Research

Why I don’t trust my clinical reasoning: and why this matters


“See someone experienced” I hear people with pain say. “They’ll know what’s wrong with you.”

Well, based on the research I’ve read, I wouldn’t be so sure. In fact, I’m certain my own clinical reasoning is biased, prone to errors that I don’t notice, and influenced by factors that most clinicians would be horrified to think they, too, were influenced by.

Let me give you a few to ponder:

I’m interested in women and pain – and there’s a lot of evidence showing that women’s pain doesn’t get the same kind of diagnostic and management attention as men. Now part of this is due to the inherent bias in research where experimental studies often rely on male rats, mice and undergraduates because they don’t have those pesky hormonal fluctuations each month. Even volunteering to take part in a pain study has been found to be biased – people who volunteer have been shown to be more risk-taking and more extraverted (Skinner, 1982) – though to be fair this is an old study!

But contextual factors such as gender, distress and even the supposed diagnosis do influence judgements about pain intensity (Bernardes & Lima, 2011) including potentially life-threatening chest pain (Keogh, Hamid, Hamid & Ellery, 2004). Gender bias has been identified in a large literature review of gender bias in healthcare and gendered norms towards people with chronic pain (Samulowitz, Gremyr, Eriksson & Hensing, 2018).

And if you have the misfortune to be judged to have low trustworthiness and you’re a woman, you’re more likely to be thought to have less pain and to be exaggerating your pain (Schafer, Prkachin, Kaseweter & Williams, 2016). Beware if you’re overweight and a woman because you’ll be likely judged as having less intense pain, the pain will be judged as less interfering, more exaggerated and less related to “medical” factors – women’s pain in particular is likely to be judged as “psychological” and given psychological therapy rather than other treatments (Miller, Allison, Trost, De Ruddere, Wheelis, Goubert & Hirsch, 2018).

The weird thing is that the clinicians involved in these studies were oblivious to their bias. And let’s not even go there with people of colour or so-called “minority” groups such as LGBTQI.

So as clinicians our initial impressions of a person can lead us astray – and I haven’t even started with the contribution experience has on clinical reasoning. Let me go there then!

Something that cognitive psychologists have explored for some years now, is the type of thinking that we draw on for clinical reasoning. System one is “fast reasoning” – where we rapidly, instinctively and emotionally make decisions on the fly. Kahneman (1982) first described these two processes and noted that fast thinking gets better with rehearsal and are helpful especially for skilled clinicians needing to make decisions in pressured contexts, and draw on “pattern recognition” – or to be precise, draw on deviation from a recognised pattern (Preisz, 2019). System two is “slow reasoning” where decisions are made in a considered way, are not influenced by emotional state, and can be thought of as “rational.” Slow thinking is most useful where the situation is complex, where decisions need to weigh multiple pieces of information, where the situation might be novel, or where, for persistent pain in particular, there are multiple disease processes occurring.

OK, so we should choose system two, right? Not so fast! System one is hard to switch from – it’s what underpins “intuition” or “hunches” – and it gets more entrenched the more experienced we are. According to Preisz (2019), system one “seeks to form a coherent, plausible story by relying on association, memories, pattern matching and assumption.”

Why is system one thinking not so great? Well, we’re human. We’re human in the way we respond to any reasoning situation – we anchor on the first and most “plausible” ideas, and these might be unrelated to the actual presentation we see. For example, if we’ve been reading a journal article on a new treatment and its indications, it’s amazing how many people will present with those exact same indications in the next week! This is availability bias or anchoring bias. We’re also inclined to believe our own patients and judgements are different from “those people” – especially “those people” who might respond best to clinical guidelines. This means that even in the face of clear-cut research showing the lack of effects of knee arthroscopy (Brignardello-Petersen, Guyatt, Buchbinder, Poolman et al, 2017) an orthopaedic surgeon I know argued that “we choose our patients very carefully” – essentially arguing that his patients are different, and this approach is the best one.

If experienced clinicians find it hard to “unstick” from old practice, or move quickly to “intuitive” reasoning (even if it’s called “pattern recognition”), and if we all find it hard to recognise when we’re biased, or even that we are biased, what on earth should we do? All us old hands should retire maybe? All follow algorithms and not use “clinical judgement”? Take the “human” out of clinical management and use AI?

Some of these things might work. There is evidence that algorithms and AI can offer effective and (perhaps) less biased diagnosis and management than our unaided human brain (Kadhim, 2018) but there are also studies showing that direct comparisons between decision aids and clinical judgement are rarely made, and those that have been carried out don’t show superior results (Schriger, Elder, & Cooper, 2017). But watch this space: AI is a rapidly developing area and I predict greater use of this over time.

The risk with decision aids is – garbage in, garbage out. If we look at existing research we can see that male, pale and potentially stale dominates: this doesn’t bode well for people of colour, for women, for the unique and idiosyncratic combination of diseases a person can have, or for untangling the impact of disease on the person – in other words, disability and illness.

So, to summarise. We are all biased, and it’s best to acknowledge this to ourselves upfront and personal. We can then turn to strategies that may reduce the biases. For me, the one I turn to most often is a case formulation, using information gathered from a semi-structured interview and a standard set of questionnaires. These have been developed a priori so my biases in information gathering are limited. By taking time to follow a case formulation, my thinking is slowed to that more deliberative system two. At least some of the biases I know I’m prone to are mitigated.

And yet, I know I am biased. That’s why I use a supervision relationship to help me identify those biases, to be challenged and to reflect.

Bernardes, S. F., & Lima, M. L. (2011, Dec). A contextual approach on sex-related biases in pain judgements: The moderator effects of evidence of pathology and patients’ distress cues on nurses’ judgements of chronic low-back pain. Psychology & Health, 26(12), 1642-1658.

Brignardello-Petersen, R., Guyatt, G. H., Buchbinder, R., Poolman, R. W., Schandelmaier, S., Chang, Y., Sadeghirad, B., Evaniew, N., & Vandvik, P. O. (2017, May 11). Knee arthroscopy versus conservative management in patients with degenerative knee disease: a systematic review. BMJ Open, 7(5), e016114. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2017-016114

Kadhim, M. A. (2018). FNDSB: A fuzzy-neuro decision support system for back pain diagnosis. Cognitive Systems Research, 52, 691-700. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cogsys.2018.08.021

Kahneman, D., Slovic, S. P., Slovic, P., & Tversky, A. (1982). Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases. Cambridge university press.

Keogh, E., Hamid, R., Hamid, S., & Ellery, D. (2004). Investigating the effect of anxiety sensitivity, gender and negative interpretative bias on the perception of chest pain. Pain, 111(1-2), 209-217.

Miller, M. M., Allison, A., Trost, Z., De Ruddere, L., Wheelis, T., Goubert, L., & Hirsh, A. T. (2018, Jan). Differential Effect of Patient Weight on Pain-Related Judgements About Male and Female Chronic Low Back Pain Patients. J Pain, 19(1), 57-66. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2017.09.001

Preisz, A. (2019, Jun). Fast and slow thinking; and the problem of conflating clinical reasoning and ethical deliberation in acute decision-making. Journal of Paediatric Child Health, 55(6), 621-624. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpc.14447

Samulowitz, A., Gremyr, I., Eriksson, E., & Hensing, G. (2018). “Brave Men” and “Emotional Women”: A Theory-Guided Literature Review on Gender Bias in Health Care and Gendered Norms towards Patients with Chronic Pain. Pain Research and Management, 2018.

Schafer, G., Prkachin, K. M., Kaseweter, K. A., & Williams, A. C. (2016, Aug). Health care providers’ judgments in chronic pain: the influence of gender and trustworthiness. Pain, 157(8), 1618-1625. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000536

Schriger, D. L., Elder, J. W., & Cooper, R. J. (2017, Sep). Structured Clinical Decision Aids Are Seldom Compared With Subjective Physician Judgment, and Are Seldom Superior. Ann Emerg Med, 70(3), 338-344 e333. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annemergmed.2016.12.004

Skinner, N. F. (1982, 1982/12/01). Personality characteristics of volunteers for painful experiments. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 20(6), 299-300. https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03330107

Knowledge gaps for working together


Whenever we work with someone living with pain, we form a team. A team, by definition, is “a distinguishable set of two or more people who interact dynamically, interdependently, and adaptively towards a common and valued goal/objective/mission” (Salas et al., 1992). So while many clinicians work outside an interprofessional team, they are always working in a team consisting of at least the person with pain, and themselves.

There’s a good deal of research on teamwork, and a heap of references in pain management literature on the benefits and, indeed, the need, to work in a team for best outcomes (both in terms of effects for the person and in terms of cost-effectiveness). Gilliam and colleagues (2018) demonstrate that long-term outcomes are retained by participants attending an interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation programme, while Guildford and colleaguees (2018) also showed reductions in analgesic use during an interdisciplinary pain management programme. It’s not new news folks!

Teamwork is well-investigated in health, particularly interprofessional/interdisciplinary teamwork. Much of this research, however, is focused on nursing and medicine interactions, with rather less attention paid to allied health and nursing/medicine teamwork. This matters because while nursing and medicine are moving away from the old medical model, the professions probably represent the two most similar in terms of clinical models. And this matters because one thing that’s found to be important for good teamwork in health is having a shared mental model (for example – from operation room – Wilson, 2019).

All good so far – nothing new here, move along, right?

Hold it right there, folks.

You see, when we work together in a team, particularly for people with persistent pain, we often generate a heap of new information about the person we hope to help. In New Zealand, the person will have completed the ePPOC set of questionnaires, then there will probably have been some physical performance testing, maybe some basic ROM, and muscle testing, perhaps some daily life functioning tasks, certainly some more psychological questionnaires, if the person sees a medical practitioner, there will be the obligatory bloods, urine, perhaps imaging – you know what I mean! A heap of information that each clinician deems necessary and I haven’t yet gone into each clinician’s desire to “hear the story from the beginning again!”

What’s lacking in our research on teamwork in persistent pain is discussion about how we assemble this information so that we move from a multidisciplinary team – Multidisciplinary teams involve people from different health disciplines working alongside one another while using clinical models drawn from their own professional discipline (Körner, 2010) – to an interprofessional/interdisciplinary team – Interdisciplinary teams also involve people from different health disciplines working alongside one another but meet regularly to collaborate on treatment goals and priorities (Ruan & Kaye, 2016). There is limited hierarchy and considerable communication, cooperation and often overlap between team members (Körner, 2010).

Not only a lack of a shared mental model (because we all think our model is The Best), we also lack an understanding of team processes. How do we develop an effective way to communicate, to cooperate, to deal with conflict in an open and creative way, to coordinate our work so things happen at the right time, to be coached so that the team-as-a-whole moves in the same direction and new people coming to the team feel part of the culture? Not forgetting that teams work in an ever-changing context, and team membership changes over time, while the overall team culture is something that emerges from a team collective (Salas, et al., 2015).

Are pain rehabilitation teams different from teams working in older person’s health, or palliative care, or as part of a primary health team?

I suspect so, but I can’t find good research detailing how our pain teams are different. It’s like a black box of mystery (a bit like interprofessional pain management programmes – one murky black box out of which a person pops!)

I’m left with this feeling that because teams in pain management and rehabilitation have become scarce in most part of the US, and that this is where all the research funding lives, there’s not very much that we actually know. We don’t know who holds the positions of power – is it the medical practitioner? the psychologist? the physiotherapist? the occupational therapist? Who makes the call as to when it’s time to work with the person to move from pain reduction to living well alongside pain? Are the team members actually using a common model or are they really working in parallel? And how can a team be maintained over time – I’ve had the privilege of working in a very close-knit and effective team for some years, but I’ve seen that team become smaller, fragmented, more multidisciplinary than interprofessional, with limited attention to processes of induction, developing effective conflict management, and really becoming weakened.

There is one conclusion I can draw from the mountains of material I’ve been learning and it’s this: it’s impossible to put a bunch of clinicians together and call them a team without putting effort in to develop those processes I’ve listed above. And when was the last time you attended a CPD session on “how to work in a team?”

Gilliam, W. P., Craner, J. R., Cunningham, J. L., Evans, M. M., Luedtke, C. A., Morrison, E. J., Sperry, J. A., & Loukianova, L. L. (2018). Longitudinal Treatment Outcomes for an Interdisciplinary Pain Rehabilitation Program: Comparisons of Subjective and Objective Outcomes on the Basis of Opioid Use Status. J Pain, 19(6), 678-689. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2018.02.010

Guildford, B. J., Daly-Eichenhardt, A., Hill, B., Sanderson, K., & McCracken, L. M. (2018). Analgesic reduction during an interdisciplinary pain management programme: treatment effects and processes of change. Br J Pain, 12(2), 72-86. https://doi.org/10.1177/2049463717734016

Körner, M. (2010). Interprofessional teamwork in medical rehabilitation: a comparison of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary team approach. Clinical Rehabilitation, 24(8), 745-755. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269215510367538

Ruan, X., & Kaye, A. D. (2016). A Call for Saving Interdisciplinary Pain Management. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther, 46(12), 1021-1023. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.2016.0611

Salas, E., Dickinson, T. L., Converse, S. A., & Tannenbaum, S. I. (1992). Toward an understanding of team performance and training. In Teams: Their training and performance. (pp. 3-29). Ablex Publishing.

Salas, E., Shuffler, M. L., Thayer, A. L., Bedwell, W. L., & Lazzara, E. H. (2015). Understanding and Improving Teamwork in Organizations: A Scientifically Based Practical Guide. Human Resource Management, 54(4), 599-622. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrm.21628

Wilson, A. (2019). Creating and applying shared mental models in the operating room. Journal of Perioperative Nursing, 32(3), 33.

The stigma of being a woman in pain


Women, it is often thought, must be much tougher than men when it comes to dealing with pain – after all, don’t women have babies without anaesthetic? Don’t men faint at the sight of a needle?

Ummmm, not quite so fast. Now before I begin, in this post I’m referring to cis-gender females, and in the experiments, participants were selected on the basis that they believed that negative gender discrimination was a thing. And as I write this post, I want to be clear that sometimes we have to begin with a very simplified model before research can be conducted on a much more messy cohort – and that this doesn’t negate the incredibly harmful and known effects of gender discrimination, and trans/inter/queer experiences. I can only hope that by starting this kind of research, as a community we’ll begin to understand the terrible impact that stigma has on people.

This paper investigated whether stigma related to one’s identity influenced the perception of nociceptive stimulation. It’s written off the back of earlier research showing that when people are excluded socially, their experience of nociceptive stimulation was greater (ie people didn’t need as much stimulation for it to be perceived as painful) (Eisenberger, Jarcho, Lieberman & Naliboff, 2006). Other studies have shown that people with low back pain who perceive themselves as stigmatised reported greater pain intensity, and that stigmatisation is the main source of social consequences for this group of people (Zhang, Barreto & Doyle, 2020).

These researchers (Zhang, Zhang, Li, Hu, Kong & Su, 2021) conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that stigmatised women would experience greater pain intensity with nociceptive stimulation.
The first experiment used tonic cold pain (cold pressor test) in participants who had already been selected because they believed they had been stigmatised as a woman, asked them to immerse their hand in icy cold water (1 degree C) for as long as they could (to a maximum of 3 minutes), then take part in a mock online job interview. Some of the participants were told that was the end of the study; another group were told they were successful in the interview; and a third group were told that “woman are generally not suitable candidates for these kinds of jobs”; and the final group were simply told “you didn’t get the job” with no reason given. The latter three groups then underwent another cold pressor test as before. And finally they were all debriefed.

The researchers found that those who were told “women are generally not suitable for this kind of work” did feel more stigmatised than the others, and not only reported more sensitivity to cold (threshold) but also showed lower tolerance to the pain experienced in the cold pressor test.

The second experiment involved women who were selected as above. This group of women were shown images downloaded from Google – one set was of content showing devaluing of women, while another set were control or neutral images. The authors used a heat stimulation this time, and randomly showed either neutral or stigmatising images just before the heat was applied. Participants rated the pain after each stimulation.

The results of this experiment showed that when participants were shown the stigmatising content, they reported higher pain intensity from the same nociceptive stimulation. In other words – stigma-inducing images led to these women reporting more pain when given the same amount of heat stimulus.

Not content with this, the researchers conducted a third experiment, this time examining nociceptive-evoked brain responses. They used the same experimental design as for the second experiment, but instead of self-reporting, participants had EEG signals recorded during each heat stimulation.

The results of this experiment once again showed that when participants were shown stigmatising images, they rated their pain experience more highly, and that this was reflected in the EEG results they obtained. N1 amplitude and P2 latency in time and LEP magnitude in the time-frequency domain were influenced by the stigmatising cues.

What does this all mean?

Well, for one thing it’s nice to see research being conducted in women (there’s a bit of a bias against women being involved in basic science pain research because of that pesky old hormone thing – see Samuloitz, Gremyr, Eriksson & Hensing (2018) for more). And for a study to have positive findings.

I’m particularly interested in the brain responses – simply by manipulating the sense of stigma, the same nociceptive stimulation was processed differently. Now this isn’t the same as saying “psychological factors cause pain” because this study is not looking at that – nociceptive stimulation was included – but the same nociceptive stimulation was prioritised in parts of the brain usually active in emotional responses, while P2 is an area involved in the “advanced stage of perceptual processing” was activated sooner in the stigmatised manipulation than in the control condition. The authors argue that because stigma is a threat to sense of self, and because this sense of threat can lead to vigilance about potentially stigmatising cues, greater attentional processing is allocated to threat information, and this in turn, enhances the experience of pain. The greater N1 amplitude demonstrate that attention was drawn to stigmatising material and then influenced the subsequent nociceptive information.

Let’s take a moment to consider the implications of this. Many women have reported their feelings of being devalued both because of their gender as well as their reports of pain. Women may be told “there’s no cure for being a woman” and given inadequate pain relief for period pain (true story). Women do report more pain, are more likely to develop persistent pain, and seek help for pain more readily than men. The latter can be seen as a bad thing – shouldn’t we just “cope”?

Implicit attitudes towards women remain throughout our society, despite the efforts of Kate Sheppard who was one of the women who worked so hard to enable women to vote (in New Zealand, in 19 September 1893). People with pain are also often stigmatised. My post last week is intriguing in that I pointed out that we cannot determine who is, or isn’t, “faking”. It’s the only post I’ve had with nearly 40 votes, but a total score of 2/5. It’s unplatable to some to think that a subjective experience is just that – subjective, not able to be measured, and for clinicians, that we need to accept what a person says without judgement. Stigma is judgement – let’s not do it.

N. I. Eisenberger, J. M. Jarcho, M. D. Lieberman, and B. D. Naliboff, (2006)“An experimental study of shared sensitivity to physical pain and social rejection,” Pain, 126(1), pp. 132– 138.

Samulowitz, A., Gremyr, I., Eriksson, E., & Hensing, G. (2018). “Brave men” and “emotional women”: A theory-guided literature review on gender bias in health care and gendered norms towards patients with chronic pain. Pain Research and Management, 2018.

Waugh, O. C., Byrne, D. G., & Nicholas, M. K. (2014). Internalized stigma in people living with chronic pain. The Journal of Pain, 15(5), 550-e1.

M. Zhang, M. Barreto, and D. Doyle, (2020) “Stigma-based rejection experiences affect trust in others,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11(3), pp. 308–316, 2020.

Zhang, M., Zhang, Y., Li, Z., Hu, L., Kong, Y., & Su, J. (2021). Sexism-Related Stigma Affects Pain Perception. Neural Plasticity, 2021, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1155/2021/6612456

Not all pain is the same


When I started working in the field of persistent pain, many of the approaches used were based on the idea that every pain was the same. Oh yes, of course we had neuropathic pain and inflammatory pain, but our treatments tended to approach each person as if they were pretty similar. We later refined that approach and started to look at people in groups. In the service I worked in, we used the Westhaven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory which generates three main psychologically-based profiles – and for a long time this was a very useful way of establishing who needed the three-week residential programme, and who would do well with a briefer outpatient programme.

Well things change over time, and we’ve become more aware of what Clifford Woolf describes as a “mechanism-based” classification approach (Woolf, 2004). In this approach, clinicians try to establish the dominant mechanistic group in which a person’s pain might be classified, then suit the treatment to that mechanism. This means clinicians diagnose inflammatory pain, neuropathic pain, and nociplastic pain – and use what looks like the best combination of medications to suit the mechanisms. For example, for neuropathic pain it’s more likely people will be given gabapentin/pregabalin and a tricyclic antidepressant in combination than an opioid.

There’s a problem, though – in fact, TWO problems I can see.

Methods for identifying pain mechanistic groups

The first problem is that we don’t have wonderful methods for establishing the main mechanistic groups.

In fact, in a recent very large and thorough review of methods used to discriminate between each category, the authors found that “few methods have been validated for discrimination between pain mechanism categories”, and although there was “general convergence” between methods, there was also “some disagreement” (not that this is unfamiliar to anyone who reads research!) Shraim, Masse-Alarie, & Hodges, 2021).

What was interesting, albeit not too unexpected, was the overlap of findings between categories because people present with mixed types of pain; and that many of the studies attempted to only discriminate between two of the groups, rather than more. Having said this, the authors identified five groups of method used to help clinicians and researchers distinguish between pain mechanisms: clinical examination; quantitative sensory testing; imaging; diagnostic and laboratory tests; and questionnaires asking participants to describe their experiences.

Now I know that research studies aim to be a little more rigorous than clinical practice, but that should sound an alarm when we begin looking at what we need to do in clinical practice. “Subjective” pain examination included aggravating and easing factors, pain location and pain characteristics (can anyone tell me when pain is NOT subjective?). It also included psychological factors (although my radar went off at this – more of this later!). Physical examination (is this supposed to be ‘objective’ pain examination?) included general clinical assessment, general neurological testing, nerve provocation testing and neurodynamics, clinical bedside somatosensory function testing, movement and functional testing. Quantitative sensory testing had no greater degree of sensitive, specificity and reliability than physical examination and “subjective” history, and laboratory testing was pretty poor despite superficially looking more “accurate.” A similar state exists for questionnaires – oh lordy!

So these authors found 200 methods that could be used to determine which pain fits into a specific box, but overall the results are pretty underwhelming for clinicians wanting a direction for their approach. It’s not helped that the current “gold standard” used is – wait for it – clinician-based diagnosis.

Where are we left? Well, I think we’re not that far away from where we were in the 1990’s and early 2000s. We really don’t have a clear way to distinguish between the various mechanisms, and many people likely present with pain that includes more than mechanism. However – these authors provide a table summarising the commonly used, and possibly most likely approaches to diagnose pain mechanisms, and this is useful for those of us who want the “best guess” for now.

Problem two

At the beginning of this piece, I said there were two problems with using mechanistic descriptors. You can see the problems with reliability, specificity and so on – and the lack of agreement in the research and likely “mixed” presentations we will see in clinic – from my comments above (do read the whole article, though, it’s well worth it).

The second problem is that these descriptors, even when accurate and reliable, don’t tell us anything about the person experiencing pain. Unless, and until we have effective treatments for each of these mechanisms, we are inevitably running experiments to see what might work for this person in front of us. And this means we find less utility in diagnosis than we would if we drew on a case formulation approach.

What’s the difference? Diagnosis allows us to group “like with like” – on the basis of similar underlying mechanisms. We can then treat those mechanisms, and voila! the person recovers! It works well with fractures, with infectious diseases, and even with diabetes. It doesn’t work as well when we don’t have treatments we can use on the mechanisms. For example, although we can diagnose many neurological disorders, for so many of them we have very poor treatments. This means people live with their disease – and this is where a diagnosis falls down. It does not tell us HOW this person will experience their disease. Diagnosis doesn’t explain illness, disability, functional status, or participation.

And, because all of us are unique, this means that a one-size-fits-all approach to persistent pain (or even an algorithm, subtype, or subgroup) isn’t likely to offer clinicians or the person with pain a useful path towards well-being.

You’ll remember I said my radar went off with the psychological assessments included in the methods used to identify a pain mechanism. My reason is this: pain is a stressor. Even a paper-cut captures my attention (albeit just a little until I use a hand sanitiser!), my heart rate goes up a bit, I’m alerted to the experience and want to get away from it. Now imagine if that pain continued. Maybe variably, maybe constantly, maybe intermittently. And imagine if I couldn’t get a good understanding of what’s going on. And perhaps I was being questioned by my clinicians – and maybe even stigmatised. “What do you mean, you have pain we can’t diagnose, we can’t image, we can’t treat?” I’m guessing by now, perhaps some months after my pain started, I’d be feeling a bit irritated, perhaps a bit low in mood, my sleep might not be great, I might find it hard to do what matters to me because I’m not sure if I’m doing myself some harm.

What we don’t know in many studies of pain “predictors” is whether they are cause or effect. There is undoubtedly an association between various measures of pain-related anxiety, avoidance, low mood, thinking the worst. What we do not know is whether this was present before the pain came on – or whether it came afterwards.

So, to my mind, using psychological factors as part of diagnosis risks labelling people and what are probably normal responses to abnormal experiences. Let’s not do that.

Where am I left after reading this paper? I’m glad someone set about doing this review. I think it offers a good summary of the state of play, and identifies some of the current problems with a mechanistic approach. We need to get consensus on definitions, we need far better methods, we need to stop using the word “subjective pain examination” (because ALL pain is subjective), and we need to leave psychological factors out of diagnosis until we can clearly identify which came first.

Shraim, M. A., Masse-Alarie, H., & Hodges, P. W. (2021, Apr 1). Methods to discriminate between mechanism-based categories of pain experienced in the musculoskeletal system: a systematic review. Pain, 162(4), 1007-1037. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002113

Woolf CJ. Pain: moving from symptom control toward mechanism-specific pharmacologic management. Ann Intern Med 2004;140:441–51.

What happens to pain over 21 years?


No! I was not born then… I’m much older than that. No, in this longitudinal cohort study, participants recruited from the general public in Sweden were surveyed five times: at inception in 1995, again in 1998, 2003, 2007 and 2016. The article I’m reporting on included all respondents who had completed information on at least 3 of the 5 time points, a total of 1858 people! That’s a decent-sized study.

Longitudinal studies are really hard to do but offer us so much information about what happens over time to a group of people and it’s something we need to do more often. The problems with longitudinal studies are that people drop out, get lost to the researchers, they cost a lot to run, and research changes over time so the research questions may change, the measurement instruments may change, and it’s difficult to predict the variables that might be relevant at the beginning of the study. So, hats off to Aili, Campbell, Michaleff, Strauss, Jordan, Bremander et al (2021) who carried out this study!

Like many of these longitudinal studies, the authors developed an analysis in which groups of people who share similar characteristics in their persistent pain were identified. By following these groups over time, researchers are able to identify who changes, who doesn’t, and to identify some of the predictive factors that might put a person in the “at risk” group for developing increasingly poor outcomes. The “so what” factor for this type of study is that by identifying “at risk” people early on in their trajectory with pain, it may be possible to develop interventions that could help reduce this risk and that has to be both a human and economic gain for a community. In this instance, in order to interpret the findings, it’s important to remember that Sweden and other countries in the world don’t all look alike, have different healthcare systems, different genetic factors, and different social structures that can influence the process. So bear that in mind as I proceed.

The question asked about pain was this: “have you experienced pain lasting more than 3 months during the last 12 months?” Participants were then asked to indicate the location of the pain using a manikin with 18 predefined bodily regions in the musculoskeletal system; head and abdomen were not included (that latter one is a bit of a problem for me, tbh – given abdominal pain is a common experience for many women…). Participants were then identified as either having no chronic pain, or chronic widespread pain or chronic regional pain.

Sleep, health status, socio-economic status, treatment-seeking (for pain), lifestyle factors (alcohol, tobacco use), immigrant status and social support were also analysed.

Now for the statistics! Latent class growth analysis was used to identify common patterns or trajectories of pain over the time of the study. This analysis clusters participants according to their pain status over time, with each cluster representing a certain pattern of pain over time – participants were placed in a group where they had the highest probability of belonging based on their individual pattern of pain over time.

Results

At the beginning of the study, nearly 13% of participants reported chronic widespread pain, with just over a quarter (25.3%) reporting chronic regional pain. Using the analysis and various confirmatory statistical processes, the authors identified a 4-cluster model, and a 5-cluster model. Both models included a group that had NO ongoing pain at all, as well as a group with ongoing widespread pain. The preferred model was the 4-cluster model, as this had four different but clinically meaningful patterns – persistent no pain; persistent chronic widespread pain; those moving from chronic regional pain to chronic widespread pain, and a change trajectory: eg no chronic pain to chronic regional pain or chronic widespread pain. The cluster identified as including those who typically migrated from NCP to CRP or CWP was the smallest (5% of the sample), and the least reliably detected.

The trajectories are really interesting: (1) 47% of people never reported persistent pain at all over the 21 years. 5% pf people reporting no pain initially, but then moved to chronic regional pain or chronic widespread pain over time. (2) 22% of people reported chronic pain initially, or moved from chronic pain to no pain over time – the authors argue that the cluster of people may have chronic regional pain initially and migrate between chronic regional pain and no pain over time. (3) 10% of the group moved from chronic regional pain to chronic widespread pain and this grew more likely over time. (4) The final group were a small group (6%) of people who continued to report chronic widespread pain over the whole 21 years

The predictors for those in group (3) were being female, seeking care for pain over the preceding 12 months, lack of social support, poor physical function, poor vitality, and poor mental health. Being a manual worker nearly made the cut, and in an age-adjusted analysis, did for the group moving to widespread pain. Age (middle-age!), poor sleep, smoking and being an immigrant also tended towards having a poorer prognosis.

What on earth does this mean?

Well, one exciting thing is that a large group of people never experience persistent pain. This might imply that these people are generally more healthy, and it can also help explain why some people living with pain feel so alienated from the rest of their community. If most people around you don’t develop pain, then they most likely don’t understand what it might be like to live with pain 24/7.

When we look at the factors that predicted moving from no pain to chronic pain, there were several factors that can be modified to reduce the risk: sleep problems, poor physical and mental health, poor vitality, seeking treatment, and limited social support. Perhaps by addressing these factors, some people might find their move towards greater pain could be reversed, or at least halted. My question is, however, whether treatment seeking might reflect the fact the person wasn’t feel great either physically or mentally, and for some people, being unwell might mean withdrawing from social interaction, so it’s not entirely simple to interpret.

The authors point out that “The highest risk of belonging to the group developing CRP or CWP is seen in age groups below 50 years. Previously published figures from baseline data in this study show a prevalence of over 20% of chronic pain already among 20 to 29 year olds. The overall image is that long-term patterns of pain are already becoming established by the time adulthood is reached, and rising age in adulthood increases the likelihood of stable patterns over time.” [italics mine] They also point out that women who develop pain have a greater risk for developing long-term and increasingly widespread pain. Other important factors for this group were those who were older, had poor sleep, worked in a manual job, drank less alcohol, were immigrants, had less education, generally poor health, more care seeking and low social support.

To me, this study shows the impact of living on the fringes of our society – the women (in particular) who work manual jobs like cleaning, who left school early, perhaps moved to a new country and have few friends, and were probably quite stressed – leading to poor sleep, and poorer health, with consequent treatment seeking. What are we doing to help these women? Here in New Zealand, we can probably add Māori, Pasifika, refugees, and people who don’t speak English terribly well. How well are our current pain management services working for these people?

Aili, K., Campbell, P., Michaleff, Z. A., Strauss, V. Y., Jordan, K. P., Bremander, A., Croft, P., & Bergman, S. (2021, May 1). Long-term trajectories of chronic musculoskeletal pain: a 21-year prospective cohort latent class analysis. Pain, 162(5), 1511-1520. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002137

Modifying pain behaviour (1)


In my post last week I talked about pain behaviour and why pain behaviours are often a good treatment target in pain rehabilitation. I also talked about pain intensity rating scales and how, because rating scales are a form of communication, the numbers we obtain from them aren’t a true measure of pain: they reflect what the person wants to communicate about their pain to someone at that time and in that context.

This week I want to discuss modifying pain behaviour, and believe me, we are all in the business of modifying behaviour even if we think we’re doing something completely different!

Ethics

One of the issues about modifying behaviour is addressed right at the beginning of Fordyce’s chapter on “Techniques of behavioral analysis and behavior change” and this is the ethical issue of informed consent. It’s important because behaviour change using behaviour modification techniques can operate without the person’s awareness (and does so All The Time). As clinicians, though, we have an obligation to ensure we obtain informed consent from our patient/client before we embark on any treatment. Of course, you and I know that this doesn’t happen in the way that I’d like to see it! When I’m a patient, I’d like to have my options laid out in front of me, with the pro’s and con’s over both short and long term clearly explained. Then I can choose the option that I prefer. But actually, most of the time I’ve received treatment from any clinician, I’ve been given little or no information about alternatives – it’s been assumed that I’ll go along with what the clinician has chosen for me. How’s that for informed consent?

Back to behaviour change. Fordyce clearly details the approach he prefers which is clear discussion with the person about what is proposed – that “well” behaviour will be reinforced via social interaction and “praise”, and “unwell” behaviour will either be ignored or redirected.

Behaviour change done badly

Where I’ve seen behaviour modification done badly is where the clinician fails to indicate to the person that this is the approach being taken (ie no informed consent), where this is applied to all people irrespective of their treatment goals and without discriminating the types of behaviours to be modified, and where it’s applied without empathy or compassion. The kind of “one size fits all” approach. More about this in a minute.

Fordyce points out that “almost every behaviour change problem can be analysed into one or a combination of these three possibilities: 1) Some behaviour is not occurring often enough and needs to be increased or strengthened; 2) some behaviour is occurring too frequently and needs to be diminished in frequency or strength or eliminated; and 3) there is behaviour missing from the person’s repertoire that is needed and that therefore must be learned or acquired.”

Behavioural analysis (lite – more to come in another post!)

So we can work out which behaviours to focus on, as clinicians we need to do some behavioural analysis. This is often best carried out by observing the person – best in his or her natural environment because the contextual cues are present there – but at a pinch, in a clinic setting. I like video for analysing behaviour, particularly something like limping or guarding or compensatory movements, but larger repertoires of behaviour can be self-reported. For example, if someone recognises that they’re resting more often than they want (especially useful if the person values returning to work), then the person can time how long they rest for and work to reduce that time. Fitness trackers or movement trackers can be great for monitoring this. Other options include asking the person’s family about the particular behaviours they notice as indicators that the person is having trouble with their pain: people around the person with pain often know what’s happening well before the person has said anything!

Now this raises my earlier point about lacking empathy or compassion. It doesn’t feel normal to ignore someone who is wincing, looking “pained” or talking about how much they hurt. And this is why, I think, many clinicians don’t enjoy using behaviour modification in a deliberate way – it either feels unsympathetic, so we avoid it, or we do a 180 turn and we apply “ignore all pain behaviour” indiscriminately. Fordyce definitely did NOT suggest this!

Being human in behaviour change

So, how do we approach a person who is distressed? Do we ignore them or comfort them or what? In true time-honoured tradition, I’m going to say “It depends.”

First, we need to analyse the function of the distress in this context, and in the context of our treatment goals. Remember informed consent! We need to clearly articulate and obtain agreement for our behavioural target, and if someone is distressed and this isn’t our target, then we need to respond in an empathic and supportive way. If we’ve observed, however, that the person we’re working with is often distressed as we begin a new activity, perhaps one that pulls the person towards doing something unfamiliar or a bit scary, then we might have a conversation with the person about what we’ve seen, and with agreement, begin to modify our response.

When I describe “function” of distress in this context, I mean “what does the distress elicit from us, and for the person?” – what are the consequences of that distress for the person? If we reduce our expectations from the person, or the person avoids doing the new activity, then we can probably identify that the distress is functioning to reduce the demands we’re putting on the person. Our behaviour as a clinician is being modified by the behaviour of the person – and probably unwittingly. Reducing demands reduces anxiety, a bit, and it may be anxiety about doing that movement (or experiencing pain as a result of doing that movement) that’s eliciting distress. I wouldn’t say being distressed in this context is deliberate – but it’s functioning to draw us away from maintaining the treatment goals we developed with the person.

So what can we do? In this instance, we might remind the person of our agreement to stick to our plan of activity, we can acknowledge that they’re feeling anxious (that’s probably why we’re doing this activity in the first place!), we can reassure the person that we trust that they can do this (boosting self-efficacy via verbal encouragement), and we can maintain our treatment goal.

That’s hard!

Yep. Using this approach is not for the faint-hearted. It means we need to be observant, to always be thinking not just about the form of behaviour we’re seeing, but about its function. We need to monitor our own behaviour (verbal, facial expressions, subtle body shifts, all the non-verbal “tells” we make), and we need to change our own responses to what the person does. And often we find this self-awareness difficult to do. Most of our responses are “automatic” or habitual, and behaviour modification means we need to interrupt our habitual responses so we can help our patient/client do what matters to them.

For a brilliant description of Fordcye’s approach as applied in a case study, Fordyce, Shelton & Dundore (1982) is a great example of how a seriously disabled person was helped via this approach. Remember, this was carried out with the person’s full consent! Chapter 4 of Fordyce’s Behavioral Methods for Chronic Pain and Illness gives the best blow-by-blow description of how to go about this. And for a rebuttal to some of the criticisms of a behavioural approach to pain management, Fordyce, Roberts and Sternbach (1985) offer some very helpful points. That paper also offers some of the best analyses of pain behaviour and why it’s needed as part of pain rehabilitation.

Fordyce, W. E., Shelton, J. L., & Dundore, D. E. (1982). The modification of avoidance learning pain behaviors. Journal of behavioral medicine, 5(4), 405-414.

Fordyce, W. E., Roberts, A. H., & Sternbach, R. A. (1985). The behavioral management of chronic pain: a response to critics. Pain, 22(2), 113-125.

Pain behaviour: what is it and what do we do about it?


I’m re-reading Fordyce’s classic Behavioral Methods for Chronic Pain and Illness and once again I’m struck by how many of the concepts he introduced and systematically investigated are either mis-interpreted and ignored in our current approaches to helping people with persistent pain. Today I’ll explore just a tiny portion of what Fordyce described.

Pain behaviour refers to all the observable actions we do in relation to experiencing pain (NB some people include thoughts as well, but for today I’ll just focus on observable actions). There are roughly two groups of actions: those involuntary ones that we can call nocifensive responses that include reflex withdrawal underpinned by spinal reflexes but including brainstem circuits (see Barik, Hunter Thompson, Seltzer, Ghitani & Chesler, 2018); and those that are developed and shaped by learning (operant conditioning as well as social learning).

When I write about learning, I often have comments about this suggesting people have a choice about what they do, and that this learning must involve conscious awareness – the upshot of these comments is the idea that if we just tell someone that they’re doing something, information alone will be sufficient to change how often they’re doing it. Well, I don’t know about you, but if you’ve ever chewed your nails, changed your diet, decided to go on a social media diet, or do more exercise, you’ll know that there’s an enormous gap between knowing about and being able to follow through. So let me review some of the processes involved in learning and pain behaviour.

Pain behaviour probably has evolutionary significance. What we do when we’re sore acts as a signal to others, whether those actions are voluntary or involuntary. For example, while limping off-loads weight from the sore limb, it can also function to let other people know there’s something wrong. Groaning or sighing also lets people around us know that we’re not OK. Remembering that we’re a social species, being able to let others know that we need help – or not to do what we just did – means we’re more likely to receive attention, and also to warn others about potential danger. Of course, by eliciting help, we’re kinda obligated to help others when they do the same, which may be why when we see someone demonstrating prolonged pain behaviours we tend to feel annoyed: we might be asking ourselves “If they’re not going to reciprocate, why would I help? Dem’s the rules”

Now pain behaviour is also subject to learning principles. In other words, the specific behaviours we do develop in form and frequency depending on context. The underlying analysis goes like this: an antecedent is present (maybe it’s a particular person, location, or occasion), the behaviour occurs, then something in the environment/context occurs – and it’s this “something in the environment/context” that influences whether the behaviour is repeated, and/or the frequency of that behaviour. The easiest example of this is when you watch a three-year-old playing just a little distance from Mum and Dad. When she trips and falls, she’ll probably get up and brush herself down – and then you’ll see her look for Mum or Dad, and if they’re close enough, she’ll probably let out a bit of wail. In the context of Mum and Dad and her falling over, she’s learned that if she cries she’s likely to get a cuddle or some attention, and this is nice. In the absence of Mum and Dad, if she trips she’s less likely to cry because she’s not likely to get that cuddle. Clever huh?

So if that kind of learning occurs from the time we’re little, it’s easy to see how rapidly this pattern of behaving can become habitual, and when it’s habitual it’s unlikely to be something the child is aware she’s doing. Crying, or seeking attention, when we’re sore is something we’ve learned to do from an early age and while the form of that attention likely differs as we mature, the underlying mechanisms still apply (please don’t scream the place down when you go get your Covid vaccination! It’s OK for babies to cry, but not quite so socially appropriate for grown-ups to cry!).

How does the form of that behaviour change? It’s called “shaping” and it is something that occurs naturally through social learning, and it can also occur in a planned way. Take the example of the three-year-old falling and crying: crying is probably OK outdoors where there’s plenty of room and not too much attention being paid to the interactions between parents and child. Take that same behaviour indoors, perhaps in a supermarket or worse – a quiet waiting room – and it’s likely the parents will shush the child more quickly, and be a little more firm about any ongoing wailing. The context is different, the parents respond differently, and the child learns that it’s not OK to cry loudly where there are other people who might not approve. Over time children learn that in different contexts, different ways to attract attention are required. Clearly there’s more technical language we can use to describe this process, but for our purposes this is enough.

Why do we care about this?

Pain behaviour is normal. It’s something we all do. Mostly it functions in a positive way. We signal to others that we need help, we protect the sore body part, and gradually we recover and resume normal life. In some contexts, though, the tendency to continue doing pain behaviours outlives its welcome. In persistent pain it’s particularly problematic, but it’s also problematic in acute pain situations.

Let’s take the example of the dreaded pain rating scale. The 0 = no pain to 10 = most severe pain I can imagine scale. In the context of an emergency room, being asked to rate pain is a quick and very practical way for clinicians to decide how severe the presumed injury/tissue damage is, whether the person needs analgesia, and whether they’re responding to it. Give a number less than 3 or 4 and you’re probably not going to get a lot of pain relief. Give a number closer to 10, and you’ll get something. Give a number greater than 10 and you may get raised eyebrows. In an experiment by Herta Flor (Flor, Knost & Birbaumer, 2002), participants were given an electric shock and asked to rate their pain intensity (also nociceptive detection threshold (aka pain threshold) and pain tolerance). After they’d rated their pain over several trials, they were given one of two conditions: one in which they were given smiley faces and money when their rating was higher than their average rating for the previous trials, and one in which they were given a sad smiley when their rating was lower than their average. Flor and colleagues found that those people who had been given positive smiley faces for higher pain ratings rated their pain intensity significantly higher than those who had been given neutral or negative smileys.

This experiment doesn’t reflect changes in pain intensity. And this is a critical point to note! The stimuli were the same across both groups. What changed was the response offered to participants after they rated their pain. In other words, behaviour associated with experiencing pain and the resultant rewards given for higher ratings was reinforced.

This experiment, along with a large number of others, is one reason why I don’t like pain intensity measures being taken at every treatment session. Pain intensity ratings are behaviours subject to the contingencies that all behaviour is subject to – people learn what to do, and they do it. And they’re unaware of this process.

We often rely on pain intensity ratings in both experimental studies and clinical practice. Unfortunately, while a numeric rating scale or visual analogue scale are quick and dirty, they’re not like a pain thermometer. We just don’t have an objective measure of pain intensity. And we forget this.

Where am I going with this?

A couple of points. I don’t think we can always influence a person’s experience of their pain. This means that we’re often needing to influence what they do about it – because prolonged distress and disability is not good for anyone. Given the social nature of our species, and the involuntary nature of our response to another person’s distress, we’re inclined to try to reduce distress by offering comfort. Nothing wrong with that except where it gets in the way of the person beginning to do things for themselves. As clinicians we need to reinforce actions a person does to increase their capabilities. We also need to limit our reinforcement of illness behaviour, and we need to do this with the consent of the person – being open about why we’re doing this. Remember people learn this stuff without knowing they’re learning it! This means that as clinicians we must stop judging people and what they do in response to pain. Pain behaviour is learned over a loooong time, and it’s reinforced in so many places. People don’t do pain behaviour on purpose. So we can’t judge people as being “non-copers” or having “exaggerated illness behaviour” – we can just gently show the person what happens, why it happens, and what the effect of that pattern of behaving is having on their life.

The second point is that we can’t treat pain ratings as Truth with a T, and think that we’re getting a pure measure of pain intensity – because rating pain on a scale is a behaviour, and it’s influenced in exactly the same way as all behaviours are. This doesn’t mean ignoring someone’s pain intensity – it just means we need to listen to what the person is trying to communicate.

Barik, A., Thompson, J. H., Seltzer, M., Ghitani, N., & Chesler, A. T. (2018). A Brainstem-Spinal Circuit Controlling Nocifensive Behavior. Neuron, 100(6), 1491-1503 e1493. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2018.10.037

Flor, Herta, Knost, Bärbel, & Birbaumer, Niels. (2002). The role of operant conditioning in chronic pain: an experimental investigation. Pain, 95(1), 111-118. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0304-3959(01)00385-2

Musing on “the social” in pain rehabilitation


What do we think about when we consider “the social” as a factor in pain rehabilitation? Do we think of socioeconomic status? Maybe employment status? Perhaps societal attitudes towards pain and recovery? Do we ask if the person has someone they trust in their life? Maybe we even discuss how a relationship is going, whether the person sees their friends and family?

Have we forgotten that possibly the most potent influences on pain behaviour are the people around the person we’re seeing?

It will be no surprise to anyone reading my work over the past 10 or more years (yes, really! it HAS been that long!) that I love reading older pain theorists, researchers and historic approaches to pain. We can learn so much from the pioneers in this area – people like Waddell, Loeser, Main, and Fordyce. While some of the details of theoretical advances may have been superseded, the ideas they promoted remain as potent as ever.

Fordyce, in particular, attracts my interest. Bill Fordyce was a clinical psychologist who pioneered behavioural approaches to reducing disability for people living with persistent pain. Rather than offering repeated surgeries or medications, Fordyce looked to how what we do (behaviour) is reinforced by people and situations around us. From his work, we learned about activity pacing (decoupling the relationship between activity and pain by adopting a quota-based approach to activity), time contingent medication (using medications according to a time schedule rather than “as needed”), and we learned a great deal about how other people’s responses to an individual’s behaviour could inadvertently increase or reduce the frequency of that behaviour.

Why is this important? Well, aside from the way pain behaviours develop from childhood (crying? Mama will cuddle you. Want something? Cry – and Mama will cuddle you), responses from a person’s partner will likely influence both verbal complaints and physical movements (pain behaviours) such as grimacing, bracing and guarding, and in surprising ways. In fact, in an electronic diary study where people with chronic low back pain and their partners (who had no pain) were asked to record responses five times a day for 14 days, researchers found that when a spouse observed their partner’s pain behaviour at one time, they’d be more likely to be critical or hostile towards that person at a later time. If the spouses believed that the person with pain was “trying to influence their feelings” at the first observation, their responses were more likely to be critical or hostile – and it was the attributions made by partners that mediated between pain behaviours and the subsequent criticism leveled at the person (Burns, Gerhart, Post, Smith, Porter, Buvanendran, et al., 2018).

The so what question is sure to come up for some people. Why do we care? It’s not like we can do anything about this, is it? Well… you know me – writing about this stuff isn’t just for fun! The first thing to know is that if something is influencing a person’s behaviour and especially their disability, rehabilitation professionals should be aware of it. Relationship “stuff” is part and parcel of rehabilitation because it’s part of the person’s context. Secondly, it’s not about judging whether this is good, bad or indifferent – it’s about recognising an influence on the person and considering how we might support that person to respond in a way that enhances their recovery. Finally, we need to recognise how behavioural expressions and responses to them influence us. An earlier study by the same researcher (Burns, Higdon, Mullen, Lansky and Wei, 1999) found that expressions of anger and depression by the person influenced the therapeutic alliance with the health professional and this was perceived both by the person and his or her therapist.

Should we, can we do anything to help?

First, to the “should.” Whether we like it or not, these influences are occurring – so they are having an effect anyway, and both on us and the person we’re working with. We are also constantly influencing our patients because we’re inherently social animals. It’s just that we’re probably oblivious to our influence, and consequently are likely to react rather than respond. While I don’t advocate clinicians who haven’t undertaken specific training in relationship work to begin “therapy”, there are some basic things we can and I think, should, do. We should because we’re already influencing anyway – so let’s do something helpful.

The second is, can we do anything to help? Well, yes – because as I’ve said above, we’re influencing anyway. Everything we say and do will likely influence the person we’re seeing and possibly their partner and family.

The first thing we can do is let the person we’re working with know that what they say and do influences the people around them. This might be a revelation to some! We can let them know that this communication is not deliberate, and neither is the interpretation by the partner. It’s part of being human and social.

The next thing we do is offer some information to the person and their partner. Preferably written or video – something that the person can share with their partner. This information should be about the nature of persistent pain (in particular), and that a person’s pain behaviour is unintentional. In other words, that what a person does is explicitly not intended to make the partner “feel bad for them” (ie garner sympathy – in fact, quite often it’s the opposite of what the person really wants!); that they’re not intentionally wanting to avoid doing something; and finally, that they’re not intending to “give in to the pain too easily”.

Another thing we can share with the person and their partner is that because pain is personal and internal, openly communicating about what’s going on is important. None of us are good at mind-reading! The responsibility for obtaining help has to be with the person living with pain, not the person who is observing. This might mean the person with pain needs to think about what they want their partner to do. Often it’s nothing – no fuss, no molly-coddling (been dying to use that word for a while!). But if the person does want something, it’s really good to be specific and clear: “I can’t lift this, can you give me a hand”. This doesn’t mean taking over, BTW!

Where possible, I think it would be great to ask partners and family to be involved in rehabilitation. I wonder at insurers who don’t allow partners or family/whanau to be involved in rehabilitation. I think it’s detrimental – because increasingly, we know that the social context of daily life is such an important influence on disability. Asking partners to be part of rehabilitation might be a bit easier under “lockdown” conditions in many countries at the moment, but even without these conditions, perhaps recording selected parts of sessions, even having a meeting (virtual or face-to-face) might allow partners to be part of their loved one’s rehabilitation journey.

Burns, J. W., Gerhart, J., Post, K. M., Smith, D. A., Porter, L. S., Buvanendran, A., . . . Keefe, F. J. (2018). Spouse Criticism/Hostility Toward Partners With Chronic Pain: The Role of Spouse Attributions for Patient Control Over Pain Behaviors. J Pain, 19(11), 1308-1317. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2018.05.007

Burns, J. W., Higdon, L. J., Mullen, J. T., Lansky, D., & Wei, J. M. (1999). Relationships among patient hostility, anger expression, depression, and the working alliance in a work hardening program. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 21(1), 77-82.

What to do about acute low back pain


I should add another line to that heading: in one easy step! And I’d be inundated with hits and if I could cash in on them I’d be rich! And wrong.

If there was a simple recipe for success, I’d expect that by now we’d have it. The very fact that SO MANY options for managing a bout of low back pain exist is a good reason for skepticism should you ever get tempted to take a headline like mine as a cause for celebration. However I do want to talk about acute low back pain because I think clinicians are often probably doing it wrong.

First of all, low back pain doesn’t include pain that also goes down the leg. Let’s get the definitions clear before we talk! In 2008 a Delphi study by Dione, Dunn, Croft, Nachemson, Buchbinder, Walker and colleagues (2008) developed two definitions: a minimal definition, and an optimal definition. These definitions were developed for epidemiological studies and the minimal definition is very simple – “In the past 4 weeks, have you had pain in your low back?” and “If yes, was this pain bad enough to limit your usual activities of change your daily routine for more than one day?”

from Dionne, Dunn, Croft, Nachemson, Buchbinder, Walker et al, (2008)

Now when it comes to defining a first bout of acute low back pain, Ardakani, Leboeuf-Yde & Walker (2019) raise some very interesting points: researchers investigating acute low back pain don’t clearly distinguish between the factors associated with the disease of low back pain (as they put it, the onset of the very first episode) from its recurring episodes – as they put it, “the continued manifestations of the “disease”.” In fact, in their systematic review for identifying risk factors from “triggers” (their term for subsequent episodes), they could find only one study dealing with the true incidence of first time low back pain – and this was low back pain caused by sports injury. All the remaining studies either explored new episodes, or recurring episodes. The major problem with these studies? They didn’t define how long a person should have had no low back pain at baseline. And given many of us develop back pain in adolescence (see Franz, Wedderkopp, Jespersen, Texen and Leboeuf-Yde, 2014, or Jones & MacFarlane, 2005) for example) it’s probable that studies investigating those over 18 years old will include a lot of people who have had that first bout already.

The trajectories for those of us who do develop low back pain are also reasonably murky because of the challenges around definitions, and there are several studies with slightly different results as you’d expect. Essentially, though, most researchers find that there are three or four patterns that emerge from longitudinal studies: lucky ones who have one bout and no or low levels of pain thereafter; those who have persisting mild pain, those who have fluctuating bouts over time, and those who develop persistent and severe pain. Chen and colleagues (2018) found that “lower social class”, higher pain intensity at the beginning, the person’s perceptions of more challenging consequences and longer pain duration, and greater “passive” behavioural coping were most significantly associated with the more severe trajectory over five years.

So, what does this mean for clinicians – and how well are we doing?

Acute low back pain can really frightening for people, especially if the pain is severe. As clinicians generally choose this work because we care about people, we get hooked into wanting to reduce pain and help. There’s nothing wrong about this – unless it means we also get hooked into trying to offer something we cannot. We’re inclined to believe that people seek help for their back pain because of the pain – but as Mannion, Wieser & Elfering (2013) found from a study of over 1,000 people with back pain at the time of the survey, 72% hadn’t sought care over the previous four weeks; 28% had sought care – and most from more than one provider. Women were more likely to seek care, those who had experienced more previous bouts, those who had trouble with activities of daily living and more trouble with work activities. While pain intensity did feature, it wasn’t as much of a predictor as many clinicians would expect. Indeed, an earlier meta-analysis by Ferreira and colleagues (2010) found that disability was a stronger predictor for seeking treatment than pain intensity.

So what do clinicians focus on? I suspect, though I aim to be proven incorrect, that almost every clinician will ask “what is your pain intensity on a scale from 0 – 10?” Frankly, this question is one that irritates me no end because how on earth do you rate pain? Seriously. Yes, there are a lot of clinicians who then ask about activities a person wants to be able to do (yay!) though when we look at the treatments offered, I wonder how many follow through with practical goal-setting for daily activities like getting shoes and socks on, carrying the groceries, sitting while driving the car or at work… And treatments? the arguments on social media between clinicians would be fun to watch if only they weren’t accompanied by such vehemence!

What I don’t see are conversations about how we help people recognise that they’re likely to follow one of those four trajectories, and what we do to help people self manage a life alongside low back pain.

I don’t see much attention paid to helping people sleep well.

Lots of conversations about pain neurobiology – in an attempt to use this explanation to bring someone on board to engage in treatments.

I don’t see a lot of discussion about how to ask about the person’s main concern – perhaps it’s nothing to do with pain, but more about “my niece is coming to visit and I’m not sure I can cope with entertaining her and managing my back pain”, or “we’re coming up to the busy time at work and I can’t not go in, but when I get home I’m trashed, how can I manage that?”, or “Monday’s are our busiest day, and I have to keep going because the team needs me, what do I do?”

I wonder whether clinicians could be persuaded to get out of the way and stop confusing people with recipes or algorithms or “special exercises” that “must be done this way” – I wonder if we could offer some very simple steps: specific answers to the person’s main concerns (best form of reassurance there is!); goal setting around the things the person needs and wants to do over the first six to eight weeks; sleep strategies including some mindfulness because that’s likely to help long-term; and lots of encouragement as the person returns to activity. Developing a relationship with the person doesn’t need lots of prescriptive steps or cookie cutter programmes, it does mean listening, showing trust in the person’s own capabilities, and willingness to let go of a few sticky thoughts we’ve acquired during our training. Maybe 2021 could be the year clinicians get back to basics and begin to support resilience in the people we see – firstly by showing them that we trust they have the capabilities.

Ardakani, E. M., Leboeuf-Yde, C., & Walker, B. F. (2019). Can We Trust the Literature on Risk Factors and Triggers for Low Back Pain? A Systematic Review of a Sample of Contemporary Literature. Pain Res Manag, 2019, 6959631. doi: 10.1155/2019/6959631

Dionne, C. E., Dunn, K. M., Croft, P. R., Nachemson, A. L., Buchbinder, R., Walker, B. F., . . . Von Korff, M. (2008). A consensus approach toward the standardization of back pain definitions for use in prevalence studies. Spine, 33(1), 95-103.

Franz, C., Wedderkopp, N., Jespersen, E., Rexen, C. T., & Leboeuf-Yde, C. (2014). Back pain in children surveyed with weekly text messages-a 2.5 year prospective school cohort study. Chiropractic & Manual Therapies, 22(1), 35.

Jones, G. T., & MacFarlane, G. J. (2005). Epidemiology of low back pain in children and adolescents. Archives of disease in childhood, 90(3), 312-316.

Mannion, A. F., Wieser, S., & Elfering, A. (2013). Association between beliefs and care-seeking behavior for low back pain. Spine, 38(12), 1016–1025

Why learning about pain can help – an old study worth revisiting


If you’ve read my blog over the years you’ll see that I love a bit of history. Learning from older studies, and older opinions, can help us position our current thoughts in a larger context. Older studies can also highlight concepts that haven’t grabbed the attention nearly as much as more recent studies but still have value.

Today’s post is about a studied published in 2004. It’s one I’ve often used to illustrate how influential our expectations or beliefs are when it comes to pain intensity and pain aversiveness/unpleasantness.

Take 31 healthy undergraduate students (50% were women in this case). Split them into two groups, and offer them a small incentive (a large bar of chocolate and a soft drink – OK I’m in!). Hold a set of objects to the back of their necks and ask them to rate the experience on a set of visual analogue scales ((1) very soft–very hard; (2) not prickling–very prickling; (3) not noticeable–very noticeable; (4) not painful–very painful; (5) not rough– very rough; (6) not damaging–very damaging; (7) not pleasant–very pleasant; (8) very cold–very hot; (9) very simple–very complex.). The objects were:

a feather, a small mirror, a rough brush, a paper handkerchief, a metal bar, a piece of hard plastic, a piece of sand paper, and a gel. The metal bar (aluminium, length 17.5 cm, diameter 3 cm) was cooled down to -25 degrees Celcius. This temperature was chosen because it’s not damaging when held briefly against the skin.

Each person was then individually exposed to the item, and asked to complete the ratings. The only difference between the groups was that participants were told just before the metal bar was applied, “this is very hot” or “this is very cold”.

The findings supported the hypothesis: when people thought the stimulus was hot they rated it as more painful AND more damaging than when they thought it was cold.

What do we make of this? The simple interpretation is that people interpret what happens to them in light of what they think is going on. That meaning influences the experience of pain. And that this interpretation occurs rapidly and without conscious awareness. The authors argued that attentional focus, anxiety and interpretation all influence the experience – however, in this instance, attention to the stimulus was greater in the case of the “cold” stimulus than the hot. Anxiety might influence attention to a stimulus, and “hot” might be more anxiety-provoking than “cold”, enhancing attentional awareness – or not. So the final consideration from this study is that if interpretation is essential in perceptual processing, tissue-damage related meaning might itself influence how pain is perceived.

The authors conclude by saying that their findings “support the hypothesis that higher order psychological processes influence the experience of pain” and go on to say they are “also of clinical importance, as they suggest that correction of dysfunctional interpretations of pain might help to reduce the burden the experience of pain poses on many people.”

Since this paper was published we have seen a proliferation of educational approaches to help people experiencing pain interpret this in a different way. I’m loathe to describe a person’s interpretation as “dysfunctional” because it is their experience – and at the same time I’m also aware that many unhelpful terms are used to describe what might be going on inside a person’s body. Some examples include “wear and tear” for osteoarthritis, “an unstable pelvis”, “your back has gone out”, “your spine is out of alignment” – the list goes on.

Here’s the thing: we can absolutely acknowledge a person’s distress at what they understand is going on, and what it feels like to them. We should, I think, always be compassionate and validate the distress we see in a person. That is real and their experience.

Here’s another thing: when the distress is based on inaccurate or unhelpful information, then I think it’s unethical to leave a person thinking this – even if we’ve offered validation and compassion. Would we leave a person to believe they had cancer when they didn’t? And yet some people would argue that to offer an alternative explanation somehow invalidates the person’s experience. We can both validate the distress a person is feeling AND offer a more workable or useful alternative.

At this point in my blog I want to be absolutely crystal clear – I do not know all the mechanisms involved in pain. Nobody does. And none of our explanations are terribly “True” with a capital T, because we actually don’t know. We do have some workable explanations to dispute or replace some unhelpful or unworkable explanations – eg that what we can see on imaging doesn’t equate with pain; that “issues in the tissues” are poorly correlated to pain; that “wear and tear” is often interpreted by people as “I’m wearing out” when it might be more useful to describe osteoarthritic changes as “age-related changes”. We definitely know that the brain is involved in our pain experience, and we know that various so-called psychological processes influence how much of a nociceptive stimulus is processed. What we don’t know is how – and that’s OK. To a great extent the “how is pain ‘produced'” question remains unanswered. But to leave people with an impression that “if I bend without using my core, I’ll do serious damage”, or “this could leave me in a wheelchair if I’m not very careful” in the name of validating a person’s experience is, I think, the very worst example of paternalism.

Do I espouse any particular way of helping someone make sense of their experience? Yes, glad you asked. My preference is to take the person through their own experiences, to help them “join the dots” of the various factors that might be influencing their pain. If, and when, it’s appropriate I might add in some things we know about pain such as increased anxiety likely increases pain and attention to pain – and this is why, in the middle of the night when there’s not much going on, and a person isn’t sleeping, they might notice their pain really going nuts. I accept that pain is present, and how or why isn’t nearly as important as exploring what this person notices about their own pain. And sometimes that might include some gate control theory, some neuromatrix, some descending inhibition information, and so on. In the service of my clinical reasoning about why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining this person’s predicament.

TL:DR – what a person thinks is going on has a powerful influence on both pain intensity and unpleasantness (oh and beliefs about harm). This matters because some explanations given to people (and some of the rubbish found on the internet) are not helpful at all.

Arntz, A., & Claassens, L. (2004). The meaning of pain influences its experienced intensity. Pain, 109(1-2), 20-25. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2003.12.030