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Your patient has psychosocial risk factors: what now?


Congratulations! You’re an insightful clinician who’s offered your patient a screening assessment to find out if she or he has psychosocial risk factors – and yes! they do! Well done. Now what?

Do you…

  • send your patient to the nearest psychologist?
  • spend at least one treatment session offering pain neurobiology education?
  • scramble to find a “psychologically informed physio” to send them to, because it takes really highly trained and special clinicians to work with these people
  • give your patient the same exercise prescription you were going to anyway because, after all, they still have things going on in their tissues (or is it their nervous system? I forget – whatever, they just need to move, dammit!)
  • throw your hands up in horror and say “I never wanted to deal with people in pain anyway!”

You’d have to be hiding beneath a rock to avoid learning that people with musculoskeletal pain with psychosocial risk factors such as feeling that back pain is terrible and it isn’t going to get better, believing that it’s not safe to move or exercise with back pain, having worrying thoughts going through their mind, or not enjoying things very much should have special attention when they seek help for their pain. And we’ve all read studies showing that many of our frontline clinicians who see people with musculoskeletal pain aren’t comfortable, confident or clear about what to do with people who are, frankly, scared and distressed.

Papers like Caneiro, Bunzli & O’Sulllivan’s (2021) Masterclass clearly show that messages people with pain get told include avoiding certain movements to prevent damage, being advised that special exercises ‘protect’ the body, and that clinicians believe that certain postures and movements are inherently unsafe (bending, lifting with a rounded back). At the same time, Sajid, Parkunan & Frost (2021) found that only 11.8% of people referred by GPs for musculoskeletal MRIs had their mental health problems addressed, while only 16.7% of the MRI results were correctly interpreted by GPs and in 65.4% of cases were referred for “spurious overperception of surgical targets.”

Worse, Nicola, Correia, Ditchburn & Drummond (2021) conducted a systematic review of the effects of pain invalidation on individuals – invalidation from family, friends and healthcare individuals, and the person themselves. They found five themes: not being believed, lack of compassion, lack of pain awareness and understanding, feeling stigmatised and critical self-judgement. Perceived social unacceptability of experiencing pain was found to have an impact on the emotional state and self-image of those with persistent pain. Ya think?!

If I return to the case I presented last week, Angelina, a pretty common case of someone with a neck pain who is having trouble sleeping and generally handles her pain independently, we could assume that she doesn’t have significant psychosocial risk factors. After all, she’s managing to stay working, does a bit of self-help, and she’s not depressed though she’s a bit irritable.

What would you do?

I guess my first thought is: would Angelina even get a screening assessment to see whether she has any psychosocial risk factors? Might she present superficially well enough for her therapist to think she’s fine, let’s just treat the neck?

Of all the neck pain treatments available, what would she be given? And what might she be told about the rationale for that treatment? A recent systematic review with meta-analysis pointed out that while specific exercises helped in the short to medium term, the quality of that evidence was low (Villaneuva-Ruiz, Falla, Lascurain-Aquirrebena, 2021), while a systematic review with network meta-analysis of 40 RCTs found “There is not one superior type of physical exercise for people with chronic non-specific neck pain.
Rather, there is very low quality evidence that motor control, yoga/Pilates/Tai Chi/Qigong and strengthening exercises are equally effective.” (de Zoete, Armfield, McAuley, Chen, & Sterling, 2020).

More than this: would her sleep and relationship concerns be discussed? What about her safety while driving? How about how she manages her work, and her belief that perhaps her pain is happening because of a period at work where she wasn’t positioned “correctly”?

You see, at the moment in our musculoskeletal treatment literature, the focus has been almost entirely on grouped data. And this, folks, is where Steven Hayes points out that the ergodic theorum is violated. Ergodic theory is “…the idea that a point of a moving system, either a dynamical system or a stochastic process, will eventually visit all parts of the space that the system moves in, in a uniform and random sense. This implies that the average behavior of the system can be deduced from the trajectory of a “typical” point. Equivalently, a sufficiently large collection of random samples from a process can represent the average statistical properties of the entire process.” (I stole that from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergodicity).

Hayes, Hofmann & Ciarrochi (2020) point out that “We cannot assume that the behavior of collectives (e.g., a volume of gas) models the behavior of an individual element (e.g., a molecule of gas) unless the material involved is “ergodic” and thus all elements are identical and are unaffected by change processes.” Humans are not ergodic (only a few noble gases are…) and what this means is that “statistical techniques based on inter-individual variation cannot properly assess the contribution of given elements to phenotypic change.” In other words: humans actively respond and change to what they’re exposed to – each of us presents to treatment with our own incredibly unique range of responses and past history, and these influence how we respond to a treatment. And perhaps this explains why most of our treatments (RCTs, using grouped data and uniformly applied and consistent treatments) particularly for persistent pain problems end up showing pretty small effect sizes. We’re violating the assumptions of the ergodic theorum. What we need are more sophisticated ways to analyse the impact of any therapy, and far fewer algorithms and cookie cutter treatments.

Where does this leave us? I have loads of ideas about where to from here, but not nearly enough space today to write about them!

My first suggestion is to avoid blindly following a treatment algorithm that fails to support YOU to sensitively and reflexively offer treatments that fit for your patient.

My second is to avoid measuring the impact of what you do only at the end of treatment (or worse, not at all!). Measure often, and measure things that matter – either to how you get to the end outcome, or that the person values. Or both.

And third: Get reading outside of your profession. Dig into psychology (I especially recommend Hayes); look at sociology (try Jutel); anthropology (try Sarah Pink’s “Sensuous futures: re-thinking the concept of trust in design anthropology”); make 2022 the year that you lean into uncertainty. I know the past two years have been incredibly unsettling – but this is the perfect time to continue on this journey into new ideas, fresh concepts, and ambiguity.

Caneiro, J. P., Bunzli, S., & O’Sullivan, P. (2021). Beliefs about the body and pain: the critical role in musculoskeletal pain management. Braz J Phys Ther, 25(1), 17-29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bjpt.2020.06.003

Nicola, M., Correia, H., Ditchburn, G., & Drummond, P. (2021, Mar). Invalidation of chronic pain: a thematic analysis of pain narratives. Disability and Rehabilitation, 43(6), 861-869. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2019.1636888

Sarah Pink (2021) Sensuous futures: re-thinking the concept of trust in design anthropology, The Senses and Society, 16:2, 193-202, DOI: 10.1080/17458927.2020.1858655

Sajid, I. M., Parkunan, A., & Frost, K. (2021, Jul). Unintended consequences: quantifying the benefits, iatrogenic harms and downstream cascade costs of musculoskeletal MRI in UK primary care. BMJ Open Quality, 10(3). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjoq-2020-001287

Villanueva-Ruiz, Iker, Falla, Deborah, Lascurain-Aguirrebeña, Ion. (2021) Effectiveness of Specific Neck Exercise for Nonspecific Neck Pain; Usefulness of Strategies for Patient Selection and Tailored Exercise—A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis, Physical Therapy, 2021;, pzab259, https://doi-org.cmezproxy.chmeds.ac.nz/10.1093/ptj/pzab259

de Zoete, R. M., Armfield, N. R., McAuley, J. H., Chen, K., & Sterling, M. (2020, Nov 2). Comparative effectiveness of physical exercise interventions for chronic non-specific neck pain: a systematic review with network meta-analysis of 40 randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2020-102664

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 3


In my last post I described the “4 P” model (sometimes called the 5P!) of formulation for pain. In today’s post I want to talk about an integrated approach for a team.

Teamwork in pain management is an enormous thing – IASP (International Association for the Study of Pain) endorses multidisciplinary (I prefer interprofessional) teamwork but gives little information on how teams best work together. In fact, research exploring teamwork processes in pain management is remarkably absent, even though there’s considerable research elsewhere in healthcare showing that effective teamwork is quite distinct from being an effective solo clinician. The processes of coming together, learning about one another and what each person and profession contributes, learning how to make decisions, how to negotiate differences of opinion, to trust one another: all of these have been explored in other health settings, but not in pain management ones. This matters because of all the areas in healthcare, pain management presents us with the most complex inter-related problems where the model of pain adopted by a team must be consistent or the person with pain will likely feel utterly confused.

’nuff said. Let’s take a look at a team mental model of pain, because this is where learning from one another and across professions becomes “live”.

The basic assumption for the whole team must be that pain is a multifactorial experience, influenced by (broadly) biological, psychological and social elements. In other words, a team won’t work well if some of the members think that pain can be “fixed” by addressing only one piece of the puzzle. Even in acute pain, the team needs to recognise that what a person believes is going on, the meaning they draw from the experience, the influence of others (the family, hospital staff, community) will make a difference to the person’s distress and disability. Context always matters and people always bring their previous experiences (either personal or drawing from what they’ve seen/heard from others, including media) with them when they’re in pain.

If the team takes this idea on board, then the weight that’s placed on the various factors contributing to distress and disability should be equal, at least initially. For example, although anxiety might be a key influence in one person’s pain experience, this shouldn’t be valued above possible biological factors. Each contributing factor needs to earn its way into the overall formulation, and it’s only from reviewing the formulation as a whole that it’s possible to determine where to begin with treatment.

This sounds complicated – and it can be in some cases! But it is really a mindset rather than being horribly complex. If we hold each piece of the puzzle lightly, look to the relationships between each piece, then we can begin to see how one factor influences another. And teams can, if they share their ideas, put the pieces together much more effectively than any single person can – even the person with pain.

Yes, the person with pain IS part of the team – always. How else will the team know they’ve been effective?

Teams form a mental model of what each other knows, what the team (as a whole) thinks matters, and who in the team might offer the mix of skills the person needs. This mental model doesn’t happen instantly: you can’t put six clinicians in a room and an hour later expect them to have a common understanding of pain, each other, and what the team can do. There’s good research showing that teams need time together – even virtual teams (Maynard & Gilson, 2021) – and that frequently changing team members reduces the teams’ effectiveness (Bedwell, 2019; Williams & Potts, 2010). Mental models emerge as teams share knowledge – the problem is that group members often share knowledge that is common, rather than unique information that could be the linchpin to an effective decision (Levine, 2018).

In my experience, and reading through an enormous amount of research, the most commonly adopted model in persistent pain management is a cognitive behavioural approach. Now this is not “CBT” the therapy, but instead an approach that recognises:

People are active processors of information and not passive reactors.

Thoughts (e.g., appraisals, expectations, and beliefs) can elicit and influence mood, affect physiological processes, have social consequences, and also serve as an impetus for behavior; conversely, mood, physiology, environmental factors, and behavior can influence the nature and content of thought processes.

• Behaviour is reciprocally determined by both individual and environmental factors.

People can learn more adaptive ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving.

People should be active collaborators in changing their maladaptive thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. (Turk & Flor, 2013)

We might disagree on how these points might be operationalised, and treated, but a team should have something like this as a critical understanding of how the factors influencing a person’s distress and disability might fit together.

I’ve written plenty of times about the formulation approach that I’ve often used – here and here – and I’ll show you another ACT-based formulation next week. In the meantime, perhaps it’s time to consider how well you and your team know one another, and consider whether you have enough trust in one another to debate issues (not people), bring unique information (rather than shared), and collaborate rather than compete?

Bedwell, W. L. (2019). Adaptive Team Performance: The Influence of Membership Fluidity on Shared Team Cognition. Frontiers of Psychology, 10, 2266. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02266

Levine, J. M. (2018). Socially-shared cognition and consensus in small groups. Current Opinion in Psychology, 23, 52-56. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.12.003

Maynard, M. T., & Gilson, L. L. (2021). Getting to know you: The importance of familiarity in virtual teams. Organizational Dynamics, 50(1). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.orgdyn.2021.100844

Turk, D. C., & Flor, H. (2013). The Cognitive-Behavioral Approach to Pain Management. In S. B. McMahon, M. Koltzenburg, I. Tracey, & D. C. Turk (Eds.), Wall and Melzack’s Textbook of Pain (6 ed., pp. 592-602). Saunders. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-7020-4059-7.00043-7

Williams, A. C., & Potts, H. W. (2010). Group membership and staff turnover affect outcomes in group CBT for persistent pain. Pain, 148(3), 481-486. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2009.12.011

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! part 2


Last week I described some of the reasons for using a case formulation approach when working through initial assessment information, and today I’m going to describe one approach for organising a formulation. This is the “4 P” formulation, and it’s one that’s often used in mental health (Bolton, 2014).

In the 4 P model, there are four questions to ask yourself:

  1. Preconditions – Why is this person vulnerable to this problem?
  2. Precipitating factors – Why now? This can mean “why is this person having symptoms now?” or “why is this person presenting to this person for treatment right now?”
  3. Perpetuating factors – Why is this person still ill?
  4. Protective factors – Why is this person not more ill?

Remembering that people are whole people, and that pain is always multifactorial, this formulation approach incorporates diagnostic information (disease) alongside a person’s response to disease (illness). The two facets of “being unwell” go together – but not synchronously. We can have a disease and be oblivious to it (think of many forms of cancer, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis…and even Covid-19). Once we begin to experience symptoms and decide that this is not “normal” we call it illness. And if symptoms and signs begin to impinge on what we can and can’t do in life, we can call this disability or functional limitations. These in turn (more or less) influence participation in community life. The relationships are not straightforward, and this is partly why a formulation can be so helpful. Formulations help us explore – in collaboration with the person – why is this problem such a problem? – whether it’s simply the presence of pain, or more related to the disability and distress that pain is posing for the person.

Preconditions include biological factors such as gender, ethnicity, and age. Preconditions also include psychological factors such as previous experiences in life, prevailing beliefs, emotional reactivity, and attention. Social factors such as employment status, social connection, stigma, socio-economic status, family and living situation are all contributors to a person’s vulnerability to the problem they’re presenting with. In our pain formulations, we know about many of these preconditions that make the people we see vulnerable to having trouble with their pain.

Precipitating factors can be considered in several ways. I like to consider behavioural antecedents for seeking help – what’s been happening in the immediate weeks before a person seeks help – as well as antecedents to the onset of symptoms. For example, people might wait for some weeks before seeking help for a back pain because “it usually settles down” – and this suggests to me that their current episode hasn’t settled down, and they have some thoughts or worries about why. Others might be seeking help because of insurance or workplace requirements where, if they don’t seek help and have the problem recorded, they may not get cover for treatment if the problem reoccurs. Some might be seeking help because their partner or family member is worried, or because they read something in the media or online. I also ask about what was happening at the time the symptoms started. Sometimes this is about an unusually busy time (at work or home), a change in activity level, a new tool or piece of equipment, a new manager or coworkers, perhaps a new daily routine, or a change in living circumstances. While these factors may not be directly causal (biologically) the meaning of these events is valuable because they inform me of the person’s beliefs about their problem.

Perpetuating factors are again, multifactorial and often unrelated to the factors that precipitated the problem. There could be factors associated with disuse influencing changes to the tissues and neurobiology; there could be steps the person has taken to deal with the problem that impact on how quickly it resolves such as using NSAIDs or strapping/wrapping, wearing splints, changed movement patterns. Some of the factors are likely to be beliefs about what’s going on and what should be done about it – like “all the pain must be gone before I start back at work”, or “it’s damaged so I need surgery”. Others could be instructions from people (or held in the community at large) about what to do, like resting, moving in particular ways, or when to seek treatment. Some can be how others respond to the person, like getting irritated because the person isn’t 100% “yet”, or mollycoddling the person (wrapping them up in cottonwool and not letting them do things again). Workplace factors like policies not allowing a person back “until fully fit” or “there are no light duties” also contribute to trouble resuming normal activities.

Protective factors help explain resilience, or strengths the person has that help them maintain well being in the face of this problem. They can be attitudes and practices of the person like believing the body is good at recovering, or maintaining healthy eating and sleeping. They may be factors such as the person’s age, gender, general health. They can include the ability to get to and from treatment (and pay for it), the person’s social supports, their relationships with other health professionals, perhaps strategies they’ve used for other problems (including similar ones to this event) that they haven’t thought to use for this one.

The 4P approach has multiple variants. Some include “the Problem” and call it a 5P model. Some are explicitly tied to a theory of human behaviour (such as a CBT model, ACT model or applied behaviour analysis). Some are entirely developed from the person’s own words and experiences, while others draw on reports from other team members, or previous interactions. The over-riding themes of all of these are that a formulation is developed in collaboration with the person, and considers the whole person in their own usual context.

Next time I’ll look at another formulation approach, and discuss it in relation to teams and how they might use it to form a “team model” of pain and musculoskeletal problems.

Bolton, J. W. (2014). Case formulation after Engel—The 4P model: A philosophical case conference. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 21(3), 179-189.

Cox, L. A. (2021). Use of individual formulation in mental health practice. Mental Health Practice, 24(1), 33-41. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.7748/mhp.2020.e1515

Farmer, R. F., & Chapman, A. L. (2016). Behavioral case formulation and treatment planning. In Behavioral interventions in cognitive behavior therapy: Practical guidance for putting theory into action (2nd ed.). (pp. 53-100). https://doi.org/10.1037/14691-003

Gilbert, P. (2016). A biopsychosocial and evolutionary approach to formulation. In Tarrier, Nicholas [Ed]; Johnson, Judith Ed Case formulation in cognitive behaviour therapy: The treatment of challenging and complex cases , 2nd ed (pp 52-89) xvii, 384 pp New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group; US (pp. 52-89).

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.

Joseph-Williams, N., Edwards, A., & Elwyn, G. (2014). Power imbalance prevents shared decision making. Bmj, 348.

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.

Reidy, J., & Richards, A. (1997). Anxiety and memory: A recall bias for threatening words in high anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35(6), 531-542.

Thought experiment: Would therapists be out of a job if we could “fix” persistent pain?


Every few years someone, somewhere, announces that “it won’t be long before we have a treatment to rid the world of persistent pain.” And there’s a hiss and roar to celebrate this momentous finding, and much ado about how wonderful it will be.

I’m still waiting. BUT I thought it might be an interesting thought experiment to wonder what might happen if a “cure” was available for fibromyalgia.

As readers will know, I have lived with what eventually was named “fibromyalgia” since my early 20’s, and probably longer. I’ve dabbled in various treatments over the years but sadly, nothing but good clean living has helped (by which I mean early to bed, good diet, maintain healthy movement, manage stress, have good friends to connect with, play, have fun). So I would dearly love a treatment that would remove the constant aching, reduce the prolonged DOMs, keep a lid on delayed recovery after injury, and generally offer me a life relatively “normal.”

I am definitely pro-pain reduction and pain treatment. I just haven’t found anything that changes mine.

We have had some spectacular developments in therapies over the past 25 years – particularly in the inflammatory rheumatological diseases like ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. Treatments with anti-TNF alpha biologicals means that my partner who lives with anky spond now has normal C reactive protein levels, no pain, the disease activity has stopped, and he’s tickety-boo.

So why am I just a tad reserved about the notion of a “fix” based on new discoveries about mechanisms associated with neuropathic and nociplastic pains? Why am I just a little skeptical of a new psychological study showing outstanding results (Ashar, Gordon & Schubiner, 2021)? Am I just worried I’ll be out of a job if there’s an effective treatment?

Nope.

You see, even though some people like my Manly Jack have had a wonderful response to treatment for inflammatory disease, there are many more who have not. Or, who have significant reductions in inflammation – but not to “normal” levels, and accompanied by complications/adverse effects, and, in many instances, continued pain. Why is that? Well – I think it’s because while treatments target mechanisms, people are enormously variable in both biology and more importantly, psychology and sociology.

And it’s these last two that have been identified as amongst the most important contributors to ongoing disability and limited participation.

Now the social deserves a little attention. Drug developments are not cheap. The medication my partner uses is extremely expensive – NZ$1200 every two weeks. Luckily for us, this drug is fully funded by the NZ Government. There’s an economic argument for having meds like these publicly funded – without this drug, it would have been very difficult for my man to carry on working. He was having trouble rolling over in bed at night, had trouble coughing, couldn’t inhale fully, and walked like a little old man. He’s now fit as a buck rat and pays his taxes because he’s working.

The problem is, as we can see from the Covid vaccination roll-outs world-wide, people and countries without resources have less access to effective treatments. Even in NZ where we don’t have the “vaccine hesitancy” of other countries, the people who are least likely to be vaccinated right now are those who have trouble traveling to a centre, who don’t feel “at home” in healthcare, who are hard to reach, perhaps not very literate, don’t speak English or te reo Māori. The NZ government is working incredibly hard to ensure the vaccine is given to these people, and I’m proud of the variety of ways they’re doing so.

But spare a thought for countries where there is no relative affluence. Where other countries don’t have the will to help. Where infrastructure is poor. Where women, children, and people from different cultural backgrounds or religions are discriminated against. In these countries, vaccinations are very slow to reach those in need.

So one risk from a fancy new treatment is that people who need it but can’t afford it, don’t trust healthcare (who would after the stigmatisation so many people receive?), and people who are from countries where the rest of the world doesn’t help out – they risk missing out.

Another risk is that while pain might be reduced or even eliminated, these address only the biology, and people are people, and pain is multidimensional. People remember what it was like to be in pain. People have their own narratives about what’s going on to create their pain. We all learn from our experiences, and beliefs, attitudes, emotions, the influence of others around us, the communities and families and workplaces we come from, all of these have an effect on “what it is like to be experiencing pain.”

We know that people who have completely successful joint replacements without pain, don’t resume the activities they were doing before their joints became painful (see my last blog post). People successfully treated with biologicals still hold fears about future harm that developed before they got their treatment. We know that many people take years before being diagnosed and treated successfully – and that’s a long time to develop beliefs, habits, routines and relationships that don’t support recovery. We also know the trauma of unhelpful and stigmatising healthcare interactions can live long, even after successful care.

Resuming daily life and valued activities is integral to pain rehabilitation. Helping people safely do what matters to them in their life contexts is still needed. In the enthusiasm for applauding treatment advances, we need to remember that people are more than the sum of their diagnoses, more than their biology, and our societies are not fair.

Ashar YK, Gordon A, Schubiner H, et al. Effect of Pain Reprocessing Therapy vs Placebo and Usual Care for Patients With Chronic Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online September 29, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.2669
h ttps://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2784694?fbclid=IwAR23strMuoUXYs_Ae9EmTVz9eNAzYxgxAR1IBj64SePpbWeLQL_M_DOaXr8

When living with pain is too hard


**If you’re a person living with pain, and this headline caught your attention because you’re feeling it’s just too hard to carry on – PLEASE take a moment to seek help. If you’re feeling you can’t because they might judge you, or try to stop you feeling this way, at the very least give yourself an hour before you take any action. If that feels too long, give yourself a minute. Get through that, and give yourself another minute. And so on – until you’ve give yourself some time to let this awful feeling ease up a little. You can always revisit your decision to wait. Speak to someone – anonymously if you need to. There are helplines in every country. Phone one. Please.**

Living with persistent pain can be really hard, and clinicians, family and the person with pain can be worried about suicidal thoughts and possible actions. There’s good reason to be concerned, too, as a recent study from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey shows.

Grocott, Sommer and El-Gabalawy (2021) used the data obtained from this Canadian Health Survey to explore the relationships between pain intensity and suicidality in people with arthritis, migraines and low back pain.

The first question is how many people in the overall population involved in this study had any of the three diagnostic groups – and, as expected and in line with many epidemiological studies, between 10.3% (migraines) and 18.1% (low back pain) indicated they had been diagnosed. The “usual” pain levels across all three groups were between 25.9 – 27.7% indicating their pain was “mild”, 52.5 – 54.5% said it was “moderate”, and 19.7 – 20.9% described it as “severe”. This does not surprise me one bit – moderate levels of pain intensity are really common, and, albeit acknolwedging the difficulty of rating pain intensity on a numeric scale and the complex relationship between pain intensity and interference with daily life, demonstrate just how necessary persistent pain services are as a health services priority.

The team then identified the rates of “lifetime” suicidality – these were measured using the following questions.

“you seriously thought about committing suicide or taking your own life” (i.e., suicide ideation; yes, no), “you made a plan for committing suicide” (i.e., suicide plans; yes, no), or “you attempted suicide or tried to take your own life” (i.e., suicide attempts; yes, no).

It’s important to note that this question asked about whether the person had ever, during their life, had these thoughts – not that they were currently present. Remember this as you interpret this study, because suicidal thoughts are relatively common but acting on those thoughts is less common.

The authors found that people who were usually in pain were more likely to have suicidal thoughts, plans or had made an attempt than those who had periods of time without pain (ie intermittent pain). The different rates were reasonably large, too – just in terms of ideation, between 18.7 – 34.0% of people who were usually in pain had suicidal thoughts as opposed to those with intermittent pain (10.5-16.6%), and this association was particularly strong for people with migraine. For people with low back pain, having pain all the time was associated with much greater odds of suicidal thoughts (1.79, 95% CI [1.19-2.68], p<.05).

Pain intensity was also a factor – lifetime suicidality prevalence increased as pain intensity increased, and this was relevant to all pain conditions measured, and especially amongst people with severe pain and migraines.

A good question to ask is whether the odds were the same for people with current mental illness as for those without – and using the magic of statistics, the authors found that this only held for some forms of pain. People with arthritis (note they didn’t identify the kind of arthritis people had) reported lower levels of suicidality even in the presence of mental ill health.

The authors point out that this is an interesting study in that yes, suicidality was higher in people with migraines, and similar to other studies, but their intriguing finding was that differences in the intensity of usual pain increased the odds, along with elevated odds if people reported higher levels of pain intensity.

Why did I choose to summarise this paper?

A few reasons: one is that as health professionals, we may not be aware of just how many people in our communities live with pain. It’s a lot – and this study only included specific diagnoses. Yet, at least in New Zealand, pain management services for people with pain are scarce.

Most people in New Zealand will maybe get referred to a physiotherapist, but it’s often difficult for people with persistent pain to raise their issues with pain with their health provider and for those providers to respond with empathy (Thompson, Dowell, Hilder, Macdonald, Stubbe & Alchin, 2021). This means that many people may not be seen by clinicians with confidence to help people with psychosocial aspects of their pain (eg Holopainen, Simpson, Piirainen, Karppinen, Schutze, O’Sullivan & Ken, 2020, Zangoni & Thompson, 2017) if they even indicate that this is a concern for them during the consultation.

Another reason is that many clinicians who work mainly in “physical” health may not know what to do if someone does disclose suicidal thoughts. It is confronting to hear someone say they don’t want to live any more – and knowing what to do next can feel highly risky. How does this fit within my scope of practice? What if I say something wrong and the person goes ahead and attempts suicide?

Note though, that this study didn’t look at current levels of suicidal thought – it’s lifetime prevalence. Perhaps people who have had occasion to think about killing themselves have a greater degree of vulnerability for persistent pain, particularly when pain is intense. We don’t know – but the authors speculate. Worth reading the paper in full to find out their thoughts.

My thoughts (briefly!) are:

  • Prepare ahead of time. We’ll all likely encounter a person who is really distressed, at the end of their tether, and indicates they’re thinking of harming themselves. Being prepared makes responding to this situation much easier.
  • Preparation should include writing a policy for your practice or your setting. It should include a list of people to contact in a psychiatric emergency (when a person indicates they’re ready to take action to harm themselves), as well as specific actions to take when talking to the person.
  • We’re not all psychologists and it’s not our job to be psychologists – all we’re asked to do in this kind of situation is be a human. What I mean by this is – listen, affirm that the person is feeling really bad and support them to access the help they need. This might mean calling the psychologist if you have one you work with regularly, or calling the person’s family doctor, or calling psychiatric emergency services.
  • Ensure you hand the person to someone who will take care of them. This means not letting them go off in their car without letting their family doctor know, even if they say they’re fine. For your own reassurance this is important.
  • Take care of yourself. Don’t just go on to see the next person waiting for you. Take some time to process what’s happened, what you did, and debrief with someone you trust. It doesn’t need to be a trauma counsellor – it’s just as useful to talk to your colleagues who know you and the kind of work you do. Go have a cup of coffee, go for a walk, give yourself space to recognise that you just helped someone who was really distressed. That’s an important job.
  • Don’t ignore the person and pretend they didn’t just say that. Affirm that they’re feeling rotten. Don’t trivialise it and suggest they should just harden up, or it’s not really that bad, or that they’re at fault for feeling this way. Just be gentle and human, and recognise the privilege you have – this person trusts you enough to say how they’re really feeling. It’s an honour. So if you can’t think of anything to say, just sit with them and bear witness to their distress. Hand them a tissue. Be there for them.

Oh, and in that paper, while 18.7 – 34.0% had suicidal thoughts over their lifetime, 7.2–14.5% had made actual plans, while 6.6–14.7% had made attempts. Don’t trivialise suicidal thoughts, but at the same time, don’t freak out that the person is going to kill themselves – just take action to support them, and in most cases, the thoughts will fade as the person gains hope.

Grocott, B., Sommer, J. L., & El-Gabalawy, R. (2021, Jun 28). Usual presence and intensity of pain are differentially associated with suicidality across chronic pain conditions: A population-based study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 148, 110557. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2021.110557

Holopainen, M. R., Simpson, M. P., Piirainen, D. A., Karppinen, P. J., Schutze, D. R., Smith, P. A., O’Sullivan, P. P., & Kent, A. P. (2020, Jan 16). Physiotherapists’ perceptions of learning and implementing a biopsychosocial intervention to treat musculoskeletal pain conditions: a systematic review and metasynthesis of qualitative studies. Pain. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001809

Thompson, L., Dowell, A., Hilder, J., Macdonald, L., Stubbe, M., & Alchin, J. (2021, Jan 4). How do patients and General Practitioners talk about pain and negotiate empathy in consultations? A direct observational study. Health & Social Care in the Community. https://doi.org/10.1111/hsc.13259

Zangoni, G., & Thomson, O. P. (2017, 2//). ‘I need to do another course’ – Italian physiotherapists’ knowledge and beliefs when assessing psychosocial factors in patients presenting with chronic low back pain. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 27, 71-77. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.msksp.2016.12.015

The next new thing


Each week as I sit to write a blog post, I think about what’s been happening in my world and in the world of pain rehabilitation. It struck me this morning that we’re often a bit like “Ooooh! Shiny!” with new toys and techniques and research to read… yet as so many people point out, the old biopsychosocial (sociopsychobiological) framework doesn’t seem to have seeped down very far, particularly when we look at undergraduate training about pain. It’s like an abstract concept until we meet face-to-face with how poorly our original training sets us up for complexity and messiness.

And clinical work is inherently complex, ambiguous, emergent. We work with incomplete information. We pin our hopes upon asking questions about what we hope the problem is, take histories from people who don’t know what we want to know about, use assessment techniques that are full of measurement error and attempt to derive a pattern amongst the noise so we can give the person a name for what is wrong. And we need this label so we know, the person knows, the funding agency knows – what to do next.

What might our training teach us to do? Under the pressure of cramming an enormous amount of information about normal and abnormal function, our training may teach us to quickly discard uncertainty so we can answer the examiner’s questions promptly. We are possibly led towards a linear, time-constrained interview process where people present as neat problem lists, and where uncomfortable imprecision, particularly with respect to – ewwww! – feelings, thoughts, beliefs, family relationships, mental health, drug and alcohol use, coping strategies – yes all those things inside Pandora’s box – is put aside to focus on the real, physical problem we can do something about.

I think this kind of process sets us up to constantly seek the next new thing. We’d like to know that something will work for people who we know, once we start working in the real world, just don’t conform to our diagnostic boxes. Secretly perhaps we’re hoping there will be some wand or sparkle dust that will turn pumpkins in royal coaches, Cinderella into a beautiful, smart, and endlessly compliant patient who gets better within time frames!

While our training might be, in part, responsible for this tendency to seek simple and shiny and new, perhaps the problem goes deeper than this. Perhaps it’s about who we choose to recruit in training – the straight A students who seem to get along with people reasonably well, and who don’t have “problems”. Perhaps it’s also about our post-graduation training (CPD) opportunities – largely fueled by the need to “show evidence” of ongoing learning – that primarily focus on simple techniques that can be taught in a weekend.

What does working with ambiguity look like? Are there models of treatment in healthcare where being OK with not knowing, perhaps discovering together with the person coming for help, where we can feel safe enough to say “I’m not ready to do anything to you until I’ve got to know you better”, or better still “I’m not ready to work with you until we’ve got to know each other better”.

What would it take to reveal some of yourself in the same way we expect our patients to? And what would that do to our relationship dynamics? And the sense of who has power and who doesn’t? Could we challenge our assumptions about who the expert is?

If we adopted a sociopsychobiological model, we might need to begin by acknowledging the complexity of human relationships. Starting with acknowledging that macro influences on assumptions we take for granted – and recognising the similarities and differences between people. We might prioritise learning about social systems, law, folkways and mores, “in” groups and “out” groups and how they work, and even review our beliefs about socio-economic status and why people might not prioritise their health.

Then we might need to reflect on psychological aspects of ourselves and others. That we have a finite amount of room for processing information so we use heuristics that reduce cognitive demand but also reduce what we pay attention to. That we, too, have emotions and assumptions and beliefs about how good we are as clinicians, and what it’s like for the other person to see us strutting our stuff.

And of course, the biological aspects underpin everything – our skin-covered anti-gravity suits through which we view the world. Still there. Still important, but filtered through the social and psychological.

Would this reduce the temptation to look for the next shiny new thing? I’m not sure – but it might broaden the range of shiny new things we’d look at. Perhaps we might become so fascinated by the sociopsychological that we’d recognise there is far more influence on what people do in these domains than we are currently trained to notice. And maybe we’d be a little less enamoured of the toys so temptingly offered at weekend workshops.

Tribalism in pain rehabilitation


When working in pain management, rehabilitation or treatment, it doesn’t take very long before we become painfully (no pun intended) aware that there are different schools of thought about pain and its management.

Straw man

On the one hand, we have a the straw man version of medicine. To simplify (and believe me, this is the more extreme version of this approach), this model appeals to our desire to find simple explanations for what ails us, and to believe that once found, treating it by removing it, eliminating it, or somehow righting wrongs, will allow the person to live the way they used to, aka “return to normal”. A medical model is predicated upon the idea that diseases can be viewed as separate from the people experiencing them, that those problems can be rectified, and that people are relatively unaffected by what goes on in and around them. Remember I said that this is the extreme, straw man version, because it would be difficult today to find a medical person who wouldn’t also consider “lifestyle” factors.

For example, Alloubani, Saleh & Abdelhafiz (2018) reviewed hypertension and diabetes as risk factors for stroke. They pointed out that “Changes in the lifestyle include dietary changes, which essentially involves consuming vegetables and fruits more (meta-analysis of 9 autonomous types of research has depicted that three to five servings every day decrease stroke risk for 0, 89) and eating less salt [17]. Further lifestyle changes include weight loss, aerobic activity and restricting alcohol intake. It is not suggested to undergo pharmacological treatment till systolic pressures increase to more than 140 mm Hg as well as diastolic increases to over 90 mm Hg brain perfusion. The significance of treating hypertension to decrease the stroke risk injuries is evident; however, the most optimal choice of antihypertensive medicine is not so evident [18].”

What are the single-factor “disease”-oriented models in pain at the moment? It’s not too hard to find them, so we see studies like Staartjes, Vergroesen, Zeilstra & Schroder (2018) searching for reasons to fuse vertebrae, with the following conclusion: “In patients without prior surgery, the PCT appears to be the most promising prognostic tool. Other prognostic selection tools such as discography and Modic changes yield disappointing results. In this study, female patients and those without prior spine surgery appear to be most likely to benefit from fusion surgery for DDD.” The PCT is essentially a cast around the hips from waist to the top of the leg with a longer leg cast on the side that hurts.

We can see similar appeals to single-factor causal models in studies of core stability – De Blaiser, Roosen, Willems, Danneels, Bossche, & De Ridder (2018) investigating whether this is a risk factor for lower extremity injuries in athletes, while Tayashiki, Mizuno, Kanehisa, & Miyamoto, (2018) investigated the causal effect of intra-abdominal pressure on maximal voluntary isometric hip extension torque.
Now before anyone jumps down my throat, I know we need to isolate factors in order to understand a phenomenon. We do. What I’m more concerned about is when clinicians begin to change their practice on the basis of a study like these – and then apply this to people who are (a) not athletes, (b) not performing maximal hip extension torque, or who otherwise do not fit the research population!

Another straw man

What are the other schools of thought in pain management, rehabilitation and treatment? Well, another is the idea that pain is “all in the brain” – or the mind – and that education alone is both essential, and powerful all on its own. Once again, this idea has some seeds of relevance. Certainly, if you happen to be worried that the pain in your back is going land you up in surgery (after all, you’ve had the PCT!), getting to understand that the pain and what’s going on in your tissues have a very complex relationship, and that it’s OK to move because you’re not doing damage, you’re likely to heave a sigh of relief.

BUT is that all that’s necessary? Once again I head off to some of the lovely single subject experimental studies carried out by Johan Vlaeyen’s lab. One is by Schemer, Vlaeyen, Doerr, Skluda, Nater, Rief & Glombiewski (2018) and clearly shows that clinical change (behavioural as well as changes in pain, disability, fear, acceptance, and self efficacy) occurs mainly during the DOING phase of treatment. Education alone didn’t change these factors, and the authors go on to say “We recommend integrating exposure elements in the management of CLBP to increase its efficacy. Psycho-educational sessions might not be necessary or should be adapted, e.g. with stronger focus on motivational aspects”

A previous study, using cognitive functional therapy showed some similar changes over time (Caneiro, Smith, Rabey, Moseley, & O’Sullivan, 2017).

It seems to be the doing that’s important.

Not a straw man

So what about the much maligned, and much loved, biopsychosocial model?

The tribe adhering to this model is pretty large – and varied in how it actually interprets it! However, it has taken hold in pain conceptualisation since the IASP adopted it in the late 1970’s. IASP was established in 1973 by John Bonica, and represents the largest group in the world of clinicians, researchers, policy-makers, and now people living with pain. It adopted the BPS model as a way to understand a person’s illness (note: not the disease). A great outline from 2010 (the Global Year against Musculoskeletal Pain) can be found here: click

What does it actually mean? Simply put, it means that while a person might have a disease process within their body, at the same time, they’re a person who has (1) identified that they don’t feel right; (2) decided it’s worth seeking some help for it; (3) consequently now receives the special exemptions his or her society has reserved for people who are ‘ill’; (4) chosen the kind of therapist/’healer’ they think is most appropriate (5) within his or her own sociocultural context; (6) has chosen to proceed with the treatment while simultaneously embarking on culturally-appropriate recovery behaviour. And when this has all finished, *the person remembers what has happened, projects into the future to anticipate what might have happened (or might happen if it reoccurs), carries on with life with this new understanding of what those symptoms mean. Oh, and the initial “identified that they don’t feel right” part – that’s based on past experiences, both personal and vicarious, or in other words, the entire bit from the * to here… again.

Why can’t we all get along?

The question arises then, as to why there are so many tribes who just don’t get along? Well I think we can return to Sapolsky for this. He neatly describes ‘Why your brain hates other people” in this article – click. We can find all sorts of reasons to reject “others”. In pain treatment, rehabilitation and management, tribalism seems to be strongly influenced by income generation, political power, the need to attract followers, and a host of human bias reasons like cognitive dissonance and projecting our assumptions onto others, to preserve autonomy and group status, to stick to things we’ve invested in, to prefer the immediate and simple as opposed to messy and complex, to seek confirmation for what we believe we know… And so on.

My philosophy… for now

So… which tribe do I feel most at home with? I suppose I’m a conservative. I’ve seen many models come and go and I feel most comfortable with a cognitive behavioural approach to pain – that is, that people DO think about their situation, feel various emotions, and then do things as a result. That pain is both a personal experience, but often elicits behaviours that others can see – and respond to. That the body/mind is indivisible. That psychological and social aspects of being human are as important and relevant (but harder to study) than tissues or nerves. That if we can help people experience something, and attribute that new experience to something they’ve done for themselves, then we’re well on the way to helping them manage their situation without having to rely on a healer.

And of course, within different cultural settings, the attribution may be more or less connected with others and their priorities. A loose framework borrowing from psychology (particularly behavioural psych, social psych, and cognitive psych), sociology and anthropology, family systems, as well as traditional “health sciences” of anatomy, physiology, neurobiology and so on. And what that means is reading really widely, holding off on new and groovy theories and practices until more is known about them, and not being swayed by the majority rules. Because in my day-to-day work, within an orthopaedic surgery and musculoskeletal department, mine is possibly a fairly outlying position.

Where does this leave me? Well I think consistently reading and flexibly considering the various pieces of information being discovered helps me to be pretty humble about what I prefer to teach, and to do in the clinic. I’ve been blogging continuously for 11 years now, and I think my reputation is of being moderate, considerate and thoughtful. I’m not terribly shouty. I don’t call people names, or get angry because someone has quoted something I might have said out of context. Why? Because I’d rather focus on what I think matters. And in the end, what people think of me matters a lot less than (hopefully) what the research I present shows.

Alloubani, A., Saleh, A., & Abdelhafiz, I. (2018). Hypertension and diabetes mellitus as a predictive risk factors for stroke. Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews, 12(4), 577-584. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dsx.2018.03.009

Caneiro, J., Smith, A., Rabey, M., Moseley, G. L., & O’Sullivan, P. (2017). Process of change in pain-related fear: clinical insights from a single case report of persistent back pain managed with cognitive functional therapy. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 47(9), 637-651.

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Pain science is not a thing


Today’s post is occasioned by reading several discussions on various forums where the term “pain science” and various adjectives to describe this kind of practice. For those who don’t want to read the rest of my ramblings: no, it’s not a thing, science is an approach to understanding phenomena, and I would have thought all health professionals would use a science-based approach to treatment.

I went on to Google, as you do, to find out when this term began its rise in popularity. Google wasn’t particularly helpful but did show that it’s been around since 2004 at least, and seems to have been centred around the US, UK and Australia in roughly May 2004. I can’t grab data from earlier than this, sadly, but I think it’s interesting to take a look at the popularity peaks and troughs…

So, what does “pain science” mean to commentators? I haven’t delved in too deeply to the social media use of the term, but given I’m a social animal and have written my blog since 2007 (which is mainly on “pain science”) I’ve encountered it many times. It seems to be related to using a neurobiological explanation for pain as an experience (referring to the phenomenon and the underlying biological processes involved) rather than focusing purely on biomechanics or tissue damage/nociception as the key force. And it does seem to tie in with the emergence of “Explain pain” as one way of helping people reconceptualise their experience as something they can influence rather than something other people need to “fix”.

Commentators who aren’t in love with the “explain pain” thing have said things like “the pain science camp” or as one person put it “There’s your manual PTs, your pain science PTs, and your just load it PTs etc”

I went on to Twitter and the hashtag #painscience was paired with #BPSModel and #PT and #physicaltherapy (or variations), #chronicpain #exercise #lowbackpain – and so on.

So what do I think pain science means if it’s not a neurobiological approach to pain management? Well – pain science is a lot like cardio-respiratory science, and neurological science, and psychological science – it’s about applying a scientific approach to understanding pain. Science has been defined as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” In this instance, Google is your friend. So science is about systematically studying phenomena through observation and experimenting. If we apply this to pain – it’s the systematic study of structure and behaviour of the phenomenon we call ‘pain’ through observation and experiment. For what it’s worth, scientific study of pain has been going on since… oh at least Descartes, but probably much earlier given that pain is a ubiquitous and essential part of human experience.

To me, understanding pain involves multiple disciplines: yes to biology, and especially neurobiology because the experience (as we understand it now) involves neurobiological processing. But it’s also about psychology
the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context; sociology – the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society; the humanities – the study of how people process and document the human experience; politics – the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power; and Anthropology –  the study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life.

So to describe an entire approach to understanding a phenomenon as if it’s a “movement” or “camp” or “dogma” or even “tribe” suggests serious  misunderstanding of both science and of an intervention.

What is “explain pain” then, or pain neurobiology education? – it’s an explanation of some of the biological elements of our nociceptive system as they combine to produce the experience we know as pain. For some people it’s the first time anyone took the trouble to explain why the pain of a papercut feels so bad compared with, for example, the pain of a sprained ankle; and why they still experience pain despite having no “damage” as visible on imaging. It’s an attempt to give people a frame of reference from which to understand their own journey towards recovering from a painful injury/disease/problem. In itself it’s not new: explanations for pain have been used in pain management programmes since the 1970’s (and earlier, if we consider that Fordyce used explanations in his behavioural approaches to pain management), and have routinely drawn on current pain research to help provide explanations that make sense to both the person and the clinician. The distinction between earlier explanations which drew heavily on the gate control theory, and this latest iteration is that the explanations are more complex, pain is considered to be an “output” that emerges from multiple interactions between brain and body, and that’s about it. Oh and it’s been picked up and enthusiastically used by physiotherapists (and other primarily body therapists) around the world.

What’s the evidence for this approach? Well, IMHO it’s not intended to be a stand-alone “treatment” for most people experiencing pain. I see giving an explanation as integral to usual practice, just as we do when we explain why it’s not a good idea to go running on a newly sprained ankle or why we’re suggesting a mindfulness to someone with a panic disorder. So far there have been a lot of studies examining variants of “explaining pain” alone or in combination with a number of other treatments including exercise. A recent systematic review and meta-analsyis of “pain neuroscience education” for chronic low back pain found eight papers (with 615 participants) showing that in the short-term, this kind of education reduces disability (by 2.28 points on the Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire which is a 24 point scale) in the short-term and a slightly lesser effect in the long-term  (2.18). There were greater effects when this was combined with physiotherapy, though we often don’t know exactly what is included in “physiotherapy”.  There was some evidence that this kind of education helps reduce pain scores (by 1.32) but only in combination with other physiotherapy interventions. The authors pointed out that the strength of evidence for education on pain in the short term was low to moderate, but that it doesn’t have much of an impact on pain-related fear and avoidance, or on pain catastrophising (Wood & Hendrick, in press).

To compare this with another active treatment, exposure therapy for fear of movement/reinjury in chronic low back pain, de Jong, Vlaeyen, Onghena, Goossens, Geilen & Mulder (2005) performed a careful study of six individuals, using a single case experimental design. (If you’re not familiar with this approach to research – it’s extremely rigorous and useful in a clinical setting, this link takes you to a chapter discussing its use).  The aim was to establish which part of treatment “did the work” to change behaviour, but also measured pain intensity, and fear of pain and movement.  The treatments were information about pain and mechanisms, and the activities were those the person particularly wanted to be able to do. Their findings identified that explanations do little to pain intensity, avoidance or fear – but what actually worked was doing graded exposure. In other words, experiencing something different, DOING that something different in the real world, was more effective than talking about why someone shouldn’t be afraid. A much more recent replication of this study was conducted by Schemer, Vlaeyen, Doerr, Skoluda, Nater, Rief & Glombiewski (2018) and shows the same result: doing trumps talking about doing.

When we sit down and take a cold hard look at what we do in pain management we can see that the field has to draw on a huge range of disciplines and fields of study to understand the problems people experiencing pain have. This is, in fact, why Bonica and colleagues first established the International Association for the Study of Pain, and why multidisciplinary (and now interprofessional) pain management teams and approaches were established. None of us can possibly hold all the knowledge needed to work effectively in the area. At the same time, as health professionals working with people, we do need to have some foundation knowledge about biology, disease, illness, psychology, sociology and anthropology. These areas of study inform us as we work hard to help people get their heads around their pain. Do we need to be experts in all of these fields? Yes – if you work completely in isolation. No – if you work within an extended team (whether co-located or otherwise). Pain research will continue to push our understanding ahead – and to be responsible health professionals, we must incorporate new understandings into our practice or we risk being unprofessional and irrelevant. I would go as far as to say we’re irresponsible and harming patients if we fail to incorporate what is known about pain as a multidimensional experience. It’s time to back away from temporary guruism and move towards a far more nuanced, and perhaps less flighty approach to understanding pain.

Pain science. No, it’s not a thing. Pain being examined through multiple scientific lenses: definitely a thing.

NB for the avoidance of doubt: pain is never a “thing” but examining pain through multiple scientific lenses involves many “things”. (Merriam-Webster – click)


de Jong, J. R. M., Vlaeyen, J. W. S. P., Onghena, P. P., Goossens, M. E. J. B. P., Geilen, M. P. T., & Mulder, H. O. T. (2005). Fear of Movement/(Re)injury in Chronic Low Back Pain: Education or Exposure In Vivo as Mediator to Fear Reduction? [Article]. Clinical Journal of Pain Special Topic Series: Cognitive Behavioral Treatment for Chronic Pain January/February, 21(1), 9-17.

Schemer, L., Vlaeyen, J. W., Doerr, J. M., Skoluda, N., Nater, U. M., Rief, W., & Glombiewski, J. 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.

Wood, L., & Hendrick, P. A. A systematic review and meta-analysis of pain neuroscience education for chronic low back pain: Short-and long-term outcomes of pain and disability. European Journal of Pain, 0(0). doi:doi:10.1002/ejp.1314