If it hurts – take notice, and avoid it. Learn from it. If there are other people around, make sure your behaviour is noticeable so they take care of you and don’t do what you just did. If they look after you, you’ll probably do the same thing again when you hurt, if they don’t you probably won’t.
This is one description of pain behaviour and how it works. It’s the only part of our pain experience that we can share directly with one another (actions and words). The “doing” part is also the part that is most affected by pain – even distress is signalled to others – so it’s unsurprising that a lot of attention has been paid to how therapists can change behaviours that are unhelpful.
Many of us start with offering an explanation. Language is something that sets humans apart from other creatures because we learn concepts, and associate one concept with another through it (see Beeckman, Hughes, Kissi, Simons & Goubert (2019) for excellent insights into relational frame theory and pain). I’m sure there are many clinicians who’ve tried to give information (to “educate”) to a person and found it works well. And then there are those who just don’t get it. There are three main points that people who respond well to “education” seem to find useful: (1) pain doesn’t mean my body is damaged (the old “hurt does not equal harm” message that originated with Fordyce. Butler (2017) offers us a selection of Fordyce’s wisdom – and wit); (2) thoughts, emotions and experiences affect my pain (again, something the cognitive behavioural therapists have been sharing with people since the beginning of multidisciplinary pain management programmes); and (3) I can retrain my over-protective nervous system (yes, another thing we’ve been doing in pain management for many years… not that we are unlearning pain, we’re helping the nervous system settle down and becoming less distressed by the experience).
We quite like talking to people – maybe because it appeals to our often dictatorial mind (read A Liberated Mind for a new take on this!). And so for people experiencing pain, we talk. But talk on its own isn’t super-effective. After all, for every one time we hear “pain doesn’t mean my body is damaged” we can Google and find literally hundreds of messages telling us our spine is fragile, our joints are damaged and pain is a sign there is harm.
So what is more potent than words? It’s learning by experience. Doing.
A brand new analysis of “sufficient conditions” for psychological therapy was published in Pain (Batho, Kneale, Sutcliffe & Williams, 2021).
Now I do have some reservations about calling this “psychological” because that word is loaded with meanings, not all of them helpful. Truth to tell, we humans use psychological approaches effortlessly in daily life – and it’s not “in the head/mind/emotions” which is almost inevitably what people first think of when they hear it…
In this analysis (which is complex – go read the paper!), the authors investigated 38 studies, did some horrendous statistical analysis and compared the ten most effective treatments with the ten least effective treatments. What they found was quite surprising, and I’m still pondering what it means.
They established that “interventions using graded exposure, graded exercise or behavioural rehearsal (exposure/activity), and interventions aiming to modify reinforcement contingencies (social/ operant) reduced disability levels when either approach was applied but not both.” [italics mine] They also found “exposure/activity can improve distress levels when combined with cognitive restructuring, as long as social/operant methods are not included in treatment.” [italics mine]
It pleased me to find that graded exposure or reactivation, when applied in the absence of social and operant contingencies, reduced disability and distress. And that social/operant approaches reduced disability on its own. The reason I’m happy is that graded exposure and reactivation with a dab of “let’s notice your thoughts and check out whether they’re helping you” are very common approaches used across occupational therapy, physiotherapy, chiropractic, osteopathy, coaching and a whole bunch of therapists who work with people in pain. Graded reactivation with information has been the mainstay of pain management since at least the 1980’s. We know it’s helpful. Graded exposure has gained popularity since the mid-1990’s and we know that it’s helpful too. And we use social reinforcement just because we’re humans.
In the analysis, ACT was used in only one study. ACT doesn’t do cognitive restructuring and instead, uses six interwoven processes that together support psychological flexibility. I use ACT as my primary approach, both for myself in daily living, and with people who come to see me for help with their pain.
What I like about ACT is that it’s flexible, allows people to notice what their mind tells them, but helps them to step back from that dictator within to make a choice about what to do. It’s the doing part (based on what matters in a person’s life) that I enjoy because it involves both graded exposure and graded reactivation. And if a person doesn’t relate to what they’ve been told about their pain, we don’t have to offer another explanation, we can help the person work out what works for them in the context of their own life.
So where are we with this now? Given that we can’t stop being social animals, and that we respond to one another without knowing it, I’m not sure we can avoid inadvertently using social and operant approaches as therapists. What we can do, though, is become more knowledgeable about behavioural approaches in pain management and rehabilitation – and that undoubtedly means learning a whole lot more psychology. Perhaps we might need to reframe our own understanding of psychology so we feel more comfortable with it – a bit like explaining pain and cognitive functional therapy have both helped us feel OK to step into doing what has often been the territory of psychologists.
Batho, A., Kneale, D., Sutcliffe, K., & Williams, A. C. C. (2021, Oct 1). Sufficient conditions for effective psychological treatment of chronic pain: a qualitative comparative analysis. Pain, 162(10), 2472-2485. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002242
Beeckman, M., Hughes, S., Kissi, A., Simons, L. E., & Goubert, L. (2019, Oct). How an Understanding of Our Ability to Adhere to Verbal Rules Can Increase Insight Into (Mal)adaptive Functioning in Chronic Pain. Journal of Pain, 20(10), 1141-1154. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2019.02.013
Butler, S. (2017). The wit and wisdom of Wilbert (Bill) Fordyce (1923-2009). Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 16(1), 160-163.
Leake, H. B., Moseley, G. L., Stanton, T. R., O’Hagan, E. T., & Heathcote, L. C. (2021, Oct 1). What do patients value learning about pain? A mixed-methods survey on the relevance of target concepts after pain science education. Pain, 162(10), 2558-2568. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002244