Research

If a rose is a rose by any other name, how should we study treatment processes in pain management & rehabilitation?


A new instalment in my series about intensive longitudinal studies, aka ecological momentary assessment (and a host of other names for methods used to study daily life in real time in the real world).

Daily life is the focus of occupational therapy – doing what needs to be done, or a person wants to do, in everyday life. It’s complex because unlike a laboratory (or a large, well-controlled randomised controlled trial) daily life is messy and there is no way to control all the interacting factors that influence why a person does what they do. A technical term for the processes involved is microtemporality, or the relationships between factors in the short-term, like hours or days.

For example, let’s take the effect of a cup of coffee on my alertness when writing each day. I get up in the morning, feeling sluggish and not very coherent. I make that first delicious cup of coffee, slurp it down while I read the news headlines, and about 20 minutes later I start feeling a lot perkier and get cracking on my writing. Over the morning, my pep drops and I grab another cup or a go for a brief walk or catch up with a friend, and once again I feel energised.

If I wanted to see the effect of coffee on alertness I could do a RCT, making the conditions standard for all participants, controlling for the hours of sleep they had, giving them all a standard dose of caffeine and a standard cognitive test. Provided I have chosen people at random, so the chance of being in either the control group (who got the Devil’s drink, decaffeinated pseudo-coffee) or the experimental group was a toss of the coin, and provided we assume that anyone who has coffee will respond in the same way, and the tests were all equally valid and reliable, and the testing context is something like the world participants will be in, the results ought to tell us two things: (1) we can safely reject the null hypothesis (that there is no difference between decaffeinated coffee and real coffee on alertness) and (2) we can generalise from the results to what happens in the real world.

Now of course, this is how most of our research is carried out (or the ‘trustworthy’ research we rely on) – but what it doesn’t tell us as occupational therapists is whether this person in front of me will be in the very top or bottom of the bell curve in their response, and whether this will have any impact on what they need to do today.

For this unique person, we might choose another method, because we’re dealing only with this one person not the rest of the population, and we’re interested in the real world impact of coffee on this individual’s feelings of alertness. We can choose single case experimental design, where we ask the person to rate their alertness four or five times every day while they go about their usual daily life. We do this for long enough until we can see any patterns in their level of alertness ratings, and be satisfied that we’re observing their ‘normal’. During this time we don’t ask them to change their coffee drinking habits, but we do ask them to record their intake.

Then we get nasty, we give them the Devil’s decaf instead of the real deliciousness, but we do this without them knowing! So it looks just the same as the real thing, comes in the same container with the same labeling, and hope that it has the same delicious flavour. We ask them to carry on drinking as normal, and rating their alertness levels four or five times every day, and we do this for another two weeks. The only things we need to watch carefully for is that they don’t suspect a thing, and that their daily life doesn’t change (that’s why we do a baseline first).

Just because we’re a bit obsessed, and because we’re interested in the real world impact, we sneakily switch out the rubbish decaf and replace it with the real thing – again without the person knowing – and we get them to carry on recording. If we’re really obsessed, we can switch the real thing out after two weeks, and replace with the pseudo coffee, and rinse and repeat.

Now in this example we’re only recording two things: the self-reported level of alertness, and whether it’s the real coffee or not (but the person doesn’t suspect a thing, so doesn’t know we’ve been so incredibly devious).

We can then draw up some cool graphs to show the level of alertness changes over the course of each day, and with and without the real coffee. Just by eyeballing the graphs we can probably tell what’s going on…

Usually in pain management and rehabilitation we’re investigating the impact of more than one factor on something else. For example, we’re interested in pain intensity and sleep, or worry and pain intensity and sleep. This makes the statistics a bit more complex, because the relationships might not be as direct as coffee on alertness! For example, is it pain intensity that influences how much worrying a person does, and does the worry directly affect sleep? Or is it having a night of rotten sleep that directly influences worrying and then pain intensity increases?

To begin with however, occupational therapists could spend some time considering single case experimental designs with a very simple strategy such as I’ve described above. It’s not easy because we rarely ‘administer’ an intervention that doesn’t have lingering effects. For example, we can’t make someone forget something we’ve told them. This means we can’t substitute ‘real’ advice with ‘fake’ advice like we can with coffee and decaf. The ‘real’ advice will likely hang around in the person’s memory, as will the ‘fake’ advice, so they’ll influence how much the person believes and then acts on that information. There are strategies to get around this such as multiple baseline designs (see the Kazdin (2019) and Kratochwill et al., (2012) article for their suggestions as to what this looks like), and for a rehabilitation-oriented paper, Krasny-Pacini & Evans (2018) is a great resource.

If you’re intrigued by this way of systematically doing research with individuals but wonder if it’s been used in pain management – fear not! Some of the most influential researchers in the game have used this approach, and I’ve included a list below – it’s not exhaustive…

Next post I’ll look at some practical ways to introduce single case intensive longitudinal design into your practice. BTW It’s not just for occupational therapists – the paper by Ruissen et al., (2022) looks at physical activity and psychological processes, so everyone is invited to this party!

Selected Pain Rehab SCED studies (from oldest to most recent)

Vlaeyen, J. W., de Jong, J., Geilen, M., Heuts, P. H., & van Breukelen, G. (2001). Graded exposure in vivo in the treatment of pain-related fear: a replicated single-case experimental design in four patients with chronic low back pain. Behaviour Research & Therapy., 39(2), 151-166.

Asenlof, P., Denison, E., & Lindberg, P. (2005). Individually tailored treatment targeting motor behavior, cognition, and disability: 2 experimental single-case studies of patients with recurrent and persistent musculoskeletal pain in primary health care. Physical Therapy, 85(10), 1061-1077.

de Jong, J. R., Vlaeyen, J. W., Onghena, P., Cuypers, C., den Hollander, M., & Ruijgrok, J. (2005). Reduction of pain-related fear in complex regional pain syndrome type I: the application of graded exposure in vivo. Pain, 116(3), 264-275. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2005.04.019

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

Onghena, P., & Edgington, E. S. (2005). Customization of pain treatments: single-case design and analysis. Clinical Journal of Pain, 21(1), 56-68.

Lundervold, D. A., Talley, C., & Buermann, M. (2006). Effect of Behavioral Activation Treatment on fibromyalgia-related pain anxiety cognition. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 2(1), 73-84.

Flink, I. K., Nicholas, M. K., Boersma, K., & Linton, S. J. (2009). Reducing the threat value of chronic pain: A preliminary replicated single-case study of interoceptive exposure versus distraction in six individuals with chronic back pain. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 47(8), 721-728. https://doi.org/doi:10.1016/j.brat.2009.05.003

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

Caneiro, J. P., Smith, A., Linton, S. J., Moseley, G. L., & O’Sullivan, P. (2019). How does change unfold? an evaluation of the process of change in four people with chronic low back pain and high pain-related fear managed with Cognitive Functional Therapy: A replicated single-case experimental design study. Behavior Research & Therapy, 117, 28-39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2019.02.007

Svanberg, M., Johansson, A. C., & Boersma, K. (2019). Does validation and alliance during the multimodal investigation affect patients’ acceptance of chronic pain? An experimental single case study. Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 19(1), 73-82.

E. Simons, L., Vlaeyen, J. W. S., Declercq, L., M. Smith, A., Beebe, J., Hogan, M., Li, E., A. Kronman, C., Mahmud, F., R. Corey, J., B. Sieberg, C., & Ploski, C. (2020). Avoid or engage? Outcomes of graded exposure in youth with chronic pain using a sequential replicated single-case randomized design. Pain, 161(3), 520-531.

Hollander, M. D., de Jong, J., Onghena, P., & Vlaeyen, J. W. S. (2020). Generalization of exposure in vivo in Complex Regional Pain Syndrome type I. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 124. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2019.103511

Edwin de Raaij, E. J., Harriet Wittink, H., Francois Maissan, J. F., Jos Twisk, J., & Raymond Ostelo, R. (2022). Illness perceptions; exploring mediators and/or moderators in disabling persistent low back pain. Multiple baseline single-case experimental design. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 23(1), 140. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-022-05031-3

References

Kazdin, A. E. (2019). Single-case experimental designs. Evaluating interventions in research and clinical practice. Behav Res Ther, 117, 3-17. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2018.11.015

Krasny-Pacini, A., & Evans, J. (2018). Single-case experimental designs to assess intervention effectiveness in rehabilitation: A practical guide. Annals of Physical & Rehabilitation Medicine, 61(3), 164-179. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rehab.2017.12.002

Kratochwill, T. R., Hitchcock, J. H., Horner, R. H., Levin, J. R., Odom, S. L., Rindskopf, D. M., & Shadish, W. R. (2012). Single-Case Intervention Research Design Standards. Remedial and Special Education, 34(1), 26-38. https://doi.org/10.1177/0741932512452794

Ruissen, G. R., Zumbo, B. D., Rhodes, R. E., Puterman, E., & Beauchamp, M. R. (2022). Analysis of dynamic psychological processes to understand and promote physical activity behaviour using intensive longitudinal methods: a primer. Health Psychology Review, 16(4), 492-525. https://doi.org/10.1080/17437199.2021.1987953

What’s the relationship between pain intensity and functional limitations?


This question comes up from time to time as some commentators strive to “find the cause and fix the problem at all cost.” The argument is that if pain was gone, the person would simply return to their old life just as they were. And for what it’s worth, there’s certainly a relationship between pain intensity and disability, and pain intensity and distress – but it’s not simple.

One of the earliest papers I read when I was beginning my pain management career is one by Waddell, Main, Morris, Di Paola & Gray (1984). Gordon Waddell was an orthopaedic surgeon with an interest in low back pain – and an equal interest in what people do when they’re sore. In collaboration with Chris Main and others, he examined 200 people referred from family doctors for low back pain, and analysed psychological questionnaires administered to this same group. The process this team used to establish the results was rigorous by any standard, but especially rigorous at the time: they carried out pilot interviews and exams on 182 people, then carried out a further analysis of impairment and disability on a different group of 160 people, conducted this study with 200 people, and further cross-checked with a second group of 120 people.

What did the team find? Well, putting aside (for now*) the judgements about “inappropriate responses” to examinations and “magnified illness behaviour” they found that people who were highly distressed demonstrated more of these “inappropriate” and “magnified” behaviours. Makes sense to me as it did to Waddell and colleagues – their analysis was “They may develop as a largely unconscious and socially productive ‘cry for help’ but, unfortunately, in the absence of due help they may, in themselves, add to disability and become counterproductive.”** The table below (from p. 212 of this paper) shows that physical impairment was the most significant contributor to disability.

But hold on a minute! In the prestigious Volvo Award winning paper, Waddell (1987) then shows a wonderful graphic that encapsulates just how complicated this relationship is. In it, he shows that “objective physical impairment” (remember this is in back pain) has a correlation of just r=0.27 with pain, and r=0.54 with disability, while the relationship between pain and disability was only r=0.44.

In other words, if pain and disability were directly related, there would need to have a relationship of 1:1 between pain intensity and functional limitations. There is not – so “other things” intrude or influence the relationship between pain and disability. Again in this paper, Waddell shows that there is little difference in pain intensity between people who go and see a health professional for low back pain, and those who don’t (and seeking healthcare is a pain-related behaviour, or illness behaviour) – because what we do about pain depends a great deal on what we think is going on, and on what we think a health professional can do for us.

Now because these papers are old, they’ll likely be discounted so I dipped into the enormous literature on pain and disability. I thought I’d ask if having a successful surgery that removed pain led to a “return to normal.” A 2010 paper by Bade et al., found that in knee replacement surgery “Compared to healthy older adults, patients performed significantly worse at all times for all measures (P<.05), except for single-limb stance time at 6 months (P>.05). One month postoperatively, patients experienced significant losses from preoperative levels in all outcomes. Patients recovered to preoperative levels by 6 months postoperatively on all measures, except knee flexion range of motion, but still exhibited the same extent of limitation they did prior to surgery.” So that’s a study using boring old functional assessments and disability measures: what if the person was getting surgery so they could do something they enjoy, perhaps golf? Jackson et al., (2009) found that only 57% of golfers returned to golf after total knee arthroplasty, with 81% golfing as often, or more, than before their surgery – but only 14% walked the course after surgery. And these were keen golfers with no pain after their knee replacements!

Kovaks et al., (2004) also found that “Clinically relevant improvements in pain may lead to almost unnoticeable changes in disability and quality of life. Therefore, these variables should be assessed separately when evaluating the effect of any form of treatment for low back pain.” The two important tables showing how correlations changed over time are below. On day 1, a 10% increase in VAS (ie pain intensity) increases disability by only 3.3%, and quality of life by 2.65%. On day 15, a 10% increase in VAS increases disability by 4.99% and quality of life by 3.8%.

Now I’m not reporting a large number of studies because – well, there are a LOT of them. Suffice to say that while there is a relationship between pain intensity and disability, it is not straightforward, and simply reducing pain does not mean a person will return to what they love doing, even golf! I’ve chosen older studies because it’s kinda helpful to look at older research to show that these ideas are not new. This poor relationship between pain intensity and function is something we should know already. We should have been taught this in our training. So catch up with the literature please!!


The factors that influence disability are many, and they’re not just biological. They include fears (of reinjury, of pain flare-up), they include other peoples’ responses to them (advice from health professionals, workplace requirements, family responses). They are real and mean that even once there is an effective treatment for forms of persistent pain (and we’ll be waiting a while for these), rehabilitation from a whole person perspective is crucial. In fact, in the golfing study, all the physical measures (strength, ROM etc) were fine – so it’s not about physical fitness, nor about pain intensity, it is about people being people. So we also need to be people working with other people.

*We cannot detect malingering in people with pain because we have no objective measure of pain. Psychometric measures don’t measure malingering (see Tuck, N. L., Johnson, M. H., & Bean, D. J. (2019). You’d Better Believe It: The Conceptual and Practical Challenges of Assessing Malingering in Patients With Chronic Pain. Journal of Pain, 20(2), 133-145. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2018.07.002), and neither can we.

**For what it’s worth, if anyone suggests the “Waddell signs” can demonstrate who is malingering – go read Waddell’s own words, where he states unequivocally that these are indications only of psychological distress.

Bade, M. J., Kohrt, W. M., & Stevens-Lapsley, J. E. (2010). Outcomes before and after total knee arthroplasty compared to healthy adults. Journal of Orthopaedic Sports Physical Therapy, 40(9), 559-567. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.2010.3317

Jackson, J. D., Smith, J., Shah, J. P., Wisniewski, S. J., & Dahm, D. L. (2009). Golf after total knee arthroplasty: do patients return to walking the course? American Journal of Sports Medicine, 37(11), 2201-2204. https://doi.org/10.1177/0363546509339009

Kovacs, F. M., Abraira, V., Zamora, J., Teresa Gil del Real, M., Llobera, J., Fernández, C., & Group, t. K.-A. P. (2004). Correlation Between Pain, Disability, and Quality of Life in Patients With Common Low Back Pain. Spine, 29(2), 206-210. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.Brs.0000107235.47465.08

Waddell, G., Main, C. J., Morris, E. W., Paola, M. D. I., & Gray, I. C. (1984). Chronic Low-Back Pain, Psychologic Distress, and Illness Behavior. Spine 9(2), 209-213.

Waddell, G. (1987). 1987 Volvo Award in Clinical Sciences: a new clinical model for the treatment of low-back pain. Spine, 12(7), 632-644.

New year, new you! 10 Steps to Change Your Life!


Are you setting goals for this year? Did you decide to get fit? Eat healthier? Spend more time with your family? Be more mindful? Read on for my famous 10 steps to change your life!

Bah, humbug!

Reflect for a moment on what you’ve just read. Head to Google and do a search using the terms “New Year” and see what you come up with. My search page showed, amongst all the horrific news of car smashes and events for the holiday season, topics like “New Year Bootcamp: Get rid of your debt”, “cook something new every week”, “read more books”, “create a cleaning schedule you’ll stick to”…

Ever wonder why we do this? Every single year?

First, we buy into the idea that our life right now isn’t good enough. There are improvements we can [read ‘should’] make.

Then we decide what “good” looks like. Better finances, healthier diet, less time on devices, cleaner and tidier house…whatever.

We then read all the things we should do – apparently, improving body, mind and soul is good for… the soul.

The popular “experts” then tell us to use a planner, tick off daily fitness goals, and tackle small actions frequently.

Betcha like anything most of us will fail. Even if we begin with the best of intentions.

This year, I’m not doing “goals” – I’ve bought into the over-use of SMART goals for too long, and I’m rejecting them. Why? Because life begins to look like a whole bunch of tick boxes, things to do, keeping the “eye on the prize” at the end. But when is “the end”? Is it a set of “yes! I’ve done it” achievements? Little celebrations? Or do we feel coerced into setting yet another goal? Can goals prevent us from being present to the intrinsic nature of daily life? I think so, at least sometimes. A goal focus can take us away from appreciating what we have right now, while also detracting from the process of going through each day. We can lose the joy of running, for example, if we’re only looking to the finish line. We can forget the pleasure of fishing in beautiful natural surroundings if we’re only looking to hook a fish!

So, as a start to this year, I’m sitting still. I’m noticing my Monday morning routine as I slurp my coffee and sit at my computer to write my blog. I’m making a choice to be present with my thoughts and ponderings. I’m looking back at the blog posts I’ve made since 2007 – all 1262 of them! – and feeling proud of my accomplishment. I’m revisiting my “why” or the values that underpin my writing. I’m acknowledging that I’ve chosen to put my voice out there, whether others read what I write or not (FWIW readership is low compared with the heady days of 2008 and 2009!). These choices aren’t in a weird pseudo-spiritual mindful sort of way, just a nod to my habits and the underlying reasons for doing what I do.

I’ve been pondering the drive clinicians have to set goals with patients, and to record achievements. As if these exist outside of the person’s context and all the other influences on what a person can and does do. There are even posts declaiming patients for not “doing the work” even after the explanations and rationales are presented, as if the only factor involved in doing something is whether it has a good enough reason for it to be done. This attitude is especially pertinent when a person lives with persistent pain, and is embroiled in a compensation system with expectations for recovery.

I suppose I’m looking for more attention to be paid to strengths people demonstrate as they live with persistent pain. More awareness of the complexity of living with what persistent pain entails (see this post for more). And for us as clinicians to be more content with what is, despite limitations and uncertainty, ambiguity, frustration and limited ‘power’ to make changes happen.

Contentment is at the heart of “fulfillment in life” (Cordaro, et al., 2016). It’s an emotion with connotations of peace, life satisfaction, and, again according to Cordaro and colleagues, “a perception of completeness in the present moment.” In English, contentment invokes a sense of “having enough” and a sense of acceptance whether the situation is desirable or undesirable (Cordaro, et al, 2016, p.224). Contentment, in contrast to happiness, is considered a low arousal state: that is, when we feel content we experience reduced heart rate, skin conductance and is associated with serotonergic activity, while happiness in contrast activates higher arousal states including dopaminergic responses (Dustin et al., 2019). The table below gives some interesting comparisons between the “reward” and the “contentment” states in humans – take it with a grain of salt, but it makes for useful pondering.

When we think about helping people with persistent pain, how often do we consider contentment as a long-term outcome? To be content that, despite all the hard work the person and their healthcare team and their family and colleagues, this person has achieved what they can. Do we even have this conversation with the person? Giving them the right to call it quits with constantly striving for more.

How can we develop contentment for ourselves and for the people we work with? Should we guide people towards activities that foster contentment? These will likely be the leisure activities that take time, that involve giving without a focus on receiving, that calm people, that invoke nurturing (plants, animals, people), and probably those that involve moderate intensity movement practices (Wild & Woodward, 2019). I hope we’ll draw on occupational therapy research and practice, because these activities will likely be long-term practices for daily life contentment, and daily life is our occupational therapy focus.

For ourselves, I suspect fostering contentment will be more difficult. Our jobs, often, depend on finding out what is wrong and setting goals for a future state, not ideal for those wanting to be OK with what is. We often work in highly stressful and demanding contexts with numerous insults to our moral ideals and values. We debate ideas and approaches to our work with vigour. We make judgements about our own performance and that of others. We often find our expectations aren’t fulfilled and that we can’t do what we think/know would be better.

I’ll leave you with a series of statements about contentment compared with other states that can be related to contentment (Cordaro et al., 2016, p.229). It helps clarify, perhaps, what we might do for ourselves in this new year. Happy 2023 everyone!

Cordaro, D. T., Brackett, M., Glass, L., & Anderson, C. L. (2016). Contentment: Perceived Completeness across Cultures and Traditions. Review of General Psychology, 20(3), 221-235. https://doi.org/10.1037/gpr0000082

Dustin, D. L., Zajchowski, C. A. B., & Schwab, K. A. (2019). The biochemistry behind human behavior: Implications for leisure sciences and services. Leisure Sciences, 41(6), 542-549. https://doi.org/10.1080/01490400.2019.1597793

Lustig, R. (2017). The hacking of the American mind: The science behind the corporate takeover of our bodies and brains. New York, NY: Avery.

Wild, K., & Woodward, A. (2019). Why are cyclists the happiest commuters? Health, pleasure and the e-bike. Journal of Transport & Health, 14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jth.2019.05.008

The joy of having many data points


Researchers and clinicians are drawn to studies with many participants. Especially randomised controlled trials, where two groups are randomly divided and one gets “the real thing” while the other does not. The joy comes from knowing that results from these kinds of studies suggest that, all things being equal, the differences between the groups is “real” and not just by chance.

When we come to analyse the graphs from these kinds of studies, what we hope to see are two nice bell-shaped curves, with distinct peaks (the arithmetic mean) and long tails either side – and a clear separation between the mean of one group (the experimental one) and the control group.

It should look a bit like this:

Now one of the problems in doing research is that we can’t always guarantee a large sample – for example, it’s difficult to find enough people with a relatively rare problem like complex regional pain syndrome to randomly split the groups to iron out major differences between them. And, this kind of research design presumes the principle of ergodicity – here for more information from Wikipedia, or here for a more detailed examination relating to generalising from groups to individuals.

This research design also struggles to deal with distributions that don’t conform to the lovely bell curve – things like bimodal distributions, or skewed distributions. And if we draw only on the mean – we don’t get to see these delightful peaks and troughs – or the people at either end of the curves.

The more variables we add to analysis, the more complex the statistics needed – so in the case of pain research, we often have to simplify the research question, do complex maths to “normalise” the results, and ultimately we get research that doesn’t look the slightest bit like the people we see in clinical practice. No wonder we get results that don’t look nearly as nice as the research studies!

Now I don’t mind statistics at all, but I do mind research papers that don’t declare the assumptions made when using analyses. Many papers assume the reader knows these assumptions – unlike qualitative research where the authors philosophical assumptions are openly stated, and where epistemology and ontology are considered part of the research design.

So why might lots of data points be cool?

Most of us working in a clinic will be seeing an individual. One person, with all their unique history, attributes, vulnerabilities, preferences and values. When we extrapolate the findings from RCTs especially, and apply them to this unique person, we risk failing to acknowledge that we’re violating the principle of ergodicity, and that our person may be one of those falling at the tails of that bell curve: or worse, in the middle of a bimodal distribution. Given that most pain problems, particularly persistent pain, are multifactorial, applying a single “solution” no matter how many studies showing a positive effect there are, may not cut it.

For years I’ve been pointing out the value, both in research and in clinical practice, of single case experimental designs. There are loads of reasons for using this approach, and it’s a method with a long history. Essentially, the person serves as their own control, they take lots of measurements before introducing a treatment, the treatment is applied and changes in the measurements are closely monitored. If there’s a change in the expected direction, we can test whether it was the treatment by withdrawing said treatment, and closely monitoring any changes in the measurements. Of course, there are challenges to using this approach – we have to be able to withdraw the treatment, and that doesn’t work if it’s something like “information”. But there are ways around this – and the method of intensive longitudinal repeated measures is becoming a rich source of information about change processes.

Change processes are changes that mediate the final outcome. In other words, when we do a treatment, either the treatment directly causes the end outcome – eg give someone a raised toilet seat, and they can get off the toilet because the toilet is at a good height for them – or via some other process – eg by giving the raised toilet seat, the person gains confidence to get on and off the toilet so it’s not the toilet seat per se, but enhanced confidence that mediates the outcome.

Change processes matter because once we’ve identified them, we can develop ways to work with them more effectively. We can also measure the progress a person makes on more than one change process, and refine what we do in our treatments in response. The more data points we collect from that one person, the more we can track their trajectory – and the better we can understand what’s going on in their world to influence their responses.

Technology for repeated measures in real time has become much smarter and more invisible than it used to be. We can still employ some of the simpler techniques – a pen and paper diary still has used! But we then have to rely on the person remembering to fill them in. Passive data collection using wearable technology is something many of us use to track fitness, diet, sleep, travel, heart rate variability and so on. Set the parameters, and as long as you’re wearing the gadget, your data is captured.

Before anyone leaps in to tell me the gadgets are prone to measurement error, believe me I know! For example, monitoring sleep using a phone (or even a smartwatch) doesn’t monitor sleep depth, it monitors movement (and records snoring LOL). However – and this is important – it is more likely to get used than anything requiring me to do something extra in my day. And we can integrate both passive data collection and active data collection using similar technologies. For example, it’s not difficult to send an SMS (instant text message) at random times during the day to ask someone a brief and simple question.

Where these repeated measures approaches get a bit gnarly is in analysing the data – but even this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The analyses require a good understanding of what it is being measured (and why), and how best to use complex statistical analyses to understand how one factor (variable) might influence another.

The advantages of using intensive measures in clinic lie with understanding how, for example, one day of additional activity (measured using the step counter combined with GPS tracking) might directly influence mood the next day (or pain, or energy levels or whatever). We still need to apply critical thinking to uncover the causal mechanisms (is it plausible for factor X to directly cause a change in factor Y?) and to check whether the results are stable over time (or just a chance fluctuation). Another advantage is that we can quickly step in to experiment with an intervention – and watch what happens. For example, if we think being very active on one day has an effect on mood the following day, we can test this out: try experimenting with a day of lots of activity, and monitor what happens the next day, or the converse, do very little and monitor what happens with mood the following day. Rinse and repeat until we’re certain that for this person, activity level has an effect on mood.

And the study that made me think about all this? It’s this one by Whibley, Williams, Clauw, Sliwinski and Kratz (2022) – click

If we want to really develop excellent clinically-relevant research-based ways to understand what might be going on for the one person in front of us, and not for the large mixed group of people included in a randomised controlled trial, we could be inspired to look at intensive repeated “micro-longitudinal” research strategies as models for clinic-based research.

Whibley, D., Williams, D. A., Clauw, D. J., Sliwinski, M. J., & Kratz, A. L. (2022). Within-day rhythms of pain and cognitive function in people with and without fibromyalgia: synchronous or syncopated? Pain, 163(3), 474-482. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002370

On making things easier…Occupational therapists and ‘compensatory’ approaches


If there is one part of occupational therapy practice that gets more of my middle-aged grumpiness than any other, it’s occupational therapists using compensatory approaches for managing pain. And like anything, it’s complicated and nuanced. So here’s my attempt to work my way through the quagmire.

Compensatory approaches consist of a whole range of interventions that aim to “make up for” a deficit in a person’s occupational performance (see Nicholson & Hayward (2022) for a discussion of compensatory approaches in “functional neurological disorder”). The rationale for compensatory approaches is that by employing these strategies, a person is able to do what they need and want to do in daily life: the raison d’etre for occupational therapy (WFOT, 2012). End of story, right? If the person wants to be able to use the toilet independently, then a piece of equipment (a rail, a toilet seat, a long-handled wiper, easily removed and replaced clothing) makes sense, surely?

Short answer is no, not always. And long answer is – well, it depends.

First of all, let’s take a quick look at compensatory approaches used with people experiencing pain. Remember that people seeing occupational therapists may have acute post-surgical pain (eg post arthroplasty pain) or they may have long-term pain from conditions like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis etc. In an acute hospital setting, it makes sense for someone to be helped to leave the hospital ward by providing them with a safe way to manage important daily life tasks such as using a toilet, shower/bath, getting dressed, making a meal. The intention behind using a compensatory approach is to give short-term strategies to foster independence, or to provide strategies to “make up for” functional deficits the person may never overcome.

The strategies can include adaptive equipment – I’ve mentioned the ubiquitous raised toilet seat and rails, but there are also chair raisers, bathboards, commodes, kitchen trolleys and so on. Strategies can also include “ergonomic”* approaches intended to reduce biomechanical demands, and often applied in the workplace such as adjustable office chairs, wrist rests, monitor height adjustment, sit/stand desks, lighting etc. Occupational therapists might discuss task simplification, where people are encouraged to consider whether a task needs to be done, needs to be done in a particular way, needs to be done right now, or needs to be done by that person. Activity pacing could be added to the list: choosing when and how to carry out various daily life tasks over the course of a day, a week, a month. So far, so good.

The problems arising from this approach lie in its long-term use, or use in a rehabilitation context. Let me unpack why.

In rehabilitation, our aims are to support a person to go through a process of change (relating to their health and the impact of a disease or disorder) that aims to enhance health outcomes including quality of life (Jehanne Dubouloz, et al., 2010). The person’s capabilities are in a state of flux during this process, and our intentions are (usually) to improve the person’s ability to do daily life tasks. Early rehabilitation might occur in a hospital setting, but generally the expectation is that the person will end up doing their daily life in their own context. In many cases, people don’t get admitted to a hospital, but receive all their rehabilitation as an outpatient, or in their own home.

In persistent pain management and rehabilitation, there are often two phases: 1) the secondary prevention phase, where the focus is on reducing or ameliorating the impact of pain on daily life and often focusing on reducing pain, increasing function, reducing healthcare use, reducing distress and enhancing quality of life. 2) the tertiary prevention phase, where the focus is less on reducing pain (although this is still part of the picture) and much more on helping the person do what matters in daily life in the presence of pain, increasing function, reducing healthcare use, reducing distress and enhancing quality of life. Good examples of occupational therapy for persistent pain are in the literature, although like most interventions, the results are equivocal (eg Nielsen, et al., 2021). The main distinction between these two phases lies in how much attention is paid to pain reduction or elimination. Perhaps this is where so many of our conversations about pain management and rehabilitation come unstuck, because the point at which we (the person and his or her clinician) discuss the likelihood of pain persisting despite all of our best efforts is pretty opaque. We simply don’t know, and we have very little to guide us, and furthermore, both clinicians and people living with pain are loath to talk about what is a highly challenging topic. More about that some other time!

For occupational therapists, offering compensatory equipment during the secondary prevention phase might be where we come unstuck. While they help the person do what matters to them, if they are not reviewed and gradually removed, they can foster remaining stuck with that technique or strategy with all its inherent limitations.

What are those limitations? Well, take the example of a raised toilet seat – great when it’s available for use in a person’s home, but pretty darned useless when that person is out doing the grocery shopping, visiting another family member, going to a restaurant or the cinema. Toilet seat raisers are not the easiest thing to carry around! Similarly with a cushion to make sitting easier: fabulous for reducing discomfort, but then you have to carry the thing around wherever you go!

My point is that when a person’s capabilities are changing, so must our solutions. Occupational therapists need to be responsive to changes in a person’s function, and change compensatory strategies accordingly. When this doesn’t occur, we risk working at odds with the rehabilitative approach used by other team members.

Am I saying don’t use compensatory approaches? Not at all! I’ll be very happy to use task simplification or a shower stool if I return home following hip or knee arthroplasty. And if my cognitive capabilities are limited as they were when I had post-concussion syndrome, I’m very happy to incorporate activity management, fatigue management and compensatory ‘aide memoirs’ (my ever-handy lists and diary!) as part of my life – until I don’t need them any more. Thankfully I had great therapists who helped fade or withdraw the range of compensatory supports I used as my recovery progressed.

Soon I’ll be writing about a framework occupational therapists (and other rehabilitation and pain management clinicians) can use to review their therapeutic approaches. In the meantime, it’s crucial for occupational therapists to take the time to understand the factors contributing to a person’s difficulty doing daily life. If those factors are able to be changed, and if the context is not constrained by “we must get this person out of hospital”, then perhaps we need to stop and think carefully about when, where and whether a compensatory approach is useful.

*I use the term “ergonomic” in quotes because technically, ergonomic approaches are not just about office equipment, but is actually a larger and almost philosophical practice of ensuring that work fits the person/humans doing the tasks. It sprang from work undertaken during the Second World War when it was found that dashboards on aeroplanes, and the machines that fabricated parts for them, did not work for most people. Essentially, it is a systems-based approach to ensuring human capabilities and limitations are considered during the design of workplaces to minimise errors, maximise productivity, reduce cognitive load, and enhance performance.

Jehanne Dubouloz, C., King, J., Ashe, B., Paterson, B., Chevrier, J., & Moldoveanu, M. (2010). The process of transformation in rehabilitation: what does it look like?. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 17(11), 604-615.

Nicholson, C., Hayward, K. (2022). Occupational Therapy: Focus on Function. In: LaFaver, K., Maurer, C.W., Nicholson, T.R., Perez, D.L. (eds) Functional Movement Disorder. Current Clinical Neurology. Humana, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-86495-8_24

Nielsen, S. S., Christensen, J. R., Søndergaard, J., Mogensen, V. O., Enemark Larsen, A., Skou, S. T., & Simonÿ, C. (2021). Feasibility assessment of an occupational therapy lifestyle intervention added to multidisciplinary chronic pain treatment at a Danish pain centre: a qualitative evaluation from the perspectives of patients and clinicians. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 16(1), 1949900.

World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Statement of occupational therapy. 2012. http://www.wfot.org/about-occupational-therapy.

How much “pain ed” do people need? And what to do when someone is not convinced…


This post has been a long time coming. There’s no doubt that giving explanations about pain mechanisms is common, and that we’ve (health professionals) been doing it a looooong time. Yes, way back to the 1970’s! In the early 1980’s when I started working in this field it was already commonplace to offer people an explanation for chronic pain (and to explain why some pains are such pains, while others bother us less – even when they involve the same degree of nociceptive input). Of course, way back then we used Gate Control Theory (GCT) to explain the distinction between hurt and harm, to explore why attention and emotion matter, and to introduce the idea of counter-stimulation and TENS: suffice to say clinicians used these metaphors especially for people with persistent pain (Katz & Rosenbloom, 2015).

Then along came Moseley, Nicholas and Hodges (2004) with a nicely-designed RCT comparing “pain neurophysiology” education with “back anatomy and physiology” provided by “trained physical therapist educators.” The results of this study showed “Education about pain neurophysiology changes pain cognitions and physical performance but is insufficient by itself to obtain a change in perceived disability.” Somehow the lack of relationship between changes in pain cognitions and physical performance and perceived disability got lost in translation, but what happened next was an explosion of interest in the effects of providing explanations about pain mechanisms.

Today, the old adage “if you have a hammer, all you see are nails” seems to apply when it comes to “pain mechanism explanations.” Everyone gets an explanation, many of the explanations are exactly the same (sometimes down to the same book being used), and I wonder how people with pain feel about this. Like the way we feel at the end of Christmas Day feasting – noooooo! not another mouthful!

Recently I was asked “how much pain ed do people need?” and my first thought was “it depends.” That’s my answer to most things in pain! Suffice to say, I think we need sound clinical reasoning before we launch into any intervention, and this means we need to understand the rationale for giving someone a pain mechanisms explanation. This post attempts to shed some light on when it might be useful.

One reason given for “educating” people (please, no! “educating” someone sounds so like an info-dump, and focuses us on what WE do, rather than on the EFFECT this information is intended to have) – one reason is to reduce pain intensity. Education, however, doesn’t have an incredibly powerful action on my pain when I burn myself doing silversmithing. The effect of information on pain may be via appraisal: if I think my pain is not a direct measure of tissue damage, then I might not be as distressed by it (and indeed, this is one of the effects identified in the Moseley, et al., 2004 study – changes in the Survey of Pain Attitudes and the Pain Catastrophising Scale showing reduced catastrophising brought about by recognising that hurt isn’t equal to harm).

As a result of not being as distressed, a person doesn’t have to communicate their fear through a number on a 0 – 100mm VAS. Because remember, we don’t have a pure measure of pain intensity and the VAS is a communication device. Pain behaviour, or what we do about our pain, is at least partly about communicating to others (Hadjistavropoulos et al., 2011; Lackner & Gurtmann, 2004) – and we all know we’d never get prescribed analgesia in an Emergency Dept with 30mm pain on a 0 – 100mm VAS!

Similarly, if we’re not as afraid of what pain means, we’re less likely to be worried about moving – so I wasn’t at all surprised to see the changes in straight leg raising and other physical performance measures. I also wasn’t surprised to see no change to perceived disability because doing functional activities in the real world is a whole lot more scary than in a controlled, supervised clinical setting. Remember this, folks, when you’re prescribing movement practices: they do not directly transfer into confidence and performance in daily life!

So if giving an explanation is about reducing distress, maybe it’s also about reducing uncertainty. Zaman and colleagues (2021) found that uncertainty hasn’t been studied as much as I’d hope and worse, it’s often studied in experimental settings where there is certainty that the pain will end, and this in turn is quite unlike me and my fibromyalgia pain which is both unpredictable and not controllable. There’s no doubt that helping someone understand that their pain isn’t a dread disease (cancer, some weird inflammatory disease, a nasty neurological – oh wait, it IS a nasty neurological thing…!) will likely reduce their distress, and might even reduce uncertainty – because at least we know what it’s not! But uncertainty remains with persistent pain because no-one knows when/if it will end, often we don’t know why it gets set off, and we clearly don’t have a handle on why it goes on and flares.

It makes sense, then, to consider pain mechanism explanations when a person 1) is not sure what it all means, 2) worries that it’s something nasty, and 3) thinks it’s both a direct reflection of what has happened to their tissues and 4) that they personally can’t do much about it.

We might also think of giving someone some information about their pain if we want to help them understand why we might be trying something like mindfulness, relaxation, stress management, or even normal movement. We can employ the little we know about cortical processes and descending inhibition, and polyvagal theory and sympathethic arousal, as well as physiological responses to movement/exercise to explain the rationale for these interventions if we so choose.

BUT we don’t have to all the time. Why? Because we can do these things anyway and help the person explore their responses in vivo! This may be more powerful than giving any kind of ham-fisted explanation, whether it be a cookie cutter one, or a tailor-made metaphor.

A few posts ago, I wrote about McCracken and Scott’s (2022) paper exploring the potential problems of making sense. This showed that sense-making can impede a person’s readiness to engage in therapy if their desire to make sense means they reject explanations that don’t fit with their understanding or when they overthink what the explanations mean. In these instances, it makes much more sense for us (see what I did then?) to help them begin to do what matters in their life than continue looking for explanations.

My guidelines for working through “pain mechanisms”?

  • If the person is a geek and likes to delve into learning about their body and responses – go for it! (ie, people like me :-))
  • If the person asks for information, or has questions about specific aspects of their pain or treatment
  • As part of generating a case formulation, where the person and you collaborate to develop a model of what’s going on for them. As a clinician you’ll be using guided discovery to work out the processes that occur in predictable patterns, and these patterns in turn can become the focus of where and how you might interrupt them.
  • After asking the person for their understanding, and there’s something in their version that’s unhelpful for their progress. For example, if the person tells you that they think a scan will uncover “the real reason” for their pain, or if they’ve taken on board an unhelpful belief that their joints are grinding bone on bone… you know the sort of thing. After asking permission to explore these thoughts/beliefs, you might find it OK to offer an alternative – but if it’s not getting in the way of them engaging in therapy, then just go along with it and use guided discovery instead.

What to do instead of explaining mechanisms?

  • Focus on helping the person move towards what matters in their life, even if it doesn’t always make sense to the person. Use their experiences to guide their understanding, it’s far more powerful than any kind of external “truth”.
  • Use guided discovery, drawing from their own experiences and asking them to reflect on the effect of what they do and know on their experience. For example, ask the person what it’s like when they’ve been worrying about what’s going on in their OA knee, what do they notice about their overall stress level, what does that do to their pain, what effect might that worry have on sleep or fatigue and how this might influence their pain and doing what matters.
  • Offer skills to help deal with uncertainty and worries such as mindfulness (but OMG not to reduce pain, puhleaze!), attention management, and cognitive defusion.
  • Always draw a connection between what you explain and what this means clinically. For example, if you want to discuss nociplastic mechanisms, what this might mean is a tendency for “normal” injuries or tissue disruption pain to hang around a lot longer. It might also mean pain spreads out a bit more. It can help explain why many medications are ineffective. And it’s useful when another clinician has suggested that because “there’s nothing on your scan, therefore there’s nothing wrong.” But tread lightly because there is SO much we do not know!

I like to draw on the principles of motivational interviewing in my work with people. Respecting their autonomy and right to decide means I need to ask permission before I give information to them. I need to have a clear clinical reason for doing so – and this isn’t “because it reduces pain” – it needs to have specific indications for this person. Understanding how and why “pain education” can be helpful is critical, and always remembering that knowing “about” something doesn’t mean it changes behaviour. I’m still not keen on spiders even though I know we have no poisonous ones here in Aotearoa, and I’m much bigger than them!

Katz, J., & Rosenbloom, B. N. (2015). The golden anniversary of Melzack and Wall’s gate control theory of pain: Celebrating 50 years of pain research and management. Pain Research & Management: The Journal of the Canadian Pain Society, 20(6), 285-286.

Hadjistavropoulos, T., Craig, K. D., Duck, S., Cano, A., Goubert, L., Jackson, P. L., Mogil, J. S., Rainville, P., Sullivan, M. J., de C. Williams, A. C., Vervoort, T., & Fitzgerald, T. D. (2011). A Biopsychosocial Formulation of Pain Communication. Psychological Bulletin, 137(6), 910-939. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023876

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

McCracken, L. M., & Scott, W. (2022). Potential Misfortunes in ‘Making Sense’: A Cross-sectional Study in People with Chronic Pain. J Pain. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2022.09.008

Moseley, G. L., Nicholas, M. K., & Hodges, P. W. (2004). A randomized controlled trial of intensive neurophysiology education in chronic low back pain. Clinical Journal of Pain, 20(5), 324-330.

Zaman, J., Van Oudenhove, L., & Vlaeyen, J. W. S. (2021). Uncertainty in a context of pain: disliked but also more painful? Pain, 162(4), 995-998. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002106

Frustration in the clinic


I’m prompted to write this post because it’s something I see in social media so often – a clinician gets frustrated. Things don’t work. The person getting treatment doesn’t respond in the way that was expected. The person doesn’t look like what the clinician usually sees. The evidence doesn’t fit with practice. All the things! So I thought today I’d write about emotions and thoughts that might turn up – and what might underlie those feelings. (For people living with pain – we also have frustration in the clinic. Things don’t work out. The therapist isn’t what we expected. I’ll write more about this soon!)

Emotions are a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral and physiological elements (https://dictionary.apa.org/emotion). From a cognitive behavioural perspective, an event happens, we appraise it (judge it), and we experience an emotion – then we do something as a response. It’s much more complex than this, and each part interacts with the others – so we end up with a big diagram looking something like this: (from – https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Cognitive-behavioral-therapy-model-of-depression_fig1_338695579).

Instead of “depressive”, just put in “beliefs/expectations about who I am and what I can expect from myself”. This is a pretty generic model in CBT, and is well-established even if there are plenty of arguments about accuracy and adequacy!

Clinicians generally want to help. Yes, some are in it for fame or fortune (choose something else, kthx), but on the whole people enter a clinical profession because they think they can do some good, and people will “get better.” Our communities hold long-standing expectations about what seeing a health professional should entail: read Benedetti’s “The Patient’s Brain” for a much more detailed description of the historical and evolutionary basis for a therapeutic encounter.

Why does this matter? Because it sets the scene for how we think a therapeutic encounter should go.

Rules and assumptions about what “ought” to, or “should” happen often underlie emotions.

We’re happy when all the things line up and the patient does what we expect of patients while the clinician does things that work. When things don’t go to plan (ie our expectations are violated) that’s when we get some feelings, and they can be pretty big.

What do we expect from patients?

Despite moves towards person-centred care where patients are seen as people and clinicians offer options rather than dictate orders, our societies still hold expectations about the roles a patient and a clinician should play.

Patients are expected to seek help when they’re sick. They’re expected to be truthful about their symptoms, and tell clinicians everything that is relevant about their condition – AND about any other aspect of their health, even if it’s not immediately relevant to their current problem. Symptoms experienced by patients are expected to be what the clinician expects, and the disease a patient has should fit within “typical” parameters (usually based on males). Patients are also expected to follow instructions, not do things that go against instructions, and of course, to get better. Patients are meant to be grateful for their treatment, even if it’s disruptive, has unpleasant side effects, or isn’t 100% effective. Patients should do their best all the time.

As a corollary, clinicians have a huge number of expectations they take on (and are given!). Some of us have these explicitly handed to us during our training, while others find they’re an implicit set of assumptions that we adopt, perhaps in the guise of “being professional.”

What do we expect from clinicians?

Clinicians expect to be in control in the clinical encounter. We’re expected to know what to ask about, and from this, what to test for. We’re expected to have the answers, and be right. We’re also expected to be calm, caring and focused – even when our personal lives are topsy-turvy. We’re meant to know what the patient wants, and how to give that to them. We’re also expected to be up-to-date, do no harm, change our practice according to evidence (even when that evidence is contradictory, or just emerging), and to stay interested in our work even if we’ve been doing it for years.

We’re expected to know our scope of practice, but practice using a broad “whole person” framework even if we were never trained to do this. We think we should be compassionate and caring, even if we were selected for training on the basis of our academic prowess and not on emotional literacy. We must take on responsibility for outcomes, even though we’re not there to “make sure” the patient “does what they’re told” in their own time. We assume when we tell someone to do something, they’ll drop everything in their life to do it – because their health should matter most, and even when other things in their life matter more.

Clinicians can be expected to practice independently from the moment they qualify, and are either “right” or “wrong” and never shades of in between. Clinicians expect that if something goes wrong, and the person doesn’t get better, it’s either the person’s fault (they didn’t do what they should have done), or the clinician has done something wrong and made a wrong diagnosis, or chosen the wrong treatment (or the treatment was right but the intensity was wrong…. so just do it again). And clinicians shouldn’t ask for emotional help because that means they’re “too emotionally invested” or “not distanced enough.”

Expectations suck

We all have them. And the ones I’ve listed above, while not always present, often underpin the way we expect clinical encounters to go. Many of them are implicit, so we don’t even realise we hold them – until BAM! Something goes wrong.

When expectations are violated, we feel emotions and some of these can be pretty strong. Many are less strong, just little niggles, little irritations, a bit of cynicism, some disappointment, some frustration. And they go both ways: people seeking help, and people trying to help. Over time, violated expectations feel like your head hitting against a brick wall, or swimming against the tide, or just plain demoralisation or even burnout.

Ways through them

Some of us have professionally-endorsed support systems to help us. Occupational therapists and psychologists have mandatory clinical supervision with someone who is there for you, who supports your development as a clinician, who challenges your assumptions, who pokes and prods at your reactions, who encourages taking a broader view. Individual clinicians in other professions may also pick up on using supervision in this way.

Some of us don’t have that kind of support. So we seek it elsewhere – I suppose, in part, I started writing this blog those years ago to “find my tribe.” Social media is one way we get affirmation, validation and even (sometimes!) great ideas to help us shift our approach.

Some clinicians leave their profession, do something else that’s more lucrative and less emotional effort. Some move out of practice and into academia. Some use “outside work” interests to blow off steam, or give emotional space.

Some of us are a little fused with the assumptions we hold. It’s hard to create a little space around those assumptions, because they’re held so tightly (or they’re so deeply buried). When we do get a tap on the shoulder suggesting our beliefs are out of whack it can feel so terribly humiliating, so inherently WRONG that we shut off, or bite back.

Creating “wiggle room”

Slowing down is a good way to begin creating some space to feel what is showing up when we’re feeling frustration. This could be by taking one or two minutes at the end of a session to be present. Yes, a little mindfulness to notice what is present in the body. To be OK with being aware of emotions, thoughts, and body sensations. NOT TO CHANGE THEM! To simply be with them. (An explanation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9NkUomOO_w). This helps in many ways, but it does not (and isn’t intended to) reduce them. It helps you notice that you’re having feelings. It helps you pay attention to your own state of mind. It can create a moment to ask yourself “I wonder why I feel this way?” It can help you be more present with the next person you see because you’re not carrying those feelings into the next encounter.

Reflective practice is another way to create some space to be human, feel things, be curious about why they happen, and check in with your own values. A great resource that’s freely available is Positive Professional practice: a strength-based reflective practice teaching model – it might be a ‘teaching’ model, but clinicians teach All The Time!

Taking small steps, making small changes

The first step towards making a change is knowing that it’s needed. And the second is knowing that it’s possible. The third? Knowing what to do. I hope these suggestions help a little in this seldom-discussed aspect of practice. My own preference is to question WHY do we hold these expectations? WHO made them a thing? WHAT purpose do they serve? WHEN might those expectations be a good thing – and when might they not? WHERE can we nudge just a little to make change? And preferably, as clinicians, I think it’s OUR job to make the adjustments because we’re not ill or sore or seeking help.

Some references:

Dobkin, P. L., Bernardi, N. F., & Bagnis, C. I. (2016). Enhancing Clinicians’ Well-Being and Patient-Centered Care Through Mindfulness. Journal of Continuing Education in Health Professions, 36(1), 11-16. https://doi.org/10.1097/CEH.0000000000000021

Huft, J. (2022). The History and Future of the Sociology of Therapy: a Review and a Research Agenda. The American Sociologist, 53(3), 437-464. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-022-09534-3

McGarry, J., Aubeeluck, A., & De Oliveira, D. (2019). Evaluation of an evidence-based model of safeguarding clinical supervision within one healthcare organization in the United Kingdom. International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare, 17 Suppl 1, S29-S31. https://doi.org/10.1097/XEB.0000000000000180

Spencer, K. L. (2018). Transforming Patient Compliance Research in an Era of Biomedicalization. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 59(2), 170-184. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146518756860

Making sense: Does it help people with pain?


I love it when my biases are challenged (seriously, I do!). And in the study I’m talking about today, my biases are sorely challenged – but perhaps not as much as I initially thought.

Lance McCracken is one of my favourite researchers investigating processes of acceptance and living a good life in the presence of chronic pain. In this paper, he collaborates with a colleague currently involved in the INPUT pain management programme established at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS originally by Michael Nicholas who draws on a CBT model of pain management, and now more firmly in the third wave camp of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). The paper is ‘Making sense’ and describes a cross-sectional study of sense-making by people with chronic pain attending the INPUT programme.

Making sense is something humans do without even thinking about it. Humans are prone to (and probably for good adaptive reasons) generate patterns out of random information. We gaze at shadows at night and think we see faces or intruders, and we look at clouds and see dragons and kittens. When we’re sore we also try to make sense of what’s going on – does this ouch feel like something I’ve had before? does it feel mysterious or can I carry on? have other people I know had this same ouch and what did they do?

In the search for making sense out of pain that otherwise seems random, clinicians have, since time immemorial, generated all sorts of stories about what might be going on. The wandering uterus. The evil spirit. The slipped disc. The leg length discrepancy. Clinicians, when faced with their own uncertainty about what exactly pain represents, can encourage patients to seek diagnosis: some sort of “explanation” for the problem. When that’s insufficient, more recently we’ve seen the flourishing of explanations for pain from a neurobiological perspective, particularly “pain as an expression of threat to bodily integrity”, a decision that is “made by the brain”.

My own research, investigating the experiences of people who indicated they live well with pain, reflected this same process. They sought a name for their experience, they wanted to understand the impact of pain on daily doing – those fluctuations and variances that emerge during the days and weeks early in the journey of learning that this pain isn’t going anywhere soon (Lennox Thompson, et al., 2019). Note that the group of people I recruited had come to the point where they identified that they were living well with pain – this group of people represent a small percentage of those who live with chronic pain, and not those who are seeking treatment.

OK, so what did McCracken and Scott (2022) find?

Bear in mind that this study was designed to measure the construct of sense-making in people seeking treatment for chronic pain. Also bear in mind the authors come from a perspective of functional contextualism, or a philosophy of science that argues for “…studying the current and historical context in which behavior evolves … to develop analytic concepts and rules that are useful for predicting and changing psychological events in a variety of settings.” What this means to me is that the form of whatever behaviour we’re observing/measuring matters less that the purpose or function of that behaviour in a specific context.

OK, on with the study.

451 adults attending an interprofessional pain management programme were participants in this study, and the measures were taken before they started treatment. They completed a battery of measures including ones measuring acceptance, cognitive fusion, committed action, tolerance of uncertainty, and pain measures such as the Brief Pain Inventory, numeric rating scale.

The research aim was to investigate a way to measure not only the positives from sense-making, but also the potential adverse effects of doing so. Concurrent with developing the measure, analyses of the inflexible ways we make sense were carried out in relation to outcomes: pain interference, depression and participation.

In the results (read through the analysis, BTW, it’s beautifully detailed), women were found to overthink compared with men, older people tended to want to avoid a sense of incoherence, and more educated people also tended to overthink.

Now, a little theory: coherence can be either literal or functional. Literal coherence is like “common sense” – so if I interpret my pain as meaning something is damaged, and moving it is bad, this is literal coherence. Functional coherence might occur when I realise that I hurt whether I’m doing things, or not, and I decide “this is how it is, I might as well get on with life”. In effect, as McCracken and Scott say, “these terms reflect the difference between language, thoughts and behavior fitting together consistently, (thoughts agree with other thoughts and behavior) versus behavior and goals in life fitting together consistently (behavior patterns succeed in reaching goals even when this seems to contradict “good sense”).

In daily life, people consistently prefer to solve problems and avoid insoluble problems. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Why try to deal with things that won’t change, even if we try hard to change them? BUT then we have insoluble problems that don’t make sense: the earthquakes in Christchurch New Zealand in 2011-2013 were random and we hadn’t had earthquake activity in our city for centuries – consequently we had many crackpots coming up with “predictions” for the next swarm of earthquakes based on phases of the moon or fracking or climate change. Anything to help people feel like they had a sense of control over something that did not make sense.

Chronic pain is often an equally insoluble problem. Many times pain like this does not make sense at all. No injury precipitated my fibromyalgia. There’s no imaging or biomarker for pain intensity. Existing biomedical diagnoses based on structural or biochemical or neurological processes don’t tell us much about who might get chronic pain, how intense it might be, or the impact of that pain on a person’s life. But clinicians and people with pain earnestly seek something, something to explain what’s going on.

For both clinicians and people living with pain, constantly searching for The Thing to explain pain can be exhausting, demoralising and linked to unhelpful patterns of behaviour. Clinicians might repeat the same treatment even though it didn’t work the first time. They might refer the person for more investigations, just in case something was missed. They might refer the person to another clinician, or, worse, they may attribute the pain to “mental illness” or “psychosocial factors”. Many, many clinicians think that giving a person a book about how pain might be constructed “in the brain” will be enough for people to make sense of what’s going on. People with pain might be afraid to get on with life in case they’re doing harm, or because they’re hoping the fix might be around the corner and life can “get back to normal”. They may spend enormous sums of money, time and emotion on treatments to either diagnose the problem, or treat it. They might spend hours brooding on what it could be. Their lives often stop – people with pain have called this “the endless limbo”.

Now there is a measure of sense-making I guess we’ll find out more about this part of learning to live with pain. The three subscales identified were “avoidance of incoherence”, “overthinking”, and “functional coherence”, though the last subscale had poor psychometric properties so wasn’t included in the final analyses.

My wish, however, is that rather than applying this measure to people attempting to make sense of something outside of their experience, we might develop a measure of how rigidly clinicians stick to “coherence” in the face of puzzling pain problems. Perhaps what might be even more influential, we might develop a measure of what happens when a vulnerable person trying to make sense of their pain meets a clinician with a high level of inflexibility about “what is going on”, because despite all the research we have into people living with pain, we haven’t yet recognised the power of the clinician in perpetuating unhelpful inflexibility.

Lance M McCracken , Whitney Scott , Potential Misfortunes in ‘Making Sense’: A Cross-sectional Study in People with Chronic Pain, Journal of Pain (2022), doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2022.09.008

Lennox Thompson, B., Gage, J., & Kirk, R. (2019). Living well with chronic pain: a classical grounded theory. Disability and Rehabilitation, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2018.1517195

Ways to stop good clinicians leaving pain management (iii)


I’m an old hack when it comes to teamwork and pain management: I’ve worked in this field a long time. I’m familiar with reactions to both interpersonal differences within a team (and the myriad ways these can be expressed), and to the discourse that happens when posting a publicly available message. In fact, that’s why I publish on social media: so we can have open conversations rather than ones hidden behind paywalls, or in rarified academic settings. Humans are odd, and when poked – even when poked with good evidence – want to react, to bite back. The following comments are not about any specific organisation. I’ll repeat that: comments about what we do in healthcare (ie bullying – nurses call this ‘horizontal violence’, stigmatising, excluding, not supporting etc) in the two articles I’ve written so far on how to prevent good clinicians do not relate to any one organisation. They are based on personal experience (my own) and experiences I’ve read in the literature.

There is an elephant in the room. It’s possibly the biggest one we have in teamwork and it’s about dispute resolution. How do we resolve contrasting clinical models, interpersonal styles, personal and professional values, hierarchies (explicit or implicit) without compromising important and valid points, and without blowing relationships between team members out of the water? An alternative is to leave, as I did, having seen several clinicians put through the wringer by accusations of bullying and being the recipient of bullying myself.

I’m drawn to Dr Todd B. Kashdan’s work in his most recent book “The Art of Insubordination: How to dissent and defy effectively” because he offers well-researched strategies for individuals and groups to disrupt the status quo – not for the purpose of disrupting for the sake of it, but because of personal integrity and ethical standards. Values that clash with “received wisdom”. Creative ideas that could change practice positively, but land flat because they’re “different”. The desire to create social value – not from a place of “I’m superior, you should do it my way” or spite “I just want to get you back for being dominant” or self-interest “I want you to do this because it’ll line my pockets” (p. 11., The Art of Insubordination).

You see, principled insubordination is one reason for disputes in teams. It could be an occupational therapist identifying that participating in daily life really matters to people with chronic pain but working in a team where everyone gets the same recipe for treatment. It might be a physiotherapist who sees that there could be ways to see people in small groups, rather than individually – but gets smacked down because “that’s not the way we do it”. It might be the social worker who dreams of bringing whanau/family into pain management, but can’t get a toe in the door of a team with a strong medical procedure focus.

Each of these people holds strong values, wants to be person-centred, can see there are opportunities, and sincerely communicates them to the team. Even the idea of interprofessional or transprofessional working, where each person steps up to do what matters to the person in front of them although it doesn’t look like conventional “role division” can be an effective way to be a radical and principled rebel.

While the ideas Todd articulates SO well in his book are absolutely worth doing if you’re the principled rebel, one thing I worry about is placing the responsibility only on the rebel. It’s difficult being the one swimming against the current. It can lead to personal isolation, burnout, poor team trust, difficulty sharing information that is unique to your profession (or your encounters with a patient), less reporting critical problems and ultimately, to closing down and walking away (O’Donovan, De Brun & McAuliffe, 2021).

Stephanie Zajac and colleagues (Zajac, et al., 2021) developed a framework for healthcare team effectiveness and clearly identifies the crucial contribution of the organisation, team leadership, technical competence and having team roles and purpose (Fig. 1, p. 4). Without a supportive culture, executive leadership and teamwork reinforcement as a value, the organisational conditions likely work against effective teamwork. Without shared leadership, accountability and coaching, teams flounder and fragment. Without adequate training, the capability to do the work well, and sufficient staffing, teams don’t have sufficient technical competence to be effective. Finally, without role definitions, team directions and developing and monitoring team norms, teams will likely experience conflict and who should or can do tasks, and what’s OK and not OK within the team. Note this doesn’t inevitably mean “my role” and “your role” – inter and transprofessional team work demands blurring between roles. This is about articulating and being clear about how team members work together.

And who needs to ensure these organisational “meta-team skills” are clear, supported and maintained? Yes, it’s everyone’s job – but it’s also the organisation’s leadership team’s job to make sure it happens. After all, the leadership team should have skin in the game.

Conflict is inevitable. Some schools of thought believe that conflict is healthy, a sign of divergent thinking rather than conformity, that conflict enables people to challenge their own assumptions (O’Neill, Allen & Hastongs, 2013). At the same time, forms of conflict can be painful and damaging to the individuals involved. Disagreeing about what is done is less damaging than conflict with a member of the team. Consequently, two points spring to mind: 1. Left to fester, interpersonal conflict will reduce team trust, and ultimately stymie collaboration. People will revert to silence, and a “them and us” will emerge. Processes involving transparent, open conversations (see this link), often moving beyond the key antagonists and into the whole team, are crucial. These may involve clear policies and procedures, and need to be facilitated – preferably by someone external to the team, but knowledgeable. 2. “Ground rules” must be established about how to disagree, challenge one another, articulate different perspectives. Why? Because disagreement and conflict is inevitable, so we need to minimise the fall-out, but more importantly, because conflict when well-managed is the lifeblood of creativity and responsiveness (psst! it’s also really good for critical thinking).

Kim, S., Bochatay, N., Relyea-Chew, A., Buttrick, E., Amdahl, C., Kim, L., Frans, E., Mossanen, M., Khandekar, A., Fehr, R., & Lee, Y. M. (2017, May). Individual, interpersonal, and organisational factors of healthcare conflict: A scoping review. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 31(3), 282-290. https://doi.org/10.1080/13561820.2016.1272558

O’Donovan, R., De Brun, A., & McAuliffe, E. (2021). Healthcare Professionals Experience of Psychological Safety, Voice, and Silence. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 626689. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.626689

O’Neill, T. A., Allen, N. J., & Hastings, S. E. (2013). Examining the “Pros” and “Cons” of TeamConflict: A Team-Level Meta-Analysis of Task, Relationship, and Process Conflict. Human Performance, 26(3), 236-260. https://doi.org/10.1080/08959285.2013.795573

Zajac, S., Woods, A., Tannenbaum, S., Salas, E., & Holladay, C. L. (2021). Overcoming Challenges to Teamwork in Healthcare: A Team Effectiveness Framework and Evidence-Based Guidance. Frontiers in Communication, 6(6). https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2021.606445

“The social” – a brief look at family


Our most important relationships, the ones we learn most from, probably occur in families (Bowlby, 1978). As kids, even before we begin to speak, we observe our family members – and there’s reasonable evidence showing that how well these early relationships develop influences our experience of pain and how we express it.

I had the occasion to read a little about adolescent and children’s pain, and the influence of parents on young people as they grow up. There’s a great deal of research interest in children’s pain because children with persistent pain grow up to be adults – usually also with persistent pain. And good evidence that parents with persistent pain can, through mechanisms including depression and catastrophising, influence pain and disability in their children (Brown et al., 2022; Brown et al., 2021).

The research is fascinating. Some studies investigating predictors of chronic pain in children, some investigating disability – and a small number of studies looking at what we can do to help parents cope with the pain their children are experiencing. Not many studies (54 in a 2021 scoping review – see Lee et al., 2021). And sooooo many studies focusing exclusively, or close to, the influence of Mothers on children. Where’s Dad? Can I repeat that: where’s Dad?

More recent studies indicate the number of Fathers and Mothers – yay, we’re getting an idea of how many are recruited into these studies – and yet overwhelmingly, it’s Mothers who form the majority of participants. I wonder what effect having a Dad with chronic pain might have on a kid? And it’s only recently that oh darn animal models actually include females… it’s those pesky hormones dammit!

Turning to the next most important relationship, apart from parents, there’s a good deal of research looking at partners. Again, there exists a bias towards heterosexual couples, so we’re a little biased here. There is a wealth of material to review in this area of pain, with some brilliant research designs such as repeated interviews over 18 months, followed by 22 days of repeated daily measures (eg Martire et al., 2019); investigating people with pain problems as common as knee osteoarthritis and chronic low back pain; and examining relationships between things like sleep, caregiving burden, catastrophising, relationship satisfaction, agreement about pain intensity between partners, beliefs and perceptions about pain on interactions, anger, stress. HEAPS of fascinating research to delve into.

And yet, how many clinicians, and programmes, routinely include partners? How accessible are treatment sessions for couples to attend? Who, in a pain management team consisting of largely physiotherapy plus a dollop of psychology, looks after this aspect of living with persistent pain? Waaay back in the day, like the mid-2010s, the facility I worked in had a social worker with experience in family systems and relationships – but there are few social workers working in pain management in New Zealand/Aotearoa, and unless something has changed that I don’t know about, our national insurer doesn’t recognise the value of social workers (and, for that matter, the need to include partners in therapy for chronic pain).

When I review the many studies of this part of “the social” and compare the findings from these investigations against current clinical practice, I see an enormous knowledge and skill gap. If the questions we ask people with pain about their relationship are “how is your relationship with your partner?” we’re probably going to hear “oh they’re really supportive” or “I don’t let them know how I am”. Without adequate knowledge about the kinds of factors that negatively influence the partner’s response to the person with pain we’re likely to be oblivious to the risk of partner abuse (56% of people in this study reported past partner abuse, while 29% of the respondents had been abused in the previous year – Craner et al., 2020); we might not be aware that spouses with poor sleep because their partner was sore, were more likely to be angry (Marini, et al., 2020); that 52% of partners without pain reported high-to-severe burden of having to do more both at work and home because their partner was sore (Suso-Ribera et al., 2020) – or that if a spouse without pain did not have confidence in the pain management of their partner with pain, they were more negative (Nah et al., 2020) or that when a spouse without pain thought their partner’s pain “was a mystery” they were more critical and made more invalidating responses (Burns et al., 2019).

You see, while “the social” is complex, difficult to research, and very broad – ranging from employment status, occupation, educational status, ethnicity, culture, gender, sex – it also includes the very intimate and formative relationships we have with our family. In New Zealand/Aotearoa, with our emphasis on Te Whare Tapa Whā as a model of health and for chronic pain, where relationships with whanau are vital, isn’t it time we addressed this lack?

Bowlby, J. (1978). Attachment theory and its therapeutic implications. Adolescent Psychiatry, 6, 5-33.

Brown, D. T., Claus, B. B., Konning, A., & Wager, J. (2022, Mar). Unified multifactorial model of parental factors in community-based pediatric chronic pain. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 47(2), 121-131. https://doi.org/doi: 10.1093/jpepsy/jsab085

Brown, D., Rosenthal, N., Konning, A., & Wager, J. (2021, Feb). Intergenerational transmission of chronic pain-related disability: The explanatory effects of depressive symptoms. Pain, 162(2), 653-662. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002066

Burns, J. W., Post, K. M., Smith, D. A., Porter, L. S., Buvanendran, A., Fras, A. M., & Keefe, F. J. (2019, Oct). Spouse and patient beliefs and perceptions about chronic pain: Effects on couple interactions and patient pain behavior. The Journal of Pain, 20(10), 1176-1186. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2019.04.001

Craner, J. R., Lake, E. S., Bancroft, K. E., & Hanson, K. M. (2020, Nov). Partner abuse among treatment-seeking individuals with chronic pain: Prevalence, characteristics, and association with pain-related outcomes. Pain Medicine, 21(11), 2789-2798. https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnaa126

Donnelly, T. J., Palermo, T. M., & Newton-John, T. R. O. (2020, Jul). Parent cognitive, behavioural, and affective factors and their relation to child pain and functioning in pediatric chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Pain, 161(7), 1401-1419. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001833

Lee, S., Dick, B. D., Jordan, A., & McMurtry, C. (2021, Nov). Psychological interventions for parents of youth with chronic pain: A scoping review. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 37(11), 825-844. https://doi.org/10.1097/AJP.0000000000000977

Marini, C. M., Martire, L. M., Jones, D. R., Zhaoyang, R., & Buxton, O. M. (2020, Jun). Daily links between sleep and anger among spouses of chronic pain patients. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 75(5), 927-936. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gby111

Martire, L. M., Zhaoyang, R., Marini, C. M., Nah, S., & Darnall, B. D. (2019). Daily and bidirectional linkages between pain catastrophizing and spouse responses. Pain, 160(12), 2841-2847. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001673

Meredith, P., Ownsworth, T., & Strong, J. (2008, Mar). A review of the evidence linking adult attachment theory and chronic pain: presenting a conceptual model. Clinical Psychology Review, 28(3), 407-429.

Nah, S., Martire, L. M., & Zhaoyang, R. (2020, Oct). Perceived patient pain and spousal caregivers’ negative affect: The moderating role of spouse confidence in patients’ pain management. Journal of Aging and Health, 32(9), 1282-1290. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898264320919631

Suso-Ribera, C., Yakobov, E., Carriere, J. S., & Garcia-Palacios, A. (2020, Oct). The impact of chronic pain on patients and spouses: Consequences on occupational status, distribution of household chores and care-giving burden. European Journal of Pain, 24(9), 1730-1740. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejp.1616