Clinical reasoning

Bias: Is pain all the same?


The topic of how we define pain, and how humans respond to pain has come up for me as I mull over the IASP definition of pain. The current (new) definition is this:

An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage.

Six key notes:

  • Pain is always a personal experience that is influenced to varying degrees by biological, psychological, and social factors.
  • Pain and nociception are different phenomena. Pain cannot be inferred solely from activity in sensory neurons.
  • Through their life experiences, individuals learn the concept of pain.
  • A person’s report of an experience as pain should be respected.
  • Although pain usually serves an adaptive role, it may have adverse effects on function and social and psychological well-being.
  • Verbal description is only one of several behaviors to express pain; inability to communicate does not negate the possibility that a human or a nonhuman animal experiences pain.

Now, for me the definition works fine – definitions describe and establish boundaries around what is being defined. Definitions don’t have to include all the uses of the term but instead just have to be distinct and clear, to “express the essential nature of something” as Merriam-Webster puts it.

Alongside this definition are notes about the function of pain – in other words, the notes (but not the definition) attempt to indicate why we experience pain. ‘An adaptive role‘ – in other words, pain serves a purpose in most cases and it may have adverse effects.

The question that leaps out to me now is what is the adaptive purpose of pain? This is the question that vexes many commentators who really don’t like the idea of what one author has called “maldynia“. Maldynia is thought to be “bad pain” that is severe, disabling and long-lived. I’m not fond of the word, but I do think there are pains that are not “adaptive” and these are amongst the ones that puzzle us the most in clinical practice. Things like phantom limb pain, nonspecific low back pain, complex regional pain syndrome and dear old fibromyalgia.

Back to the adaptive purpose of pain. Right now I have a cracked area on my heel. It’s quite a deep crack and it hurts every time I put my foot down. The way I’m using that information (the ‘ouch’) is to notice that yep, the crack is deep and there is tissue damage. And I am doing something about it by looking for urea-based cream and covering it while I work in the garden. I’ve (1) noticed tissue damage; (2) recognised that I need to do something about it; and (3) from experience, know that it will settle down and no longer be painful once the tissues have healed. I’ll also take care in the future to treat my heels so they remain soft as a baby’s bottom.

The metaphor of pain as an alert and action prompt serves quite well for me at the moment. And in most cases this is how we experience pain. Another example: I burned my thumb and finger on a soldering iron recently – you bet that hurt! I let go of the soldering iron PDQ, soaked my thumb and finger in cold water, then covered them until they had healed. The pain I experienced settled down after a day or so (unless I held a hot coffee cup!), and the new skin was a little tender for a couple of weeks. Again – pain served a purpose to alert me to stop doing dumb stuff, to protect the area, and to learn not to grab hold of the wrong end of the soldering iron! The metaphor of pain as an alert, call to action and learning experience again worked pretty well.

Now over the last few years I’ve had shoulder pain, imaging showed a bit of an enlarged bursa, a tiny fragment of calcification. This pain hasn’t settled down, even after I had cortisone injection AND did all the movement stuff including strength (yes – I did strength stuff!). Where oh where is the purpose or function of pain in this instance? Pain is not serving me well – I’ve been alerted, I’ve acted on that alert, nothing has changed and the metaphor breaks down.

But let’s take a look at the notes from IASP again – “Although pain usually serves an adaptive role” – usually. Usually. So there are times when pain does not serve an adaptive role. I think my shoulder pain, my groin pain, and my neck and back pain (yep, good old fibromyalgia) does not serve a function. I can’t think of any utility in having a grumpy body that really gripes about doing everyday movements like getting dressed, standing up from a chair, turning to look our the rear window of my car while I reverse down the driveway or aches in different parts of my body on different days then moves somewhere else at random.

A hidden assumption of the pain definition notes is that the “adaptive role” is reserved for those with a normally functioning nervous system, and where pain is associated with nociceptive activity, or inflammation. What if a nerve itself is damaged? What if the spinal cord is diseased or traumatised? What if there are changes to the way the nervous system processes information (we have that in every other sensory process, and in every other body system)? The experience of pain remains the same – still the same old aching, burning, gnawing, stinging sensations and the “ew”, “I don’t want this”, frustrating, totally unpleasant sensory and emotional experience as defined. The adaptive function, however? Not present.

The thing is, while I focus on persistent pain, most pain by far is not ongoing. I expect my heel crack to heal and the pain to go, and my now-slightly scarred finger and thumb are fine now.

Yes, the epidemiology of persistent pain shows that the prevalence of pain that goes on for more than three months is between 13–50% of adults in the UK. Of those who live with chronic pain, 10.4–14.3% were found to have moderate-to-severe disabling chronic pain (Fayaz, Croft, Langford, Donaldson & Jones, 2016). Similar findings for New Zealand – 16% of NZers live with pain lasting three months or more.

But given I think most of us will hurt ourselves at least once this year (especially with the lockdowns and stress of COVID19 and the economy and elections…), this means that more often than not, our experiences of pain are the acute kind. The ones that do alert us to notice what’s happening in our body, to take some kind of action, and to learn something useful from this experience.

So, while the metaphor of an alarm, alert, “danger signal” or “bear” or “beast” doesn’t hold up for all of our pain experiences, on the whole, it works. And the purpose of metaphor is “a way of conceiving of one thing in terms of another, and its primary function is understanding” (Lakoff and Johnson, 2003). Ultimately, we use metaphors like these to generate a sense of purpose for an experience that is commonplace, and the most common pain we have is a short-term, temporary one. Let’s not let my bias towards persistent pain lead me astray.

Fayaz A., Croft P., Langford R., Donaldson J., Jones G. Prevalence of chronic pain in the UK: a systematic review and meta-analysis of population studies. BMJ Open. 2016;6

Lakoff G, Johnson M. Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003:36.

Merskey H., Bogduk N., editors. IASP task force on taxonomy, Part III: Pain Terms, A Current List with Definitions and Notes on Usage. IASP Press; Seattle, WA: 1994. pp. 209–214.

Why learning about pain can help – an old study worth revisiting


If you’ve read my blog over the years you’ll see that I love a bit of history. Learning from older studies, and older opinions, can help us position our current thoughts in a larger context. Older studies can also highlight concepts that haven’t grabbed the attention nearly as much as more recent studies but still have value.

Today’s post is about a studied published in 2004. It’s one I’ve often used to illustrate how influential our expectations or beliefs are when it comes to pain intensity and pain aversiveness/unpleasantness.

Take 31 healthy undergraduate students (50% were women in this case). Split them into two groups, and offer them a small incentive (a large bar of chocolate and a soft drink – OK I’m in!). Hold a set of objects to the back of their necks and ask them to rate the experience on a set of visual analogue scales ((1) very soft–very hard; (2) not prickling–very prickling; (3) not noticeable–very noticeable; (4) not painful–very painful; (5) not rough– very rough; (6) not damaging–very damaging; (7) not pleasant–very pleasant; (8) very cold–very hot; (9) very simple–very complex.). The objects were:

a feather, a small mirror, a rough brush, a paper handkerchief, a metal bar, a piece of hard plastic, a piece of sand paper, and a gel. The metal bar (aluminium, length 17.5 cm, diameter 3 cm) was cooled down to -25 degrees Celcius. This temperature was chosen because it’s not damaging when held briefly against the skin.

Each person was then individually exposed to the item, and asked to complete the ratings. The only difference between the groups was that participants were told just before the metal bar was applied, “this is very hot” or “this is very cold”.

The findings supported the hypothesis: when people thought the stimulus was hot they rated it as more painful AND more damaging than when they thought it was cold.

What do we make of this? The simple interpretation is that people interpret what happens to them in light of what they think is going on. That meaning influences the experience of pain. And that this interpretation occurs rapidly and without conscious awareness. The authors argued that attentional focus, anxiety and interpretation all influence the experience – however, in this instance, attention to the stimulus was greater in the case of the “cold” stimulus than the hot. Anxiety might influence attention to a stimulus, and “hot” might be more anxiety-provoking than “cold”, enhancing attentional awareness – or not. So the final consideration from this study is that if interpretation is essential in perceptual processing, tissue-damage related meaning might itself influence how pain is perceived.

The authors conclude by saying that their findings “support the hypothesis that higher order psychological processes influence the experience of pain” and go on to say they are “also of clinical importance, as they suggest that correction of dysfunctional interpretations of pain might help to reduce the burden the experience of pain poses on many people.”

Since this paper was published we have seen a proliferation of educational approaches to help people experiencing pain interpret this in a different way. I’m loathe to describe a person’s interpretation as “dysfunctional” because it is their experience – and at the same time I’m also aware that many unhelpful terms are used to describe what might be going on inside a person’s body. Some examples include “wear and tear” for osteoarthritis, “an unstable pelvis”, “your back has gone out”, “your spine is out of alignment” – the list goes on.

Here’s the thing: we can absolutely acknowledge a person’s distress at what they understand is going on, and what it feels like to them. We should, I think, always be compassionate and validate the distress we see in a person. That is real and their experience.

Here’s another thing: when the distress is based on inaccurate or unhelpful information, then I think it’s unethical to leave a person thinking this – even if we’ve offered validation and compassion. Would we leave a person to believe they had cancer when they didn’t? And yet some people would argue that to offer an alternative explanation somehow invalidates the person’s experience. We can both validate the distress a person is feeling AND offer a more workable or useful alternative.

At this point in my blog I want to be absolutely crystal clear – I do not know all the mechanisms involved in pain. Nobody does. And none of our explanations are terribly “True” with a capital T, because we actually don’t know. We do have some workable explanations to dispute or replace some unhelpful or unworkable explanations – eg that what we can see on imaging doesn’t equate with pain; that “issues in the tissues” are poorly correlated to pain; that “wear and tear” is often interpreted by people as “I’m wearing out” when it might be more useful to describe osteoarthritic changes as “age-related changes”. We definitely know that the brain is involved in our pain experience, and we know that various so-called psychological processes influence how much of a nociceptive stimulus is processed. What we don’t know is how – and that’s OK. To a great extent the “how is pain ‘produced'” question remains unanswered. But to leave people with an impression that “if I bend without using my core, I’ll do serious damage”, or “this could leave me in a wheelchair if I’m not very careful” in the name of validating a person’s experience is, I think, the very worst example of paternalism.

Do I espouse any particular way of helping someone make sense of their experience? Yes, glad you asked. My preference is to take the person through their own experiences, to help them “join the dots” of the various factors that might be influencing their pain. If, and when, it’s appropriate I might add in some things we know about pain such as increased anxiety likely increases pain and attention to pain – and this is why, in the middle of the night when there’s not much going on, and a person isn’t sleeping, they might notice their pain really going nuts. I accept that pain is present, and how or why isn’t nearly as important as exploring what this person notices about their own pain. And sometimes that might include some gate control theory, some neuromatrix, some descending inhibition information, and so on. In the service of my clinical reasoning about why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining this person’s predicament.

TL:DR – what a person thinks is going on has a powerful influence on both pain intensity and unpleasantness (oh and beliefs about harm). This matters because some explanations given to people (and some of the rubbish found on the internet) are not helpful at all.

Arntz, A., & Claassens, L. (2004). The meaning of pain influences its experienced intensity. Pain, 109(1-2), 20-25. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2003.12.030

Looking beyond the immediate


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Job done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming resilient


Rehabilitation professions are about helping people recover from illness to return to what matters in life. Sometimes as I read the myriad social media posts on ways to help people with pain, I wonder what kind of life rehabilitation professionals live themselves. Does our focus on what’s done during rehabilitation represent the way people live in everyday life?

I suspect that because rehabilitation has emerged from a medical model, much of our expectations and the framework for our work has remained in a “fix-it” or “there you go, good as new” mindset. A kind of short-term, out the door and back home lens, exacerbated by hospital adminstrators and policy developers needs to get people to leave hospital so as not to clog the beds.

Rehabilitation is often provided for people recovering from accidental injury, at least in NZ. These services consist of lots of physiotherapy – mainly exercise prescription; vocational rehabilitation – mainly time-frame expectations for the number of hours a person should be working, with adjustments made to tasks and some equipment; psychology – possibly cognitive behavioural approaches, but no specialist rehabilitation psychology yet in NZ.

The main problems with rehabilitation for persistent pain is that while provision for people receiving compensation is available (very little for those not receiving ACC), it’s often located away from where people live their lives. Even in the workplace, much vocational rehabilitation is undertaken by clinicians who are focused on helping the person return to this job only, not respond to future developments.

I think rehabilitation professionals could take a few leaves out of an approach promoted by Steven Hayes, Professor of Psychology at University of Nevada. In a recent paper he and Stefan Hofmann and Joseph Ciarrochi wrote, he proposes an “extended evolutionary meta-model” (EEMM) could provide unity to a process-based approach to therapy (Hayes, Hofmann & Ciarrochi, 2020). Much of the paper addresses concerns about the DSM V and its abysmal record of identifying underlying aetiologies for common mental health problems – and I would argue that similar concerns apply to problems inherent in attempting to treat pain. The aetiology of a pain problem probably has little in the way of influencing how a person responds to the experience.

What appeals about the EEMM is that it builds towards recognising that “defined processes of change are biopsychosocial functions of the
person in context, as distinguished from the procedures, interventions, or environmental changes that engage such functions.”

When the human genome was first mapped, I remember the enthusiasm had for finally, finally, we’d find “the genes for…” [name your disease].

Sad to say, behaviour isn’t as straightforward as that – as Hayes and colleages point out “behavior results from a diverse set of evolving dimensions and levels that include not only genes, but also many other processes. As a result, behavioral phenotypes that clearly involve genes are not necessarily genetic in a process of change sense.” Actually, many chronic diseases aren’t nearly as straightforward as we’d hoped (think type II diabetes, for example).

So what does an EEMM approach do for rehabilitation? I think we can begin to frame rehabilitation according to the foundations of evolution: to evolve, organisms need to have variability (otherwise the whole species dies out). To be resilient, and respond to what life throws at us, humans also need to have a wide repertoire of responses. This is one part of rehabilitation – to help people develop new response repertoires that fit their new circumstances. How well do we enable people to develop a broad repertoire of ways to do things?

Rehabilitation processes work to help people choose the most useful response for what’s needed in function: selection. Selection is a key part of evolution, because it allows the organism to choose a response from their repertoire to suit the circumstances. Translating to humans, given a context, people can choose a response that enables them to do what matters in their life. For example, knowing a range of ways to move an object from A to B means humans have learned to build the pyramids, and to construct Faberge jewelry. In rehabilitation, do we enable people to develop a range of responses, and do we help them work through a process of choosing well for a given context and purpose? Is a clinic the best place to learn how to choose well? Do our rehabilitation approaches incorporate motivational factors to engage people, so they can work out what’s important for their own life and values?

Retention is another process of evolution – people need to learn a range of responses, choose appropriately and know those responses well enough for them to be used when needed. Rehearsal, practice, habits and routines are the way humans have developed patterns that enable more brain space to be dedicated to choosing the best way to achieve a goal. Being able to effortlessly vary a response because it’s well-practiced is how elite sports athletes, professional dancers, musicians and performers do what they do despite the very different places they may need to do it. I think we possibly begin to do this, but often omit the patterning, the habitual practice in many different contexts that is needed to really retain variety.

Finally, evolutionary processes are about context. When the context changes, the most adaptive beings survive because they have a range of behavioural options to choose from, they know how to choose them, and the options are well-learned – and the choices they’ve made suit the new context. In rehabilitation, how well do we vary contextual demands? How often do we help people engage in what matters in their life in the person’s real world? Do we go walking across a range of different flooring surfaces, like the slippery shopping mall, the sandy beach, the rocky river-bank, the rugby field, the park? Do we mix it up with pace – fast and slow? Do we consider time of day? Do we think about the presence of sensory stimuli? Or the absence of sensory stimuli? Do we include contexts where there are lots of people – or very few, but they’re all focused on the one person? Do we think about the size, shape, fragility, wriggliness or preciousness of an object we’re hoping the person will lift?

To really help people flourish and respond to the future demands they’ll face, rehabilitation professionals might want to consider the EEMM, and begin to adopt a process-based approach to what we do. While some of the physical rehabilitation principles we use might not change, I think we could be far more creative and responsive to the processes involved in learning to adapt to altered circumstances. Maybe psychosocial flexibility is as important as muscle strength and control?

Hayes, S. C., Hofmann, S. G., & Ciarrochi, J. (2020). A process-based approach to psychological diagnosis and treatment:The conceptual and treatment utility of an extended evolutionary meta model. Clinical Psychology Review, 82. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2020.101908

Whose life is it anyway?


A couple of weeks back I posted about my concerns that exercise is often over-hyped, has limited effects on pain and disability, and therefore people going through a rehabilitation programme will likely dump doing the exercises as soon as the programme ends. Well, that was an interesting conversation starter! TBH I expected the response. On the one hand we have avid strength and conditioning people (including a whole bunch of physiotherapists) saying it’s crucial to get strong and fit because it’s good for health and longevity, while on the other hand we have a large group of “others” who think life is too short to spend it in a claustrophobic gym, sweating and grunting and going red in the face. I may exaggerate a teeny tiny bit. Not about the sweating, grunting and going red though.

Part of my intention for that post was to stir the pot about the form of movement options being offered to people who live with pain. I’m not sure that message got across as strongly as I’d like – you see, I am not against getting fit, or improving strength and flexibility. I AM against cookie cutter approaches to rehabilitation where everyone gets the same thing irrespective of their personal values and interests – and competing demands on time.

So I thought I’d ask a bunch of people what they think a person’s life might look like 6 – 12 months after completing a rehabilitation programme. Fascinating. I won’t report the findings because this was an informal opinion survey, it’s in a private group, and people were not asked to give consent to the findings being reported.

What I will say is that opinions were diverse. Mostly people indicated that the person’s own life, goals, and preferences should be the determinants. Pain intensity wasn’t mentioned as often, and many responses showed that doing what matters to a person is key.

Well and good.

What’s my perspective? Having an injury or a problem that becomes persistent disrupts normal life. For many people this disruption is reasonably brief and life does “return to normal”. A hiccough on life’s journey. For others, it’s a complete change in life trajectory – long periods in limbo land while decisions are made on the person’s behalf, and not always with their cooperation (insurers, surgeons, rehabilitation professionals, I’m talking about you here) (Richardson, Ong & Sim, 2006). Life is never the same. And still others find it an opportunity to regroup, to review and perhaps to grow and flourish. Some commentators consider this latter group to have greater psychological resources than those who don’t (Wettstein, 2018).

We have paid a lot of attention to those who find it really difficult to integrate this persistent pain into a sense of self. There’s good reason to: people who find it hard to resume life with pain use more health resources, have poorer health more generally, and can be viewed very negatively by health professionals (Buchman, Ho & Illes, 2016; Mutubuki, et al, 2019).

We’ve paid less attention to those who flourish. To those who have found new meaning in life, new plans, a new sense of self. And I think part of this lies with our attention to “problems” rather than successes (because people who don’t seek healthcare are invisible to most of us, especially policy developers).

I was encouraged by some of the responses to my informal poll. Many clinicians talked about joy, meaning, values, curiosity, self-reliance, and being able to live despite pain’s presence. Several people with pain talked about the need to have a life, even if it meant pain increased (not all, but some). In other words – living! Not having a set of prescribed goals to tick off each day, although some of the activities that made up “life” were based on goal-derived activities drawn from their rehabilitation.

This is what I hope we will help people do: live a life that responds flexibly to what is thrown at us (Covid19, lockdown, age, accidents, disease processes, other people, life span events, earthquakes, climate change…), and that we move towards the things that matter to us. That our lives are imbued with the qualities we most value. That we feel connected, competent, to be able to feel deeply, for life to make sense, to know the directions we’re headed in, and to be able to make choices for ourselves (Thanks Steven Hayes! These are the basic yearnings from A Liberated Mind written by Dr Hayes and published this year).

Which leads me to goals and goal-setting. OMG we need to do some work, people. An auto-ethnography by Jenny Alexanders and Caroline Douglas points out that practices of clinician-centred goal-setting continue (Alexanders & Douglas, 2018), while a study by Gardner and colleagues (2018) found that while goal-setting was often collaborative, those therapists with a higher biomedical orientation in their treatment approach involved patients less. Levack, Weatherall, Hay-Smith, Dean, McPherson & Siegert (2016) found there is an increasing amount of research into goal-setting in rehabilitation, but that study design and heterogeneity of studies mean the quality of evidence for the effect sizes is pretty poor.

I take from this, that while clinicians often undertake goal-setting with people, currently our practice is patchy. We may mean well, but a focus on what WE prioritise, along with unhelpful processes (setting goals at the first appointment is really difficult for people with persistent pain, especially when we might not have established the contributing factors to disability and distress), time-frames, and for people who may be at the “making sense” stage of their rehabilitation (Lennox Thompson, Gage & Kirk, 2019), a focus on future achievements may be premature.

We might also need to develop a deeper understanding of goal-setting theory, and learn processes rather than techniques to help someone move towards the life THEY want to live, rather than a simulation consisting of multiple “goals” that have to be done each day.

Alexanders, J. and C. Douglas, Goal setting for patients experiencing musculoskeletal pain: An evocative autoethnography. Pain and Rehabilitation-the Journal of Physiotherapy Pain Association, 2018. 2018(45): p. 20-24.

Buchman, D.Z., A. Ho, and J. Illes, You Present like a Drug Addict: Patient and Clinician Perspectives on Trust and Trustworthiness in Chronic Pain Management. Pain medicine (Malden, Mass.), 2016.

Levack WMM, Weatherall M, Hay-Smith EJC, Dean SG, McPherson K, Siegert RJ. Goal setting and strategies to enhance goal pursuit in adult rehabilitation: summary of a cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur J phys rehabil Med, 2016

Gardner, T., et al., Goal setting practice in chronic low back pain. What is current practice and is it affected by beliefs and attitudes? Physiother Theory Pract, 2018. 34(10): p. 795-805.

Lennox Thompson, B., J. Gage, and R. Kirk, Living well with chronic pain: a classical grounded theory. Disability and Rehabilitation, 2019: p. 1-12.

Mutubuki, E.N., et al., The longitudinal relationships between pain severity and disability versus health-related quality of life and costs among chronic low back pain patients. Quality of Life Research, 2019.

Richardson, J.C., B.N. Ong, and J. Sim, Is chronic widespread pain biographically disruptive? Social Science & Medicine, 2006. 63(6): p. 1573-1585.

Wettstein, M., et al., Profiles of Subjective Well-being in Patients with Chronic Back Pain: Contrasting Subjective and Objective Correlates. Pain Medicine, 2018: p. pny162-pny162.

On labels and boundaries


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus (COVID19), catastrophising – and caution


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Intuition” – and clinical reasoning


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

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

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

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

What might be an alternative?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real problem?

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

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

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

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

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

Why are there not more occupational therapists in pain rehabilitation?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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