Therapeutic approaches

Making sense: Does it help people with pain?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK, on with the study.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biopsychological pain management is not enough


I recently read a preprint of an editorial for Pain, the IASP journal. It was written by Prof Michael Nicholas, and the title reads “The biopsychosocial model of pain 40 years on: time for a reappraisal?” The paper outlines when and how pain became conceptualised within a biopsychosocial framework by the pioneers of interprofessional pain management: John Loeser (1982) and Gordon Waddell (1984). Nicholas points out the arguments against a biopsychosocial model with some people considering that despite it being a “holistic” framework, it often gets applied in a biomedical and psychological way. In other words, that biomedical concerns are prioritised, with the psychosocial factors relegated to second place and only after the biomedical treatments have not helped. Still others separate the relationships between “bio” “psycho” and “social” such that the interdependent nature of these factors is not recognisable.

Nicholas declares, too:

“… that cognitive behavioural therapy interventions that did not also include workplace modifications or service coordination components were not effective in helping workers with mental health conditions in RTW. That means, just like in the case of reducing time lost at school for children in pain, the treatment providers for adults in pain for whom RTW is a goal should liaise closely with the workplace. Unfortunately, as the studies from the systematic reviews examined earlier for a range of common pain therapies indicated, engaging with the workplace as part of the treatment seems to be rarely attempted.

I find this confusing. In 1999 I completed my MSc thesis looking at this very thing: pain management combined with a focus on using pain management approaches in the workplace. The programme was called “WorkAbilities” and included visits to the workplace, liaison with employers and even job seeking for those who didn’t have a job to return to. The confusion for me lies in the fact that I’ve been doing pain rehabilitation within the workplace since the mid-1980’s – and that while today’s approach for people funded by ACC is separated from pain management (more is the pity), there are many clinicians actively working in pain rehabilitation in the context of returning to work here in New Zealand.

I’m further puzzled by the complete lack of inclusion by Nicholas of occupational therapy’s contribution to “the social” aspects of learning to live well with pain. This, despite the many studies showing occupational therapists are intimately connected with social context: the things people do in their daily lives, with the people and environmental contexts in which they do them. You see, occupational therapists do this routinely. We work with the person in their own environment and this includes home, work, leisure.

For those that remain unaware of what occupational therapists offer people with pain, I put it like this: Occupational therapists provide contextualised therapy, our work is in knowledge translation or generalising the things people learn in gyms, and in clinics, and helping people do these things in their life, their way.

An example might help.

Joe (not his real name) had a sore back, he’d had it for about three months and was seeing a physiotherapist and a psychologist funded by ACC (NZ’s national insurer). Not much was changing. He remained fearful of moving especially in his workplace where he was a heavy diesel mechanic and was under pressure from a newly promoted workshop manager to get things done quickly. Joe was sore and cranky, didn’t sleep well, and his partner was getting fed up. Joe’s problems were:

  • guarding his lower back when moving
  • fear he would further hurt his back if he lifted heavy things, or worked in a bent-over position, or the usual awkward positions diesel mechanics adopt
  • avoiding said movements and positions, or doing them with gritted teeth and a lot of guarding
  • poor sleep despite the sleep hygiene his psychologist had prescribed
  • irritability
  • thoroughly enjoying the gym-based exercise programme
  • hating mindfulness and any of the CBT-based strategies the psychologist was offering him, because as he put it “I never did homework when I went to school, do you think I’m going to do it now? and this mindfulness thing doesn’t work!”

The occupational therapist visited Joe at home. She went through his daily routine and noticed that he didn’t spend any time on “fun” things or with his mates. His intimacy with his partner was scant because the medications he was on were making it hard for him to even get an erection, and his partner was scared he’d be hurt when they made love. Besides, she was fed up with all the time he had to spend going in to the gym after work when he wasn’t doing simple things around home, like mowing lawns, or helping with grocery shopping.

She went into his workplace and found it was a small four-person operation, with one workshop manager, two mechanics and one apprentice. The workshop was a health and safety hazard, messy and cramped, and open to the weather. The relationships between the team were strained with unpleasant digs at his failure to keep up the pace. The workshop manager said that he’d do his best to help Joe out – but in the end he needed to get the work out on time. The other mechanic, an old hand, meanwhile was telling Joe to suck it up and be a man, but also to watch out because Joe shouldn’t do as he’d done and shagged his back.

What did our erstwhile occupational therapist do? Absolutely nothing new that the physiotherapist and psychologist hadn’t taught Joe – but she worked out when, where and how Joe could USE the strategies they’d discussed in his life contexts. She went through the way he moved in the workshop and guided him to relax a little and find some new movement patterns to be able to do his work. She graded the challenges for him, and stayed with him as he experimented. She discussed alternating the tasks he did, interspersing tasks that involved bending forward with those where he could stand upright or even work above his head (in the pit). She discussed how he could use being fully present at various times during the day (mindfulness) to check in with his body and go for a brisk walk if he felt himself tensing up. She worked through communication strategies that they rehearsed and he implemented to let his manager know what he could – and could not – do.

They discussed his home life, and ways he could begin doing some of the household tasks he’d been avoiding, and she showed him how to go about this. They worked out the best time of day to do this – and to vary the exercise he did so that it wasn’t all about the gym. He started to walk over rough ground to get more confident for when he went fishing again, and he got himself a little stool to sit on from time to time. Joe and his occupational therapist talked about his relationship with his partner, and they met together with her so they could share what his back pain meant, the restrictions he had, what he could do, and how else they could be intimate. Joe was encouraged to rehearse and then tell his doctor about the effect of his meds on his sex life.

The minutiae of daily life, translating what is learned in a clinic to that person’s own world is, and always has been, the province of occupational therapy. It’s just a little sad that such a prominent researcher and author hasn’t included any of this in this editorial.

Just a small sample of research in which occupational therapists are involved in RTW.

Bardo, J., Asiello, J., & Sleight, A. (2022). Supporting Health for the Long Haul: a literature synthesis and proposed occupational therapy self-management virtual group intervention for return-to-work. World Federation of Occupational Therapists Bulletin, 1-10.

Berglund, E., Anderzén, I., Andersén, Å., Carlsson, L., Gustavsson, C., Wallman, T., & Lytsy, P. (2018). Multidisciplinary intervention and acceptance and commitment therapy for return-to-work and increased employability among patients with mental illness and/or chronic pain: a randomized controlled trial. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(11), 2424.

Cullen K, Irvin E, Collie A, Clay F, Gensby U, Jennings P, Hogg-Johnson S, Kristman V, Laberge M, McKenzie D. Effectiveness of workplace interventions in return-to-work for musculoskeletal, pain-related and mental health conditions: an update of the evidence and messages for practitioners. J Occup Rehabil 2018;28:1–15.

Grant, M., Rees, S., Underwood, M. et al. Obstacles to returning to work with chronic pain: in-depth interviews with people who are off work due to chronic pain and employers. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 486 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2877-5

Fischer, M. R., Persson, E. B., Stålnacke, B. M., Schult, M. L., & Löfgren, M. (2019). Return to work after interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation: one-and two-year follow-up study based on the swedish quality registry for pain rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 51(4), 281-289.

Fischer, M. R., Schults, M. L., Stålnacke, B. M., Ekholm, J., Persson, E. B., & Löfgren, M. (2020). Variability in patient characteristics and service provision of interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation: A study using? the Swedish national quality registry for pain rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 52(11), 1-10.

Ibrahim, M.E., Weber, K., Courvoisier, D.S. et al. Recovering the capability to work among patients with chronic low Back pain after a four-week, multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilitation program: 18-month follow-up study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 439 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2831-6

Marom, B. S., Ratzon, N. Z., Carel, R. S., & Sharabi, M. (2019). Return-to-work barriers among manual workers after hand injuries: 1-year follow-up cohort study. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 100(3), 422-432.

Michel, C., Guêné, V., Michon, E., Roquelaure, Y., & Petit, A. (2018). Return to work after rehabilitation in chronic low back pain workers. Does the interprofessional collaboration work?. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 32(4), 521-524

Nicholas, M.K. (in press). The biopsychosocial model of pain 40 years on: time for a reappraisal? Pain.

The added stress of chronic pain on life


For a minute, I’d like you to grab an ice-cube. If you don’t have one handy, try this at home or when you’re having your next gin and tonic. Hold onto that ice-cube. Keep holding onto it. Put a cloth underneath if it’s going to melt, but keep holding it. Now do your grocery shopping list. Or balance your accounts. While holding the ice-cube.*

Now add some exercises. Exercises you don’t care for, but feel like you have to do “because they’ll help you get better”.

Keep holding onto the ice-cube. Oh, it’s melted?! Fine – go grab another. Hand too cold to pick on up? Never mind, go find one and just do it. And keep doing the grocery shopping list. And the exercises.

Add in a night of not sleeping. Make that a week of not sleeping.

Add in having a new medication to take every day at night at the same time. The medication makes your mouth dry, constipates you, and you can’t wake up because it makes you feel sluggish.

Keep holding the ice-cube.

Phone your employer to say you’ll be in, but a therapist is going to visit you at work to see what you can do. Hold onto the ice-cube. The employer says OK but when are you coming back to work full time? I need you, or I’ll have to get someone else in.

Grab another ice-cube, keep holding it. Hand getting numb and sore? OK, therapy will help that! Here’s some mindfulness to do. And breathe…. and don’t forget the exercises. And that other appointment with a case manager to sign your rehabilitation plan. And do the groceries while you’re there. Keep holding that ice-cube.

And don’t be like that! Don’t get snippy with the kids, just pull yourself together! Hold onto the ice-cube. Lie awake worrying about work and how you’ll balance the accounts. Forget to take the medications, feel terrible – all sweaty and nauseous. Turn up to the employer with the therapist in tow. Hold on to the ice-cube.

The therapist says you can’t do this, or that, and you need to break your work up into chunks like this, and here’s a gadget that might help. Your employer rolls his eyes at you behind the back of the therapist. Keep holding that ice-cube.

Case manager phones saying she’s very sorry, but the paperwork for your weekly compensation hasn’t been filled out properly, you’ll have to go to the doctor to get another certificate, talk to your employer and have you done your exercises yet? Do you need to see a psychologist? Hold onto the ice-cube.

Your partner, who has been magnificent up until now, loses the plot when he gets home today. Hold onto the ice-cube, don’t let it drop. Feel that pain. Breathe. Do exercises. Take meds. Worry about job. Worry about relationship – partner comes to bed but turns the other way. Realise you missed getting a warrant of fitness for the car, think about putting that on the list for tomorrow.

…and someone said people on compensation for pain are just “non-copers”

Cry.

If you’re a therapist, remember what you ask a person to do is only one thing in a vast, unfamiliar and confusing sea of things to do. All the while holding on to an ice-cube that’s burning into your hand….

*Try this at home so you can experience what it might be like to have pain that’s present, intense, and gets in the way of life. BTW it’s not a treatment for chronic pain!!

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


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

Starting at the wrong intensity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we do with these thoughts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflective practice


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experiential avoidance – and persistent pain


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

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

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

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

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

What do I mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! Part 5


People come to see us because they have a problem. So the formulation approach I’m taking today begins from “the problem” and works back and forward. It’s called a “network” model, and is something many of us do without knowing that’s what we’re doing. The network model can also be called a functional analysis where we’re looking at what happens, and what a person does, and the ongoing consequences or loops that occur over time.

Angelina comes to see you because her neck is very sore. She’s not sure why it’s sore, or what happened to start it off, but she thinks it could be after working for a week at a new workstation where she had to look to the right to read documents, and straight ahead to work on the main monitor. It’s been there for over six months, and she’s come to see you now because she has a week of annual leave and some time to spend on herself. She’s played with changing her pillows because her neck is more uncomfortable in the morning, and it gets painful towards the end of the day just before she heads to sleep. She’s having trouble turning her head to reverse down her driveway, and looking up is almost her least favourite thing. Her sleep is OK once she’s got off to sleep, but initially it takes her a while to fall asleep because she can’t get comfortable. Her partner is getting frustrated with her because she doesn’t want to kiss him because that means she has to look up, and she doesn’t sit on the couch with him any more because he likes to rest his arm around her shoulders – and that increases her pain. She’s irritable and finds herself getting snappy at him. Angelina is in her mid-50’s, otherwise well, but has always lived with various aches and pains, most of which she ignores until they go away. She has had a painful shoulder and lateral elbow pain that lasted for over a year, but has gradually settled down – she didn’t do anything special to manage those after having only a small response to a steroid injection into her shoulder.

Angelina’s main concern is to establish whether her neck pain is anything to worry about, or whether it’s just more of the same, like her shoulder and elbow pain. Her other focus is on getting a comfortable position to go off to sleep because she thinks this is adding to her problem.

OK, so we have a lot of information about Angelina, and we can organise this information in many different ways. Given her main concern is her prognosis and then her sleep, we need to make sure the way we organise the information offers a possible explanation – a hypothesis.

Take a look at the network diagram below to see how I’ve sketched the information out – you’ll note that at this point I’m not trying to develop a diagnosis, I’m focusing on the problem as she sees it.

The matrix I’ve used here comes from Hofmann, Hayes & Lorscheid (2021) Learning Process-based Therapy, published by Context Press, New Harbinger.

What I’ve done is summarised the processes that I think might be relevant to Angelina’s presentation, and drawn the relationships between various aspects that she’s described. You might organise this information differently – and I’d usually do this in collaboration with the person.

If you look closely at the networks, you’ll see several loops that likely will continue if something doesn’t change. One to spot is this set below:

You can see that she’s worrying about her sleep, doesn’t get comfortable as she goes off to sleep, feels fed up, has changed her pillow (in line with her self-concept of someone who is a practical person), and the whole network will likely remain winding itself up unless “something” comes to disrupt this pattern.

This set of relationships raises some factors we need to consider when we’re thinking of interventions. As someone who sees herself as a practical person who doesn’t seek healthcare often, and has had previous bouts of pain that settled without specific treatment (though she sought it for her shoulder), we could interpret this as meaning she doesn’t panic about her situation too much – but we could also wonder if, because she’s seeking help now, she’s seeing her problem as different from previous pain problems and maybe this one is worrying her more than she’s ready to acknowledge. Just to the right of the loop I’ve shown above, you’ll see a box where she says “I’ll deal with it if it doesn’t get in the way of my family and relationship”. This is important – it’s an expression of how she sees herself, an important value, and her motivation for seeking help is also framed in terms of maintaining her loving relationship. For this reason, I’d be looking for interventions that either won’t intrude on her family life and routines, or I’ll be looking for ways to frame whatever treatment suggestions I make in terms of how this will support her relationship.

By drawing a network diagram showing potential processes that might be influencing Angelina’s presentation, I’m answering my question “why is she presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining her predicament” – she really wants a prognosis so she can establish a strategy to maintain her relationship with her family, keeps her “practical person” view of herself alive, and in a way that she can still fulfill her desire (and others’ expectations) to be fully productive at work.

I could analyse (or organise) Angelina’s information in lots of different ways. This is just one – and in some ways, the particular model I use to assemble her information is less important than ensuring Angelina is an equal partner in sketching out these relationships. I could have drawn the Tim Sharpe CBT model or used an ACT-based model and looked for patterns of psychological flexibility. I could have used Vlaeyen’s fear-avoidance model – and I’m sure there are plenty of others that might have been useful.
Irrespective of the model, what needs to be evident is using the information the person offers us, modifying the way we approach therapy as a result, and collaborating with the person to decide treatment priorities. This means we as clinicians need to be nimble, responsive, adaptive, and stop using treatment protocols! Any approach that suggests offering the same approach irrespective of the unique things influencing a person’s presentation is doomed to do a half-arsed job. These protocols might work for some, but they won’t work for all, and they may fail to address the real reason the person came to see us in the first place.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the first contact


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

My two clinical questions are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introductions

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

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

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

Questions

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

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

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

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

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

Questionnaires

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

Observation

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

Pulling it all together

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

Notes/Documentation

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

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

Theme and variations

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

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

Kirsch, I. (1985). Response expectancy as a determinant of experience and behavior. American Psychologist, 40(11), 1189–1202.

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McCracken, L. M., & Dhingra, L. (2002). A short version of the Pain Anxiety Symptoms Scale (PASS-20): preliminary development and validity. Pain Research & Management, 7(1), 45-50.

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