Therapeutic approaches

What to do when one size does not fit all


Alert: rant ahead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pain may not be what a person fears most


We all have typical ways of going about our daily routines and solving problems. Mostly these work – until we encounter a situation where they don’t. If we’re flexible enough, we’ll figure out a way to change what we do in that instance, and this will become another strategy to draw on, and might even become another habit that works – until it doesn’t.

In pain rehabilitation, there are certain patterns of activity that have received a lot of research attention. Activity avoidance is one of them, while task persistence is given rather less air time (though it’s emerging as an intriguing area to study (Hasenbring, Andrews & Ebenbichler, 2020)). But perhaps what we’ve looked into less are aspects of adjusting to life with pain that raise uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. These in turn make it more difficult for a person to change how they go about daily life.

Some examples I’ve heard from people I’ve worked with:

  • I need to keep pushing through the day because I’m the boss, and a hands-on manager. If I stop being hands-on, there’s nobody to pick up the slack. Things won’t get done.
  • I’m a mum, and I can’t let my children go off to school without them having had breakfast, and making their lunches, and there’s all the parent-teacher events. I can’t just stop.
  • When I left the lawn half-done, my partner jumped in and did it for me, then got really angry with me and I’m not doing that again!
  • I was a professional athlete. Going to the gym is horrible. I’m a failure – I’m lifting these tiny weights and I used to lift massive ones.
  • I’m going back to work on this graded programme, but I can’t fit my gym programme in, and that’s the only way I’m going to fix my core strength.

These situations are pretty common. The clash between “pain management” and the reality of daily life. Daily life is messy, and there are social factors at play, there’s the unpredictable, the real fear of criticism or loss of a job or someone not taking up the slack while the person makes changes in how he or she does life. It’s far easier to prescribe exercises in a controlled place, to track progress by weights, repetitions and cardiovascular fitness or range of movement.

Doing self management, things like pacing or setting time aside for movement, or spending time in meditation or asking someone to help: these are easy in the short-term, right? But not quite as easy if you think of these things needing to happen for life. In fact, some people with pain begin to feel like this new life isn’t really a life at all! Where’s the spontaneity?

When we begin drawing on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) a common error is thinking the “acceptance” part is only about accepting pain, and stopping treatment, ie let’s focus on being willing to experience pain in the pursuit of what’s important. And there’s good evidence supporting the process of doing valued activities as one of the key processes in ACT, as well as being a key outcome (Vowles, Sowden, Hickman & Ashworth, 2019). All the occupational therapists say “preach it!” because, of course, this is what occupational therapy as a profession is based on!

So what else needs to be the focus if we’re using ACT in persistent pain management? As you can see from the client examples I’ve given, there are more effects from pain and self-management strategies than just being willing to experience the ouch. People hold fused beliefs about what kind of a person they are: the reliable worker; the dutiful parent; the responsible boss; the super-athlete; the compliant patient. The strategies people use to cope with persistent pain may impinge on ideas a person holds about themselves.

Furthermore, things clinicians tell people – like “your exercises will reduce your pain”, or “you must learn to fire this muscle to help stabilise”, or “meditation needs to be done this way” – can also become fused ideas. A lot like wearing a splint for years “because the therapist said I must”, or using a particular chair “because the therapist said it was the best for me.”

Any time we begin introducing new ways of doing things, we’re likely to encounter people who will find it hard to see why our perfectly reasonable solution won’t fit them in their circumstances. Consequently we can either try hard to persuade the person to do it (creating pliance), or we can decide the person isn’t cooperative and give up. I think there’s a third way: using ACT we can examine the usefulness or workability of the approach preferred by the person, and we can do the same for the new approach. By looking at the good and not-so-good in each option, we can also begin to explore the fused thoughts and emotions, experiential avoidance (what is it the person is unwilling to experience?), values, sense of self (is it me, or a story about me?) – indeed, all the ACT processes are likely to come into play.

What we need to do then will depend on your clinical orientation and the person. If the person judges that what they’re currently doing is working for them – our job is done. We can “leave the door open” for them by indicating that there are alternative strategies the person might want to experiment with in the future, but pushing against a person’s own belief that they’re doing fine just isn’t aligned with ACT.

If the person agrees that no, their current approach isn’t working – then we can begin exploring what’s going on. Occupational therapists might begin with daily activities, perhaps identifying what’s important about them, and then experimenting with (or playing with!) different ways of doing them. As an occupational therapist, I’m likely to want to understand is showing up for the person, maybe draw on other important values to help them to begin to use a coping strategy. The cool thing about ACT is that while committed action must be 100% we can adjust the demands of that action to the level of confidence a person has.

For example, if someone really has strongly fused ideas that “everything needs to be done for the children before they go to school”, we might begin by laying out the children’s lunches but asking the children to put them into their bags. Two things might be going on in this case: one might be about loosening the fused idea that “good mothers do everything for their children” while simultaneously helping the person develop skills to communicate effectively with their children – allowing the children to experience what happens if they forget! (Kids have ways of finding food, believe me)

We could be building on the mum’s value of raising independent children, and drawing on her skills of mindfulness and being in the present moment. We’d need to check in with her willingness to do this: is she 100% willing to let her kids go to school without physically putting their lunches into their bags? If she’s not, we might try making the task a little less challenging. This might look like allowing the children not to brush their hair before going to school, or putting the lunches beside the bags but not inside them. Whatever we do we’re gently allowing her to feel the shiver of anxiety that she hasn’t “done everything for the children” while also using another value “I’m raising independent children” to help her follow through.

In terms of where this example might go, if one of the fused thoughts is that “I feel guilty if I don’t do everything for my kids”, this is likely playing out in other parts of this person’s life. By helping her be willing to experience that anxiety in the pursuit of supporting her children to become independent, she’s developing more space between her thoughts and what she decides to do with them. She’s rehearsing a process where she draws on strengths (values, mindfulness, cognitive defusion) to help her commit to doing something that’s not easy. And doing this in one part of her life begins to open the possibilities for doing this in other parts of her life.

Pain rehabilitation and management is often not so much about dealing with the pain and effects of pain on life, but on life and how we live it. Life is more than whether we’re pain-free, fit or happy, it’s about moving onward in the direction of what’s important to us.

Hasenbring, M. I., Andrews, N. E., & Ebenbichler, G. (2020). Overactivity in Chronic Pain, the Role of Pain-related Endurance and Neuromuscular Activity: An Interdisciplinary, Narrative Review. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 36(3), 162-171.

Vowles, K. E., Sowden, G., Hickman, J., & Ashworth, J. (2019). An analysis of within-treatment change trajectories in valued activity in relation to treatment outcomes following interdisciplinary Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for adults with chronic pain. Behav Res Ther, 115, 46-54. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2018.10.012

That elephant in the room thing


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

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

Why do we need to have this conversation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Chronic Pain Virtual Summit 2020


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

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

Professor Peter O’Sullivan

Professor Tasha Stanton

Lissanthea Taylor

Vidyamala Burch

Dr Stephen Grinstead

Kathy Hubble

Pete Moore

Prof Kim Burton

Prof Ann Taylor

Dr Adriaan Louw

Dr Shilpa Patel

Dr Saurab Sharma

Why are there not more occupational therapists in pain rehabilitation?


A question I’ve asked myself many times! As a small profession with a long history (as long as physiotherapy, TBH), it does seem odd that there are many, many pain rehabilitation services where never an occupational therapist has darkened the door.

Some of the reasons lie within the profession: in general, occupational therapists are busy being clinicians and have little time for research. In New Zealand, few occupational therapists pursue higher degrees, and many avoid statistical analyses, experimental design, randomised controlled studies. In fact, some occupational therapists have argued that the tailored approach used by therapists means randomised controlled trials are impossible – our interventions too complex, too individualised.

And it is difficult to describe occupational therapy in the kind of broad terms used to describe physiotherapy (movement), psychology (mind, emotions, behaviour), medicine or nursing. Occupational therapists often deal with the everyday. Things like organising a day or a week, getting a good night’s sleep, returning to work, managing household activities. Not sexy things with technical names!

So… what does a good occupational therapist offer in pain rehabilitation? These are only some of the things I’ve contributed over the years:

  • graded exposure in daily life contexts like the shopping mall, supermarket, walking at the beach, fishing, catching a bus, driving
  • self regulation using biofeedback, hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation in daily life contexts like getting off to sleep, at work in between clients, while doing the grocery shopping, while driving
  • effective communication with partners, children, employers, co-workers, health professionals in daily life contexts
  • guided discovery of factors that increase and reduce pain in daily life contexts like the end of a working day, over the weekend, at the rugby, in the pub, on your own, in a crowd, at home
  • information on proposed neurobiological mechanisms as they influence pain and doing/participating in daily life contexts, things like attention capture, distraction, memory, emotions, stress, excitement
  • values clarification about what is important to a person’s sense of who they are in their daily life
  • progressive meaningful movement in daily life contexts
  • goal setting, planning, managing and progressing overall activity levels in daily life
  • positive, pleasurable activities to boost mood, reduce anxiety and live a life more like the person wants

What characterises all that I offer? It’s context. One of the major challenges in all our pain rehabilitation is that people feel safe when in safe surroundings, with people who elicit feelings of safety. When things are predictable – like in a clinic setting – and when clinicians are present, people feel OK to do things they simply can’t do (or won’t do) elsewhere.

Life is complex. Contexts are highly variable, often chaotic, multiple demands on attention, priorities, values – and when a skill is developed in a controlled environment, like a clinic or office, it’s nothing like the real world. This, folks, is the unique contribution of a good occupational therapist.

Someone posted an image once, on the one side was physical therapy. On the other was psychology. And the question was posed: who bridges the gap between these two professions? I say definitively that this is the occupational therapy space. We are knowledge translators. We are the bridge between clinic and daily life. It is our domain, the entire specialty area of this profession. And it has been since the professions’ inception, way back in the early 1900s.

There are occupational therapists who let us down. These are the therapists who focus exclusively on occupational participation without factoring in that we are also a rehabilitation profession. These occupational therapists provide equipment to people who are sore: the new bed, the shower stool and rails, the kitchen stool and trolley, the bed and chair raisers. Now there may be good reason for installing these gadgets – in the short term. They might keep someone safe in their environment so they can do what’s important. AT the same time they can, and do, reinforce the idea that this person cannot do, and certainly cannot change. While installing these things can mean a person is able to do – the person also learns to avoid doing these movements. This is such an important concept in pain rehabilitation – because progressively working towards being able to manage normal activities without aids is what we’re aiming for! An occupational therapist installing these things without reviewing and supporting the person to no longer need these things is just like a physiotherapist offering a person a back brace or splint and never reviewing whether it’s needed.

Why is it difficult to acknowledge occupational therapy’s contributions? Partly our rejection of a biomedical model based on diagnosing disease. Occupational therapists are about the person’s illness experience, our model is wholistic, biopsychosocial, integrative. It’s hard to articulate our contributions without using a lot of words! Or making it seem so dumbed down that people view the exterior actions (cleaning teeth, having a shower) without recognising the myriad contributing factors that influence whether this action is carried out successfully.

Occupational therapists have relied on qualitative research to examine the lived experience of people dealing with persistent pain. Rather than pointing to randomised controlled trials of broad concepts like “exercise”, we’ve tended to describe the individual and unique experiences of people as they regain their sense of self. Not something easily measured like range of movement or cardiovascular fitness, or even simple measures of disability and self efficacy. Peek behind these descriptions you’ll find synthesised strategies that integrate values, committed actions, sense of self, cognitive defusion, behavioural approaches – messy things that aren’t readily translated into simple cause and effect experiments. Multifactorial approaches that recognise that life is a contextual experience.

I contend that one of the major failings in pain rehabilitation is helping people reclaim their sense of self again. Self concept is ignored in favour of changing a person from a couch spud to a gym attender. Even psychologists can forget that when instilling new strategies, the person in front of them has to learn to integrate these new things into their world – and that means adjusting their sense of who they are. That’s the hidden work people living with persistent pain have to do, rarely supported. And yet it’s the thing people most want to resolve when they’re dealing with this experience. Who am I? Can I be me again? If I can’t be the old me, can I at least get something of what was important to me back again?

What I’d like to see are more occupational therapists being confident about what our profession offers, being willing to step up and be the resource we know is needed. We don’t need to be defensive about this – but we do need to be sure about the validity and relevance of why our contribution is so important. I think the results from research showing how short-lived positive results of pain rehabilitation really are speak for themselves. Maybe the missing link is knowledge translation into daily life contexts?

Three letter acronyms and what they mean – CBT, DBT, CFT, ACT – not alphabet soup!


Once you begin to dip your toes into psychological therapies, it doesn’t take long before you begin to see TLAs all over the place. So today I’m going to post on two things: some of the TLAs, and why or how we might consider using these approaches in pain rehabilitation.

The first one is CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT grew out of two movements: behaviour therapy (Skinner and the pigeons, rats and all that behaviour modification stuff), and cognitive therapy (Ellis and Beck and the “cognitive triad” – more on this later). When the two approaches to therapy are combined, we have cognitive behavioural therapy where thoughts and their effect on emotions and actions are the focus of therapy, with a secondary focus on behaviour and how behaviour can be influenced by (and influence) thoughts and emotions.

In pain rehabilitation, cognitive behavioural therapy is used primarily by psychologists, while a cognitive behavioural approach is what underpins most of the multidisciplinary/interprofessional pain management programmes. These programmes were very popular and effective during the 1980’s and 1990’s, but have faded over time as insurers in the USA in particular, decided they were expensive and should instead be replaced by what I call “serial monotherapy” – that is, treatments that were provided in a synthesised way within interprofessional programmes are often now delivered alongside or parallel to one another, and typically with very limited synthesis (or case formulation). A question yet to be answered is what effect this change has had on outcomes – my current understanding is that the outcomes are weakened, and that this approach has turned out to be more expensive over time because each discipline involved is seeking outcomes that fit with their priorities, and there is far more opportunity for duplication and gaps in what is provided.

Cognitive behavioural approaches underpin the “Explain Pain” or pain neurobiology education approach. The theory is that people who hold unhelpful beliefs about their pain can become fearful of what the pain means. Once they hold more helpful or realistic beliefs about their pain, that emotional zing is reduced, and it’s less scary to begin moving.

Cognitive behavioural approaches also underpin cognitive functional therapy. In cognitive functional therapy, as a person begins to move, the therapist asks about what’s going through their mind, and establishes through both movement experiments and information, that they’re safe to move, and can do so without fear (O’Sullivan, Caneiro, O’Keeffe, Smith, Dankaerts, Fersum & O’Sullivan, 2018).

When carrying out graded exposure, in the way that Vlaeyen et al describe, a cognitive behavioural approach is integral. In this approach, the classic relationship between avoidance and a stimulus (bending forward, for example), is challenged in a series of behavioural experiments, beginning with movements the person fears the least, and progressing over time to those the person fears the most.

There’s good evidence from psychological therapies, and also from within pain rehabilitation research, that it’s the behavioural aspects of therapy that do the heavy lifting in pain rehabilitation (Schemer, Vlaeyen, Doerr, Skoluda, Nater, Rief & Glombiewski, 2018).

And, in the words of Wilbert Fordyce, psychologist who first started using a behavioural approach for persistent pain management “Information is to behaviour change as spaghetti is to a brick”.

So don’t expect disability (which involves changing behaviour) to shift too much without also including some strategies for helping someone DO something differently. And if a person doesn’t accept what you’re telling them – sometimes it’s more effective to try helping them do things differently first, and use that experiential process rather than talk, talk, talking.

ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), and DBT (dialectical behaviour therapy) are both what is known as “third wave” cognitive behavioural therapies. They both involve understanding the relationship between thoughts, emotions and behaviours, but add their own flavours to this. In the case of ACT, the flavour that’s added is “workability” and contextual behavioural analysis, with relational frame theory as the underpinning theoretical model. Instead of directly tackling the content of thoughts, ACT focuses on changing the relationship we have with thoughts, and shifts towards using values as directing the qualities of what we do (McCracken & Vowles, 2014). Dialectical behavioural therapy helps people build social relationships that support them, begin to recognise strengths and positive qualities about themselves, recognise unhelpful beliefs about themselves and shift towards more helpful beliefs, and to use coping strategies to help soothe and calm emotional responses. I draw on ACT as my primary framework for pain rehabilitation (actually for my own life too!), but I haven’t seen as much use of DBT in this area.

Compassion focused therapy, the other CFT, is also a psychotherapy designed to help people become compassionate towards themselves and others. The theory behind this are understanding three main “drives”: the threat and self-protection system, the drive and excitement system, and the contentment and social safeness system. When these are under-developed, or out of balance, unhelpful behaviours and unhappiness occur. CFT aims to help people bring the three systems into balance. Given that many of the people who experience persistent pain have also experienced early childhood trauma, and concurrently endure stigma and punitive responses from those around them because of their pain, CFT offers some strategies to help effect change on an unsettled and fearful system. CFT uses self appreciation, gratitude, savouring, as well as mindfulness (non-judgemental awareness), and compassion-focused imagery to help soothe the system (Penlington, 2019; Purdie & Morley, 2016).

Along with these TLAs, you can also find many others. I think for each approach, understanding the theory behind them is crucial. While some of these approaches appear very “psychological”, whenever we begin unpacking them, we can start to see how most of what we offer in physical or occupational therapeutic approaches require us to draw on them.

Skills like guided discovery, motivational interviewing, goal-setting, values clarification, graded activity, helping people experience difference in their own lives, soothe their own body, become more comfortable with a sense of self that has to grapple with pain – unless we’re knocking our patients unconscious, we’re going to be using these so-called “psychological” skills.

If we are doing good therapy, I think we need to be as excellent as we can in all the skills required. This includes being excellent at the way we thoughtfully and mindfully use communication.

Psychological therapies all incorporate communication, and responses to people who are fearful of something. Most of us are involved in helping people who are afraid of their pain – and as a result are not doing what matters to them. If we don’t help people do what’s important in their lives, what on earth ARE we doing? For this reason, we need to employ the most effective tools (ie psychological approaches) in just the same way we use goal-setting (psychological), respond with encouragement to someone attempting a new thing (psychological), start with something the person can only just do, then grade it up (psychological), help down-regulate an overly twitchy nervous system (psychological), teach new skills (uh, that’s quite right, psychological!). I could go on.

What don’t we do if we’re using psychological strategies? We don’t dig into deep trauma, substance abuse, criminal behaviour, self harm, psychopathology. Though, we do address some psychopathology if we recognise that depression and anxiety both respond quite nicely to scheduling positive activities, and meaningful movement (ie exercise). Perhaps our artificial divide between “physical” and “mental” needs to be altered?

McCracken, L. M., & Vowles, K. E. (2014). Acceptance and commitment therapy and mindfulness for chronic pain: Model, process, and progress. American Psychologist, 69(2), 178.

O’Sullivan, P. B., Caneiro, J. P., O’Keeffe, M., Smith, A., Dankaerts, W., Fersum, K., & O’Sullivan, K. (2018). Cognitive functional therapy: an integrated behavioral approach for the targeted management of disabling low back pain. Physical therapy, 98(5), 408-423.

Penlington, C. (2019). Exploring a compassion-focused intervention for persistent pain in a group setting. British journal of pain, 13(1), 59-66.

Purdie, F., & Morley, S. (2016). Compassion and chronic pain. Pain, 157(12), 2625-2627.

Schemer, Lea, Vlaeyen, Johan W., Doerr, Johanna M., Skoluda, Nadine, Nater, Urs M., Rief, Winfried, & Glombiewski, Julia 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.

Toye, F., & Barker, K. (2010). ‘Could I be imagining this?’–the dialectic struggles of people with persistent unexplained back pain. Disability and rehabilitation, 32(21), 1722-1732.

Veehof, M. M., Trompetter, H. R., Bohlmeijer, E. T., & Schreurs, K. M. G. (2016). Acceptance-and mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of chronic pain: a meta-analytic review. Cognitive behaviour therapy, 45(1), 5-31.

Who am I? The sense of self in chronic/persistent pain


One of the most pervasive descriptions of what it is like to live with persistent pain is the loss of sense of self. Time after time in qualitative research we read about people feeling they’re in “limbo land”, losing confidence that they can do what matters in their lives, feeling stigmatised and isolated – not themselves any more. An in-depth meta-ethnography of qualitative research showed that pain undermined participation, ability to carry out daily activities, stymied a sense of the future, and intruded on the sense of self (MacNeela, Doyle, O’Gorman, Ruane & McGuire, 2015).

To understand the idea of “self”, I poked about a little in the literature, and found a title I like “Becoming who you are” (Koole, Schlinkert, Maldei & Baumann, 2019). The theoretical propositions of this paper relate more to self-determination than self-concept – but that title “Becoming who you are” resonated strongly with me.

When I read through pain rehabilitation research and theory, especially that dealing with learning how to live well with pain, I rarely see anything written about how we might help people who feel alienated from their sense of self. Scarcely a word. Except in the psychological literature. There’s a bit about self-discrepancy theory (See E. Tory Higgins works for much more about self-discrepancy), where the “imagined self”, the “real self”, the “feared self” and the “ought self” don’t match – but not much about what to do about helping people restore a sense of self, particularly in physical and “functional” rehabilitation.

Silvia Sze Wai Kwok and colleagues (2016) argue that psychological flexibility can play a role in helping people adjust to chronic pain. They found that psychological flexibility mediated between self-discrepancy (how close is my current self to my feared or ideal self?) and pain outcomes (distress, disability and so on). In other words, the degree to which people could flexibly adjust their goals and actions to suit what they could and couldn’t do made a difference.

This seems like common sense. Kinda. As the authors put it: “recognition of self worth and self-values could be attuned through flexible (re)construction of self-concept in response to changing contexts. These adaptations and regulatory functions then in turn may predict the subjective feelings of pain interference, emotional distress and pain tolerance level perceived.”

So my question is: how often does this become openly discussed in pain rehabilitation? Particularly by occupational therapists and physiotherapists – the clinicians who most often work on goals and helping people achieve them?

Whether a person is “motivated” to pursue important goals depends on whether the goals are important to them and whether they think they’ll successfully achieve them. When someone is “non-compliant” it’s because either the rehabilitation activities are not as important as something else in the person’s life, OR they’re not at all confident they can be successful at it. An enormous part of our job as rehabilitation professionals is helping people re-examine what they want to do and helping them adjust how to achieve the underlying values, even if the particular goal isn’t possible – yet. So, for example, if a person really values being a conscientious worker but can’t sustain a full working day, we can either help them fell OK about being conscientious for fewer hours, or we can make the work less demanding. I see this as an especially valuable contribution from occupational therapists.

Should rehabilitation clinicians be involved in this kind of “self-concept” work? I think so – especially occupational therapists. Occupational therapists are about doing, being and becoming – by doing things, we express who we are, and what we choose to engage in also shapes our perceptions of ourselves. As therapists we can’t help but influence a person’s self-concept – if we’re hoping to increase self-efficacy, we’re automatically influencing self-concept. If we’re working on goals, we’re influencing self-concept. If we’re working on participation in life, we’re working on self-concept.

And physiotherapists? Self-concept? Yep – of course. If we’re helping someone do exercise, that’s going to influence that person’s beliefs about exercise and their capabilities – that in turn is going to influence self-concept. (psst! it might be even more powerful if movements are done in the context of daily life, where feedback is real, meaningful and ever-present).

Persistent pain challenges the automatic assumptions people hold about what they can and can’t do, what they’re good at, what’s important in life, and how to engage with “the world” at large. Our job as clinicians is to be sensitive to just how confronting it is to find that what used to be effortless and meaningful is now daunting and requires more concentration and thought than we ever believed. I think that’s part of our job, irrespective of professional labels.

Koole, Sander L., Schlinkert, Caroline, Maldei, Tobias, & Baumann, Nicola. (2019). Becoming who you are: An integrative review of self-determination theory and personality systems interactions theory. Journal of Personality, 87(1), 15-36. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12380

Kwok, Silvia Sze Wai, Chan, Esther Chin Chi, Chen, Phoon Ping, & Lo, Barbara Chuen Yee. (2016). The “self” in pain: The role of psychological inflexibility in chronic pain adjustment. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 39(5), 908-915.

MacNeela, Padraig, Doyle, Catherine, O’Gorman, David, Ruane, Nancy, & McGuire, Brian E. (2015). Experiences of chronic low back pain: a meta-ethnography of qualitative research. Health Psychology Review, 9(1), 63-82.

Tough topics to talk about


I was involved in a Facebook discussion about intimacy and sexuality and pain, and I was struck at how tough people find it to raise this kind of topic with a new person seeking help. So… I thought I’d do a series of very brief, very introductory talks on ways I’ve used to broach tough topics.

Before I begin, though, I’d like to frame my discussion by sharing my “therapy viewpoint” or the values I try to integrate in my work.

  1. People are people, so it’s OK to be a person too. What I mean by this is that therapists can sometimes feel they have to be “perfect” and know everything and say the right thing and never fumble around for words… And as therapists we can, as I’ve written recently, “other” the people we’re trying to work with. Othering is where we identify the other person we’re communicating with on the basis of their differences from us – and may inadvertently elevate the characteristics we have – while using those other characteristics to define the other person in terms of what they’re not. When I think about being a person, I mean that while I’ve learned a lot, listened a lot to stories, had my own experiences and keep learning – in the end I can’t elevate myself in my clinical interactions. I’m not the expert in this person’s life – they are – and they have had a lifetime of being them and arriving at decisions that make sense at the time, although like me they may not be aware of unintended consequences of those decisions. So, we’re equals, but with particular roles in our interactions.
  2. People usually have a few clues about what to do – but they’re ambivalent about doing them. This means that my job is to help them identify what they already know, ask to offer new ideas, and then guide them to make their own mind up about what to do next (ie, resolve their ambivalence). Sometimes I do know some things from my experience and learning and perhaps the other person hasn’t yet come across those ideas – but I need to respect their readiness to look at those options. We know that ideas a person has thought of for themselves seem to stick more than those “implanted” ones, AND the process of discovering options is a skill that will enhance self efficacy and be a lifelong skill, so the process of discovery may be more useful than any particular “answer”.
  3. Deeply personal material is rarely discussed voluntarily – people need to feel safe, not judged, and valued as people before they’re willing to share. At the same time, if we never ask about some topics, they’ll never be talked about – so as the “controller” of a clinical discussion we need to be willing to ask the tough, sensitive questions. I suspect our careful avoidance of tough topics arises from our own worries: will we get it right? will they be OK about us asking? will we know what to do if they answer? how will we deal with the emotions? is this going to take too much time out of my session? Like any clinical skill, it’s our responsibility to learn to develop self regulation so we can deal with awkward topics. Self regulation is in part about managing our personal emotional and cognitive responses to situations. Just like we had to get over ourselves when we learned examination techniques (remember your first anatomy labs?), we need to get over ourselves when we enquire about tough topics.
  4. People generally don’t make dumb decisions, they making the best decisions they can given the information at hand. Judging someone critically for having got where they have with health, pain, exercise, daily life, mood, drugs, whatever – reflects our values and our beliefs and priorities. Who says we wouldn’t make those same decisions if we’d lived the lives of the people we’re seeking? In my book, judging someone for making a different decision from me when I’m seeing them clinically suggests taking some time out and examining motives for doing this work. Nobody gets up in the morning and says “I’ll just go out and get fat today.” What happens are a series of small decisions that seem fine at the time, being either unaware of the consequences, or valuing something else. We all do this, so stop the judging!
  5. Most people with persistent pain don’t get heard. Oh they tell their story a lot – often the abbreviated one that cuts to the chase about the events leading to persistent pain and thereafter. What doesn’t get heard is what it feels like, the deepest fears, the endless questioning “am I really that bad? am I just using this to get out of doing things?” all that self-doubt, exacerbated by insensitive statements from people around them, particularly clinicians. Giving people time to talk about their main concerns, to validate that it’s OK to feel this way, that it’s common and unpleasant and real, gives people an opportunity to trust. How we let someone know we’ve heard them lies in our response to what they say: reflecting your understanding of their story, pausing to allow the person time to think and express themselves, and summarising the key points to check out that we’ve heard them accurately, these are skills we can develop.

I’m sure I have other values woven into my practice, but these are my key ones. Being real, nonjudgemental, respecting the person’s own capabilities, giving people time and bearing witness to their story, and getting good at sitting with my own discomfort – not the usual kind of skills you learn in undergrad training!

So over the next few weeks I’ll post some brief videos of some of the ways I approach tough topics.

BTW if you’re in Melbourne (or nearby) this is the course I’m running with the amazing Alison Sim – all about communication!

Seminar – “Better Communication For Better Outcomes”
Date: Sunday, 17 March 2019 from 09:00-17:00
Featuring: Bronnie Lennox Thompson and Alison Sim
On Behalf of: Beyond Mechanical Pain

“Spend a day exploring the value of communication in a clinical setting and how we can implement better ways of communicating with your clients:

◾ Motivational Interviewing 
◾ Cognitive behavioral therapy 
◾ Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) 
◾ How we define “success” in the clinic 
◾ Functional outcome measure to assess our client’s progress 
◾ Workshop style activities to practice implementing some different communication approaches “

FB Event: https://www.facebook.com/events/242714736618057/

Booking Page: 
https://www.trybooking.com/book/event…

Cost:
Students – $165
Other Practitioners – $330


On “us” and “them”: what if we’re one of “them”?


Over the past few years I’ve been pondering the presumed gap between people living with pain and the people who “treat” or work with them.  Most of my readers will know that I live with widespread pain (aka fibromyalgia) or pain that is present in many parts of my body, and the associated other symptoms like DOMS that last for weeks not a day or two, and increased sensitivity to heat, cold, pressure, chilli, sound and so on.

I first “came out” with my pain about 15 years ago: that is, I first disclosed to people I worked with that I had this weird ongoing pain – and finally joined the dots to realise that yes, I did in fact meet criteria for fibromyalgia. I recall feeling a sense of embarrassment, almost shame, for admitting that I had pain that did not go away – as if I shouldn’t acknowledge it, or speak about such “personal” stuff in a chronic pain service.

There’s a weird sort of cloud over being up-front about persistent pain when you’re working in the field. Perhaps I’m a little sensitive, but I’ve seen the little eye roll and the comments about other people who work in the same field as their health problem: drug and alcohol people who have had their experience with drug and alcohol problems; those working in mental health with their mental health issues; people who have survived rape or other criminal activities going on to work as counsellors… Like “are you meeting their needs, or your own?”

Sapolsky wrote about “why your brain hates other people” pointing out that “us/them” responses occur globally and happen instantly and effortlessly. Our neurobiological ancestry has set us up for this process such that within a 20th of a second of seeing a face of “them” we show “preferential activation of the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear, anxiety, and aggression…other-race faces cause less activation than do same-race faces in the fusiform cortex, a region specializing in facial recognition; along with that comes less accuracy at remembering other-race faces.”

It’s therefore not surprising that when a group of “us” work together to help “them”, coming almost as colonialists with our goodies to dispense to the needy natives, we find it a little eerie, maybe a little confronting when “they” want to come along as equals.

In the 1960’s the disabilities rights movement was founded in the United States. Called Independent Living, and founded by people living with disabilities, this organisation campaigned strongly to be seen firstly as people, and only secondly as consumers or healthcare users. “Nothing about us without us” was one of the key slogans used in their campaign. It’s only just happening in chronic pain management.

Persistent pain is often called an invisible problem. Because pain initially seems to be from an acute problem, people are treated within services for the body system involved.  We have gynaecology services for pelvic pain, cardiology for non-cardiac chest pain, orthopaedic surgery and neurology for low back pain and headache – and so the problem of chronic pain fails to be accounted for because this information isn’t collated as a single problem.

Persistent pain is also invisible because no-one sees the person looking different. I don’t know how many times people living with pain have said to me “Oh but people say you look so well, surely there’s nothing wrong with you?”

And the even more invisible group are clinicians who also live with pain. Believe me, it’s not something many of “us” want to admit! And yet, if the statistics are correct, probably 1 in 5-6 of the clinicians working in persistent pain management have pain that’s lasted longer than 3 months.

“But I’m not like them” I hear you say! What’s that about? Oh that’s right, “we” have the answers… “We” are not struggling from day to day. “We” have it all together.

It’s a protective response, I think. One that protects clinicians from acknowledging our own vulnerability and powerlessness when it comes to knowing how to live daily life with pain. One that means clinicians can still pretend to have “the answers” while simultaneously protecting themselves from recognising just how little difference there is between “us” and “them”.

There are differences, though, and these aren’t pretty and might add to the “us/them” dichotomy.

People who are at greater risk of developing persistent pain (and other comorbidities like mood disorders, sleep disorders, obesity and so on) often come from lower socioeconomic areas. This is not as a result of giving up work and thus dropping income, but is actually a predictor of developing chronic pain (Fryer, Cleary, Wickham, Barr & Taylor-Robinson, 2017; Rios & Zautra, 2011; Sampiero, Cardoso, Bush, Riley, Sibille, Bartley et al, 2016). This means the people we see in primary care, or even in tertiary pain management services via the Ministry of Health in NZ, probably have more difficulty accessing transport to see us; have poorer dental care (Whyman, Mahoney, Morrison & Stanley, 2014); may not be able to afford to see a doctor or fill prescriptions (Devaux, 2015); can’t afford to attend a gym – and indeed may not have enough time to go to one after working two low pay jobs.

I wonder if this socioeconomic disparity adds to clinicians’ tendency to think of people with pain as “other”. On top of greater prevalence of mental health problems (Scott, Lim, Al-Hamzawi, Alonson, Bruffaerts, Caldas-de-Almeida et al, 2016) which can add to this sense of “otherness”, particularly when those disorders include “difficult personalities” (Carpenter & Trull, 2015).

It’s unpleasant and slightly unsettling to think of yourself as a clinician being, let’s call it what it is, prejudiced. And even more disconcerting when one of those “others” is one of “us”. Sapolsky suggests several ways of reducing the “them” and “us” divide:

  • Contact – particularly prolonged, task-focused contact where everyone is treated the same
  • Making the implicit explicit – show people their biases (what I’m doing in this article!), perspective taking – what is it like to walk a mile in the shoes of a person trying to deal with persistent pain with limited resources?
  • Replace “essentialism” with “individuation” – explaining that there are fewer differences between “us”, and that the things we do see can be explained in other ways, less “fixed” ways than “oh it’s genetic”
  • Flatten hierarchies – reduce the gap between “them” and “us”. In persistent pain this should mean ensuring people living with pain are involved in both service design and delivery. Nothing about us without us.

Do I expect this gap reduction to be easy? Not at all. There are significant barriers between full acceptance: there are angry people who have had their pain experience invalidated; there are clinicians who have been sworn at, spat at, assaulted (yes, it’s happened to me). But until we begin talking, we simply will not begin to address this problem.

Carpenter, R. W., & Trull, T. J. (2015). The pain paradox: Borderline personality disorder features, self-harm history, and the experience of pain. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 6(2), 141.

Devaux, M. (2015). Income-related inequalities and inequities in health care services utilisation in 18 selected OECD countries. The European Journal of Health Economics, 16(1), 21-33.

Fryer, B. A., Cleary, G., Wickham, S. L., Barr, B. R., & Taylor-Robinson, D. C. (2017). Effect of socioeconomic conditions on frequent complaints of pain in children: findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. BMJ paediatrics open, 1(1).

Rios, R., & Zautra, A. J. (2011). Socioeconomic disparities in pain: The role of economic hardship and daily financial worry. Health Psychology, 30(1), 58.

Sampiero, T., Cardoso, J., Bush, R., Riley, J., Sibille, K., Bartley, E., … & Bulls, H. (2016). (209) Association of socioeconomic factors with pain and function in older adults with knee osteoarthritis. The Journal of Pain, 17(4), S28.

Scott, K. M., Lim, C., Al-Hamzawi, A., Alonso, J., Bruffaerts, R., Caldas-de-Almeida, J. M., … & Kawakami, N. (2016). Association of mental disorders with subsequent chronic physical conditions: world mental health surveys from 17 countries. JAMA psychiatry, 73(2), 150-158.

Whyman, R. A., Mahoney, E. K., Morrison, D., & Stanley, J. (2014). Potentially preventable admissions to N ew Zealand public hospitals for dental care: a 20‐year review. Community dentistry and oral epidemiology, 42(3), 234-244.

What it means to be a therapist


I wrote the following response to a discussion held recently on a Facebook group Exploring Pain Science – about the term “catastrophising”. It’s a term that elicits great anger and frustration from people living with persistent pain, and I see the term used poorly by clinicians as a judgement about another’s experience. There’s certainly plenty of research showing relationships between high levels of “thinking the worst” about pain, and poorer outcomes – but HOW we as clinicians respond to someone in distress may be more of a problem than the act of a person describing their fears and worries about the future. This is what I wrote:

I’ve been pondering – I think I see people as doing the absolute best they can to make the best decisions they can based on what they know at the time. And “knowing” means all the messy uncertainty, lack of logic, emotion and coercion from others! So whatever a person is doing to manage is the best they can do. All I can do is offer some options that I’ve seen other people use, maybe provide some more information, maybe even more accurate information, support people to be guided by what they see as important (usually values), and be there for them as they make their own minds up about what to do next. I’m a cheerleader, encyclopaedia, visualiser (lay out the options in a way that makes sense), perhaps a guide but only in so far as helping people notice things they hadn’t before.

To me, if someone is thinking the worst, it could be that they don’t have all the information about their resilience that they need, it might be misinformation about what’s happening in their body, it could be conclusions that over-estimate the threat and under-estimate resilience. It might also be difficulty pulling the mind away from sticky thoughts that stop clear thinking, or as one researcher called it “misdirected problem solving” – a way for the mind to remind the person that there’s an unresolved situation. It might also be feelings of helplessness, feeling like there is no point in trying anything new because nothing works anyway, a sense of not having enough energy to keep trying…

Those aren’t necessarily inaccurate thoughts, but they’re certainly not helpful thoughts, especially at 3.00am! So temporarily at least it seems helpful to bear witness to that person’s distress, to make room to be present, not to judge or dismiss but to allow those worst fears to be recognised. Sometimes bringing the worst fears out into the light shows that they can be managed better than expected, sometimes they fade into nothing, and sometimes they allow someone else to be there and support when the person’s run out of puff.

While I can understand how the language of uninvolved clinicians hurts because so often they fail to acknowledge the real distress of the person, I can still recognise that many of the contents of thoughts and beliefs won’t happen, – those scenarios are there wanting recognition, but they may not happen. If they do there will be things to do then – but mostly, when I catastrophise, I use it as energy to recognise how lacking I feel. And that’s not a nice place to be, but it’s simultaneously true (I lack) and untrue (others have what I need).

There’s a process I use for myself called creative catastrophising. I write down my worst fears, get them out on paper, make them visible. Sometimes that’s all I need to do. Other times I begin planning “what if X disaster happened, what would I do” – and when I’m in the right frame of mind, I can figure out a way to get by. I can’t tell anyone else to do that – but it’s a strategy that’s stood me in good stead as I’ve gone through the ups and downs of my life. It’s one way I cope.

Clinicians, if you can bear witness to another’s distress, without wanting to change, fix, judge or DO anything apart from being fully present, you’ll be doing the very best thing you can. The time for doing something “to help” is just around the corner – whatever you do, do NOT tell the person “you’re catastrophising” because this immediately means you’ve moved from being with to judging.