Chronic pain

Flare-ups and how to handle them


If you live with persistent pain of any kind, you’ll know what a flare-up is. Periods of time when pain is exacerbated and sustained at a higher than average level over at least a few days, often longer. Flare-ups always settle down – but oh my, it can feel like they’re going on forever!

Handling a flare-up is not quite the same as handling everyday pain. Everyday pain, for those of us who manage it independently of healthcare professionals, usually needs a generally steady routine, not too many surprises. A regimen of movement, relaxation, fun, mindfulness, plodding on and managing stress. A little boring, if you will. Most people will add or subtract some medication (if there is some to help) and vary the activity level depending on the demands of the day.

But when a flare-up happens, some people can find themselves side-swiped and confidence can plummet, while the usual everyday coping can feel like it’s not quite cutting it. For some people, it can be a complete surprise to find that on one day everything feels “normal” yet the next can be a flare-up.

What health professionals do during a flare-up is important, because how we respond and our attitude towards flare-ups can build confidence, or knock it even further.

Identify your early warning signs

Even though a flare-up can feel like it’s come from out of the blue, mostly there are early warning signs that perhaps haven’t quite been recognised (or have been ignored because something else is more important than pain intensity). It can be a period of feeling really good (so that the normal coping strategies don’t feel quite as relevant, and are just a bit easier to forget to do). It can be fatigue, or feeling a little overloaded. It can be a rotten night’s sleep, or a really busy day without the normal recovery time.

An early warning sign can be being more achey than normal, a little stiff and less keen to move. For some it can be feeling a little irritable, or a little down.

There may be parts of the body that don’t typically get sore – but during a flare-up, they begin to join in the action. The quality of the pain may be different: burning, deeper, achier.

Noting these “flare-up early warning signs” in a diary can be a great way to develop an alert system to remind us to focus on keeping on with the strategies that we’ve found useful – like a reminder not to suddenly stop what’s working!

Rescue Remedy

No – I don’t mean the drops you can get! Please no!! The rescue remedy I advocate is to develop a set of strategies, a plan, that is written down ahead of when it’s needed. During a flare-up, thinking straight can be difficult, so pre-planning can reduce the effort at the time.

I always begin by developed a “Can Cope” card. This is a business-card sized card with four or five simple steps that can be used immediately and may even abort a flare-up before it begins. The first instruction is always “Breathe out!” followed by using a calming word like “relax” or “I’m fine” or “chill out”. Three to five out breaths can help to interrupt stressful thinking, enough to move on to the next step that I pretty much always include: notice. Noticing in this instance is a few minutes of body scanning to notice just what is happening in the body in the here and now. A body scan allows an opportunity to recognise where any additional tension is held, to notice and stop rushing if that’s part of the problem, to simply be for a moment or two.

I then like to include a few actions like get up and stretch, or go grab a drink of water, something that allows for some whole body movement – maybe a walk around the block. And finally, I end the Can Cope Card with a reminder that these flare-ups do end!

Working out why it happened

It’s tempting to try and find out what went wrong and why a flare-up happened, but it’s not uncommon to be unable to put a finger on it. So many variables are likely to influence! As I mentioned at the start of this blog, it can be a night of rotten sleep, a busy day, maybe a change in routine, feeling overloaded, maybe even having had a period of feeling really good.

If flare-ups don’t trouble the person very much, analysing how and why it happened may be counter-productive. It’s common for us to think firstly about movements or activities that are out of the ordinary, or perhaps more demanding than normal. These are the easiest flare-ups to identify. They can even be predicted, so can be built in to the weekly planning.

Other contributors can be much more difficult to identify – especially those involving emotional factors, stress, or enjoyable activities. For me, sitting for long periods, as in a conference, or travelling to a conference can be a flare-up initiator. Holidays not so much, but it’s not uncommon for me to feel sore in the days before heading away on holiday – all that rushing around, getting things ready!

Often it can be a cumulative series of seemingly irrelevant decisions. A whole cascade of tiny changes to routine that eventually tips the balance over – maybe working late a few nights in a week, combined with not as much time for exercising, and little more stress at work and not doing mindfulness or taking time out. On their own, they don’t seem much – but they erode the reserves needed to deal with pain on a daily basis.

If pain flare-ups like this do bother the person (or you!), it’s worth taking some time to track activities and mood, fatigue, sleep, and habits for a while. Simply tracking can be enough of a reminder to keep the habits going! But analysing what happens to energy, pain, mood can mean better capability for preparing and noticing in advance. That way, while a flare-up can be on the cards, gradually the person can get better at predicting what things set it off, and can make an active choice about whether it’s worth doing.

Health professionals

If we aim to prevent flare-ups, we’re on a hiding to nowhere. While there’s not a lot of research about on flare-ups, what research there is shows that flare-ups are common – 51% of people interviewed by telephone, all of whom had chronic low back pain, reported flare-ups (Suri, Saunders & Von Korff, 2012). It may be a matter of language: flare-ups can be called “breakthrough pain” (although this applies to cancer pain, when pain ‘breaks through’ the opioid dose, and shouldn’t be applied to noncancer pain); flare-ups can be called relapses or exacerbations or fluctuations. Whatever they’re called, there just doesn’t seem to be much in the research literature although qualitative studies do seem to show flare-ups as important.

If flare-ups are common, what are we doing as health professionals, to help people with pain learn to roll with the fluctuations? I think this depends a great deal on our own fears about pain. If we feel uncomfortable about pain, worry that our patients are “doing harm”, or feel concerned that they may get distressed because of pain, we may inadvertently convey this to them. We may try to dig deep into what may be causing the flare-up, we may ask the person to stop doing things, or alter their programme to prevent the flare-ups from “getting worse”. Or we may simply avoid discussing them at all. None of these approaches seem helpful to me.

I think (yep, opinion time!) that we need to convey our confidence that this person has the skills, capability and confidence to manage this themselves. I think it’s useful not to rush in to try to “fix” the problem, or to help the person out too quickly. This doesn’t convey the message that we are confident they can manage! It doesn’t mean ignoring the person, but it does mean we might want to think about asking the person what they can do to get through. And we can let people know how good it is that they’ve come in to see us even though it’s a high pain day. We can remind people of the skills they have and think of asking them which options they’d like to use. This might sound contradictory after I’ve just said not to rush in to “fix”, but to me the difference is that in one we’re supplying the answers and doing to, but in the latter we’re reminding people and giving the choice back to them.

I also think it’s worth avoiding analysing all the possible contributors, at least initially. Why? Because our temptation will probably be to focus on movements or activity changes that “caused” the flare-up, but it’s probable that many tiny decisions, multiple factors are the real issue. And if we focus on physical factors, we’re conveying yet again that pain is a problem of “the physical” – which may not be the case.

I’ve often said that if someone hasn’t had a flare-up while we’ve been working together, then I haven’t done my job. Flare-ups are part of living with persistent pain, and learning to roll with them is a skill I think everyone who lives with persistent pain can develop. Even though I know it’s difficult. But as people with persistent pain know, we are tough!

Suri, P , Saunders, & Von Korff, M., (2012). Prevalence and Characteristics of Flare-ups of Chronic Nonspecific Back Pain in Primary Care: A Telephone Survey. Clinical Journal of Pain, 28(7), 573-580.

Having The Conversation…


Over the past few weeks I’ve been posing some of the curly questions that I don’t think have yet been answered in pain rehabilitation. In fact, some of them have yet to be investigated in any depth. Today I’m stepping out into the abyss to offer my current thoughts on one question that has been rattling around for some time: how do we have a conversation about pain and its persistence? I want to begin by stating very emphatically, that I do believe pain can change. And that the way a person views or interprets their experience can change, and there is reversibility in pain intensity and quality. Having a conversation about persistence doesn’t mean pain will inevitably hang around. So why talk about it?

One major reason comes from people living with pain. In a recent book (Meanings of Pain) I quoted several qualitative studies where “pain acceptance” and conversations about this were highly valued by people with pain – in fact, in my own research, learning that pain would either likely remain in its current form, or would be a feature in some way, was part of a turning point (Lennox Thompson, Gage & Kirk, 2019). The turning point was away from pursuing pain reduction as a primary goal, and towards living a life. “And then I finally said to myself, nothing’s going to work. I might as well try to live with it, and learn to live with it, and since then I haven’t tried pursuing any type of pain relief” (Henwood, Ellis, Logan, Dubouloz & D’Eon, 2012), “All the previous treatments dealt with taking
away the pain. This is the first time one gets a treatment that focuses on acceptance of the pain, and you really understand that this is chronic pain that will never disappear; it’s the first time one has received the message from this angle”
( Pietilä, Stålnacke, Enthoven, Stenberg, 2018)

I guess I don’t see this as a dichotomous choice. It’s not simply “pain reduction” OR “pain acceptance”. I think we can have more than one goal. It’s a matter of emphasis, where energy gets spent. Mark Sullivan and Betty Ferrell argue that health professionals need to reconceptualise their contribution to health: is it to treat disease, or to “advance the person’s capacity for personally meaningful action?” (Sullivan & Ferrell, 2005).

The issue is, that doing what matters can mean “doing what matters provided that pain isn’t present”, or “doing what matters provided that pain has gone”, or “doing what matters provided that it feels good”.

Back to the conversation. The purpose of the conversation is to allow some wiggle room around the “provided that”. Because, in the pursuit of pain reduction life can pass by. Jobs go, relationships fail, kids grow up and leave home, expertise and capability become obsolete, mates develop new pursuits and meanwhile, as people living with persistent pain have said, they’re living in “limbo land”. Reconnecting with values-based activities as one way to feel more whole again often means navigating the meaning of pain fluctuations. It can mean developing ways to allow pain to be present without trying to change the experience, or escape the experience.

Guiding the conversation

I routinely use guided discovery as my main form of therapeutic communication. My approach to The Conversation is to begin by finding out about the person’s theory of their pain – what do they think is going on? What have they been told and what sense have they made of this? What has it been like to have this experience bring attention to daily movements and activities? How are they going about daily life? What’s helped, what hasn’t? What have they given up? What new things have they had to do? What’s that been like?

I usually jot down the good and not so good of all of this – it helps to have a record both for the person and for me. I like to reassure people that they’re doing their very best in what can feel like an unrewarding endeavour. I also explore the impact of treatments on the person. What is it like to take medications, do exercises, have to make time to attend appointments? What is it like to tell one’s story to so many people – who often don’t reciprocate?

Drawing from both my clinical experience and from what I’ve learned about ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), I offer people a chance to reflect on the impact of not only pain, but also the process of getting treatment. On the work that goes into rehabilitation. I ask them what sense they make of life at the moment. What do they take from all of this?

And in that moment I also ask about what’s important in life. What matters. And how well is that person able to do at least something of what matters in their life? And is it possible to move towards doing more of what matters in life even in the presence of pain? And what sense does the person make of all we’ve discussed?

If I’m asked about whether pain will go, I am open about the possibility that it will not completely vanish. This reflects my understanding of neuroscience, the many many studies into all kinds of treatments, and from the words of people in qualitative studies who indicate that this is an important acknowledgement. I’m also not suggesting that anyone stop participating in pain reduction efforts, not at all. It’s not my decision. It’s never our decision – it’s the person with pain who must decide. I will point out, though, that I don’t think living well with pain is often offered to people as a positive option. It’s often delivered as “well if this doesn’t work, you can try doing some pain management”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Not even a neutral suggestion.

The Conversation isn’t about stopping treatment. It’s not about pain reduction vs pain management. It’s not about pain persistence as much as it is about ensuring rehabilitation focuses on what matters to people. For rehabilitation is not about eradicating the disease that caused the problem, it’s about restoring and optimising capabilities, enabling people to participate in their own lives as much as possible. Sometimes, in the pursuit of restoring capabilities, perhaps participating in life is forgotten.

Henwood P, Ellis J, Logan J, Dubouloz C-J, D’Eon J. Acceptance of chronic neuropathic pain in spinal cord injured persons: a qualitative approach. Pain Manag Nurs. 2012;13(4):215–22.

Lennox Thompson B, Gage J, Kirk R. Living well with chronic pain: a classical grounded theory. Disabil Rehabil. 2019:1–12.

Pietilä Holmner E, Stålnacke B-M, Enthoven P, Stenberg G. The acceptance. J Rehabil Med. 2018;50(1):73–9.

Sullivan, Mark, & Ferrell, Betty. (2005). Ethical Challenges in the Management of Chronic Nonmalignant Pain: Negotiating Through the Cloud of Doubt. The Journal of Pain, 6(1), 2-9.

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

Do you trust me?


Trust – something that needs to be earned, or something that is present at first… and then erodes? Or perhaps, it’s a snap judgement we make on the fly – and judge everything else about a person on that basis?

Firstly, why even discuss trustworthiness in pain rehabilitation? Well, the answer is quite clear: I don’t know how many times I’ve been asked if I can tell whether someone is faking their pain. I’ve read numerous articles on functional capacity testing – and its poor predictive validity (or completely absent investigation of such properties). I’ve had case managers tell me they have a method for testing whether someone is faking or malingering… so trustworthiness is something those in the insurance industry seem to want to test. The same kinds of questions are made by employers: how can I tell whether this person is really that bad?

When we don’t believe someone, or we think they’re exaggerating, our level of empathy for that person drops, and our tendency to question their honesty increases (Ashton-James & Nicholas, 2016; Schafer, Prkachin, Kaseweter & Williams, 2016). As a result, people who don’t fit our preconceived ideas of who should or shouldn’t deserve empathy are stigmatised (De Ruddere & Craig, 2016; Stensland & Sanders, 2018). Stigma means people may not receive adequate analegsia (Wilbers, 2015), they may present as stoic and prefer not to reveal how they are feeling (Cagle & Bunting, 2017), and this in turn may lead to further lack of acceptance of that person’s own experience.

So, how is trustworthiness formed? Swenson, Weinstein, Junghaenel and Richeimer (2019) carried out an online study of pain narratives, ie depictions of pain from the perspectives of people seeking treatment. They had 727 participants in this study, 86% (n=626) individuals with chronic pain, and 14% (n=101) having a ‘medical’ background (we don’t know whether medical = health-training). The narratives were based on actual narratives from people living with pain who had responded to the Institute of Medicine (US) call for descriptions related to obtaining care for pain. They identified three narrative characteristics: apparent pain severity, apparent frustration with care, and apparent wish for more or better pain medication. They hypothesised that those describing high levels of pain, frustration with care or a wish for more or better pain medication would be associated with lower ratings of trustworthiness, while people living with pain would give higher ratings of trustworthiness compared with medical professionals.

Participants were asked to rate each vignette on the following characteristics: depressed mood, histrionicity, stoicism, appreciativeness, hostility, and likability. Participants were also asked to assess trustworthiness using the Physician Trust in the Patient Scale (Moskowitz, Thom, Guzman, Penko, Miaskowski & Kushel, 2011).

The results? “Narratives that were rated as depressed, hostile, or histrionic were rated as significantly less trustworthy by study participants (rs=−0.25, −0.44, and−0.43, Ps < .001, respectively). In contrast, pain narratives that were rated as appreciative, stoic, or likable showed a significant and positive relationship with ratings of trustworthiness (rs=0.48, 0.36, and 0.58, Ps < .001, respectively). The observed relationships between personality and psychological characteristics and trustworthiness were similar between patient peers and clinicians.” In other words, the more distressed the narrative the less trustworthy they were rated. So much for compassion for people who are so very often not able to get answers for their pain!

“Pain narratives that expressed a low or moderate level of pain severity received significantly higher trust ratings compared to those narratives that expressed a high pain severity level (t (1,585.15)=9.97, P < .001). Similarly, pain narratives that did not express frustration with pain care received significantly higher trust ratings compared to those narratives that expressed frustration with pain care (t(1,2894.02)=2.59, P=.009).” So, grateful patients are trustworthy, as are people rating their pain as low or moderate. Finally, “when no frustration with pain care was expressed in the narrative, patient peers and clinicians gave similar ratings of trustworthiness, whereas clinicians gave lower trustworthiness ratings than patient peers when frustration with pain care was expressed in the narrative (F(1,2857.31)=7.16, P=.008).” Clinicians clearly think patients should be grateful and satisfied with their care.

Now, I can hear clinicians reading this saying “Oh but not me!” “I would never…” – yet implicit biases exist in healthcare (FitzGerald & Hurst, 2017). Implicit biases are those we have without being aware of them (Holroyd, Scaife & Stafford, 2017). This makes it really difficult to decide whether we ought to take them into account and attempt to correct them, or whether it is just something to put up with. Philosophers Holroyd, Scaife and Stafford tackle this in their paper Responsibility for implicit bias. They break the question of responsibility down to three: Does the attitude reflect badly (or well) on the agent [person], is there a fault (or credit) that can be attributed? Should the agent [person] be regarded as blameworthy for the fault she has or has demonstrated, should she bear some cost or burden (in the form of sanction or blame) for this? And finally, What forward-looking obligations do individuals have for dealing with the fault or problematic behaviour?

Arguments for and against the first question suggest that because the person isn’t aware of their bias, he or she can’t really be held to account for what they do as a result of this. However, once that bias is drawn to the person’s attention, while he or she might still not be able to alter their tendency towards being biased, there is a responsibility to recognise the unfair situation that has arisen, and do something to correct it. Now, Holroyd, Scaife and Stafford’s paper is complex, lengthy and philosophical (tautology perhaps?!), and I’ve cut to the chase – but here’s the thing: we are aware that the way we perceive a person is judged within the first few seconds of meeting them. We’re also aware that we like people who are more like us than different from us. We think people should be grateful for our help, and that they should present as calm and pleasant when they seek it.

YET – many people who live with persistent pain have spent years trying to find appropriate help for their problem. They’re often frustrated, depressed, angry perhaps, and distressed. If we recognise that the people presenting in this way are often stigmatised and judged by others as less trustworthy, I think we ought to (because we know about it) take special steps to counter our tendency to be biased. Some practical things we could do:

  1. Listen for commonalities between the person and ourselves
  2. Recall people who are exceptions – perhaps those who present as distressed and who pull through and develop confidence in their ability to manage
  3. Listen for the unique features of this person’s narrative. Break the stereotype and look for details that make this person special.
  4. Perhaps take the time to ask yourself: what would I be like if I had lived through this person’s life?
  5. Spend some time with people who are experiencing persistent pain. Listen to their stories. Hear their gripes.
  6. Take your time – hurried interactions tend to elicit greater implicit biases.

As we’re emphasising right now in New Zealand, as a result of the terror attack on 15th March 2019, where 50 people died and many were seriously injury, we are one.



Ashton-James, C. E., & Nicholas, M. K. (2016). Appearance of trustworthiness: an implicit source of bias in judgments of patients’ pain. Pain, 157(8), 1583-1585. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000595

Cagle, J., & Bunting, M. (2017). Patient reluctance to discuss pain: understanding stoicism, stigma, and other contributing factors. Journal of social work in end-of-life & palliative care, 13(1), 27-43.

De Ruddere, L., & Craig, K. D. (2016). Understanding stigma and chronic pain: a-state-of-the-art review. Pain, 157(8), 1607-1610.

FitzGerald, C., & Hurst, S. (2017). Implicit bias in healthcare professionals: a systematic review. BMC Medical Ethics, 18(1), 19. doi:10.1186/s12910-017-0179-8

Holroyd, J., Scaife, R., & Stafford, T. (2017). Responsibility for implicit bias. Philosophy Compass, 12(3), e12410. doi:10.1111/phc3.12410

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care, and Education. Relieving Pain in America, A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research, Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US), 2011.

D. Moskowitz, D.H. Thom, D. Guzman, J. Penko, C. Miaskowski, M. Kushel, Is primary care providers’ trust in socially marginalized patients affected by race, J. Gen. Intern. Med. 26 (8) (2011 Mar 11) 846–851.]

Schafer, G., Prkachin, K. M., Kaseweter, K. A., & Williams, A. C. d. C. (2016). Health care providers’ judgments in chronic pain: the influence of gender and trustworthiness. Pain, 157(8), 1618-1625.

Stensland, M. L., & Sanders, S. (2018). Not so golden after all: The complexities of chronic low back pain in older adulthood. The Gerontologist, 58(5), 923-931.

Swenson, A. R., Weinstein, F. M., Junghaenel, D. U., & Richeimer, S. H. (2019). Personality and treatment-related correlates of trustworthiness: A web-survey with chronic pain narratives. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 119, 14-19. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2019.01.017

Wilbers, L. E. (2015). She has a pain problem, not a pill problem: Chronic pain management, stigma, and the family—An autoethnography. Humanity & Society, 39(1), 86-111.

Always look on the bright side of life!


Anyone who is older than, say, 40 years old, should be whistling right now…

For some time now I’ve been interested in how people who cope well with pain go about their daily lives. What makes this group of people different from the ones we more often see? While I know from my own research that there’s a process to get to where living life outweighs putting all the emphasis on finding a cure (note: this doesn’t mean giving up on a cure, it just means it’s a different priority), there is some research showing that how we view a situation (either as a challenge – or not) plays a role in how well we deal with it (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

The theory goes something like this: resilience people view pain as a challenge and believe that they have the resources to cope with it, and as a result they experience less disability and distress.

There has been a reasonable interest in resilience in coping with persistent pain since Karoly and Ruehlman (2006) found that a small but reasonable-sized group of people report moderate to severe levels of pain intensity, but don’t report high levels of interference or emotional burden. It’s thought that instead of avoiding movements or activities that are painful, this group of people may feel fear – but go on to “confront” or at least willingly experience pain as part of their recovery. What hasn’t been as well-understood is whether resilience is associated with perceiving pain as a challenge, and therefore people are more likely to do things that may hurt, or whether people believe they can face the demands of experiencing pain (ie they have self efficacy for managing pain) and this is the path by which they get on with life.

This study was carried out in mainland China, and is for this reason alone, is an interesting study (most of our understanding about pain comes from the US, Canada, Australia and the UK). China also faces an enormous burden from people being disabled by chronic pain, so this is a good step forward to understanding what might support living well with pain in this highly populated country.

The study is by Shuanghong Chen and Todd Jackson, and published last year in the journal Rehabilitation Psychology. The authors recruited 307 Chinese adults with chronic back pain (189 women, 118 men), and asked them to complete a batch of questionnaires: Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (Chinese); Pain Appraisal Inventory (Short-form) Challenge; Pain Self-Efficacy Questionnaire; The catastrophising subscale of the Coping Strategies Questionnaire, the Chronic Pain Grade; The Multidimensional Pain Inventory-Screening (Affective Distress) subscale; and the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale. Participants were recruited from large residential settings close to the university and two local hospitals, and participants needed to be at least 18 years old with back pain of at least 3 months duration. All the questionnaires were translated into Mandarin using back-translation. This was a cross-sectional design, so all the measures were taken at one time, and analysis performed across the group. It’s not possible, therefore, to determine causal relations, and all the calculations were carried out using structural equation modeling, therefore correlational relationships only.

What did they find out?

High resilience levels were related to elevations in primary appraisals of pain as a challenge, and in turn, higher resilience and challenge appraisal scores were each related to higher scores on the secondary appraisal measure of pain self-efficacy beliefs. Those with high scores on resilience and pain self-efficacy tended to score lower on the secondary appraisal measure of pain catastrophising. When analysing the path it was found that challenge appraisals didn’t reach significance with catastrophising or pain-related disability (such as scores on Chronic Pain Grade, Affective Distress, or Depression). Higher scores on resilience and pain self-efficacy as well as reductions in pain catastrophising were associated with lower overall dysfunction scores (Chronic Pain Grade, Affective Distress, and Depression).

Interestingly, the authors tested to see whether pain self-efficacy and pain catastrophising had a bidirectional relationship with one another – they found that yes, this did have a good fit with the data but the resilience-catastrophising path was strong than the path in the original model, while the bidirectional self-efficacy-catastrophising path was slightly less strongly associated compare with the other model.

What does all this mean for us?

Well it seems that while we attend to negative features of a person’s presentation, from this study it looks like the relationship between positive aspects (such as not thinking of pain as an incredibly negative thing (catastrophising) and believing that yes I do have resources sufficient to cope with pain) is more predictive of outcomes than simply looking at catastrophising alone. However – pain self-efficacy and pain catastrophising and poorer coping have been found significant, while general resilience (appraising pain itself as a challenge, or not) and appraising pain itself as a challenge is less strongly associated. What this suggests is that increasing a person’s beliefs that they have the capability to cope (ie self-efficacy) despite pain needs to be a priority in pain rehabilitation.

To me this is an important finding. When we as therapists attribute change in function to either less pain, or to our efforts (or the treatments, eg injections, pills, special exercises, super-duper techniques that we use), we fail to foster or support self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is a slippery concept: the measure indicates confidence to engage in activities despite pain. If our treatments focus on reducing pain intensity and don’t support the person being able to do things despite their pain, we’re likely not helping them become more confident, especially in the future.

This doesn’t mean we should tell people to “suck it up, Buttercup”. It does mean we should help people identify the strategies they have (or can develop) to be able to continue with activity in the face of pain fluctuations. Of course this means we need to be comfortable with the idea that it’s OK to do things despite pain! If we still hold a sneaky suspicion that it’s not OK to be sore and do things, we’re likely to inadvertently (or perhaps overtly) encourage people to ease up, back off, or generally stop when they’re sore. Asking people how sore they are at each treatment is likely not to increase confidence that it’s OK to move. Commiserating over how painful it is and how tough it is may be unhelpful!

What can we do instead?

I think we can draw a lot from motivational interviewing. No, not the stages of change, but the part where we acknowledge that despite it being difficult, the person did something that moved them towards a more positive choice. What this might look like is “Hey you had a tough week, but it’s fantastic that you made it here today so we can look at what you carried on with”. It might include “While it’s been a flare-up week for you, you were still aware of your goals and had a go”. Or “Look at how you stayed the course despite the bumps in the road”.

Sticking with the idea that actions, or habits count more than results can be useful, because we’re helping people build long-term lifestyle changes that will sustain them over time. Yes, results are really cool and we want to see them (so don’t stop recording wins!), but at the same time, it’s vital we celebrate the daily choices a person makes to keep going and doing.

I think we can also help build self-efficacy by drawing on pain heroes. People who have maintained a good lifestyle despite their pain. Celebrating those who are grinding through, even though they have tough times. Perhaps other people in the clinic who are also managing pain. From self-efficacy research we know that vicarious learning (watching how others perform in the same situation) is one of the ways we boost our confidence to succeed. Group-work may be a useful approach for encouraging people to know they’re not alone, they can make progress, and that they’re doing OK.

So…. looking on the bright side of life doesn’t mean ignoring challenges, but it does mean viewing them as challenges rather than insurmountable obstacles. Our approach to pain – is it something to get rid of, or is it something to learn from and something we can manage – may give people encouragement to persist, or it may undermine coping. What’s your view?


Chen, S., & Jackson, T. (2018). Pain Beliefs Mediate Relations Between General Resilience and Dysfunction From Chronic Back Pain. Rehabilitation Psychology, 63(4), 604–611.

Karoly, P., & Ruehlman, L. S. (2006). Psychological “resilience” and its correlates in chronic pain: Findings from a national community sample. Pain, 123, 90–97. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2006.02.014

Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York, NY: Springer.

Ways to avoid “othering”


After my last post on “othering” I thought I should write something about what we know reduces the distancing that othering produces. To refresh your memory, othering is what happens when we identify positive characteristics about ourselves and simultaneously identify the absence of these positives in another person. Othering is a common part of any interaction but it seems to become less helpful as views become more polarised.

Lehti, Fjellman-Wiklund, Stalnacke and colleagues (2016) describe “walking down ‘Via Dolorosa'” as the “way of pain and suffering… from primary healthcare to [a] specialty rehabilitation clinic.” This depiction also captured the way gender and sociocultural context influenced that journey: chronic pain is a ‘low status’ illness (especially compared with high status diseases like cancer, heart disease, orthopaedic problems), while those patients with higher education and similarities to treating clinicians were viewed as “easier to interact with”. This study provides an insight into the norms expected as part of “being a proper patient – ready for change”.

Norms are a part of culture, assumptions about what “is done” in a particular context. Just as health professionals learn to “be professionals”, people seeking help for their health are also expected to behave in certain ways. Othering is, as I’ve indicated above, a normal or common part of interactions – some authors suggest we need an “other” in order to for our self to “know itself and define its boundaries” (Krumer-Nevo, 2012). At the same time, once the “other” is identified in less positive terms than “self”, it’s far easier to distance oneself from the other person.

One step towards reducing the distancing between “us” as health professionals and “them” seeking help is to create moments of “belongingness”. What this means is using overt means to help people feel welcome. In New Zealand, this may mean ensuring signs are written in both Maori and English. For people with pain, it may mean explicitly indicating to people with pain that it’s OK to stand up and move around during an initial assessment.

Another way is to raise the idea of the person living with pain as an expert. “Expert?” I hear you say…Yes, expert in “what it is like to be this person living with this pain in this context”. For us to demonstrate our understanding that the person living with pain is the expert on his or her experience, we need to provide safe and welcoming opportunities for the person to tell us what it is like. Narrative medicine, if you like.

Tonini and Chesi (2018) used Charon and Remen’s definition of narrative medicine “a way of dealing with the disease through narration, aimed at understanding the complexity of the patient that will no longer be seen as a set of objective data but as a unique individual with needs” in a study of the stories given by people living with migraine. The stories were of people with a chaotic narrative where migraine was a mystery, full of disorientation and few solutions, moving through to restitution where knowledge and efffective treatment allowed the person to progress. Other narratives were “stable” leading to improvement in understanding and management, and regression, where people gave up and remained disoriented.

How might this help us reduce our sense of “othering”? In one way, learning to hear what people have to say should be fairly simple for health professionals. We’re trained to listen carefully. But what we’re often focusing on is some sort of diagnosis: “what is going on here, what’s going wrong, what’s the pathology?” Hearing another’s narrative is a different process: this involves empathising with, understanding the journey from feeling unwell to seeking help, beginning to acknowledge the similarities between this person and ourselves. How might we respond to illness if we were faced with the same circumstances? the same prior history? the same choices?

Lajos Brons, philosopher (Brons, 2015), argues that charity, or the “reasonableness argument” could help us to deal with othering. Reasonableness is an assumption that the other person has rational, coherent, and true reasons for doing and saying what they do – even if, at first, we may not discern the underlying reasons. By invoking a charitable interpretation on another’s actions, we are in turn asked to question our own preconceptions, our assumptions about the reasons the person did what they did.

Imagine that kind of humanity being brought into our judgements of people who are apparently “lacking motivation”, or “seeking secondary gain”, or “noncompliant”?



Brons, Lajos. (2015). Othering: An analysis. Transcience, 6(1), p. 69 – 90

Krumer-Nevo, M. (2012). Researching against othering. Qualitative inquiry and the politics of advocacy, 7.

Lehti, A., Fjellman-Wiklund, A., Stalnacke, B.-M., Hammarstrom, A., & Wiklund, M. (2017). Walking down ‘Via Dolorosa’ from primary health care to the specialty pain clinic-Patient and professional perceptions of inequity in rehabilitation of chronic pain. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 31(1), 45-53.

Tonini, M. C., & Chesi, P. (2018). Narrative medicine, an innovative approach to migraine management. Neurological Sciences, 39(Suppl 1), S137-S138.

Othering


When we look at someone else, we first start by identifying the differences between that person and ourselves. It’s only later that we spend some time identifying the similarities between ourselves and that “other”.

There’s a problem in pain management today. It’s this: too few of “us” are “them” – by which I mean, there are too few people who identify as living with persistent pain working with people who are seeking help for their pain.

“Why is this a problem?” you ask… Well, it’s because it’s far too easy for “us” healthcare providers to forget that persistent pain affects people just like us. Yes, I know the stats: lots of people with persistent pain are multiply disadvantaged by socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, age, multiple morbidities. But – and this is important – persistent pain doesn’t discriminate, but disability and distress might.

Othering was first brought to attention by Simone de Bouvier. de Bouvier was interested in the way women’s voices were hidden and often compared with men’s voices. “Why”, said men. “Are women not like us?” The answer was evident: women are not men. And in establishing that women are “other”, or “not men”, those dominant voices were able to not only elevate their own voices to prominence, but also minimise and trivialise the words of women.

There are, according to Lajos Brons, two main forms of “othering” – crude, where the assumed differences are stated; and sophisticated, where the assumed differences are stated – and seem reasonable. Let me give an example. It seems reasonable that people seeking help for their pain are needing something they don’t have. And the people they seek help from (healthcare professionals) have that something. Sensible, yes?

“What’s the problem?” you ask. Well, it’s because alongside noticing the difference between the person seeking help and “us” who might have some answers, we also begin to distance ourselves from “them”. And in doing so, we begin to dehumanise or consider that person to be different and somewhat less than us.

I don’t want to accuse readers of stigmatising people who live with pain, so let’s take a moment to unpack what I’m trying to say.

When we talk about someone who is experiencing pain and having trouble with it, we begin by trying to work out what’s going on. In the very best circumstances, we create a “third space” where we can meet one another on an equal footing – both focusing on “what’s going on here”, and neither one assuming a superior position, because while “we” the healthcare professional, might have lots of knowledge about the various factors that could be contributing to this person’s situation, “we” actually know absolutely nothing of this person’s reality, their experience. Meanwhile, the person seeking our help is the expert on what life is like with their pain, their worries, their strengths, their supports, their vulnerabilities. So we meet in the middle, and collaborate, to try to work out how we can develop something new.

Sadly, that space can be muddied by a whole lot of things. We might bring our assumptions about the “other” – that they’re afraid, they need information, they want whatever solution we provide. The person might bring their fear of being misunderstood, their memories of the last time someone “tried” to help, perhaps their idea of what we want to know. We may end up talking past one another.

Let’s see what we can assume about the person in front of us. We might think they just need to know their pain is “an output of the brain” and that “hurt doesn’t equal harm”. We might spend some time educating that person about neurobiology. We might think they need exercise. They need to lose weight. They need do more mindfulness. They need to go back to work. And so our plans for “them” are set in motion. None of these things are bad or wrong – except when we think of the person needing these things before we’ve taken the time to hear what they really want.

What does the person want? Probably like many people, they’d like someone to listen to their perspective. Then they’d like to have some daily practical problems solved: perhaps knowing that they’re not harming themselves. Then maybe some sleep management. And perhaps some time out from people telling them what to do. And maybe some explanations – but only once we’ve taken the time to listen.

“Othering” is one way health professionals maintain a professional distance. By knowing that “we” already do these things, we can feel good about what we offer “them”. But I’d like to ask: how many of us have daily, weekly, monthly goals? How many of us have set them with the SMART acronym? And how many of us have our days timetabled to make sure we do all the things expected of us? What if we have an off day? Is it OK or do we have to explain ourselves? And how many of us also live with persistent pain? I think more of us live with pain than we’re honest about…

I’ve heard “us” talk about “them” and it’s not pretty. “They” need to be more goal-focused, more persistent, more relaxed, more revved up. “They” are ‘non-copers’ anyway. “They” have always needed help for everyday life. “They” have disorganised, chaotic lives.

I wonder what would happen if “we” spent some time checking in on our assumptions about “them”? Would we find ourselves mirrored in the people we try to help? I think we would – and it might help us to remember that we’re guides, coaches, and cheering squads, but we’re no better, no worse, and just as human as “them”. Oh, and some of “us” might even be one of “them” living with pain every day….

Brons, Lajos. (2015). Othering: An analysis. Transcience, 6(1), p. 69 – 90.

de Beauvoir, S. (1949): Le deuxi`eme sexe, Paris: Gallimard, 1976.

On the problem of coping


Coping. Lots of meanings, lots of negative connotations, used widely by health professionals, rejected by others (why would you need coping skills if you can get rid of your pain?).

I’ll bet one of the problems with coping is that we don’t really know what we’re defining. Is coping the result of dealing with something? Or is it the process of dealing with something? Or is it the range of strategies used when dealing with something? What if, after having dealt with the ‘something’ that shook our world, the world doesn’t go back to the way it was? What if ‘coping’ becomes a way of living?

The reason this topic came up for me is having just written a review for Paincloud on activity patterns (Cane, Nielson & Mazmanian, 2018), I got to thinking about the way we conceptualise ‘problems’ in life.  It’s like we imagine that life is going along its merry way, then all of a sudden and out of the blue – WHAM! An event happens to stop us in our tracks and we have to deal with it.

But let’s step back for a minute: how many of us have a well-ordered, bimbling existence where life is going along without any hiccoughs?!

Back to coping. The concept of coping is defined by Lazarus and Folkman (1980) as “the cognitive and behavioral efforts made to master, tolerate, or reduce external and internal demands and conflicts among them.” It’s identified as a transactional process and one that occurs within a context where the person has both resources and constraints, and a direction in which he or she wants to go.

By contrast, if we look at the research into coping in people with persistent pain, most of the attention is on the “what the person does” and the resources he or she has (see for example Rosenstiel & Keefe, 1983; Jensen, Turner, Romano & Karoly, 1991; Snow-Turkey, Norris & Tan, 1996; and much more recently, measures of coping by Sleijswer-Koehorst, Bijker, Cuijpers, Scholten-Peeters & Coppieters, in press). There are some studies exploring the goals set by the person (Schmitz, Saile & Nilges, 1996), but few studies examine the context in which the person is coping – nor what happens once the coping efforts are successful.

Measuring coping falls into three main buckets: the repertoire (how many strategies do you have?); the variation (which ones do you use and do they match the demands?); and the fitness approach (the choice of strategy depends on the way a person appraises the situation) (Kato, 2012). Out of these three, Kato chose to develop a measure of coping flexibility. Coping flexibility refers to “the ability to discontinue an ineffective coping strategy, and produce and implement an alternative coping strategy”. The Coping Flexibility Scale aims to measure this ability, based on the idea that by appraising the situation, implementing a strategy, then appraising the effectiveness of that strategy and applying a new one, the person is more effective at dealing with the challenge.

One of the most popular measures of coping for pain is the 14-item Coping Strategies Questionnaire (Riddle & Jensen, 2013). It suggests different ways of coping, some of which are seen as helpful, while others are not. Oddly enough, and why I started writing this blog, it doesn’t include the way we go about daily activities – activity patterns. In the study by Cane, Nielson & Maxmanian (2018), two main forms of activity pattern were found: avoidant-pacing, and  overdoing (as measured by the Patterns of Activity Measure – Pain). The avoidant-pacing group used pacing for daily activity management, but did so with the intention of avoiding flare-ups. The overdoing group just did a lot of activity. After treatment, some people moved group – from the two original groups, two more emerged: avoidant-pacing, pacing, mixed and overdoing. The pacing group basically did what everyone says is a great way to manage pain: picking out the right level of activity and sticking with it, using a quote-based approach. The definition used in this study was “… preplanned strategy that involved breaking activities into smaller parts, alternating periods of activity and rest (or an alternate activity), and using predetermined time intervals (or quotas) to establish when to stop an activity. The description of activity pacing provided to patients identified the goal or function of activity pacing as facilitating the completion of activities and ultimately increasing overall activity and functioning.”

As usual there are vulnerabilities in the way this study was conducted, and the main one for me is the follow-up period is non-existent. The reason I worry about this is that in my daily life, as I’m sure happens in many of yours, my pattern of activity varies wildly from week to week. Some weeks, like the weeks just before I headed to Sunderland for Paincloud, and the weeks just after I got back, were incredibly busy. I pushed myself to get things done because there were a heap of deadlines! This week I plan to have some down-time – this afternoon, in fact, because I want to play with some silversmithing.

And it occurred to me that we expect such a lot from the people we work with who live with pain. We ask all sorts of intrusive questions about daily life and we expect people to be able to recall what they did, why they did it, and to make changes and be consistent about these until we’re satisfied they’re “coping”.

But what if coping is actually the way we live our lives? What if coping involves all the myriad self-evaluative activities we all do – like, how hungry, tired, irritable, frustrated, rushed, achey, restless, enthusiastic, apologetic we feel – and endlessly and constantly adjusting the actions and behaviours we do so we can do what, for a moment or two, we think is The Most Important thing for now.

Life is a constant flowing forward. It’s a stream, an avalanche, a train going one way only. We can’t stop the world to get off. And once we’ve “coped” with something, life doesn’t return to “normal” because we’re different. Maybe our priorities change, or our circumstances have, or we have a new insight into what we want, or we work out the goal we had is more important than we thought. What if we are expecting the people who live with pain to do something we’re not even capable of?

I suppose part of my musing is related to mindfulness. Mindfulness involves continually returning to what I want to pay attention to, and doing so without judgement, and also observing without judgement. But it always involves coming back to what I intend to attend to. On and on and on. And the lovely thing about it is that it’s endlessly gentle and forgiving. Let go of the things I forgot to do, or the rushing towards what needs doing. I wonder what would happen if we encouraged people to be mindful for brief moments throughout the day all day long. Would that encourage coping flexibility? Would it encourage using a broader repertoire of ways of dealing with things? Would it help people to be more aware of everyday choosing and prioritising and managing actions to meet what’s valued in life?

To summarise: currently coping is measured using a “catalogue” of actions, often out of the context of daily decision-making and activity management. Activity management can vary from day to day, hour to hour, month to month. Being flexible with how we go about life seems, at least to me, to depend on my being aware of what’s important to me, what my energy is like, and the context in which I life. How well do we measure these constructs in pain management?

Cane, D., Nielson, W. R., & Mazmanian, D. (2018). Patterns of pain-related activity: replicability, treatment-related changes, and relationship to functioning. Pain, 159(12), 2522-2529.

Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1980). An Analysis of Coping in a Middle-Aged Community Sample. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 21(3), 219-239. doi:10.2307/2136617

Jensen, M. P., Turner, J. A., Romano, J. M., & Karoly, P. (1991). Coping with chronic pain: A critical review of the literature. Pain, 47(3), 249-283. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0304-3959%2891%2990216-K

Kato, T. (2012). Development of the Coping Flexibility Scale: Evidence for the coping flexibility hypothesis. Journal of counseling psychology, 59(2), 262-273.

Riddle, D.L &  Jensen, M.P. (2013). Construct and criterion-based validity of brief pain coping scales in persons with chronic knee osteoarthritis pain. Pain Medicine 14(2):265-275. doi:10.1111/pmc.12007

Rosenstiel, A. K., & Keefe, F. J. (1983). The use of coping strategies in chronic low back pain patients: relationship to patient characteristics and current adjustment. Pain, 17(1), 33-44.

Schmitz, U., Saile, H., & Nilges, P. (1996). Coping with chronic pain: flexible goal adjustment as an interactive buffer against pain-related distress. Pain, 67(1), 41-51.

Sleijser-Koehorst, M. L. S., Bijker, L., Cuijpers, p., Scholten-Peeters, G. G. M., & Coppieters, M. Preferred self-administered questionnaires to assess fear of movement, coping, self-efficacy and catastrophizing in patients with musculoskeletal pain – A modified Delphi study. Pain. in press

Snow-Turek, A. L., Norris, M. P., & Tan, G. (1996). Active and passive coping strategies in chronic pain patients. Pain, 64(3), 455-462. doi:10.1016/0304-3959(95)00190-5

On “us” and “them”: what if we’re one of “them”?


Over the past few years I’ve been pondering the presumed gap between people living with pain and the people who “treat” or work with them.  Most of my readers will know that I live with widespread pain (aka fibromyalgia) or pain that is present in many parts of my body, and the associated other symptoms like DOMS that last for weeks not a day or two, and increased sensitivity to heat, cold, pressure, chilli, sound and so on.

I first “came out” with my pain about 15 years ago: that is, I first disclosed to people I worked with that I had this weird ongoing pain – and finally joined the dots to realise that yes, I did in fact meet criteria for fibromyalgia. I recall feeling a sense of embarrassment, almost shame, for admitting that I had pain that did not go away – as if I shouldn’t acknowledge it, or speak about such “personal” stuff in a chronic pain service.

There’s a weird sort of cloud over being up-front about persistent pain when you’re working in the field. Perhaps I’m a little sensitive, but I’ve seen the little eye roll and the comments about other people who work in the same field as their health problem: drug and alcohol people who have had their experience with drug and alcohol problems; those working in mental health with their mental health issues; people who have survived rape or other criminal activities going on to work as counsellors… Like “are you meeting their needs, or your own?”

Sapolsky wrote about “why your brain hates other people” pointing out that “us/them” responses occur globally and happen instantly and effortlessly. Our neurobiological ancestry has set us up for this process such that within a 20th of a second of seeing a face of “them” we show “preferential activation of the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear, anxiety, and aggression…other-race faces cause less activation than do same-race faces in the fusiform cortex, a region specializing in facial recognition; along with that comes less accuracy at remembering other-race faces.”

It’s therefore not surprising that when a group of “us” work together to help “them”, coming almost as colonialists with our goodies to dispense to the needy natives, we find it a little eerie, maybe a little confronting when “they” want to come along as equals.

In the 1960’s the disabilities rights movement was founded in the United States. Called Independent Living, and founded by people living with disabilities, this organisation campaigned strongly to be seen firstly as people, and only secondly as consumers or healthcare users. “Nothing about us without us” was one of the key slogans used in their campaign. It’s only just happening in chronic pain management.

Persistent pain is often called an invisible problem. Because pain initially seems to be from an acute problem, people are treated within services for the body system involved.  We have gynaecology services for pelvic pain, cardiology for non-cardiac chest pain, orthopaedic surgery and neurology for low back pain and headache – and so the problem of chronic pain fails to be accounted for because this information isn’t collated as a single problem.

Persistent pain is also invisible because no-one sees the person looking different. I don’t know how many times people living with pain have said to me “Oh but people say you look so well, surely there’s nothing wrong with you?”

And the even more invisible group are clinicians who also live with pain. Believe me, it’s not something many of “us” want to admit! And yet, if the statistics are correct, probably 1 in 5-6 of the clinicians working in persistent pain management have pain that’s lasted longer than 3 months.

“But I’m not like them” I hear you say! What’s that about? Oh that’s right, “we” have the answers… “We” are not struggling from day to day. “We” have it all together.

It’s a protective response, I think. One that protects clinicians from acknowledging our own vulnerability and powerlessness when it comes to knowing how to live daily life with pain. One that means clinicians can still pretend to have “the answers” while simultaneously protecting themselves from recognising just how little difference there is between “us” and “them”.

There are differences, though, and these aren’t pretty and might add to the “us/them” dichotomy.

People who are at greater risk of developing persistent pain (and other comorbidities like mood disorders, sleep disorders, obesity and so on) often come from lower socioeconomic areas. This is not as a result of giving up work and thus dropping income, but is actually a predictor of developing chronic pain (Fryer, Cleary, Wickham, Barr & Taylor-Robinson, 2017; Rios & Zautra, 2011; Sampiero, Cardoso, Bush, Riley, Sibille, Bartley et al, 2016). This means the people we see in primary care, or even in tertiary pain management services via the Ministry of Health in NZ, probably have more difficulty accessing transport to see us; have poorer dental care (Whyman, Mahoney, Morrison & Stanley, 2014); may not be able to afford to see a doctor or fill prescriptions (Devaux, 2015); can’t afford to attend a gym – and indeed may not have enough time to go to one after working two low pay jobs.

I wonder if this socioeconomic disparity adds to clinicians’ tendency to think of people with pain as “other”. On top of greater prevalence of mental health problems (Scott, Lim, Al-Hamzawi, Alonson, Bruffaerts, Caldas-de-Almeida et al, 2016) which can add to this sense of “otherness”, particularly when those disorders include “difficult personalities” (Carpenter & Trull, 2015).

It’s unpleasant and slightly unsettling to think of yourself as a clinician being, let’s call it what it is, prejudiced. And even more disconcerting when one of those “others” is one of “us”. Sapolsky suggests several ways of reducing the “them” and “us” divide:

  • Contact – particularly prolonged, task-focused contact where everyone is treated the same
  • Making the implicit explicit – show people their biases (what I’m doing in this article!), perspective taking – what is it like to walk a mile in the shoes of a person trying to deal with persistent pain with limited resources?
  • Replace “essentialism” with “individuation” – explaining that there are fewer differences between “us”, and that the things we do see can be explained in other ways, less “fixed” ways than “oh it’s genetic”
  • Flatten hierarchies – reduce the gap between “them” and “us”. In persistent pain this should mean ensuring people living with pain are involved in both service design and delivery. Nothing about us without us.

Do I expect this gap reduction to be easy? Not at all. There are significant barriers between full acceptance: there are angry people who have had their pain experience invalidated; there are clinicians who have been sworn at, spat at, assaulted (yes, it’s happened to me). But until we begin talking, we simply will not begin to address this problem.

Carpenter, R. W., & Trull, T. J. (2015). The pain paradox: Borderline personality disorder features, self-harm history, and the experience of pain. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment, 6(2), 141.

Devaux, M. (2015). Income-related inequalities and inequities in health care services utilisation in 18 selected OECD countries. The European Journal of Health Economics, 16(1), 21-33.

Fryer, B. A., Cleary, G., Wickham, S. L., Barr, B. R., & Taylor-Robinson, D. C. (2017). Effect of socioeconomic conditions on frequent complaints of pain in children: findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study. BMJ paediatrics open, 1(1).

Rios, R., & Zautra, A. J. (2011). Socioeconomic disparities in pain: The role of economic hardship and daily financial worry. Health Psychology, 30(1), 58.

Sampiero, T., Cardoso, J., Bush, R., Riley, J., Sibille, K., Bartley, E., … & Bulls, H. (2016). (209) Association of socioeconomic factors with pain and function in older adults with knee osteoarthritis. The Journal of Pain, 17(4), S28.

Scott, K. M., Lim, C., Al-Hamzawi, A., Alonso, J., Bruffaerts, R., Caldas-de-Almeida, J. M., … & Kawakami, N. (2016). Association of mental disorders with subsequent chronic physical conditions: world mental health surveys from 17 countries. JAMA psychiatry, 73(2), 150-158.

Whyman, R. A., Mahoney, E. K., Morrison, D., & Stanley, J. (2014). Potentially preventable admissions to N ew Zealand public hospitals for dental care: a 20‐year review. Community dentistry and oral epidemiology, 42(3), 234-244.

Myths about exposure therapy


Exposure therapy is an effective approach for pain-related anxiety, fear and avoidance, but exposure therapy is used less often than other evidence-based treatments, there is a great deal of confusion about graded exposure, and when it is used, it is not always well-conducted. It’s not a treatment to be used by every therapist – some of us need to challenge our own beliefs about pain, and whether it’s OK to go “into” the pain a little, or even slightly increase pain temporarily!

Below are some common misconceptions and suggestions for how to overcome them:

Misconception: Exposure therapy causes clients undue distress and has adverse consequences.

Suggestions: Although exposure therapy can lead to temporary increases in anxiety and pain, it is important to remember that these symptoms are not dangerous, and that exposure is generally carried out in a very gradual and predictable way. Exposure very rarely causes clients harm, but it is important to know your clients’ medical histories. For example, a client with a respiratory condition would not be asked to complete an exposure designed to elicit hyperventilation.

I usually begin with a really clear explanation for using this approach, basing my explanation on what the person has already said to me. By using Socratic or guided discovery, I try to understand the logic behind the person’s fear: what is it the person is most worried about? Often it’s not hurt or harm, it’s worrying that they won’t sleep, or they’ll have a flare-up that will last a looooong time – and they won’t be able to handle it. These are fundamental fears about having pain and vital to work through if the person is going to need to live with persistent pain for any length of time.

Once I’ve understood the person’s reasons for being bothered by the movements and pain, then I work on developing some coping strategies. These must be carefully carried out because it’s so easy to inadvertently coach people into using “safety behaviours” or “cues” that work to limit their contact with the full experience. Things like breath control, positive self-statements, any special ways of moving, or even ways of recovering after completing the task may serve to control or reduce contact with both anxiety and pain. I typically draw on mindfulness because it helps people focus on what IS happening, not what may have happened in the past – or may happen in the future. By really noticing what comes up before, during and after a graded exposure task, and being willing to experience them as they are, people can recognise that anticipating what might happen is often far worse than what does happen.

Finally, I’ll work through the scenario’s – either pictures of movements and activities, or descriptions of the same things. I prefer photographs (based on the Photographs of Daily Activity), because these elicit all the contextual details such as the other people, weather, flooring or surface and so on that are often factors increasing a person’s concerns. We begin with the activity that least bothers the person and consistently work up from there, with practice in the real world between sessions. I’ll go out to the places the person is most concerned about, we’ll do it together at first, then the person can carry on by themselves afterwards.

Misconception: Exposure therapy undermines the therapeutic relationship and leads to high dropout.

Suggestions: If you give your person a clear reason for using this approach and deliver it well,  the person is more likely to achieve success – and this in turn strengthens your relationship. Additionally, there is evidence that dropout rates for exposure are comparable to other treatments.

There is something about achieving a difficult thing that bonds us humans, and if you approach graded exposure with compassion, curiosity, and celebration, you may find your relationship is far more rewarding and deeper than if you simply prescribe the same old same old.

Misconception: Exposure therapy can lead to lawsuits against therapists.

Suggestions: Survey data suggest that lawsuits against therapists using exposure are extremely rare. As with any kind of therapy, you can take several steps to protect yourself from a legal standpoint. Don’t forget to obtain informed consent, ensure your treatment is delivered with competency, professionalism, and ethical consideration.

The best book/resource by far for graded exposure is Pain-Related Fear: Exposure-Based Treatment for Chronic Pain, (click) by Johan W.S. Vlaeyen, Stephen J. Morley, Steven J. Linton, Katja Boersma, and Jeroen de Jong.

Before you begin carrying out this kind of treatment, check you have these skills (from the book I’ve referenced):

Vlaeyen, Johan, Morley, Stephen, Linton, Steven, Boersma, Katja, & de Jong, Jeroen. (2012a). Pain-related Fear. Seattle: IASP Press.