to be fixed and quickly, or that the pain is the most horrible disaster ever and everything about life must be shelved until it’s fixed.
  3. Comparing what he or she can currently do against a previous level of performance and being frustrated and angry because this doesn’t fit with how they see themselves, and especially thinking that this is the way it’s going to be forever…
  4. Losing sight of important things like being with family, or seeing friends because of feeling irritable, sad, thinking they don’t want to see them like this, not being able to do the things they used to do, waiting for the pain to reduce, or looking for the fix.
  5. Anticipating calamity or remembering disasters either about “the last time I tried doing this” or “because I saw this happen to [name]” and then feeling utterly stuck.
  6. Casting about being erratic or just not sticking to a plan, getting off track maybe because results don’t happen, or maybe because it’s something new and feels unfamiliar, or perhaps because someone else suggested another option…

There are always other ways people respond to pain, not just the patterns I’ve listed here, but these are some common ones I’ve seen. In ACT we’re looking for unworkable patterns that don’t lead the person towards being the kind of person they want to be, doing the things that bring meaning in their life.

When I’m jotting these things down, I’m looking to identify the core things the person isn’t willing to experience: thoughts, emotions, memories, situations. I want to understand what the person does to avoid them – like things the person has stopped doing or deliberately avoids, the ways the person avoids or controls emotions associated with that thing (like drinking more alcohol, zoning out, lashing out), and what I observe during our initial assessment like skipping over topics that feel uncomfortable.

I want to understand the cost or “unworkability” from the person’s perspective: what’s the impact of responding in these ways. I need to understand what’s going on in the person’s context – their family life, employment situation, influence of case manager or insurance/compensation, friendships. And I want to look at the factors that might be adding to the person’s inflexible responses, and these are myriad and often include what we do as clinicians – like being told to stop doing a favourite hobby “because it might be damaging” (how many people with low back pain have been told to stop running, stop fishing, stop dancing, stop lifting, to sit in a certain way, walk in a certain way, lift in a certain way, stop slouching, walk faster, slower…?). And of course I want to understand a person’s strengths: have they had an experience like this before? Do they have strong values? Have they succeeded in some area in life? What brings them joy and takes them into the zone? How have they modified the way they do things so they can do what matters?

I like to do this in collaboration with the person (how else could I do it?!) and to look at the good and not so good of everything they’ve done along with the context. Because one thing that always resonates with me is that people do what they do because it’s worked in the past. Always. At least once.

For more on ACT, you can’t go past the Association for Contextual Behavioural Science – https://contextualscience.org/

And Chapter 2 from Lance McCracken’s book Mindfulness and Acceptance in Behavioral Medicine, 2011, Context Press, New Harbinger:

Vowles, K.E, & Thompson, M. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Chronic Pain, pp31 – 60.

Making first contact: what to do with all that information! Part 3


In my last post I described the “4 P” model (sometimes called the 5P!) of formulation for pain. In today’s post I want to talk about an integrated approach for a team.

Teamwork in pain management is an enormous thing – IASP (International Association for the Study of Pain) endorses multidisciplinary (I prefer interprofessional) teamwork but gives little information on how teams best work together. In fact, research exploring teamwork processes in pain management is remarkably absent, even though there’s considerable research elsewhere in healthcare showing that effective teamwork is quite distinct from being an effective solo clinician. The processes of coming together, learning about one another and what each person and profession contributes, learning how to make decisions, how to negotiate differences of opinion, to trust one another: all of these have been explored in other health settings, but not in pain management ones. This matters because of all the areas in healthcare, pain management presents us with the most complex inter-related problems where the model of pain adopted by a team must be consistent or the person with pain will likely feel utterly confused.

’nuff said. Let’s take a look at a team mental model of pain, because this is where learning from one another and across professions becomes “live”.

The basic assumption for the whole team must be that pain is a multifactorial experience, influenced by (broadly) biological, psychological and social elements. In other words, a team won’t work well if some of the members think that pain can be “fixed” by addressing only one piece of the puzzle. Even in acute pain, the team needs to recognise that what a person believes is going on, the meaning they draw from the experience, the influence of others (the family, hospital staff, community) will make a difference to the person’s distress and disability. Context always matters and people always bring their previous experiences (either personal or drawing from what they’ve seen/heard from others, including media) with them when they’re in pain.

If the team takes this idea on board, then the weight that’s placed on the various factors contributing to distress and disability should be equal, at least initially. For example, although anxiety might be a key influence in one person’s pain experience, this shouldn’t be valued above possible biological factors. Each contributing factor needs to earn its way into the overall formulation, and it’s only from reviewing the formulation as a whole that it’s possible to determine where to begin with treatment.

This sounds complicated – and it can be in some cases! But it is really a mindset rather than being horribly complex. If we hold each piece of the puzzle lightly, look to the relationships between each piece, then we can begin to see how one factor influences another. And teams can, if they share their ideas, put the pieces together much more effectively than any single person can – even the person with pain.

Yes, the person with pain IS part of the team – always. How else will the team know they’ve been effective?

Teams form a mental model of what each other knows, what the team (as a whole) thinks matters, and who in the team might offer the mix of skills the person needs. This mental model doesn’t happen instantly: you can’t put six clinicians in a room and an hour later expect them to have a common understanding of pain, each other, and what the team can do. There’s good research showing that teams need time together – even virtual teams (Maynard & Gilson, 2021) – and that frequently changing team members reduces the teams’ effectiveness (Bedwell, 2019; Williams & Potts, 2010). Mental models emerge as teams share knowledge – the problem is that group members often share knowledge that is common, rather than unique information that could be the linchpin to an effective decision (Levine, 2018).

In my experience, and reading through an enormous amount of research, the most commonly adopted model in persistent pain management is a cognitive behavioural approach. Now this is not “CBT” the therapy, but instead an approach that recognises:

People are active processors of information and not passive reactors.

Thoughts (e.g., appraisals, expectations, and beliefs) can elicit and influence mood, affect physiological processes, have social consequences, and also serve as an impetus for behavior; conversely, mood, physiology, environmental factors, and behavior can influence the nature and content of thought processes.

• Behaviour is reciprocally determined by both individual and environmental factors.

People can learn more adaptive ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.

People should be active collaborators in changing their maladaptive thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. (Turk & Flor, 2013)

We might disagree on how these points might be operationalised, and treated, but a team should have something like this as a critical understanding of how the factors influencing a person’s distress and disability might fit together.

I’ve written plenty of times about the formulation approach that I’ve often used – here and here – and I’ll show you another ACT-based formulation next week. In the meantime, perhaps it’s time to consider how well you and your team know one another, and consider whether you have enough trust in one another to debate issues (not people), bring unique information (rather than shared), and collaborate rather than compete?

Bedwell, W. L. (2019). Adaptive Team Performance: The Influence of Membership Fluidity on Shared Team Cognition. Frontiers of Psychology, 10, 2266. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02266

Levine, J. M. (2018). Socially-shared cognition and consensus in small groups. Current Opinion in Psychology, 23, 52-56. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.12.003

Maynard, M. T., & Gilson, L. L. (2021). Getting to know you: The importance of familiarity in virtual teams. Organizational Dynamics, 50(1). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orgdyn.2021.100844

Turk, D. C., & Flor, H. (2013). The Cognitive-Behavioral Approach to Pain Management. In S. B. McMahon, M. Koltzenburg, I. Tracey, & D. C. Turk (Eds.), Wall and Melzack’s Textbook of Pain (6 ed., pp. 592-602). Saunders. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-7020-4059-7.00043-7

Williams, A. C., & Potts, H. W. (2010). Group membership and staff turnover affect outcomes in group CBT for persistent pain. Pain, 148(3), 481-486. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2009.12.011

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! part 2


Last week I described some of the reasons for using a case formulation approach when working through initial assessment information, and today I’m going to describe one approach for organising a formulation. This is the “4 P” formulation, and it’s one that’s often used in mental health (Bolton, 2014).

In the 4 P model, there are four questions to ask yourself:

  1. Preconditions – Why is this person vulnerable to this problem?
  2. Precipitating factors – Why now? This can mean “why is this person having symptoms now?” or “why is this person presenting to this person for treatment right now?”
  3. Perpetuating factors – Why is this person still ill?
  4. Protective factors – Why is this person not more ill?

Remembering that people are whole people, and that pain is always multifactorial, this formulation approach incorporates diagnostic information (disease) alongside a person’s response to disease (illness). The two facets of “being unwell” go together – but not synchronously. We can have a disease and be oblivious to it (think of many forms of cancer, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis…and even Covid-19). Once we begin to experience symptoms and decide that this is not “normal” we call it illness. And if symptoms and signs begin to impinge on what we can and can’t do in life, we can call this disability or functional limitations. These in turn (more or less) influence participation in community life. The relationships are not straightforward, and this is partly why a formulation can be so helpful. Formulations help us explore – in collaboration with the person – why is this problem such a problem? – whether it’s simply the presence of pain, or more related to the disability and distress that pain is posing for the person.

Preconditions include biological factors such as gender, ethnicity, and age. Preconditions also include psychological factors such as previous experiences in life, prevailing beliefs, emotional reactivity, and attention. Social factors such as employment status, social connection, stigma, socio-economic status, family and living situation are all contributors to a person’s vulnerability to the problem they’re presenting with. In our pain formulations, we know about many of these preconditions that make the people we see vulnerable to having trouble with their pain.

Precipitating factors can be considered in several ways. I like to consider behavioural antecedents for seeking help – what’s been happening in the immediate weeks before a person seeks help – as well as antecedents to the onset of symptoms. For example, people might wait for some weeks before seeking help for a back pain because “it usually settles down” – and this suggests to me that their current episode hasn’t settled down, and they have some thoughts or worries about why. Others might be seeking help because of insurance or workplace requirements where, if they don’t seek help and have the problem recorded, they may not get cover for treatment if the problem reoccurs. Some might be seeking help because their partner or family member is worried, or because they read something in the media or online. I also ask about what was happening at the time the symptoms started. Sometimes this is about an unusually busy time (at work or home), a change in activity level, a new tool or piece of equipment, a new manager or coworkers, perhaps a new daily routine, or a change in living circumstances. While these factors may not be directly causal (biologically) the meaning of these events is valuable because they inform me of the person’s beliefs about their problem.

Perpetuating factors are again, multifactorial and often unrelated to the factors that precipitated the problem. There could be factors associated with disuse influencing changes to the tissues and neurobiology; there could be steps the person has taken to deal with the problem that impact on how quickly it resolves such as using NSAIDs or strapping/wrapping, wearing splints, changed movement patterns. Some of the factors are likely to be beliefs about what’s going on and what should be done about it – like “all the pain must be gone before I start back at work”, or “it’s damaged so I need surgery”. Others could be instructions from people (or held in the community at large) about what to do, like resting, moving in particular ways, or when to seek treatment. Some can be how others respond to the person, like getting irritated because the person isn’t 100% “yet”, or mollycoddling the person (wrapping them up in cottonwool and not letting them do things again). Workplace factors like policies not allowing a person back “until fully fit” or “there are no light duties” also contribute to trouble resuming normal activities.

Protective factors help explain resilience, or strengths the person has that help them maintain well being in the face of this problem. They can be attitudes and practices of the person like believing the body is good at recovering, or maintaining healthy eating and sleeping. They may be factors such as the person’s age, gender, general health. They can include the ability to get to and from treatment (and pay for it), the person’s social supports, their relationships with other health professionals, perhaps strategies they’ve used for other problems (including similar ones to this event) that they haven’t thought to use for this one.

The 4P approach has multiple variants. Some include “the Problem” and call it a 5P model. Some are explicitly tied to a theory of human behaviour (such as a CBT model, ACT model or applied behaviour analysis). Some are entirely developed from the person’s own words and experiences, while others draw on reports from other team members, or previous interactions. The over-riding themes of all of these are that a formulation is developed in collaboration with the person, and considers the whole person in their own usual context.

Next time I’ll look at another formulation approach, and discuss it in relation to teams and how they might use it to form a “team model” of pain and musculoskeletal problems.

Bolton, J. W. (2014). Case formulation after Engel—The 4P model: A philosophical case conference. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 21(3), 179-189.

Cox, L. A. (2021). Use of individual formulation in mental health practice. Mental Health Practice, 24(1), 33-41. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.7748/mhp.2020.e1515

Farmer, R. F., & Chapman, A. L. (2016). Behavioral case formulation and treatment planning. In Behavioral interventions in cognitive behavior therapy: Practical guidance for putting theory into action (2nd ed.). (pp. 53-100). https://doi.org/10.1037/14691-003

Gilbert, P. (2016). A biopsychosocial and evolutionary approach to formulation. In Tarrier, Nicholas [Ed]; Johnson, Judith Ed Case formulation in cognitive behaviour therapy: The treatment of challenging and complex cases , 2nd ed (pp 52-89) xvii, 384 pp New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group; US (pp. 52-89).

Making first contact: what to do with all that information! part 1


Last post I wrote I said I’d continue with a process for structuring and synthesising the information we gather from the initial contact we make with the person. This process is integral to clinical reasoning, and somewhat surprisingly, there’s not a great deal of research to give us guidance on the best way to do this – and it’s even more challenging for those of us working in an interprofessional team setting, where different professions, personalities and assumptions are part of it.

If we work backwards from the end point, we might get some clues about what to do. Our end point is to help this person do what matters in their life. All our efforts are pitched towards this end. Because people are unique, what matters to them in their context is likely to be unique, and because pain and disability are multifactorial, there will be many paths to help that person get to where they want to be. Algorithms are designed to make the task of clinical reasoning a lot simpler, but there are some enormous assumptions associated with using an algorithmic approach: that we know the important factors associated with change; that we can address those factors successfully; that each person has the same set of factors evident in their presentation… and frankly, I don’t think I’ve seen strong evidence of any of these when it comes to pain.

Clinical reasoning is about a series of cause and effect assumptions. We have limited certainty about much of pain and the relationships between factors we think influence pain and disability. We’ve also been holding on to some outdated and inaccurate assumptions about the way grouped data applies to the one person in front of us. Prof Steven Hayes points out that as early as the 1940’s (perhaps earlier) we knew that there was no such thing as “the average man” (or woman!). This emerged in human factors/ergonomic design, where using the average/median of all the anthropomorphic measures we have does not help us design a workstation or control panel that will work for all people. Instead, we have to design to suit the minimum and maximum clearances and reach, and add adjustability so that everyone can make their workstation work for them. The assumptions used in early application of anthropometrics were that everyone is essentially similar: it’s ergodic theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergodic_theory). Ergodic theory holds two assumptions that don’t work well for people: all the events in ergodic theory must be stationary, and all elements in the mathematical model must obey they same rules.

When we work with people, we know their presentation is a series of responses that continue to move over time. Their presentation is dynamic, changing all the time but exhibiting similarities in terms of processes. And we also know that different factors influencing a person’s presentation don’t always follow the same patterns. There are things like legislation, unexpected events like trauma or earthquakes, biases and stigma – and these don’t affect everyone equally.

One solution is to acknowledge this and instead look to the particular, applying to this person at this time – idiographic, or as Hayes calls it “idionomic.” A network diagram, showing the dynamic hypothesised relationships between contributing factors can help us generate ways to influence change. And the diagram should “make sense”, or explain, what’s going on to all the team members including the person with pain.

I’ve used a cognitive behavioural formulation model for many years now (see here and here – and use the search bar for “case formulation” for a list of the posts I’ve made over the years). The assumptions in this approach are that directly influencing the thoughts a person has about their pain will have flow-on effects on pain, emotions, actions and physiological arousal. And to a certain extent this is true – plus, there are some things we cannot readily change, such as family responses or previous trauma. But the flexibility of a formulation approach is that we can include anything that’s relevant including strategies the person has used in response to those things that can’t be changed.

The biggest assumption that I make is that pain on its own isn’t the main problem. It’s how we respond to pain, what we think is going on, how we react to the things we do in response to pain (or things we don’t do but think we should), and how the people around us influence us, that help determine how much pain bothers us. There is plenty of research showing that people willingly do painful things if they do so for important reasons. Some everyday examples include ritual tattoos, endurance sports, boxing and martial arts, eating very spicy chilli. Of course, these aren’t examples of persistent pain – and yet, people with persistent pain started with acute pain. There are some highly influential factors that are present from the outset and these do have an impact on how we respond to pain, especially as time goes on.

The second assumption I make is that everyone is able to learn how to do things differently, and in doing these, we can develop a different relationship with pain and become less distressed and disabled by our experience. This doesn’t mean (a) that we should just give up and be resigned to a life of pain and not seek treatment to reduce pain; or (b) that we should just ignore pain and grit teeth and bear it. It also doesn’t mean that we will feel happy about pain, or that life goes on as normal. But it does mean that we can make some room for pain to be present, and move towards doing what matters rather than having pain become some invisible barrier to a life worth living.

Exactly what we include, and how the relationships between each factor play out is the topic for next weeks’ blog – stay in touch!

Making the first contact


How do we begin working with someone who is asking for help with their persistent pain? In this post I’ll describe some of the considerations I have when I begin, because as Benedetti points out, the “meet the therapist moment” is one of the most potent times in the therapeutic ritual (Benedetti, 2011). It’s the time when the person’s expectations and the clinician’s empathy and competence meet, and the “meaning response” blooms.

My two clinical questions are:

  1. Why is this person presenting in this way at this time, and what’s maintaining their predicament?
  2. And what is this person’s main concern?

But before I ask these questions, I want to take a moment to think about the person and what might be going on in his or her mind.

Benedetti points out that expectancies are an important part of a response to treatment – whether that treatment has any active action, or not. Expectancies are about what a person brings to a therapeutic encounter: there are two, one is stimulus expectancies (anticipations of external events – eg that the next painful experience will be less), and the other is response expectancies (predictions of your own nonvolitional response – eg that after doing this thing, I expect to experience less pain) (Kirsch, 1985).

People who come to see a clinician, especially a clinician from a little-known profession (occupational therapy!) will hold expectancies about what that person will do, but these will likely be weaker than the expectancies a person might hold about seeing a well-known profession. The strength of an expectancy is different from the direction of an expectancy – for example, a negative experience with a physiotherapist might lead to a strongly negative expectancy about future treatments, while not having had an experience with an occupational therapist might lead to a weakly positive expectancy about what’s about to happen.

Along with expectancies, the person will likely be anxious about what’s to come. The possibility of something that might help (or not), meeting a new clinician, and living with pain are all stressors – and anxiety erodes a person’s ability to absorb lots of information, while biasing them towards remembering threatening words (Reidy & Richards, 1997).

So there’s a lot going on in the person’s mind when they attend that first session.

There’s also often a large power imbalance (Joseph-Williams, Edwards & Elwyn, 2014). This emerges from the fact that often clinicians hold a lot more information about the person we’re seeing than they do about us. Especially after we’ve asked a bunch of questions, often quite intimate in nature. For a person seeking help, this imbalance can make it hard to ask questions, to direct the conversation, to hold a sense of independence throughout the encounter.

So having set the scene for you, I’m sure you can agree that how we go about collecting information from a person is incredibly important – especially so that relationship can begin to build.

Introductions

In the introduction, I seek to give the person some information about who I am – not just as a clinician, and the kind of treatments I use, but also about who I am. I’ve drawn inspiration from tikanga Māori here, where the cultural tradition entails letting the person know where I come from and who I’m connected to. I like to let people know my childhood roots are in Turanganui a kiwa, or Gisborne. That the mountain my heart connects with is Mount Hikurangi – the first mountain in NZ to see the sun. The river I connect with is the Taruheru, flowing into the sea in Gisborne. I also let people know my whanau connections – the Lennox’s, and the Thompson’s, are my whanau (extended family), and I’m a 5th generation New Zealander. I now live in Otautahi/Christchurch. This introduction only takes a few minutes, and your culture might not value this form of introduction. For me in Aotearoa/New Zealand, it’s one way I can show respect and follow a tradition that means the person I work with knows something more about me than just my name.

I also include my profession – what I do. I’m an occupational therapist, my job is to help people do what matters in their life contexts.

I like to then let the person know that they’re brave and courageous for seeking help – it’s not easy to say you can’t do this on your own. It takes courage to tell someone that.

Questions

Then I open with a broad question about what has led this person to come to see me. I might add in something about “tell me about your pain and what you’ve done so far for it.” I’ll often ask what their theory is about their pain, what they think is going on.

Then I ask “What is your main concern today?”

Throughout this process I’m reflecting what I’ve heard, to ensure I’ve understood what the person has experienced. I’m NOT giving reinterpretations, I’m NOT giving out new information, I’m just listening.

I often spend time asking about four areas of life: relationships, fun, work, and health. Or I might ask the person to take me through a typical day, from the time they wake up.

I like to find out not just what the person has done to help themselves, but also what they’ve learned from these experiences. The messages they’ve received over time, and the things they’ve tried but perhaps didn’t like or that didn’t help.

Questionnaires

I was a big fan of questionnaires filled out ahead of time, and I am still a fan but don’t use them as much. This is mainly because so many people have filled out endless questionnaires and nobody has sat down with them to talk about what they mean! So I’m a little more selective and focus much more on listening first then choosing something that will offer me and the person some insight into what might be going on. For example, I might choose the PASS20 (McCracken & Dhingra, 2002) because it helps me figure out where to begin with reducing pain-related anxiety. It’s a good measure to use each week to track changes over time, and I’m beginning to delve into repeated measures of progress rather than a pre-post-follow-up approach that’s typical.

Observation

Covid has meant it’s not as easy to carry out observational assessments, but I’m always watching how the person sits, moves, walks, and body language. What I’m not doing is interpreting these observations without talking to the person about them! Too many clinicians make judgements about the person based on maybe one or two observations, out of context of the person’s life and environment, and without checking in with the person to work out what might be contributing to what they see. Let’s not do that – the person might be completely oblivious that they’re guarding their sore hand, or they keep shifting in the chair, or that a habitual movement like taking a jacket off might be easier to do than being asked to perform some weird movement at the command of the clinician!

Pulling it all together

Just as we wouldn’t expect to be marched in for surgery straight after our first consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon, I don’t believe it’s OK to offer something to a person on their first visit just because we feel internal pressure to do so. Having said this, I will often suggest to the person that they spend a bit of time doing some brief “noticing without judging” exercises. We’ll give it a go at this first appointment, so they’re not being expected to go do it without knowing how. The reason I start with brief noticing experiments is that it’s something we could all do more often, it gives the person a new skill (usually) to develop, and it’s often an introduction to being fully present without judging. Being fully present without judging is hard to do when you’re sore because the mind likes to anticipate how bad it’s going to be (“you’ll need to take it very quietly or you’ll pay for it”) or remember previous pains (“last time you just sat around your pain went nuts, you don’t want to risk that now do you?”).

Notes/Documentation

I write conversational notes directly to the person, going through what we’ve talked about and pulling together all the information I’ve gathered in this first meeting. I find it helps me to make sense of what’s going on, it allows me some time to reflect on what I’ve observed and heard, and I can assemble it in a case formulation that the person and I can explore if/when we meet again.

Assessment is never over. Every time I meet with a person I’ll be learning more about what’s going on. I don’t feel pressured to “find it all out” at that first session just because there are goals that must be developed. In fact, one goal I leave in for everyone is “develop goals” (well, I don’t use goal language – it’s more about directions and actions that take you there). Because seriously, how can anyone meet someone and immediately develop goals – that’s disrespectful to the person who may not have had time to think about what matters the most, and it’s disrespectful to the complexity of goal setting as a process anyway.

Theme and variations

I’ve written one approach I use for learning about the person I’m trying to help. There are others – a time line, drawing a life map, mind-mapping, walking and talking, making a coffee – all of these and more can be used to explore the same information.

Let’s not call it “the subjective” – let’s call it what it is, our first “getting to know you” meeting.

Kirsch, I. (1985). Response expectancy as a determinant of experience and behavior. American Psychologist, 40(11), 1189–1202.

Joseph-Williams, N., Edwards, A., & Elwyn, G. (2014). Power imbalance prevents shared decision making. Bmj, 348.

McCracken, L. M., & Dhingra, L. (2002). A short version of the Pain Anxiety Symptoms Scale (PASS-20): preliminary development and validity. Pain Research & Management, 7(1), 45-50.

Reidy, J., & Richards, A. (1997). Anxiety and memory: A recall bias for threatening words in high anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35(6), 531-542.

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