International Chronic Pain Virtual Summit 2020

I am so happy to be part of this virtual summit especially under our current COVID19 disruptions! It’s FREE and more than 20 speakers from around the world are talking about the things that matter in pain rehabilitation and management. I might even drop in a word or two about occupational therapy….!
Click the link and find out more! – click

Just to give you an idea of the speakers involved, you’ll get to hear from:

Professor Peter O’Sullivan

Professor Tasha Stanton

Lissanthea Taylor

Vidyamala Burch

Dr Stephen Grinstead

Kathy Hubble

Pete Moore

Prof Kim Burton

Prof Ann Taylor

Dr Adriaan Louw

Dr Shilpa Patel

Dr Saurab Sharma

Undergraduate pain curriculum: What needs to be included and what doesn’t?

One of the prominent themes in social media discussions about pain is that the subjects are not given sufficient attention at undergraduate level. The results of this omission are that many entry-level clinicians don’t have the necessary knowledge, skills or attitudes for working with people who experience pain. (As an aside, it also makes my job as a postgraduate Academic Leader much more difficult: where do I start when developing a programme?!)

Luckily there is an IASP Pain Curriculum. Actually there are many of them, for many disciplines, and they provide educators with great guidance. The problem is, however, there is so much that could be included in this kind of education – and we usually don’t have much room in a programme to include it all.

The main problems with the curriculum are: the content and levels of competency required at an undergraduate level aren’t specified; most research into this area targets postgraduates, with less attention for undergraduate pain education. Most curriculum for pain have been discipline-specific, and while a consensus on the content and desired competencies of an interprofessional pain curriculum at a pre-licence or undergraduate level has been discussed, an a-priori defined competency level across professions for the items in the IASP curriculum hasn’t been established. We need cross profession agreed competencies to allow for good collaboration. (see van Lankveld, Afram, Staal, van der Sande, 2020).

In my role as Academic Coordinator for Postgrad Programmes in Pain and Pain Management, one aspect of the interprofessional curriculum that is quite difficult to navigate is how to turn topic headings into knowledge, skills and attitudes. I’m wary of teaching directly to subject (knowledge) without accompanying this with appropriate skills and attitudes – particularly at postgraduate level, given knowledge (topics) are continuing to change over time. There’s clearly some material that is highly valued by one profession over other professions – and this is normal for every discipline! And I’m not sure we can ever hope to cover every single thing.

One consistent theme in research into attitudes and beliefs among musculoskeletal clinicians is that confidence to assess and then use information from the psychosocial domain is low (Alexanders, Anderson & Henderson, 2015; Buchbinder, Staples & Jolley, 2009; Miki, Kondo, Takebayashi & Takasaki, 2020; Singla, Jones, Edwards & Kumar, 2015). This problem is not isolated to physiotherapists, but cuts across all professions, including psychologists referred patients with “medically unexplained symptoms” (Brittni & Williams, 2020). I wondered if this area has been given sufficient emphasis in our curriculum, and most especially, whether opportunities to develop skills and attitudes that support equitable and effective pain management are developed.

van Lankveld, Afram, Staal, van der Sande (2020) used interprofessional expert panel groups, followed Delphi process, and incorporated a measure of competency (the Dublin Descriptors), to establish which of the many areas of the pain curriculum should be prioritised. This makes for interesting reading, as some of the areas considered integral to better pain management, such as the socio-political and ethical were not considered crucial, while those related to Epidemiology, Development of Pain Theories, and Mechanisms were all thought crucial. I find this interesting as stigma, equity of access to treatment, ethical use of analgesics are all areas of healthcare that directly influence what we do in treatment and in particular, what gets funded and what does not.

Developing a teaching programme from a list of topics considered important involves opinions, values, and an understanding of pedagogy. Given we live in an ever-changing information environment, I think skills and attitudes towards what is today considered “fact” need to be emphasised – how do we learn to think critically? At least part of critical thinking is reading around a topic to become familiar with current and historic models and knowledge. I also think that some of the more complex issues we need to deal with as societies are often those attitudes towards people who violate our assumptions about who is and isn’t “other”. Learning is not only about content, it’s about attitudes towards the subject matter. And some of these attitudes are buried deeply beneath community assumptions and values. To uncover these attitudes, then help people reflect critically on them and their clinical implications is, I think, one of the tasks educators need to address.

For that reason, in my 5th year undergraduate medical teaching, I ask students to undertake a case study where their job is to listen to the person with pain, identify risk factors and protective factors for recovery and return to optimal functioning and participation, and then offer individually tailored recommendations to the person, in language the person will understand. My hope is that these future medical practitioners will have developed some empathy and strategies for caring for and encouraging patients with pain to be less afraid of their pain, and more able to go on with their lives.

What should go in undergraduate training? I think we can weave all the content of these curriculum into our undergraduate training, but we should also leave students with the certain knowledge, skills and attitudes that this area of study is going to change. And that means lifelong learning about pain, people, science and self.

Alexanders, J., Anderson, A., & Henderson, S. (2015). Musculoskeletal physiotherapists’ use of psychological interventions: a systematic review of therapists’ perceptions and practice. Physiotherapy, 101(2), 95-102. doi: 10.1016/

Buchbinder, R., Staples, M., & Jolley, D. (2009). Doctors with a special interest in back pain have poorer knowledge about how to treat back pain. Spine (Phila Pa 1976), 34(11), 1218-1226; discussion 1227. doi: 10.1097/BRS.0b013e318195d688

Crawford, C., Ryan, K., & Shipton, E. (2007). Exploring general practitioner identification and management of psychosocial Yellow Flags in acute low back pain. N Z Med J, 120(1254), U2536.

Cowell, I., O’Sullivan, P., O’Sullivan, K., Poyton, R., McGregor, A., & Murtagh, G. (2018). Perceptions of physiotherapists towards the management of non-specific chronic low back pain from a biopsychosocial perspective: A qualitative study. Musculoskelet Sci Pract, 38, 113-119. doi: 10.1016/j.msksp.2018.10.006

Jones, Brittni, & Williams, Amanda C. de C. (2020). Psychological therapists’ judgments of pain and treatment decisions: The impact of ‘medically unexplained symptoms’. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 131, 109937. doi:

Miki, T., Kondo, Y., Takebayashi, T., & Takasaki, H. (2020). Difference between physical therapist estimation and psychological patient-reported outcome measures in patients with low back pain. PLoS One, 15(1), e0227999. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0227999

Singla, Mukul, Jones, Mark, Edwards, Ian, & Kumar, Saravana. (2015). Physiotherapists’ assessment of patients’ psychosocial status: are we standing on thin ice? A qualitative descriptive study. Manual therapy, 20(2), 328-334.

van Lankveld, W., Afram, B., Staal, J. B., & van der Sande, R. (2020). The IASP pain curriculum for undergraduate allied health professionals: educators defining competence level using Dublin descriptors. BMC Med Educ, 20(1), 60. doi: 10.1186/s12909-020-1978-z

The know-do gap: does social media help change things?

This post is prompted by a Facebook post from Connor Gleadhill asking “in what way is SoMe contributing to knowledge translation (KT)? I’m interested in the experience of those tagged and if anyone is aware if it has been rigorously tested. As far as I’m aware it hasn’t. Is it simply a confirmation bias arena? We are humans after all, and we curate our experience on SoMe.”

Oh such a great question and one reason I still hang out on social media!

I’ve been blogging since 2007, two years before the famous Body in Mind (who have just announced they won’t post any more content). Over that time I’ve risen to the top of the blogs, then plummeted down to my current level. Yet I still have a passion for doing this (usually) weekly post.

One reason I post is in answer to Connor Gleadhill’s question: one method for translating knowledge from journals into clinical practice is through online content. Content that’s accessible (not behind a paywall). Content that offers an opinion. Content that (hopefully) translates a-contextual information into a context more familiar to clinicians.

Is there evidence that knowledge translation occurs in this space or is it all a vast echo chamber where we listen to ourselves and pretend that everyone who is anyone agrees?

Well, in the pursuit of understanding this phenomenon, I’ve been researching the research looking at the effectiveness of one form of social media: the community of practice. A community of practice is a concept developed by Wenger yet one that has (probably) existed since humans took up tools and started learning from each other. It’s a place where “groups of people … share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” Senior or recognised “expert” members of the group provide experiential knowledge to guide junior or “apprentice” members as they learn how to … the “how to” depends on the group. In my case, it’s a group devoted to learning how to apply a multifactorial model of pain into diverse areas of clinical practice.

The group I’m part of is unusual in that it has emerged organically, not having been established artificially for the purpose of studying it. I’ve written a paper on the findings from a study of this group, to be submitted shortly. So when I talk about “effectiveness” I have to refer to artificial studies where communities of practice have been examined. One integrative review by Rolls, Hansen, Jackson and Elliott (2016) found 77 studies consisting of 44 qualitative papers, 20 mixed methods studies, and 8 literature reviews. The range of social media used was wide and included Listservs (remember them?), Twitter, “general social media” (not sure what that really means!), discussion forums, Web 2.0, virtual communities of practice, wiki, and Facebook. The clinicians involved included medical practitioners, multidisciplinary specialty group, health care professional “in general”, midwifes, nurses, and allied health professionals. The study found that:

…social media use is mediated by an individual’s positive attitude toward and accessibility of the media, which is reinforced by credible peers. The most common reason to establish a virtual community was to create a forum where relevant specialty knowledge could be shared and professional issues discussed (n=17). Most members demonstrated low posting behaviors but more frequent reading or accessing behaviors. The most common Web-based activity was request for and supply of specialty-specific clinical information. This knowledge sharing is facilitated by a Web-based culture of collectivism, reciprocity, and a respectful noncompetitive environment. Findings suggest that health care professionals view virtual communities as valuable knowledge portals for sourcing clinically relevant and quality information that enables them to make more informed practice decisions.

Rolls, Kaye, Hansen, Margaret, Jackson, Debra, & Elliott, Doug. (2016). How Health Care Professionals Use Social Media to Create Virtual Communities: An Integrative Review. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 18(6), e166. doi: 10.2196/jmir.5312

Heidi Allen and colleagues (2013), from Body in Mind, found that by releasing papers on social media, there was an increase in dissemination of those papers. Chan and colleagues (2018) also identified that there was much “scholarly engagement” through online interactions. There are detailed analyses of the social construction of knowledge online (Gunawardena, Flor, Gomez & Sanchez, 2016), studies of how acceptable social media knowledge translation is amongst health researchers and clinicians (Tunnecliff, Illic, Morgan, Keating, Gaida, Clearihan et al 2015), and examination of patient’s use of social media (Antheunis, Tates & Nieboer, 2013).

Social media can “democratise” information. Because social media is readily accessible across so many forms and devices, and because there is greater opportunity to interact with authors, and the numbers of people seeking health info, social media allows more information flow than journal articles or conferences. There’s always a risk in that: loud voices, those with marketing smarts, those with a punchy delivery and especially those with a controversial message will attract more attention than, for example, my long form writing on complex topics.

Reader beware must also be the motto. Info dumping a load of references tangential to the actual topic, along with little, if any, critical analysis of that material, can lead to what appears to be authoritative content, but may perpetuate unhelpful and outdated ideas.

I continue blogging because it helps me sort my ideas out. I find it helps me “construct” and assemble what I know into something I can then apply. It helps me sift through the overwhelming wealth of research pouring out of Universities and research groups everywhere around the world. As I look at the over 1100 posts I’ve written, I can see the issues I’ve pondered, and the stance I take on issues such as communication, respect, thinking before adopting a new treatment, clinical reasoning, collaboration. Many of these are attitudes towards people who live with pain.

The things I most appreciate about social media are that I have a network of people with whom I can nerd out. People who do “get it”. People who may not agree with me but who are willing to entertain alternative views. People who push me to learn about areas I wouldn’t normally. People who live with pain who inspire me. People for whom I have great compassion because of their personal stories. I have a sense of community. A real assemblage of people I can turn to when I have questions.

In answer to the question “Does social media contribute to knowledge translation?” I would say it is as effective as the readers and contributors make it, possibly more effective than attending a conference (the best part is always the social isn’t it?!), certainly more useful for generating clinical discussion than a publication locked up in a journal, and as long as conversations remain respectful and discuss ideas and not personalities, it’s an effective way for clinicians to construct knowledge for their practice setting. I’m still going to blog even if my average reader numbers in the last week were a measly 100 people.

Allen, Heidi G, Stanton, Tasha R, Di Pietro, Flavia, & Moseley, G Lorimer. (2013). Social media release increases dissemination of original articles in the clinical pain sciences. PloS one, 8(7), e68914.

Antheunis, Marjolijn L., Tates, Kiek, & Nieboer, Theodoor E. (2013). Patients’ and health professionals’ use of social media in health care: Motives, barriers and expectations. Patient Education and Counseling, 92(3), 426-431.

Chan, Teresa, Trueger, N Seth, Roland, Damian, & Thoma, Brent. (2018). Evidence-based medicine in the era of social media: Scholarly engagement through participation and online interaction. Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine, 20(1), 3-8.

Gunawardena, Charlotte N, Flor, Nick V, Gómez, David, & Sánchez, Damien. (2016). Analyzing social construction of knowledge online by employing interaction analysis, learning analytics, and social network analysis. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 17(3), 35.

Tunnecliff, Jacqueline, Ilic, Dragan, Morgan, Prue, Keating, Jennifer, Gaida, James E, Clearihan, Lynette, . . . Mohanty, Patitapaban. (2015). The acceptability among health researchers and clinicians of social media to translate research evidence to clinical practice: mixed-methods survey and interview study. Journal of medical Internet research, 17(5).

Informing — and knowing

Learning is perceived as a process of personal and social construction where people are actively involved in making sense of information they interact with, rather than passively receiving it (Kuhthau 2004). This cumulative and developmental process involves the whole person in thinking, acting, reflecting, discovering ideas, making connections, and transforming prior knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values into new knowledge (Dewey 1933).

I’m an educator for much of my time. When I think about it, I’ve been an educator for most of my clinical career – after all, when I helped people learn how to shower and dress again after a stroke, I was teaching. When I help someone work out how to organise their day to optimise energy levels, I’m teaching. And when I interact online in some of the Facebook groups I’m part of, I’m also teaching.

Teaching is the process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and intervening so that they learn particular things, and go beyond the given.

When I look at what people do for continuing education, and also how we approach helping people with pain to understand something about how their nervous system works, I think we often do a fine job of providing information. “Information is to behaviour change as spaghetti is to a brick”, said Prof Bill Fordyce, father of behavioural approaches to pain management. As clinicians and educators we spend a great deal of time working out “what” people should/need to know. There’s talk of a “curriculum” for people living with pain so the basic concepts are provided. Information is the “what” – those facts, concepts and often context-free bites of data that are gathered together into information through analysing, cross-referencing, selecting, sorting, summarising or otherwise organising them (Stonier, 1997).

Perhaps where we’re less capable is in supporting people in the process of turning information into knowledge. Knowledge is about integrating information into meaning. It’s magic to see someone have that lightbulb moment when suddenly one bit of information connects with something else the person knows and it begins to make sense!

With CPD I wonder how many of us go to a course, then walk away with our heads jam-packed with new information – then when we walk into clinic we get caught up in the everyday of clinical life, and promptly forget how that new information we’ve stored relates to what we do.

I think the same when I listen to patients talk about what they’ve been told, perhaps about pain, or perhaps about ways they might do things – and they talk of these information bites as disconnected from their daily reality.

To me, the process of developing knowledge involves processing information into personal relevance. It means that, as we learn a new piece of information, we sift through what we already know and establish how the new information might be similar to or different from what we already know. We might ponder when, where, and how this new information can apply. We try using the new information to test its utility. We talk about “what does this mean” with other people as we do this.

A community of practice (Wenger) is a “group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”. In a community of practice, people who have become expert or more experienced in doing this activity share their expertise and “knacks of knowing” – novices spend time absorbing what the experts say and do, and ultimately learn to become expert themselves. Communities of practice are everywhere and in our internet and social media-based lives, communities of practice exist virtually as well.

Clinicians often turn to online discussions to carry out their process of turning information into knowledge. Through the debates and discussions (yes, and arguments and flame wars) clinicians become familiar with new information and discuss the implications for practice. It’s common to see clinicians use Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, blogging (yes!) as ways to not only produce information but to also make sense of it.

But when I think of comparable and positive opportunities for people living with pain who are also trying to make sense of the many different bites of information they’re provided with, I’m less certain there is a good place to go to be supported in this process. Much of our clinical treatment is carried out individually, one-to-one with patient. Because pain is invisible and so many people are hopeful the experience will be temporary, meeting with and discussing information about pain and ways to live with pain are rare. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence from research showing that people living with pain feel isolated, abandoned and judged (Cagle & Bunting, 2017; Collier, 2018; Wilbers, 2015). Not the best place to be when trying to put pieces of information together.

While as clinicians, we can offer much information – how good are we at helping people connect that information with what that person already knows? How can we – especially if we don’t experience pain? What would we know of the process of going to various therapists, being told many different things, of the highs and lows of benefits and failures?

I run a group programme called Springboard. It’s a six-week programme, one session a week, with home-based “missions” people can do over the week. I’ve always thought the magic happens not when I give out information, but when participants return with their experiences and share what they’ve learned with one another. I don’t the group is simply bridging a feeling of loneliness or stigma, although it certainly seems to do that. I think the magic happens because participants share what this information means to them, when participants help one another connect a new piece of information to what they already know. Because no-one knows better what the meaning of a new understanding is than people living with pain.

So I question us all. Clinicians – do we help people connect with others who are in the same boat to learn from one another? To make sense of what we try to tell them? People living with pain, do you have ways of sifting through new information so you can work out its relevance to you? Can we bring people together – experts in living well with pain and novices learning how this information might apply?

Cagle, J., & Bunting, M. (2017). Patient reluctance to discuss pain: understanding stoicism, stigma, and other contributing factors. Journal of social work in end-of-life & palliative care, 13(1), 27-43.

Collier, R. (2018). “Complainers, malingerers and drug-seekers”—the stigma of living with chronic pain. In: Can Med Assoc.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (Rev. ed.), Boston, MA: D. C. Heath.

Kuhlthau, C.C. (2004). Seeking meaning: a process approach to library and
information services. (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Stonier, T. (1997). Information and meaning—An evolutionary perspective.
Berlin: Springer.

Wilbers, L. E. (2015). She has a pain problem, not a pill problem: Chronic pain management, stigma, and the family—An autoethnography. Humanity & Society, 39(1), 86-111.

The next new thing

Each week as I sit to write a blog post, I think about what’s been happening in my world and in the world of pain rehabilitation. It struck me this morning that we’re often a bit like “Ooooh! Shiny!” with new toys and techniques and research to read… yet as so many people point out, the old biopsychosocial (sociopsychobiological) framework doesn’t seem to have seeped down very far, particularly when we look at undergraduate training about pain. It’s like an abstract concept until we meet face-to-face with how poorly our original training sets us up for complexity and messiness.

And clinical work is inherently complex, ambiguous, emergent. We work with incomplete information. We pin our hopes upon asking questions about what we hope the problem is, take histories from people who don’t know what we want to know about, use assessment techniques that are full of measurement error and attempt to derive a pattern amongst the noise so we can give the person a name for what is wrong. And we need this label so we know, the person knows, the funding agency knows – what to do next.

What might our training teach us to do? Under the pressure of cramming an enormous amount of information about normal and abnormal function, our training may teach us to quickly discard uncertainty so we can answer the examiner’s questions promptly. We are possibly led towards a linear, time-constrained interview process where people present as neat problem lists, and where uncomfortable imprecision, particularly with respect to – ewwww! – feelings, thoughts, beliefs, family relationships, mental health, drug and alcohol use, coping strategies – yes all those things inside Pandora’s box – is put aside to focus on the real, physical problem we can do something about.

I think this kind of process sets us up to constantly seek the next new thing. We’d like to know that something will work for people who we know, once we start working in the real world, just don’t conform to our diagnostic boxes. Secretly perhaps we’re hoping there will be some wand or sparkle dust that will turn pumpkins in royal coaches, Cinderella into a beautiful, smart, and endlessly compliant patient who gets better within time frames!

While our training might be, in part, responsible for this tendency to seek simple and shiny and new, perhaps the problem goes deeper than this. Perhaps it’s about who we choose to recruit in training – the straight A students who seem to get along with people reasonably well, and who don’t have “problems”. Perhaps it’s also about our post-graduation training (CPD) opportunities – largely fueled by the need to “show evidence” of ongoing learning – that primarily focus on simple techniques that can be taught in a weekend.

What does working with ambiguity look like? Are there models of treatment in healthcare where being OK with not knowing, perhaps discovering together with the person coming for help, where we can feel safe enough to say “I’m not ready to do anything to you until I’ve got to know you better”, or better still “I’m not ready to work with you until we’ve got to know each other better”.

What would it take to reveal some of yourself in the same way we expect our patients to? And what would that do to our relationship dynamics? And the sense of who has power and who doesn’t? Could we challenge our assumptions about who the expert is?

If we adopted a sociopsychobiological model, we might need to begin by acknowledging the complexity of human relationships. Starting with acknowledging that macro influences on assumptions we take for granted – and recognising the similarities and differences between people. We might prioritise learning about social systems, law, folkways and mores, “in” groups and “out” groups and how they work, and even review our beliefs about socio-economic status and why people might not prioritise their health.

Then we might need to reflect on psychological aspects of ourselves and others. That we have a finite amount of room for processing information so we use heuristics that reduce cognitive demand but also reduce what we pay attention to. That we, too, have emotions and assumptions and beliefs about how good we are as clinicians, and what it’s like for the other person to see us strutting our stuff.

And of course, the biological aspects underpin everything – our skin-covered anti-gravity suits through which we view the world. Still there. Still important, but filtered through the social and psychological.

Would this reduce the temptation to look for the next shiny new thing? I’m not sure – but it might broaden the range of shiny new things we’d look at. Perhaps we might become so fascinated by the sociopsychological that we’d recognise there is far more influence on what people do in these domains than we are currently trained to notice. And maybe we’d be a little less enamoured of the toys so temptingly offered at weekend workshops.

Pain – or disability?

One of the fundamental distinctions we need to make when working with people who experience pain is to understand the difference between experiencing pain – and the behaviour or actions or responses we make to this experience. This is crucial because we can never know “what it is like” to experience pain – and all we have to rely on as external observers is what we see the person doing. Differentiating between the various dimensions associated with our experience of pain makes it far easier to address each part in the distinct ways needed.

Let me explain. We know the current definition of pain – an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in such terms (IASP, 1979). One of the key points of this definition was to remove the need for nociception as a requirement for pain to be present. So when we unpack what we understand about pain, the first step is to recognise that it’s an experience. Something we can never share with another person – just like we can’t share joy, the taste of a great craft beer, or what a lover’s touch is like.

We therefore have an inexact relationship between two concepts: nociception, or the biological mechanisms at play until the point at which we are conscious of pain; and pain, or the experience of what it is like to have an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in such terms.

But wait, there’s more. Given that this experience is a subjective, internal and personal experience – how do we know when someone is experiencing pain?

When I ask students, their answer is “oh you can see grimacing, wincing, or they tell you” – and it’s true! But let’s notice something: they’re all behaviours. Things people do, either involuntarily or voluntarily, to signal that they’re sore. Behaviours or actions are not a direct indication of “what it is like” to experience pain. Like nociception and pain, there is an inexact relationship between what someone does when they’re experiencing pain – and their resultant behaviour. So we now have three somewhat overlapping concepts: nociception (biology), pain (experience), and behaviours (actions). They overlap because there is no direct 1:1 relationship between these concepts – although in some cases it may seem like there is.

What else influences our pain experience? If you’ve been paying attention to my blog these last few weeks, you’ll know that thoughts or beliefs and emotions also influence both our experience of pain and our behaviour. For example, if we know that the pain we’re experiencing is for good (such as post-surgical pain after hip replacement), we tend to be more forgiving, or at least more willing to experience it than if someone attacked us with a scalpel down some back alley! We have plenty of evidence that simply knowing the supposed cause, and something about the biology of pain, can help people to feel a little differently about it (emotions), and to move differently (behaviour) (Moseley & Butler, 2015; Tegner, Frederiksen, Esbensen & Juhl, in press), while emotions in both experimental and clinical studies have been shown to strongly affect pain intensity – and subsequent behavioural responses (Orenius, Raij, Nuortimo, Naatanen, Lipsanen, & Karlsson, 2017). Once again, the relationships are not exact – which is almost always the case when we’re studying complex systems!

Because thoughts, beliefs and emotions have both impacts on nociceptive processes and on pain experience and behaviours, I’ve depicted them as overlapping (if there was a way to show this in 3-D believe me, I would!).

But wait, there’s more!

We know context makes an enormous difference to a person’s experience of pain AND the behaviours they take in response to their pain. While contextual factors don’t directly influence nociception, these factors do influence thoughts and beliefs, emotions, and behaviour. For example, we know that in adolescents with pain, parental responses influence the amount of treatment seeking (Stone, Bruehl, Smith, Garber & Walker, 2018); and that spouses or partners of people living with pain can affect both pain intensity and behaviour because of the way they interact (Burns, Post, Smith, Porter, Buvanendran, Fras & Keefe, 2018). We also know that in different communities, responses to pain can differ: people who pursue body suspension (being pierced and suspended by hooks) are supported by those around them to “hang in there” (no pun intended!). Factors such as legislation make a difference to pursuing treatment, while treatment itself can perpetuate disability and may even increase attention to pain.

Why bother explaining all this?

The implications of understanding these associations are quite profound. Firstly, nociception is a small but important contributor to our pain experience. Most pain starts with a nociceptive stimulus, even if it ultimately ends up less influential than cortical ‘interpretive’ processes. Secondly, the experience we have of pain is something we can’t share – and thirdly the only way we can begin to infer that another person has pain is via their behaviours, or what they do. This means pain measures like the visual analogue scale, FACES scale, numeric rating scale are not direct measures but are used by people to give a message about their pain. All behaviour is influenced by both our thoughts/beliefs and emotions and contextual factors including who is nearby, past responses they’ve made to our messages, what’s normal or expected in various contexts, and the purpose we believe our behaviour will serve. And of course, many of the influences and behaviours we do are not things we’re consciously aware of because we’ve been doing them since we were born.

So when I think about what we might do to help someone with their pain, I firstly acknowledge that I can’t directly influence someone’s own experience. I’m working to influence what they do about their pain, their relationship to their pain, their beliefs and understanding, their emotions and how they communicate this to other people around them. And to me, the first step is being ready to hear what people believe about their pain. Only after I’ve successfully conveyed this to the person can I ever begin to come alongside them to help them change what they do.


Burns, J. W., Post, K. M., Smith, D. A., Porter, L. S., Buvanendran, A., Fras, A. M., & Keefe, F. J. (2018). Spouse criticism and hostility during marital interaction: effects on pain intensity and behaviors among individuals with chronic low back pain. Pain, 159(1), 25-32.

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

Orenius, T. I., Raij, T. T., Nuortimo, A., Näätänen, P., Lipsanen, J., & Karlsson, H. (2017). The interaction of emotion and pain in the insula and secondary somatosensory cortex. Neuroscience, 349, 185-194.

Porreca, F., & Navratilova, E. (2017). Reward, motivation, and emotion of pain and its relief. Pain, 158, S43-S49.

Stone, A. L., Bruehl, S., Smith, C. A., Garber, J., & Walker, L. S. (2018). Social learning pathways in the relation between parental chronic pain and daily pain severity and functional impairment in adolescents with functional abdominal pain. Pain, 159(2), 298-305.

Tegner, H., Frederiksen, P., Esbensen, B. A., & Juhl, C. (2018). Neurophysiological pain-education for patients with chronic low back pain-a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Clinical Journal of Pain.

Occupational therapists’ knowledge of pain

I am mightily bothered by health professionals’ lack of knowledge about pain. Perhaps it’s my “teacher” orientation, but it seems to me that if we work in an area, we should grab as much information about that area as possible – and pain and pain management is such an important part of practice for every health professional that I wonder why it’s so often neglected. So, to begin exploring this, I completed a search looking at occupational therapists’ knowledge of pain – and struck gold,  kinda.

Angelica Reyes and Cary Brown conducted a survey of Canadian occupational therapists, to explore how well occupational therapists knew their stuff.

Members of the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists were asked to participate and a total of 354 therapists (mainly from Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia) took part. Curious that few were from British Columbia where I know of quite a few occupational therapists working in the area, but there you have it.  Over half of the respondents had 10 years or less experience – so they were fairly recent graduates and should reflect a “current” educational bias. Only 5% of the total number of members of CAOT responded, so this is a fraction of the occupational therapists working in Canada – but you’d think the motivated (ie knowledgeable) would be more likely to respond than those who don’t work in the area….

What they found was consistent with previous studies (prior to 2000) showing that these respondents, who were surveyed using the City of Boston’s Rehabilitation Professionals’ Knowledge and Attitude Survey (Rochman & Herbert, 2015), had disturbing “potential knowledge gaps” in the following areas:

  • children’s ability to feel pain;
  • use of analgesics in orthopedic pain
  • use of nondrug treatments
  • thermal modalities
  • prevalence of malingering
  • impact of therapists’ values on assessment of veracity
  • mind/body dualism in chronic pain
  • measurement of pain intensity
  • effect of under-treatment on chronicity
  • prevalence of patients who over-report pain
  • prevalence ofpatients who are likely to become addicted if treated with opioids.

Of particular concerns was 45.7% of participants believed that malingering is common; 38% believed that pain intensity can be objectively measured, 39.7% believed people with pain over-report their pain, and 59.8% believed that opioid addiction is likely to occur in more than 5% of the patient population.


So, it seems that these occupational therapists had some very outdated ideas about pain, and in particular, seem to have missed the point that because pain is a biopsychosocial experience, we have no way to determine whether someone is “faking” – or malingering.

Now, I will lay good money on a bet that if we were to carry out this very same survey amongst any other health profession, we’d still arrive at these rather unsavoury findings. Folks, I live in a pain nerd bubble and I still hear these kinds of discussions amongst knowledgeable health professionals, so it’s unsurprising that so many people hold these beliefs. Beliefs that will hamper developing good relationships with the people we want to help, and beliefs that fly in the face of what we know about pain.

I am SO not pointing the finger at Canadian occupational therapists, neither am I pointing the finger at my profession alone. I think this lack of understanding reflects many things:

  1. Pain is a complex experience, and the legacies of ancient models lingers everywhere (dualism, medical model, reductionism, etc);
  2. We devote very little time in our professional training to learning about pain – and often, it’s limited to “here is the nociceptive system”;
  3. The research around pain has exploded over the last 15 years – it’s hard to keep up, which is why I blog;
  4. The problem of persistent pain is under-estimated, so if a person works in paediatrics, older person’s health, neurology, brain injury, spinal cord injury – it’s quite probable that pain is almost completely ignored, because “it’s not relevant”. After all, pain is something for specialist pain services, yes? NO
  5. Prevailing attitudes within the healthcare community are that pain is a difficult area to understand – and “should” be treated with medication or surgery otherwise….

You can see that this year’s IASP Global Year for Excellence in Pain Education has much to do.

Did you know that IASP have produced NINE comprehensive curricula – including occupational therapy  (thank you to Emeritus Professor Jenny Strong, Professor Cary Brown and Dr Derek Jones for developing this wonderful resource). This means there is no reason for us not to begin integrating this import area of practice into our undergraduate training.

Research examining occupational therapy’s contribution within pain management is in its infancy – but oh how my occupational therapy heart went pit-a-pat when, at the Australian and New Zealand Pain Society Scientific Meeting I presented alongside two other occupational therapists with PhD’s (or nearly there!) to a room full of clinicians, not just occupational therapists. While we have little specifically occupational therapy research, occupational therapists have been and are continuing to be part of research efforts around the world. And what clinicians do is apply what is learned into the daily lives of the people we work with. That, friends, is what occupational therapy is about – helping people live full, rich lives doing what’s important to them.

Reyes, A. N., & Brown, C. A. (2016). Occupational therapists’ pain knowledge: A national survey. Disability and Rehabilitation: An International, Multidisciplinary Journal, 38(13), 1309-1317.

Rochman D, Herbert P. Rehabilitation professionals knowledge and attitudes regarding pain (COBS). Accessed 18 March 2015. Available from:

“I know my pain doesn’t mean I’m damaging myself – but I still have pain”

In the excitement of helping people understand more about pain neuroscience, which I truly do support, I think it’s useful to reflect a little on the history of this approach, and how it can influence the experience people have of their pain.

If we go right back to the origins of pain self management, in the groovy 1960’s and 1970’s – the first truly significant work in chronic pain self management came from Wilbert Fordyce (Fordyce, Fowler & Delateur, 1968). Bill Fordyce was a clinical psychologist working in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. He noticed that when people were given positive reinforcement (attention, and social interaction) for “well” behaviour, and ignored or given neutral responses to reports of pain, their “up-time” or activity levels increased. Interestingly for occupational therapists, in the paper I’ve cited, occupation was used as an integral part of the programme and occupational therapy was a part of the programme (somewhat different from most clinics nowadays!)  Thus the operant conditioning model of pain behaviour and disability was first developed.

As practice progressed, clinicians began discussing the gate control theory of pain to help people understand how incredibly powerful descending pain modulation could be. Included in those discussions was the distinction between “hurt” and “harm” – that simply because something hurt, did not mean it was a sign of harm in the tissues.

As the 1980’s wore on, interdisciplinary pain management programmes became popular, with much of the work involving helping people reappraise their pain as “noise in the system”, and encouraging participants to develop strategies to increase activity levels and at the same time employ approaches to “close the gate” and thus reduce pain intensity.  I started working in pain management in the mid-1980’s when not only did I develop a patter to explain gate control, chronic pain, the relationship between the brain and what was going on in the tissues, I also started using the case formulation approach I still use today.

The key effects of this approach were pretty profound: people said to me they had never realised their pain wasn’t a fixed thing. The commonplace examples I used to explain why the relationship between their pain and what was going on in the tissues was complicated and uncertain made sense – everyone had heard of phantom pain, everyone knew of people who played rugby and didn’t feel the pain until after the game, everyone had heard of hypnosis for pain, and people also recognised that when they felt bad, so their pain felt worse but when they were busy and happy doing things, their pain was less of a problem.

I’ve attached one of the original examples of “explaining pain” to this post.simple-explanation-of-biopsychosocial-model-of-chronic-pain

Now the interesting thing is that during the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, there was still a lot of talk about ways to abolish chronic pain. Loads of nerve cutting and burning, lots of surgical fusing and metalwork, heaps of pharmacological strategies were all the rage. People felt sure there was a way to stop all this chronic pain from appearing – and the answer was to begin early, before pain behaviour was established, before people got the wrong idea that their pain was intractable.  As a result the “yellow flags” or psychosocial risk factors for chronicity were developed by Kendall, Linton & Main (at least in NZ). This created a great flurry of ideas about how to “get people moving”, and “assess and manage yellow flags” which have subsequently flourished and become a veritable rainbow of flags.

Sadly, I haven’t seen any significant reduction in the rates of chronic pain, or rates of disability associated with chronic pain – although there do seem to be fewer people having five or six or more surgeries for their lower back pain. Instead, there’s a far greater emphasis on “explaining pain” from the beginning – a good thing, you’d think! But hold on… a recent conversation on Facebook suggests that the purpose of explaining pain may have been misconstrued, perhaps even over-interpreted…

When we begin to untangle some of the elements involved in our experience of pain, we can see that at least part of the “yuk factor” of pain lies in our appraisal or judgement of what the pain signifies. Let me give you an example – say you were walking down a dark alley and someone approached you with a loaded syringe. They stab you with the needle! What do you do? Well – probably you’d run for the nearest Emergency Department, and my bet is that you’d be well aware of the sting of the needle as it went in. Now think about the last time you got your flu jab – same stimulus, but your response is likely to be quite different. You’ll notice the sting of the needle, but it will quickly fade, and you’ll generally be calm and matter-of-fact about it. Your appraisal of the sting is quite different from what I guess you’d be thinking if you’d been stuck by a needle in a dark alleyway.

When people are asked to rate their pain intensity, at least some of the “score” given on a visual analogue scale can be attributed to the “distress” portion of the pain experience. The part that we can attribute to “what this experience signifies to me”. And this is the part that an explanation about pain can influence – and thus pain intensity ratings can and do drop once a helpful explanation is given. BUT it does not change the biological elements, nor the “attention grabbing” aspects of pain (well, maybe the latter can be a little bit changed because if we don’t think of the experience as representing a threat, we can more readily put it aside and focus on other more important things).

Why is this important? Well, in the enthusiasm to explain pain to everyone, I think sometimes the application can be a bit blunt. Sometimes it becomes an info-dump, without really taking the time to listen to what the person is most concerned about. It may not be that they think their pain represents harm – instead it may be that they’re not sleeping well, or that they’re finding it hard to concentrate at work, that they’re worried about the effect of pain on their ability to drive safely. Because quite apart from the “yuckiness” of pain, pain intensity also has an effect on cortical processing space. And an explanation of the mechanics doesn’t take away the poor sleep, the worries about work, or make it easy to drive home. And there are times when the person remains unconvinced by an explanation – or has “head knowledge” but it makes no difference to what they’re doing. From our own experience in life, we know there’s a big difference between reading about something – and actually doing it. Experiential learning trumps “head knowledge”

Do I think it’s important to explain pain neurobiology? Most of the time, yes. But we need to do this with care, compassion and sensitivity.  We need to think about why we’re doing it. And we need to recognise that for some people, explanation doesn’t change their pain intensity, it just changes their judgement about the meaning of their pain – and if their concerns are about the effect of pain on their life, then an explanation may not be the most useful thing. And most of all, we need to remember that reducing pain intensity is not really the most important outcome: doing more is probably more important.


Fordyce, Wilbert E., Fowler, Roy S., & Delateur, Barbara. (1968). An Application of Behavior Modification Technique to a Problem of Chronic Pain. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 6(1), 105-107. doi:

Okifuji, Akiko, & Turk, Dennis C. (2015). Behavioral and Cognitive–Behavioral Approaches to Treating Patients with Chronic Pain: Thinking Outside the Pill Box. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 33(3), 218-238. doi: 10.1007/s10942-015-0215-x

Words are never enough – but does that stop us?

Pain may be said to follow pleasure as its shadow; but the misfortune is that in this particular case, the substance belongs to the shadow, the emptiness to its cause. CHARLES CALEB COLTON, Lacon

I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning. HARUKI MURAKAMI, 1Q84

But pain … seems to me an insufficient reason not to embrace life. Being dead is quite painless. Pain, like time, is going to come on regardless. Question is, what glorious moments can you win from life in addition to the pain?  LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD, Barrayer

Language is not just words, but what those words symbolise. We use movements of lips, tongue and throat to produce symbols we relate to other things. We then use the relationships we learn through symbols to frame or structure our experiences – language is a “form of cooperation that builds on the social nature of humans groups and enhances a culture of eusociality in which humans thrive” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016. p. 28). What this means is that humans learn to connect concepts together through language which represents concepts only because of a shared social understanding – and in sharing this understanding we feel connected.

Why am I talking about language? Well, relational frame theory is a theory of human behaviour that helps us understand how language can exert an influence on us through the way we understand symbolic relations.We learn symbolic relationships by interacting with our world – children learn concepts of  “I – you” (that you and I are different, but that I can take your perspective by imagining I was in your place); “here-there” (that here is where I am, but there is another place – and I can move to that place); “now – then” (what is happening now will become then soon) by handling objects, ultimately understanding that the concepts only make sense within the context of “here”, or “I”, or “now”.   To be empathic, we need to learn to take the perspective of another, see and feel things from another person’s point of view, and be willing to experience those feelings (Villatte, Villattee & Hayes, p.32).

To be empathic to another’s pain, we need to take the perspective of another, to be willing to experience “what it might feel like” from the other person’s shoes.

Why are symbolic relations important?

In Christchurch, as many people know, over the past five years we have been through over 10,000 earthquakes of more than 3 on the Richter Scale. The thought of having an earthquake, to someone raised in NZ, is a distinct possibility. We have small ones all the time. Then in September 2010 we had the first big earthquake. It happened in the middle of the night (early morning), when all was dark, and it was violent! Later that day we had many aftershocks, and I can remember my heart pounding and feeling anxious in the aftermath. What has happened since, though, is that I’ve learned to associate the word “earthquake” with a whole lot of concepts – a rumbling noise from a truck driving past, the deep rumble of earthworks, EQC (our national insurer), road cones, detours, heritage buildings being knocked down, having no water or power. I keep a look out for exits, I brace at the rumble of a truck, one of the topics of conversation is “how is your house” and I remember the fatigue of constant aftershocks in the middle of the night.

Learning the associations (symbolic relations) between the experience at the time of an earthquake and all these other things such as words, movements, actions and emotions means that as a person living in Christchurch, the word “earthquake” and the sight of road cones and the rumble of a truck have all gained additional meaning or salience to me.

Simply by remembering a particular day (for us it was September 22, 2011), or by looking at a road cone, or diggers operating in a trench in a road, I have emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses. This is the power of a symbol, once learned.

And once learned, that association will never be unlearned – I will always remember that trucks rumbling by sound a lot like the start of an earthquake, and I will probably always have a quick little bracing response that I may not even notice (but hitch me up to biofeedback and I’ll be skin conductance will be increased).

What does this have to do with pain?

In the same way that I learned about earthquakes being associated with a whole bunch of things that hadn’t been connected before September 2010, from the time we are born we develop associations between our experiences of pain and other things including language.

For the most part we learn that pain is associated with something not so good happening to our body. We learn that it’s something we don’t really want to experience, and so we try to avoid it (mainly). We learn words that are associated with that experience – “ouch!”, “hurt”, “painful”, “ache”. We also develop emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses to this experience. We learn that certain movements bring pain on, while others alleviate it; we learn that some people respond with sympathy to our words or movements while others don’t respond.

The thing about symbolic relations is that “the simplest act of remembering by using names and symbols … means that anytime, anywhere, we can remember past painful or difficult events based on a few cues…the past can become present through symbolic relations” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 33). While nonhuman animals can become fearful in situations that are similar to those they’ve felt threatened in, humans can experience the same emotions and responses even when a word is spoken – like earthquake for me brings on a heightened awareness of how vulnerable I am when the ground shakes.

What this learned association means is that for all humans, there are many cues that will elicit the same response as the actual event. And given the ubiquity of pain and the words we use to describe pain – and the associations we develop since we’ve been children – it’s no wonder that changing some of the more unhelpful associations and responses we have to the experience is a challenge.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about relational frame theory and how this theory can help us understand why words can be used to help – and harm – and how to implement useful verbal strategies in sessions to help our clients see their pain from a different frame.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061

San Diego Pain Summit 2016

I’ve delayed writing about the San Diego Pain Summit to allow my thoughts to settle and to come up with a suitable distillation of the event. Good things take time to brew!

Impressions of San Diego – city of warmth and light, food and water and the sea… A lovely place to visit, and one that I would almost be happy to live in. But the setting was the least attractive aspect of this most excellent gathering of pain peeps. For me, first time attendee, it was like a gathering of the best of friends all in one place with plenty of time to geek out on pain science – and to put faces to names that I’m so familiar with that I feel like we’ve been friends for ever!

First off, hat tip to Rajam Roose who single-handedly organised this event. Without her vision and organisational strengths I would have missed a highlight of my career so far! Rajam was the most personable hostess, making sure I was picked up from the airport, fed and then dropped off at the hotel, taking photos to share on Facebook as I JUST GOT OFF THE PLANE after at 19 hour flight from New Zealand. Seriously, Rajam and her wonderful man (and assorted friends both furry and not) made my arrival welcoming and wonderful.

And this is probably one of the nicest things from the whole San Diego meeting – feeling welcomed, at home, and amongst friends. And this despite my being the only occupational therapist at the meeting! Come on, occupational therapists, you really need to get your collective acts into gear! The Pain Summit is probably the only meeting I’ve been to where everyone, no matter what background, whether body-oriented, brain-oriented, disability or function-oriented – is accepted, encouraged and enriched. Occupational therapists would feel right at home.

And now, to review the meeting itself. Well, to be honest, the meeting WAS about the people. The discussions had between different professionals from differing backgrounds and theoretical orientations, all focused on learning more about pain and how to better help people who experience pain. While the speakers were outstanding, without the community discussions, both on and off-line, I think this meeting would be much like any other. The hallmark is that the people who attend are committed, passionate and really think about the meaning of new research and how they can apply it.

I’ve talked about a community of practice before. A community of practice is a group of people who have developed a commonality in how they tackle their work. Where theory and practice are connected in the most intimate ways. Where each piece of evidence is examined in the light of the question ALL research should be evaluated against: So what? So what does this mean for ME? So what can I use from this? So what does it mean that this – and this – are both true? So what questions do I need to ask myself?

The Pain Summit is a place where choices don’t have to be made. It’s designed so that people can attend every session, rather than having to choose a stream (and miss out on the other stream). And one where ethics hold out over money-making. Rajam doesn’t want to have to take sponsorship if this means the Summit has to compromise on any information presented. It’s designed so that clinicians can meet the presenters and talk. Where presenters engage with one another and with the attendees.

The most profound talks for me personally were Lehman’s take on biomechanics – when it applies, and when it doesn’t. Argued from a biomechanical perspective. And Benedetti’s talk on placebo and the mechanisms that skew randomised controlled trials of new pharmacological and surgical agents (yes, I know placebo is a thing affecting ALL treatments, but much more difficult to study in nonpharmacological approaches). I was saddened to hear that yes, if we persist in using the WHO Analgesic Ladder, we may be inadvertently doing harm because repeated ineffective treatments can establish negative expectancies from ALL treatments – hence my take on identifying the pain mechanisms involved and providing targeted therapy specific to those mechanisms rather than a “multimodal” approach that may not provide much at all. The argument Benedetti made was that medications that don’t work create a learning effect in the recipient, reducing the potential for subsequent treatments to be effective. So if you have fibromyalgia, probably the archetypal “central sensitisation” pain problem, treating it with NSAIDs and codeine and other opiates isn’t likely to do anything wonderful – why not begin with the tricyclic antidepressants and gapabentin/pregabalin first?

I also loved Alison Sim’s work on presenting CBT for pain, clear, precise – and engaging. And yes, anyone can integrate it into daily practice.  The appetite for “psychological” approaches amongst this largely hands-on audience was amazing. Kevin Vowles impressive presentation on the futility of many approaches to “get rid of pain” and the usefulness of values-based action (using ACT) (and his wonderful workshop on ACT) made my day. Between them and Sandy Hilton’s discussion of ways to work with people who have pelvic pain, and I began to feel like this group of clinicians really knows that PEOPLE experience pain, not limbs or body parts. And to help PEOPLE we need to BE people – human connectedness is so important.

There were many other talks, but these were the ones that really stood out for me. I’m now impatiently waiting for the video recordings so I can relive the moments of the Pain Summit and pick up on the many, many details of talks I haven’t mentioned. I haven’t mentioned them not because they weren’t great, but because the ones I’ve listed resonated particularly with me in my own orientation.

Next year – will you be there? I hope so – I’ll be there, and I’m looking forward to being amongst friends again – and keeping that discussion going on Facebook, Twitter, SomaSimple in between.