activity management

Pacing, pacing, pacing…


If there’s one pain management and rehabilitation strategy that keeps me awake at night, it’s pacing. Living with persistent pain, I loathe the idea of pacing because I know everyone “booms and busts” from time to time, and few people like the idea of planning every single aspect of every single day as they come to grips with modifying their daily routines. BUT it’s one of the most popular strategies in textbooks, self-help books, and in treatment so there must be something in it, right?

Vexed definitions

One of the problems with the whole pacing concept is defining what we mean by it. I like Nicole Andrew’s approach: Nicole acknowledges that defining pacing is difficult, so when she talks about her research into pacing, she’s clear about the definition she’s using in that piece of work.

Various definitions abound. As a broad concept, pacing refers to organising daily activities in such a way that a specific end is achieved. The difficulty arises when we begin to determine the end goal of pacing (pain reduction? maintaining consistent activity levels? completing important tasks? avoiding a flare-up? reducing the relationship between pain fluctuations and activity? increasing overall activity levels over time?) and the means used to achieve these ends (time as a guide? activity intensity as a guide? importance and values as a guide? “spoons” of energy as a guide?). You can see how complex this concept is…

Nielson, Jensen, Karsdorp & Vlaeyen (2013) discussed this and identified two treatment goals (they weren’t considering the spontaneous use of pacing, nor the use of pacing outside a treatment context). “Whereas the operant approach seeks to improve function (decrease disability), the energy conservation approach is designed to reduce symptoms (pain, fatigue).”

Fordyce developed the operant conditioning approach, viewing pain behaviours as reinforced by other people – or by avoiding negative consequences such as a pain flare-up. His approach involved establishing a quota – a certain number, or a certain time in which people maintain activity irrespective of pain flucuations. In a clinical setting, this is the approach I mainly use, though there is an art to setting the “minimum” a person does (setting a baseline) and to nudging the activity levels up.

Sternbach, another influential pain management person from around the late 1970’s, followed a similar approach – but instead of simply establishing a baseline, he advised people to anticipate the point at which they would increase their pain and to stop the activity just before then. This is also a popular approach in pain management rehabilitation today – but has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing a pain avoidance (and pain contingent) approach, if not done very carefully.

Occupational therapists have frequently advocated the “5 p’s”. Pacing, positioning, posture, persistence and problem-solving. This approach was based on energy conservation, and while I can’t find the original papers from which this approach was developed, it was introduced to me as part of rheumatology practice, and in conditions where fatigue is a problem such as multiple sclerosis. I can see it being used today as part of the popular “spoons” meme where people are thought to have a fixed number of “spoons” of energy, and need to allocate their energy accordingly. My main criticism of this approach is that it doesn’t allow for people to increase their capabilities over time, either through “training” effects, or habituation.

Now, how about some evidence for any of these approaches?

Well therein lies a problem – there is very little research to support activity pacing despite its popularity. This is why I was so interested when I spotted a pilot study published in Journal of Pain, testing the energy conservation approach to activity managing (aka pacing) against an operant conditioning approach in a group of people with fibromyalgia. This group of people provides us with a useful population to test both approaches because fatigue is thought to be a prominent feature of fibromyalgia, and energy conservation has some degree of face validity for managing fatigue.

The design of the study involved four groups, two immediately treated using either an operant conditioning variant of pacing, or the energy conservation variant, and two groups with delayed treatments, again with the two versions (these groups acted as the control groups for this study). 178 participants were involved, with confirmed diagnoses of fibromyalgia given by occupational therapists using the American College of Rheumatology’s 2010 FMS diagnostic criteria. If the occupational therapist had doubts about the individual’s diagnosis, or the person wasn’t able to provide formal documentation confirming the diagnosis, the study rheumatologist assessed the potential participant for inclusion. This is an important procedure in studies of people living with fibromyalgia, given there is no definitive diagnostic test such as a blood test or imaging result.

The two treatment approaches were documented in treatment manuals to establish consistency, and it’s interesting to note that the approaches were applied across all activities in a day rather than just exercise, as often happens. For full descriptions of each of the ten treatment sessions, the article should be referred to, and the treatment manuals are available at http://research.melanieracine.com/activity management

Cutting to the chase, what did they find?

Well… to quote the authors “Inconsistent with the study’s primary hypothesis, neither treatment was effective in reducing average pain or usual fatigue symptoms. However, analyses of secondary outcome measures suggest the possibility that OL-based activity pacing treatments might be more effective than EC-based treatments in improving patient function.”

I didn’t expect pain reduction, or fatigue to be altered by an activity management approach: the relationship between movement and pain is highly variable, and there are many times we’ll be happy doing something and not experience pain simply because it’s something we enjoy. At the same time, I did hope to see a difference between the two approaches in terms of overall “doing” (function). My expectation was that pain may actually increase as people begin doing more, or alternatively, that people will feel more confident that they can achieve what’s important to them in a day, and that pain intensity becomes less of a guiding factor. The authors provide some explanations: perhaps the study numbers were too low to detect a difference (ie the study was under-powered); and perhaps a brief intervention isn’t intensive enough to help change over so many different aspects of a person’s life. Or perhaps, I want to add, neither approach is terribly great and while they both have intuitive appeal, persistent pain is too complex for any single activity management approach to make much of a difference. Maybe it’s something that needs other strategies to be incorporated such as exercise, mindfulness, medications, and even scheduling pleasant events.

So where does this leave us?

I guess for me, I like to think of activity pacing as one of many different tools in my toolbox. I bring it out when I’m attempting to increase my overall activity level – such as my walking programme, where I’m slowly but gradually increasing my capabilities without giving myself a whole two weeks of DOMs! I otherwise use a more flexible activity management approach: if something is important to me, and I think I can deal with the flare-up, I’ll do it. If it’s not as important to me, or I don’t think I can deal with the flare-up, I’ll probably modify my approach. Pacing, or activity management is only one tool…

Andrews, N. E., Strong, J., & Meredith, P. J. (2012). Activity Pacing, Avoidance, Endurance, and Associations With Patient Functioning in Chronic Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 93(11), 2109-2121.e2107.

Nielson, W. R., Jensen, M. P., Karsdorp, P. A., & Vlaeyen, J. W. S. (2013). Activity Pacing in Chronic Pain: Concepts, Evidence, and Future Directions. Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(5), 461-468.

Racine, M., Jensen, M. P., Harth, M., Morley-Forster, P., & Nielson, W. R. (2019). Operant Learning Versus Energy Conservation Activity Pacing Treatments in a Sample of Patients With Fibromyalgia Syndrome: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Pain, 20(4), 420–439. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2018.09.013