Chronic pain


When do we need to say we’ve done enough?

This post is food for thought for both clinicians and people living with pain. It has come about because of a conversation on Facebook where some clinicians felt that people with pain are only being offered the option to “learn to live with pain” when their pain intensity could either be reduced or go completely.  And this conversation is one repeated countless times around the world when those living with persistent pain seek help for their disability and distress.

I’m going to declare my hand right now: I think a the problem in chronic pain management isn’t that people get offered “pain management” or “learning to live with pain” or “accepting pain” too often – I think it’s not happening often enough, nor soon enough. But let me unpack this a little more…

We know that in New Zealand at least one person in every six lives with chronic pain that has gone on for more than six months (Dominick, Blyth & Nicholas, 2011). We also know the seven day prevalence of low back pain in New Zealand is 35% (men) and 48% (women) (Petrie, Faasse, Crichton & Grey, 2014).

Treatments for painful conditions abound. From the simple over-the-counter approach (medication, anti-inflammatory creams, hot packs, cold packs) to hands-on therapies (massage, osteopathy, chiropractic, physiotherapy), to exercise therapies (Pilates, core strengthening, gym programmes, spin classes, walking, exercise in water), and finally to the multitude of invasive therapies (injections, neurotomies, decompression surgery, fusion). There is no shortage of treatments that aim to get rid of pain, fix the problem and get life back to normal. And for the most part these treatments provide modest improvement in both pain intensity and functional gains. For low back pain it seems there is no single wonderful treatment that works for everyone – hence the proliferation of treatments! (cos if there was a single treatment that worked, we’d all be offering it – like we do with a broken bone or appendicitis).

Here’s a question: if pain “management” (ie helping people learn to live with their pain) was the main offering to people living with pain, wouldn’t there be a heap of places to get this kind of treatment? At least in New Zealand there are relatively few pain management centres although there are many, many places to go for pain reduction.

I’ve tried to find studies looking at how people are told they have persistent pain that won’t be cured. Strangely, I have had incredible difficulty finding such studies. They may be there in the research literature – but they’re fairly uncommon and hard to find. And given how poorly low back pain guidelines are followed despite being promulgated since at least 1997, even if there were studies examining the best way to convey this news, I’d be surprised if anything was routinely incorporated into clinical practice.

So, in my opinion there are many more clinicians offering to help reduce pain than there are those offering to help people “learn how to live with pain”.

I was asked recently “when you do decide to stop pursuing pain reduction?” I think I said “it’s ultimately the decision of the person living with pain” – but it’s complicated by the way we as a culture perceive this option. I think most people would be horrified to think “I’m going to have a lifetime of living like this” when our beliefs about pain are influenced by and attitude that “pain = suffering”, “pain is unnatural”, “pain is a sign of something badly wrong”, “pain is something to get rid of”. I know when I was told “I’m sorry but there’s nothing more we can do for your pain” I was terribly upset thinking I had a lifetime of feeling awful to look forward to! I was 22 and had low back pain that would not go away after 18 months. I’m now 52 and I still have pain – but I can tell you that I have done almost everything I’ve wanted to including SCUBA diving, tramping, fishing, dancing, working full time (overtime), and parenting.

When do we begin to think about living with pain rather than curing it? I think we need to take a hard look at what this sentence means.

Firstly it means living. Life continues whether we’re feeling like we’re moving forward, or we’re putting things on hold to pursue a particular goal. Life doesn’t actually stop – but the things we want to experience, the things we want to do change over time. Our focus at the age of 22 is quite different from our focus at age 52 – and I hope it will change again at age 82! We don’t get to hit the replay button and live life all over again. We get one shot at it. This could feel quite awful if we’re contemplating a life where looking for pain relief is our primary goal – especially when that process involves an endless round of hope then despair as treatments are tried – and then don’t quite work out. Even the process of looking for treatments is slow, fraught with anxiety, and it eats up time in a week. For me, taking time out from living to pursue a treatment that may work means a process of weighing up the costs against the benefits. The costs include time, energy, emotional investment in the result, and the discomfort of the treatment itself. The benefits? Well, that depends.

The second part of that sentence is “with”. Living with pain. To me this means establishing my willingness to experience something I don’t enjoy – and believe me, I’m not a fan of pain! If all I have to look forward to is pain, pain, pain I’m not keen on doing it. BUT I am keen on living and bringing pain along with me (because frankly, my pain is coming along for the ride anyway). Living with pain to me means making room to experience pain fluctuations while doing things that bring value and meaning to my life. It means I ache – but I have a beautiful garden. I have sore legs – but I’ve been dancing. I have an aching back and neck and arms – but my house is clean. Here’s the thing: even if I didn’t work in my garden, dance or clean my house I’d STILL be sore! And I’d be bored, feel like I hadn’t achieved anything, and would have had to ask other people to help because many of those things still need doing.

The thing is, pain ≠ suffering.

When do we make a decision to stop pursuing pain reduction? Well, if I’m honest I’m still on the lookout for something that will help reduce my pain. And I think anyone who does live with persistent pain would agree that we don’t really want to have this experience, just like people who have cancer don’t want it, or diabetes or stroke or any of the myriad other chronic conditions humans are prone to getting, especially as we age. When asked, I’m sure most people with chronic pain would say “Yes” to pain reduction as a goal. BUT, and this is important, living life as fully and richly as we can is just as important.  I would bet that anyone with any of those chronic conditions would also just love to have them cured too.

But pain is a funny thing, there are myths and unhelpful beliefs coming from clinicians and our cultural norms about pain being a bad thing that must go. Compared with the beliefs and attitudes about other chronic conditions, this is unhelpful. We don’t find health professionals constantly pursuing treatments to “get rid of” diabetes, the focus is on management. And we accept that people who have cancer may choose to no longer accept treatment – and we support them by providing good hospice care. How often do people with chronic pain get (a) support to make a decision to live with their pain and (b) support to learn to do this well without feeling like second class citizens who have failed. We even have a group of clinicians calling people who haven’t responded to their treatments “failed back syndrome” as if the person’s back has failed rather than the treatment failing.

What makes me decide to pursue a new treatment that promises to reduce my pain? Well, it has to fit into my life. It can’t interfere with what’s important to me in terms of time, energy or discomfort. The odds need to be pretty good for me to even look at it – I want to see more than a single research paper showing its effectiveness. I would have to trust the clinician, and they’d have to respect me and my lifestyle and priorities. I’d want to make sure that clinician was going to stick with me and help me decide whether it’s worth doing. I’d want to see that the treatment would help me achieve my goals and priorities – otherwise I’m not really interested.

Is this because I’m weird (say yes!)? Or that I have less intense pain than other people? (nope, because you can’t compare my pain with anyone else’s, and because pain intensity ratings are strongly influenced by distress, mood, anxiety, how much pain interferes with life, attention, culture yada yada yada (Linton & Shaw, 2011). I think it’s because right now I’m too busy living, I get more joy and satisfaction from doing things that make me feel like myself. But remember I’ve been doing this since I was 22. And it’s a process. And I’m weird. I am a pain geek.

The thing is, unless clinicians promote living well with pain as an equally valid option to trying to get rid of it, people will continue to think that it’s impossible to have a really good life unless their pain is gone. And that, to me, is a tragedy, because we only have one life to live.


Dominick, C., Blyth, F., & Nicholas, M. (2011). Patterns of chronic pain in the New Zealand population. New Zealand Medical Journal, 124(1337), 63-76.

Linton, S. J., & Shaw, W. S. (2011). Impact of psychological factors in the experience of pain. Physical Therapy, 91(5), 700-711. doi:10.2522/ptj.20100330

Petrie KJ, Faasse K, Crichton F, Grey A. How Common Are Symptoms? Evidence from a New Zealand National Telephone Survey. BMJ Open. 2014;4(6). doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005374.


Of cabbages and kings…

Well, cabbages for knee osteoarthritis, anyway! In this interesting study, three approaches to managing knee pain from moderate osteoarthritis were put to the test. To be truthful, actually only two active treatments were compared – the third was “usual care”.

In a carefully conducted trial, where participants were randomly allocated to one of three groups, and the study organiser remained blinded to which group people were allocated, topical diclofenac gel, usual care or a cabbage leaf compress were applied over the course of four weeks.  Key outcomes were pain intensity and scores on the WOMAC, a common measure of the impact of osteoarthritis on daily life.

Participants were asked to rate their expectations on whether cabbage leaf or the gel would be successful in improving knee pain prior to the study commencing. Each person in the cabbage leaf group was asked to take one or two cabbage leaves, remove the hard stem, bruise the leaves, then wrap them around the knee with a bandage and leave for at least two hours, preferably overnight. In the gel group, participants were asked to rub the gel over the knee up to 4 times a day. In the treatment as usual group, participants were asked to continue with their usual routine and care, but not to begin any new treatments over the period of time.

What did they find?

Well, as a breastfeeding mother I well remember the pain of engorged breasts – and the relief I got from cabbage leaves (although I will never forgive the man who brought two half cabbages home, held them up in front of me and said “I think they’ll just about fit”!). I wondered if the same effect might have been experienced by participants in this study – and to a certain extent, yes! While the effect sizes were not large, a significant group difference was found between cabbage leaf wrap and usual care (difference, -12.1; 95% CI, -23.1,-1.0; P=0.033) after 4 weeks. No group difference was found between cabbage leaf wrap and gel (difference, -8.6; 95% CI, -21.5, 4.4; P=0.190).

A small but consistent decline in pain intensity was found in the cabbage leaf wrap and gel groups, but not in the usual care group over the four weeks of the study.

This trial found that a 4-week application of cabbage leaf wraps was more effective than usual with respect to pain, functional disability, and quality of life. It was, however, not superior to a 4-week application of topical medication. Patients were satisfied with both interventions, and except for 2 adverse events in both groups the applications were well accepted and tolerated.

What does this mean?

Well, for me this study shows that a simple, home remedy may provide some help for people who either can’t afford the cost of gel, or who don’t want to take a medication. This treatment truly is “natural”! The study design doesn’t allow us to conclude that cabbage leaf wraps are better than gel, or that it was the cabbage leaf itself that made a difference (participants and physicians had to know what was being administered because it’s fairly hard to hide a cabbage leaf!), so the results could be due to “meaning response” or placebo. And the pain reduction was very small – but nonetheless important to the participants.

What’s cool for me is that this is something people can choose to do for themselves. It doesn’t seem to have adverse effects (those reported in the study could be unrelated to the cabbage), and people find it relatively easy to use. Given the cost of pharmaceuticals, and the need to attend a doctor to get a prescription, to know there is a reasonable alternative (or even adjunct) seems useful.

Lauche, Romy, Romeikat, Nadine, Cramer, Holger, Al-Abtah, Jallal, Dobos, Gustav, & Saha, Felix J. (2016). Efficacy of Cabbage Leaf Wraps in the Treatment of Symptomatic Osteoarthritis of the Knee: A Randomized Controlled Trial. The Clinical journal of pain. (in press)


Clinical reasoning “think aloud”

Occupational therapists are keen on helping people return to doing the things they value – meaningful activity, or participating in valued occupations (same thing, essentially). So, a person might come to see me because they have low back pain and want to work out how to get to work.

My first step is to understand what it is about the back pain that seems to be stopping the person from doing the tasks involved in their work. I usually begin by taking a history – what does the person understand about how their back pain came on, what’s their theory as to why it’s there, what have they done to help their recovery, how are they managing the everyday things they need to do right now. I ask about sleep, sex, personal care, daily routine, and in doing so I’m finding out about the person’s beliefs and attitudes towards their pain, their ability to regulate their arousal level, their mood, their confidence, the influence of others around them (both supportive – and those more subtle influences like their response when the person does something). I’m very careful to try to understand the contexts in which the person is having trouble – and what factors in the context might be supporting change.

In my mind I’m trying to establish a set of possible reasons for this person coming to see me at this time and in this way. I’m running through the various influences I know affect a person’s ability to engage in normal daily activities. Because I have a strong psychology background, I’ll consider functional behavioural analysis, but I’m also sensitive to personal values, cultural norms, and yes, even biological factors such as strength, range of movement, and motor control.

I can try to influence two things: the demands of the tasks in the context of work, and the capabilities of the person, but I need to keep a couple of things in mind.

  1. What is the effect of my intervention in the medium to long-term, not just the short-term?
  2. What does this person need in this context right now?

Depending on my clinical formulation, and the overall theoretical model I’m using, I can approach the decision-making in many different ways. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a fan of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, so my end goal is to help this person develop the ability to respond flexibly to the demands of any situation. I want to keep in mind that what I do now can have a long-term influence on what they’ll do over time. Some occupational therapists may instead focus primarily on “what will solve the problem for this person right now” without always thinking about the long-term impact.  As a result, we can see some people with low back pain being given special seating, perhaps a new bed, some adaptive equipment so they can achieve the goal of “doing” – but at the same time, being unaware of the constraints this can put on the person being able to participate in other contexts.

For example, if my client is having trouble getting to work because he thinks his car’s seat should be fixed. If my focus was purely on helping him drive his car in comfort, I could consider assessing his car and giving him some cushioning to make it more supportive. There, problem fixed! But, let’s take a look at the effect of that intervention in the medium term. While he can drive to and from work, he’s learned that he “needs” a special seat or cushioning to help stop his discomfort. He’s also learned that his back pain is something he “shouldn’t” experience.

Based on what he’s learned from my intervention, what do you think can happen if he continues to experience back pain in the work setting?

His personal model of pain will have developed a couple of interesting quirks (and ones we often see in clients) – he’s learned that posture influences his back pain, and that there is a posture that “fixes” it. He’s learned that he should have his back in a particular position to be comfortable. He’s also learned that because he can influence his sitting position in the car, he “should” be able to influence his sitting position in other contexts – like, perhaps, his office desk or the seat in his digger. He might even, if his belief that his back “should” be in a particular position is especially strong, begin to try to keep his back in this position while doing other activities like walking or carrying things, or using tools. Most insidiously, he has learned that his back pain is something he should not have. It’s a sign to him that he has to “fix” his sitting position or he’s doing something wrong. But back pain is common, many factors influence it, and it often doesn’t settle completely.

If I instead want him to be able to respond flexibly to many different settings, I’ll need to think more carefully about my intervention. My underlying reasoning has to capture the workability of any suggestions I make – and workability not just in the car while driving, but at work, while doing other tasks, at other times.

I may work together with him to find out what it is about the pain in his back that particularly bothers him. Pain itself is usually not the problem – it’s what the pain represents, the effect on doing things both here and now, and in the future. In my client’s case, perhaps his back pain is particularly frustrating for him because he values getting to work and feeling ready for anything. He doesn’t want to feel like his goals are being blocked (he doesn’t want to feel exhausted and not ready for work), he doesn’t want his back pain, and his mind is telling him he needs to be “ready for anything” even though he is in the middle of a bout of back pain. In ACT terms, he’s avoiding the negative feeling of frustration, of potential failure, of feeling exhausted and his back pain, and he’s doing what all humans do – trying to control those emotions so that he doesn’t feel them! Makes perfect sense – except that the solution (giving him a cushion for his vehicle) could pose its own problems.

I can position my intervention in a couple of different ways. Honouring the value he places on being ready for anything at work, I can talk to him about how well that’s working for him right now, given he’s having a bout of back pain. Could he be willing to allow himself to be less “ready for anything” while he recovers from his back pain? I could also suggest that he could take the time to be present to his back pain, to be aware of and experience his back – and his feet, arms, shoulders and breath – while driving to work, so that he can notice the times when it’s really bothering him, and when it bothers him less, and that along with his back pain he also has areas of comfort and strength. I could provide him with a cushion – but ask him to think about what happens when he has to sit in other chairs, and ask about the workability of carrying a cushion wherever he goes.

The point is that while occupational therapists can help people do the things they want and need to do, some of our efforts can constrain people’s options over time. We don’t live the lives of our clients – but sometimes we can assume the client’s priority is to solve an immediate problem, while overlooking the other competing values the person also holds dear.

I’ve included some readings that have informed this blog post – while they’re not directly referenced in my post, they help inform my clinical reasoning.

Damsgard, E., Dewar, A., Roe, C., & Hamran, T. (2011). Staying active despite pain: Pain beliefs and experiences with activity-related pain in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 108-116. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6712.2010.00798.x

DeGood, Douglas E., & Cook, Andrew J. (2011). Psychosocial assessment: Comprehensive measures and measures specific to pain beliefs and coping. Turk, Dennis C [Ed], 67-97.

McCracken, Lance M., & Vowles, Kevin E. (2014). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness for Chronic Pain: Model, Process, and Progress. American Psychologist, 69(2), 178-187.

Stenberg, Gunilla, Fjellman-Wiklund, Anncristine, & Ahlgren, Christina. (2014). ‘I am afraid to make the damage worse’ – fear of engaging in physical activity among patients with neck or back pain – a gender perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 28(1), 146-154. doi: 10.1111/scs.12043

Trompetter, Hester R., ten Klooster, Peter M., Schreurs, Karlein M., Fledderus, Martine, Westerhof, Gerben J., & Bohlmeijer, Ernst T. (2013). Measuring values and committed action with the Engaged Living Scale (ELS): Psychometric evaluation in a nonclinical sample and a chronic pain sample. Psychological Assessment, 25(4), 1235-1246.

van Huet, H, & Williams, D. (2007). Self-Beliefs About Pain and Occupational Performance: A Comparison of Two Measures Used in a Pain Management Program. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health Vol 27(1) Win 2007, 4-12.


Making sense of pain

Humans have an incredible desire for things to make sense. We want things to fit a story or what’s expected – and we get right discombobulated (it’s a word) if we encounter a situation where things don’t make sense. To a certain extent we can blame our use of language for this, because it’s the way we’ve learned to pair words with concepts, and to associate multiple concepts together. For example, we learn “ouch” is associated with that unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that we’ve learned goes along with scrapes or bumps or cuts. We’ve also learned that “ouch” goes along with “it will go soon” and “don’t use that bit too much or it will hurt for longer” as well as “big boys don’t cry” and “you’re just being lazy if you don’t suck it up” and “whiners talk about their back pain all the time” and other similar notions. This is how humans connect visible objects (nouns) with words and other invisible concepts to create a network of meaning that, among others who share similar language and culture, means we can communicate with one another and go beyond the here and now and into the future and recall the past.

Even when events don’t make sense, we struggle to create a sense from it – we even say things like “this doesn’t make sense” as a way to classify the event along with a bunch of other “events that don’t make sense”. 

Why does this matter?

Well, because we want life to make sense, and to understand what we and others are up to, we create meaning and sense (coherence) even where there is no sense. Sometimes we grasp at straws (otherwise known as explanations from people who may not actually know what’s going on, but can spin a good tale). And at times, grasping at these straws means we ignore our own experience just so we can  hold on to what we think ought to be there. Here’s an example: some of us have back pain. We don’t know why it started, but we try to make sense of why we experience it by drawing on things we’ve been told by others – we might blame age, lifting “incorrectly”, weak “core” muscles, or differences in how long our legs are. Now the explanation itself doesn’t need to even be accurate – what’s important is that by accepting an explanation we become less sensitive to alternative explanations, and even more importantly, we begin to ignore what our own body feels like because we think we should believe what an expert tells us.

The problem with trying to make an explanation work for us, when it’s not necessarily so, is that in adopting that explanation we may find it a lot more difficult to respond flexibly to different situations. For example, if we’ve learned that back pain happens because of poor posture (where “poor posture” means not holding the spine a certain way), then we have more difficulty doing things when we’re in situations where being hunched over is the only way to get into an awkward situation, like when we have to lift a child into the back seat of a car, or put the pots back into the back of the bottom shelf of the cupboard.

Explanations for pain

Because pain is so common, and critical for human survival, we hold deep and powerful beliefs about what pain should mean, and how we should handle it. We probably all learned that pain is temporary and generally settles down once tissues have healed. We might have learned to hide our tears and not to ask for help when we’re sore. We probably grew up knowing that if tissues are really mangled, then it really hurts, and if it’s a paper cut it shouldn’t bother us. And we learned all the myriad concepts associated with pain – like being too withdrawn or tearful means we’re not really very brave, that if we get angry and hit out at someone who’s helping us with our pain, it’s very bad. We learned that it doesn’t hurt as much when someone “kisses it better”, and we learned that we should find out what’s wrong, get it fixed, and get over it.

But what happens when pain violates our past experience and all the explanations we’ve been given before?

What if we have pain that doesn’t disappear? What if the explanations we get given don’t fit with our own experience? What if the very things we’ve been told to do to “help” our pain actually make our lives worse? What if we’re clinicians who find that all the things we’ve been told should work – just don’t.

If we’ve been good learners, most of us will be unsettled by these inconsistencies. Things don’t add up. We probably keep on looking for “the answer” that will fix the problem. We’ll probably feel guilty and perhaps even a bit embarrassed that this pain is different. We might doubt our own experience and worry that we’re being just a bit pathetic or a really don’t want to get better. Or if we’re clinicians, we may wonder if the person wants to get better, or if they’re really doing the exercises the way they should…

And this isn’t helped by well-meaning people who might suggest that we should keep on looking for “the answer” – even when doing this gets in the way of important things we want to be able to do! So we might take the pills that make us feel groggy and constipated. We keep on doing the exercises that are boring and don’t seem to change anything. We do these things not because they work – but because we think they should work. And so we all get frustrated and irritated and just don’t live lives of richness and fulfillment. Perhaps we forget what we want our lives to stand for anyway.

Difficult conversations

It isn’t easy to talk about pain that doesn’t do what it ought to. Our very human nature makes the situation difficult. I’m hoping that by beginning to think more contextually, more about what works in the here and now, about having a range of options to try so we don’t get backed into an unworkable corner just because that’s what someone has suggested should work, that we the people (those living with chronic pain and those working with those who live with chronic pain) might gently and creatively develop some flexibility around what can be such a sticky  concept. Maybe that’s what resilience is?



“I know my pain doesn’t mean I’m damaging myself – but I still have pain”

In the excitement of helping people understand more about pain neuroscience, which I truly do support, I think it’s useful to reflect a little on the history of this approach, and how it can influence the experience people have of their pain.

If we go right back to the origins of pain self management, in the groovy 1960’s and 1970’s – the first truly significant work in chronic pain self management came from Wilbert Fordyce (Fordyce, Fowler & Delateur, 1968). Bill Fordyce was a clinical psychologist working in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. He noticed that when people were given positive reinforcement (attention, and social interaction) for “well” behaviour, and ignored or given neutral responses to reports of pain, their “up-time” or activity levels increased. Interestingly for occupational therapists, in the paper I’ve cited, occupation was used as an integral part of the programme and occupational therapy was a part of the programme (somewhat different from most clinics nowadays!)  Thus the operant conditioning model of pain behaviour and disability was first developed.

As practice progressed, clinicians began discussing the gate control theory of pain to help people understand how incredibly powerful descending pain modulation could be. Included in those discussions was the distinction between “hurt” and “harm” – that simply because something hurt, did not mean it was a sign of harm in the tissues.

As the 1980’s wore on, interdisciplinary pain management programmes became popular, with much of the work involving helping people reappraise their pain as “noise in the system”, and encouraging participants to develop strategies to increase activity levels and at the same time employ approaches to “close the gate” and thus reduce pain intensity.  I started working in pain management in the mid-1980’s when not only did I develop a patter to explain gate control, chronic pain, the relationship between the brain and what was going on in the tissues, I also started using the case formulation approach I still use today.

The key effects of this approach were pretty profound: people said to me they had never realised their pain wasn’t a fixed thing. The commonplace examples I used to explain why the relationship between their pain and what was going on in the tissues was complicated and uncertain made sense – everyone had heard of phantom pain, everyone knew of people who played rugby and didn’t feel the pain until after the game, everyone had heard of hypnosis for pain, and people also recognised that when they felt bad, so their pain felt worse but when they were busy and happy doing things, their pain was less of a problem.

I’ve attached one of the original examples of “explaining pain” to this post.simple-explanation-of-biopsychosocial-model-of-chronic-pain

Now the interesting thing is that during the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, there was still a lot of talk about ways to abolish chronic pain. Loads of nerve cutting and burning, lots of surgical fusing and metalwork, heaps of pharmacological strategies were all the rage. People felt sure there was a way to stop all this chronic pain from appearing – and the answer was to begin early, before pain behaviour was established, before people got the wrong idea that their pain was intractable.  As a result the “yellow flags” or psychosocial risk factors for chronicity were developed by Kendall, Linton & Main (at least in NZ). This created a great flurry of ideas about how to “get people moving”, and “assess and manage yellow flags” which have subsequently flourished and become a veritable rainbow of flags.

Sadly, I haven’t seen any significant reduction in the rates of chronic pain, or rates of disability associated with chronic pain – although there do seem to be fewer people having five or six or more surgeries for their lower back pain. Instead, there’s a far greater emphasis on “explaining pain” from the beginning – a good thing, you’d think! But hold on… a recent conversation on Facebook suggests that the purpose of explaining pain may have been misconstrued, perhaps even over-interpreted…

When we begin to untangle some of the elements involved in our experience of pain, we can see that at least part of the “yuk factor” of pain lies in our appraisal or judgement of what the pain signifies. Let me give you an example – say you were walking down a dark alley and someone approached you with a loaded syringe. They stab you with the needle! What do you do? Well – probably you’d run for the nearest Emergency Department, and my bet is that you’d be well aware of the sting of the needle as it went in. Now think about the last time you got your flu jab – same stimulus, but your response is likely to be quite different. You’ll notice the sting of the needle, but it will quickly fade, and you’ll generally be calm and matter-of-fact about it. Your appraisal of the sting is quite different from what I guess you’d be thinking if you’d been stuck by a needle in a dark alleyway.

When people are asked to rate their pain intensity, at least some of the “score” given on a visual analogue scale can be attributed to the “distress” portion of the pain experience. The part that we can attribute to “what this experience signifies to me”. And this is the part that an explanation about pain can influence – and thus pain intensity ratings can and do drop once a helpful explanation is given. BUT it does not change the biological elements, nor the “attention grabbing” aspects of pain (well, maybe the latter can be a little bit changed because if we don’t think of the experience as representing a threat, we can more readily put it aside and focus on other more important things).

Why is this important? Well, in the enthusiasm to explain pain to everyone, I think sometimes the application can be a bit blunt. Sometimes it becomes an info-dump, without really taking the time to listen to what the person is most concerned about. It may not be that they think their pain represents harm – instead it may be that they’re not sleeping well, or that they’re finding it hard to concentrate at work, that they’re worried about the effect of pain on their ability to drive safely. Because quite apart from the “yuckiness” of pain, pain intensity also has an effect on cortical processing space. And an explanation of the mechanics doesn’t take away the poor sleep, the worries about work, or make it easy to drive home. And there are times when the person remains unconvinced by an explanation – or has “head knowledge” but it makes no difference to what they’re doing. From our own experience in life, we know there’s a big difference between reading about something – and actually doing it. Experiential learning trumps “head knowledge”

Do I think it’s important to explain pain neurobiology? Most of the time, yes. But we need to do this with care, compassion and sensitivity.  We need to think about why we’re doing it. And we need to recognise that for some people, explanation doesn’t change their pain intensity, it just changes their judgement about the meaning of their pain – and if their concerns are about the effect of pain on their life, then an explanation may not be the most useful thing. And most of all, we need to remember that reducing pain intensity is not really the most important outcome: doing more is probably more important.


Fordyce, Wilbert E., Fowler, Roy S., & Delateur, Barbara. (1968). An Application of Behavior Modification Technique to a Problem of Chronic Pain. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 6(1), 105-107. doi:

Okifuji, Akiko, & Turk, Dennis C. (2015). Behavioral and Cognitive–Behavioral Approaches to Treating Patients with Chronic Pain: Thinking Outside the Pill Box. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 33(3), 218-238. doi: 10.1007/s10942-015-0215-x


Being flexible – and how language can make you inflexible

One of the reasons humans seem to dominate our natural world is our flexibility. We don’t have the best eyesight, hearing, strength, speed, stamina or indeed any single attribute that means we’re King (or Queen) of the Jungle, but what we do have is the ability to adapt our environment to maximise the benefits to ourselves. Being flexible means we can find many different ways to achieve a certain goal. It means we don’t get stuck using the same solution when that solution doesn’t work. We try lots of different ways to achieve what we want.

Or are we?

There are plenty of times when I’ve had to firmly remind myself “the definition of insanity is to try doing the same thing again and again, hoping for a different result” I have no idea where that quote came from, but it seems applicable!


Thankfully, humans don’t have to experience adverse events directly to learn from them. We can learn from what other people tell us. Sometimes what others tell us is helpful – “watch out, walking on a sprain is gonna hurt!” Other times, when what someone tells us is true – but not applicable in our context – we can learn something that isn’t helpful. “Watch out, walking on anything painful is bad”. We can over-generalise or develop an arbitrary rule that is inflexible.

Now this happens all the time. We learn to avoid things that could potentially harm us on the basis of words – parents, teachers, friends, officials all tell us not to do things that could harm us so we avoid dangers without actually having to face them. When we learn this, the function or relationship between events and the way we relate to them gets influenced by what we’re told rather than the actual event itself. So, for example, we learn that when someone tells us off for doing something dumb, we re-experience what it feels like to be ashamed. We don’t want to experience shame, so we avoid situations that look like (function in the same way as) whatever it was we might have done to be told off.

Experiential avoidance and symbolic generalisations

Because we use language to depict these situations and because language can bring back all those associations between the event, object, emotions and experiences, we quickly learn to generalise these relationships – in RFT (relational frame theory) terms, we develop symbolic generalisations. What this means is that even though the actual object, event, emotion etc is not present, just describing something like those things can elicit the same response. And when we don’t like that experience we use every means possible to avoid experiencing it – so we avoid, try to forget, try not to think about it, keep busy, avoid talking about it, pretend it’s not there.

Through avoiding, we develop a whole lot of new associations – “doing this to avoid that” begins to relate “this” to whatever we’re avoiding. So, for example, keeping busy to avoid feeling sad can become a trigger for sad feelings. Sitting stiffly and avoiding bending can become a trigger for worrying about the potential for pain if we do bend.  So, doing things that help us avoid a  negative association can build into a whole set of behaviours that initially help us avoid but ultimately elicit the very things we were hoping not to experience. We become inflexible as the rules we use develop into constraints across a larger range of stimuli/experiences than we originally intended.

Deliberately trying to avoid an experience is tricky, there can be a whole lot of unintended consequences – and no more so than when the negative experience we’re trying to avoid is pain.

Rule-governed behaviour

The thing is, once we develop a rule we begin to follow the rules rather than trying it out ourselves. We place less emphasis on our own experience. Let’s use an example from pain. A person feels uncomfortable bending over while carrying a laundry basket. A kind therapist suggests that bending over isn’t safe, so the person should use “safe handling” techniques. While the therapist is present, the person uses the so-called safe techniques but all the while thinks “if I bend over incorrectly, it must be unsafe because these are “safe handling” techniques”. The person develops a rule. Now when the person begins to move something she uses the “safe handling” techniques but finds it really difficult at times because she has to lift children into the back of the car so they can get into the car seat. She feels worried that she’s not using the “safe handling” techniques rather than feeling what actually happens when she lifts the child.  She instead avoids lifting the child into the car and asks for help. Another person comes along, scoops the child up, plonks him into the car seat and the job’s done.

Rules are helpful, they save us time and harm. They’ve accelerated our rate of learning. BUT they come at the expense of flexibility. There are times when it’s useful not to use “safe handling” techniques – ever tried crawling under your house with a bag of tools? Or get a screaming toddler into the back seat of a two-door car?

Rules also begin to influence the associations we make between events – before the kind therapist advised the person that she should use “safe handling” techniques, the person never thought about how she got the children into the back seat of the car. Now she does. And every time she lifts something off the ground she also thinks about her back. And when she carries her groceries. And bends over to make the bed. And maybe even as she reaches overhead to get something from a cupboard. Or lifts the ironing board and opens it out.

How stuck is that? And how often have we as clinicians inadvertently generated rules that teach our clients to avoid a movement or experience?

Next week: pliance and tracking and what these mean…

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061


Getting stuck with language

In my last post I talked about the ways in which humans learn to relate abstract concepts and experiences together (symbolic relations). I pointed out that we learn to take another person’s point of view as part of developing empathy, and that by interacting with our world we become aware of our place (here) and someone or something else’s place (there). We also learn “me” and “you” (not me), along with near and far, now and then and myriad other abstract concepts that our language can allow us to understand. I suggested that the flexibility of symbolic relations and the relational framing we develop as a result of this skill can be both a help and a hindrance.

Yes, we can remember that a pot can be used to cook, but we also can’t unlearn that relationship. And in being unable to unlearn a relationship we can find it difficult to consider alternative relationships between that pot and whatever else we could do with it. The pot will always be recognised as “something to cook with” although it might also become associated with a receptacle for water, a paperweight, a hat, and even a weapon – but when we’re first asked “what do you use a pot for?” we’ll almost always come up with “cooking”.

In relational frame theory, we develop the ability to empathise or adopt the view of another person based on perspective taking and contextual cues. Contextual cues help us learn the concepts of “I” and “you”  by moving from “here” to “there” to take the place of the other person. If a pen is here, and paper is there, when I go to the paper, it becomes “here” and the pen is “there”. In technical terms this is called deictic framing and this is how kids learn that some concepts only make sense from a given point of view – and here and there are two of those concepts.

How does this relate to pain?

Well, to enjoy being with others, you need to have sufficient deictic framing skills to “stand in another person’s moccasins”, to empathise with their feelings and to be willing to feel those feelings (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 32). The thing is, we don’t always want to feel what another person is feeling, especially if we’re angry with them, or they’re feeling sad or some other negative emotional state. We learn to put our ability to empathise on hold to avoid experiencing those feelings. We do this with our own emotions and experiences we’d rather not have. And it’s an adaptive thing – we don’t want to be completely immersed in another person’s experience all the time because it’s difficult to know what our own feelings are vs those of another. We also don’t want to experience all the negative things around us – we learn from them, true, but we don’t really want to feel them all the time. So we develop a skill called “experiential avoidance”. That is, we learn not avoid experiences we’d rather not have.

Experiential avoidance is a cool skill, it’s definitely helpful – it is a process that we use to avoid personal injury, unpleasant people, or situations we don’t feel comfortable in. BUT there’s a catch. Because we relate concepts to one another, we associate words with experiences and memories as well. This is also useful – we can recall the lovely feeling of summer even in the middle of a grey old winter! But at the same time, our most potent learning is often associated with unpleasant experiences, and so for me the sound of a rumbling truck can bring back all the memories of my house being jolted and struck by an earthquake. And because that experience is associated with feeling out of control, helpless, worried and unsettled, those emotions come back along with the memory of the earthquakes. All brought about by hearing a truck rumbling past! And talking about the earthquakes, for some people, is enough to bring back all those same memories.

No wonder, then, for some of the people we work with, just seeing someone walking by is enough to generate the memories, emotions and concerns they experience when they try to walk on a painful foot.

Because of our tendency to avoid experiences that don’t feel good, we naturally try to avoid coming into contact with those stimuli that evoke those negative feelings etc. For some people this can mean avoiding watching images on TV – I remember avoiding watching the tsunami in Japan that happened just after the quakes here in Christchurch. To me the emotions were too raw, I felt too overwhelmed by my own situation to feel I could empathise with those people in Japan.  In some of our clients, just talking about their own painful body can be overwhelming, bringing back unpleasant emotions, memories and thoughts. And indeed for some people, just seeing others doing the things they believe will hurt if they did them is enough to provoke both a negative emotional response AND an flare-up of their pain.

So. Experiential avoidance can help us avoid feeling overwhelmed…but it also stops us experiencing what is happening right now. And I think you can see how it can stop us learning, and it can limit the range of things we’re happy to do – not because there’s any threat right here and now, but because we remember what has happened, and we make predictions of what might happen in the future. The things that might happen – might not happen too! And the things that have happened have already occurred… but our brains are good at joining the dots and being a bit over-protective.

What this means for us as clinicians (and for us as people, too), is that we might need to be gentle but firm, and help people be present here and now. And gradually show people how to be OK with experiencing things that remind us of unpleasant events in the pursuit of something far more useful – flexible responses in a world that is always changing.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061

Crispy crunchy

What is our goal in pain management?

One of the cool things about having worked in chronic pain management since the mid-1980’s is that I’ve seen a few things come and a few things go.  Some things remain, of course, and the things that seem most long-lived are debates about pain reduction vs living with pain. On one hand, there’s an enormous industry set up to help people reduce their pain experience through pharmacology, injection procedures, surgery, hands-on therapy, movement practice, and novel approaches like brain stimulation and even mirror therapy. On the other hand, there’s a smaller but equally well-established industry established to help people live with their pain, usually involving self-management of some sort and following a cognitive behavioural approach.

The two seem almost incompatible in many respects – why would someone choose to live with pain if their pain can be reduced or alleviated? What are the ethics of not offering pain reduction if it’s available? Why focus on hard work learning to live within the constraints of pain if there’s a way to get rid of it?

I wonder if it’s time to look at the underlying reasons for offering pain management. What is the goal? (BTW occasionally I might write “our” goal – and I do this deliberately because I think there are assumptions made by people who live with pain, and treatment providers, that may not always be explicit).

Why do we offer pain treatments?

Looking beneath the “oh but it’s a good way to earn a living” economic argument, I think some of the reasons we offer pain treatment is a sense of moral concern at seeing people in distress. As a society we’ve cast pain as a “thing” that needs to be fixed, a wrong that must be righted. We have cast ill health and disease as something that should not exist, and we use words like “war” or “battle” when we discuss treatments.  The Hippocratic Oath makes it clear that physicians “must not play at God” yet defining the limits of treatment is a challenge our society has yet to fully resolve.

At the same time as we view pain as an ill that must be removed, underneath the moral argument are a few other reasons – we think it’s wrong to allow someone to suffer. We think it’s wrong that people might not be able to do as they wish. We respect individual agency, the freedom to engage in life activities, to express the self, to participate in life fully and completely. And we think it’s important that, when disease or illness strikes, we offer something to reduce the restrictions imposed on individuals.

What’s wrong with these reasons for offering treatment?

Well, superficially and in the main, nothing. As humans we do have a sense of compassion, the desire to altruistically help others. Whether this is because, as a species, we hope someone will help us if we’re in the same situation, or whether we do it because of some other less selfish reason, I’m not sure. But there are problems with this way of viewing pain as an inevitably negative harmful experience. And I think it has to do with conflating (fusing together) the concepts of pain and suffering.

We offer people some treatments create suffering: I’ve just quickly skimmed a recent paper on using long-acting opioids for chronic noncancer pain where it was found that “prescription of long-acting opioids for chronic noncancer pain, compared with anticonvulsants or cyclic antidepressants, was associated with a significantly increased risk of all-cause mortality, including deaths from causes other than overdose, with a modest absolute risk difference” (Ray, Chung, Murray, Hall & Stein, 2016).

Given the poor response to pharmacological approaches experienced by so many people living with chronic pain (see Turk, Wilson & Cahana, 2011), not to mention “failed” surgery – the rates of persistent postsurgical chronic pain range from 12% (inguinal hernia) to 52% for thoracotomy (Reddi & Curran, 2014) – it surprises me that we often don’t discuss what to do (and when) if our treatments produce pain, or make it worse.

Nonmedical treatments can also be lumped in with these medical approaches – how many years of back-cracking, pulling, pushing, prodding, needling and exercising do people living with pain go through before someone pulls the plug and says “how about learning to live with your pain?”

What’s my goal in pain management?

When I see someone who is experiencing pain, whether it’s persistent or acute, my goal is for them to be able to respond to the demands of their situation with flexibility, and to live a life in which their values can be expressed.

That means no recipe for treatment, because each person is likely to have a whole bunch of different demands, things they’re avoiding, things that limit what they’re OK with doing. Values also differ enormously between people – we might all choose to work, but the reasons for working (and the kind of work we do) is informed by what we think is important. I’m intrigued by new learning, new information, and complexity. Others might be focused on ensuring their family is secure. Others still might be working to have a great social network. All of these values are relevant and  important.

Many of our treatments actually limit how flexibly people can respond to their situation – think of “safe” lifting techniques! And sometimes even the time people take away from living their normal life means their values are not able to be expressed. The thoughts and beliefs instilled by us as treatment providers (and from within our discourse about pain treatment) may also limit flexibility – think about “pain education” where we’ve inadvertently led people to believe that their pain “should” reduce because “know they know about neuroscience”.

At some point in the trajectory of a chronic pain problem, the person experiencing pain might need to ask themselves “Is what I’m doing helping me get closer to what I value, or is it getting in the way of this?” As clinicians we might need to stop for a minute, think of this part of the Hippocratic Oath “I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick”  and begin to talk about overall wellbeing rather than just treating “the problem”.

To alleviate suffering we may not need to eliminate pain – we may instead need to think about how we can help people move in the direction of their values


Reddi, D. and N. Curran, Chronic pain after surgery: pathophysiology, risk factors and prevention. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 2014. 90(1062): p. 222-7

Ray, W. A., Chung, C. P., Murray, K. T., Hall, K., & Stein, C. M. (2016). Prescription of long-acting opioids and mortality in patients with chronic noncancer pain. JAMA, 315(22), 2415-2423.

Turk, D. C., Wilson, H. D., & Cahana, A. (2011). Pain 2: Treatment of chronic non-cancer pain. The Lancet, 377(9784), 2226-2235. doi:10.111/j.1468-1331.2010.02999.x


The positive power of what we say during treatment

Expectations form one of the important predictors of response to treatment, especially in the case of treatments for pain. A person’s belief or expectation that a treatment will reduce their pain is thought to be part of the response to placebo – and indeed, part of the response to almost any treatment.  Much of the research into expectancies has been carried out in experimental models where healthy people are given a painful stimulus, then provided with some sort of treatment along with a verbal (or written) instruction that is thought to generate a positive belief in the effectiveness of that treatment. The people we see in a clinical setting, however, are in quite a different setting – they experience pain sufficiently disruptive to their sense of well-being that they’ve sought treatment, they may not know what the pain problem is, they may have other health conditions affecting their well-being, and for some, their pain may be chronic or persistent. Do expectations have a clinically-relevant effect on their pain?

Luckily for us, a recent meta-analysis published in Pain (Peerdeman, van Laarhoven, Keij, Vase, Rovers, Peters & Evers, 2016) means the hard work of crunching through the published research has been completed for us! And given 15 955 studies were retrieved in the initial pass through the databases, we can be very relieved indeed (although only 30 met the inclusion criteria…).

What are expectations?

Before I swing into the results, it’s important to take a look at what expectations are and how they might relate to outcomes. According to Kirsch (1995) response expectancies are expectancies of the occurrence of nonvolitional responses (ie responses we’re not aware we make) as a result of certain behaviours, or specific stimuli.  Kirsch points out that nonvolitional responses act as reinforcement for voluntary behaviour, so that by experiencing a nonvolitional response such as relief, joy, reduced anxiety and so on, people are likely to engage in  behaviours associated with that experience again. For example, if someone is feeling worried about their low back pain, just by having a treatment they expect will help and subsequently feeling relieved, they’re likely to return for that treatment again.

How are expectations created?

Some expectations are generated within a culture – we expect, for example, to see a health professional to relieve our ill health. In general, simply by seeing a health profession, in our developed culture, we expect to feel relieved – maybe that someone knows what is going on, can give a name to what we’re experiencing, can take control and give direction to whatever should happen next. This is one reason we might no longer feel that toothache as soon as we step into the Dentist’s waiting room!

Peerdeman and colleagues outline three main interventions known to enhance positive expectations for treatment: verbal suggestion “You’ll feel so much better after I do this…”; conditioning “If I give you this treatment and reduce the painful stimulation I’ve been giving you, when you next receive this treatment you’ll have learned to experience relief” (not that you’d actually SAY this to anyone!); and mental imagery “Imagine all the wonderful things you’ll be able to once this treatment is over”.

I think you’d agree that both verbal suggestion and mental imagery are processes commonly used in our clinics, and probably conditioning occurs without us even being aware that we’re doing this.

How well does it work for people with acute pain?

As I mentioned above, expectations are used in experimental designs where healthy people are poked and zapped to elicit pain, and hopefully our clinical population are not being deliberately poked and zapped! But in clinical samples, thanks to the review by Peerdeman and co, we can see that there are quite some impressive effect sizes from all three forms of expectancy induction – g =  0.67 (95% CI 0.49-0.86). That means a good deal  of support from the pooled results of 27 studies to suggest that intentionally creating the expectation that pain will reduce actually does reduce pain!

And now for chronic pain

Ahhh, well…. here the results are not so good, as we’d expect. Small effects were found on chronic pain, which is not really unexpected – chronic pain has been around longer than acute pain, so multiple reinforcement pathways have developed, along with pervasive and ongoing experiences of failed treatments where either neutral or negative effects have been experienced.

What does this mean for us as clinicians?

Probably it means that we can give people who are about to undergo a painful procedure (finger pricking for diabetes, dressing changes for ulcers, getting a flu jab) a positive expectation that they’ll feel better once it’s over because the strongest effect was obtained for people undergoing a painful procedure who received a positive verbal suggestion that the procedure would help.

Chronic pain? Not quite so wonderful – but from this study I think we should learn that expectations are a powerful force in our treatments, both individually with the person sitting in front of us, but also socioculturally – we have an expectation that treatments will help, and that’s not something to sniff at. Perhaps our next steps are to learn how to generate this without inducing reliance or dependence on US, and on helping the person recognise that they have generated this themselves. Now that’s power to the people!


Kirsch, I. (1985). Response expectancy as a determinant of experience and behavior. American Psychologist, 40(11), 1189.

Peerdeman, K. J., van Laarhoven, A. I. M., Keij, S. M., Vase, L., Rovers, M. M., Peters, M. L., & Evers, A. W. M. (2016). Relieving patients’ pain with expectation interventions: A meta-analysis. Pain, 157(6), 1179-1191.


How do help someone change their beliefs about pain?

This post is my little attempt to educate clinicians! Some of you will know I really don’t like the term “pain education” or “educating” people. The reason doesn’t go back as far as the original definition of “educate” which is, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary “educate (v.) Look up educate at Dictionary.commid-15c., “bring up (children), to train,” from Latin educatus, past participle of educare “bring up, rear, educate” (source also of Italian educare, Spanish educar, French éduquer), which is a frequentative of or otherwise related to educere “bring out, lead forth,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + ducere “to lead” (see duke (n.)). Meaning “provide schooling” is first attested 1580s. Related: Educated; educating.”In other words, educate means to “bring out, lead forth”.

Pain education is a buzz word right now. It’s not a new concept, but it certainly has been hitting the consciousness of a whole bunch of people who previously would have thought of pain either in terms of “oh it’s something to do with the tissues” or “if I can’t find the cause, it must be something in the person’s head”.  Learning about pain and the neurobiology of pain is an excellent thing, a wonderful first step for clinicians who may have missed out on learning this stuff in undergraduate training, and I’m not disrespectful of the need to know more. What I’m a lot uneasy about is thinking of pain education as a primary means for pain reduction, particularly when it’s carried out as “pain ed” where information is dumped without finesse.

We know that simply giving people information in order to change behaviour does not work unless the person is at the “preparation” stage of making a change.  In fact, mass media campaigns about back pain education haven’t been altogether successful despite an early study in Australia showing some really positive gains (Buchbinder, Jolley & Wyatt, 2001; Gross, Deshapnde, Werner, Reneman, Miciak & Buchbinder, 2012). Despite this, there have been numerous studies showing that there are positive gains if people experiencing pain are given good information about pain neurobiology (Louw, Diener, Butler & Puentedura, 2011; Louw, Diener, Butler & Puentedura, 2013; Louw, Puentedura & Mintkin, 2012; Moseley, Nicholas & Hodges, 2004). So… why am I so antsy about pain “education”?

Well, mainly because I think we’re often not trained to do “education” very well. We’re clinicians, we’ve spent years learning about our profession, but on the whole we haven’t been taught to teach – or even, truth to tell, how to help other people change their minds! With the exception of my psychology colleagues, I think most of us learned about what to tell people, rather than how to lead or guide people. And none of us like to be told what to do!

So… how do I go about helping someone think differently about their pain?

The first thing is, I’m not “educating”. The end result of “education” can simply be “Oh goody now I can get on with the real work”, “Yay! I’ve told them what to think, and now if they don’t get it, it’s their problem.” I think if we can change our language we might begin to approach this part of our therapy a little differently. If we aim to help people understand, think differently, reconceptualise or make sense of their experience we can begin to use a whole range of approaches to get to that end result. If we “educate” we might only think about the process of giving information.

How else can we help people think differently about their pain? I think it’s a process of helping people discover for themselves because we know this is a more successful process for learning than if we just give the answers. Think about kids – if we tell a kid how to ride a bike, they probably won’t be very good at riding even though they might know all about centrifugal forces, and inertia, and coordination and how a bike is made.  The reason we want to give information is that it might help give a kid more knowledge about what to think about when they’re riding – but it won’t change that they  need to hop on the bike to learn to ride it. Similarly, in helping people who are experiencing pain, we want people to be able to do things again – and while knowing more about pain might help reduce the fear from not knowing, but in the end people have to DO something differently to truly enact change.

How do I help someone discover for themselves? I begin by asking what people understand about their pain. I ask them what goes through their mind when they experience pain, what they think is going on and how they feel. I draw a diagram like the one below, and begin to fill in the gaps.

I will ask then what they think is going on – their theory – and add that into the diagram. I might ask what do they think that means for them? What do they think they need to do now? What would it mean if that was true? What would it mean if it wasn’t true? What would it say about them if it wasn’t true? How would they know if it was true?

I might ask about other experiences in the body, other sensations, things the person might not notice – maybe by saying “what do you notice in your shoulders? your breathing? your hands?” and so on. And then what these things mean as well. I’m primarily seeking information on the presence of sympathetic arousal (“stress response”) because this often presents at the same time as people experience pain – pain can be anxiety-provoking, so it’s a common reaction but often not noticed.

I include external factors – like what other people might have said, their response to the person’s experience – like advice, warnings, or even behaviours. When I think of other people I often separate “healthcare professionals”, “family”, and “work”, and sometimes include recent media campaigns that may have influenced how the person interprets his or her pain.

The resultant diagram can look a lot like this – but with the person’s own comments and phrases contained within each circle:

20160510_110132The idea behind listening and completing a diagram like this is to help me as a clinician to really hear what the person has been experiencing. We know all these aspects affect the experience of pain, but so often we go in with our own ideas about the problem, and fail to put together this complex web of interactions that help us answer the two questions:

  • Why is this person coming to see me in this way at this time?
  • What can be done to reduce both distress and disability?

My intention at the time I work through this diagram isn’t to change anything. It’s simply to listen and reflect what I’ve heard and to assemble that information in a way that makes some sense. It’s only after I’ve done this that I feel OK to begin to consider intervention/treatment priorities. For some people there is no point in trying to change what they believe – anything I say is likely to be countered by all these other things the person is hearing from everyone else. So instead I might begin by exploring movements and how these might be influencing what the person is focusing on. Or I might think about the impact or effect of avoiding things and talk through “what if” pain was less of a problem.

Sometimes I will address the thoughts and beliefs, basing my suggestions on looking at either the evidence that the belief is true – or the effect of that belief on the person’s experience. We might work out some small behavioural tests to see what happens if the person tries something out – maybe trying a movement they’ve avoided, just to see if their memory of how it was is accurate, or as bad as they recall.

When, and only when, the person indicates they want to know more about their pain, or they’ve found that their assumptions about pain don’t work out (because we’ve established some discrepancies between what the person thinks they’ve been told and their own experiences), then I can begin to go down the pain neurobiology education route – but it’s embedded in two important things:

  1. That they’ve indicated a need and readiness to know more, and
  2. I’ve already listened and tried to understand where they’re coming from

To my mind, doing anything before these two conditions are met is bound to be met with resistance, and risks being either ignored or rejected.


To summarise: giving information alone is not enough (usually) to help someone change their understanding of their own pain.

Some people don’t need to be given the whole pain education thing – what they want is to be heard and understood.

People learn more by doing, and if we want to help people do more (ie be less disabled and distressed by their pain) then we not only need them to know more, we need to help them DO more.

That means a lot less talking and a lot more doing.

Telling is less helpful than exploring together.


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