Science in practice

What do occupational therapists add to pain management?


I’ve struggled with professional identity from time to time, but after completing my PhD thesis looking at how people live well with pain, I’ve developed a new understanding of how occupational therapists add value in this area of practice.

Occupational therapists joke that “no-one knows what an occupational therapist does” – and sadly, that’s true. It’s not because what we do isn’t important, it’s because our view of people and the way we work with people differs from most health professions. Occupational therapists don’t treat disease per se, we work with people’s function and participation, with a person’s illness experience. We don’t fit inside a biomedical, disease-oriented model of humans.

This means an occupational therapist works with people using a process-oriented approach. This approach begins by understanding what a person values, what matters in their life, and how the person’s life context influences their participation. Occupational therapists are concerned with the daily minutiae of life: the way you clean your teeth, how you get to work, what you do for fun, the roles you undertake, the daily routine you follow, the things that make your life your own – not a facsimile of someone else’s.

In pain management/rehabilitation, occupational therapists are there to help people resume, or begin, a life that looks like their own. To integrate strategies into daily routines and habits. To contextualise the strategies other professionals introduce. We’re the professional who talks about the timing of exercise/movement practice – how to fit exercises into each day without compromising other important routines. The details of when and where and how exercises are done in the long term, for life, in life. We encourage people to look beyond the simple 3 x 10 and into the kinds of movement opportunities that hold meaning beyond the “it will help your pain”.

Occupational therapists translate what happens in clinic settings into the real, messy, chaotic and unpredictable worlds of the people we serve. When someone is learning to develop self compassion, occupational therapists work out what this might look like in the context of being a good father, or an efficient employee. When someone is developing effective communication skills, occupational therapists are there to review when, where and how these skills are brought into play with the kids, the uncle, the neighbour, the colleague. When someone needs to learn to down-regulate a sensitive nervous system, occupational therapists are there to help assess each setting, noticing the sensory load of a situation, problem-solving ways to remain engaged in what’s important without withdrawing or overloading.

When someone’s afraid of a movement, occupational therapists go into the real world to help that person begin to do that activity – our skills are there to titrate the level of difficulty not just around biomechanical demands, but also social, interpersonal, sensory, and cognitive loads. Ever wondered why a person can manage something really well in the clinic – but can’t do the groceries, go to a restaurant, stay with friends overnight, anywhere where the demands are different? Occupational therapists can help figure out why.

For those that don’t know, my profession has been established since the days of 1793, when Phillipe Pinel began what was then called “moral treatment and occupation”, as an approach to treating people with mental illness. In the US, a National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy (NSPOT) was founded in 1917, and continued through the 1920’s and 1930’s until the Great Depression. Occupational therapy became more closely aligned with medicine as part of a rehabilitation approach to recovery with wounded soldiers, those with TB (in New Zealand especially), and those with chronic diseases. In fact, occupational therapy was a registered and protected health profession in NZ since 1945 (before psychology).

It was during the 1980’s and 1990’s that the profession began questioning the medical model – and during my training in the early 1980’s, Engel’s biopsychosocial model was promoted as an over-arching approach to viewing people. So for occupational therapists, this is our practice philosophy: to look at the whole person in context.

Occupational therapists are fully trained across both physical and mental health. Our profession is one of the very few that has retained this “whole person” model of health from its inception. The value of doing, being and becoming is at the centre of practice. The appreciation that people live in a physical and social context, and that people have biopsychosocial, cultural and spiritual aspects is central to practice.

Pain is a human experience that spans the biological, the psychological, the social, the spiritual. Pain can influence all of life. When life has lost meaning because it doesn’t look like the life a person had before pain – this is where occupational therapists practice the art and science of our work.

On values, culture and health


This week is Te Wiki o te Maori – and the theme is Kia Kaha te Reo Maori. For those readers not familiar with te reo, kia kaha translates to “be strong.” It’s a word people from Otautahi (Christchurch) have used a lot since 2010 and the first of the many events that have shaken (literally) our world since then. Te Wiki o te Maori is a week dedicated to celebrating and strengthening the use of Maori language in New Zealand.

While the week celebrates the language of Aotearoa, it also helps us tangata tiriti, or people of the Treaty of Waitangi, remember that we have a place in this whenua (land). It helps me remember the values that those of us living in Aotearoa hold dear.

The thing about culture is that many of us don’t even recognise that we have a culture. Cultures are the assumptions, practices, values, beliefs, habits, ways of being that we have absorbed without knowing we have (see here for a nice description of culture). We all live within more than one culture, irrespective of the colour of our skin – culture is not synonymous with ethnicity or “race.”

This year “Black lives matter” has erupted onto the consciousness of thousands of people around the world. It’s as if, for many people, the whole notion of equality vs equity has never before been a thing. And it’s this blindness to social differences that I want to discuss today.

Recently I’ve been talking about the way exercise is discussed amongst health professionals. I pointed out that not everyone enjoys the gym, and that 3 x 10 sets of exercises is possibly the best way to kill anyone’s enthusiasm for movement. I also argued the aim of rehabilitation is to give the person their own life back – not some “living by numbers” recipe made up of lists, targets and goals.

Both those posts met with a certain amount of enthusiasm, and an equal degree of push-back. Push-back comes from a sense of certainty that of course exercise is a thing we all should do for our health. Because, of course, our health is the thing we should most value.

Or is it? Health professionals enter their professions for many reasons, but one often unacknowledged one is that we value health. We might not state it in those words, we might couch it in terms of “I want to help people”, “I like to give to my community” or even “I have a calling” (Witter, Wurie, Namakula, Mashange, Chirwa & Alonso-Garbayo, 2018), but during our training, we are encultured into valuing health more highly than, perhaps, we would have.

We are also privileged as health professionals. Witter and colleagues also point out that people become health professionals for financial reasons – job stability, respect, status in a family or community. Some health professionals can train for free, while most will recoup the cost of education during their working life. We are privileged because we have education. We have work. We have respect, mana, so what we say carries weight.

When I consider this construct we call health, I bring to mind the WHO definition which is “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” (Preamble to the Constitution of WHO as adopted by the International Health Conference, New York, 19 June – 22 July 1946; signed on 22 July 1946 by the representatives of 61 States (Official Records of WHO, no. 2, p. 100) and entered into force on 7 April 1948. The definition has not been amended since 1948). Health is more than the absence of disease or infirmity. That bears repeating. Health, in tangata whenua terms, is viewed as wellbeing in four areas: taha tinana (physical wellbeing), taha hinengaro (mental wellbeing), taha wairua (spiritual wellbeing) and taha whanau (family wellbeing).

I bring to mind a person I know. Let’s call her Allie. She is five years older than me. She is overweight, smokes tobacco and has COPD. She left school at 14 years old, and has worked in minimum wage jobs her whole working life. She became pregnant at 16 years old, and raised her only child as a single parent. He has had a mixed and disrupted life, spending many years in prison with a methamphetamine addiction and multiple convictions for burglary. He has a 14 year old daughter who now lives with her grandmother, Allie.

Now Allie has seen a lot of health professionals. Almost all of them have talked to her about her smoking. They’ve also talked to her about diet and exercise. None of this talk has helped her kick the smoking habit, and exercise? What of it? As she said to me once, “tell me when I can go exercise after I leave home at 6.00am, go to one job, then get back from the second job at 7.30pm?”

What matters to Allie? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. The most important thing in the world to her is keeping her grand-daughter safe. Allie has spent countless hours trying to give her grand-daughter the security of a settled home, a place where there are rules and boundaries, and a place where there is warmth, food, a bed to sleep in, and people who care. And she’s done this with minimal support from her son, her grand-daughter’s mother, and the NZ social welfare system.

So as health professionals, when we begin to judge or critique people for not being “compliant”, for not being “motivated”, for failing to go to the gym, for not stopping smoking – we need to stop for a minute. Allie has tried countless times, believe me – but has anyone asked her what she gains from smoking? It’s her stress relief. In the absence of alternatives, it’s her reliable stand-by. The only way we’re likely to influence Allie is if we view her life through her eyes, and work with what she values.

And when we prescribe what we think is Most Important because we think the person in front of us values what we value – we’re speaking from a place of privilege, and through a lens that reflects our own priorities. And we could be completely oblivious to this. Such is the nature of privilege. Let’s take a moment to appreciate that the people we serve want to return to their own lives, valuing what they value, with their own priorities, and their own perspectives. Kia kaha, arohanui.

Witter, S., Wurie, H., Namakula, J., Mashange, W., Chirwa, Y., & Alonso‐Garbayo, A. (2018). Why do people become health workers? A nalysis from life histories in 4 post‐conflict and post‐crisis countries. The International journal of health planning and management, 33(2), 449-459.

What to do when one size does not fit all


Alert: rant ahead.

Early in my career working in persistent pain management, it was thought that “chronic pain is chronic pain is chronic pain” and pretty much anything that helped one person would help the next. Over time we’ve learned a lot more about persistent pain: the mechanisms differ a lot between neuropathic mechanisms and nociplastic mechanisms. Even within these groups, the mechanisms are very different. We’ve also learned a lot more about the psychosocial variables that are associated with prolonged disability and distress when pain persists. Some of the earliest work by Turk and colleagues found that by using the Westhaven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory, people could be classified into four subgroups (Kerns, Turk & Rudy, 1985). While the names of these subgroups could do with some updating (to avoid negative labelling), there’s a large body of research supporting the four groups they found.

When I first worked at Burwood Pain Management Centre, the WHYMPI was the workhorse pre-assessment questionnaire used to help clinicians understand more about the person they were seeing. Interestingly, at the time there were two group programmes on offer: one was the three week full time residential pain management programme, and people who were admitted to this programme were those with high levels of distress and disability, often with very unhelpful beliefs about their pain, and needing the intensity of the full-time programming to help them make changes that would be sustained when they went home. The other was an outpatient programme, two sessions a week for six weeks, and this was intended for people who had more disturbance in their relationships with others, who felt unsupported and as a result were distressed. Also in this group were people who were generally managing well but needed to learn some new skills so they could get on with their lives.

Times change. Neither of those programmes are running in the same way as they were and there’s been an increase in individual sessions with single discipline input right around the world. Some commentators point out that changing funding models has led to the rise of single discipline intervention (Loeser, 2006), others discuss the ethical dilemmas raised by funding that is allocated on outputs (numbers of people seen) rather than outcomes (how well those people who have been seen are doing, and especially how well they do over time) (Loeser & Cahanda, 2013). This discourse has spilled over into how clinical guidelines have been developed (Chou, Atlas, Loeser, Rosenquist & Stanos, 2011), and this in turn has led to policy and funding decisions made at local level.

The rise of interventional pain treatment (Manchikanti, Pampati, Sigh & Falco, 2013) has been observed right around the world, including in New Zealand. Interventional pain treatments aim to reduce pain intensity via non-surgical means, often through anaesthetic injections (blocks), and in some cases by localising the supposed source of nociception through diagnostic blocks, then ablating or coagulating the proteins around the nerve, to stop transmission (Cohen, Stojanovic, Crooks, Kim, Schmidt, Shields et al, 2008). These latter procedures apply to a very small proportion of people with back pain, nevertheless they are popular – albeit not always applied to the cohort of people originally intended (Bogduk & McGuirk, 2002).

Alongside the rise of interventional procedures, in New Zealand there has been a shift from passive physiotherapy modalities (acupuncture, heat packs, interferential, ultrasound) to active management – which pretty much looks like exercise in New Zealand. New Zealand’s ACC funds community-based pain management programmes that are intended to be tailored to the person’s needs, have a multidisciplinary team approach, and use a multifactorial model of pain. While these programmes superficially look progressive and innovative, results from a recent study colleagues and I have carried out, sadly it looks much like exercise plus psychology, and the teamwork aspect is minimal. More concerning is the rise of “cookie cutter” programmes, limited understanding and use of the carefully collected psychometric information completed by patients, and inappropriate referrals to the services.

The landscape of publicly funded pain management in New Zealand is fraught with problems. Each district has a health board consisting of elected plus appointed members. District health boards have the task of allocating the money central government gives them, according to the needs and wishes of the community. Note that in NZ, accident-related rehabilitation is funded by our national accident insurer (we only have one, it’s no-fault and 24/7). Given we have patchy community service provision for people with pain following accidental injury, you’d think our district health boards would have some consistent approach to helping the one in five Kiwi’s living with pain lasting more than three months. Now while not everyone who has persistent pain will need help to manage it (think of those with osteoarthritic knees and hips who are not quite ready to head to surgery), amongst those who have the most trouble with pain are also those with a history of trauma. Christchurch and the Canterbury area have had, over the past 10 years, over 10,000 earthquakes (the last noticeable one was only last week – take a look at geonet), the Kaikoura earthquakes, and the mosque shooting. During the five or so years after the earthquakes, the city’s children were disrupted by changes to schools (thanks, Hekia Parata and the National Party – you are not forgiven). What all these events have in common is the impact on people with pain. And you guessed it, there is no coherent national approach to pain management, no pain plan or policy.

We know there is a relationship between traumatic events, particularly those in early childhood, and persistent pain (eg Ne4lson, Simons & Logan, 2018). We also know that victims of crush injuries, traumatic amputations, and bullet wounds are likely to experience greater neuropathic pain which is particularly hard to treat. People with persistent pain, especially when it’s been around for some years, are also likely to have poor sleep, mood problems, anxiety problems, and in many cases, will have had repeated surgeries and be given a multitude of pharmaceuticals to help reduce pain and distress.

The problem is that when these are applied without the support of a team, they may well be applied without finesse. They may reduce pain, a little (though this is arguable given how poorly analgesics perform – and the misapplication of the WHO analgesic ladder, Ballantyne, Kalso & Stannard, 2016). But we know that pain intensity and disability are not well-correlated. So while the focus on reducing pain via injections, ablations, surgery, pharmaceuticals and so on is helpful on it’s own it doesn’t necessarily change a person’s sleep pattern, their low mood, their lost job, their fear of moving, the relationship that’s fallen apart, the loss of sense of self…

Worse: when pain management is poorly coordinated and doesn’t target the real needs of people who live with pain and who don’t respond to these efforts (the majority of people with neuropathic pain, for example), people don’t stop seeking help. They pop up in all sorts of places: primary care practices (to the GP who is over-worked, poorly supported and often poorly educated about pain); via Emergency Department (where, although the pain may have been present for a long time, it must be treated as an acute pain problem because that’s what EDs do); admitted for investigations, to provide “respite” for family, to be reviewed yet again by a clinician who is not well-informed about pain because our training in pain is pretty poor (Shipton, Bate, Garrick, Steketee, Shipton and Visser, 2018). They are invisible to NZs health system because they’re not coded as having pain as their primary problem. And people with persistent pain don’t die, and the public’s attention (and media) is focused on deaths. Like the long-lasting Covid-19 patients who continue to have trouble from Covid-19 months after their initial infection, people with persistent pain just hang around. And medical-only approaches simply do not work to treat rehabilitation needs. Rehabilitation is where it’s at. But rehabilitation is no longer a focus of in-patient care in hospitals (neither should it be) – but there are few places outside of hospitals that are funded and staffed to help.

This lengthy post is written out of frustration because too often I’ve seen conversations about pain management saying “oh it doesn’t work” – true! Nothing works well. But most things work a bit. Our problem is twofold: we can’t predict who will and won’t respond very well (though the old WHYMPI and similar psychometric measures/profiles do offer some guidance); and we have little national cohesion around sharing resources. We need to better monitor the impact of our treatments so we can quickly add, or remove, treatments to target particular problems. And all of the providers must have skills for working with people who have persistent pain.

Let’s do better. Let’s clamour for more nationwide planning. Let’s raise the profile of the allied health workforce who do the majority of rehabilitation with people living with pain. Let’s make our teams TEAMS not sets of individuals working in parallels. Let’s have some leadership around the value of pain management, and why it’s important. Let’s bring this whole issue to light. Let’s do it.

Ballantyne, J. C., Kalso, E., & Stannard, C. (2016). WHO analgesic ladder: a good concept gone astray. BMJ, 352, i20. doi:10.1136/bmj.i20

Bogduk, N & McGuirk, B. (2002). Medical Management of Acute and Chro5nic Low Back Pain. An Evidence-based Approach. Pain Research and Clinical Management, Vol3. Elsevier.

Chou, R., Atlas, S. J., Loeser, J. D., Rosenquist, R. W., & Stanos, S. P. (2011). Guideline warfare over interventional therapies for low back pain: can we raise the level of discourse? J Pain, 12(8), 833-839. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2011.04.012

Cohen, S. P., Stojanovic, M. P., Crooks, M., Kim, P., Schmidt, R. K., Shields, C. H., . . . Hurley, R. W. (2008). Lumbar zygapophysial (facet) joint radiofrequency denervation success as a function of pain relief during diagnostic medial branch blocks: a multicenter analysis. Spine Journal: Official Journal of the North American Spine Society, 8(3), 498-504.

Kerns, R. D., Turk, D. C., & Rudy, T. E. (1985). The west haven-yale multidimensional pain inventory (WHYMPI). Pain, 23(4), 345-356.

Loeser, J. D. (2006). Comprehensive Pain Programs Versus Other Treatments for Chronic Pain. The Journal of Pain 7(11), 800-801.

Loeser, J. D., & Cahana, A. (2013). Pain medicine versus pain management: ethical dilemmas created by contemporary medicine and business. Clin J Pain, 29(4), 311-316. doi:10.1097/AJP.0b013e3182516e64

Manchikanti, L., Pampati, V., Singh, V., & Falco, F. J. (2013). Assessment of the escalating growth of facet joint interventions in the medicare population in the United States from 2000 to 2011. Pain Physician, 16(4), E365-378.

Nelson, S., Simons, L. E., & Logan, D. (2018). The incidence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their association with pain-related and psychosocial impairment in youth with chronic pain. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 34(5), 402-408.

Shipton, E. E., Bate, F., Garrick, R., Steketee, C., Shipton, E. A., & Visser, E. J. (2018). Systematic review of pain medicine content, teaching, and assessment in medical school curricula internationally. Pain and therapy, 1-23.

The hardly hidden costs


Chronic/persistent pain management is not sexy. No-one gets a magic cure. Lives are not saved – at least not in a way that mortality statistics show. Chronic pain management is under-funded.

And now: buried in a list of other proposed service cuts in the local health board’s plan to save millions of dollars, is a proposal to “save” $650,000 from the pain clinic. You’ll note also reductions in community services, GP support for vulnerable, and healthy lifestyles programmes.

https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/122558278/hundreds-of-staff-nurses-and-services-may-be-axed-at-canterbury-dhb

I know that nursing staff, senior medical staff and 200 admin staff are also in the firing line. I also know that this health board has been side-swiped by earthquake earthquake re-building, the terror attacks with so many victims needing urgent and ongoing surgery and rehabilitation, along with the mental health impacts of all of these events and now Covid-19… Delays and poor workmanship on new buildings on the main hospital site have meant these new facilities are well over-budget, and two years late – and there is still no car-parking for patients and staff. Historic under-funding by past governments has meant Canterbury DHB has developed innovative and nimble responses to these challenges – and been lauded internationally for their work. I won’t say anything about the growth in middle management, suffice to say that where there was once one general manager at one site, and a direct report line from the clinical director of a service – now there are three or four layers of management…

Let me turn to why cutting expenditure on pain services is likely to cost rather than save.

In 1987 or so, a new pain management service was developed in Christchurch. One of the primary reasons for opening this centre was to address the burgeoning rise in numbers of people presenting for orthopaedic surgery but for whom surgery was not an option. Either because there was nothing to find on imaging – pain can’t be imaged, and surgeons can’t operate on a normal x-ray or MRI – or because the person’s problem would likely not respond to surgery.

As a result of the new pain management service, people who weren’t suitable for orthopaedic surgery were referred for multidisciplinary pain management: medical assessment, functional assessment, psychosocial assessment, and appropriate pain management from there. Fewer people with low back pain were being admitted to the orthopaedic wards as a result. Win!

It’s only possible in the first few years of a service to clearly demonstrate the impact of it on the rest of the health system. Why? Because it’s not possible to show what isn’t happening. Now that pain management services have been in place for many years, the effect of people attending these services rather than other parts of the healthcare system is invisible.

For example, people who attend pain management services don’t need as many ambulance trips, visits to the Emergency Department, admissions via Emergency to hospital wards. They don’t stay in hospital beds while they undergo investigations – all the while using bed space, “hotel services” (food, linen, soap, towels, hot water, cleaning services), along with the skilled healthcare staff – doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, laboratory workers, phlebotomists, radiographers, pharmacists and on and on…

People who are served well through pain services don’t take up as much space in the rest of the system – and the very people who need pain services are the people who otherwise do end up in many places throughout the healthcare system (Blyth, March, Brnabic, Cousins, 2004; Duenas, Ojeda, Salazar, Mico & Failde, 2016). It’s evident from so many epidemiological studies that people with chronic pain will have an impact across “physical” health services, “mental” health services, primary care (General practice), secondary care and tertiary care. And an acute hospital setting is not the right place for people with chronic pain to be treated.

Until recently, though, admissions for chronic pain haven’t been counted as “chronic pain” because the coding used (ICD10) doesn’t have chronic pain as a stand-alone category. This means a person with chronic abdominal pain, for example, will have their condition listed within an acute pain admission category. Similarly with chronic non-cardiac chest pain – these admissions are coded as “cardiac”. The new ICD11 will help make these currently hidden admissions visible – but currently, it’s not possible to identify just how many people are being seen in these departments but who could be better managed in a persistent pain clinic.

Now I’m the first to admit that our treatments for chronic pain don’t show massive effects. Pain intensity, disability, distress all continue to have an impact on people even after attending a pain service. BUT that is the nature of a persistent pain problem – people don’t die from it, but like those with “long-Covid19”, they continue to need help. And yet, by comparison with the costs of not providing these services, pain clinics save a health system money – and this has been known since the 2000’s (Gatchel, McGeary, McGeary & Lippe, 2014; Loisel, Lemaire, Poitras, Durand, Champagne, Stock .et al, 2002).

The saddest thing about the proposal to cut funding is that by losing skilled and experienced – and passionate – clinicians, we all lose. Community pain services in New Zealand are largely staffed by clinicians who have little/no additional training in persistent pain. It’s well-documented that physiotherapists find it hard to identify and work with psychosocial factors – the main predictors for long-term distress and disability. Psychology programmes in New Zealand have little/no pain content. There are too few pain specialists. And most of the community pain services pay lip service to interprofessional teamwork because they’re not co-located, haven’t developed effective team structures because these are considered a “cost” to service delivery by private owners, and use contractors who are not paid to attend meetings.

New Zealand’s population is aging. Along with aging is an increase in painful conditions such as osteoarthritis and diabetic neuropathy (we have such high rates of diabetes). We have no national pain strategy. Our clinical workforce is under-skilled and many clinicians find pain management work is hard and demoralising. I can see why clinicians feel demoralised when what should be seen as essential services are in the sights of cost-cutting administrators.

Blyth, F. M., March, L. M., Brnabic, A. J., & Cousins, M. J. (2004). Chronic pain and frequent use of health care. Pain, 111(1-2), 51-58.

Dueñas, M., Ojeda, B., Salazar, A., Mico, J. A., & Failde, I. (2016). A review of chronic pain impact on patients, their social environment and the health care system. Journal of pain research, 9, 457.

Gatchel, R. J., McGeary, D. D., McGeary, C. A., & Lippe, B. (2014). Interdisciplinary chronic pain management: past, present, and future. American Psychologist, 69(2), 119.

Loisel, P., Lemaire, J., Poitras, S., Durand, M. J., Champagne, F., Stock, S., … & Tremblay, C. (2002). Cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analysis of a disability prevention model for back pain management: a six year follow up study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 59(12), 807-815.

Whose life is it anyway?


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

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

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

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

Well and good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is exercise the new snake oil? or just a dirty word?


If you haven’t heard about the health benefits of exercise in the last 10 years or longer, then you’ve probably been a hermit! Exercise can do all these wonderful things – help you lose weight, reduce heart disease, moderate insulin and blood glucose levels, improve your mental health, and yes! reduce pain and disability when you’re sore. (check this list out)

The claims sound suspiciously similar to the claims made by old snake oil merchants – or the amazing White Cross Electric Vibrator!

Well perhaps there’s a little more research supporting claims for exercise… but are those claims being inflated just a little? When it comes to pain, particularly persistent pain, perhaps so…

But before I launch into some of the problems with exercise research, I have another problem with “exercise” – and that’s the word itself.

According to Wikipedia (and no, it’s not an academic reference!!) “Exercise is any bodily activity that enhances or maintains physical fitness and overall health and wellness.” Winter and Fowler (2009) in an interesting paper looking at definitions of exercise, found that “exercise” and “physical activity” are essentially the same and differ only in terms of motivation/intent, finally arriving at this definition: “A potential disruption to homeostasis by muscle activity that is either exclusively or in combination, concentric, isometric or eccentric.” Whew! Glad we’ve got this sorted.

But given the sticky nature of our minds, and that very few of us are inclined to spend hours debating the technical details, the word “exercise” has picked up quite a few other meanings. For me it conjures up images of sweaty, lycra-clad blokes grunting in front of enormous mirrors while they heave on lumps of metal to the pumping rhythm of loud music (and the eyes that follow my every move). It also raises the spectre of school sports where I was inevitably the last person chosen for any sports team, the last to come in after every run, the person who got hit in the face by the ball, who got her thumb smacked by the hockey stick the week before my piano exams…

I’m not alone in my distaste for “exercise”. Qualitative researchers have often investigated how people with pain view exercise: “I get the comments that “It is not dangerous” and that “you are not going to be worse.” I do not believe it is dangerous … but actually it happens that I become worse after .… I know that the pain will increase. And they … talk to me about pain that is not like my pain.” (Karlsson, Gerdle, Takala, Andersson & Larsson, 2018)

Boutevillain, Dupeyron, Rouch, Riuchard & Coudeyre (2017) in another qualitative study, found that people with low back pain firstly identified that pain intensity interfered “any minimal physical activity, standing still in one spot, is torture” (line 1683); “if my back hurts, I don’t do any activity that’s for sure, I am not going to the garden and do some digging, that is out of the question! I have two children, if I am in pain and they want to play, my back hurts and I can’t play with them. My back hurts I can’t do it. It’s not that I don’t want to it is just that I cannot. I am unable to” (line 29). In turn, motivation for exercise was reduced “I don’t have any desire to exercise. A lack of motivation, even apprehension” (line 390); “there needs to be this spark to get motivated, and I just don’t have it” (line 1335). Along with the lack of perceived benefits for some: “Sometimes I try to exercise and then I’m in pain, looking back had I known it would hurt I would probably not have done it” (line 2037) “It can be harmful, I give you an example: I have a colleague with low back problems, similar to mine, and she loves to take step classes, but each time she exercises too much, she is in pain but continues. I think she should stop, it is quite dangerous for her” (line 378).

A systematic review by Slade, Patel, Underwood and Keating (2014) found that “Individuals were more likely to engage within programs that were fun and had variety than ones that were boring, unchallenging, or onerous because they disrupted daily activities.” They added that “Difficulties with exercise adherence and not seeing benefits of exercise were frequently attributed to lack of time and fit into daily life.” Quotes drawn from the studies included in this review show that lack of confidence, negative experiences at the time, and poor “fit” between the exercises selected and individual preferences influence whether exercise was carried out consistently.

At the same time as these negative views, many participants in qualitative studies report that they use “movement” as a key strategy for their daily management. Whether movement looked like “exercise” as prescribed by PTs or trainers is a little less clear – people use the word “exercise” to mean many different things, hence Karlsson and colleagues (2018) combined the term “physical activity and exercise”.

Now one very important point about exercise, and one that’s rarely mentioned, is how little exercise actually reduces pain – and disability. A systematic review of systematic reviews from the Cochrane collaboration found that most studies included people with mild-to-moderate pain (less than 30/100 on a VAS) but the results showed pain reduction of around 10mm on a 0 – 100mm scale. In terms of physical function, significant improvements were identified but these were small to moderate in size.

And let’s not talk about the quality of those studies! Sadly, methodological problems plague studies into exercise, particularly sample size. Most studies are quite small, which can lead to over-estimating the benefits, while biases associated with randomisation, blinding and attrition rate/drop-outs, adherence and adverse effects.

Before anyone starts getting crabby about this blog post, here are my key points (and why I’ve taken this topic on!):

  1. Over-stating the effects of exercise won’t win you friends. It creates an atmosphere where those who don’t obtain pain reduction can feel pretty badly about it. Let’s be honest that effects on pain reduction and disability are not all that wonderful. There are other reasons to move!
  2. Exercise and physical activity can be done in a myriad of wonderful ways, research studies use what’s measurable and controllable – but chasing a puppy at the beach, dancing the salsa, cycling to work, vacuuming the house, three hours of gardening and walking around the shopping mall are all movement opportunities up for grabs. Don’t resort to boring stuff! Get creative (need help with that? Talk to your occupational therapists!).
  3. The reasons for doing exercise are enormously variable. I move because I love the feeling of my body in rhythm with the music, the wrench of those weeds as they get ripped from my garden, the stretch of my stride as I walk across the park, the ridiculousness of my dog hurtling after a ball… And because I am a total fidget and always have been. Exercise might be “corrective”, to increase cardiovascular fitness, because it’s part of someone’s self-concept, to gain confidence for everyday activities, to beat a record or as part of being a good role model. Whatever the reason, tapping into that is more important than the form of the exercise.
  4. Without some carryover into daily life (unless the exercise is intrinsically pleasurable), exercise is a waste of time. So if you’re not enjoying the 3 sets of 10 you’ve been given (or you’ve prescribed to someone), think about how it might translate into everyday life. It might be time to change the narrative about movement away from repetitive, boring exercises “for the good of your heart/diabetes/back” and towards whatever larger, values-based orientation switches the “on” switch for this person. And if you’re the person – find some movement options that you like. Exercise snacks through the day. Jiggles to the music (boogie down). Gardening. Swimming. Flying a kite. Don’t be limited by what is the current fashion for lycra and sweaty people lifting heavy things with that loud music pumping in the background.

Boutevillain, L., Dupeyron, A., Rouch, C., Richard, E., & Coudeyre, E. (2017). Facilitators and barriers to physical activity in people with chronic low back pain: A qualitative study. PLoS One, 12(7), e0179826. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0179826

Edward M. Winter & Neil Fowler (2009) Exercise defined and quantified
according to the Système International d’Unités, Journal of Sports Sciences, 27:5, 447-460, DOI: 10.1080/02640410802658461

Geneen, L. J., Moore, R. A., Clarke, C., Martin, D., Colvin, L. A., & Smith, B. H. (2017). Physical activity and exercise for chronic pain in adults: an overview of Cochrane Reviews. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 4, CD011279. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011279.pub3

Karlsson, L., Gerdle, B., Takala, E. P., Andersson, G., & Larsson, B. (2018). Experiences and attitudes about physical activity and exercise in patients with chronic pain: a qualitative interview study. J Pain Res, 11, 133-144. doi: 10.2147/JPR.S149826

That elephant in the room thing


This weekend I was incredibly fortunate to speak at Le Pub Scientifique (the next one is the super intelligent Tasha Stanton!) about one part of our pain conversation that’s absent: how do we have a conversation about when pain persists and doesn’t respond to any treatments?

I still don’t have any research to show how we might broach this topic in a way that respects the person with pain, acknowledges just how poorly our treatments do, and provides a framework for us to collaborate. It’s like this big bogey sitting in our clinics that we pretend isn’t there.

Why do we need to have this conversation?

Well, one reason is that our treatments are pretty poor and by ignoring this reality we’re sitting there with our hands over our ears going “lalalalala” as if by NOT talking about it, it doesn’t happen.

Another is that people living with pain are put through the most awful process of being offered something (hope!), waiting to get that something (waiting, waiting, waiting…life on hold…), getting it (ooh! exciting!), waiting for it to work (waiting, waiting, waiting…life on hold…), then finding it doesn’t help (despair!). Rinse and repeat. The time spent waiting alone is such an incredible waste.

As a result of us not being brave enough to talk about it, people with pain are often thought of as The Problem. They get blamed for not responding. Blamed by family, friends, other health professionals and funding agencies, insurers and case managers, and worst of all: their own minds.

In 2007 I hit my head and sustained a concussion. For 18 months I wasn’t working full time because I’d need to come home and sleep for at least an hour. Even though I knew that my symptoms were real, and that it can take time to recover from concussion, I spent hours worrying that I was “exaggerating”, “taking things too hard”, “not working hard enough”, “not motivated enough.” Believe me, these thoughts do not help anyone, and they delayed my recovery by pushing me towards a depressive episode.

Imagine if you’re a person with pain that doesn’t respond and instead of being given consistent messages about it as I was with my concussion, you’re being told “Treatment X might be a good option”, or “Have you tried Y?” or “Maybe another investigation might help us sort it out?”

How might that erode your sense of self, your confidence in your own experience?

Now I’m not suggesting we say to people “Guess what, your pain is going to go on forever” – that would be horrible, uncaring and unfeeling.

This isn’t the same as pretending that pain isn’t there, gritting teeth and “just getting on with it”. This isn’t about being resigned to a life of suffering.

What I am suggesting is that we help people to become less afraid of their pain, and to begin to start adding life into their life. That by taking pain into account we can begin to build patterns of activity that move us towards what we value – and I doubt that many of us value waiting for the next healthcare appointment. It also doesn’t mean that people can’t at the same time seek pain reduction approaches – I’ve certainly tried a bunch over the years, sadly none of them have changed my pain one iota.

When a person seeks help for their pain, underlying that request is typically something much more pragmatic. It’s about how much pain is interfering with important things the person wants to be able to do. It’s also about what the pain might signify – is it cancer? does it mean I need to change my job? does it mean I’m succumbing to old age or the legacy of being reckless as a young person? Clinicians often forget to ask “if pain was less of a problem for you, what would you be doing?” Clinicians also forget to ask what the person’s main concern is about their pain.

Addressing these concerns will, I think, help us move the conversation away from which set of exercises is better, which gadget might be new and groovy, which dominant voice should be listened to, and whether someone is “right” or “wrong” about an approach to helping people.

So perhaps, as we begin to recognise that our treatments are not very effective (despite the occasional win! Just like the gambler’s occasional win), we can work towards helping people with pain move towards what matters in their lives – with pain as a companion in the back seat, rather than taking over the steering wheel. And perhaps, somewhere along the way, there will be a place to stop to offload this passenger, but knowing that we’ll always carry the memories and thoughts of having had it as part of our lives. Pain has taught me so much! I am stronger than I think, I am good at finding wiggle room, and I am more compassionate towards others who are newer to the journey.

International Chronic Pain Virtual Summit 2020


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

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

Professor Peter O’Sullivan

Professor Tasha Stanton

Lissanthea Taylor

Vidyamala Burch

Dr Stephen Grinstead

Kathy Hubble

Pete Moore

Prof Kim Burton

Prof Ann Taylor

Dr Adriaan Louw

Dr Shilpa Patel

Dr Saurab Sharma

Coronavirus (COVID19), catastrophising – and caution


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alexanders, J., Anderson, A., & Henderson, S. (2015). Musculoskeletal physiotherapists’ use of psychological interventions: a systematic review of therapists’ perceptions and practice. Physiotherapy, 101(2), 95-102. doi: 10.1016/j.physio.2014.03.008

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

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

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

Jones, Brittni, & Williams, Amanda C. de C. (2020). Psychological therapists’ judgments of pain and treatment decisions: The impact of ‘medically unexplained symptoms’. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 131, 109937. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2020.109937

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

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