Science in practice

What goes wrong in pain rehabilitation (2)


One size does not fit all. Cookie cutter treatments fail to take into account the huge variability each person brings into a clinical encounter, particularly when the person is living with persisting pain. Not really earth shattering news, is it?!

Let me unpack this one.

When we’re treating a person with an acute musculoskeletal injury, let’s say a lateral ankle sprain, I’m going to hazard a guess that most of the recovery occurs without our assistance (don’t shoot the messenger – go read Chen et al, 2019). In essence, we’re creating an environment that supports tissues to do what they do well – get on with healing. Because of this, there’s good reason to follow a basic treatment algorithm that will work for most people. That is, unless or until recovery stops for some reason.

It’s here that algorithms begin to lose utility, because the factors that are implicated in delayed recovery are many and varied – and it’s important to narrow down the particular factors involved for this person with their ankle.

So, IMHO, cookie cutter treatments begin to fall apart when recovery is slower than expected because there are a heap of variables involved. And yet what do I see? “Oh it failed but let’s do the same thing again but harder!” or “the person wasn’t doing their exercises” or “it must be psychosocial factors.”

Well, no, actually, perhaps psychosocial factors are involved, but they were there from the outset (just ignored because the tissue-based factors capture our attention). And no, doing the same thing again but harder leads to the same outcome, only more disappointing. And we have no idea whether the person was, or wasn’t doing their exercises – or whether the prescribed exercises were useful, or whether they even make much of a difference anyway! (again, don’t shoot the messenger, go read Wagemans, et al 2022).

But probably the most heartbreaking thing about using “one size fits all” is that this doesn’t take into account this person’s goals, lifestyle, current priorities, other contextual factors like workplace, family and friendship obligations that are integral to being a person, not just a lateral ankle sprain.

I once worked at a chronic pain centre where every person was assessed by three clinicians: a medical practitioner for diagnosis and medication management; a psychosocial clinician to understand life stressors and the person’s understanding of their pain and their current coping strategies; and a person who assessed how he or she was managing with daily life and functional activities. What I couldn’t understand was how almost every patient was given the same management plan: to try some drugs, see a psychologist, and do a home exercise programme. Come to the centre to see each clinician on a different day of the week. Irrespective of the unique presentation, the same recipe was given. The ingredients might have been a little different when the person was seen for treatment, but without fail, the basic elements were exactly the same.

How is this person-centred care? What if this person was a 4 wheeldrive off-roading enthusiast who loved to go fishing? What if this person was a traveling sales rep with a well-developed meditation practice? What if this person had five kids and couldn’t get to the pain centre for the twice weekly appointments? What if this person was hankering after spending some time with other people who were also living with pain so she could hear that she wasn’t alone, and could pick up tips from people who knew what it was like?

Today I still hear of people being given a copy of “Explain Pain”, get to do the “Protectometer” and then told to go see the physio and psychologist. Nothing about the person’s desire to work out the impact pain has on their daily life, nothing about the understanding the person already has about their own pain fluctuations, and nothing that’s tailored to what this person needs and wants to do.

Seriously folks, pain rehabilitation and management is all about tailored, bespoke, clever therapy based on what the person needs and wants to do, what they already know and bring to their own recovery, and it probably needs to include connection with other people who are in the same situation. Why? Because while “other people” might not give the advice the journal articles recommend, they offer advice from their own experience. And mostly, people with persisting pain need affirmation that they’re resilient, capable, knowledgeable and can work a way through this.

Maybe what we need to do is include people who live with pain in service design (Sandvin Olsson, et al., 2020) – and pain management delivery (Farr, et al., 2021). It seems to work.

Chen, E. , McInnis, K. & Borg-Stein, J. (2019). Ankle Sprains: Evaluation, Rehabilitation, and Prevention. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 18 (6), 217-223. doi: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000603.

Farr, M., Brant, H., Patel, R., Linton, M. J., Ambler, N., Vyas, S., Wedge, H., Watkins, S., & Horwood, J. (2021, Dec 11). Experiences of Patient-Led Chronic Pain Peer Support Groups After Pain Management Programs: A Qualitative Study. Pain Med, 22(12), 2884-2895. https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnab189

Sandvin Olsson, A. B., Strom, A., Haaland-Overby, M., Fredriksen, K., & Stenberg, U. (2020, Aug). How can we describe impact of adult patient participation in health-service development? A scoping review. Patient Educ Couns, 103(8), 1453-1466. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2020.02.028

Wagemans, J., Bleakley, C., Taeymans, J., Schurz, A. P., Kuppens, K., Baur, H., & Vissers, D. (2022). Exercise-based rehabilitation reduces reinjury following acute lateral ankle sprain: A systematic review update with meta-analysis. PLoS One, 17(2)http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0262023

Rehab fails: What goes wrong in pain rehabilitation (1)


Well obviously I’m not going to cover everything that goes wrong – and certainly not in one post! But inspired by some conversations I’ve had recently, I thought I’d discuss some of the common #fails we do in rehabilitation. Things that might explain why people with pain are thought to be “unmotivated” or “noncompliant” – because if the rehab doesn’t ‘work’ of course it’s the person with pain who’s at fault, right? So for today, here goes.

Starting at the wrong intensity

One of the main things that happens when someone’s in pain is to reduce overall activity level. Pain has been called “activity intolerance” and it’s common for people to stop doing. So naturally when a clinician is developing an activity or exercise programme, the aim is often to simply increase how much movement a person does in a day. So far, so good. Muscles and cardiovascular systems improve when we use them.

But guess what? There’s a person inside that body! And people have minds. Minds with opinions about everything and in particular, anything to do with doing. There’s often a “should” about how much movement or activity to do. This rule might be based on “pain is a sign of tissue damage” so anything that increases pain clearly “should not be done”. There may equally be a “should” about how much exercise this person used to do, or wants to do, and often mental comments about “what kind of a person does this amount of exercise.”

I’ve heard good clinicians say that their patients “have unrealistic goals” – this is probably because the person’s mind has an opinion about what he or she “should” be able to do!

What can good therapists do about this? Well, firstly to ignore the person who inhabits the body is plain wrong. Secondly, flashy gadgets like coloured tapes or special elastics or foam thingies probably won’t do much for the person’s opinionated mind except to temporarily distract — oooh! shiny!!

Something I might do would be to ask the person what level they think they can begin at – beginning where the person is at, and moving at his or her pace is a solid foundation for developing a relationship where experimenting with movement becomes about the person and his or her relationship with their body. I think one of the aims of movement rehabilitation is to help the person develop trust in their own body and how it moves, so enhancing playfulness and experimentation can be a good start.

I might ask the person “what shows up when we begin doing this set of movements/exercises”? By “showing up” I’m talking about thoughts, images, sensations in the body that pop into a person’s mind (minds are soooo opinionated!). We might need to guide the person to notice quick thoughts or images, to put words to emotions and feelings, and to get in touch with fleeting sensations in the body.

Some of the things I’ve heard people say include: “only weak losers would call this exercise”, “I used to be able to lift 40kg sacks of cement and now all I can move is this pathetic 5kg dumbbell”, “he wants me to do what?! I hate boring exercises”, “but what am I going to feel like tomorrow?”

What do we do with these thoughts?

First: make room for them to be present. Don’t quickly deny them “Oh of course you’re not weak”, “5kg isn’t pathetic”, “exercise is great fun”, “you’ll be fine, you can do this”. Saying these sorts of things dismisses the validity of the person’s fears and won’t win you any friends.

Second: empathic reflection. Indicate that you’ve heard what the person has said, validate that this is their experience, their thoughts. Something like “it’s a long way from what you used to lift, and that’s hard”, “it’s tough beginning to build up again”, “you’re worried that this is going to be unrewarding”, “you’ve had pain flare-ups before, and it’s hard to deal with”.

Third: Ask the person where they’d like to begin, put them in control of the intensity. Then ask them “how do you think that’s going to pan out” – in other words, will their option get them to where they want to be? What’s good about it? What’s not so good about it? from their perspective not yours! The idea is to establish how workable the person’s starting point might be. It might be perfectly fine, even if it’s not your choice!

Fourth: Affirm that the choice is the person’s – and that this is an experiment that will be reviewed at the next session. You might say something like “So you’d like to try doing 5 minutes of walking instead of the treadmill that I suggested, because you think this shouldn’t flare your pain up as much. What’s your choice now that we’ve talked about the good and not so good? We can review it next time.”

Fifth: Review how it went at the next session! Note down the rationale the person had for the level of intensity they chose, and then review how well that intensity worked from this perspective. For example “you wanted to do 5 minutes of walking because it wouldn’t flare you pain up as much, what did you notice? What showed up? How well did it work?” Notice all the open-ended questions, the reminder that the person thought this intensity wouldn’t flare their pain as much, and the focus on workability. Because at the beginning of a movement or exercise programme, what you’re looking for is adherence, sticking to the level of intensity chosen. Habits take time to make, and often adhering to a programme is because the opinionated mind is having a go at the person, interfering with their willingness to stick with it. If we avoid that roadblock, we have at least one point on the board.

Your opinionated mind might now be telling you that “oh they’ll never make progress at that pace”, “they’ll do themselves an injury if they lift that much”, “this is just pandering to their lack of motivation”

Be careful! At this point you could reflect on what’s showing up for you. Are you worried their outcomes will reflect badly on you? Do you only have a few sessions with the person and need them to get somewhere or you’ll have failed? Make room for those uncomfortable feelings. Let them be present and listen to what your opinionated mind is telling you. Maybe remind yourself that outcomes don’t depend on you – they depend on the person sticking to the programme, and a programme that doesn’t start because the person’s mind tells them it’s not worth it is a #rehabfail Remember also that you’re aiming for the person to gain confidence in their body, learn to listen to what happens when they try something out – the repeated progress reviews you do with the person are the actual active ingredients in therapy, they’re the bits that help the person to reflect on what works, and what doesn’t. That’s gold.

ps The technique I’ve described above is – gasp! – a psychological approach, based on ACT and motivational interviewing. You won’t find a specific study examining this approach in journals (at least not in a cursory search like I did!), but it’s an application of well-studied approaches into a movement or exercise context. It’s the same approach I use in contextually-relevant occupational therapy. Reading Bailey et al, 2020, affirms to me that we have a way to go to define and measure adherence, so I feel justified in using these strategies!

Bailey, D. L., Holden, M. A., Foster, N. E., Quicke, J. G., Haywood, K. L., & Bishop, A. (2020, Mar). Defining adherence to therapeutic exercise for musculoskeletal pain: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med, 54(6), 326-331. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2017-098742

Eynon, M., Foad, J., Downey, J., Bowmer, Y., & Mills, H. (2019). Assessing the psychosocial factors associated with adherence to exercise referral schemes: A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 29(5), 638-650. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13403

Levi, Y., Gottlieb, U., Shavit, R., & Springer, S. (2021). A matter of choice: Should students self-select exercise for their nonspecific chronic low back pain? A controlled study. Journal of American College Health, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2021.1960845

Reflective practice


In occupational therapy and some other health professions, reflective practice is a vital part of professional clinical activity. In others – not so much. And the term reflective practice has a heap of assumptions attached to it, so it may mean different things to different people.

I thought I’d unpack a bit about reflective practice today because I think it needs to be part of working with people experiencing pain. It helps us get out of our own mindset (when it’s done well), and opens a space for questioning what we do and why we do it – and as you probably all know, questioning is part of who I am!

According to Wikipedia (NO! Not an academic source – but kinda handy in this instance) “Reflective practice is the ability to reflect on one’s actions so as to take a critical stance or attitude towards one’s own practice and that of one’s peers, engaging in a process of continuous adaptation and learning” (Schon, D, 1983). In other words, we take an action then step back from what we’ve done to critically appraise it. The appraisal might be simply asking “what worked, what didn’t work, what would I do differently?” or it might be a more complex process in which someone else helps us to ask these questions or compare what we’ve done against a theory or another way of working.

I will admit that I hold some skepticism about how well we do reflective practice (the “we” being us human beings in general). This is because we’re incredibly prone to cognitive errors such as anchoring, commission and omission biases, framing effects, availability bias, vested interest bias and groupthink (see Scott, et al., 2017). The sneaky thing about these biases is that they’re implicit: that is, we often are oblivious that we do them. To combat them we need to take deliberate steps, and most of us haven’t been taught how to do this. Even when we have another person to work with as a prompt, we can get caught up in biases and fail to be critical about what we think of as “normal”.

Lilienfeld & Basterfield (2020) agree with me, pointing out that reflective practice theory and practice doesn’t draw on an understanding of the difficulties using introspection to become aware of biases (because we’re not aware of these intrinsic biases), that self-assessment often omits areas in which we either feel highly confident or we’re afraid we don’t know and don’t want to admit we’re struggling, and that we often don’t learn from experience. Ooops.

Yet, there’s enough evidence to show that by employing reflective practice, people can develop meta-cognitive skills in which they check their own assumptions, identify gaps in their knowledge, seek new information to fill those gaps, then try that knowledge out in practice (Ziebart & MacDermid, 2019).

BUT how do we do it, and does it make for better outcomes for the people we hope we help?

Lilienfeld and Basterfield (2020) offer some ideas – and caution us not to accept clinician satisfaction with the process of reflective practice with evidence of effectiveness. They propose drawing on research understanding debiasing: things like “consider the opposite” or “consider the alternative” as deliberate questions clinicians can ask themselves. Asking clinicians “how might I test out an alternative hunch?” could be a useful approach. Suggesting clinicians and their supervisors/mentors take an “outsider perspective” to step back from their decision-making as ‘disinterested third-party observers’ might help break through our tendency to overlook habitual practices just because they’re familiar (and perhaps help us remain willing to be vulnerable and compassionate towards ourselves instead of defensive).

I suspect clinicians working in pain management could do well with an ongoing relationship with a supervisor. Not someone who holds themselves as the “font of all wisdom”, not a “mentor” who feels responsible for shaping therapists into something new, but more as a mirror lens on practice. A neutral but supportive partner who can ask questions like “I wonder if we could use this [novel theory] to explore what’s going on” or “what if we thought about this [opposite theory] for a while to see what we learn”.

In situations where we are utterly certain of a causal relationship between X and Y, and where this leads to treatment A being the only viable option, we possibly only need to reflect on whether we’ve done the right diagnostics. In pain coaching/rehabilitation/management we have little certainty, far less to guide us, and a person experiencing pain. This person is often in a very vulnerable position where they trust us to do the right thing by them. If we fail them by being too certain we’re right without being challenged, we can do them an enormous disservice.

Lilienfeld, S. O., & Basterfield, C. (2020). Reflective practice in clinical psychology: Reflections from basic psychological science. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 27(4). https://doi.org/10.1111/cpsp.12352

Schön, Donald A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action. New York: Basic Books. ISBN978-0465068746. OCLC8709452.

Scott, I. A., Soon, J., Elshaug, A. G., & Lindner, R. (2017, May 15). Countering cognitive biases in minimising low value care. Medical Journal of Australia, 206(9), 407-411. https://doi.org/10.5694/mja16.00999

Ziebart, C., & MacDermid, J. C. (2019). Reflective Practice in Physical Therapy: A Scoping Review. Physical Therapy, 99(8), 1056+.

Experiential avoidance – and persistent pain


Most of us will recognise that when we experience a pain, we firstly notice where it is, and the sensory qualities of it. We automatically make judgements about that pain – some of this judgement is about whether we recognise this pain (have we had it before?), some is about whether it’s important enough to interrupt what we’re doing (should I drop this hot cup of coffee, or can I hold onto it long enough to place the cup carefully on the bench), and some is about how we feel emotionally (yes, swearing is common when we smack our thumb with a hammer!).

In our response to acute pain, we often want to avoid or escape whatever we think gave us the pain – unless, of course, it’s something we choose to do even though it hurts. You know, things like lifting really heavy weights, running distances, taking rugby tackles, eating chilli! But in most cases where the pain is unexpected we’re inclined to want to make it stop, get away from the thing that probably caused it, and take a few minutes (or longer) to not do the things that make it worse. So we avoid walking on a newly sprained ankle and we don’t keep poking and prodding at a cut or a bruise.

Avoiding is quite common and even helpful when we experience the initial onset of a pain.

So why do we talk about “fear avoidance” as if it’s a bad thing?

Well, it’s because avoiding beyond a useful period of time often leads to ongoing problems. Some of these problems are possibly over-stated: things like “deconditioning” are probably not as much of a problem as we once thought (see Andrews, Strong & Meredith, 2021; Tagliaferri, Armbrecht, Miller, Owen et al, 2020). While other forms of avoidance may never even be considered.

What do I mean?

For a moment, think of a “weekend warrior”. The kind of person who heroically plays sport on a Saturday, trains once or twice during the week, and otherwise works hard and plays hard. Let’s think of this person as a male, perhaps in his late 30’s, thinks of himself as a hard worker and a family man. When he sprains his wrist after a particularly hard tackle in a weekend rugby game, he’s the kind who shrugs it off, and just keeps going. After a few weeks and his wrist doesn’t get much better, he heads off to see his local physio.

We wouldn’t usually think of him as an “avoider”. He’s not pain-avoidant, but sometimes because he doesn’t stop to take care of his wrist sprain, he ends up with a more troublesome injury. He might even develop a “boom and bust” pattern of activity: on a day he’s feeling good he’ll push through, but then his wrist starts playing up and he needs to take a day or two off.

I’m going to call it like I see it: this bloke is avoiding. What he’s avoiding is the experience of being vulnerable, of seeking help, of being advised to stop pushing himself for a day or so.

You see, experiential avoidance is what we do to avoid feelings (emotions) and actions that we don’t like or don’t want.

We see experiential avoidance most often described in pain research in the group of people who don’t resume their usual daily activities in part because they’re afraid of their pain. Or they’re afraid of what their pain might mean, or the effect of their pain on other things they need or want to do. For example, Angelina (see here) might be worried about the effect of pain on her sleep. And we’re reasonably OK with offering these people some information about what might be going on in their tissues, and that the relationship between pain and what’s going on in the tissues might not be as straightforward as it is when we hit our thumb with a hammer.

What we might be less aware of, and perhaps struggle to deal with is when a person appears to be doing the right things, like they’re remaining active and staying at work, but might be overdoing it. What might this person be avoiding? Perhaps, as I’ve suggested in the example above, it’s about avoiding feeling vulnerable, feeling like he’ll be told to slow down for a bit. Slowing down might be a sign, at least to our weekend warrior, that he’s not as young as he used to be. Perhaps he’s afraid of stopping because that means his busy mind can start to plague him with unhelpful thoughts about things he’s worrying about.

Experiential avoidance, like avoidance when a painful injury first happens, isn’t always a negative. When it’s used as the key strategy for life, indiscriminately and with an eye only to short-term benefits and not long-term consequences, then it’s not so good.

You see I hope we can help people to develop psychological flexibility: the ability to choose a response to any given situation that maintains moving towards what matters even if this means doing what feels odd or even a backwards step.

I also think we might benefit from developing psychological flexibility ourselves as clinicians. If we continue using the same old, same old strategy even if the results aren’t what we hoped for, we’re not helping anyone.

Andrews NE, Strong J, Meredith PJ. (2012). Activity pacing, avoidance, endurance, and associations with
patient functioning in chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. 93(11): 2109–21.e7, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr.2012.05.029 PMID: 22728699

Tagliaferri, S., Armbrecht, G., Miller, C., Owen, P., Mundell, N., Felsenberg, D., Thomasius, F., & Belavy, D. (2020). Testing the deconditioning hypothesis of low back pain: A study in 1182 older women, European Journal of Sport Science, 20:1, 17-23, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2019.1606942

Skyline

Your patient has psychosocial risk factors: what now?


Congratulations! You’re an insightful clinician who’s offered your patient a screening assessment to find out if she or he has psychosocial risk factors – and yes! they do! Well done. Now what?

Do you…

  • send your patient to the nearest psychologist?
  • spend at least one treatment session offering pain neurobiology education?
  • scramble to find a “psychologically informed physio” to send them to, because it takes really highly trained and special clinicians to work with these people
  • give your patient the same exercise prescription you were going to anyway because, after all, they still have things going on in their tissues (or is it their nervous system? I forget – whatever, they just need to move, dammit!)
  • throw your hands up in horror and say “I never wanted to deal with people in pain anyway!”

You’d have to be hiding beneath a rock to avoid learning that people with musculoskeletal pain with psychosocial risk factors such as feeling that back pain is terrible and it isn’t going to get better, believing that it’s not safe to move or exercise with back pain, having worrying thoughts going through their mind, or not enjoying things very much should have special attention when they seek help for their pain. And we’ve all read studies showing that many of our frontline clinicians who see people with musculoskeletal pain aren’t comfortable, confident or clear about what to do with people who are, frankly, scared and distressed.

Papers like Caneiro, Bunzli & O’Sulllivan’s (2021) Masterclass clearly show that messages people with pain get told include avoiding certain movements to prevent damage, being advised that special exercises ‘protect’ the body, and that clinicians believe that certain postures and movements are inherently unsafe (bending, lifting with a rounded back). At the same time, Sajid, Parkunan & Frost (2021) found that only 11.8% of people referred by GPs for musculoskeletal MRIs had their mental health problems addressed, while only 16.7% of the MRI results were correctly interpreted by GPs and in 65.4% of cases were referred for “spurious overperception of surgical targets.”

Worse, Nicola, Correia, Ditchburn & Drummond (2021) conducted a systematic review of the effects of pain invalidation on individuals – invalidation from family, friends and healthcare individuals, and the person themselves. They found five themes: not being believed, lack of compassion, lack of pain awareness and understanding, feeling stigmatised and critical self-judgement. Perceived social unacceptability of experiencing pain was found to have an impact on the emotional state and self-image of those with persistent pain. Ya think?!

If I return to the case I presented last week, Angelina, a pretty common case of someone with a neck pain who is having trouble sleeping and generally handles her pain independently, we could assume that she doesn’t have significant psychosocial risk factors. After all, she’s managing to stay working, does a bit of self-help, and she’s not depressed though she’s a bit irritable.

What would you do?

I guess my first thought is: would Angelina even get a screening assessment to see whether she has any psychosocial risk factors? Might she present superficially well enough for her therapist to think she’s fine, let’s just treat the neck?

Of all the neck pain treatments available, what would she be given? And what might she be told about the rationale for that treatment? A recent systematic review with meta-analysis pointed out that while specific exercises helped in the short to medium term, the quality of that evidence was low (Villaneuva-Ruiz, Falla, Lascurain-Aquirrebena, 2021), while a systematic review with network meta-analysis of 40 RCTs found “There is not one superior type of physical exercise for people with chronic non-specific neck pain.
Rather, there is very low quality evidence that motor control, yoga/Pilates/Tai Chi/Qigong and strengthening exercises are equally effective.” (de Zoete, Armfield, McAuley, Chen, & Sterling, 2020).

More than this: would her sleep and relationship concerns be discussed? What about her safety while driving? How about how she manages her work, and her belief that perhaps her pain is happening because of a period at work where she wasn’t positioned “correctly”?

You see, at the moment in our musculoskeletal treatment literature, the focus has been almost entirely on grouped data. And this, folks, is where Steven Hayes points out that the ergodic theorum is violated. Ergodic theory is “…the idea that a point of a moving system, either a dynamical system or a stochastic process, will eventually visit all parts of the space that the system moves in, in a uniform and random sense. This implies that the average behavior of the system can be deduced from the trajectory of a “typical” point. Equivalently, a sufficiently large collection of random samples from a process can represent the average statistical properties of the entire process.” (I stole that from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergodicity).

Hayes, Hofmann & Ciarrochi (2020) point out that “We cannot assume that the behavior of collectives (e.g., a volume of gas) models the behavior of an individual element (e.g., a molecule of gas) unless the material involved is “ergodic” and thus all elements are identical and are unaffected by change processes.” Humans are not ergodic (only a few noble gases are…) and what this means is that “statistical techniques based on inter-individual variation cannot properly assess the contribution of given elements to phenotypic change.” In other words: humans actively respond and change to what they’re exposed to – each of us presents to treatment with our own incredibly unique range of responses and past history, and these influence how we respond to a treatment. And perhaps this explains why most of our treatments (RCTs, using grouped data and uniformly applied and consistent treatments) particularly for persistent pain problems end up showing pretty small effect sizes. We’re violating the assumptions of the ergodic theorum. What we need are more sophisticated ways to analyse the impact of any therapy, and far fewer algorithms and cookie cutter treatments.

Where does this leave us? I have loads of ideas about where to from here, but not nearly enough space today to write about them!

My first suggestion is to avoid blindly following a treatment algorithm that fails to support YOU to sensitively and reflexively offer treatments that fit for your patient.

My second is to avoid measuring the impact of what you do only at the end of treatment (or worse, not at all!). Measure often, and measure things that matter – either to how you get to the end outcome, or that the person values. Or both.

And third: Get reading outside of your profession. Dig into psychology (I especially recommend Hayes); look at sociology (try Jutel); anthropology (try Sarah Pink’s “Sensuous futures: re-thinking the concept of trust in design anthropology”); make 2022 the year that you lean into uncertainty. I know the past two years have been incredibly unsettling – but this is the perfect time to continue on this journey into new ideas, fresh concepts, and ambiguity.

Caneiro, J. P., Bunzli, S., & O’Sullivan, P. (2021). Beliefs about the body and pain: the critical role in musculoskeletal pain management. Braz J Phys Ther, 25(1), 17-29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bjpt.2020.06.003

Nicola, M., Correia, H., Ditchburn, G., & Drummond, P. (2021, Mar). Invalidation of chronic pain: a thematic analysis of pain narratives. Disability and Rehabilitation, 43(6), 861-869. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2019.1636888

Sarah Pink (2021) Sensuous futures: re-thinking the concept of trust in design anthropology, The Senses and Society, 16:2, 193-202, DOI: 10.1080/17458927.2020.1858655

Sajid, I. M., Parkunan, A., & Frost, K. (2021, Jul). Unintended consequences: quantifying the benefits, iatrogenic harms and downstream cascade costs of musculoskeletal MRI in UK primary care. BMJ Open Quality, 10(3). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjoq-2020-001287

Villanueva-Ruiz, Iker, Falla, Deborah, Lascurain-Aguirrebeña, Ion. (2021) Effectiveness of Specific Neck Exercise for Nonspecific Neck Pain; Usefulness of Strategies for Patient Selection and Tailored Exercise—A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis, Physical Therapy, 2021;, pzab259, https://doi-org.cmezproxy.chmeds.ac.nz/10.1093/ptj/pzab259

de Zoete, R. M., Armfield, N. R., McAuley, J. H., Chen, K., & Sterling, M. (2020, Nov 2). Comparative effectiveness of physical exercise interventions for chronic non-specific neck pain: a systematic review with network meta-analysis of 40 randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2020-102664

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! Part 4


In the previous few posts on what to do with all that assessment information I’ve talked about generating a formulation to guide treatment, and a little about how teams might work together to generate one. This post is a little different because I want to situation the discussion around the ultimate aim of therapy.

I usually work with people who have long-standing pain that hasn’t changed much and doesn’t seem to be disappearing. I’m not a nihilist, but I do wonder if clinicians are trying too hard to “change pain” when the body doesn’t seem to respond all that much to whatever we offer when it comes to musculoskeletal pain! Perhaps all we do is offer support to the person as their body gets on with the job of settling down…?

Anyway, my focus is to help people respond flexibly to what life has thrown at them – because while pain poses one of the greatest problems for people, often it’s not the pain as such but what we do to avoid or control pain – or, for that matter, what we do to avoid or control the results of avoiding or controlling pain. Confused? Let me unpack it a little with an example.

About the time I started this blog wayyyyy back in 2007 I had a concussion and developed post-concussion syndrome. I found it incredibly difficult to concentrate, find words, remember things, switch my attention from one thing to the next, and to deal with sensory overload. I was advised to rest and let my brain recover in its own time – all good. BUT I never expected that recovery to take almost two years! so I returned to part-time work after two weeks. In my head I was balancing my fatigue/headache/difficulty concentrating against my need to return to work, keep my employer happy, and do things that mattered.

If I flip that motivation on its head, I wanted to control both my symptoms and my fear/guilt of failing and perhaps losing my job/fear of sitting still and doing nothing/fear of feeling useless. After all, I was the vocational rehabilitation therapist for the service I worked in!

By trying to control my fear of not doing, I created a whole bunch of trouble for myself – I failed at controlling my symptoms – they grew out of hand and I eventually had to take some time off work, got quite depressed, and achieved exactly what I’d hope to avoid – needing to stay at home doing nothing!

When we think of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) for living with pain, we often think of the person working hard to control or avoid pain and our focus is on helping them to be willing to make room for pain and begin doing things – and yet I’ve met a great many people who have got caught up in a vicious cycle of over-doing and under-doing, or who “get on with it” with gritted teeth and sheer determination! So one thing we can be looking for in our “first contact” is to identify how workable are the ways the person is approaching this time in their life, a time when they’re dealing with pain and life restrictions, stress, balancing priorities, working, family and so on.

ACT provides a series of six processes that together offer a way to be flexible about how we handle what life throws at us, and help us do what matters in our life. In an ACT formulation, we’re looking for unhelpful patterns that constrain how flexibly we can do what matters. Some of the patterns we might see could be:

  1. Unwillingness to stop and create space for pain so the person gets stuck acting as if there is no pain, trying to do everything the same way as normal but either getting fatigued and stressed and just hanging on in there, or doing short bursts of “normal” and crashing periodically.
  2. Getting stuck with rigid beliefs about what’s going on like thinking the pain must be able to be fixed and quickly, or that the pain is the most horrible disaster ever and everything about life must be shelved until it’s fixed.
  3. Comparing what he or she can currently do against a previous level of performance and being frustrated and angry because this doesn’t fit with how they see themselves, and especially thinking that this is the way it’s going to be forever…
  4. Losing sight of important things like being with family, or seeing friends because of feeling irritable, sad, thinking they don’t want to see them like this, not being able to do the things they used to do, waiting for the pain to reduce, or looking for the fix.
  5. Anticipating calamity or remembering disasters either about “the last time I tried doing this” or “because I saw this happen to [name]” and then feeling utterly stuck.
  6. Casting about being erratic or just not sticking to a plan, getting off track maybe because results don’t happen, or maybe because it’s something new and feels unfamiliar, or perhaps because someone else suggested another option…

There are always other ways people respond to pain, not just the patterns I’ve listed here, but these are some common ones I’ve seen. In ACT we’re looking for unworkable patterns that don’t lead the person towards being the kind of person they want to be, doing the things that bring meaning in their life.

When I’m jotting these things down, I’m looking to identify the core things the person isn’t willing to experience: thoughts, emotions, memories, situations. I want to understand what the person does to avoid them – like things the person has stopped doing or deliberately avoids, the ways the person avoids or controls emotions associated with that thing (like drinking more alcohol, zoning out, lashing out), and what I observe during our initial assessment like skipping over topics that feel uncomfortable.

I want to understand the cost or “unworkability” from the person’s perspective: what’s the impact of responding in these ways. I need to understand what’s going on in the person’s context – their family life, employment situation, influence of case manager or insurance/compensation, friendships. And I want to look at the factors that might be adding to the person’s inflexible responses, and these are myriad and often include what we do as clinicians – like being told to stop doing a favourite hobby “because it might be damaging” (how many people with low back pain have been told to stop running, stop fishing, stop dancing, stop lifting, to sit in a certain way, walk in a certain way, lift in a certain way, stop slouching, walk faster, slower…?). And of course I want to understand a person’s strengths: have they had an experience like this before? Do they have strong values? Have they succeeded in some area in life? What brings them joy and takes them into the zone? How have they modified the way they do things so they can do what matters?

I like to do this in collaboration with the person (how else could I do it?!) and to look at the good and not so good of everything they’ve done along with the context. Because one thing that always resonates with me is that people do what they do because it’s worked in the past. Always. At least once.

For more on ACT, you can’t go past the Association for Contextual Behavioural Science – https://contextualscience.org/

And Chapter 2 from Lance McCracken’s book Mindfulness and Acceptance in Behavioral Medicine, 2011, Context Press, New Harbinger:

Vowles, K.E, & Thompson, M. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Chronic Pain, pp31 – 60.

Making first contact: what to do with all that information! Part 3


In my last post I described the “4 P” model (sometimes called the 5P!) of formulation for pain. In today’s post I want to talk about an integrated approach for a team.

Teamwork in pain management is an enormous thing – IASP (International Association for the Study of Pain) endorses multidisciplinary (I prefer interprofessional) teamwork but gives little information on how teams best work together. In fact, research exploring teamwork processes in pain management is remarkably absent, even though there’s considerable research elsewhere in healthcare showing that effective teamwork is quite distinct from being an effective solo clinician. The processes of coming together, learning about one another and what each person and profession contributes, learning how to make decisions, how to negotiate differences of opinion, to trust one another: all of these have been explored in other health settings, but not in pain management ones. This matters because of all the areas in healthcare, pain management presents us with the most complex inter-related problems where the model of pain adopted by a team must be consistent or the person with pain will likely feel utterly confused.

’nuff said. Let’s take a look at a team mental model of pain, because this is where learning from one another and across professions becomes “live”.

The basic assumption for the whole team must be that pain is a multifactorial experience, influenced by (broadly) biological, psychological and social elements. In other words, a team won’t work well if some of the members think that pain can be “fixed” by addressing only one piece of the puzzle. Even in acute pain, the team needs to recognise that what a person believes is going on, the meaning they draw from the experience, the influence of others (the family, hospital staff, community) will make a difference to the person’s distress and disability. Context always matters and people always bring their previous experiences (either personal or drawing from what they’ve seen/heard from others, including media) with them when they’re in pain.

If the team takes this idea on board, then the weight that’s placed on the various factors contributing to distress and disability should be equal, at least initially. For example, although anxiety might be a key influence in one person’s pain experience, this shouldn’t be valued above possible biological factors. Each contributing factor needs to earn its way into the overall formulation, and it’s only from reviewing the formulation as a whole that it’s possible to determine where to begin with treatment.

This sounds complicated – and it can be in some cases! But it is really a mindset rather than being horribly complex. If we hold each piece of the puzzle lightly, look to the relationships between each piece, then we can begin to see how one factor influences another. And teams can, if they share their ideas, put the pieces together much more effectively than any single person can – even the person with pain.

Yes, the person with pain IS part of the team – always. How else will the team know they’ve been effective?

Teams form a mental model of what each other knows, what the team (as a whole) thinks matters, and who in the team might offer the mix of skills the person needs. This mental model doesn’t happen instantly: you can’t put six clinicians in a room and an hour later expect them to have a common understanding of pain, each other, and what the team can do. There’s good research showing that teams need time together – even virtual teams (Maynard & Gilson, 2021) – and that frequently changing team members reduces the teams’ effectiveness (Bedwell, 2019; Williams & Potts, 2010). Mental models emerge as teams share knowledge – the problem is that group members often share knowledge that is common, rather than unique information that could be the linchpin to an effective decision (Levine, 2018).

In my experience, and reading through an enormous amount of research, the most commonly adopted model in persistent pain management is a cognitive behavioural approach. Now this is not “CBT” the therapy, but instead an approach that recognises:

People are active processors of information and not passive reactors.

Thoughts (e.g., appraisals, expectations, and beliefs) can elicit and influence mood, affect physiological processes, have social consequences, and also serve as an impetus for behavior; conversely, mood, physiology, environmental factors, and behavior can influence the nature and content of thought processes.

• Behaviour is reciprocally determined by both individual and environmental factors.

People can learn more adaptive ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.

People should be active collaborators in changing their maladaptive thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. (Turk & Flor, 2013)

We might disagree on how these points might be operationalised, and treated, but a team should have something like this as a critical understanding of how the factors influencing a person’s distress and disability might fit together.

I’ve written plenty of times about the formulation approach that I’ve often used – here and here – and I’ll show you another ACT-based formulation next week. In the meantime, perhaps it’s time to consider how well you and your team know one another, and consider whether you have enough trust in one another to debate issues (not people), bring unique information (rather than shared), and collaborate rather than compete?

Bedwell, W. L. (2019). Adaptive Team Performance: The Influence of Membership Fluidity on Shared Team Cognition. Frontiers of Psychology, 10, 2266. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02266

Levine, J. M. (2018). Socially-shared cognition and consensus in small groups. Current Opinion in Psychology, 23, 52-56. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.12.003

Maynard, M. T., & Gilson, L. L. (2021). Getting to know you: The importance of familiarity in virtual teams. Organizational Dynamics, 50(1). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orgdyn.2021.100844

Turk, D. C., & Flor, H. (2013). The Cognitive-Behavioral Approach to Pain Management. In S. B. McMahon, M. Koltzenburg, I. Tracey, & D. C. Turk (Eds.), Wall and Melzack’s Textbook of Pain (6 ed., pp. 592-602). Saunders. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-7020-4059-7.00043-7

Williams, A. C., & Potts, H. W. (2010). Group membership and staff turnover affect outcomes in group CBT for persistent pain. Pain, 148(3), 481-486. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2009.12.011

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! part 2


Last week I described some of the reasons for using a case formulation approach when working through initial assessment information, and today I’m going to describe one approach for organising a formulation. This is the “4 P” formulation, and it’s one that’s often used in mental health (Bolton, 2014).

In the 4 P model, there are four questions to ask yourself:

  1. Preconditions – Why is this person vulnerable to this problem?
  2. Precipitating factors – Why now? This can mean “why is this person having symptoms now?” or “why is this person presenting to this person for treatment right now?”
  3. Perpetuating factors – Why is this person still ill?
  4. Protective factors – Why is this person not more ill?

Remembering that people are whole people, and that pain is always multifactorial, this formulation approach incorporates diagnostic information (disease) alongside a person’s response to disease (illness). The two facets of “being unwell” go together – but not synchronously. We can have a disease and be oblivious to it (think of many forms of cancer, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis…and even Covid-19). Once we begin to experience symptoms and decide that this is not “normal” we call it illness. And if symptoms and signs begin to impinge on what we can and can’t do in life, we can call this disability or functional limitations. These in turn (more or less) influence participation in community life. The relationships are not straightforward, and this is partly why a formulation can be so helpful. Formulations help us explore – in collaboration with the person – why is this problem such a problem? – whether it’s simply the presence of pain, or more related to the disability and distress that pain is posing for the person.

Preconditions include biological factors such as gender, ethnicity, and age. Preconditions also include psychological factors such as previous experiences in life, prevailing beliefs, emotional reactivity, and attention. Social factors such as employment status, social connection, stigma, socio-economic status, family and living situation are all contributors to a person’s vulnerability to the problem they’re presenting with. In our pain formulations, we know about many of these preconditions that make the people we see vulnerable to having trouble with their pain.

Precipitating factors can be considered in several ways. I like to consider behavioural antecedents for seeking help – what’s been happening in the immediate weeks before a person seeks help – as well as antecedents to the onset of symptoms. For example, people might wait for some weeks before seeking help for a back pain because “it usually settles down” – and this suggests to me that their current episode hasn’t settled down, and they have some thoughts or worries about why. Others might be seeking help because of insurance or workplace requirements where, if they don’t seek help and have the problem recorded, they may not get cover for treatment if the problem reoccurs. Some might be seeking help because their partner or family member is worried, or because they read something in the media or online. I also ask about what was happening at the time the symptoms started. Sometimes this is about an unusually busy time (at work or home), a change in activity level, a new tool or piece of equipment, a new manager or coworkers, perhaps a new daily routine, or a change in living circumstances. While these factors may not be directly causal (biologically) the meaning of these events is valuable because they inform me of the person’s beliefs about their problem.

Perpetuating factors are again, multifactorial and often unrelated to the factors that precipitated the problem. There could be factors associated with disuse influencing changes to the tissues and neurobiology; there could be steps the person has taken to deal with the problem that impact on how quickly it resolves such as using NSAIDs or strapping/wrapping, wearing splints, changed movement patterns. Some of the factors are likely to be beliefs about what’s going on and what should be done about it – like “all the pain must be gone before I start back at work”, or “it’s damaged so I need surgery”. Others could be instructions from people (or held in the community at large) about what to do, like resting, moving in particular ways, or when to seek treatment. Some can be how others respond to the person, like getting irritated because the person isn’t 100% “yet”, or mollycoddling the person (wrapping them up in cottonwool and not letting them do things again). Workplace factors like policies not allowing a person back “until fully fit” or “there are no light duties” also contribute to trouble resuming normal activities.

Protective factors help explain resilience, or strengths the person has that help them maintain well being in the face of this problem. They can be attitudes and practices of the person like believing the body is good at recovering, or maintaining healthy eating and sleeping. They may be factors such as the person’s age, gender, general health. They can include the ability to get to and from treatment (and pay for it), the person’s social supports, their relationships with other health professionals, perhaps strategies they’ve used for other problems (including similar ones to this event) that they haven’t thought to use for this one.

The 4P approach has multiple variants. Some include “the Problem” and call it a 5P model. Some are explicitly tied to a theory of human behaviour (such as a CBT model, ACT model or applied behaviour analysis). Some are entirely developed from the person’s own words and experiences, while others draw on reports from other team members, or previous interactions. The over-riding themes of all of these are that a formulation is developed in collaboration with the person, and considers the whole person in their own usual context.

Next time I’ll look at another formulation approach, and discuss it in relation to teams and how they might use it to form a “team model” of pain and musculoskeletal problems.

Bolton, J. W. (2014). Case formulation after Engel—The 4P model: A philosophical case conference. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 21(3), 179-189.

Cox, L. A. (2021). Use of individual formulation in mental health practice. Mental Health Practice, 24(1), 33-41. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.7748/mhp.2020.e1515

Farmer, R. F., & Chapman, A. L. (2016). Behavioral case formulation and treatment planning. In Behavioral interventions in cognitive behavior therapy: Practical guidance for putting theory into action (2nd ed.). (pp. 53-100). https://doi.org/10.1037/14691-003

Gilbert, P. (2016). A biopsychosocial and evolutionary approach to formulation. In Tarrier, Nicholas [Ed]; Johnson, Judith Ed Case formulation in cognitive behaviour therapy: The treatment of challenging and complex cases , 2nd ed (pp 52-89) xvii, 384 pp New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group; US (pp. 52-89).

Making first contact: what to do with all that information! part 1


Last post I wrote I said I’d continue with a process for structuring and synthesising the information we gather from the initial contact we make with the person. This process is integral to clinical reasoning, and somewhat surprisingly, there’s not a great deal of research to give us guidance on the best way to do this – and it’s even more challenging for those of us working in an interprofessional team setting, where different professions, personalities and assumptions are part of it.

If we work backwards from the end point, we might get some clues about what to do. Our end point is to help this person do what matters in their life. All our efforts are pitched towards this end. Because people are unique, what matters to them in their context is likely to be unique, and because pain and disability are multifactorial, there will be many paths to help that person get to where they want to be. Algorithms are designed to make the task of clinical reasoning a lot simpler, but there are some enormous assumptions associated with using an algorithmic approach: that we know the important factors associated with change; that we can address those factors successfully; that each person has the same set of factors evident in their presentation… and frankly, I don’t think I’ve seen strong evidence of any of these when it comes to pain.

Clinical reasoning is about a series of cause and effect assumptions. We have limited certainty about much of pain and the relationships between factors we think influence pain and disability. We’ve also been holding on to some outdated and inaccurate assumptions about the way grouped data applies to the one person in front of us. Prof Steven Hayes points out that as early as the 1940’s (perhaps earlier) we knew that there was no such thing as “the average man” (or woman!). This emerged in human factors/ergonomic design, where using the average/median of all the anthropomorphic measures we have does not help us design a workstation or control panel that will work for all people. Instead, we have to design to suit the minimum and maximum clearances and reach, and add adjustability so that everyone can make their workstation work for them. The assumptions used in early application of anthropometrics were that everyone is essentially similar: it’s ergodic theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergodic_theory). Ergodic theory holds two assumptions that don’t work well for people: all the events in ergodic theory must be stationary, and all elements in the mathematical model must obey they same rules.

When we work with people, we know their presentation is a series of responses that continue to move over time. Their presentation is dynamic, changing all the time but exhibiting similarities in terms of processes. And we also know that different factors influencing a person’s presentation don’t always follow the same patterns. There are things like legislation, unexpected events like trauma or earthquakes, biases and stigma – and these don’t affect everyone equally.

One solution is to acknowledge this and instead look to the particular, applying to this person at this time – idiographic, or as Hayes calls it “idionomic.” A network diagram, showing the dynamic hypothesised relationships between contributing factors can help us generate ways to influence change. And the diagram should “make sense”, or explain, what’s going on to all the team members including the person with pain.

I’ve used a cognitive behavioural formulation model for many years now (see here and here – and use the search bar for “case formulation” for a list of the posts I’ve made over the years). The assumptions in this approach are that directly influencing the thoughts a person has about their pain will have flow-on effects on pain, emotions, actions and physiological arousal. And to a certain extent this is true – plus, there are some things we cannot readily change, such as family responses or previous trauma. But the flexibility of a formulation approach is that we can include anything that’s relevant including strategies the person has used in response to those things that can’t be changed.

The biggest assumption that I make is that pain on its own isn’t the main problem. It’s how we respond to pain, what we think is going on, how we react to the things we do in response to pain (or things we don’t do but think we should), and how the people around us influence us, that help determine how much pain bothers us. There is plenty of research showing that people willingly do painful things if they do so for important reasons. Some everyday examples include ritual tattoos, endurance sports, boxing and martial arts, eating very spicy chilli. Of course, these aren’t examples of persistent pain – and yet, people with persistent pain started with acute pain. There are some highly influential factors that are present from the outset and these do have an impact on how we respond to pain, especially as time goes on.

The second assumption I make is that everyone is able to learn how to do things differently, and in doing these, we can develop a different relationship with pain and become less distressed and disabled by our experience. This doesn’t mean (a) that we should just give up and be resigned to a life of pain and not seek treatment to reduce pain; or (b) that we should just ignore pain and grit teeth and bear it. It also doesn’t mean that we will feel happy about pain, or that life goes on as normal. But it does mean that we can make some room for pain to be present, and move towards doing what matters rather than having pain become some invisible barrier to a life worth living.

Exactly what we include, and how the relationships between each factor play out is the topic for next weeks’ blog – stay in touch!

Making the first contact


How do we begin working with someone who is asking for help with their persistent pain? In this post I’ll describe some of the considerations I have when I begin, because as Benedetti points out, the “meet the therapist moment” is one of the most potent times in the therapeutic ritual (Benedetti, 2011). It’s the time when the person’s expectations and the clinician’s empathy and competence meet, and the “meaning response” blooms.

My two clinical questions are:

  1. Why is this person presenting in this way at this time, and what’s maintaining their predicament?
  2. And what is this person’s main concern?

But before I ask these questions, I want to take a moment to think about the person and what might be going on in his or her mind.

Benedetti points out that expectancies are an important part of a response to treatment – whether that treatment has any active action, or not. Expectancies are about what a person brings to a therapeutic encounter: there are two, one is stimulus expectancies (anticipations of external events – eg that the next painful experience will be less), and the other is response expectancies (predictions of your own nonvolitional response – eg that after doing this thing, I expect to experience less pain) (Kirsch, 1985).

People who come to see a clinician, especially a clinician from a little-known profession (occupational therapy!) will hold expectancies about what that person will do, but these will likely be weaker than the expectancies a person might hold about seeing a well-known profession. The strength of an expectancy is different from the direction of an expectancy – for example, a negative experience with a physiotherapist might lead to a strongly negative expectancy about future treatments, while not having had an experience with an occupational therapist might lead to a weakly positive expectancy about what’s about to happen.

Along with expectancies, the person will likely be anxious about what’s to come. The possibility of something that might help (or not), meeting a new clinician, and living with pain are all stressors – and anxiety erodes a person’s ability to absorb lots of information, while biasing them towards remembering threatening words (Reidy & Richards, 1997).

So there’s a lot going on in the person’s mind when they attend that first session.

There’s also often a large power imbalance (Joseph-Williams, Edwards & Elwyn, 2014). This emerges from the fact that often clinicians hold a lot more information about the person we’re seeing than they do about us. Especially after we’ve asked a bunch of questions, often quite intimate in nature. For a person seeking help, this imbalance can make it hard to ask questions, to direct the conversation, to hold a sense of independence throughout the encounter.

So having set the scene for you, I’m sure you can agree that how we go about collecting information from a person is incredibly important – especially so that relationship can begin to build.

Introductions

In the introduction, I seek to give the person some information about who I am – not just as a clinician, and the kind of treatments I use, but also about who I am. I’ve drawn inspiration from tikanga Māori here, where the cultural tradition entails letting the person know where I come from and who I’m connected to. I like to let people know my childhood roots are in Turanganui a kiwa, or Gisborne. That the mountain my heart connects with is Mount Hikurangi – the first mountain in NZ to see the sun. The river I connect with is the Taruheru, flowing into the sea in Gisborne. I also let people know my whanau connections – the Lennox’s, and the Thompson’s, are my whanau (extended family), and I’m a 5th generation New Zealander. I now live in Otautahi/Christchurch. This introduction only takes a few minutes, and your culture might not value this form of introduction. For me in Aotearoa/New Zealand, it’s one way I can show respect and follow a tradition that means the person I work with knows something more about me than just my name.

I also include my profession – what I do. I’m an occupational therapist, my job is to help people do what matters in their life contexts.

I like to then let the person know that they’re brave and courageous for seeking help – it’s not easy to say you can’t do this on your own. It takes courage to tell someone that.

Questions

Then I open with a broad question about what has led this person to come to see me. I might add in something about “tell me about your pain and what you’ve done so far for it.” I’ll often ask what their theory is about their pain, what they think is going on.

Then I ask “What is your main concern today?”

Throughout this process I’m reflecting what I’ve heard, to ensure I’ve understood what the person has experienced. I’m NOT giving reinterpretations, I’m NOT giving out new information, I’m just listening.

I often spend time asking about four areas of life: relationships, fun, work, and health. Or I might ask the person to take me through a typical day, from the time they wake up.

I like to find out not just what the person has done to help themselves, but also what they’ve learned from these experiences. The messages they’ve received over time, and the things they’ve tried but perhaps didn’t like or that didn’t help.

Questionnaires

I was a big fan of questionnaires filled out ahead of time, and I am still a fan but don’t use them as much. This is mainly because so many people have filled out endless questionnaires and nobody has sat down with them to talk about what they mean! So I’m a little more selective and focus much more on listening first then choosing something that will offer me and the person some insight into what might be going on. For example, I might choose the PASS20 (McCracken & Dhingra, 2002) because it helps me figure out where to begin with reducing pain-related anxiety. It’s a good measure to use each week to track changes over time, and I’m beginning to delve into repeated measures of progress rather than a pre-post-follow-up approach that’s typical.

Observation

Covid has meant it’s not as easy to carry out observational assessments, but I’m always watching how the person sits, moves, walks, and body language. What I’m not doing is interpreting these observations without talking to the person about them! Too many clinicians make judgements about the person based on maybe one or two observations, out of context of the person’s life and environment, and without checking in with the person to work out what might be contributing to what they see. Let’s not do that – the person might be completely oblivious that they’re guarding their sore hand, or they keep shifting in the chair, or that a habitual movement like taking a jacket off might be easier to do than being asked to perform some weird movement at the command of the clinician!

Pulling it all together

Just as we wouldn’t expect to be marched in for surgery straight after our first consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon, I don’t believe it’s OK to offer something to a person on their first visit just because we feel internal pressure to do so. Having said this, I will often suggest to the person that they spend a bit of time doing some brief “noticing without judging” exercises. We’ll give it a go at this first appointment, so they’re not being expected to go do it without knowing how. The reason I start with brief noticing experiments is that it’s something we could all do more often, it gives the person a new skill (usually) to develop, and it’s often an introduction to being fully present without judging. Being fully present without judging is hard to do when you’re sore because the mind likes to anticipate how bad it’s going to be (“you’ll need to take it very quietly or you’ll pay for it”) or remember previous pains (“last time you just sat around your pain went nuts, you don’t want to risk that now do you?”).

Notes/Documentation

I write conversational notes directly to the person, going through what we’ve talked about and pulling together all the information I’ve gathered in this first meeting. I find it helps me to make sense of what’s going on, it allows me some time to reflect on what I’ve observed and heard, and I can assemble it in a case formulation that the person and I can explore if/when we meet again.

Assessment is never over. Every time I meet with a person I’ll be learning more about what’s going on. I don’t feel pressured to “find it all out” at that first session just because there are goals that must be developed. In fact, one goal I leave in for everyone is “develop goals” (well, I don’t use goal language – it’s more about directions and actions that take you there). Because seriously, how can anyone meet someone and immediately develop goals – that’s disrespectful to the person who may not have had time to think about what matters the most, and it’s disrespectful to the complexity of goal setting as a process anyway.

Theme and variations

I’ve written one approach I use for learning about the person I’m trying to help. There are others – a time line, drawing a life map, mind-mapping, walking and talking, making a coffee – all of these and more can be used to explore the same information.

Let’s not call it “the subjective” – let’s call it what it is, our first “getting to know you” meeting.

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Joseph-Williams, N., Edwards, A., & Elwyn, G. (2014). Power imbalance prevents shared decision making. Bmj, 348.

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