Clinical reasoning

Pacing, pacing, pacing – good, bad, or…?


There’s nothing that pain peeps seem to like more than a good dispute over whether something is good, or not so good for treatment. Pacing is a perennial topic for this kind of vexed discussion. Advocates say “But look at what it does for me! I can do more without getting my pain out of control!” Those not quite as convinced say “But look at how little you’re doing, and you keep letting pain get in the way of what you really want to do!”

Defining and measuring pacing is just as vexed as deciding whether it’s a good thing or not. Pacing isn’t well-defined and there are several definitions to hand. The paper I’m discussing today identifies five themes of pacing, and based this on Delphi technique followed by a psychometric study to ensure the items make sense. The three aspects of pacing are: activity adjustment, activity consistency, activity progression, activity planning and activity acceptance.

Activity adjustment is about adjusting how we go about doing things – approaches like breaking a task down, using rest breaks, and alternating activities.

Activity consistency is about undertaking a consistent amount of activity each day – the “do no more on good days, do no less on bad” approach.

Activity progression refers to gradually increasing activities that have been avoided in the past, as well as gradually increasing the time spent on each task.

Activity planning involves setting activity levels, setting time limits to avoid “over-doing”, and setting meaningful goals.

Finally, activity acceptance is about accepting what can be done, and what can’t, setting realistic goals, adapting targets, and being able to say no to some activities.

In terms of covering the scope of “activity pacing”, I think these five factors look pretty good – capturing both the lay sense of pacing, as well as some of the ideas about consistency and progression.

On to the study itself, conducted by Deborah Antcliffe, Malcolm Campbell, Steve Woby and Philip Keeley from Manchester and Huddersfield.  Participants in this study were attending physiotherapy through the NHS (yay for socialised healthcare! – Let’s keep that way, shall we?!), and had diagnoses of chronic low back pain, chronic widespread pain, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.  They completed the questionnaire either while on a waiting list, or after completing treatment, as a way to generalise findings – so this isn’t a measure of change (at least, not at this point).

Along with the APQ (the Activity Pacing Questionnaire – original name huh?!), participants completed a numeric rating scale, the Chalder Fatigue Questionnaire, Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale, Pain Anxiety Symptoms Scale, and the Short-Form 12.  Some lovely number crunching was used – hierarchicial (sequential) multiple regression models with five separate multiple regression models of the symptoms of current pain, physical fatigue, depression, avoidance and physical functioning.

One of the confusing problems with  measuring pacing is that people may vary their use of different forms of pacing, depending on their symptoms at the time. So in this analysis, factors like pain and fatigue could be a dependent variable (ie I use pacing techniques and feel less fatigued and I’m in less pain), or they could be a confounding variable (ie I feel sore and tired, so I use these techniques).  Needless to say, the statistical analysis is complex and I don’t have a hope of explaining it!

The results, however, are very intriguing. 257 people completed the questionnaires in full, from an overall number of 311 participants. About half had completed their physiotherapy, while the other half had yet to start (ie waiting list). As usual, more people with low back pain than other conditions, and 2/3 were female. On first pass through the data, to establish correlations for inclusion in the regression  models (did your eyes just glaze over?!), the findings showed activity adjustment was associated with higher levels of current pain, depression, and avoidance, and lower levels of physical function. Activity consistency was associated with lower levels of physical fatigue, depression, and avoidance. and higher levels of physical function. Activity progression was associated with higher levels of current pain. Activity planning was significantly associated with lower levels of physical fatigue, and activity acceptance was associated with higher levels of current pain and avoidance.

Then things changed. As these researchers began adjusting for other independent variables, the patterns changed – Activity adjustment was significantly associated with higher levels of depression and avoidance and lower levels of physical function as before, but after adjustment, the association with pain was no longer significant; instead, it was significantly related to higher levels of physical fatigue. Activity consistency remained significantly associated with lower levels of physical fatigue, depression, and avoidance, and higher levels of physical function, but became significantly associated with lower levels of current pain. There were now no significant partial correlations between activity progression and any of the symptoms, whereas activity planning retained its significant association with lower levels of physical fatigue. Activity acceptance lost its significant association with current pain but retained its significant association with higher levels of avoidance.

Ok, Ok, what does that all mean? Firstly – engrave this on your forehead “Correlation does not mean causation”! What seems to be the case is that different themes or forms of pacing are associated with different symptoms. The items associated with adjusting or limiting activities were generally associated with more symptoms. So the more pain and fatigue a person experiences, it seems the more likely it is for them to choose to limit or adjust how much they do. Pacing themes involving consistency and planning were associated with improved symptoms. Using path analysis, the authors identify that activity adjustment and activity consistency play the most important parts in the relationship  between pacing and symptoms.

The take-home messages from this study are these:

  • We can’t define pacing as a unidimensional process – it seems clear to me that different people describe pacing in different ways, and that this messy definitional complexity makes current studies into the use of pacing rather challenging.
  • It seems that avoiding activities, reducing activities in response to pain or fatigue – the idea of an “envelope” of time/energy that needs to be managed to get through the day – is associated with more severe symptoms. Whether people choose this approach only when their symptoms are severe, and revert to activity adjustment and consistency when in less discomfort is not clear (correlation does not equal causation!)
  • Planning activities seems to be associated with some improved symptoms and the authors suggest that planning activities in advance might help people avoid a “boom and bust” scenario. giving a better shape to the day, a greater sense of control and achievement. Then again, it could be that when people feel better, they’re more able to plan their day, and again this study doesn’t help us much.
  • Activity progression, where the overall amount of activity gradually increases over time, wasn’t associated with either more or less pain and fatigue. I think it’s time we had a good look at whether progression helps people – or doesn’t. Rehabilitation philosophy suggests that it “should” – but do we know?
  • And finally, activity consistency was the aspect of pacing that was associated with improved symptoms – and this is certainly something I’ve found true in my own pain management.

The authors maintain that describing pacing as a multi-faceted construct is the only way forward – clearly we’re not going to agree that “pacing is X” when five different forms of pacing were derived from the Delphi study on which the APQ is based. It seems to me that we could benefit from applying this kind of nuanced definition in more areas than just pacing in pain management!

Antcliff, D., Campbell, M., Woby, S., & Keeley, P. (2017). Activity pacing is associated with better and worse symptoms for patients with long-term conditions. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 33(3), 205-214. doi:10.1097/ajp.0000000000000401

Returning to work, good or bad?- a very complex question


One of the main reasons returning to work is a priority in many healthcare systems is simply that compensation and off-work benefits is the most costly portion of the bill for people with ill health. This naturally leads to a strong emphasis in most rehabilitation, especially musculoskeletal rehabilitation in New Zealand, to help people return to work as soon as practicable. At times the process can be brutal. In my own case, after 18 months of working part-time due to post-concussion symptoms after a “mild” traumatic brain injury, I had the hard word put on me to get back to my job or I’d be sent to work back on the wards (after having spent most of my clinical career working in pain management). Not quite the supportive approach I needed when I was having to sleep for at least an hour every afternoon!

I can well remember the pressure of trying to maintain my work output to the satisfaction of my manager, keep my home responsibilities going (I had teenaged children at the time), manage all the paperwork required just to be part of a rehabilitation system, maintain my relationship which was strained just because I had no energy to play or have fun the way I used to. Oh and I had weekly rehabilitation appointments to top it all off! Not easy to keep your cool when everything seems balanced on a knife-edge.

Yet, despite the challenges of going back to work, most accounts of recovery from musculoskeletal pain find that returning to work forms a crucial element in maintaining long-term gains. The study that sparked this post is a good example: Michael Sullivan and colleagues, set in Montreal, Canada, found that returning to work helps to maintain treatment gains in people with whiplash injury. Of the 110 people enrolled in this study, 73 participants returned to work by the end of one year, while the remaining 37 remained off work. Using regression analysis, the researchers found that the relationship  between return to work and maintaining treatment goals remained significant even when confounds such as pain severity, reduced range of movement, depression and thinking the worst (catastrophising) were controlled. What this means is that something about those who returned to work seemed to help them achieve this, and it wasn’t the usual suspects of low mood or that the injury was more severe. What is even more striking is that those who didn’t return to work actually reported worsening symptoms.

There are plenty of arguments against this finding: could it be that those who didn’t return to work just didn’t respond as well to the treatment in the first place? Well – the authors argue no, because they controlled for the things that should have responded to treatment (eg range of movement, mood). Participants in the study returned to work 2 months on average after completing their treatment, and final measurement was on average 10 months later suggesting that it was something to do with being at work that made a difference.

In their discussion, the authors suggest that perhaps those who didn’t return to work were overall less physically active than those who did, compromising their recovery potential. They also note that being out of work is known to be associated with poorer mental health, so perhaps that explains the difference at the end of the trial period. In addition, they point out that perhaps ongoing stress related to having to handle disability claims processes, perhaps even the financial stress of being unable to work might have been influential.

It’s this last point that I think is interesting. There is no doubt that people who encounter the disability systems that fund their treatment and replace their income feel like their autonomy and independence has gone. They feel their world is being manipulated at the whim of case managers, treatment providers, assessing doctors, and even their family.  A sense of injustice can be detrimental to outcomes for people with whiplash, as Sullivan and colleagues showed some years ago (Sullivan, Thibault, Simmonds, Milioto et al 2009), and we know also that social judgements made about people who experience persistent pain are often negative and exert an influence on the experience of pain itself (Bliss, 2016; Schneider et al, 2016).

Working is really important to people – even in a job you don’t especially enjoy, there are important reasons you keep going (even if it’s only for the money! Money in the hand means food for you and yours, power for the lighting and heating, and even a little bit left over for jam on your bread!). In addition to the money, the most commonly asked question when you’re introduced to someone is “and what do you do for a job?” It’s a way of categorising a person, as much as we hate that idea. Work gives us social contact, routine, purpose and allows us a way to demonstrate competence. Without the anchor of working, many people who live with persistent pain feel the burden of social judgement “who are you?”, of ongoing bureaucracy (filling in paperwork), of repeated assessments to justify not being at work, of constantly being asked to attend appointments, of never feeling like time is their own. Balancing the demands of a system that judges you negatively because you are “unfit” against the demands of family and your own needs is an incredibly difficult process – but then again, so is the process of returning to a job where you fear you’ll fail and experience That Pain Again, and where, if you fail, you could lose that job entirely.

I don’t have an answer to how we can make this process easier. I do know that early return to work can be positive if handled well – but handled poorly, can be an extremely unpleasant and stressful process. Vocational rehabilitation providers need to understand both acute and persistent pain. They also need to carefully assess the psychosocial aspects of a job, not just the biomechanical demands. And someone needs to represent the needs of the person living with persistent pain and help them balance these demands carefully.

 

Bliss, Tim VP, et al. (2016)”Synaptic plasticity in the anterior cingulate cortex in acute and chronic pain.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience .

De Ruddere, Lies, et al. (2016)”Patients are socially excluded when their pain has no medical explanation.” The Journal of Pain 17.9 : 1028-1035.

McParland, J. L., & Eccleston, C. (2013). “It’s not fair”: Social justice appraisals in the context of chronic pain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(6), 484-489.

Schneider, Peggy, et al. “Adolescent social rejection alters pain processing in a CB1 receptor dependent manner.” European Neuropsychopharmacology 26.7 (2016): 1201-1212.

Sullivan, M. J., Thibault, P., Simmonds, M. J., Milioto, M., Cantin, A. P., Velly, A. M., . . . Velly, A. M. (2009). Pain, perceived injustice and the persistence of post-traumatic stress symptoms during the course of rehabilitation for whiplash injuries. Pain, 145(3), 325-331.

Sullivan, M., Adams, H., Thibault, P., Moore, E., Carriere, J. S., & Larivière, C. (2017). Return to work helps maintain treatment gains in the rehabilitation of whiplash injury. Pain, 158(5), 980-987. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000871

The “Subjective” – and really hearing


I’m not a physiotherapist. This means I don’t follow the SOAP format because it doesn’t suit me. The first letter is intended to represent “subjective” – and when I look up the dictionary meaning of subjective and compare it with the way “subjective” notes are thought about, I think we have a problem, Houston.

Subjective is meant to mean “based on personal feelings” or more generally “what the person says”. In the case of our experience of pain, we only have our personal feelings to go on. That is, we can’t use an image or X-ray or fMRI or blood test to decide whether someone is or isn’t experiencing pain.

Now the reason I don’t like the term “subjective” when it’s part of a clinical examination is that so often we contrast this section with so-called “objective” findings.  Objective is meant to mean “not influenced by personal feelings”, and is intended to represent “facts” or “the truth”. Problem is… how we determine truth.

Let’s think about how the information we obtain fits with these two ideals, and how we use it.

Subjective information is all the things we ask a person about – their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, understanding and their own experience. Subjective information might even include the person’s report of what they can and can’t do, how they feel about this and what their goals are.

Objective information, on the other hand, is all the things we as clinicians observe and measure. Now here’s my problem. By calling this information “objective” we’re indicating that we as clinicians hold a less-than-subjective view of what we see. Now is that true? Let’s think about the tests we use (reliability, validity anyone?). Think about the choices we make when selecting those tests (personal bias, training variability, clinical model…). Think about the performance variables on the day we do the testing (time of day, equipment and instruction variability, observational awareness, distractions, recording – oh and interpretation).

Now think about how that information is used. What value is placed on the objective information? It’s like a record of what actually was at the time. If you don’t believe me, take a look at what’s reported in medico-legal reporting – and what gets taken notice of. The subjective information is often either overlooked – or used to justify that the client is wrong, and what they can actually do is contained in the “objective”.

Given the predictive validity of a person’s expectations, beliefs and understanding on their pain and disability over time, I think the label “subjective” needs an overhaul. I think it’s far more accurate to call this “Personal experience”, or to remove the two labels completely and call it “assessment”. Let’s not value our own world view over that of the people we are listening to.

How do we really hear what someone’s saying? Well, that’s a hard one but I think it begins with an attitude. That attitude is one of curiosity. You see, I don’t believe that people deliberately make dumb decisions. I think people make the best decisions they can, given the information they have at the time. The choices a person makes are usually based on anticipating the results and believing that this option will work out, at least once. So, for example, if someone finds that bending forwards hurts – doesn’t it make sense not to bend over if you’re worried that (a) it’s going to hurt and (b) something dire is happening to make it hurt? In the short term, at least, it does make sense – but over time, the results are less useful.

Our job, as clinicians, is to find out the basis for this behaviour, and to help the person consider some alternatives. I think one of the best ways to do this is to use guided discovery, or Socratic questioning to help both me and the client work out why they’ve ended up doing something that isn’t working out so well now, in the long term. I recorded a video for the Facebook group Trust Me, I’m a Physiotherapist (go here for the video) where I talk about Socratic questioning and Motivational Interviewing – the idea is to really respect the person’s own experience, and to guide him or her to discover something about that experience that perhaps they hadn’t noticed before. To shed a little light on an assumption, or to check out the experience in light of new knowledge.

Learning Socratic questioning can be tricky at first (Waltman, Hall, McFarr, Beck & Creed, 2017). We’re not usually trained to ask questions unless we already know the answer and where we’re going with it. We’re also used to telling people things rather than guiding them to discover for themselves. Video recording can be a useful approach (see Gonsalvez, Brockman & Hill, 2016) for more information on two techniques. It’s one of the most powerful ways to learn about what you’re actually doing in-session (and it’s a bit ewwww at first too!).

We also really need to watch that we’re not guiding the person to discover what we THINK is going on, rather than being prepared to be led by the client as, together, we make sense of their experience. It does take a little time, and it does mean we go at the pace of the person – and we have to work hard at reflecting back what it is we hear.

So, “subjective” information needs, I think, to be valued far more highly than it is. It needs to be integrated into our clinical reasoning – what the person says and what we discover together should influence how we work in therapy. And we might need to place a little less reliance on “objective” information, because it’s filtered through our own perspective (and other people may take it more seriously than they should).

 

Gonsalvez, C. J., Brockman, R., & Hill, H. R. (2016). Video feedback in CBT supervision: review and illustration of two specific techniques. Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 9.
Kazantzis, N., Fairburn, C. G., Padesky, C. A., Reinecke, M., & Teesson, M. (2014). Unresolved issues regarding the research and practice of cognitive behavior therapy: The case of guided discovery using Socratic questioning. Behaviour Change, 31(01), 1-17.
Waltman, S., Hall, B. C., McFarr, L. M., Beck, A. T., & Creed, T. A. (2017). In-Session Stuck Points and Pitfalls of Community Clinicians Learning CBT: Qualitative Investigation. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 24(2), 256-267.

Mulling over the pain management vs pain reduction divide


I’ve worked in persistent pain management for most of my career. This means I am biased towards pain management. At times this creates tension when I begin talking to clinicians who work in acute or subacute musculoskeletal pain, because they wonder whether what I talk about is relevant to them. After all, why would someone need to know about ongoing management when hopefully their pain will completely go?

I have sympathy for this position – for many people, a bout of tendonosis, or a strained muscle or even radicular pain can ebb away, leaving the person feeling as good as new. While it might take a few months for these pain problems to settle, in many instances there’s not too much need for long-term changes in how the person lives their life.

On the other hand, there are many, many people who either don’t have simple musculoskeletal problems (ie they’re complicated by other health conditions, or they have concurrent issues that make dealing with pain a bit of a challenge), or they have conditions that simply do not resolve. Good examples of these include osteoarthritis (hip, knee, shoulder, thumbs, fingers) and grumbly old lower back pain, or peripheral neuropathy (diabetic or otherwise). In these cases the potential for pain to carry on is very present, and I sometimes wonder how well we are set up to help them.

Let’s take the case of osteoarthritis. Because our overall population is aging, and because of, perhaps, obesity and inactivity, osteoarthritis of the knee is becoming a problem. People can develop OA knee early in their life after sustaining trauma to the knee (those rugby tackles, falling off motorcycles, falling off horses, running injuries), or later in life as they age – so OA knee is a problem of middle to later age. People living with knee OA describe being concerned about pain, especially pain that goes on after they’ve stopped activities; they’re worried about walking, bending and maintaining independence – and are kinda pessimistic about the future thinking that  “in 10 years their health would be worse and their arthritis would be a major problem” (Burks, 2002).

To someone living with osteoarthritis, especially knee osteoarthritis, it can seem that there is only one solution: get a knee replacement. People are told that knee replacements are a good thing, but also warned that knee replacements shouldn’t be done “too soon”, leaving them feeling a bit stranded (Demierre, Castelao & Piot-Ziegler, 2011). Conversations about osteoarthritis are not prioritised in healthcare consultations – in part because people with knee osteoarthritis believe that knee pain is “just part of normal aging”, that there’s little to be done about it, and medications are thought to be unpleasant and not especially helpful (Jinks, Ong & Richardson, 2007).

I wonder how many healthcare professionals feel the same as the participants in the studies I’ve cited above. Do we think that knee OA is just something to “live with” because the problem is just part of old age, there’s an eventual solution, and meanwhile there’s not a lot we can do about it?

When I think about our approach to managing the pain of osteoarthritis, I also wonder about our approach to other pains that don’t settle the way we think they should. Is part of our reluctance to talk about pain that persists because we don’t feel we know enough to help? Or that we feel we’ve failed? Or that it’s just part of life and people should just get on with it? Is it about our feelings of powerlessness?

In the flush of enthusiasm for explaining the mechanisms of pain neurobiology, have we become somewhat insensitive to what it feels like to be on the receiving end when the “education” doesn’t reduce pain? And what do we do when our efforts to reduce pain fail to produce the kind of results we hope for? And the critical point, when do we begin talking about adapting to living well alongside pain?

What does a conversation about learning to adapt to pain look like – or do we just quietly let the person stop coming to see us once we establish their pain isn’t subsiding? I rather fancy it might be the latter.

Here’s a couple of thoughts about how we might broach the subject of learning to live with persistent pain rather than focusing exclusively on reducing pain:

  • “What would you be doing if pain was less of a problem?” My old standby because in talking about this I can begin to see underlying values and valued activities that I can help the person look at starting, albeit maybe doing them differently.
  • “What do you think are the chances of this pain completely going away?” Some might say this is about expectancy and I’m setting up a “nocebic” effect, but I argue that understanding the person’s own perspective is helpful. And sometimes, when a person has persistent pain and a diagnosis like osteoarthritis, their appraisal is less about catastrophising and more about holding a realistic view about their own body. It’s not about the appraisal – it’s about what we do about this. And we can use this perspective to built confidence and increase the importance of learning coping strategies.
  • “If I could show you some ways to deal with pain fluctuations, would you be interested in learning more?” All episodes of pain that persists will have times when pain is more intense than others – flare-ups are a normal part of recovering from, and living with persistent pain. Everyone needs to know some ways of going with, being flexible about or coping with flare-ups. I teach people not to focus exclusively on reducing pain during these flare-up periods. This is because even during rehabilitation we don’t want to use pain as a guide (it can be a cruel task-master). We know that rehabilitation can increase (temporarily) pain while the body habituates to new movement patterns, the brain gets used to new input, and the homunculus gets redefined. It’s great to be able to teach strategies that increase the sense of safety, security and down-regulation that can be lost in the initial onslaught of pain.

To summarise, not all pain problems settle. We can help everyone to be more resilient if we begin talking about ways of coping with flare-ups even during subacute pain, particularly if we avoid an excessive focus on trying to avoid them. Instead, we can begin to help people feel confident that flare-ups always settle down, and that they can manage them effectively by using effective self management.

 

Burks, K. (2002). Health concerns of men with osteoarthritis of the knee. Orthopaedic Nursing, 21(4), 28-34.

Cohen, E., & Lee, Y. C. (2015). A mechanism-based approach to the management of osteoarthritis pain. Current Osteoporosis Reports, 13(6), 399-406.

Demierre, M., Castelao, E., & Piot-Ziegler, C. (2011). The long and painful path towards arthroplasty: A qualitative study. J Health Psychol, 16(4), 549-560. doi:10.1177/1359105310385365

Jinks, C., Ong, B. N., & Richardson, J. (2007). A mixed methods study to investigate needs assessment for knee pain and disability: Population and individual perspectives. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 8, 59.

…and now what we’ve all been waiting for: What do to about central sensitisation in the clinic


For the last couple of weeks I’ve posted about central sensitisation; what it is, and how to assess for it. Today I’m going to turn to the “so what” question, and talk about what this might mean when we’re in the clinic.  Remember that most of this material comes from Jo Nijs’ recent talks at the New Zealand Pain Society.
Firstly, remember that pain is an experience that people have, underpinned by neurobiology, but also, depending on the level of analysis, on interactions with others, on systems and how they work, on culture, on individual experiences, and of course, on interacting within a body within an environment or context. Everything I say from here on is based on these assumptions.

The first point Jo Nijs makes is that when we know a bit more about the neurobiology of persistent pain associated with central sensitisation, we can use this knowledge wisely when we help someone make sense of their pain. This doesn’t mean wholesale and broadcast “I-will-tell-you-all-I-know-about-pain-neurobiology-because-I-know-you-need-to-know-it-because-I-know-it-and-think-it’s-important” which is, truth to tell, a lot more about the know-it-all than the person in front of them! We need to earn the right to give information – that means establishing that we’ve heard the other person’s story and the current meanings they’ve made from their experience. It also means asking permission to share new information. It means thinking about WHY we want to share new information.

So what if the person doesn’t use the same groovy language we use to describe his or her understanding?! So what if they’ve got some of the newer ideas slightly skewed. In the end, what’s important is that the person understands these things:

  • Pain isn’t a direct reflection of what’s happening in the tissues.
  • Pain can be influenced by many things, some of which are physical forces (heat, pressure and so forth), some of which are ideas, and some are emotions. And there are a bunch of other variables that can influence the experience, including what else is going on around the person.
  • The brain is intimately involved with our experience of pain, and it’s a two-way street from body to brain and brain to body.
  • Persistent pain is more about neurobiology than tissue damage per se (but not exclusively about neurobiology).

Our job is to make sure the person understands these things, rather than our job being about “educating” people. The end result matters, rather than any particular process.

If we look at the evidence for helping people reconceptualise their pain, there’s plenty to show that this approach is useful – it’s been a key tenet of a self-management cognitive behavioural approach to pain management since at least the late 1970’s. The later research (from Butler, Moseley and Louw et al) is simply looking at this approach within a slightly different cohort and in a different context. Rather than being integrated with an interdisciplinary pain management programme, research from these guys shows that physiotherapists (in particular) can deliver this kind of information very effectively – and that it helps reduce the fear and subsequent efforts to avoid pain (such as not moving, seeking healthcare, and being worried about pain). Yay!

It’s true that there are many different ways to influence the descending modulatory system, and release endorphins. One of them is to help people understand their pain and be more confident about moving. Another is to place hands on the person – hence massage therapy, manual therapies, manipulations and so on. Nijs believes hands on therapy has best effect after you’ve gone through some of the reconceptualisation that’s often needed (Bishop, Torres-Cueco, Gay, Lluch-Girbes, Beneciuk, & Bialosky, 2015).

Similar arguments can be made for considering sleep management and stress management as an integral part of pain management. (To be perfectly honest, I always thought this was part of what we did…). So here’s the argument: we know most people with persistent pain experience rotten sleep. We also know that people are stressed by their experience of pain. Because poor sleep is associated with increased activation of glia in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, and therefore are pro-inflammatory, pain is often increased after a poor night’s sleep. Sleep medications interfere with the sleep architecture, so it’s useful to consider nonpharmacological approaches to sleep management.

Three strategies to consider:

  • CBT for insomnia – here’s one resource to use
  • ACT or acceptance and commitment therapy – I’ve written a great deal about ACT, just use the search function on this blog for more
  • Exercise – OMG yes, exercise is effective! (just not right before bedtime, kthx)

Stress management is tougher. We can’t avoid experiencing stress – and neither can we live in a bubble where we don’t ever get exposed to stress. Instead, we probably all could do with learning multiple ways of managing stress. Things like realistic evaluations of the situation, increasing our capabilities for regulating our response to stress via biofeedback if need be, and using mindfulness as a strategy for being with stress instead of fighting against it, or folding beneath it.

I haven’t cited many references in this post – not because there aren’t many, but because there are SO many! And I’ll post more next week when I start looking at the rather sexy neurobiological examinations of processes used in pain management for years (yes, we’ve been doing it for a long time, we now have great explanations for how these things might work – though effect sizes are still small.)

 

Bishop, M. D., Torres-Cueco, R., Gay, C. W., Lluch-Girbés, E., Beneciuk, J. M., & Bialosky, J. E. (2015). What effect can manual therapy have on a patient’s pain experience?. Pain, 5(6), 455-464.

 

Is central sensitisation really a thing?


It seems odd to me that there’s much argument about central sensitisation in pain circles. I thought the idea of central sensitisation was well-established based on research from some years ago – but apparently there are still arguments about its relevance, and lots of debate about how to identify it clinically. This post is based mainly on a presentation by Jo Nijs from Pain in Motion, at the recent NZ Pain Society meeting in Nelson. In this post I want to briefly review the material presented by Jo suggesting that central sensitisation is a thing. I’ll write more about assessment in a future blog, or this post will be the longest ever!

Firstly, what is it and why should it matter? Researchers have long been aware that when a nerve is repeatedly stimulated, in future stimulation it will respond for longer and with more intensity – this is called long-term potentiation. Recently, the contribution of glial cells to this situation has been identified (remember glia? Those little cells whose purpose no-one really knew? Turns out they release gliotransmitters that circulate throughout the spinal cord and allow information to be transmitted widely, far from the original source of stimulation – see Kronschlager, Drdla-Schutting, Gassner, Honsek et al, (2016). Glial cells occur widely throughout the central nervous system, and while LTP is a process we’ve known about in the CNS for some time – we’ve known because this is how “memories” are formed (remember “nerves that fire together wire together”? Pathways that frequently activate develop the tendency to continue to activate together) – we’ve perhaps not been aware that this occurs in the spinal cord as well. So, LTP occurs in both the spinal cord and the brain, and there is more than one way this process is facilitated. Glial cells are one. Central sensitisation involves this process of long-term potentiation across and amongst pathways within our nervous system – it means information from peripheral regions like your big toe are more likely to be transmitted to areas in the brain responsible for attending and responding to threatening information.

Why does this matter? Well, if we think of ourselves as a finely tuned homeostatic machine, one that wants to remain in a stable state, we can think of two systems balanced with one another. One system works to facilitate information transmission (nociceptive facilitation), while the other works to reduce or modulate this transmission (endogenous hypoalgesia). If we continue with the machine analogy, we want to know about “trouble” as soon as possible – so our nociceptive facilitatory system is like an accelerator, working promptly to make sure we know about the state of play very quickly. If you’ve ever driven a race car, you’ll know how twitchy the accelerators are! The brakes on this system is our endogenous opioid system which reduces the influence of the nociceptive system so we can keep moving forward. If the brakes fail, for whatever reason, in a race car we’ll burst forward! Similarly, if the endogenous modulatory system fails, for whatever reason, far more information ascends to relevant regions in the brain for interpretation – and ouch.

What sorts of things enhance connectivity between areas of the brain that deal with nociceptive information? Well, this is where things get all woolly and psychosocial for a while (sorry guys!). From many fMRI studies, it’s possible to establish that “pain catastrophising” or the tendency to brood on pain, feel helpless about it, and regard the pain as seriously intense activates brain areas like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the insula, which in term reduces the efficiency of the opioid analgesic system (that endogenous opioid system), makes it harder to distract attention from the pain, and increases facilitation (ie the transmission of nociceptive information from lower CNS to higher). In other words, this very psychological construct has a biological component to it.

Central sensitisation has been identified in many different pain problems, ranging from osteoarthritis in the knee (Akinci, Al Shaker, Chang, et al, 2016), post-cancer pain (Lam, 2016), shoulder pain (Sanchis, lluch, Nijs, Struyf & Kangasperko, 2015), and yes, those messy complicated ones like whiplash (Coppieters, Ickmans, Cagnie, Nijs, et al, 2015), low back pain (Sanzarello, Merlini, Rosa, Perrone et al, 2016) and fibromyalgia (Walitt, Ceko, Gracely & Gracely, 2016). Rates of central sensitisation vary from 10% in shoulder pain to 100% in fibromyalgia. For some good reading on central sensitisation in these disorders, take a look at the references I’ve cited.

So yes, central sensitisation is a thing, and it results in increased pain experiences that last longer and spread. Why do some people experience while others don’t? Now we’re venturing into rather more speculative areas, but some findings seem clinically useful. People who have, in their early years, experienced physical and/or psychological trauma, those who tend to catastrophise or have unhelpful beliefs (often inaccurate beliefs) about their pain,  those who have poor sleep, and those who have an elevated stress response seem more likely to have pain that fits with what we’d expect with central sensitisation (See Nijs & Ickmans, 2014).

Why does this occur? Well, stress increases release of glutamate and this in turn increases CNS excitability (makes sense – let’s react faster to everything, at least for a short time). At the same time, stress reduces GABA and serotonin, and as a result inhibition is reduced (the brakes come off). If we add microglial activity to the mix (remember that’s going to increase the connectivity between neurones), and if we add ongoing release of adrenaline in because the stress has been continuing for a while, we’re going to end up with activated glial activity in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, all important areas for detecting salience and making decisions to act. These glial cells release chemicals known to increase neuroinflammation, reducing hippocampal activity (ultimately reducing volume of neurones in this area), increasing the size of the amygdala (which means it’s more capable of responding to threat), and reducing the prefrontal cortex size, reducing the capacity to make considered decisions (Kregel, Meeus, Malfliet et al, 2015). Ew… nasty! In longterm stressful situations, it seems our brains adapt – and not in a helpful way when it comes to experiencing pain. Whatever you do DON’T say to your patients  “Oh and by the way, your back pain means your brain is inflamed and parts of your brain are shrinking” – this is NOT helpful!

Next post I’ll discuss assessing for central sensitisation – but before I do, remember that central sensitisation is not the only factor at play in ongoing pain. In fact, some people don’t seem to develop central sensitisation even with ongoing nociception from either disease processes, or inflammation. We don’t really know why. What we do know is that simply treating peripheral nociceptive input when central sensitisation is present may fail to help the person – so keeping an eye out for it is important.

 

Akinci, A., Al Shaker, M., Chang, M. H., Cheung, C. W., Danilov, A., Jose Duenas, H., . . . Wang, Y. (2016). Predictive factors and clinical biomarkers for treatment in patients with chronic pain caused by osteoarthritis with a central sensitisation component. International Journal of Clinical Practice, 70(1), 31-44.

Coppieters, I., Ickmans, K., Cagnie, B., Nijs, J., De Pauw, R., Noten, S., & Meeus, M. (2015). Cognitive performance is related to central sensitization and health-related quality of life in patients with chronic whiplash-associated disorders and fibromyalgia. Pain Physician, 18(3), E389-401.

Kregel, J., Meeus, M., Malfliet, A., Dolphens, M., Danneels, L., Nijs, J., & Cagnie, B. (2015). Structural and functional brain abnormalities in chronic low back pain: A systematic review☆. Paper presented at the Seminars in arthritis and rheumatism.

Kronschläger, M. T., Drdla-Schutting, R., Gassner, M., Honsek, S. D., Teuchmann, H. L., & Sandkühler, J. (2016). Gliogenic ltp spreads widely in nociceptive pathways. Science, 354(6316), 1144-1148. doi:10.1126/science.aah5715

Lam, D. K. (2016). Emerging factors in the progression of cancer-related pain. Pain Management, 6(5), 487-496.

Nijs, J., & Ickmans, K. (2014). Chronic whiplash-associated disorders: To exercise or not? The Lancet, 384(9938), 109-111.

Sanchis, M. N., Lluch, E., Nijs, J., Struyf, F., & Kangasperko, M. (2015). The role of central sensitization in shoulder pain: A systematic literature review. Seminars in Arthritis & Rheumatism, 44(6), 710-716.

Sanzarello, I., Merlini, L., Rosa, M. A., Perrone, M., Frugiuele, J., Borghi, R., & Faldini, C. (2016). Central sensitization in chronic low back pain: A narrative review. Journal of Back & Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, 29(4), 625-633.
Walitt, B., Ceko, M., Gracely, J. L., & Gracely, R. H. (2016). Neuroimaging of central sensitivity syndromes: Key insights from the scientific literature. Current Rheumatology Reviews, 12(1), 55-87.

A surfeit of learning


It’s been a busy few weeks as I’ve been at the San Diego Pain Summit and then the New Zealand Pain Society meeting where wonderful speakers presented on topics like exercise for pain, cognitive functional therapy, central sensitisation, opioid use in New Zealand, sensory profiles and other such topics. The chance to meet and spend time with clinicians who are passionate to not only learn about pain, but apply what they’ve learned in clinical practice is something I can’t miss.

What’s difficult, though, is deciding what to apply on Monday morning after having been to meetings or events where there’s so much new material to absorb. And that’s one of the problems, I think, in our clinical practice today. The years when it was relatively easy to do the same old, same old, have (thankfully!) gone – but in its place is the challenge of sifting through that new information and deciding what and how to do it.

So today I thought I’d go through some of the practices I’ve used – maybe it will help someone else?

Firstly, I try to take just one thing away from a meeting. If I absorb more than this, it’s fine, but one new thing is usually quite enough for me! Someone made the point that changing habits is hard – and, just for a moment, think about what we expect the people we treat to do, and then think about that last conference and what you intended to do, but just didn’t… Without  intention, planning and support to change what you do, you’ll carry on doing what’s easy, what’s worked before, and what feels “comfortable”. So be kind to yourself and pick just one thing. For me, that one thing is to feel OK about teaching people to ask “and what does that mean to you?” when someone is telling me their story about their pain.

Next, I let the rest of the information I heard just sit and percolate a while. This means I might casually read something related, or I might review the speaker’s slides or recordings, but I don’t do this in a way that I’m madly trying to cram in action points. This is because I’ve chosen one thing to do, and that’s enough. The rest of the information won’t just disappear because I’m letting it rest, it’s just going to connect with other concepts and pop out later when I stumble on it while reading something else.

To apply what I’ve learned, I plan. Yep, you heard it, I plan! Just like our clients, we need to make specific action plans if we’re going to do things differently. I think there are two factors to apply: the first is how important I think the concept/action is to me, the second is how confident I am to make a change.

  1. Importance: While simply selecting the single thing I take away from a meeting implies that I think it’s important, it’s worth considering why I decided it’s so important. So I list a few reasons I valued that concept. For me, it was the idea that we can uncover more of the real concerns of a person if we ask what it means to them, we can be more able to hear what the person really wants. I also took the idea that anyone: PT, OT, MT, Osteo, Chiro, Doc, Nurse ANYONE can ask this question. This is important to me because if that question isn’t asked, the person may go on fearing the worst even if they appear to be “doing well”. And we cannot rely on “someone else” asking this question. Even if we’re not psychologists, and so think that beliefs and attitudes are out of scope, we ARE experts in how the human body works. We know structure and function. This means we have a responsibility to help people understand what’s going on their body rather than living in ignorance or confusion.
  2. Confidence: It’s not enough to think that something is important. We need to make it easy to make a change. This means identifying what might get in the way of change and planning around that. It also means identifying what might make it easy to change and structuring life so it’s not hard. It could mean writing some “cheat sheets” giving brief phrases to use (Alison Sim and I used this approach in our recent workshop), or it might mean a poster in a prominent place to act as a reminder. It might mean removing something from the environment so you don’t use it as easily. It could mean simplifying for a couple of times. For me it will mean working through possible arguments people make against asking those questions about meaning, using open-ended questions. Often the questions relate to time available in clinic, scope of practice questions, “opening Pandora’s box” questions, “what do I say next” questions, or the “it’s not my focus” questions. I’ll work on responses to these in advance so I can explore what these mean to the clinician before asking if it’s OK to explain my perspective.

I ask myself “what would it look like if I applied this new strategy?”, or “how would I know I was using this strategy?”. I also take time to review how I’ve gone using that new strategy – recording myself, asking someone to sit in on a session, even just reviewing against the “cheat sheet” to see what I used, and what I could have used.

If you take a moment to review my process, hopefully you’ll see the elements of a motivational approach to behaviour change. I’ve written quite a bit about motivation – hope this helps you too!

 

What to do with the results from the PCS


The Pain Catastrophising Scale is one of the more popular measures used in pain assessment. It’s popular because catastrophising (thinking the worst) has been identified as an especially important risk factor for slow recovery from pain (Abbott, Tyni-Lenne & Hedlund, 2010), for reporting high levels of pain intensity (Langley, 2011), and for ongoing disability (Elfving, Andersoon & Grooten, 2007). I could have cited hundreds more references to support these claims, BTW.

The problem is, once the PCS is administered and scored: what then? What difference does it make in how we go about helping a person think a little more positively about their pain, do more and feel more confident?

If you haven’t seen my earlier posts about the PCS, take a look at this, this, and this for more details.

Anyway, so someone has high scores on rumination, helplessness and magnifying – what does this mean? Let’s say we have two people attending the clinic, one has really high scores on all three subscales, while the other has low or average scores. Both have grumbly old low back pain, both have had exercises in the past, both are finding it tough to do normal daily activities right now.

For a good, general pain management approach to low back pain, and once red flags are excluded (yes, the “bio” comes first!) this is what I do. I establish what the person thinks is going on and ask if it’s OK to talk about pain neurobiology. Together we’ll generate a pain formulation, which is really a spaghetti diagram showing the experience as described by the person (I used guided discovery to develop it). I then ask the person what they’d be doing if their pain wasn’t such a problem for them, perhaps what they’re finding the most frustrating thing about their situation at the moment. Often it will be sleep, or driving or cooking dinner, or perhaps even getting clothes on (shoes and socks!). I’ll then begin with helping the person develop good relaxed breathing (for using with painful movements), and start by encouraging movement into the painful zone while remaining relaxed, and tie this in with one of the common activities (occupations) the person needs or wants to do. For example, I’ll encourage bending forward to put shoes and socks on while breathing in a relaxed and calm way. I’ll be watching and also encourage relaxing the shoulders and any other tense parts of the body. For someone who is just generally sore but doesn’t report high pain catastrophising, I will also encourage some daily movements doing something they enjoy – it might be walking, yoga, dancing, gardening, whatever they enjoy and will do regularly every day for whatever they can manage. Sometimes people need to start small so 5 minutes might be enough. I suggest being consistent, doing some relaxation afterwards, and building up only once the person has maintained four or five days of consistent activity. And doing the activity the person has been finding difficult.

If the person I’m seeing has high scores on the PCS I’ll begin in a similar way, but I’ll teach a couple of additional things, and I’ll expect to set a much lower target – and probably provide far more support. Catastrophising is often associated with having trouble disengaging from thinking about pain (ruminating), so I’ll teach the person some ways to deal with persistent thoughts that hang around.

A couple to try: mindfulness, although this practice requires practice! It’s not intended to help the person become relaxed! It’s intended to help them discipline their mind to attend to one thing without judgement and to notice and be gentle with the mind when it gets off track, which it will. I ask people to practice this at least four times a day, or whenever they’re waiting for something – like the jug to boil, or while cleaning teeth, or perhaps waiting for a traffic light.

Another is to use a “15 minutes of worry” practice. I ask the person to set a time in the evening to sit down and worry, usually from 7.00 – 7.15pm. Throughout the day I ask the person to notice when they’re ruminating on their situation. I ask them to remind themselves that they’re going to worry about that tonight and deliberately put that worry aside until their appointment with worry. Then, at 7.00pm they are asked to get a piece of paper and write ALL their worries down for a solid 15 minutes. No stopping until 15 minutes is over! It’s really hard. Then when they go to sleep, I ask them to remind themselves that they’ve now worried all their worries, and they can gently set those thoughts aside because they won’t forget their worry, it’s written down (I think worry is one way a mind tries hard to stop you from forgetting to DO something about the worry!). People can throw the paper away in the morning because then it begins all over again.

Usually people who score high on the PCS also find it hard to be realistic about their pain, they’ll use words that are really emotive and often fail to notice parts of the body that aren’t in pain. By noticing the worst, they find it tough to notice the best.  I like to guide people to notice the unloved parts of their body, the bits that don’t hurt – like the earlobes, or the belly button. I’ll offer guidance as to what to notice while we’re doing things, in particular, I like to guide people to notice those parts of the body that are moving smoothly, comfortably and that look relaxed. This is intended to support selective attention to good things – rather than only noticing pain.

Finally, I give more support to those who tend to be more worried about their pain than others. So I might set the goals a little lower – walking for five times a week, two days off for good behaviour rather than every day. Walking for five minutes rather than ten. And I’ll check in with them more often – by text, email or setting appointments closer together. It’s important for people who fear the worst to experience some success, so setting small goals that are achieved can build self efficacy – especially when I try hard to offer encouragement in terms of what the person has done despite the odds. So, if the person says they’ve had a real flare-up, I’ll try to boost confidence by acknowledging that they’ve come in to see me even though it’s a bad pain day, that they’ve tried to do something instead of nothing, that talking to me about the challenge shows guts and determination.

People who see the glass as half empty rather than half full are just people. Like you and I, they’re people who have a cognitive bias. With support, we can help people view their pain differently – and that process applies to all of us, not just those with high scores on the PCS.

 

Abbott, A. D., Tyni-Lenne, R., & Hedlund, R. (2010). The influence of psychological factors on pre-operative levels of pain intensity, disability and health-related quality of life in lumbar spinal fusion surgery patients. Physiotherapy, 96(3), 213-221. doi:10.1016/j.physio.2009.11.013

Elfving, B., Andersson, T., & Grooten, W. J. (2007). Low levels of physical activity in back pain patients are associated with high levels of fear-avoidance beliefs and pain catastrophizing. Physiotherapy Research International, 12(1), 14-24.

Langley, P. C. (2011). The prevalence, correlates and treatment of pain in the european union. Curr Med Res Opin, 27(2), 463-480. doi:10.1185/03007995.2010.542136

What is pain for?


We’re told we need pain – without the experience, we risk harming our bodies and living short lives. With pain, and for most people, we learn to not go there, don’t do that, don’t do that AGAIN, and look at that person – don’t do what they’re doing! Thirst, hunger, fear, delicious tastes and smells, the feelings of belonging, of safety and security, of calm and comfort: all of these are experiences we learn about as we develop greater control over our bodies.

Pain is an experience we learn to associate with actual or possible threat to “self”. Let’s take a moment to think about what “self-hood” means.

If I ask you “who are you?” you’ll tell me your name, probably your occupation, maybe where you live and who you live with. Baumeister (1997) suggests our sense of self is about “the direct feeling each person has of privileged access to his or her own thoughts and feelings and sensations.” He goes on to say “it begins with the awareness of one’s own body and is augmented by the sense of being able to make choices and initiate action.” We learn about who we are through interacting with the environment, but also as we interact with other people and begin to sort through our roles, contributions and relationships.

Of course, our sense of self changes over time and is reciprocally influenced by choices we make as well as opportunities (and threats) around us, both environmental and social.

We work really hard to avoid threats to our sense of self. For example, I’ll bet we’ve all seen that person who steadfastly refuses to stop colouring his hair, wearing the same clothing styles as he did in his 20’s, holding on to the same habits as he did at the same age even when he’s now in his 50’s, has a paunch, and still looks for partners 20 years younger than he is…  He still believes he’s that young stud despite the evidence in the mirror. And of course the same applies to women perhaps more so!

So what happens when our mind/body is threatened? How do we know it? And what do we do about it?

In this instance I’m not talking about social threats, though there’s interesting research suggesting that being socially excluded has similar neurobiological effects as being physically threatened (or experiencing pain – though this may reflect the distress we experience when we’re hurt and when we’re socially excluded – see Iannetti, Salomons, Moayedi, Mouraux & Davis, 2013; Eisenberger, 2015). I’m instead talking about threats to our physical body. Those threats may be violence from another person, physical trauma to the body, or the threat of physical harm to the body. When we experience these kinds of threats, and once an aspect of mind/body has disentangled the threat evaluation from whatever other goals we’re currently engaged in, we experience pain. Tabor, Keogh and Eccelston (Pain, in press) define pain in terms of action: an experience which, as part of a protective strategy, attempts to defend one’s self in the presence of inferred threat.

So pain is there to help us maintain an intact sense of self in the presence of threat – threat that we’ve inferred from our context (or drawn a conclusion from incomplete data). It’s part of a system that works to maintain “us” in the face of multiple threats that we encounter.

Tabor, Keogh and Eccleston also argue that pain is an experience designed to intrude on awareness to show that “boundaries have been reached and action must be taken”. Pain is one way our mind/body can give us an indication of boundary – just how much, or how little, we can do. For example, I experience pain when I bend my thumb down to reach my wrist – it’s one way I can learn how far I can bend without disrupting something! The purpose of that pain is to help “me” defend against doing really dumb things, like stretching my thumb out of joint!

Interestingly, when we feel overwhelmed by our pain, when we can’t defend against it (because it feels too intense, has meanings that threaten our deepest sense of self) we tend to withdraw from responding to everything else – our conversations stop, we don’t notice other people or events, we pull into ourselves and ultimately, we can lose consciousness (think of the accounts of early surgery without anaesthesia – the surgeons were kinda grateful when the patient lapsed into unconsciousness because at last they weren’t writhing to get away – see Joanna Bourke’s book “The Story of Pain” for some harrowing stories!).

When we lose consciousness, our sense of self disappears. We lose contact with the “what it is to be me”.

Our sense of self also disappears when we experience pain we can’t escape and we can’t make sense of. Throughout the time while people are trying to label their pain, establish the meaning of their symptoms, and while people are searching for a solution to their pain, people’s experience of both time and “who I am” is threatened (Hellstrom, 2001).

To me, this is one of the primary problems associated with pain – and one we’ve almost completely ignored in our healthcare treatments. All our treatments are aimed at helping “get rid of the pain” – but what isn’t so often incorporated in these efforts is a way of engaging and rebuilding a resilient sense of self. So while the pain may ebb away, the “self” remains feeling vulnerable and threatened, especially if there’s any hint of pain returning.

What can we do better? Perhaps talk about what vision a person has of themselves as a “self”. Help them work towards becoming the “self” they believe they are – or at least helping them express the underlying values that their “self” has previously been expressing. That way perhaps people can find flexible ways to express that “self” – which will make them more capable of living well under any circumstances.

 

Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Identity, self-concept, and self-esteem: The self lost and found. Hogan, Robert [Ed], 681-710.

Bourke, J. (2014). The story of pain: From prayer to painkillers: Oxford University Press.

Eisenberger, N. I. (2015). Social pain and the brain: Controversies, questions, and where to go from here. Annual review of psychology, 66, 601-629.

Hellstrom, C. (2001). Temporal dimensions of the self-concept: Entrapped and possible selves in chronic pain. Psychology & Health, 16(1), 111-124. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08870440108405493

Iannetti, G. D., Salomons, T. V., Moayedi, M., Mouraux, A., & Davis, K. D. (2013). Beyond metaphor: Contrasting mechanisms of social and physical pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(8), 371-378.

Tabor, A., Keogh, E. and Eccleston, C. (2016) Embodied pain— negotiating the boundaries of possible action. Pain. ISSN 0304- 3959 (In Press)

What difference does it make to know about psychosocial risk factors?


The “psychosocial yellow flags” or risk factors for developing ongoing disability after a bout of acute low back pain have been promulgated in New Zealand since 1997. Introduced as part of the Acute Low Back Pain Guidelines, the yellow flags were lauded both locally and internationally and subsequently there have been many international guidelines which have adopted this kind of integration. But what exactly do we do with that information? How does it help if we find out that someone is really afraid their pain means something awful, or if they fear their life will never be the same again, or if they truly worry about doing movements that provoke their pain?

Truth to tell, although there have been a lot of studies examining the relevance of psychosocial risk factors, the uptake among clinicians has been fairly abysmal. This is particularly so among clinicians who work either mainly with acute musculoskeletal pain, or amongst those who are mainly involved in treated the body. One physio I know said she got the impression during her training that psychosocial factors “are the things we can blame when our treatments don’t work”.

I think part of the problem is the focus on assessment “technology”. There is a proliferation of questionnaires that can be used to help spot the person who’s likely to have difficulty recovering. We have STartBack, Orebro Musculoskeletal Questionnaire, Pain Catastrophising Scale, Tampa Scale of Kinesiophobia, Depression Anxiety Stress Scale, Pain Self Efficacy Scale – most of which are known by their abbreviations, so it’s like an alphabet soup! But despite knowing about these questionnaires, and perhaps even administering them to people we think might need assessment, once the results come in it’s pretty difficult to know what to do next.

So what if a person reports really high levels of catastrophising? Or that they’re very high on the Fear of Injury/Reinjury on the TSK? Or that they have the lowest ever score on the PSEQ? What on earth do you do to make an impact?

Some people are very actively engaged in “Pain Education”. It’s given to absolutely everyone because “the evidence says” it “works”. Pain reduces. People get engaged in their exercise. Life returns to normal.

Some people refer immediately on to a psychologist. Let them deal with the “difficult” patients.

Others just carry on as normal but in the back of their mind have the “out” that “Oh but they have yellow flags” – and drop their expectations accordingly.

To me that’s just not good enough, and it suggests to me that we need to learn more about what these measures mean – and what to do differently as a result.

There’s a couple of problems though:

  1. How do we choose who to give a questionnaire to? – do we rely on “intuition” or do we give them out to everyone?
  2. Which questionnaires do we use? There’s no “gold standard” – just a mix of various measures that tap into part of the picture…
  3. How much do we rely on strong RCT’s examining whole treatment packages, versus how much do we rely on principles of behaviour change and knowledge of the underlying theories relevant to pain and disability?
  4. What if our clinical reasoning models are completely silent on the work involved in supporting people who present with these risk factors – what if our clinical reasoning models suggest that this work is not all that important compared with the “real” work of tissues and muscles and movement?

Here are my thoughts on what we can do.

I think we should give screening questionnaires to everyone who comes in with an acute bout of musculoskeletal pain, and I think there are a couple that really work well – Orebro is clearly one of them, PCS or PASS are both useful, and I think it’s helpful to screen for mood problems. Why do I think everyone needs these? Well, it’s easier to give them to everyone than to rely on our terribly inaccurate intuition. The risk of failing to identify someone who needs more support is high (and the consequences of omitting this is serious). By routinely administering screening measures we can de-stigmatise the process (though there shouldn’t be any stigma associated with understanding that pain involves the whole person!). We can make the administration easy by integrating it within routine clinic entry process – and by using electronic forms of each questionnaire we can make entering and scoring them easy.

We then need to learn what the questionnaires actually measure – not just the total score, but the subscales as well. Then we need to use those subscale scores to understand what we need to ask the person when we see them face-to-face. This helps us begin to understand the person and how they came to develop these beliefs and attitudes, and in doing so we can develop greater empathy for their experience – and alter our treatments to reflect their needs.

For management, I think we have to, at this stage, step beyond the RCT for evidence. There’s a few reasons for this: one is that RCTs naturally omit individual responses to the treatment meaning we lost the detail as to who responds to which aspect of the treatment. Another is that RCTs often group patients together to ensure power is reached – but in doing this, omit important individual differences. And finally, each person we see is a unique individual with a unique interaction between the various factors influencing their presentation – and there are simply insufficient RCTs to account for these differences. Does this mean we stop using evidence? Oh no!! It just means we need to look at the principles behind many treatments – what are the guiding principles and why might they apply to this person at this time? Finally we need to monitor outcomes so we can establish whether our approach actually helped.

Finally, I think our clinical reasoning models need to include important aspects of treatment that we vary, often without being aware that we do.

For example, if we see someone who scores very high on the PCS and tends to ruminate or brood on the negative, we can’t go ahead and give that person the same set of exercises or activities we’d give someone who is quite confident. We’ll need to lower the physical demands, give really good explanations, take the time to explain and de-threaten various sensations the person may experience, we’ll probably need to move slowly through the progressions, and we’ll definitely need to take time to debrief and track progress.

These “invisible” aspects of treatment are, I think, often the most important parts – but they’re often not mentioned in clinical protocols, and perhaps our skill in titrating the challenges we give our patients is not well developed. These factors incorporate psychological techniques of behaviour change – things like reinforcement, motivational interviewing, problem solving, Socratic questioning, how to fade support, how to bolster confidence, how to vary the environment, and how to avoid pliance and tracking (or going along with things rather than truly integrating the learning). If we want to work with people and help them change their lives, we need to learn how people change behaviour. That means, I’m afraid, learning some psychology…!