Science in practice

On the problem of coping


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tribalism in pain rehabilitation


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

Straw man

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

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

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

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

Another straw man

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

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

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

It seems to be the doing that’s important.

Not a straw man

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

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

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

Why can’t we all get along?

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

My philosophy… for now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pain science is not a thing


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Wait and see…when do we “escalate” care for low back pain?


Prompted by reading a paper by Linton, Nicholas and Shaw (in press), today’s post is about various service delivery models for low back pain and not the content of back pain treatment.

Service delivery in New Zealand is assumed to be based on getting most bang for the buck: we have a mainly socialised healthcare system, along with a unique “no fault, 24 hour” insurance model for accidents whether at work or elsewhere, which means market forces existing in other countries are less dominant. There are, however, many other influences on what gets delivered and to whom.

Back to most bang for buck. With a limited healthcare budget, and seriously when is there ever NOT a limited budget in health, it would make sense to a thinking woman for healthcare to focus on high value treatments. Treatments that have large impact and are low cost. In low back pain, the techno-fix has limited application. Things like costly surgical approaches (synthetic disc replacements, fusions to stop vertebral movement) should be reserved for only those with clear indications for the procedure, and given on the basis of clinical need rather than in response to a distressed person. The outcomes just are not all that great (see Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder (2017) for a good review of nonspecific low back pain).

High value and low cost treatments are typically delivered by low status clinicians. Those “nonmedical” people like occupational therapists, physiotherapists, osteopaths, chiropractors and the like. Maybe it’s for this reason that these treatments are relatively poorly funded. We lack lobby power.

Back to service delivery models. Currently in Christchurch, where I live, there is a health pathway (in other words, a service delivery model) developed in collaboration with GP’s, physiotherapists, osteopaths and secondary care. The model adopted applies to ALL episodes of low back pain, and uses the STarTBack tool to triage those who may need more intensive treatment under a biopsychosocial model (mainly because of the additional risk psychosocial factors pose for these people), and to continue with treatment as usual for those with lower risk as measured by this tool.

After about six weeks, if the person hasn’t responded to treatment, clinicians are meant to refer the person to a team for review and to see whether additional treatments or another pathway might be appropriate. Unfortunately, there is no indication of the makeup of that team, and no obligation for the clinician to send the person to it. I’m not sure about clinical audit of this pathway, and again this isn’t clear.

One of the problems (amongst many) with this approach is that six weeks without responding to treatment and the time needed after this to review the file, then be referred elsewhere is a very long time to someone experiencing back pain. A very long time. By six weeks it wouldn’t be surprising if the person’s sick leave is gone. If they’re receiving ACC the processes will have kicked in, but for the person who has typical grumpy back symptoms without an “accident” initiating it, there may be nothing.

Linton, Nicholas and Shaw point out that all of the triaging approaches for low back pain hold assumptions. The three are stepped care (begin with low intensity, once that hasn’t helped progress to more intensive and so on); stratified (triage those with high risk, and treat them accordingly, while low risk get lower intensity treatment); and matched care (treatments are administered according to an algorithm based on grouping people with similar characteristics).

Stepped care

The assumptions of stepped care include that people with basic acute low back pain will recover relatively easily, while those who need more help will be fine waiting for that additional level of care. There’s an assumption that factors leading to chronic disability occur in stages – the longer a person waits the more risk factors will appear – but this isn’t actually the case. Many people present with risk factors from the very beginning (and they can be identified), while waiting only allows those problems to be cemented in place. At the same time, we know acute low back pain is quite a rare thing: most people will have their first bout of back pain in adolescence, and will have learned good and not so good habits and attitudes from that experience. Another assumption is that duration of back pain doesn’t harm, but we know delayed attention to risk factors for chronicity is harmful. Stepped care can be useful because it’s efficient, easy to implement and overtreatment is less likely – but what about the person who appears with all the risk factors evident from the beginning? These people may not get adequate or appropriate treatment from the outset.

Stratified care

In stratified care, treatment is provided according to the category of risk the person presents with, maybe circumventing some of the problems from stepped care. Stratified care assumes we’re able to identify risk factors, and that they are stable from the outset rather than changing over time. It also assumes that risk factors exert a cumulative effect with more risk factors meaning greater risk. BUT while screening can identify some risks, and those at low risk get more adequate treatment while higher intensity treatment is given to those with more risk, this approach doesn’t identify underlying mechanisms, and more comprehensive treatments addressing specific issues may not be provided. This approach may not even consider the impact of workplace factors, family dynamics, social and recreational issues. It’s also pretty challenging to implement as I think the Christchurch example demonstrates.

Matched care

In matched care risk factors are identified and treatments are matched to the person’s needs, and like stratified care it assumes that risk factors can be identified, are stable, and that they can form a “profile” or subtype. This approach also assumes that tailoring interventions to individual risk will be more efficient than alternatives. There’s some support that screening can identify some risks, and that profiles can be constructed – but this continues to be a work under progress. Some of the limitations are the emerging nature of research into grouping people according to multiple indicators is complex, particularly at the beginning of treatment, and treatments matching profiles are therefore also under development. It’s a very complex approach to implement so I can understand why local health authorities may be reluctant to embark on this strategy. It’s also back to the problem of assuming that people’s risk profiles are stable over time.

What do we do?

One part of me thinks, well it doesn’t matter really because as a lowly nonmedical person I have very little influence over health systems, the perverse incentives that drive them, and absolutely no political clout whatsoever. BUT I know that the “wait and see” six weeks before reviewing progress is not helping. And the current considerations fail to integrate those important workplace, family, socio-economic and contextual factors that are hard to quantify.

We already know that low back pain guidelines are routinely ignored by most clinicians in favour of “what I do” and “it’s worked before” and “the guidelines are biased so I won’t follow them”. There’s also the fear that by identifying psychosocial risk factors we’re condemning people to the “back pain is really in your head” meme (it’s even something I’ve been accused of. FWIW I think low back pain is far more complex and is multifactorial. Psychosocial factors are certainly more useful at predicting disability than biomechanical or diagnostic ones, but this doesn’t mean the problem is purely psychological. <steps off soapbox>). Furthermore, it’s clear that not only do physiotherapists feel poorly-prepared to identify and work with psychosocial factors (Singla, Jones, Edwards & Kumar, 2015; Zangoni & Thomson, 2017), so also do medical practitioners although for different reasons (Coudeyre, Rannou, Tubach, Baron, Coriat, Brin et al, 2006). It’s difficult to open Pandora’s box when you only have 10 minutes with a patient.

As Linton, Nicholas and Shaw (in press) point out, training is needed before clinicians can feel both confident and efficient at screening and then managing low back pain via an integrated multidimensional model. “Role” delineation (who can contribute to the various aspects of treatment?) and the paucity of funding for allied health within primary care, especially in New Zealand makes this approach an aspiration. 

Naturally I’d like to see a range of different health professionals involved in developing health pathways. Not just professionals, but people well-versed in understanding the research literature and those with effective knowledge translation skills. I’d love to see high value and low cost treatments provided rather than techno-fix approaches, especially when the high value treatments are significantly safer and develop personal self efficacy and locus of control. Wouldn’t that be a thing to see?

  • Coudeyre, E., Rannou, F., Tubach, F., Baron, G., Coriat, F., Brin, S., … & Poiraudeau, S. (2006). General practitioners’ fear-avoidance beliefs influence their management of patients with low back pain. Pain, 124(3), 330-337.
  • Linton, S. J., Nicholas, M., & Shaw, W. Why wait to address high-risk cases of acute low back pain? A comparison of stepped, stratified, and matched care. Pain. in press
  • Maher, C., Underwood, M., & Buchbinder, R. (2017). Non-specific low back pain. The Lancet, 389(10070), 736-747.
  • Singla, M., Jones, M., Edwards, I., & Kumar, S. (2015). Physiotherapists’ assessment of patients’ psychosocial status: are we standing on thin ice? A qualitative descriptive study. Manual Therapy, 20(2), 328-334.
  • Zangoni, G., & Thomson, O. P. (2017). ‘I need to do another course’-Italian physiotherapists’ knowledge and beliefs when assessing psychosocial factors in patients presenting with chronic low back pain. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 27, 71-77.

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


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

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

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

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

Greenhalgh (2018), quoting Sir John Grimley Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

Different narratives for different purposes

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

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

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

Guidelines and algorithms

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Myths about exposure therapy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misconception: Exposure therapy can lead to lawsuits against therapists.

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

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

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

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

Each time we face our fear, we gain strength, courage, and confidence in the doing – Theodore Roosevelt


I’m not certain Theodore Roosevelt actually said that – but who cares?! It’s a great statement. For the person living with persistent pain, though, it can be the last thing you want to hear. After all, it’s tough enough getting up and just doing the normal things let alone challenge yourself! So… how can a health professional help?

Let’s briefly recap. Self efficacy is the confidence I can do something successfully if I wanted to. It’s a robust predictor of many health behaviours including exercise, stopping smoking, eating healthily and coping well with persistent pain (Jackson, Wang, Wang & Fan, 2014; Williams & Rhodes, 2016). It was first introduced as a concept by Bandura as part of his theoretical model of behaviour change, and further discussed in an experimental study in a paper investigating systematic desensitisation processes, arguing that this approach to treatment created and strengthened expectations of personal efficacy (Bandura & Adams, 1977). Bandura argued that people develop a sense (expectation) of self efficacy from their own performance, watching others succeed, being persuaded by someone that yes indeed you have the skills to achieve, and also awareness of physiological arousal from which people can judge their own level of anxiety.

Self efficacy is more than a simple “general confidence” construct, however. It’s far more selective than this. For example, although I believe I can successfully dance in my lounge with no-one there and the curtains closed, this does not translate to me dancing on a stage on my own in the spotlights with an audience watching! Self efficacy refers to confidence to succeed and produce the outcome I desire in a given context – and that’s extremely important for pain management, and in particular, exercise for people experiencing pain.

How does self efficacy improve outcomes? There are at least two ways: (1) through the actions taken to manage or control pain (for example, gradually increasing activity levels but not doing too much) and (2) managing the situations associated with pain (for example, people with low self efficacy may avoid activities that increase pain, or cope by using more medication (Jackson, Wang, Wang & Fan, 2014).

To examine how self efficacy affects outcomes, Jackson and colleagues (2014) conducted a meta-analysis of papers examining this variable along with other important outcomes. Overall effect sizes for relationships between self efficacy and all chronic pain outcomes were medium and highly significant. This is really important stuff – we don’t find all that many studies where a single variable has this much predictive power!

As a moderator, the adjusted overall effect size (r=.50) of self efficacy and impairment was larger than the average effect sizes of meta-analyses on relations between disability and fear-avoidance beliefs, and pain as a threat for future damage and challenge for future opportunities. Self efficacy has stronger links with impairment than cognitive factors such as fear-avoidance beliefs and primary appraisals of pain (Jackson, Wang, Wang & Fan, 2014).  Age and duration of pain were the strongest moderators of these associations and suggest that reduced self-efficacy can become entrenched over time. In other words – as time passes, people experience fewer opportunities for success and begin to expect they won’t ever manage their pain well.

An important point is made by these authors: how we measure self efficacy matters. They found that self efficacy measures tapping “confidence in the capacity to function despite pain” had
stronger associations with impairment than did those assessing confidence in controlling pain or managing other symptoms.

Bolstering self efficacy – not just about telling people they can do it!

Given that self efficacy is domain-specific, or a construct that refers to confidence to do actions that lead to success in specified situations, here are a few of my questions:

  • Why are most people attending pain management programmes provided with gym-based programmes that don’t look at lot like the kinds of things people have to do in daily life? It’s like there’s an expectation that “doing exercise” – any exercise – is enough to improve a person’s capabilities.

    BUT while this might increase my confidence to (a) do exercise and (b) do it in a gym – but does it mean I’ll be more confident to return to work? Or do my housework?

  • How often are people attending gyms told to “push on”, or to “stop if it hurts”? And what effect does this have on people?

If their confidence is low, being told “just do it” is NOT likely to work. People need to experience that it’s possible to do things despite pain – and I think, to be able to handle a flare-up successfully. Now this is not going to happen if we adopt the line that getting rid of all pain is the aim, and that flare-ups should be avoided. If we want people to deal successfully with the inevitable flare-ups that occur, especially with low back pain, then we need to (a) be gentle, and grade the activities in an appropriate way (b) have some “ways of coping” we can introduce to people rather than simply telling them they can cope or reducing the demands (c) have other people around them also coping well (and that includes us health professionals)

  • Ensure we attribute change to the person, not to us.

That’s right: not to our sparkling personality, not to our special exercises, not to the machines we use, not to the techniques we have – you get the drift? Progress must be attributed to the person and his or her skills and perseverance. Because, seriously, all this arguing over which exercise regime is best doesn’t stack up when it’s actually self efficacy that predicts a good outcome.

And for case managers who may read this: just because someone has successfully completed an exercise programme, or a vocational programme with exercise as a component, this does not mean the person can manage successfully at work. Well, they may manage – but they may utterly lack confidence that they can. Context matters.

 

Bandura, A., & Adams, N. E. (1977). Analysis of self-efficacy theory of behavioral change. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1(4), 287-310.

Estlander AM, Takala EP, Viikari-Juntura E., (1998). Do psychological factors predict changes in musculoskeletal pain? A prospective, two-year follow-up study of a working population. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 40:445-453

Jackson, T., Wang, Y., Wang, Y., & Fan, H. (2014). Self-efficacy and chronic pain outcomes: A meta-analytic review. The Journal of Pain, 15(8), 800-814.

Williams, D. M., & Rhodes, R. E. (2016). The confounded self-efficacy construct: Conceptual analysis and recommendations for future research. Health Psychology Review, 10(2), 113-128.

The confidence that you’ll succeed if you try…


Self efficacy. It’s a word bandied about a lot in pain management, and for a group of clinicians in NZ, it’s been a shock to find out that – oh no! They’re not supporting self efficacy with their patients very much! It means “confidence that if I do this under these conditions, I’ll be successful”.

Self efficacy is part of Bandura’s social learning theory (click here for the Wikipedia entry) where he proposed that much of psychological treatment is driven by a common underlying mechanism: to create and strengthen expectations of personal effectiveness. Bandura recognised that we don’t always have to personally experiment through trial and error in order to learn. Self efficacy expectations were thought to develop from personal experience (let me do, and I’ll learn how); watching other people try (show me, and I’ll see if you succeed, then I’ll copy you); verbal persuasion that aims to convince that you have the capabilities to manage successfully (encourage me, let me know I can, and I’ll try); and how physiologically aroused or alert you are (if I feel confident inside, I’ll try but if I feel anxious or stressed I’m less inclined to) (Bandura, 1977).

Bandura and colleagues established that “different treatment approaches alter expectations of personal efficacy, and the more dependable the source of efficacy information, the greater are the changes in self-efficacy.” (Bandura & Adams, 1977, p. 288). The conclusions drawn from this mean that treatments where people DO and succeed are more effective at enhancing their belief in self efficacy, while watching others, or being told how to do something are far weaker at building this effect.

Bandura began working on this theory while pondering how psychological treatments, particularly for systematic desensitisation or graded exposure, generated their effects. Systematic desensitisation aimed to reduce arousal levels and thus avoidance while being in a relaxed state – therefore the person is exposed to increasingly “aversive” stimuli (stimuli you want to avoid) while remaining calm and relaxed. Bandura thought that there were other factors involved in avoidance behaviour, developing his theory that expectations of negative consequences alone can generate fear and defensive behaviour and that this isn’t necessarily reflected in autonomic arousal and actions. Bandura hypothesised that reducing physiological arousal improved performance not by eliminating a drive to escape – but instead by increasing the confidence that the person can successfully manage the situation.

For parents, the idea that if you believe you can do what you set out to do, is embodied in the little book “The Little Engine That Could” (Piper, 1930/1989). Remember? The little engine that couldn’t because all the bigger engines said so, but then tried and tried and believed he could – and he did!

So, what does this have to do with pain management?

Let’s paint a scenario. Allan comes to see a hands-on therapist because he has a sore back. He believes that hands-on therapy is the thing, because others have said it’s really good. He goes, gets his treatment and wow! Things improve! The next time he has a sore back (because, you know, it almost always comes back) what does he do? Well, on the basis of his past experience, he heads to his hands-on therapist, because he’s confident this will help his pain. The problem is, his therapist has moved town. He’s a bit stuck now because in his town there are not many therapists doing this particular kind of treatment – what does he do? He doesn’t believe that anyone else can help, and he has no belief that he can manage by himself. He has little self efficacy for managing his own back pain.

Self efficacy is not about whether a person can do certain movements, it’s about believing that the person can organise skills to achieve goals within a changing context – not just what I will do, under duress, but what I can do, what I’m capable of doing, and what I say I’ll probably do.

Self efficacy is not a belief that a specific behaviour will lead to a certain outcome in a certain situation, it’s the belief that I can perform that behaviour to produce the outcome.

So, self efficacy isn’t a generalised attitude – it’s a specific belief about certain actions, certain outcomes in certain situations. It’s not a personality trait like hardiness, or resilience, or general confidence or self-esteem, it’s about being confident that I can generate a solution to a problem in a particular part of my life.

The times when we’re least confident are often when we’re facing a new experience, or we’ve had a bad experience previously. Particularly if we’ve seen other people fail at the same thing, or succeed but do so with much fear and loathing. In the case of pain, there are ample opportunities to have a bad experience in the past, and to learn from other people around us that – oooh back pain is something to be afraid of, and you can’t manage it alone – you need to get help from someone else. Consequently, many people have very low self efficacy for successfully dealing with a bout of low back pain.

And health professionals: we can foster this.

How? By implying that success is due to what we do, rather than being a natural process of recovery. By suggesting it’s something about our “magic hands” or pills, or injections or surgery or special exercises, or “using the core correctly”. In doing so, we’re generating a belief that the person cannot manage alone. That it’s not what the person does, but the magic hands, pills, injections, surgery, special exercises or using the core…

Damush, Kroenke, Bair, Wu, Tu, Krebs and Poleshuck (2016) found that self management approaches to pain increase self efficacy, self management actions, and reduced pain intensity and depression in a group of community patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain and depression. A typically tough group to work with because confidence to succeed at anything is pretty low in depression. Self management aims to ensure the credit for recovery lies with the person doing things that help – creating and supporting a belief that the person has the capability to successfully manage their situation. The techniques? Simple strengthening and stretching exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualisation, in a group setting. Strategies that typically don’t need technology, but do provide support. Information about the natural history of recovery was included – so people were given realistic and optimistic information about their recovery, whether it meant pain reduction, or not. The usual goal setting, problem-solving, and positive self talk were encouraged, and people set goals each week to achieve – maybe based on something from the session, or something the person wanted to do for themselves.

This is not a high-tech approach. This is simple, straightforward pain management as it has been done for years (right back as far as the mid-1970’s and Sternberg!). And through it, these people become increasingly confident that they could successfully manage their own mood and pain independently. As a business model it’s probably not the best for repeat business – but oh how good for those participants who could go away and live their lives without having to think of themselves as patients.

More on self efficacy in the next couple of weeks – we can help people to become confident that they can succeed at managing their pain if it should happen again.

 

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review,  84, 191-215.

Bandura, A., & Adams, N. E. (1977). Analysis of self-efficacy theory of behavioral change. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 1(4), 287-310.

Damush, T., Kroenke, K., Bair, M., Wu, J., Tu, W., Krebs, E., & Poleshuck, E. (2016). Pain self‐management training increases self‐efficacy, self‐management behaviours and pain and depression outcomes. European Journal of Pain, 20(7), 1070-1078.

Maddux, J. E. (2016). Self-efficacy Interpersonal and intrapersonal expectancies (pp. 55-60): Routledge.

Managing sleep problems – a medication-free approach (iv)


The fourth step in learning to sleep well within an ACT framework, is build. My previous posts were: Discover and Accept and Welcome.

In build, we’re beginning to build new practices. This is about learning how much sleep you need, and when you need to head to bed and wake up again.

I know when I had trouble sleeping at night (I refused to call it insomnia, but it most definitely was!), I thought I’d tried everything to help. I had used all the sleep hygiene strategies like no devices in bed, no TV in bed, do some relaxation as I lay down, have a regular bed-time and wake-up time – and one of the things I tried to do was eliminate coffee after lunchtime. While most of the time coffee isn’t a problem for me, I learned that when I was vulnerable to not sleeping, coffee and similar substances (including chocolate and alcohol) were not good for me. And today I still don’t drink coffee after lunch and limit myself to three or so cups a day.

So… what’s different about ACT and this stage of learning to sleep again?

Well, people with pain often talk about being interrupted by their pain – of waking up in the middle of the night because of pain and then not being able to get back to sleep. While there is some truth to the idea that we wake because of pain, in fact we all wake up over the course of a night. You’ll know the typical “sleep architecture” (click here for a nice explanation) where we fall into a deep stage of sleep fairly soon after heading to bed, and that we have periods of REM or rapid eye movement sleep (dreaming sleep) at regular intervals over the night. What you may not be as aware of is that in the periods just before and just after REM sleep, we’re actually awake. Not very awake – but awake enough to roll over and get comfy again. If your bladder does what mine does, I usually have a quick trip to the loo around 2.30ish, and go right back to sleep again.

When you have pain, chances are greater than you are more aware of those lighter periods of sleep and, like I do with my bladder, notice that you are awake. If you then start noticing your pain… or your worries… or your mind starts dropping comments to you, then it’s possible you’ll stay awake. Partly this is because the biological drive to fall into a deep sleep at the beginning of the night has been partly satisfied. Partly also because experiences like pain are very salient or important. So are noises (the cry of a baby, that tapping sound on the window, the car roaring down the road) and during the lighter periods of sleep we’re more likely to wake fully rather than just roll over. We’re not actually waking more often as much as waking more fully, and perhaps for longer than normal.

Building new patterns means some basic “rules” – but rules that are held lightly. In other words, it’s fine to change things up a little from time to time (after all, birthdays, travel, having a cold, or getting a puppy are all things that can disrupt sleep), but broadly these things seem to be habits of good sleepers:

  1. Heading to bed around the same time-ish each night (or within 20 – 30 minutes of this time). Same applies to waking up – and to help you wake, an alarm clock (I do use my phone for this), and in winter, I use a bright SAD light, and bump up the temperature on my electric blanket. Light and warmth both tend to make you wake up a bit more quickly, so it’s helpful for me during winter when I have seasonal affective disorder (winter depression).
  2. Knowing that it’s normal to take around 10 – 15 minutes to fall asleep, and being OK with this.
  3. Changing how long you sleep for will take a few weeks – it’s a habit! So don’t go changing your bedtime or wakeup time too often. If you’re using sleep restriction (going to bed a little later than normal, perhaps getting up a little earlier) you can return to a more “normal” length as part of fine-tuning how long you need to sleep for your needs. But, don’t change things too often!
  4. If you have a late night out (or if you’re travelling over a time zone or two), try to get up at your usual time. Yes, this means keeping the same wake time over the weekends as the week days!
  5. Develop a kind of “wind down” habit – but again, hold this lightly because sometimes there are enjoyable events on late, or you have people visiting, that may mean you’re a little more alert than normal. But on the whole, basically spend around 30 – 45 minutes giving your mind signals that you’re heading to bed. This means cleaning your teeth, checking the doors, stopping watching TV or going on devices, maybe get into your jimjams (PJs!) and heading to bed with a book or magazine.
  6. When you’re in bed, just quietly lying there, letting thoughts wander in and out without getting caught up in the content, and you’ll notice yourself quietly falling asleep. This is totally normal. If you do get caught up in your mind chatter, as soon as you notice you are gently bring your attention to your breathing and the sensations of lying in bed, and this should (at this point in your journey) help you fall asleep.

You can see it’s not too different from what I hope you’ve been practicing all along – just that instead of fighting with those thoughts, or getting all tangled up in them, you’ve got skills to let them go, and just be there in the darkness, resting.

There are a lot of specific issues you may also encounter – things like your partner who snores like a chainsaw, or twitches all night long (I’m the guilty party here!); or when you have a cold or a stuffy nose – the former might take a little longer to deal with, but the latter is usually just for a week or so and I tend to be happy using decongestants just for those few nights when I cannot breathe…. As for the partner noise or twitching, like dealing with your thoughts this is probably about you dealing with your thoughts about the noise or twitching! Again, try welcoming or being willing to listen to or feel those habits. Making some room for them rather than getting caught up in thoughts of smothering him or her! And go back to your usual mindfulness practice.

Finally – the last step is living! We tend to put life on hold when we try to control rotten sleep patterns.  Now it’s time to know that while sleeping badly can come again from time to time, you have skills to roll with it – you know you can manage if you avoid fighting with it or trying to control it. Take those steps to build your new sleep habit, and go out there and DO again!

 

Managing sleep problems – a medication-free approach (iii)


More on sleeping the ACT way. Step one was discover – all the things you’re doing to help yourself sleep, but in your attempts to control the uncontrollable (thoughts, feelings, memories, worries, sensations, the environment and so on). And hopefully you’ve seen that these things can be counter-productive. That flash new pillow and bed is pretty useless if you travel somewhere. The pills need to be stopped at some point – and then you have to withdraw from them. And the thoughts, and sensations (including pain) just carry right on there not matter what you do.

So step two is to accept: accept what you can control, and what you can’t. Radically, this means changing some of the things you do to get to sleep – like pills (but get medical help for this process), doing relaxation, wearing your eyeshades and earplugs, getting up and doing things when you can’t sleep. It usually means a bit of mind chatter!

The common mind chatter is “I’ll fail”; “I know I won’t sleep and then I’ll be useless the next day”; “if I can’t sleep with my pills and earplugs, how will I sleep without them?”; “I’ll feel lousy the next day”; “I’ve slept this badly my entire life, it’s too late for me”; “why me? It’s a punishment”; “but I’ve got [a new job, a baby, a puppy, going on holiday]”; “I’m too tired”

It’s likely, as you begin doing this, you’ll be in bed wide awake – and it’s at this point you can choose. In that moment, you can decide to listen to your mind – or think of your mind as holding an opinion, but one you do not have to follow. In ACT language, what you’re doing here is learning to accept, or be willing to sit with (lie with), to make room for not sleeping rather than struggling to control it. You can’t control your risk factors, you can’t control that you’ve learned to be awake at this time. You can’t control your thoughts about this – but you can lie there and just notice the things your mind is dumping on your doorstep. This isn’t “giving up” – this is radical willingness to come alongside and be with your own sleeplessness.

The best way to learn to do this is – you guessed it, mindfulness.

Now mindfulness is NOT about getting you to fall asleep. You may fall asleep or feel drowsy which is cool, but if you try to use mindfulness “to fall asleep” you’re again trying to control the problem and mindfulness can then become an empty process. You ARE allowed to let your mind wander… just gently bring it back to where you want it to be. Practicing mindfulness can be done anywhere and everywhere – for a few short seconds while cleaning your teeth, sitting in the car, walking through a door – or longer, like at the end of the day, or in the morning.

Some ways to be mindful: notice your senses by bringing your mind to sounds, sights, smells, tastes, touch. Just list all the things you experience – like “a bird chirp”, “the weight of my legs on the seat”, “the smell of coffee”…and as your mind wanders off, as it will, bring it back gently to what you want to focus on.

Another one to try: close your eyes for a few seconds and notice any thoughts or images that pop into your mind. List it – thought, image, work worry, dinner planning.

This skill is one of the most important and useful skills when you’re learning to sleep again. When you lie in bed wide awake, it’s easy to get caught up in the content of what your mind is bringing to  you, rather than just noticing that you are thinking. The problem is, thoughts your mind brings often lead to that heart thump and dry mouth that keeps you wide awake! Instead, directing your focus on to your breathing, or your body contact on the bed, are simple things that help you just notice and be in the present.

If you have pain, mindfulness is one way of letting you experience the ache without that “Oh no, it’s really bad tonight” judgements of that ache. Gently letting yourself notice where you’re sore – and equally, where you’re not sore – and guiding your mind around your body, noticing every part, the painful and the non-painful – allows you to be present with your pain, without fighting against it. Practicing this skill many times during the day really helps you develop this skill. And don’t be surprised if your mind starts trying to either judge or solve the problem of pain, because that is simply the mind doing what it’s done since forever. Be kind to your mind, and bring your attention back to your breath, or your left earlobe, or your belly button, or your little toe…

At night, in bed, mindfulness is not about helping you relax and fall asleep. What it’s there for is to help you guide your mind away from being caught up in the content of your thoughts or feelings or sensations, and back onto just noticing that you are thinking, and bringing your attention onto something like your breath. It can be scary doing this at night because we often want to get out of bed or control what we’re thinking and force ourselves into sleep. And you know it doesn’t work! What mindfulness does is let your brain and mind know that being awake isn’t a threat – remember the flight, fright, freeze response? By letting your mind know you’re not buying into the horror stories, and instead you’re being OK with simply lying there noticing, you’re teaching your mind to let go of the struggle.

  • Start with feeling the sensation of the bed against your body, from the toes to the head. When your mind begins “minding”, bring your attention to your breath. If you get the urge to move or get up (actually, your mind brings the urge), notice it and choose to stay in bed, and bring your attention back to your breath or touch.

Welcome: You’ll find your mind will have a good go at dumping scary thoughts on you when you decide to be present and stay. Remember it’s your mind’s opinions – and be gentle with your thoughts, feelings and yourself. Stay with it, notice your breathing, make room to feel a bit tired (because you were going to be tired anyway, right?!), and be kind, but firm, with your mind, and bring your attention to your breath yet again. You’re resting your body while you’re lying down, and that’s a good thing.

If you find you have a frequent flyer – a thought or worry or sensation that comes visiting when you’re trying to sleep  – you can simply name it “Hi worry”, or “thinking”, or “here you are scared”, or “back again, pain”. Welcoming the thoughts or feelings may feel odd –  but once you’ve noticed it, labelled it, and then welcomed it, go back to your breathing or noticing your body. You can become quite creative with this process – if you have a vivid imagination for visual images, try projecting your thoughts onto a movie screen, or turning them into cartoon letters, or characters from a movie (my pain is a grumpy witch!), or a ball of string all tangled up, or a scrunched towel.  Some people have taken to imagining their thoughts as different voices – squeaky “I’m scared” or deep “I’ll never sleep tonight” – these strategies are ways to help you step back from the content of what your mind is telling you, and see your thoughts as simply thoughts made by your mind.

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