ACT – Acceptance & Commitment Therapy

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.

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.

Managing sleep problems – a medication-free approach (iv)


The fourth step in learning to sleep well within an ACT framework, is build. My previous posts were: Discover and Accept and Welcome.

In build, we’re beginning to build new practices. This is about learning how much sleep you need, and when you need to head to bed and wake up again.

I know when I had trouble sleeping at night (I refused to call it insomnia, but it most definitely was!), I thought I’d tried everything to help. I had used all the sleep hygiene strategies like no devices in bed, no TV in bed, do some relaxation as I lay down, have a regular bed-time and wake-up time – and one of the things I tried to do was eliminate coffee after lunchtime. While most of the time coffee isn’t a problem for me, I learned that when I was vulnerable to not sleeping, coffee and similar substances (including chocolate and alcohol) were not good for me. And today I still don’t drink coffee after lunch and limit myself to three or so cups a day.

So… what’s different about ACT and this stage of learning to sleep again?

Well, people with pain often talk about being interrupted by their pain – of waking up in the middle of the night because of pain and then not being able to get back to sleep. While there is some truth to the idea that we wake because of pain, in fact we all wake up over the course of a night. You’ll know the typical “sleep architecture” (click here for a nice explanation) where we fall into a deep stage of sleep fairly soon after heading to bed, and that we have periods of REM or rapid eye movement sleep (dreaming sleep) at regular intervals over the night. What you may not be as aware of is that in the periods just before and just after REM sleep, we’re actually awake. Not very awake – but awake enough to roll over and get comfy again. If your bladder does what mine does, I usually have a quick trip to the loo around 2.30ish, and go right back to sleep again.

When you have pain, chances are greater than you are more aware of those lighter periods of sleep and, like I do with my bladder, notice that you are awake. If you then start noticing your pain… or your worries… or your mind starts dropping comments to you, then it’s possible you’ll stay awake. Partly this is because the biological drive to fall into a deep sleep at the beginning of the night has been partly satisfied. Partly also because experiences like pain are very salient or important. So are noises (the cry of a baby, that tapping sound on the window, the car roaring down the road) and during the lighter periods of sleep we’re more likely to wake fully rather than just roll over. We’re not actually waking more often as much as waking more fully, and perhaps for longer than normal.

Building new patterns means some basic “rules” – but rules that are held lightly. In other words, it’s fine to change things up a little from time to time (after all, birthdays, travel, having a cold, or getting a puppy are all things that can disrupt sleep), but broadly these things seem to be habits of good sleepers:

  1. Heading to bed around the same time-ish each night (or within 20 – 30 minutes of this time). Same applies to waking up – and to help you wake, an alarm clock (I do use my phone for this), and in winter, I use a bright SAD light, and bump up the temperature on my electric blanket. Light and warmth both tend to make you wake up a bit more quickly, so it’s helpful for me during winter when I have seasonal affective disorder (winter depression).
  2. Knowing that it’s normal to take around 10 – 15 minutes to fall asleep, and being OK with this.
  3. Changing how long you sleep for will take a few weeks – it’s a habit! So don’t go changing your bedtime or wakeup time too often. If you’re using sleep restriction (going to bed a little later than normal, perhaps getting up a little earlier) you can return to a more “normal” length as part of fine-tuning how long you need to sleep for your needs. But, don’t change things too often!
  4. If you have a late night out (or if you’re travelling over a time zone or two), try to get up at your usual time. Yes, this means keeping the same wake time over the weekends as the week days!
  5. Develop a kind of “wind down” habit – but again, hold this lightly because sometimes there are enjoyable events on late, or you have people visiting, that may mean you’re a little more alert than normal. But on the whole, basically spend around 30 – 45 minutes giving your mind signals that you’re heading to bed. This means cleaning your teeth, checking the doors, stopping watching TV or going on devices, maybe get into your jimjams (PJs!) and heading to bed with a book or magazine.
  6. When you’re in bed, just quietly lying there, letting thoughts wander in and out without getting caught up in the content, and you’ll notice yourself quietly falling asleep. This is totally normal. If you do get caught up in your mind chatter, as soon as you notice you are gently bring your attention to your breathing and the sensations of lying in bed, and this should (at this point in your journey) help you fall asleep.

You can see it’s not too different from what I hope you’ve been practicing all along – just that instead of fighting with those thoughts, or getting all tangled up in them, you’ve got skills to let them go, and just be there in the darkness, resting.

There are a lot of specific issues you may also encounter – things like your partner who snores like a chainsaw, or twitches all night long (I’m the guilty party here!); or when you have a cold or a stuffy nose – the former might take a little longer to deal with, but the latter is usually just for a week or so and I tend to be happy using decongestants just for those few nights when I cannot breathe…. As for the partner noise or twitching, like dealing with your thoughts this is probably about you dealing with your thoughts about the noise or twitching! Again, try welcoming or being willing to listen to or feel those habits. Making some room for them rather than getting caught up in thoughts of smothering him or her! And go back to your usual mindfulness practice.

Finally – the last step is living! We tend to put life on hold when we try to control rotten sleep patterns.  Now it’s time to know that while sleeping badly can come again from time to time, you have skills to roll with it – you know you can manage if you avoid fighting with it or trying to control it. Take those steps to build your new sleep habit, and go out there and DO again!

 

Managing sleep problems – a medication-free approach (iii)


More on sleeping the ACT way. Step one was discover – all the things you’re doing to help yourself sleep, but in your attempts to control the uncontrollable (thoughts, feelings, memories, worries, sensations, the environment and so on). And hopefully you’ve seen that these things can be counter-productive. That flash new pillow and bed is pretty useless if you travel somewhere. The pills need to be stopped at some point – and then you have to withdraw from them. And the thoughts, and sensations (including pain) just carry right on there not matter what you do.

So step two is to accept: accept what you can control, and what you can’t. Radically, this means changing some of the things you do to get to sleep – like pills (but get medical help for this process), doing relaxation, wearing your eyeshades and earplugs, getting up and doing things when you can’t sleep. It usually means a bit of mind chatter!

The common mind chatter is “I’ll fail”; “I know I won’t sleep and then I’ll be useless the next day”; “if I can’t sleep with my pills and earplugs, how will I sleep without them?”; “I’ll feel lousy the next day”; “I’ve slept this badly my entire life, it’s too late for me”; “why me? It’s a punishment”; “but I’ve got [a new job, a baby, a puppy, going on holiday]”; “I’m too tired”

It’s likely, as you begin doing this, you’ll be in bed wide awake – and it’s at this point you can choose. In that moment, you can decide to listen to your mind – or think of your mind as holding an opinion, but one you do not have to follow. In ACT language, what you’re doing here is learning to accept, or be willing to sit with (lie with), to make room for not sleeping rather than struggling to control it. You can’t control your risk factors, you can’t control that you’ve learned to be awake at this time. You can’t control your thoughts about this – but you can lie there and just notice the things your mind is dumping on your doorstep. This isn’t “giving up” – this is radical willingness to come alongside and be with your own sleeplessness.

The best way to learn to do this is – you guessed it, mindfulness.

Now mindfulness is NOT about getting you to fall asleep. You may fall asleep or feel drowsy which is cool, but if you try to use mindfulness “to fall asleep” you’re again trying to control the problem and mindfulness can then become an empty process. You ARE allowed to let your mind wander… just gently bring it back to where you want it to be. Practicing mindfulness can be done anywhere and everywhere – for a few short seconds while cleaning your teeth, sitting in the car, walking through a door – or longer, like at the end of the day, or in the morning.

Some ways to be mindful: notice your senses by bringing your mind to sounds, sights, smells, tastes, touch. Just list all the things you experience – like “a bird chirp”, “the weight of my legs on the seat”, “the smell of coffee”…and as your mind wanders off, as it will, bring it back gently to what you want to focus on.

Another one to try: close your eyes for a few seconds and notice any thoughts or images that pop into your mind. List it – thought, image, work worry, dinner planning.

This skill is one of the most important and useful skills when you’re learning to sleep again. When you lie in bed wide awake, it’s easy to get caught up in the content of what your mind is bringing to  you, rather than just noticing that you are thinking. The problem is, thoughts your mind brings often lead to that heart thump and dry mouth that keeps you wide awake! Instead, directing your focus on to your breathing, or your body contact on the bed, are simple things that help you just notice and be in the present.

If you have pain, mindfulness is one way of letting you experience the ache without that “Oh no, it’s really bad tonight” judgements of that ache. Gently letting yourself notice where you’re sore – and equally, where you’re not sore – and guiding your mind around your body, noticing every part, the painful and the non-painful – allows you to be present with your pain, without fighting against it. Practicing this skill many times during the day really helps you develop this skill. And don’t be surprised if your mind starts trying to either judge or solve the problem of pain, because that is simply the mind doing what it’s done since forever. Be kind to your mind, and bring your attention back to your breath, or your left earlobe, or your belly button, or your little toe…

At night, in bed, mindfulness is not about helping you relax and fall asleep. What it’s there for is to help you guide your mind away from being caught up in the content of your thoughts or feelings or sensations, and back onto just noticing that you are thinking, and bringing your attention onto something like your breath. It can be scary doing this at night because we often want to get out of bed or control what we’re thinking and force ourselves into sleep. And you know it doesn’t work! What mindfulness does is let your brain and mind know that being awake isn’t a threat – remember the flight, fright, freeze response? By letting your mind know you’re not buying into the horror stories, and instead you’re being OK with simply lying there noticing, you’re teaching your mind to let go of the struggle.

  • Start with feeling the sensation of the bed against your body, from the toes to the head. When your mind begins “minding”, bring your attention to your breath. If you get the urge to move or get up (actually, your mind brings the urge), notice it and choose to stay in bed, and bring your attention back to your breath or touch.

Welcome: You’ll find your mind will have a good go at dumping scary thoughts on you when you decide to be present and stay. Remember it’s your mind’s opinions – and be gentle with your thoughts, feelings and yourself. Stay with it, notice your breathing, make room to feel a bit tired (because you were going to be tired anyway, right?!), and be kind, but firm, with your mind, and bring your attention to your breath yet again. You’re resting your body while you’re lying down, and that’s a good thing.

If you find you have a frequent flyer – a thought or worry or sensation that comes visiting when you’re trying to sleep  – you can simply name it “Hi worry”, or “thinking”, or “here you are scared”, or “back again, pain”. Welcoming the thoughts or feelings may feel odd –  but once you’ve noticed it, labelled it, and then welcomed it, go back to your breathing or noticing your body. You can become quite creative with this process – if you have a vivid imagination for visual images, try projecting your thoughts onto a movie screen, or turning them into cartoon letters, or characters from a movie (my pain is a grumpy witch!), or a ball of string all tangled up, or a scrunched towel.  Some people have taken to imagining their thoughts as different voices – squeaky “I’m scared” or deep “I’ll never sleep tonight” – these strategies are ways to help you step back from the content of what your mind is telling you, and see your thoughts as simply thoughts made by your mind.

Click to the next post

Managing sleep problems – a medication-free approach (ii)


Last week I described the “conventional” CBT for insomnia approach (CBTi), but this week I want to introduce an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approach which is superficially similar to CBTi but holds to some of the fundamental principles of ACT: mindfulness, and letting go of control. As is typical for ACT, there are no hard and fast absolutes and instead there is a focus on workability – what works, in context.

Most of the content of today’s post is drawn from my personal experience and The Sleep Book by Dr Guy Meadows. There are five basic steps and according to the book it should take five weeks to get sleep sorted. I’m not as convinced about timeframes, so I’ll describe it as five steps.

  1. Discover: this step is about discovering what triggers and maintains insomnia, and focuses on why struggling to start sleeping is counter-productive. That’s right – stop struggling!
  2. Accept: well, with a name like ACT you’d expect some acceptance, right? This is not about resigning yourself to nights of poor sleep, but rather a willingness to let go of the struggle, to be fully present in the now – rather than reminiscing about the past, or predicting the future.
  3. Welcome: everything that shows up in your mind and body (after all, they’re there whether you want them or not!).
  4. Build: a new sleeping pattern by identifying how much sleep you need and when you need it.
  5. Live: during the day and sleep during the night!

Like absolutely any behaviour change, this process is not always easy! It takes persistence, courage and doing things that may not feel like sensible things to do! Let’s begin.

Discover: we do a whole heap of things to try to get to sleep – normal sleepers don’t. Normal sleepers just put their heads on the pillow, maybe let their minds wander over the day, and then gently fall asleep. When people with insomnia try to sleep, we try all manner of things to get to that state – and many of those things either prolong the sleeplessness, or actually wind it up!

Meadows describes four factors associated with the start of insomnia:

  • risks which may be getting older, being female, being a worrier or depressed, having a family history of rotten sleep, maybe being generally full-on;
  • triggers may include life stress, some medical conditions like irritable bowel or a fracture and yes, pain, and medications or alcohol, time zone changes and so on;
  • arrivals are memories, thoughts, sensations, emotions and urges that come to visit when we’re trying to get off to sleep but can’t – and these are partly the fight, flight or freeze response which happens when we begin worrying, or are part of the triggers (and we often think it’s those things that need to be got rid of); and finally
  • amplifiers, or things that are meant to be helping reduce insomnia but can actually make it worse: things like spending longer in bed, sleeping in, going to be earlier, having naps – and oddly enough, some of the things we’re traditionally advised to do to help us sleep. Things like reading in low light, having a warm bath or warm milk drink, watching TV, listening to the radio, playing with devices like the phone…. Even some of the things we do because we’re not sleeping – like getting out of bed and doing things like checking emails, doing some exercise, going to the loo – all of these things are done to try avoid the chitter-chatter of our mind, or eat least to control or distract from it, yet can paradoxically train your brain to be awake right when you really want to sleep… even things like keeping the room dark, wearing earplugs, doing relaxation, sleeping in a different bed from your partner, trying a new mattress or pillow can be a step too far and train your brain to think controlling these thoughts about sleep is the Thing To Do.

I’ll bet that, like me, most people have done all these things – and some of them are part of CBTi. There is a place for them in moderation – but it’s even better to develop the skill of not being caught up in trying to control our thoughts, worries, feelings, body sensations when we’re heading to sleep.

Now I’m sure this is where people are going “yeah but…” and giving a whole list of why your situation is different. Would you be willing to keep reading and look at some alternatives?

The risk of trying to control these arrivals and amplifiers is that while they don’t work, it’s too scary NOT to do them. Your brain learns, as a result, that sleep is a problem. And what does the brain like best? Oh that’s right – solving problems. Except that if you’ve ever tried to “make yourself” stop thinking, or feeling – have you noticed that you just can’t? Try it now: try and make yourself feel happy. Yeah… you either have to recall something enjoyable from the past, or anticipate something in the future. And while you’re doing that, your brain is cranking up. It’s worse if you try to stop yourself from thinking or worrying because that old fight, flight or freeze response kicks in and up goes your heart rate and perspiration and breathing…

So the first step of this programme is to discover all the things you’re doing to control the uncontrollable. We can’t stop feelings, thoughts, memories and so on from arriving. They just do. So fighting with them and trying hard to get rid of them just does not work – they’re there AND you’re feeling stressed because you can’t get rid of them!

Click to the next post

Managing sleep problems – a medication-free approach (i)


I’ve recently completed two posts on assessing sleep problems in people experiencing persistent pain, and today I turn my attention to strategies for managing sleep problems – without medication. Why without medication? Because to date there are no medications for insomnia that don’t require a ‘weaning off’ period, during which time people often find their original sleep problems emerge once again… I’m not completely against medications for sleep or pain – but I think they need to be used with care and full disclosure about the effects, side-effects, and the need to eventually withdraw from them.

The approach I’m advocating is a modified form of cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTi). CBTi is a form of treatment that is now considered to be first line therapy by both the British Association for Psychopharmacology (Wilson, Nutt, Alford, Argyropoulos, Baldwin, Bateson et al, 2010), and the American College of Physicians (Qaseem, Kansagara, Forciea, Cooke, Denberg et al, 2016). It includes sleep hygiene, cognitive therapy for the thoughts and beliefs associated with sleep, and sleep restriction for those who clinically need it. The modified version I advocate is based on Dr Guy Meadows ACT-based approach and I’ll cover that next week, but I’ll describe the classical CBT approach first.

Basic principles

The basic idea behind a CBT approach to insomnia is that although the initiating event may be out of our control, it’s unlikely to be maintaining the problem – and the factors maintaining the problem are typically the habits people have, and the thoughts and beliefs about their sleep problem.

Sleep is a behaviour that is infinitely malleable, as anyone who has travelled far enough on long-haul flights will know (and parents of small babies as well!). There are cues we use to decide when we should head to bed, and how long we should stay asleep. Bodies in turn respond to these cues and modify automatic processes such as digestion, urine production, and body temperature to ensure we stay asleep for as long as needed. When those cues change – for example, we’re in a new time zone when it’s light at the “wrong” time, and we’re hungry at the “wrong” time, we have trouble staying asleep until the body adjusts. Some people say we can manage a two-hour time zone shift every 24 hours, but in some sensitive people even a one-hour daylight savings change can upset the apple-cart!

If sleep is a habitual behaviour, then we can manipulate the cues to our benefit when sleep is elusive. We learn to associate things like the routine we follow prior to going to bed, light in the room, the “winding down” process we use, and even the timing of our snacks and drinks as a way to signal to the body/mind that we’re sleepy/tired.

There are three basic steps in CBTi: stimulus control (aka sleep hygiene), cognitive therapy, and sleep restriction – with the usual relapse prevention steps an essential part as well.

Sleep hygiene (stimulus control)

The basis of sleep hygiene is to control the stimuli associated with going to sleep so that we clearly indicate to the body/mind that it’s time to get to sleep. That means some basic “rules” around what we do in the time preceding getting into bed, and what we do when in bed trying to sleep.

The golden rule is that the bed is for sleep and sex – not for worrying in, not for watching TV or using the computer or phone or tablet, not for arguing in, not for talking on the phone. If you’re awake in bed for longer than 20 minutes, it’s time to get out of bed until you’re sleepy/tired (more on this in a moment), keeping the lights down low, doing something tedious or boring, then returning to bed to actually sleep.

Simple, commonsense things like keeping the room dark and warm, blocking out the worst of the noise, NOT using a TV or radio or any other noise-making device to go to sleep, ensuring caffeine intake is limited, having a regular bedtime and wake-up time, not taking naps through the day and timing when exercise and relaxation are undertaken are all part of sleep hygiene and most of us are aware of these steps. If they’re not familiar to you, this site is a good one – click.

Cognitive therapy

The cognitive therapy part is about managing the thoughts and attitudes that can exacerbate the sleep problem – things like having a busy mind, worrying about not being able to sleep, believing that it’s crucial to have a certain number of hours of sleep or the next day will be awful, getting that sinking dread as bedtime approaches, following any number of almost (and sometimes actual) obsessive rituals to achieve sleep – and so on…

As usual, with any conventional CBT, dealing with these thoughts involves firstly reality testing – Is it true that you must have a certain number of hours of sleep or the next day will inevitably be terrible? Must the room be absolutely silent or sleep will elude you? Then challenging or disputing those thoughts – “It’s possible I’ll feel tired tomorrow, but I can still function even if I’m not at my best”, “It might take me longer to fall asleep but I’ll get to sleep even though I can hear a clock ticking”.

These simple approaches are reasonably easy to implement – and they are effective. But if sleep is still a problem, and the person isn’t getting more than 4 hours sleep a night, it’s time to bring in the big guns.

Sleep restriction

There are two parts of altering sleep habits that are particularly challenging: getting out of bed after 20 minutes of being awake (especially in the wee hours of the morning!); and using sleep restriction. Neither are easy, yet both are effective.

The idea behind sleep restriction is to reduce the amount of time being in bed while not actually being asleep. Simple huh? So that period from when you first hop into bed and until you actually fall asleep is called sleep latency – and the longer your sleep latency, the less sleep you actually get. You become inefficient at sleeping, and worst, your body/mind learns that it’s OK to be in bed wide awake, and as I mentioned earlier, people begin to associate even going into the bedroom as a negative thing which revs up the autonomic nervous system making it even more difficult to fall asleep.

The nuts and bolts are to work out what time you actually fall asleep, and only go to bed at that time. So if you stay awake until 2.00 or 3.00am, you only go to bed at 2.00am. And you keep your morning wake-up time the same as normal. Yes, this means you end up being only able to sleep for the time between 2.00am and 7.00am! Ouch!

The idea is to extinguish the “habit” of being awake while in bed, reducing the association between being in bed and wide awake, while getting you absolutely tired and sleepy that you fall asleep into a deep sleep quickly. Once this falling asleep part happens regularly (usually for a week or so) then it’s possible to begin a very gradual process of bringing the bedtime back to a more reasonable hour – I usually suggest 15 minute increments, returning to the previous step if falling asleep begins to be difficult.

The process is reasonably difficult – not because it’s hard to stay awake (after all, the person has been practicing it for some time!) but because of the mind chatter. It’s truly tough when your mind starts having a go at you, suggesting you can’t sleep, or you’ll be so incredibly tired you won’t cope, or you’ll be cranky and that it’s dangerous and how on earth  will you go at work without any sleep? And this is where having access to a really good clinician can be helpful, although there are apps that provide a pretty good alternative if a human isn’t available.

For a detailed examination of the literature on sleep restriction therapy, Kyle, Aquino, Miller, Henry, Crawford, Espie & Spielman (2015) provide a really good systematic analysis of how sleep restriction is employed in research trials.  For a plain language version of CBTi, this is a good description – click

As I mentioned above, I’ll be going through a slightly different version of CBTi – an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach to insomnia that is also gaining popularity and an evidence base. Come right on back next week for that exciting episode!

 

Kyle, S. D., Aquino, M. R. J., Miller, C. B., Henry, A. L., Crawford, M. R., Espie, C. A., & Spielman, A. J. (2015). Towards standardisation and improved understanding of sleep restriction therapy for insomnia disorder: A systematic examination of cbt-i trial content. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 23, 83-88.

Manber, R., Simpson, N. S., & Bootzin, R. R. (2015). A step towards stepped care: Delivery of cbt-i with reduced clinician time. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 19, 3-5.

Qaseem, A., Kansagara, D., Forciea, M., Cooke, M., Denberg, T. D., & for the Clinical Guidelines Committee of the American College of, P. (2016). Management of chronic insomnia disorder in adults: A clinical practice guideline from the american college of physicians. Annals of Internal Medicine, 165(2), 125-133. doi:10.7326/M15-2175

Wilson, S., Nutt, D., Alford, C., Argyropoulos, S., Baldwin, D., Bateson, A., . . . Wade, A. (2010). British association for psychopharmacology consensus statement on evidence-based treatment of insomnia, parasomnias and circadian rhythm disorders. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 24(11), 1577-1601. doi:10.1177/0269881110379307

When philosophy and evidence collide: is an occupation-focused approach suitable in pain management?


I have often described myself as a renegade occupational therapist: I like statistics, I think experimental research is a good way to test hypotheses, I don’t make moccasins (though I occasionally wear them!), I’m happy reading research and figuring out how I can apply findings into my clinical practice.

Occupational therapy is a profession that continues to evolve. The origins of occupational therapy lie back in the “moral” model of treatment for mental illness when advocates found that giving people things to do helped them become well (mind you, some of the reasons for admission to a “mental asylum” were things like “wandering womb”, novel reading, laziness and “female disease” read it here on Snopes). As time passed, occupational therapy was a way to “occupy” troops recovering from war wounds, and later, tuberculosis. At various points, occupational therapists have tried to enclose practice within prevailing models: anatomical, biomechanical, neurological. And then the scope broadens and the profession returns to “occupation” and all it means. Out of this latest movement, and informing occupational therapy practice today is the idea of “occupational science” – this is the “basic science” examining the factors that underpin occupational therapy practice (Yerxa, 1990).

Unlike most “basic sciences”, occupational science draws on areas of knowledge including anthropology, sociology and political science; all social sciences that bring their own philosophical biases to understanding social phenomena. Occupational science is about “what people do in daily life” – those routines, rituals, practices, customs and daily doings that support us in our roles, shape our place in the social world, and help us form an understanding of who we are in the world. Things like how we go about getting up, the way we serve a meal, the way we dress ourselves, how we go from one place to another, the hobbies and fun things we do – all fundamental building blocks of daily life. Occupational therapy, therefore, informed by occupational science, is focused on helping people participate in daily life as fully and equitably as possible, irrespective of health status, gender, ethnicity, religious belief, age and so on.

With a focus on not only helping people participate in occupations, but also using occupation as therapy, it’s not surprising to find a plurality of approaches to treatment. I have seen art used to help people with persistent pain represent the impact of pain on their sense of self – and to celebrate changes that have happened as a result of pain management. I have seen gardening used to help people become stronger, more confident to move and to reconnect with a hobby they had given up because of pain. I have seen people begin new hobbies (geocaching anyone?) as part of occupational therapy. I have used excursions to the local shopping mall to help people regain confidence and reduce their fear of crowded places where they might get bumped. Graded exposure is also an approach occupational therapists use to help people generalise their emerging skills to approach feared movements instead of avoiding them.

What I hope I don’t see is a return to a compensatory model for persistent pain. You know what I mean here: using gadgets or aids to “make life easier” when a person is dealing with persistent pain. Things like a special long-handled tool so people can pick something up from the floor – fine in a short-term situation like immediately post hip arthroplasty, but not so much when the problem is longstanding fear and avoidance. A special vacuum-cleaner so the person doesn’t have to bend – it’s so much easier yes, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem which can be remedied.

Why is a compensatory model not so good for persistent pain management? Well, because in most instances, though not all, the reason a person isn’t doing a movement when they’re sore is not because they cannot – but because that movement increases or might increase pain, and no-one really wants to increase pain, yeah? By providing a gadget of some sort, or even working through a way to avoid that movement, occupational therapists who use this sort of approach are ignoring the strong evidence that this reinforces avoidance as a strategy for managing pain, doesn’t address the underlying fear, and risks prolonging and actually reinforcing ongoing disability. This approach is harmful.

Helping people do things that might hurt isn’t a very popular idea for some clinicians and a lot of people living with persistent pain. It feels at first glance, like a really nasty thing to do to someone. BUT graded exposure is an effective, occupationally-focused treatment for fear of movement and fear of pain (Lopez-de-Uralde-Villaneuva, Munos-Garcia, Gil-Martinez, Pardo-Montero, Munoz-Plata et al, 2016). Used within an acceptance and commitment therapy model, graded exposure becomes “committed action” that’s aligned to values – and engaging in valued occupations is exactly what occupational therapy is all about.

Of course, not everyone enjoys this kind of work. That’s OK – because there are others who DO enjoy doing it! And it’s all in the way that it’s done – a framework of values, commitment, mindfulness and, that’s right, “chat therapy” – which some occupational therapists believe is right outside their scope of practice.

Now unless someone works in a vacuum, via some sort of mind-to-mind process, I cannot think of any therapist who doesn’t communicate with the person they’re working with. Humans communicate effortlessly and continuously. And “chat therapy” is about communicating – communicating skillfully, carefully selecting what to respond to and how, and focusing on clinical reasoning. Of course, if that’s ALL the treatment is about, then it’s not occupational therapy, but when it’s used in the aid of helping someone participate more fully in valued occupations using CBT, ACT, DBT or indeed motivational interviewing is one of the approaches occupational therapists can employ both within an occupation as therapy and occupation as outcome model.

I firmly believe that occupational therapists should follow an evidence base for their work. While I openly acknowledge the paucity of occupational therapy-specific research in persistent pain, particularly using occupation as therapy, there is plenty of research (carried out by other professions) to support approaches occupational therapists can adopt. After all, we already use developmental models, neurological models, sociological models, anthropological ones and yes, psychological ones. And that’s without venturing into the biomechanical ones! So it’s not an unfamiliar clinical reasoning strategy.

What makes occupational therapy practice in pain management absolutely unique are two things: a complete focus on reducing disability through enabling occupation, and a commitment to bringing skills developed “in clinic” outside into the daily lives and world of the people we are privileged to work with. What we should not do is focus on short-term outcomes like reducing (avoiding) bending with some new technique, while being ignorant of other occupational approaches. We are a fortunate profession because all of what we do is biopsychosocial, let’s not forget it.

 

López-de-Uralde-Villanueva, I., Muñoz-García, D., Gil-Martínez, A., Pardo-Montero, J., Muñoz-Plata, R., Angulo-Díaz-Parreño, S., . . . La Touche, R. (2016). A systematic review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness of graded activity and graded exposure for chronic nonspecific low back pain. Pain Medicine, 17(1), 172-188. doi:10.1111/pme.12882

Yerxa, E. J. (1990). An introduction to occupational science, a foundation for occupational therapy in the 21st century. Occup Ther Health Care, 6(4), 1-17. doi:10.1080/J003v06n04_04

Clinical reasoning and why models of low back pain need to be integrated


Clinical reasoning has been defined as “the process by which a therapist interacts with a patient, collecting information, generating and testing hypotheses, and determining optimal diagnosis and treatment based on the information obtained.” (thanks to https://www.physio-pedia.com/Clinical_Reasoning#cite_note-Higgs-1). The model or lens through which we do these processes naturally has a major influence on our relationship with the person, the information we think is relevant, the hypotheses we develop, and ultimately the problems we identify and how we treat them. No arguments so far, yes?

So when we come to thinking about pain, particularly where a “diagnosis” can’t be readily established – or where the treatment doesn’t directly address a proposed causal factor – clinical reasoning should be led by some sort of model, but how explicit is our model, really? And, what’s more, how well does the research support our model, and the relationships between variables?

I’m thinking about my approach as an occupational therapist where my interest in assessment is to identify why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining their current predicament; and my aim is to identify what can be done to reduce distress and disability, while promoting participation in daily occupations (activities, things that need to be done or the person wants to do). For many years now I’ve used a cognitive behavioural model first developed by Dr Tim Sharp who has now moved into Positive Psychology. His reformulation of the cognitive behavioural model works from the “experience” of pain through to responses to that experience, but incorporates some of the cyclical interactions between constructs. The model doesn’t include inputs to the “experience” component from the nociceptive system – but it could.

Many other models exist. Some of them are quite recent – the STarT Back Tool, for example, provides a very simplified screening approach to low back pain that some people have identified as a clinical reasoning model. Another is by Tousignant-Laflamme, Martel, Joshi & Cook (2017), and is a model aimed at pulling all the various approaches together – and does so with a beautifully-coloured diagram.

But.

You knew there would be one! What I think these two models omit is to generate some relationships between the constructs, particularly the psychological ones. You see, while it’s a cyclical interaction, there are some relationships that we can identify.  And over the next few weeks I’ll be writing about some of the known associations, just to begin to build a picture of the relationships we can assess before we begin generating hypotheses.

For example, we know that the nervous system, and in particular our mind/brain, is never inactive and is therefore never a completely blank slate just waiting for information to come into it, but we also know there are relationships between the intensity/salience/novelty of a stimulus that attract attention, and that this competes with whatever cognitive set we have operating at the time (Legrain, Van Damme, Eccleston, Davis, Seminowicz & Crombez, 2009). So one relationship we need to assess is current contexts (and there are always many), and the times when a person is more or less aware of their pain.

Now, what increases the salience of a stimulus? For humans it’s all about meaning. We attribute meaning to even random patterns (ever seen dragons and horses in the clouds?!), so it’s unsurprising that as we experience something (or watch someone else experiencing something) we make meaning of it. And we generate meanings by relating concepts to other concepts – for a really good introduction to a very geeky subject, head here to read about relational frame theory. Relational frame theory is used to explain how we generate language and meanings by relating events with one another (The Bronnie translation! – for an easier version go here). Wicksell and Vowles (2015) describe this, and I’m going to quote it in full:

As described by relational frame theory, the theoretical framework underlying ACT, stimulus functions are continuously acquired via direct experiences, but also through their relations with other stimuli [5]. This implies that a behavioral response is not due to just one stimuli but rather the relational network of stimuli. Pain as an interoceptive stimulus is associated with a large number of other stimuli, and the actions taken depend on the psychological function(s) of that relational network of stimuli. A seemingly trivial situation may therefore elicit very strong reactions due to the associations being made: a relatively modest pain sensation from the neck trigger thoughts like “pain in the neck is bad,” which in turn are related to ideas such as “it may be a fragile disk,” and “something is terribly wrong,” that eventually lead to fatalistic conclusions like “I will end up in a wheelchair.” Thus, even if the initial stimulus is modest, it may activate a relational network of stimuli with very aversive psychological functions.

In other words, we develop these networks of meaning from the time we’re little until we die, and these mean any experience (situation, context, stimulus, event, action) holds meaning unique and particular to the individual. And these networks of meaning are constructed effortlessly and usually without any overt awareness. Each event/experience (yeah and the rest) then has further influence on how we experience any subsequent event/experience. So if you’ve learned that back pain is a Very Bad Thing, and you’ve done so since you were a kid because your Mother had back pain and took herself to the doctor and then stopped playing with you, you may have a very strong network of relationships built between low back pain, resting, healthcare, abandonment, sadness, anger, loneliness, fear, mother, father, pills, treatment – and the this goes on.

So when we’re beginning to construct a clinical reasoning model for something like low back pain we cannot exclude the “what does it mean” relationship. Every time someone experiences “ouch!” they’re processing a network of associations and relationships and behaviours that go on to influence their response to that experience – and affect attention to it and subsequent response to it.

Over 1000 words and I’ve not even started on emotions and pain!

Take home message: Even if we think we’re not addressing “psychological” stuff – we ARE. Omitting the “what does it mean to you?” and failing to factor that in to our clinical reasoning and subsequent treatment means we’re walking uphill on a scree slope. Oh, and telling someone they’re safe does not change those associations, especially if they’re longstanding. There’s more needed.

 

Legrain V, Damme SV, Eccleston C, Davis KD, Seminowicz DA, & Crombez G (2009). A neurocognitive model of attention to pain: behavioral and neuroimaging evidence. Pain, 144 (3), 230-2 PMID: 19376654

Sharp, T. J. (2001). Chronic pain: A reformulation of the cognitive-behavioural model. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 39(7), 787-800. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7967(00)00061-9

Tousignant-Laflamme, Y., Martel, M. O., Joshi, A. B., & Cook, C. E. (2017). Rehabilitation management of low back pain – it’s time to pull it all together! Journal of Pain Research, 10, 2373-2385. doi:10.2147/JPR.S146485

Wicksell, R. K., & Vowles, K. E. (2015). The role and function of acceptance and commitment therapy and behavioral flexibility in pain management. Pain Management, 5(5), 319-322. doi:10.2217/pmt.15.32