Clinical reasoning

Reconciling uncertainty and the drive to diagnose


Recently it was suggested to me that even though I’m an occupational therapist, I might “diagnose”. Not so much diagnose disease, but “determine if a patient is depressed, anxious, catastrophising, fear avoidant etc?” The author goes on to say “isn’t that diagnosis too?” The comment was made in the context of a lengthy Twitter discussion about so-called “non-specific” low back pain. Over the course of I think about five weeks now, a large number of highly educated, erudite and passionate clinicians have argued the toss about whether it’s possible to identify the “cause” of nonspecific low back pain. On the odd occasion I’ve put my oar in to mention psychosocial aspects and that people seek help for many reasons, one of which may be pain intensity, but mostly people ask for help because either the pain is interfering with being able to do things, or because the person interprets their pain as an indication, perhaps, of something nasty.

I mention this context, because over the many tweets, I was struck by the degree of certainty demanded by various commentators on both sides of the discussion. “Where’s the gold standard?”; “What’s the evidence”; “Yes”; “No” – and in many respects, diagnosis is a practice based on degrees of certainty. You either have a disease – or you don’t. You have the signs and symptoms – or you don’t. Unless, of course, it’s the creeping edge of “pre-diagnosis” like my “pre-diabetes”.

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

For, irrespective of our certainty about the precision of any particular test or ultimately a diagnosis, all of our work involves two people who must collaborate to follow the process outlined by Engebretsen and colleagues. That is, the person seeking help notices “something is wrong and needs explaining”, he or she communicates selected information to a knowledgeable person (a clinician) and that clinician will typically seek more information, and assemble this in some way (synthesise). In my case I like to do this assemblage in collaboration with the person so we can weigh up or judge various interpretations of that data. I bring some knowledge from my training and ongoing learning, while the person brings his or her intimate knowledge of what it is like to be experiencing that “something is wrong.” There are times when we are both in the dark and we need to collect some more information: for while the person knows what it is like to be in this predicament, there are likely factors not yet incorporated (or noticed) into the picture. For example, guided discovery or Socratic questioning usually involves exploring something the person is aware of but hadn’t considered relevant, or hadn’t joined the dots. I don’t think it takes rocket science to see just how messy and complex this communication and information synthesising process can be – it only takes a person to fail to provide a piece of information (because they don’t think it’s relevant) for the analysis to go awry.

I like the depiction of the diagnostic process described in Britannica.com because throughout the process, the diagnosis is held lightly. It’s provisional. The process of diagnosing is seen as a series of hypotheses that are tested as the treatment progresses. In other words, despite beginning treatment, clinicians are constantly testing the adequacy and accuracy of their clinical reasoning, being ready to change tack should the outcome not quite stack up.

As a clinician and commentator who focuses on the relationship between people with pain and the clinicians they see, it strikes me yet again that the process of diagnosis is often one of relative uncertainty. While it’s pretty easy to determine that a bone is fractured, when pain is the presenting problem and because imaging cannot show pain (and when there are few other clear-cut signs), the clinical reasoning process is far more uncertain.

As I would expect, I’m not the first person to ponder the certainty and uncertainty dilemma in diagnosis. Some of my favourite authors, Kersti Malterud and colleagues (and especially Anne-Marie Jutel!) wrote an editorial for the British Journal of General Practice in which they argue that uncertainty, far from being “the new Achilles heel of general practice (Jones, 2016), instead is absolutely typical of the complexity involved in general practice diagnostic work. They go on to say “The nature of clinical knowledge rests on interpretation and judgment of bits and pieces of information which will always be partial and situated. In this commentary, we argue that the quality of diagnosis in general practice is compromised by believing that uncertainty can, and should, be eliminated.” (p. 244).

In their editorial, Malterud and colleagues point out that the person’s story is essential for diagnosis – and that people have all sorts of reasons for not disclosing everything a clinician might want to know. One of those reasons may well be the clinician’s capability for demonstrating willingness to listen. They also argue that models of disease are social and therefore dynamic (ie what we consider to be disease shifts – pre-diabetes is a good example). People who don’t fit the received model of “what a symptom should be” may not be heard (think of women with heart disease may not present in the same way as men), while those with “medically unexplained” problems just do not fit a disease model.

They make the point that clinicians need to recognise that clinical testing “does not eliminate uncertainty, rather the opposite as it introduces false positive and negative results.” For my money, diagnostic testing should only be used if, as a result of that diagnosis, clinical management will change – and just to add another dollop of my opinion, I’d rather avoid testing if not only does clinical management not change, but outcomes are no different!

I think the call for certainty emerges from what Malterud and co describe as “The rationalist tradition” which “seeks to provide a world of apparent security where certainty is readily achievable.” The problems of both low back pain and many types of mental illness demonstrate very clearly that knowledge allowing us to be certain only covers a tiny amount of the territory of ill health. There is more unknown and uncertain than certain.

I’ll end with this quote from Malterud and co’s paper “Clinical practice must therefore develop and rely on epistemological rules beyond prediction and accuracy, acknowledging uncertainty as an important feature of knowledge and decision making. Nowotny (2016) suggests the notion ‘cunning of uncertainty’ as a strategy where we get to know uncertainty and acquire the skills to live with it.” In occupational therapy practice, uncertainty is always present in our problem-solving process – and consequently I don’t “diagnose”. I never know the effect of a tendency to “think the worst” or “worry” or “avoid because I’m scared” – the constructs it was suggested that I “diagnose”. Firstly because while I might recognise a pattern or tendency – I don’t know when, where, how or why the person may do that thing. And context, purpose, motivation and response all matter when it comes to people and what they do. And secondly, diagnosing suggests that we have a clear and specific approach to treat – and in most of my clinical work, certainty around outcome is definitely not a thing. We never really know if our suggestions are “right” because most of the impact of what we suggest is on the person within his or her own life. In my practice the outcomes ultimately determine how well I’ve worked with someone. Perhaps NSLBP is another of these human predicaments where being certain is less advantageous than embracing uncertainty and an unfolding narrative in someone’s life.



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

Malterud, K., Guassora, A. D., Reventlow, S., & Jutel, A. (2017). Embracing uncertainty to advance diagnosis in general practice. British Journal of General Practice, 67(659), 244-245. doi:10.3399/bjgp17X690941

Nowotny H. The cunning of uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2016

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Tough topics to talk about


I was involved in a Facebook discussion about intimacy and sexuality and pain, and I was struck at how tough people find it to raise this kind of topic with a new person seeking help. So… I thought I’d do a series of very brief, very introductory talks on ways I’ve used to broach tough topics.

Before I begin, though, I’d like to frame my discussion by sharing my “therapy viewpoint” or the values I try to integrate in my work.

  1. People are people, so it’s OK to be a person too. What I mean by this is that therapists can sometimes feel they have to be “perfect” and know everything and say the right thing and never fumble around for words… And as therapists we can, as I’ve written recently, “other” the people we’re trying to work with. Othering is where we identify the other person we’re communicating with on the basis of their differences from us – and may inadvertently elevate the characteristics we have – while using those other characteristics to define the other person in terms of what they’re not. When I think about being a person, I mean that while I’ve learned a lot, listened a lot to stories, had my own experiences and keep learning – in the end I can’t elevate myself in my clinical interactions. I’m not the expert in this person’s life – they are – and they have had a lifetime of being them and arriving at decisions that make sense at the time, although like me they may not be aware of unintended consequences of those decisions. So, we’re equals, but with particular roles in our interactions.
  2. People usually have a few clues about what to do – but they’re ambivalent about doing them. This means that my job is to help them identify what they already know, ask to offer new ideas, and then guide them to make their own mind up about what to do next (ie, resolve their ambivalence). Sometimes I do know some things from my experience and learning and perhaps the other person hasn’t yet come across those ideas – but I need to respect their readiness to look at those options. We know that ideas a person has thought of for themselves seem to stick more than those “implanted” ones, AND the process of discovering options is a skill that will enhance self efficacy and be a lifelong skill, so the process of discovery may be more useful than any particular “answer”.
  3. Deeply personal material is rarely discussed voluntarily – people need to feel safe, not judged, and valued as people before they’re willing to share. At the same time, if we never ask about some topics, they’ll never be talked about – so as the “controller” of a clinical discussion we need to be willing to ask the tough, sensitive questions. I suspect our careful avoidance of tough topics arises from our own worries: will we get it right? will they be OK about us asking? will we know what to do if they answer? how will we deal with the emotions? is this going to take too much time out of my session? Like any clinical skill, it’s our responsibility to learn to develop self regulation so we can deal with awkward topics. Self regulation is in part about managing our personal emotional and cognitive responses to situations. Just like we had to get over ourselves when we learned examination techniques (remember your first anatomy labs?), we need to get over ourselves when we enquire about tough topics.
  4. People generally don’t make dumb decisions, they making the best decisions they can given the information at hand. Judging someone critically for having got where they have with health, pain, exercise, daily life, mood, drugs, whatever – reflects our values and our beliefs and priorities. Who says we wouldn’t make those same decisions if we’d lived the lives of the people we’re seeking? In my book, judging someone for making a different decision from me when I’m seeing them clinically suggests taking some time out and examining motives for doing this work. Nobody gets up in the morning and says “I’ll just go out and get fat today.” What happens are a series of small decisions that seem fine at the time, being either unaware of the consequences, or valuing something else. We all do this, so stop the judging!
  5. Most people with persistent pain don’t get heard. Oh they tell their story a lot – often the abbreviated one that cuts to the chase about the events leading to persistent pain and thereafter. What doesn’t get heard is what it feels like, the deepest fears, the endless questioning “am I really that bad? am I just using this to get out of doing things?” all that self-doubt, exacerbated by insensitive statements from people around them, particularly clinicians. Giving people time to talk about their main concerns, to validate that it’s OK to feel this way, that it’s common and unpleasant and real, gives people an opportunity to trust. How we let someone know we’ve heard them lies in our response to what they say: reflecting your understanding of their story, pausing to allow the person time to think and express themselves, and summarising the key points to check out that we’ve heard them accurately, these are skills we can develop.

I’m sure I have other values woven into my practice, but these are my key ones. Being real, nonjudgemental, respecting the person’s own capabilities, giving people time and bearing witness to their story, and getting good at sitting with my own discomfort – not the usual kind of skills you learn in undergrad training!

So over the next few weeks I’ll post some brief videos of some of the ways I approach tough topics.

BTW if you’re in Melbourne (or nearby) this is the course I’m running with the amazing Alison Sim – all about communication!

Seminar – “Better Communication For Better Outcomes”
Date: Sunday, 17 March 2019 from 09:00-17:00
Featuring: Bronnie Lennox Thompson and Alison Sim
On Behalf of: Beyond Mechanical Pain

“Spend a day exploring the value of communication in a clinical setting and how we can implement better ways of communicating with your clients:

◾ Motivational Interviewing 
◾ Cognitive behavioral therapy 
◾ Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) 
◾ How we define “success” in the clinic 
◾ Functional outcome measure to assess our client’s progress 
◾ Workshop style activities to practice implementing some different communication approaches “

FB Event: https://www.facebook.com/events/242714736618057/

Booking Page: 
https://www.trybooking.com/book/event…

Cost:
Students – $165
Other Practitioners – $330


Ways to avoid “othering”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

Othering


When we look at someone else, we first start by identifying the differences between that person and ourselves. It’s only later that we spend some time identifying the similarities between ourselves and that “other”.

There’s a problem in pain management today. It’s this: too few of “us” are “them” – by which I mean, there are too few people who identify as living with persistent pain working with people who are seeking help for their pain.

“Why is this a problem?” you ask… Well, it’s because it’s far too easy for “us” healthcare providers to forget that persistent pain affects people just like us. Yes, I know the stats: lots of people with persistent pain are multiply disadvantaged by socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, age, multiple morbidities. But – and this is important – persistent pain doesn’t discriminate, but disability and distress might.

Othering was first brought to attention by Simone de Bouvier. de Bouvier was interested in the way women’s voices were hidden and often compared with men’s voices. “Why”, said men. “Are women not like us?” The answer was evident: women are not men. And in establishing that women are “other”, or “not men”, those dominant voices were able to not only elevate their own voices to prominence, but also minimise and trivialise the words of women.

There are, according to Lajos Brons, two main forms of “othering” – crude, where the assumed differences are stated; and sophisticated, where the assumed differences are stated – and seem reasonable. Let me give an example. It seems reasonable that people seeking help for their pain are needing something they don’t have. And the people they seek help from (healthcare professionals) have that something. Sensible, yes?

“What’s the problem?” you ask. Well, it’s because alongside noticing the difference between the person seeking help and “us” who might have some answers, we also begin to distance ourselves from “them”. And in doing so, we begin to dehumanise or consider that person to be different and somewhat less than us.

I don’t want to accuse readers of stigmatising people who live with pain, so let’s take a moment to unpack what I’m trying to say.

When we talk about someone who is experiencing pain and having trouble with it, we begin by trying to work out what’s going on. In the very best circumstances, we create a “third space” where we can meet one another on an equal footing – both focusing on “what’s going on here”, and neither one assuming a superior position, because while “we” the healthcare professional, might have lots of knowledge about the various factors that could be contributing to this person’s situation, “we” actually know absolutely nothing of this person’s reality, their experience. Meanwhile, the person seeking our help is the expert on what life is like with their pain, their worries, their strengths, their supports, their vulnerabilities. So we meet in the middle, and collaborate, to try to work out how we can develop something new.

Sadly, that space can be muddied by a whole lot of things. We might bring our assumptions about the “other” – that they’re afraid, they need information, they want whatever solution we provide. The person might bring their fear of being misunderstood, their memories of the last time someone “tried” to help, perhaps their idea of what we want to know. We may end up talking past one another.

Let’s see what we can assume about the person in front of us. We might think they just need to know their pain is “an output of the brain” and that “hurt doesn’t equal harm”. We might spend some time educating that person about neurobiology. We might think they need exercise. They need to lose weight. They need do more mindfulness. They need to go back to work. And so our plans for “them” are set in motion. None of these things are bad or wrong – except when we think of the person needing these things before we’ve taken the time to hear what they really want.

What does the person want? Probably like many people, they’d like someone to listen to their perspective. Then they’d like to have some daily practical problems solved: perhaps knowing that they’re not harming themselves. Then maybe some sleep management. And perhaps some time out from people telling them what to do. And maybe some explanations – but only once we’ve taken the time to listen.

“Othering” is one way health professionals maintain a professional distance. By knowing that “we” already do these things, we can feel good about what we offer “them”. But I’d like to ask: how many of us have daily, weekly, monthly goals? How many of us have set them with the SMART acronym? And how many of us have our days timetabled to make sure we do all the things expected of us? What if we have an off day? Is it OK or do we have to explain ourselves? And how many of us also live with persistent pain? I think more of us live with pain than we’re honest about…

I’ve heard “us” talk about “them” and it’s not pretty. “They” need to be more goal-focused, more persistent, more relaxed, more revved up. “They” are ‘non-copers’ anyway. “They” have always needed help for everyday life. “They” have disorganised, chaotic lives.

I wonder what would happen if “we” spent some time checking in on our assumptions about “them”? Would we find ourselves mirrored in the people we try to help? I think we would – and it might help us to remember that we’re guides, coaches, and cheering squads, but we’re no better, no worse, and just as human as “them”. Oh, and some of “us” might even be one of “them” living with pain every day….

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

de Beauvoir, S. (1949): Le deuxi`eme sexe, Paris: Gallimard, 1976.

How are you going with your resolutions?


It’s seven days into the new year, and if you’ve made New Year’s resolutions I’d like to bet that it’s around now that your resolve is starting to fade… Don’t worry, I’m not going to nag! I am going to point out just how difficult it is to stick with a resolution, goal, action, new habit – whatever you call it.

And take a moment, if you’re a health professional. Just stop for a moment and think about the resolution, goal, action, new habit you’ve just set with your last patient. What are the chances that person will stick with that goal for the week?

Add in the complexities of, perhaps, competing goals or actions set by other clinicians seeing that person concurrently. The thought records, or mindfulness practice, or the planning and prioritising and pacing. Add in the usual daily life activities that need doing: the washing, cooking, shopping for groceries, paying the bills, filling the car with gas, spending time with family (not just any old time, but quality time). And work. And remembering to take medications (even the ones that make you feel drowsy or nauseous).

And not sleeping, finding it hard to rest because pain gets in the way.

And guilt perhaps because why is this person not getting better?

Is it any wonder that the people we try to help seem “unmotivated”? Or that they appear not to be “adherent”?

I keep coming back to something that bothers me about our attitudes towards the people we try to help. There continues to be a sense of “them” and “us”, with “us” being all that is good, proper and right, and “them” being, because we’re humans who like dichotomies, the opposite. After all “they” are seeking help from “us” which automatically puts “us” in the authoritative position.

Now before I get harangued by people saying “oh but not me”, I wonder what it would be like to record yourself in conversation with your colleagues. You know the time at your breaks where you meet around the water cooler or the coffee pot, and you do a mutual moan about work. Check in with your discussion: how do you refer to the struggles of the people you see? Is there a chance, even inadvertently, to use a “should” or “must” word or two? Do you ever think not just about the things you do with the person you’re working with, but the things other clinicians are also doing?

Enough finger pointing. What can we do to (a) shift our own attitudes and (b) help the people we see stick to the things we hope will help them?

Attitude shifts

It’s a tough one. Shifting an attitude is difficult, in part because we don’t recognise we hold attitudes because they seem “normal” or commonplace – and the more ingrained or deep-seated they are, the more difficult it is for us to see them. Attitudes are complex – possibly partly based on memory and partly generated in the moment-in-time (Albarracin & Shavitt, 2018). They also change with difficulty – being in contact with “others”, for example, has been shown to influence attitudes positively, while even imagining positive contact showed about 14% of participants were more likely to explicitly state positive attitudes (Miles & Crisp, 2014). Overall, changes in attitudes based on an intervention or a message seems to have a small effect (d = 0.22) – but these seem to be quite durable changes.

But something affect our attitudes: if we argue for our beliefs, we’re likely to become more stuck in our original beliefs, we add new information to our explanations but don’t readily throw out old information. To shift attitudes, new information needs to provide a “causal alternative” to explain our mental models.

OK, so changing our own attitudes is tough but we can counter the stickiness of our attitudes by considering a few things:

  • Values – linking specific actions to important values helps us to shift our attitudes. For example, we could begin to value why we started to work in health: was it job security? desire to help people? because people are constantly changing and different and it’s an exciting intellectual challenge? Whatever the value, we can begin altering the way we act towards the people we see to embrace the similarities between “them” and “us.
  • Goals – we all vary in the level of general action we’re in. We range from being focused and both moving and thinking quickly to being completely inactive (such as when we’re asleep and not dreaming). Research has shown that if we want people to consider a new attitude, we need to frame this in the context of “being active” (Albarracin & Handley, 2011). Perhaps we need to think of the active part we play in pain rehabilitation – and consider the effects of our attitudes accordingly.
  • Language – metaphors are persuasive, and seem to affect the way our attitudes are formed as well as what we do about them. Metaphors provide a way for us to become more psychologically distant from a concept, or more aware of complex psychological constructs. We can use metaphors when we think about how we want to work with people: are we ‘advisors’ or ‘coaches’ or ‘instructors’? Do we work collaboratively – or do we expect obedience? Do we have a partnership, or do we “direct” treatment?

Helping people stick with actions/goals/new habits

There have been mountains of research papers on behaviour change within a rehabilitation context. We’ve all been drilled on the idea of SMART goals (whatever the SMART acronym is meant to stand for!). We are exhorted to “set goals” from the first visit, and in some situations (New Zealand’s ACC rehabilitation process for example) obligates us to “set goals” which then provide a marker for whether treatment has been successful or not. Problem is, as Gardner, Refshauge, McAuley, Hubsher, Goodall & Smith (2018) found, we tend to set goals that we want, in collaboration with the people we’re working with, yes, but not necessarily the goals the person wants. In fact, their study showed that the treatment orientation of the clinician (all physiotherapists in this instance) predicted the degree of involvement from the person, with those therapists holding a stronger biomedical model being less likely to incorporate the person’s own goals.

Now here I’m going to put some of my clinical experience to work rather than focusing on research, though I hope that what I’m suggesting ties into researched ideas! Locke and Latham (1990) are the godfathers of formal goal setting theory, albeit mainly in an organisational development context, however they have provided much of the information we use when working with the people seeking our help. If you’re looking for more information on goal setting, you should probably begin with their material.

What to try:

  • Begin with the end in mind. What does the person want to be able to do? Be wary of goals incorporating things no-one can completely control, such as “be able to win a race” – because someone else, on that day, may be faster that this person. Similarly, I’m wary of goals that talk about “pain-free” or “without flare-up” because we’re not always going to achieve this. Don’t forget to ask the person about what they want!! They probably don’t care too much about a 5 degree improvement in knee flexion – what they want to be able to do is go up and down stairs.
  • Check out importance and particularly confidence when it comes to goals. A goal that’s unimportant will likely fall out of someone’s brain because it doesn’t matter. A goal that’s too challenging will equally be avoided (often not on purpose but because we don’t really like thinking about things we fear we’ll fail at). If the goal isn’t important – tap into values and why it might matter to the person. Change the goal if the person can’t come up with a compelling (ie emotionally resonant) reason to do it. Build confidence by scaffolding support around the person – how can you make it so that the person feels they can be successful? Begin with their ideas first so you build on their sense of self-efficacy.
  • Generate actions to do rather than goals to achieve. Actions are done or not done. Dichomotous. Goals may or may not be achieved depending on a whole bunch of factors. Make the things the person needs to do simple and yes/no.
  • Reminders or cues help. It’s easy to forget to do your pelvic floor exercises after birth, right? But a whole lot easier to remember when they’re tied into every time you use the toilet! Tie the action to an existing habit like when you’re waiting for the jug to boil, you can do your mindfulness. When you’re cleaning your teeth is a good time to do some squats (try it!). Use a cellphone appointment reminder. Record when the action is done. Set a specific time of day – ahead of time.
  • Tracking actions helps keep on track. Graphs are great! Seeing your progress is reinforcing. But make this process easy – can it be done on the phone? Can it be recorded in a simple notebook? Check up on progress often. Problem solve when things don’t go the way you hope.
  • Problem solve the factors that might interfere with doing the action ahead of time. This might mean posing scenario’s – what would happen if the weather was bad? What would you do if you had visitors? What might get in the way of doing this? What could you say to the person who says “Oh come on, you can leave it for today?”
  • Have days off. Absolute goals that are very specific and must happen every single day are likely to fail, and then we fall into the “what the hell” effect – oh I didn’t do X, so what the hell I might as well not do anything. I recommend for daily actions, that we have two days a week where they don’t need to happen. You might want to plan for five walking sessions, and do them all in the first five days – and then have two days off for good behaviour, or even decide you’re on a roll, and do two extra days. Whatever, the person wins because they’ve achieved the original action.

There is no doubt that changing habits is tough. It’s even tougher when there are a lot of changes to implement. And even tougher still when the therapist sits in judgement of the person who is trying to juggle everything while not being at full capacity. I wonder if we as therapists could begin to view our work with people as a truly collaborative affair, where we recognise the incredible challenges the people we see are dealing with. Maybe our New Year’s Resolution could be “how to be a better therapist”.

Albarracın D, Handley IM. (2011). The time for doing is not the time for change: effects of general action and inaction goals on attitude retrieval and attitude change. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 100(6):983–98

Albarracin, D., & Shavitt, S. (2018). Attitudes and Attitude Change. Annual Review of Psychology, 69(1), 299-327. doi:10.1146/annurev-psych-122216-011911

Gardner, T., Refshauge, K., McAuley, J., Hübscher, M., Goodall, S., & Smith, L. (2018). Goal setting practice in chronic low back pain. What is current practice and is it affected by beliefs and attitudes? Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, 1-11.

Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting & task performance: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Miles E, Crisp RJ. (2014). A meta-analytic test of the imagined contact hypothesis. Group Process. Intergroup Relations. 17(1):3–26


On the problem of coping


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jensen, M. P., Turner, J. A., Romano, J. M., & Karoly, P. (1991). Coping with chronic pain: A critical review of the literature. Pain, 47(3), 249-283. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0304-3959%2891%2990216-K

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tribalism in pain rehabilitation


When working in pain management, rehabilitation or treatment, it doesn’t take very long before we become painfully (no pun intended) aware that there are different schools of thought about pain and its management.

Straw man

On the one hand, we have a the straw man version of medicine. To simplify (and believe me, this is the more extreme version of this approach), this model appeals to our desire to find simple explanations for what ails us, and to believe that once found, treating it by removing it, eliminating it, or somehow righting wrongs, will allow the person to live the way they used to, aka “return to normal”. A medical model is predicated upon the idea that diseases can be viewed as separate from the people experiencing them, that those problems can be rectified, and that people are relatively unaffected by what goes on in and around them. Remember I said that this is the extreme, straw man version, because it would be difficult today to find a medical person who wouldn’t also consider “lifestyle” factors.

For example, Alloubani, Saleh & Abdelhafiz (2018) reviewed hypertension and diabetes as risk factors for stroke. They pointed out that “Changes in the lifestyle include dietary changes, which essentially involves consuming vegetables and fruits more (meta-analysis of 9 autonomous types of research has depicted that three to five servings every day decrease stroke risk for 0, 89) and eating less salt [17]. Further lifestyle changes include weight loss, aerobic activity and restricting alcohol intake. It is not suggested to undergo pharmacological treatment till systolic pressures increase to more than 140 mm Hg as well as diastolic increases to over 90 mm Hg brain perfusion. The significance of treating hypertension to decrease the stroke risk injuries is evident; however, the most optimal choice of antihypertensive medicine is not so evident [18].”

What are the single-factor “disease”-oriented models in pain at the moment? It’s not too hard to find them, so we see studies like Staartjes, Vergroesen, Zeilstra & Schroder (2018) searching for reasons to fuse vertebrae, with the following conclusion: “In patients without prior surgery, the PCT appears to be the most promising prognostic tool. Other prognostic selection tools such as discography and Modic changes yield disappointing results. In this study, female patients and those without prior spine surgery appear to be most likely to benefit from fusion surgery for DDD.” The PCT is essentially a cast around the hips from waist to the top of the leg with a longer leg cast on the side that hurts.

We can see similar appeals to single-factor causal models in studies of core stability – De Blaiser, Roosen, Willems, Danneels, Bossche, & De Ridder (2018) investigating whether this is a risk factor for lower extremity injuries in athletes, while Tayashiki, Mizuno, Kanehisa, & Miyamoto, (2018) investigated the causal effect of intra-abdominal pressure on maximal voluntary isometric hip extension torque.
Now before anyone jumps down my throat, I know we need to isolate factors in order to understand a phenomenon. We do. What I’m more concerned about is when clinicians begin to change their practice on the basis of a study like these – and then apply this to people who are (a) not athletes, (b) not performing maximal hip extension torque, or who otherwise do not fit the research population!

Another straw man

What are the other schools of thought in pain management, rehabilitation and treatment? Well, another is the idea that pain is “all in the brain” – or the mind – and that education alone is both essential, and powerful all on its own. Once again, this idea has some seeds of relevance. Certainly, if you happen to be worried that the pain in your back is going land you up in surgery (after all, you’ve had the PCT!), getting to understand that the pain and what’s going on in your tissues have a very complex relationship, and that it’s OK to move because you’re not doing damage, you’re likely to heave a sigh of relief.

BUT is that all that’s necessary? Once again I head off to some of the lovely single subject experimental studies carried out by Johan Vlaeyen’s lab. One is by Schemer, Vlaeyen, Doerr, Skluda, Nater, Rief & Glombiewski (2018) and clearly shows that clinical change (behavioural as well as changes in pain, disability, fear, acceptance, and self efficacy) occurs mainly during the DOING phase of treatment. Education alone didn’t change these factors, and the authors go on to say “We recommend integrating exposure elements in the management of CLBP to increase its efficacy. Psycho-educational sessions might not be necessary or should be adapted, e.g. with stronger focus on motivational aspects”

A previous study, using cognitive functional therapy showed some similar changes over time (Caneiro, Smith, Rabey, Moseley, & O’Sullivan, 2017).

It seems to be the doing that’s important.

Not a straw man

So what about the much maligned, and much loved, biopsychosocial model?

The tribe adhering to this model is pretty large – and varied in how it actually interprets it! However, it has taken hold in pain conceptualisation since the IASP adopted it in the late 1970’s. IASP was established in 1973 by John Bonica, and represents the largest group in the world of clinicians, researchers, policy-makers, and now people living with pain. It adopted the BPS model as a way to understand a person’s illness (note: not the disease). A great outline from 2010 (the Global Year against Musculoskeletal Pain) can be found here: click

What does it actually mean? Simply put, it means that while a person might have a disease process within their body, at the same time, they’re a person who has (1) identified that they don’t feel right; (2) decided it’s worth seeking some help for it; (3) consequently now receives the special exemptions his or her society has reserved for people who are ‘ill’; (4) chosen the kind of therapist/’healer’ they think is most appropriate (5) within his or her own sociocultural context; (6) has chosen to proceed with the treatment while simultaneously embarking on culturally-appropriate recovery behaviour. And when this has all finished, *the person remembers what has happened, projects into the future to anticipate what might have happened (or might happen if it reoccurs), carries on with life with this new understanding of what those symptoms mean. Oh, and the initial “identified that they don’t feel right” part – that’s based on past experiences, both personal and vicarious, or in other words, the entire bit from the * to here… again.

Why can’t we all get along?

The question arises then, as to why there are so many tribes who just don’t get along? Well I think we can return to Sapolsky for this. He neatly describes ‘Why your brain hates other people” in this article – click. We can find all sorts of reasons to reject “others”. In pain treatment, rehabilitation and management, tribalism seems to be strongly influenced by income generation, political power, the need to attract followers, and a host of human bias reasons like cognitive dissonance and projecting our assumptions onto others, to preserve autonomy and group status, to stick to things we’ve invested in, to prefer the immediate and simple as opposed to messy and complex, to seek confirmation for what we believe we know… And so on.

My philosophy… for now

So… which tribe do I feel most at home with? I suppose I’m a conservative. I’ve seen many models come and go and I feel most comfortable with a cognitive behavioural approach to pain – that is, that people DO think about their situation, feel various emotions, and then do things as a result. That pain is both a personal experience, but often elicits behaviours that others can see – and respond to. That the body/mind is indivisible. That psychological and social aspects of being human are as important and relevant (but harder to study) than tissues or nerves. That if we can help people experience something, and attribute that new experience to something they’ve done for themselves, then we’re well on the way to helping them manage their situation without having to rely on a healer.

And of course, within different cultural settings, the attribution may be more or less connected with others and their priorities. A loose framework borrowing from psychology (particularly behavioural psych, social psych, and cognitive psych), sociology and anthropology, family systems, as well as traditional “health sciences” of anatomy, physiology, neurobiology and so on. And what that means is reading really widely, holding off on new and groovy theories and practices until more is known about them, and not being swayed by the majority rules. Because in my day-to-day work, within an orthopaedic surgery and musculoskeletal department, mine is possibly a fairly outlying position.

Where does this leave me? Well I think consistently reading and flexibly considering the various pieces of information being discovered helps me to be pretty humble about what I prefer to teach, and to do in the clinic. I’ve been blogging continuously for 11 years now, and I think my reputation is of being moderate, considerate and thoughtful. I’m not terribly shouty. I don’t call people names, or get angry because someone has quoted something I might have said out of context. Why? Because I’d rather focus on what I think matters. And in the end, what people think of me matters a lot less than (hopefully) what the research I present shows.

Alloubani, A., Saleh, A., & Abdelhafiz, I. (2018). Hypertension and diabetes mellitus as a predictive risk factors for stroke. Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews, 12(4), 577-584. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dsx.2018.03.009

Caneiro, J., Smith, A., Rabey, M., Moseley, G. L., & O’Sullivan, P. (2017). Process of change in pain-related fear: clinical insights from a single case report of persistent back pain managed with cognitive functional therapy. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 47(9), 637-651.

De Blaiser, C., Roosen, P., Willems, T., Danneels, L., Bossche, L. V., & De Ridder, R. Is core stability a risk factor for lower extremity injuries in an athletic population? A systematic review. Physical Therapy in Sport, 30, 48-56.

Johnson, C. D., Whitehead, P. N., Pletcher, E. R., Faherty, M. S., Lovalekar, M. T., Eagle, S. R., & Keenan, K. A. The Relationship of Core Strength and Activation and Performance on Three Functional Movement Screens. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(4), 1166-1173.

Staartjes, V. E., Vergroesen, P. A., Zeilstra, D. J., & Schroder, M. L. (2018) Identifying subsets of patients with single-level degenerative disc disease for lumbar fusion: the value of prognostic tests in surgical decision making. Spine Journal: Official Journal of the North American Spine Society, 18(4), 558-566.

Schemer, L., Vlaeyen, J. W. S., Doerr, J. M., Skoluda, N., Nater, U. M., Rief, W., & Glombiewski, J. A. (2018). Treatment processes during exposure and cognitive-behavioral therapy for chronic back pain: A single-case experimental design with multiple baselines. Behav Res Ther, 108, 58-67. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2018.07.002

Tayashiki, K., Mizuno, F., Kanehisa, H., & Miyamoto, N. Causal effect of intra-abdominal pressure on maximal voluntary isometric hip extension torque. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 118(1), 93-99.

Pain science is not a thing


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Greenhalgh (2018), quoting Sir John Grimley Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different narratives for different purposes

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

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

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

Guidelines and algorithms

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Myths about exposure therapy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misconception: Exposure therapy can lead to lawsuits against therapists.

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

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

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

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