Why does “doing exercise” work?

Bless all the physiotherapists in the world, they keep us doing exercises. And exercises are good because they get us doing the things we want to do in our daily lives. But how does it work?  This is not an exposition on exercise physiology – I’m not au fait enough with physiology to do that and there are many other people out there with vast amounts of knowledge giving us the benefit of their wisdom who have written at length about exercise and why it’s important. Instead I want to talk about some observations – and maybe pose some critical questions too.

For many years I’ve worked in a chronic pain management centre where people with chronic pain attend a three week intensive pain management programme. Staff members from outside the Pain Management Centre (we were located as an outpatient facility on the grounds of a rehabilitation hospital) always told us they could spot a person with pain the moment they saw them wandering from our building to the main cafeteria: people walking slowly, sometimes limping, but often just walking very slowly towards the cafe.

Over the course of the three weeks, this group of people would go from this slow amble to walking briskly and attending the hydrotherapy sessions, doing a daily exercise session (circuit-style); and in the final week of the programme, catching a bus to the shopping centre, purchasing food, coming back and preparing a shared barbecue for friends and family. What a turn-around!

Now, I said I wasn’t going to talk about physiology and I won’t, but I WILL point out that three weeks is not a long time. It’s so little time that it’s impossible for muscle length and strength to change significantly. And yet movements (measured using the six minute walking test and timed up and go) were quicker. Postures changed. People looked more alert and took more notice of the world around them. The question of how it is that this group of people could go from being recognisably “pain patients” to people who could do everyday activities has to be asked.

There are a couple of points to make before I do my thing. Firstly, while the people attending the programme were undeniably uncomfortable, clearly slow in their movements, and most definitely disabled, they weren’t, by usual measures “deconditioned”. In other words, they were of pretty average fitness – and indeed, many had been attending daily gym sessions at the behest of a case manager and under the supervision of a physiotherapist for months! At the same time they were not DOING much and felt extremely limited in their capabilities.

The second point is that although the programme had two “exercise” sessions each day, these were not high intensity sessions! The aim in most cases was to help people establish a baseline – or a reliable, consistent quota of exercise that they could do irrespective of their pain intensity. Most of the work within the exercise sessions was to help people become aware of their approach to activity, to modify this approach, and to then maintain it. Movement quality rather than quantity was the aim.

Here’s where I want to propose some of the mechanisms that might be involved.

  1. Humans like to, and almost need to, compare their performance with other people. It’s not something we choose to do, it’s an innate social bonding mechanism and whether we then modify what we do to match others – or deliberately try to do the opposite to mark out our own stance – we’ve based our behaviour on having observed what’s “normal” around us. And this applies even when people develop disability (Dunn, 2010), but perhaps more importantly, may well be fundamental to how we experience our world – and ourselves (Santiago Delefosse, 2011). When a group of people meet, their behaviour rapidly becomes more similar – similar gestures, similar body positions, and similar facial expressions. I wonder if one of the mechanisms involved in change within a group of people who live with chronic pain is this tendency to mirror one another’s behaviour.
  2. Having proposed that mirroring is one mechanism of change, why don’t groups of people with chronic pain ALL remain slowed and showing pain behaviour? Well, another mechanism involved in behaviour change is operant conditioning. When a group is performing exercise under the supervision of a “wise and caring authority” (ie a physiotherapist), many reinforcements are present. There’s the “no, that’s not quite the right movement” response, and the “oh you did it!” response. The “you can do it, just push a bit more” response, and the “if you can do that, how about another?” At the same time people are set quota or “the number of repetitions” to complete within a timeframe. Simply recording what is happening is sufficient to change behaviour – just ask someone who is on a diet to record their food intake for a week and you’ll likely see some changes! But add to this a very potent response from the wise and caring physiotherapist, and you’ll get warm fuzzies for doing more, and possibly cold pricklies if you don’t try.
  3. And finally, and possibly the most powerful of all, is the process of confronting feared movements – and doing them. Doing them without “safety behaviour” and doing them to specifically confront the thing that makes them scary. And doing them in many, many different settings, so as to alter the tendency to avoid them because they’re scary. A recently published systematic review and meta-analysis of graded activity (usually based on operant conditioning principles, and perhaps on cardiovascular fitness training principles) compared with graded exposure (deliberately confronting feared and avoided movements in a whole range of different contexts) found that graded exposure more effectively reduces catastrophising than just doing graded activation. This shouldn’t surprise us – one of the mechanisms involved in disability associated with nonspecific low back pain is avoiding doing things because people are fearful either of further injury, or of being unable to handle the effects of pain.

Where am I going with this post? Well, despite the face validity of exercise for reducing pain and disability, it’s not the physiological effects that first produce results. It can’t be because tissues do not adapt that quickly. What does appear to happen are a range of social-psychological processes that influence whether a person will (or won’t) do something. What this means is two things:

  • Physiotherapists, and indeed anyone who helps people do movements to reduce disability, really need to know their psychological processes because they’re inherent in the work done.
  • Becoming expert at analysing what a person wants and needs to do, and in being able to analyse then carefully titrate exposure to the contexts in which things need to be done is vital. That’s fundamental to occupational therapy theory, training and expertise.



Dunn, D. S. (2010). The social psychology of disability. In R. G. Frank, M. Rosenthal, & B. Caplan (Eds.), Handbook of rehabilitation psychology, (2 ed., pp. 379-390). Washington , DC: American Psychological Association

Lopez-de-Uralde-Villanueva, I., Munoz-Garcia, D., Gil-Martinez, A., Pardo-Montero, J., Munoz-Plata, R., Angulo-Diaz-Parreno, S., . . . La Touche, R. (2015). A systematic review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness of graded activity and graded exposure for chronic nonspecific low back pain. Pain Med. doi:10.1111/pme.12882

Santiago Delefosse, M. (2011). An embodied-socio-psychological perspective in health psychology? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(5), 220-230.

Waitangi Day – or how to live together in unity

Today is New Zealand’s Waitangi Day ‘Mondayisation’ – the actual day was Saturday 6th Feb. It’s an important day in New Zealand because it’s the day when two completely different nations signed a treaty allowing certain rights between them – and allowed my ancestors to travel from Ireland and England to settle in the country I call my home. Unlike many country’s celebrations of nationhood, Waitangi Day is almost always a time of turbulence, dissension and debate. This is not a bad thing because over the years I think the way in which Maori (Tangata Whenua, or original settlers) and non-Maori settlers (Tangata Tiriti) relate in our country is a fantastic example of living together well. Not perfectly – but certainly in a more integrated way than many other countries where two completely different cultures blend.

Thinking of Waitangi Day, I’m reminded of the way in which the multidimensional model of pain attempts to integrate biological, psychological and social factors to help explain this experience and how such a primitive response to threat can ultimately lead to adaptation and learning – in most cases – or the most profound misery and disability in others.

Like the treaty relationship in New Zealand, there’s much room for discussion and debate as to the relative weight to place on various components of the model.  And like the treaty relationship, there are times when each part is accused of dominating and not giving the other/s due credit. Truth, at least to me, is, we need all of us (and all the factors) to integrate – not to become some bland nothing, but to express the components fully.

Just last week I was astonished to find that a clinician thought that I believed low back pain is “psychological”. Absolutely astonished because this has never been my position! While this blog and much of my teaching and reading is around psychological and more recently social factors influencing pain and disability, my position has never been to elevate the influence of these factors over the biological. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – it’s hard to deal with the state of play in our understanding of low back pain which finds that many of the assumed causal mechanisms (like disc prolapses, poor “core” muscles, the biomechanics of lifting and so on) just don’t apply. It’s also really difficult to know that so far there are no particular exercise treatments that work more effectively than any other. Cognitive dissonance anyone? Just because these factors are less relevant than presumed does not mean that (a) I think low back pain is psychological and (b) that all biological factors are irrelevant. What it does mean is that we don’t know. I’ll say that again. We. Don’t. Know. Most back pain falls into this “nonspecific” group – and by calling it “nonspecific” we are actually admitting that We. Don’t. Know.

How do people assume that because I point out that we don’t know the causal mechanisms of low back pain but we DO know the critical importance of psychosocial factors on disability associated with low back pain – and the treatments that can mitigate these factors – that I believe back pain is psychological? I think it’s a simple fallacy – some people believe that because a person responds to psychosocial interventions this therefore means their problem is psychological. This is not true – and here are some examples. Exercise (a physical modality) is shown to be an effective treatment for depression. Does this mean depression is a purely biological disorder? Biofeedback provides visual or auditory information related to physical aspects of the body like blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension – does this mean that blood pressure is “psychological”? Diabetes management often includes learning to resist the urge, or “urge surf” the impulse to eat foods that increase blood sugar levels – does this mean diabetes is psychological?

Here’s my real position on nonspecific low back pain, which is let me remind you, the most common form of low back pain.

Causes – not known (Golob & Wipf, 2014), risk factors for onset are mainly equivocal but one study found the major predictor of an onset was – prior history of low back pain, with “limited evidence that the combination of postural risk factors and job strain is associated with the onset of LBP” (Janwantanakul, Sitthipornvorakul,  & Paksaichol, 2012), exercise may prevent recurrence but mechanisms of LBP remain unclear (Macedo, Bostick and Maher, 2013), while subgroup analysis carried out by therapists were “underpowered, are only able to provide exploratory or insufficient findings, and have rather poor quality of reporting” (Mistry, Patel, Wan Hee, Stallard & Underwood, 2014).

My take from this brief review? The mechanisms presumed to be involved in nonspecific low back pain are unknown.

Treatments – mainly ineffective but self-management provides small effects on pain and disability (moderate quality) (Oliveira, Ferreira, Maher, Pinto, Refshauge & Ferreira, 2012), “the evidence on acupuncture for acute LBP is sparse despite our comprehensive literature search” (Lee, Choi, Lee, Lee, Shin & Lee, 2013), no definitive evidence supports the use of orthoses for spine pain (Zarghooni, Beyer, Siewe & Eysel, 2013), acetaminophen is not effective for pain relief (Machado, Maher, Ferreira, Pinheiro, Lin, Day et al, 2015), and no specific exercises are better than any other for either pain relief or recovery – not even motor control exercises (Saragiotto, Maher, Yamato, Costa et al, 2016).

My take from this set of references is that movement is good – any movement, but no particular form of exercise is better than any other. In fact, the main limitation to exercise is adherence (or actually continuing exercising after the pain has settled).

The factors known to predict poor recovery are pretty clear – catastrophising, or thinking the worst (Kim, Cho, Kang, Chang, Lee, & Yeom, 2015), avoidance (usually arising from unhelpful beliefs about the problem – see commentary by Schofferman, 2015), low mood – which has also been found to predict reporting or treatment seeking of low back pain (see this post from Body in Mind, and this one).

What can I take from all of this? Well, my view is that because psychosocial factors exert their influence at multiple levels including our nervous system (see Borkum, 2010), but also our community understanding of what is and isn’t “illness” (Jutel, 2011) and who to see and what to do about it, the problem of nonspecific low back pain is one of the purest forms of an integrated biopsychosocial and multifactorial health concern in human life. I therefore rest my case: nonspecific low back pain is not psychological, but neither is it biomechanical or biological only. It is a biopsychosocial multifactorial experience to which humans are prone.

The best we can do with our current knowledge base is (1) limit and avoid the use of nocebic language and attempts to explain low back pain via biomechanical or muscle control mechanisms, (2) be honest about the likelihood of low back pain recurring and our treatments essentially doing very little, and (3) encourage return to normal activity by doing normal activity including exercise. Being honest about the state of play in our knowledge is a good starting point for better understanding – sounds a lot like race relations, doesn’t it?


Borkum, J. M. (2010). Maladaptive cognitions and chronic pain: Epidemiology, neurobiology, and treatment. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 28(1), 4-24. doi:

Golob, A. L., & Wipf, J. E. (2014). Low back pain. Medical Clinics of North America, 98(3), 405-428.

Janwantanakul, P., Sitthipornvorakul, E., & Paksaichol, A. (2012). Risk factors for the onset of nonspecific low back pain in office workers: A systematic review of prospective cohort studies. Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics, 35(7), 568-577.

Jutel, A. (2011). Classification, disease, and diagnosis. Perspectives in Biology & Medicine, 54(2), 189-205.

Kim, H.-J., Cho, C.-H., Kang, K.-T., Chang, B.-S., Lee, C.-K., & Yeom, J. S. (2015). The significance of pain catastrophizing in clinical manifestations of patients with lumbar spinal stenosis: Mediation analysis with bootstrapping. The Spine Journal, 15(2), 238-246. doi:

Lee, J. H., Choi, T. Y., Lee, M. S., Lee, H., Shin, B. C., & Lee, H. (2013). Acupuncture for acute low back pain: A systematic review. Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(2), 172-185.

Macedo, L. G., Bostick, G. P., & Maher, C. G. (2013). Exercise for prevention of recurrences of nonspecific low back pain. Physical Therapy, 93(12), 1587-1591.

Machado, G. C., Maher, C. G., Ferreira, P. H., Pinheiro, M. B., Lin, C.-W. C., Day, R. O., . . . Ferreira, M. L. (2015). Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials. BMJ, 350, h1225.

Mistry, D., Patel, S., Hee, S. W., Stallard, N., & Underwood, M. (2014). Evaluating the quality of subgroup analyses in randomized controlled trials of therapist-delivered interventions for nonspecific low back pain: A systematic review. Spine, 39(7), 618-629.

Oliveira, V. C., Ferreira, P. H., Maher, C. G., Pinto, R. Z., Refshauge, K. M., & Ferreira, M. L. (2012). Effectiveness of self-management of low back pain: Systematic review with meta-analysis. Arthritis care & research, 64(11), 1739-1748.

Saragiotto Bruno, T., Maher Christopher, G., Yamato Tiê, P., Costa Leonardo, O. P., Menezes Costa Luciola, C., Ostelo Raymond, W. J. G., & Macedo Luciana, G. (2016). Motor control exercise for chronic non-specific low-back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (1).

Schofferman, J. A. (2015). Commentary on the significance of pain catastrophizing in clinical manifestations of patients with lumbar spinal stenosis: Mediation analysis with bootstrapping. The Spine Journal, 15(2), 247-248. doi:

Zarghooni, K., Beyer, F., Siewe, J., & Eysel, P. (2013). The orthotic treatment of acute and chronic disease of the cervical and lumbar spine. Deutsches Arzteblatt International, 110(44), 737-742.

Treat the pain… or treat the depression? Carpal Tunnel Syndrome management
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a very common pain disorder associated with compression of the median nerve at the carpal tunnel. Approximately 139 women and 67 males per 100,000 people will report this problem over the course of one year, although this depends on the definition used. The problem with CTS is not only that it is common, but also that it affects function – it is really difficult to carry out normal daily life with a numb or tingly hand, poor grip strength (particularly in the fingertips), and disruption to sleep from the ongoing deep achy sensation in the hand. Additionally, some studies show that people with CTS also experience widespread pressure pain hypersensitivity, and an increased response to heat, suggesting that the problem either triggers, or is part of a central sensitisation process.

Diagnosing CTS is conducted using two main approaches – firstly the clinical signs of pain, paraesthesia in the median nerve distribution, symptoms worse at night, and positive Tinel and Phalen signs; secondly, electrodiagnostic testing must show deficits of both sensory and motor median nerve conduction.

In this study, the authors were interested in establishing the relationship between clinical signs and symptoms, physical signs and symptoms (notably CROM and pinch grip force), as well as neurophysiological measures – and they also measured depression. I wish they’d included measures of pain anxiety, or catastrophising, but this was not included in this study.

224 women were included in the study, which carefully screened out individuals with potential confounding contributory causes such as whiplash, pregnancy or diabetes.  The initial and expected findings were that women with higher reports of pain also demonstrated poorer CROM, pinch grip, lower heat pain hypersensitivity, and overall poorer functional hand use.

The first interesting finding was that women in this study reporting only moderate levels of pain also reported poor functioning. The authors suggest that, as a result of this finding “it may not be necessary to report higher levels of pain to find a repercussion in functional activities.” In other words, the impact of CTS on functional use of the hand appears ahead of the pain intensity, although the two are associated.

The study also found that heat pain hyperalgesia over the carpal tunnel as also associated with the intensity of hand pain – they suggest this may be due to peripheral sensitisation which is present from very early on in the presentation.

Looking at depression and the relationship with CTS, interestingly, the women did not demonstrate very high levels of depression, which surprised me a little given they had been selected for inclusion on the basis of having CTS symptoms for 12 months or more. The analysis found that depression was associated with poorer hand function and greater pain, even though the women did not report very high levels of depression. These authors suggest that “perhaps proper management of depressive symptoms in CTS may reduce, not only chronicity, but also induce an improvement in hand pain-related disability.”

Somewhat more controversially for some physiotherapists, these authors also argue that because depressive symptoms resolve during (as a result of perhaps?) physiotherapy treatment in 40% of people with work-related musculoskeletal pain injuries, perhaps those treatments should target mood management as well. So much for “but it’s not in my scope of practice”!

In fact, the authors are very clear that “proper management of individuals with CTS should include therapeutic interventions targeting physical impairments, that is, manual therapies; psychological disturbances (cognitive behaviour), and mechanical hypersensitivity (that is, neuromodulatory pain approaches).” If ever there was a time to get upskilled in a whole person approach to rehabilitation, this paper supports doing so now.

Fernández-Muñoz, J., Palacios-Ceña, M., Cigarán-Méndez, M., Ortega-Santiago, R., de-la-Llave-Rincón, A., Salom-Moreno, J., & Fernández-de-las-Peñas, C. (2016). Pain is Associated to Clinical, Psychological, Physical, and Neurophysiological Variables in Women With Carpal Tunnel Syndrome The Clinical Journal of Pain, 32 (2), 122-129 DOI: 10.1097/AJP.0000000000000241

More than something to blame when the treatment doesn’t work

A friend of mine told me that during her physiotherapy training when they discussed “psychosocial” factors it was usually in the context of explaining why a treatment didn’t work.  This still happens. Even well-informed and scientifically savvy people can unintentionally “blame” those pesky psychosocial factors for getting in the way of complete recovery. What do I mean? Well, let’s think about it: when we’ve done the “explaining” or “educating” – and the person still doesn’t understand and/or their pain doesn’t reduce, what’s our explanation?

We know that pain is an experience, not a separate thing to be treated, but the experience an individual has when his or her brain determines there is a threat to the body (and that threat is more important than other competing goals). We also know there are numerous mechanisms underpinning this experience, many of which are biological. But what we are always left with is the fact that we cannot know anything about this other person’s world except through (1) their behaviour and (2) our interpretation of their behaviour.

I’ve emphasised this because recently I’ve heard one registration board suggesting that a profession should not talk about pain, nor consider psychosocial factors because their domain of influence is bodily tissues.

I’ve also emphasised this because in our efforts to become all sciencey and sound (at least) like we know what we’re talking about, I think we may have forgotten that the only reason we know someone is sore is because they are doing something that we interpret as a signal that they’re sore. And that this occurs within a social setting that has emerged from a combination of historical practices and assumptions, and we are part of that social setting.

The biological substrates for our experience of pain have received the lion’s share of research attention and funds. What has received rather less is understanding some of the social aspects – what individuals learn throughout their life, including the assumptions we develop about what is “normal” and what is not. Unique family and cultural factors influence each individual’s experience – what does this person pay attention to? What does this person ignore? When this person recognises something as “not normal” what is the usual way of dealing with it? Who does this person first see for treatment?

More than this, what about the research looking at treatment provider’s decoding and response to the social communication of the person seeking treatment? We know, for example, that healthcare providers who view video vignettes of people displaying pain behaviour with no medical evidence but with psychosocial factors rate those individuals as experiencing less pain and interference, they have less sympathy, expect medication effectiveness to be less, and those individuals were more likely to be rated as potentially trying to deceive the treatment providers (De Ruddere, Goubert, Stevens, Deveugele, Craig & Crombez, 2014). These responses appear to use both automatic (unintentional, reflexive) and controlled (intentional, purposive) neuroregulatory systems. Observers (ie health professionals) also incorporate automatic (unintentional, reflexive) and controlled (intentional, reflective) reactions. We seem more likely to demonstrate instant ‘‘visceral’’ emotional reactions to unintentional, reflexive expression, while controlled expression characterised by purposive (deliberate) behaviour appears more likely to suggest to health professionals (or observers) that we should think a little about the purpose behind that individual’s pain expression (Craig, Versloot, Goubert, Vervoort & Crombez, 2010). The point is: this occurs even when we know about it, and even if the individual is experiencing pain, and even though the individual is only trying to get the treatment provider’s attention!

Pain behaviour as independent from the individual’s experience of pain is one of the key features of the behavioural model of pain. Pain behaviours were what Fordyce and Loeser and Turk and the very great original thinkers about chronic pain management first thought could and should be dealt with. The reason? Because despite all the surgical and pharmacological treatments available in the late 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s,  many people were still left experiencing pain and were also highly disabled by it. By helping people reduce their pain behaviour (eg stop guarding that body part, start moving more quickly and fluidly, be more relaxed, groan less) they noticed that people were also reporting that their pain bothered them less.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (or a cognitive behavioural approach, to be more accurate) incorporated more “education”, or helping people understand the mechanisms involved in their experience of pain, helping them understand the difference between hurting vs doing damage. A CBT approach meant people were acknowledged as being able to think differently about their pain, reduce their distress and begin to do more. A CBT approach combined education with behavioural experiments and encouraged people to get on with life.

Much more recently we have physiotherapists deciding that giving people pain neurobiology education (sounds almost exactly like the CBT education/explanation to me) is really good and reduces the threat value of the experience. And combined with graded reactivation, exposure to doing things that have been avoided, using methods to reduce distress and by avoiding flare-ups of pain, people are helped.

Two or three important points for me:

  1. Health professionals need to be aware of their own psychosocial responses/background/biases when they observe another person who is indicating they are sore.
  2. If we are two people interacting, all the messy psychosocial factors are immediately present – whether we attend to them, or not.
  3. Given how important those factors are in both our response to another person and their response to treatment (eg placebo, expectancy) it is critical that we integrate effective communication skills into every clinical interaction.

And probably another important point:

In the enthusiasm for pain neurobiology education and the potential for the person to no longer experience pain, we need to remember that reducing disability is arguably more relevant than reducing pain. Despite the impressive results reported by clinicians and some researchers there are many many people who continue to live with chronic pain. As clinicians we may even inadvertently delay recovery if our focus is inappropriately on pain reduction. I say this because there is SUCH clear evidence that pain intensity is less of a factor in ongoing disability than unhelpful beliefs and avoidance (Froud, Patterson, Eldridge, Seale, Pincus, Rajendran et al, 2014; Shaw, Campbell, Nelson, Main & Linton, 2013; Wilkens, Scheel, Grundnes, Hellum & Storheim, 2013).

To conclude, it seems to me that it’s high time for health professionals to take a hard look at what they consider to be “their” domain of concern. Not only must we avoid “blaming” psychosocial factors for poor outcomes from treatments we provide, we also must begin to recognise our own biases as we work with people living with pain. One of these biases is the temptation to believe that we are not influenced by our own psychosocial factors. Another is to recognise that delicate moment when it’s time to take our attention away from reducing pain and towards reducing disability. We need to elevate the status of effective communication – not just “can I make myself understood” and “can I establish rapport”, but that much more nuanced scope of implementing reflective listening, truly hearing our clients, and responding in a way that upholds client choice and self efficacy. I think this belongs to all health professions, not simply those tasked with dealing with “psychosocial” factors.


Craig, K.D. (2015). Social communication model of pain. Pain, 156(7), 1198-1199.

Craig, K.D., Versloot, J., Goubert, L., Vervoort, T., & Crombez, G. (2010). Perceiving pain in others: Automatic and controlled mechanisms. The Journal of Pain, 11(2), 101-108. doi:

De Ruddere, L., Goubert, L., Stevens, M.A.L., Deveugele, M., Craig, K.D., & Crombez, G. (2014). Health care professionals’ reactions to patient pain: Impact of knowledge about medical evidence and psychosocial influences. The Journal of Pain, 15(3), 262-270. doi:

Froud, R., Patterson, S., Eldridge, S., Seale, C., Pincus, T., Rajendran, D., . . . Underwood, M. (2014). A systematic review and meta-synthesis of the impact of low back pain on people’s lives. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 15, 50.

Shaw, W.S., Campbell, P., Nelson, C.C., Main, C.J., & Linton, S.J. (2013). Effects of workplace, family and cultural influences on low back pain: What opportunities exist to address social factors in general consultations? Best Practice & Research in Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 637-648.

Wilkens, P., Scheel, I.B., Grundnes, O., Hellum, C., & Storheim, K. (2013). Prognostic factors of prolonged disability in patients with chronic low back pain and lumbar degeneration in primary care: A cohort study. Spine, 38(1), 65-74.

Those who expect moments of change to be comfortable and free of conflict have not learned their history ~ Joan Wallach Scott

I’ve been touring North America – Chicago, Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver. As I’ve toured I’ve been listening to the stories of change and insight as different professions review their contributions to effective pain treatment. Some things change, some things stay the same – but as the quote above indicates, change isn’t comfortable nor free of conflict.

What have I found in my travels?

There’s a great deal to be proud of in our approaches to helping people who live with pain. Allied health practitioners of various backgrounds have adopted and adapted to the discoveries about how people experience and deal with their experience of pain. There’s been enormous change in our views of pain as neither a form of mental illness (or malingering, or imagination, or even simply weakness of spirit), nor a lifelong static state. Allied health practitioners of every kind know that they can contribute to helping people make sense of their pain, perhaps change their experience and reduce the distress and disability that living with pain can bring.

Disturbingly, though, I heard the exact same issues as those I face in New Zealand, when it comes to unrest and disquiet about competence, scope, and funding for effective treatments.

Disquiet because some of the different professions lay claim to certain areas of practice as “theirs”. Disquiet because there are attempts to limit access to learning about aspects of pain that are integral to the experience and management of pain. Concerns that some clinicians might be overstepping their scope when they begin to develop skills in, most notably, psychosocial aspects of our experience of pain. And disproportionate funding given to short-term (primarily) biomedical interventions without a consistent or even logical argument for similar funding levels to be applied to allied health approaches. Or worse – funding given to those working in a single-discipline approach, and loss of funding (or funding not even considered for) approaches where teamwork is a critical part of the treatment.

As a somewhat renegade occupational therapist with a MSc in psychology, PhD in health sciences, and great interest in psychosocial aspects of pain, I know that I don’t sit especially comfortably in one little box. And it was SO refreshing to find that I’m not alone in this. As allied health professionals develop knowledge and skills in a biopsychosocial and neurobiologically sophisticated model of pain, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the practice of good occupational therapists, physiotherapists, massage therapists, psychologists, nurses and social workers when working with people who live with pain.

Our aims are the same: we want to help people live good lives despite experiencing pain. Some of the ways we ALL do this are to help people reconceptualise pain as something that is not fixed but can be influenced by reducing the threat value of the experience within the context of what we view as important.

We ALL draw on learning theories, influencing beliefs and attitudes, consider contingencies and work at reducing the relationship between experiencing something inherently unpleasant and avoiding that experience.

We ALL help people set goals, work hard to achieve them, use movement and activity to help pursue what is valued and deal effectively with what gets in the way of this.

We ALL use motivational approaches, we ALL consider personal values and choices, we ALL want the people we work with to have the freedom to choose personally-valued goals and outcomes.

We ALL draw freely on the published scientific literature across all the branches of pain research – biological, psychological, and to a lesser extent, sociological. (I’d love to see far more emphasis on the social as I’m sure regular readers know!).

It confuses and perplexes me that each one of our professional groups has, at times, criticised other professions for failing to address or consider the aspects of pain experience that our particular group sees as critical. But what really perplexes me is that once another profession begins to take up the challenge of adopting and integrating learning from “outside” their original knowledge base, some people turn right around and begin to criticise that group for “working out of scope”. It does not make sense.

A discussion that I think needs to begin is to consider the merit of a specialist “certification” if you like, for those people who have taken time to learn about pain in-depth, and who no longer fit as comfortably within their original profession as they once did. As I saw so often in my travels, when we get beyond the simplistic level of learning about pain as a biopsychosocial experience we begin to recognise that the way we work with people changes over time to become so much more similar than dissimilar that our professional disciplinary approaches seem to fade away.

I know that in the years since my original training and graduation as an occupational therapist (waaaay back in 1983) I’ve done so much more learning and development that what I do now is so very different from what I did then. I’m still essentially interested in helping people do what is important in their lives. Doing, or occupation, is integral to my practice. The ways I help people achieve this (thus reducing distress and disability) has changed but my “domain of concern” (old-fashioned language for “what I’m interested in”) is still occupation, or the things people want and need to do in daily life.

The obstacles to participating in occupations might be addressed in slightly different ways, but I draw on the same fields of knowledge that I drew on in 1983. Just as I learned then that biomechanical, kinesiological, anatomical, biological, psychological, social, anthropological – and the rest – ways of understanding human behaviour informed the way I work with people, I STILL draw on those same fields of knowledge. The first three fields might have less influence now than I thought they did when I first started working in pain management, but they all contribute.

So here’s the thing: if there is so much our different professions have in common with one another, is it time for allied health professionals to work in a united way to demonstrate just how significant our contribution is to the health and wellbeing of people living with pain? Is it time to trust one another just a little more and stop the infighting as to who is working “in” or “out” of scope? Isn’t it time we looked to the people we work with and for, and focused a little more on sharing our expertise with one another? Shouldn’t we trust that if we’re interested in what works well for the people we want to help, we’ll develop effective knowledge and skills rather than thinking, like Gollum “It’s mine! It’s my preciousssssss!”

I truly thing we can do a much more effective job if we remember that while we let go of some things that we think of as “ours” we might have made just a little room to add some new skills to our own repertoire? And perhaps that change might happen more smoothly if we were more accepting of the need to let go some control and trust a little more.

Who are you? The effect of pain on self

My client, let’s call him Al, is a plumber. Or was a plumber. He sees himself as a hard-working, reliable guy who takes pride in doing a job once, doing it well, and not stopping until the job is finished. He’s worked for most of his adult life in his own plumbing business, something he’s very proud of. He’s supported his partner while she’s been at home caring for their two now adolescent boys. In his spare time he goes fishing, loves the outdoors and likes to wander the hills whenever he can.

Al isn’t very happy. He’s been told that his back pain, which he’s had for six months now, is not likely to go away. He’s been having treatments from physiotherapy, had a return to work programme developed by an occupational therapist, tried medications and injections but nothing has taken his pain away. He’s slowly stopped seeing his mates, isn’t sleeping well, hasn’t been out fishing in months, and he’s even had trouble keeping from shouting at his boys.

Al doesn’t sound all that different from many of the men I’ve seen in pain management. Some people call him “unmotivated” because he’s stopped thinking about goals for the future, and does his exercises in a half-hearted sort of way. He doesn’t always attend his appointments. It’s hard to know whether he’s actually doing his home exercise programme. A far cry from the “hard-working, reliable” man who runs his own business.

What’s going on? We could say he’s depressed, and maybe he is. But more importantly, why is he depressed? He doesn’t describe his pain as anything more than a 5/10 where 10 is the most extreme pain he can imagine. He’s still getting an income from his worker’s compensation, he’s still in a loving relationship and in their own home. But he’s not a happy man.

We’ve all met an Al, I’m sure. Superficially he looks fine, but a throwaway comment nails it: “I’m just not myself any more, I want things to be normal”.


All of us have an idea of who we are. A self-concept is a set of representations about who we are, what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. We all have several self-concepts – the “actual” self, the “ideal” self (who we would like to be), the “ought” self (the person others think we should be), the “feared” self (the person we really don’t want to be) and so on (Higgins, 1999; Markus & Nurius, 1986). Our sense of self is based on a collection of memories, a pattern of behaviours that we’ve developed and continue to develop as we aim to be the person we want to be.  Our sense of self guides our choices and the way we do things.

What happens when we can’t do things the way we think we “should”, or the way our sense of self would guide us to? Let’s think about this for a minute.

Al is used to getting up early in the morning, usually about 6.00, so he can get out to the site he’s working on that day and begin work by about 7.30. He prides himself on being at work, ready to go, before his apprentice gets there. He’s always organised, got his gear ready and in the truck with a cup of tea all sorted so he can plan his day.

Since he developed his back pain, Al’s had trouble getting out of bed before 8.00. He’s always tired. He’s not sleeping. He’s the last one in the house to get up, and he can’t even get to the work site until 9.00 because his body is sore and he can’t seem to wake up. He’s getting picked up by his apprentice who keeps giving him grief over not having his gear ready in time. He’s not the man he used to be, in fact, he’s become the man he swore he’d never be, a compensation bludger. He doesn’t like who he’s become. He feels lazy and useless.

Achieving self-coherence by re-occupying self

One of the neglected aspects of pain management is how to help someone deal with the changes to his or her sense of self. Life becomes chaotic when assumptions we make about the world no longer apply. The main concern of someone who is learning to deal with chronic pain is how to make life and self make sense again, to regain some coherence.  When they successfully solve this problem, it’s like all the various aspects of “self” have been reassembled. This is usually a new “self”, one that incorporates pain and the things that need to be done to accommodate pain while still expressing important aspects of “who” he or she is.

The process of learning to live comfortably with a new self is, I believe, a process of re-occupying self. Making a new self that feels recognisably “me”, doing the things that make “me” feel like myself, including some of “my” usual standards and attitudes and interests.

Yet what do we so often do when we doing pain management? We tell people like Al to “relax” and “pace” (Al learned as a child that you don’t stop until the job is done). We tell him he needs to move in certain ways (as a plumber? under buildings, in roof cavities, hauling gear out of the truck, carrying it over building sites). We suggest he needs to not do some things (work for the whole day without a break), but ask him to do other things (carry out a set of exercises three times a day). We say he needs to be back at work, but he doesn’t feel he’s pulling his weight.

What can we do?

I think we need to take some time to understand Al and what’s important to him. Not just the occupations (activities) but also the way he does them, and why he does them. How do they contribute to his sense of self? And then we need to work with him to give himself “permission” to do things differently – for a while. It’s like putting on a temporary “self”, a “rehabilitation” self. We can revisit this “rehabilitation” self as time goes on, and help him identify important values and occupations so he can begin to feel more like himself. Perhaps help him develop a new self that lets go of the old “normal” but includes some of the most important values expressed differently. I call this flexibly persisting – as Antony Robbins says, “staying committed to your decisions, but staying flexible in your approach”.

BTW – if you’d like to help me share this concept, you can! The idea of re-occupying self emerged from my PhD studies, and I want to present this at the Pain Science in Motion Colloquium in Brussels at the end of March. If you’d like to help me raise the airfare to get there (and back!), go to Give a Little and my page “Live well with pain”. Every little bit counts! I’ve had some wonderful people help me get almost half the money I need – will you help me get the rest? Thank you!!


Beekman, Claire E., Axtell, Lois, Noland, Kathy S., & West, Jaime Y. (1985). Self-concept: An outcome of a program for spinal pain. Pain, 22(1), 59-66. doi:

Charmaz, K. (2002). The self as habit: The reconstruction of self in chronic illness. Occupational Therapy Journal of Research, 22(Suppl1), 31S-41S. doi:

Hellstrom, Christina. (2001). Temporal dimensions of the self-concept: Entrapped and possible selves in chronic pain. Psychology & Health, 16(1), 111-124. doi:

Higgins, E. Tory. (1999). Self-discrepency: A theory relating self and affect The self in social psychology (pp. 150-181). New York, NY: Psychology Press; US.

Markus, Hazel, & Nurius, Paula. (1986). Possible Selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954-969. doi:

Stepping out of the glue: How to generate goals

Chronic pain has been called one of the “most powerful and insidious disruptors” of routine, habit and wellbeing (Karoly, Okun, Enders & Tennen, 2014).  When a person experiences pain, a whole range of mechanisms come into play and work together to use thinking and processing space, and especially those areas we use when we’re developing and achieving goals.  When people are first trying to make sense of their situation, they can find it hard to think about future goals and plans, and instead focus on trying to solve the problem of pain – many people call this time like being in limbo (McGowan, Luker, Creed & Chew-Graham, 2007).

It’s not surprising, then, that when clinicians begin to work with someone who has had pain for a very long time, it can be very difficult for them to think of a “goal”. After all, not everyone sets goals anyway (I heard somewhere that it’s about 3% of people – but I can’t find the research to support it). But in pain management, funders often ask clinicians to work with the client to “set goals” for therapy from the first day as a way to ensure a client-centred programme, increase motivation, and monitor outcomes. This can be a problem in a couple of ways: first of all, if the person doesn’t have goals because they’ve been in “limbo land” for a long time, and feel pretty demoralised or their goal relates to “getting rid of the pain”; secondly, if the person has vague ideas that are difficult to set into the typical “SMART” formula (incidentally, I really don’t like that acronym!); thirdly, if the person doesn’t have strong ideas about what they want from therapy, the clinician can set the goals for them, and perhaps not those the client is really all that interested in; and finally, it’s hard to set goals without having spent some time listening to and collaborating with the client.

Pain can be experienced as a major obstacle to motivation for setting goals. Negative mood associated with pain can reduce motivation to think ahead, to dream. Morning pain in particular can make it more difficult to want to do things, unless those activities are important, there are relatively structured ways to pursue them, and they don’t need much planning.  This can influence whether a person gets out of bed to go to work, or the gym, or take the kids to school. In a daily diary study, Karoly, Okun, Mooris, Enders and Tennen (2014) found that people with relatively high overall pain over a two-week period, but not necessarily just in the morning, and who have chosen to stay working, often also carry out their “lifestyle” goals in the afternoon. They suggest this could be because goals that are further out in time, and the positive feelings associated with achieving work goals keep them motivated. But they also found that even then, on the days people had more than their usual pain in the morning, they were less inclined to do as much.

The implication of this finding by Karoly and colleagues is that people who experience a “high pain” morning might need some reminders of the pleasure they get when they achieve goals – perhaps to pay attending to people and places that support their goal achievement. Helping people develop goal planning skills might also be useful – do the thinking when you’re feeling a bit more positive and can see beyond “now”, then when pain is higher, the cognitive demanding work is already done and the reminders help to generate positive emotions to encourage doing them.

OK, so we know some ways of helping people keep motivated, but what do we do to help people set them in the first place?

People are motivated by both push and pull factors. We want to move towards things we experience as good, and away from things we don’t enjoy. When pain is present, not only does it become hard to think straight, it doesn’t feel like it will ever change. So we need to help people dream a little. One way I do this is ask “What would you be doing if pain wasn’t such a problem for you?” Note that I’m not saying pain isn’t there – but that it’s less of a problem. Sometimes I’ll use a plastic magic wand and hand it to the person, asking them to dream a little. Other times I’ll add in “What gives you joy and pleasure? What makes you lose your sense of time and place? What gives you a sense of satisfaction when it’s done?”

These questions begin to identify activities in which a person might experience “flow” – Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi.

Another way is to ask the person what they need to, or want to do, perhaps using the occupational therapy broad groups of “productivity/work”, “leisure/fun”, and “self care” as prompts.

I’ve also found that by asking “what’s important in your life” can be a good way to generate personal goals. Importance indicates that the person places value on it. Values are important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by people about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. Values underpin ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), because instead of setting goals, which can be achieved, values are like a compass – things we do (actions) allow us to move closer towards important values, and we never completely achieve them. They’re directional and aspirational, and allow us to do difficult things that have short-term negative consequences, just so we can move towards a better long-term consequence (van Huet, Innes & Stancliffe, 2013).

How can you use this in therapy?

Well, if a person really values family, and being a good Dad, anything that Dad does to enable him to be a better Dad will be motivational. So you can ask “What could you do today that would take you one step closer to being a great Dad?” And use whatever that might be as the foundation for a goal. Then you can go on and use all the other great goal-setting strategies like specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and so on.

This doesn’t mean that doing that thing will be easy – far from it! But it will make achieving it more relevant, powerful and motivating. Working with the challenges is why you are a therapist.


Karoly, Paul, Okun, Morris A., Enders, Craig, & Tennen, Howard. (2014). Effects of Pain Intensity on Goal Schemas and Goal Pursuit: A Daily Diary Study. Health Psychology, 33(9), 968-976.

McGowan, Linda, Luker, Karen, Creed, Francis, & Chew-Graham, Carolyn A. (2007). ‘How do you explain a pain that can’t be seen?’: The narratives of women with chronic pelvic pain and their disengagement with the diagnostic cycle. British Journal of Health Psychology, 12(2), 261-274.

van Huet, Helen, Innes, Ev, & Stancliffe, Roger. (2013). Occupational therapists perspectives of factors influencing chronic pain management. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 60(1), 56-65.

Living well with persistent pain – a problem solving model

Regions of the cerebral cortex associated with...

Regions of the cerebral cortex associated with pain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chronic pain is abnormal. Living well with chronic pain seems a myth, a bit of an impossibility. After all, chronic pain starts with the kind of pain that most people would expect to go away – acute pain.  Acute pain is normal and most of us will experience some painful episode today.  Acute pain goes away – either by itself, or because we’ve done something to remove the stimulus that triggered the cascade of neurological events that eventually reached the brain that produced the experience of pain.

Because chronic pain begins just like any other pain, and because acute pain generates our attention and stimulates some sort of problem solving process so we can take appropriate action, it makes sense that we apply the same problem solving strategy to the problem of chronic pain.  Eccleston and Crombez (2007) proposed that one of the ways we can view the distress, loss of function and reduced quality of life is through a model of “misdirected” problem solving.

Problem solving is often discussed as if the problem exists outside of a context. “Here’s the problem, go solve it” fails to establish the frame of reference – why is it a problem? who has the problem? what contributed to the problem? what resources are available to fix the problem?

One of the major contributions of psychology in the field of pain, particularly a cognitive behavioural model, is helping people view their problem differently. If a situation is viewed differently, the “problem” may go away, or at least be seen as manageable.

BUT, in the case of pain, mostly people start by thinking that pain is something to be cured or fixed, the pain should go away, and life should return to normal.  In the case of chronic pain, when the pain persists, the same problem solving strategies that work so well for acute pain begin to get in the way of living. Life becomes a merry-go-round of searching for relief (maybe an explanation, diagnosis, medication, surgery, new treatment), hope being raised, then very often being dashed because nothing has changed.

Eccleston and Crombez describe this cycle in terms of the function of worry.  “Where such problem solving leads to success, pain and worry abate. However, when the problem solving attempts fail to find a solution, worry is fueled. A ‘perseverance loop’ is established in which the failure of a solution to the problem of pain amplifies worry. In this loop increased worry functions to strengthen motivation to persevere in solving the problem. Problem formulation becomes narrowed and inflexible, whilst greater effort is employed repeating the same solutions. If on repeated attempts a solution is achieved, again pain and worry will stop. “

Over the past 20 years or so, cognitive behavioural approaches for helping people cope with their ongoing pain have focused on reducing distress and disability by helping people reframe the problem of persistent pain as something that can be managed.  This takes the focus off trying to remove the pain, and broadens problem solving so that people begin to look at what else can help them live well.

My research is examining how people who do live well with their pain manage to do so.  While the people I’m talking with don’t say no to new treatments, they don’t seem invested in it so that their whole lives are focused on solving the problem of pain.  Instead, they seem to view pain as “just another thing” that they deal with while they get on with the real business of living life. Some have found that having chronic pain has enthused them with a new direction in life. Others have a focus on family, or community, or work.

The context of chronic pain matters.  It’s the way that the problem of chronic pain is framed that situates and generates the range of problem solving options that are considered.  If we ask a person “what’s important in your life”, and see if they’re willing to make room for having pain present while they engage in occupations or activities that allow them to live their values, we offer people a chance to live well with their persistent pain.

Eccleston, C., & Crombez, G. (2007). Worry and chronic pain: A misdirected problem solving model PAIN, 132 (3), 233-236 DOI: 10.1016/j.pain.2007.09.014

Eccleston, C (2011). A normal psychology of chronic pain The Psychologist, 24 (6), 422-425

Nerdy, Sciency Stuff

The past three weeks have been a swirl of joyous, passionate neuro-nerdy stuff! And yes, it’s absolutely possible to call neuroscience joyous and passionate (just ask David Butler and the NOI crew).

What have I learned?

Let’s begin with the obvious: pain is an output of the brain.  What does that mean? It means that unless the parts of the brain involved in deciding what we need to know about decide we need to know about a threat – we won’t experience that unpleasant sensory and emotional experience  we call pain.  Pain is a complete biopsychosocial phenomenon.  Our experience of OUCH! or YEEEOWW! is absolutely determined by a judgement call made by our brain, and the basis for that judgement call is on the degree of threat we are facing.  If we’re purposively allowing someone to etch a design into our body, we’ll experience a sensation, but most people who have a tattoo say that it’s not painful.  It might be different if we were being held down against our will, and someone is etching an abusive word onto our flesh – the context would be different and we’d view it as a real threat to who we are.

Neuroscience, and especially studies using fMRI, has been able to unravel some of that fringe stuff that lies between “psychosocial” and “biological”.  It’s a research paradigm that has much to offer because it’s uncovering how the structures in our brains respond to both internal and external events.  Yes, thinking can make something happen.

There are limitations, though, and it was refreshing to hear this often throughout the two conferences I’ve attended.

An MRI is a big, noisy machine. People have to lie down and be still during imaging. There is not a lot of room in the machine. Images only show how blood flows to various regions of the brain. It’s not available to many people. They’re expensive! The results require interpretation (but what testing doesn’t require interpretation?!).

What this means to me is to interpret findings somewhat cautiously.  These studies don’t examine the situations and contexts of the people I work with.  Many of the studies use acute pain research protocols – things like thermal stimulation, cold pressor, capsaicin. The people being studied are often young, healthy volunteers – often undergraduate students. The experiments are short-lived, and they have an end in sight for the volunteers.  People can’t move about, or do the activities over time.  The context is different from everyday living.

At the same time, the experiments begin to uncover information about how our brains function – and maybe we can take the findings and begin to study correlates in the real world.  I think this is much of what the Body in Mind group do.

One of the problems, and criticisms, of translating neuroscientific research into the clinic (and probably one of the reasons occupational therapy suffers from a low profile in health) is that the real world is a messy, joyous, passionate, grim, untidy place.

People are made up of their biology but modified by experience and context and opportunity and restriction.  People bring this context into their treatment environment.  And the treatment environment is also a context, and so are we as clinicians.  It’s unsurprising that some of what can be demonstrated in neat, controlled, rigorous clinical trials just can’t be replicated with the people we see, in the world we live in, and in the activities and communities people are in.

This is where joining the dots between scientific methodologies is needed.  Bringing together the artificial research methodologies used in fMRI and randomised controlled trials (double-blind, placebo) where standardisation and unformity are underlying assumptions – and the qualitative, individual, quirky and idiosyncratic methodologies that assume that my reality is mine alone, and that it’s impossible to ever really experience it the way I do.

Both methodologies have application. Both contribute to our understanding of how people and our world work.  And somehow, our theory-building (which is simply a way to provide a metaphor so we can share understanding) needs to pull the multiple strands of knowledge together so that I, as a clinician, can work out how to help my fellow human.

What am I saying here?

Nerdy, sciency stuff is probably what I, as a clinician and researcher and teacher, need to immerse myself in.  My passion is to help clinicians who maybe don’t enjoy this stuff, maybe don’t have the time to learn this stuff, maybe don’t think this stuff has direct relevance to what they do, gain access to the implications of research.  Not a theory of everything (or this)- but a practical translation of nerdy, sciency stuff into what a clinician might do.

There. I think I’ve summarised my current reflections on all that neuroscientific goodness that has nourished my neurones. I’d love your comments! And don’t forget, you can subscribe, join me on Facebook, or introduce yourself.

Lorimer Moseley throws the gauntlet down!

This week I’ve been at the NOI Conference 2012 – a real blast! A week of neuroscience-backed biopsychosocial practice, and nerdy passions. My brain is nourished, in fact, it’s replete. And now to digest.

Why the headline?

Well, throughout the conference, over and over again I heard about physiotherapy and psychology – and nary a murmer about occupational therapy’s contribution (from the profession’s inception) to the biopsychosocial model of practice.  It’s like the profession simply does not exist.

One very brave young occupational therapist voiced her concern that there is a disconnect between the occupational therapy profession and the consciousness of other clinicians.  In a profession that has always worked from a biopsychosocial model, how is it that there is so little mention of it in a conference where this is at the heart of an enormous change in practice? Lorimer Moseley’s response was to say that occupational therapists must research more and publish in non-occupational therapy journals.  I have to agree.

I know there will be a chorus of “yes but…” from people, and I recognise the challenges.  As a profession we struggle with our epistemological and ontological orientation because we argue that our interventions are so tailored to individual needs that we can’t measure their outcomes.  That every individual has unique needs so we can’t measure outcomes empirically. And after all, individuals say they like and need what we offer.  We can’t do large-scale research because we don’t get research funding, or we’re clinicians not researchers, or if we do a good research study we can’t publish because major journals won’t accept our publications – all yes but’s!

Before I get torn limb from limb, I haven’t published – yet. And as a clinician I know how difficult it can be to pull a research proposal together, particularly without good support from health administrators.  I know this – and yet, Lorimer has a very good point.

Occupational therapists need to become far more visible but the way to do this is not by claiming “oh but we do X” – or Y or Z.

The profession simply must begin collaborating with people who have leverage – like Lorimer Moseley and his collaborators.

The profession must begin to critically appraise what it does, how it does it, and then begin to do therapy better.

The profession needs to train both clinicians and researchers and clinician-researchers.  A scientist-practitioner model is not out of the question – in fact, I think it must happen or the little respect we are afforded will be lost, and the profession will be absorbed into other disciplines.

What are the interesting hypotheses that need to be explored in occupational therapy practice? How can we contribute to the greater awareness of the “person-in-context” that other professions have right now? How can we answer our own questions about whether we are effective, or simply “nice people” who help others through nonspecific effects rather than specific occupational therapy?

These, and other curious questions, must be explored and publicised.

As Dr Fiona Wood said at NOI 2012 – Blinkers off, game on!

For more info on NOI 2012 – go here for 80 pages of transcript via Twitter. A powerful medium.