coping

Manage pain – or aim to cure? Why I’m committed to pain management


Prominent researchers, clinicians and commentators seem to suggest that aiming to help people live with their pain is aiming too low. That pain cure or at least reduction is The Thing To Do. It’s certainly got a bit of a ring to it – “I can help get rid of your pain” has a sex appeal that “I can help you live with your pain” doesn’t have. And I can recognise the appeal. Persistent pain can be a scourge for those who live with it; it can eat away at every part of life. Imagine waking up one day to find NO PAIN! Excited much?

So why do I keep hammering on about this not very glamorous, certainly very challenging and at times unrewarding area of practice?

Here’s the thing. Persistent pain is extremely common. Not only is low back pain responsible for the most years lived with disability globally (Hoy, Bain, Williams, March, Brooks, Blyth, Woolf, Vos & Buchbinder, 2012), painful disorders like osteoarthritis increase with an aging population, and post-surgical pain is a problem for ~ 12% of people undergoing hip replacement, between 20 – 50% women undergoing mastectomy, and we all recognise the pain after limb amputation (between 50 – 80%) (Reddi & Curran, 2014). In New Zealand one person in five experiences persistent pain that goes beyond three months…

And our treatments, whether they be pharmaceuticals, procedures, surgeries or even groovy new things like mirror therapy or graded motor imagery don’t guarantee complete pain relief for 100% of patients. In fact, each new wave of therapy provides some pain relief for some people some of the time. And we shouldn’t be completely surprised about this because our nociceptive system is extraordinarily complex – and needs to be active because without pain we’re not likely to live long…or prosper. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that our nociceptive system with associated thoughts, emotions and behavioural responses has built-in redundancy simply because it’s there to protect us against potential harm. And every body system has at least one disorder/disease/dysfunction, so why would we think our “pain” system is immune?

So why do I spend time learning about management when I could be focused on reducing pain?

Well one reason is my clinical orientation. I’m an occupational therapist at heart (true, warped by contact with psychologists and physiotherapists), but essentially I’m about helping people do the things they need and want to do in daily life. My tools of trade are first of all focused on helping people work out the occupations (activities) that make them feel like themselves and then helping them do those things – and secondarily, and as a result of this focus, on helping people deal with their pain experience. Sometimes the latter involves helping people develop awareness of exactly how much or how little of their body and life is taken up with pain, helping them develop “wiggle room” so they can feel they have a little more space to be who they are, helping them find new ways to do those occupations that make them feel like themselves so the pain doesn’t take up quite so much room in their sense of self. Sometimes I do focus on obvious ways that people respond to their experience that may actually be making that experience much more unpleasant than it needs to be.

Another reason for me is that with a primary focus on pain reduction, we can forget the reason people want pain reduced – which is to go on and live life. And when we’re unsuccessful at reducing pain – where do those people go for help? What does it feel like to seem to “fail” a treatment again? and again? Who helps those people have good quality of life when they feel demoralised, the treatment options are exhausted and the clinicians who so desperately want to help them have no more ideas?

And as I mentioned above – there are no absolute cures for most forms of persistent pain. Nothing in my reading of the research around the world suggests that researchers have hit upon a jackpot and found a way to eliminate persistent pain 100%. What that means is there are likely to be people who will never experience complete relief from their pain. And others for whom the treatment is unavailable because of cost, side effects, intrusion on life, or because the treatment violates their values.

And because there are people who need to live with persistent pain until we have a “universal cure”, researchers and clinicians still need to refine and innovate the pain management strategies that will need to be used.

I’m not the person to make the decision about whether pain reduction or pain management is the best option. That’s not my job as a clinician or a researcher – I’m there to help people weigh up the costs and the benefits of treatments, and examine how best we can help those who can’t get rid of their pain. The thing is: if clinicians don’t know that there are viable ways of living well with pain (or they reject these as inferior or second class in comparison with pain reduction or elimination) how will they support their patients to make their own decisions? Or will they neglect to offer the approaches they don’t know about? And what kind of a choice is that?

 

 

 

Hoy, D., C. Bain, G. Williams, L. March, P. Brooks, F. Blyth, A. Woolf, T. Vos and R. Buchbinder (2012). A systematic review of the global prevalence of low back pain. Arthritis & Rheumatology 64(6): 2028-2037.

Reddi, D., & Curran, N. (2014). Chronic pain after surgery: pathophysiology, risk factors and prevention. Postgraduate medical journal, 90(1062), 222-227.
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Conversations about cannabis for chronic pain


The debate about cannabis and derivatives for persistent pain continues to grow in New Zealand, and elsewhere in the world. Many people I’ve treated and who are living with persistent pain say they like to use cannabis (in a variety of forms) to help with pain intensity and sleep, adding their voices to those wanting “medicinal” cannabis to be approved. In the few patients I’ve worked with who have managed to obtain a cannabis product (in NZ it has to be legally prescribed and will generally be in the form of Sativex or similar) the effect doesn’t seem as profound as the real thing (whether smoked, vaped, or in edibles).

Here’s my current position, for what it’s worth. Right now I think cannabis legislation needs an overhaul. Cannabis doesn’t seem to fit into the same class as synthetic drugs (often called “herbal highs” or synthetic “cannabis”) – for one, the plant probably contains a whole lot of substances that have yet to be fully analysed, and for another, I have yet to see a death reported from cannabis use, yet in Auckland, NZ, alone this year there have been around 9 people who have died from taking the synthetic substance, whatever it is. Cannabis seems to cause less harm than legal substances like alcohol and tobacco, and in many places in the world it’s been legalised with some interesting effects on use of opioids.

Ever since Professor David Nutt visited New Zealand a few years back, I’ve been convinced it’s time for a rethink on cannabis laws, but at the same time I’m not ready to support wholesale legalisation of “medical” marijuana. Here are a few reasons why:

  • When a doctor prescribes a drug, he or she is able to rely on the manufacturer making a consistent product, with a consistent amount of “active” ingredients, and a consistent quality. At present, with the exception of the two versions available in New Zealand, this can’t be guaranteed. Plants vary in the combination of active chemicals in them, and storage and age of the product influence the availability of those chemicals when inhaled or ingested. Just as we don’t suggest people go and grow their own opium poppies because we know that opioids are effective analgesics, I don’t think it’s time to allow people to grow their own cannabis for medicinal purposes, such as treating pain. A doctor can’t know just how much of a dose a person can get because in NZ we don’t yet have a controlled environment for cannabis production.
  • When a doctor prescribes a drug, he or she is also guided by the indications for use. So, although some medical practitioners prescribe “off-label” use for medications (a good example is nortriptyline, an antidepressant used often for pain reduction), generally there are good double-blinded, randomised controlled trials to determine whether the active drug is more effective than placebo. When we read about cannabis use for medicinal reasons we hear of its use for cancer (mainly nausea, but also pain), neuropathic pain, and in the general media we hear of its use for migraine, period pain, abdominal pain, fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis – there’s very few pain disorders that cannabis isn’t seen to be appropriate. But the truth is, we don’t really know which kind of pain (the underlying mechanism) will respond, and what pains don’t respond. It’s still a bit of a mystery – mind you, this is not any different from other medications for pain for which N=1 seems to be the mantra.

Why might I support a change to marijuana laws?

Well, an interesting study from the Northeastern United States, and published in the journal Pain, looked at the perspectives of people enrolled in legal medical marijuana clinics. It was quite a large study of 984 people, so should represent a good cross-section of those using the drug within a legal system. Participants were asked to complete an online survey, and their responses were analysed by a psychologist who was “not a cannabinoid expert”, arranging the data into themes and subthemes. (As an aside, apparently this was carried out using a “Grounded Theory perspective” based on Corbin and Strauss – BUT essentially the researchers didn’t follow grounded theory methodology throughout, and instead it should be called a thematic analysis using inductive coding. Pedant, yes!). The data was then examined to quantify the responses (another violation of GT methodology), and re-examined by another co-author for verification.

What they found was a group of people, over half women, with 2/3 indicating they’d been diagnosed with chronic pain by a medical professional. Diagnoses varied, but most (91%) had low back and neck pain, 30% with neuropathic pain, 23% with postsurgical pain, nearly 22% with abdominal pain, 20% with chronic pain after trauma/injury, 7% with cancer pain and 5% with menstrual pain.  Most people smoked cannabis either by joint, pipe or bong; some used a vaporiser, some had edibles or a tincture, and least, some sort of ointment.

The participants indicated it was on average 75% effective at reducing/treating symptoms, which is extraordinary when you realise that traditional forms of medication for neuropathic pain may reduce pain by 50% in around 1  in 4 people (Woolf, 2010). Participants spent around $3118 each year, but this was skewed because concentrates cost $3910, while topicals were $814. Joints were more expensive than vaporised product ($260 different!).

Analysing the positives of cannabis, participants reported pain relief, or at least being able to tolerate the pain more easily; while sleep benefits was the next most significant theme. Participants were encouraged that cannabis doesn’t have overdose potential, it’s natural, there are a wide range of strains with different characteristics, and limited potential for dependence.

There were numerous other positive aspects to using cannabis this way, according to the participants: things like “feeling normal”, “I am more active and able to do things I want”, being “distracted” from the pain, “able to focus”, and “able to relax”.

Negative perspectives included the cost (too expensive – in NZ Sativex is around $1000 a month – not covered by NZ pharmaceutical subsidies); some people didn’t like the smell, the effects on lungs and breathing, appetite changes (and gaining weight), and some emotional effects like anxiety or paranoia. Stigma and judgement by others also features, as did the difficulty accessing the drug, and conflict about the different laws applying to cannabis use – noting that the US has different federal and state laws.

Overall, the responses from these participants suggest a benign, mainly positive response to a drug, with negatives primarily around the social aspects – stigma from health providers, other people thinking of the participants as stoners, the legal situation and so on. For me, the limitations of this study really preclude any major judgement as to benefit or otherwise. We only know what this group of people believed, they have a vested interest in promoting benefits because negatives won’t support their belief that this is a viable treatment option, we don’t know the effect on function (particularly objective data), and we have no way of verifying the diagnoses individuals reported as the reason for prescription.

My conclusion?

It’s way past time to discuss cannabis use, health risks and health benefits. To have an open discussion about use for medicinal reasons, we need to remove the current barrier: the legal situation. While people have a vested interest in promoting the benefits over risks or adverse effects, we’re not going to have a very clear picture of what happens with ongoing use. I don’t support the use of cannabis as a medicinal product – to me there are far too many unknowns, and I think we risk wedging open a gate that has, until now, been useful for limiting the risk from pharmaceutical harms. We need to subject cannabis to the same level of rigour as any other pharmaceutical product being introduced to the market.

On the other hand, I think removing legal barriers to recreational use is about balancing the benefits and harms of this substance against other substances used for similar reasons. Alcohol and tobacco are well-known for harmful effects. Prohibition of alcohol did not work. Tobacco smoking is reducing over time courtesy of a committed campaign documenting harms, as well as raising the price via taxation. We can’t campaign around health harms for a product that isn’t legal. We can’t establish useful regulation over who produces it, who can buy it, where it can be used, the effects on work injury/vehicle injury, we can’t represent the undoubted benefits, and we look, to many people, to hold a double-standard.

And sneaking cannabis use in under the guise of “medicinal” use just isn’t on, in my humble opinion. Let’s not put medical practitioners in an unenviable situation where they’re asked to prescribe a product that is not yet examined to the level we expect for every other pharmaceutical product on the market. Let’s spend some precious research funding to establish WHO cannabis helps, WHAT it helps with, and HOW it helps – and most importantly, let’s look at whether it helps produce outcomes that surpass other approaches to persistent pain. We need to face it, currently our treatments are not very good.

 

Piper, B. J., Beals, M. L., Abess, A. T., Nichols, S. D., Martin, M. W., Cobb, C. M., & DeKeuster, R. M. (2017). Chronic pain patients’ perspectives of medical cannabis. Pain, 158(7), 1373-1379.

Woolf, C: (2010). Review: Overcoming obstacles to developing new analgesics, Nature Medicine (Supplement); 16,11: 1241 – 47

Targeting the people who need it most


A couple of things came to mind today as I thought about this post: the first was an article in the local newspaper about a man complaining that the government is “promoting disability” because he couldn’t get surgery for a disc prolapse – and the pain was affecting his ability to work. The second was how to direct the right treatment at the right person at the right time – and how we can be derailed by either wholesale over-servicing “everyone needs treatment X”, or by overburdening people with assessment just to give a fairly basic treatment.

Now with the first man, I don’t know his clinical situation – what I do know is that there are many people every day who must learn to live with their pain because there simply is not an effective treatment of any kind, and that amongst these people are those go on to live wonderful lives despite their pain. I wonder if this man has ever been offered comprehensive self management for while he waits for his surgery. Whether the government could spread some funding away from surgery as the primary option for such pain problems – and instead provide better funding for the wider range of approaches offered through the interdisciplinary pain management centres (approaches which include injection procedures, physiotherapy, psychology, occupational therapy and medications). When there is an effective treatment (and this is arguable in the case of disc prolapse – in fact, it’s difficult to know whether even MRI imaging can give a clear indication of who might respond best to what treatment (Steffens, Hancock, Pereira et al, 2016), we should be able to give it, provided it fits within our country’s health budget. Ahh – that’s the problem, isn’t it… expensive treatments mean fewer people can get basic treatment. And with lumbar disc prolapse, the evidence for surgery is less favourable than many people recognise (Deyo & Mirza, 2016) – they state:

“Patients with severe or progressive neurologic deficits require a referral for surgery. Elective surgery is an option for patients with congruent clinical and MRI findings and a condition that does not improve within 6 weeks. The major benefit of surgery is relief of sciatica that is faster than relief with conservative treatment, but results of early surgical and prolonged conservative treatment tend to be similar at 1 year of follow-up. Patients and physicians should share in decision making.”

So here we have a person with lots of pain, experiencing a great deal of distress, and reducing his work because of pain and disability. My question now (and not for this person in particular) is whether being distressed is equivalent to needing psychological help. How would we know?

There’s been a tendency in pain management to bring in psychologists to help people in this kind of situation. Sometimes people being referred for such help feel aggrieved: “My problem isn’t psychological!” they say, and they’re quite correct. But having a problem that isn’t psychological doesn’t mean some psychological help can’t be useful – unless by doing so, we deny people who have serious psychological health problems from being seen. And in New Zealand there are incredible shortages in mental health service delivery – in Christchurch alone we’ve had an increase in use of mental health services of more than 60% over the past six years since the massive 2010/2011 earthquakes (The Press).

People living with persistent pain often do experience depression, anxiety, poor sleep, challenges to relationships and in general, feeling demoralised and frustrated.  In a recent study of those attending a specialist pain management centre, 60% met criteria for “probable depression” while 33.8% met criteria for “severe depression” (Rayner, Hotopf, Petkova, Matcham, Simpson & McCracken, 2016). BUT that’s 40% who don’t – and it’s my belief that providing psychological services to this group is allocating resources away from people who really need it.

So, what do we do? Well one step forward might be to use effective screening tools to establish who has a serious psychological need and who may respond just as well to reactivation and return to usual activities with the support of the less expensive (but no less skilled) occupational therapy and physiotherapy teams. Vaegter, Handberg, & Kent (in press) have just published a study showing that brief psychological screening measures can be useful for ruling out those with psychological conditions. While we would never use just a questionnaire for diagnosis, when combined with clinical assessment and interview, brief forms of questionnaires can be really helpful for establishing risk and areas for further assessment. This study provides some support for using single item questions to identify those who need more in-depth assessment, and those who don’t need this level of attention. I like that! The idea that we can triage those who probably don’t need the whole toolbox hurled at them is a great idea.

Perhaps the New Zealand politicians, as they begin the downhill towards general elections at the end of the year, could be asked to thoughtfully consider rational distribution of healthcare, and a greater emphasis on targeted use of allied health and expensive surgery.

 

Deyo, R. A., & Mirza, S. K. (2016). Herniated Lumbar Intervertebral Disk. New England Journal of Medicine, 374(18), 1763-1772.

Hahne, A. J., Ford, J. J., & McMeeken, J. M. (2010). Conservative management of lumbar disc herniation with associated radiculopathy: A systematic review. Spine, 35(11), E488-504.

Koffel, E., Kroenke, K., Bair, M. J., Leverty, D., Polusny, M. A., & Krebs, E. E. (2016). The bidirectional relationship between sleep complaints and pain: Analysis of data from a randomized trial. Health Psychology, 35(1), 41-49.

Rayner L, Hotopf M, Petkova H, Matcham F, Simpson A, McCracken LM. Depression in patients with chronic pain attending a specialised pain treatment centre: prevalence and impact on health care costs. Pain. 2016;157(7):1472-1479. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000542

Steffens, D., Hancock, M.J., Pereira, L.S. et al.(2016) Do MRI findings identify patients with low back pain or sciatica who respond better to particular interventions? A systematic review. European Spine Journal 25: 1170. doi:10.1007/s00586-015-4195-4

Vaegter, H. B. P., Handberg, G. M. D., & Kent, P. P. Brief psychological screening questions can be useful for ruling out psychological conditions in patients with chronic pain. Clinical Journal of Pain.

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.

… a little more about Pain Catastrophising subscales


I’ve been writing about the Pain Catastrophising Scale and how to use this instrument in clinical practice these last two posts here and here because the construct of catastrophising (thinking the worst) has become one of the most useful to help identify people who may have more distress and disability when dealing with pain. Today I want to continue with this discussion, but looking this time at a large new study where the subscales magnification, rumination and hopelessness have been examined separately to understand their individual impact on pain severity and disability.

Craner, Gilliam and Sperry looked at the results of 844 patients with chronic pain prior to taking part in a group programme (a heterogeous sample, rather than a single diagnosis, so this group probably look at lot like those admitted to high intensity tertiary chronic pain management services such as Burwood Pain Management Centre here in Christchurch).  Most of the participants were female, European/white and married, and had chronic pain for an average of 10.7 years. Just over half were using opioid medication to manage their pain.

Along with the PCS, participants also completed some very common measures of disability (Westhaven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory – MPI) and quality of life (SF-36), and the CES-D which is a measure of depression.

Now here comes some statistical analysis: multiple hierarchical regression! Age, sex, duration of pain and use of opioids were entered into the equation and found to account for only 2.0% variance of the pain severity subscale of the MPI – but once the PCS was added in (subscales entered separately) an additional 14% of the variance was accounted for, but the helplessness subscale was the only one to contribute significantly to the overall variance.

When Pain Interference was  entered as the dependent variable, all the same demographic variables as above contributed a meagre 1.2% of the variance, but when the Pain Severity subscale scores were added, 25.5% of the variance was explained – while the combined PCS subscales contributed 6.5% of the variance. Again, helplessness was the only subscale to contribute to Pain Interference.

Moving to quality of life – the physical subscale of the SF-36 was used as the dependent variable, and once again the demographic variables accounted for only 1.5% variance in physical QOL, with Pain Severity accounting for 23%. PCS subscales contributed only 2.6% of the variance, with only the magnification subscale being identified as a unique contributor. When the mental health subscale was used, again demographics only accounted for 1.2% of variance, with pain severity accounting for 12.4% of the variance. This time, however, the PCS subscales contributed 19.5% of the variance with both Magnification and Helplessness contributing to the variance.

Finally, examining depression, demographics contributed a small amount of variance (3.3%), with pain severity additing 9.8% of variance. The PCS subscales were then entered and contributed a total of 21% to the prediction of depression with both Magnification and Helplessness contributing to the overall depression variance.

The so what factor

What does this actually mean in clinical practice? Well first of all this is a large group of patients, so we can draw some conclusions from the calculations – but we need to be a little cautious because these participants are a group who have managed to get into a tertiary pain management facility. They’re also a group with a large percentage using opioids, and they were pretty much all European – and from North America, not New Zealand. I’m not sure they look like the people who might commonly come into a community-based facility, or one where they’d be referred directly from a GP or primary care centre.

At the same time, while this group may not look like the people most commonly seen for pain management, they share some similar characteristics – they tend to magnify the “awfulness” of pain, and then feel helpless when their pain is bothering them. Surprisingly, I thought, ruminating or brooding on pain wasn’t a unique contributor and instead the helplessness scale contributed the most to pain severity, pain-related interference (disability associated with pain), poor mental health quality of life, and low mood, while magnification scale contributed to poorer physical health quality of life, mental health quality of life and low mood.

What this means for practice

The authors suggest that the construct measured by the helplessness subscale might be a factor underlying poor adaptation to life’s difficulties in general, leading to passivity and negative emotions. They also suggest that magnification might be a unique contributor to perceiving obstacles to doing the things we need to do every day, while hopelessness might mean people are less likely to participate in enjoyable activities and then in turn contribute to feeling low.

Importantly, the authors state: “We offer that simply collapsing the 3 dimensions of this phenomenon (ie, rumination, magnification, helplessness) may actually conceal nuanced relationships between specific dimensions of catastrophizing and outcomes that would might inform treatment approaches.” Looking at the overall scores without thinking about the subscales is going to give you less information to use for individualising your treatment.

In a clinical setting I’d be reviewing the individual subscales of the PCS alongside both disability and mood measures to see if the suggested relationships exist in the scores this person has given.

I’d be taking a look at the repertoire of coping strategies the person can identify – and more, I’d be looking at how flexibly they apply these strategies. Extending the range of strategies a person can use, and problem-solving ways to use these strategies in different activities and contexts is an important part of therapy, particularly occupational therapy and physiotherapy. Another approach you might consider is helping people return to enjoyable activities that are within their tolerance right here, right now. By building confidence that it’s possible to return to things that are fun we might counter the effects of helplessness, and help put pain back where it belongs – an experience that we can choose to respond to, or not.

I’d also be taking a look at their tendency to avoid feeling what their pain feels like, in other words I’d like to see if the person can mindfully and without judging, complete a body scan that includes the areas that are painful. This approach is intended to help people notice that alongside the painful areas are other nonpainful ones, and that they can successfully be with their pain and make room for their pain rather than attempting to block it out, or over-attend to it. The way mindfulness might work is by allowing people to experience the sensations without the judgement that the experience is bad, or indicates some terrible catastrophe. It allows people to step back from the immediate reaction “OMG that’s BAD” and to instead take time to view it as it actually is, without the emotional halo around it.

Pain catastrophising is a useful construct – but I think we need to become more nuanced in how we use the scores from the questionnaire.

Craner, J. R., Gilliam, W. P., & Sperry, J. A. (2016). Rumination, magnification, and helplessness: How do different aspects of pain catastrophizing relate to pain severity and functioning? Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(12), 1028-1035.

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.

Self-managing chronic pain


I have long been a proponent of helping people who live with pain to take control of their situation and actively self-manage as much as possible. My rationale has been that people who feel they are in control of some parts of their life are more likely to feel confident when their pain flares up, or when they have a life set-back. Today I took a second look at some of the papers on self-management published over the past few years, and I think it’s time to be a little critical.

The first issue to deal with is defining self-management. To me, self-management means knowing as much as possible about the health condition (whatever it is), knowing as much as possible about various treatments, working hard to learn and integrate ways of coping so that I (because yes, self-management is something I use for my fibromyalgia) can do the things I most value. By doing this, I can be more like who I want to be, rather than being defined by my pain, or what other people expect from me. But, self-management isn’t nearly as clearly defined as this in many people’s minds.

Here’s one definition “We defined self-management as the strategies individuals undertake to promote health (e.g., healthy living, exercising), manage an illness (e.g., manage symptoms, medication, and lifestyle changes), and manage life with an illness (e.g., adapt leisure activities or deal with losses caused by illness)” (Audulv, Asplund & Norbergh, 2012). Morden, Jinks and Ong (2011) found from a study of individual’s perceptions that managing chronic conditions is not solely related to medical recommendations and that self-management is central to maintaining a sense of ‘normality’ in everyday life or to reasserting one’s position in the social world when living with a chronic illness and demonstrating competency from a moral perspective.

Interestingly, a definition from COPD management describes self -management as “… programmes that aim to teach the skills needed to carry out medical regimens specific to a long-term disease and to guide behaviour change to help patients control their own condition and improve their well-being”(Effing,  Bourbeau, Vercoulen, Apter, Coultas, Meek, et al.2012). The distinction between chronic pain self-management and other chronic illness self-management lies in the need to address broader “living” issues rather than just learning to “carry out medical regimens”. And that is both the problem and the distinction between chronic pain self-management and other chronic disease self-management approaches.

Let me unpack this: For people living with COPD, or diabetes, there are critical medical management practices that need to be learned and integrated into daily life so that the underlying medical condition doesn’t get worse and lead either to complications, or even early death. The focus on self-management in these situations seems to be on the medical tasks that must be undertaken. The end results are often measured in terms of reducing the number of extreme events – like having hyperglycaemia, or being admitted with a chest infection and needing oxygen.

Now if I turn to the qualitative literature on self-management in chronic pain, what is very obvious is that self-management isn’t about the medical procedures that must be followed. It’s far more about living life – and integrating ways of getting to do what’s important without too many flare-ups that get in the way of doing these things. In fact, Morden, Jinks & Ong (2011) found that in people living with knee osteoarthritis, self-management wasn’t something people identified with – what might have been classified by clinical people as “exercise” or losing weight or keeping active weren’t thought of as “self-management” by people living with knee OA. They thought this was “just getting on with it”. I particularly liked one comment : “because people perceived their activities to be an integral part of their daily routine they were not surfaced as deliberate action.” In other words, when people focus on living life, coping strategies become habits and routines that are secondary to the doing of life.

Mike Nicholas and colleagues have looked into coping and self-management extensively as part of ongoing research associated with the Royal North Shore Pain Management Programme. they were interested in whether it’s possible to find out if adhering to strategies introduced within a programme was predictive of outcome: in other words, did people who strongly adhered to what they learned during a programme ultimately gain better quality of life, lower pain, less disability and feel better? Surprisingly, they did – I say surprisingly because in a couple of meta-analyses (for example Kroon, an der Burg, Buchbinder, Osborne, Johnston & Pitt, 2014; Oliveira, Ferreira, Maher, Pinto et al, 2012) self-management approaches made very little, if any, difference to pain and disability both over the short and long-term.

What does this mean? Well, quite apart from the blurry definitions of self-management, and the lack of standardisation inside self-management programmes, I think we need to ponder on just what we’re asking people to do – and how they (we) regard the strategies we hope people will develop. Cutting to the chase, in chronic pain management we risk people knowing “about” strategies, but failing to adopt them in daily life because we haven’t really thought about daily life and what this is to each individual. When I think about the vast number of changes to self-concept that chronic pain wreaks on people, I think it’s hard to be ready to adopt these new techniques until “who I am” is included in the mix. Maybe one reason for the modest improvements after self-management is that we’re not thinking about self-identity and values and that these need attending to so that using coping strategies is worthwhile. It’s yet another reason I think occupational therapists offer a great deal in chronic pain self-management – who are you? what do you want your life to stand for? what things do you do (or want to do) that makes your life yours? Finally, to paraphrase as my colleague Ben Darlow, living with low back pain (read: any chronic pain) means balancing the need to minimise pain fluctuations with the things that make life worth living. That’s what I call “flexibly persisting”.

Audulv, A., Asplund, K., & Norbergh, K.-G. (2012). The integration of chronic illness self-management. Qualitative Health Research, 22(3), 332-345. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1049732311430497

Effing, T. W., Bourbeau, J., Vercoulen, J., Apter, A. J., Coultas, D., Meek, P., . . . van der Palen, J. (2012). Self-management programmes for copd moving forward. Chronic respiratory disease, 9(1), 27-35.

Morden, A., Jinks, C., & Bie Nio, O. (2011). Lay models of self-management: How do people manage knee osteoarthritis in context? Chronic Illness, 7(3), 185-200.

Nicholas, M., Asghari, A., Corbett, M., Smeets, R., Wood, B., Overton, S., . . . Beeston, L. (2012). Is adherence to pain self-management strategies associated with improved pain, depression and disability in those with disabling chronic pain? European Journal of Pain, 16(1), 93-104. doi:10.1016/j.ejpain.2011.06.005

Oliveira, V. C., Ferreira, P. H., Maher, C. G., Pinto, R. Z., Refshauge, K. M., & Ferreira, M. L. (2012). Effectiveness of self-management of low back pain: Systematic review with meta-analysis. Arthritis care & research, 64(11), 1739-1748.

Live Plan Be


There are times in my work when I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall. Even though I’ve been saying most of what I write about on here since forever, it seems to take SUCH a long time for anything much to change! BUT then along comes something totally cool to brush my frustration away, and today I want to talk about Live Plan Be developed by Pain BC in Vancouver, Canada.

A couple of years ago I was given the privilege of being asked to prepare a document analysing the content and approach of self management programmes. I reviewed the Cochrane systematic reviews which all supported a multidisciplinary self management approach as the foundation for chronic pain management. I then turned to the qualitative research to investigate what it’s like to be part of a programme from the participant’s perspective. I found that people attending these programmes enter a journey of self-discovery, that some of the skills don’t seem to make sense at first – but do when the person returns to their own setting. I also found that people living with chronic pain relish the opportunity to feel that their pain is acknowledged, that others on the programmes know what it’s like to live with chronic pain so they don’t have to spend ages trying to explain themselves, and to have the chance to be with others who ‘get it’ means breaking out of the isolation that chronic pain can bring.

I also took a look at the ways these programmes can be delivered. While many programmes are face-to-face, with technology making online programmes increasingly more responsive and flexible, I wanted to see whether there were major differences in the outcomes of each programme. Although it’s difficult to tell because the populations using both approaches are not exactly the same, from what I could find, the outcomes were comparable. This is really exciting because it means more people can get access to approaches that have solid research underpinning them without having to travel to and from, and without the staffing needed for face-to-face programmes.

As a result of my report, I suggested that Pain BC might like to investigate developing a whole new programme for helping people live well with chronic pain, and to make this an online programme with some of the features that the research into online behaviour change programmes has identified as useful. Things like having a discussion forum so participants can connect and share their experiences of the reality of living with chronic pain. Having action prompts so that people don’t just read something – but also get prompted to DO something with that information – and most importantly, have this tied to where the person is currently at in their journey towards making changes to live with their pain. I recommended having some self-assessments so people can track their progress, and a place where they could record the things that worked, and those that didn’t work, so it’s easy to share with other people including health professionals.

I’m SO excited to see how Live Plan Be has come together – and it’s now LIVE!

The team that has put this together has done an amazing job, exceeding my wildest dreams of what the programme might look like. It’s sophisticated, easy to use, has lovely graphics and video recordings of real people doing real things, has SO MUCH information on it – and it’s free! If you have chronic pain, or you work with people living with chronic pain, I would love you to take a look at it, and try it out. Then let me know what you think. Whatever feedback you give, you’ll know that the team will work hard to keep on making it better and more useful, so please let them know.

Meantime, I’m hoping that this will bring some hope to people who have struggled with chronic pain, and would like to learn to live well.

End of year roundup


It’s summer in New Zealand, and although the vagaries of Kiwi weather are always with us (33 degrees predicted today – but a southerly tomorrow and a drop of probably 10 degrees in half an hour!), we’re gearing up for our usual Christmas and New Year close-down. I’m also taking a break over the next three weeks, taking to the rivers (bring on the trout!) in Sweet Caroline the Caravan, complete with blue sky ceiling with tiny puffy clouds!

To end the year it’s common to come up with a top 10, so these are my top 5 posts from the year. They’re not always the ones with the most hits, they’re ones that I’m particularly pleased with. Over the next three weeks, why not take a browse through some of my favourites, and if you’re still stuck for reading matter, head to the “search” page and type in a term – or you can simply click on a Category or a Key Word and voila! there will be a bunch of posts to trawl through. Enjoy!

  1. Talking past each other: One of the weirdest things for me is being both a professional working in the field of chronic pain, and also being a person living with chronic pain. There’s a certain dread among some health professionals when they find out a person working in the field also has the condition – a bit like “so you’re in it for yourself”, “you’re living out your own issues”, “you’ll get over-involved”. Harsh. I got interested in pain management some years after I developed persistent pain. My interest began because the people I was working with (return to work programmes in the 1980’s) often had chronic pain, and I wanted to know more about how to help them. For many years I didn’t let anyone know I also had this “thing” they were trying to live with. I finally decided that being real, honest, authentic and not pretending I had it all together was far more helpful (and less stressful) than any kind of facade of professionalism I could apply. I can’t say whether what works for me will work for anyone else. I don’t always have answers. I can only say I know what it’s like to walk alone, trying to work out what will help and what won’t – and that’s a very lonely road to walk. For that reason I’ll be there, a one-woman cheering squad on your side.
  2. Telling someone they have chronic pain: Being given good advice when I first found out I had chronic pain would be one of the most important reasons I think I have learned to find wiggle room with my pain. It’s not the kind of message healthcare professionals are trained to deliver. By and large we’re taught to fix, cure, mend, heal or DO something. Chronic pain is one of those problems for which there are no easy, single bullet answers. There’s usually a mix of things that will give support – and a bunch of things that won’t do a thing, or may even harm. This post synthesises some of the things that I have found out about giving that “bad news”.
  3. Am I nuts or do I just have pain?: People living with chronic pain deal with stigma often. There’s an unwritten “moral” compass that people living around us use to identify whether someone is faking, mad, or just lazy. Is chronic pain a mental illness? Personally I would argue not – but then again, how do we define what is, and isn’t, a mental illness? Some super-slippery concepts here, but I prefer NOT to classify chronic pain inside a set of psychiatric labels. I think it’s stressful enough to live with chronic pain without the sense that it’s a mental health problem, because, after all, it’s experienced in the body. And while some of the factors involved in chronic pain are neurological, brain-based, and affect mood, thoughts and behaviour, there are many other health problems that are also influenced by the same set of issues. Personally, I don’t like labels that lump people together as if, because they have a predominant symptom, the problems arising from it are all the same. Many of you will know I use a case formulation approach – by using this approach a clinician acknowledges that there are many factors influencing the “what it is like” to live with chronic pain, and it gives priority to the everyday concerns of the person rather than trying to squish him or her into some sort of square box. I’ve got curves, they just don’t squish like that!
  4. Case formulation: I have written a few posts on case formulation – so here’s a list of them! I hope they’re useful 🙂  Case 1; Case 2; Case 3; Case 4; Case 5; Case 6; Case 7; Sorry if these are slightly out of order, and believe me, there are some more I haven’t yet listed!
  5. Who are you? The effect of pain on self: Nothing prepares us for the onset of a chronic illness. I mean it. Even if you KNOW you’re going to get something, when it’s finally given the label there’s a certain reality that can’t be shaken. All the assumptions of what we can or can’t do, our capabilities, our future goals, our assumptions about how life will be – these get shaken when we get told “I’m sorry, but you have _________”. Learning to deal with this new reality is both fascinating (to an outsider) and extraordinarily hidden (to the person and those outside). We don’t really know how people come to terms with having to give up aspects of self, adopt new habits, develop a focus on parts of self that weren’t previously valued. It’s an area of learning to live with pain that has been touched on, but needs far more attention, IMHO.

OK, so a random selection of posts from the last year, and a couple from years before. If I get time before I head out in Caroline, I’ll post another set – but in the meantime, I wish you a peaceful and safe holiday period, and hope you’ll build dreams and start actions for a fabulous 2016.

Fibro fog or losing your marbles: the effect of chronic pain on everyday executive functioning


ResearchBlogging.org

There are days when I think I’m losing the plot! When my memory fades, I get distracted by random thin—-ooh! is that a cat?!

We all have brain fades, but people with chronic pain have more of them. Sometimes it’s due to the side effects of medication, and often it’s due to poor sleep, or low mood – but whatever the cause, the problem is that people living with chronic pain can find it very hard to direct their attention to what’s important, or to shift their attention away from one thing and on to another.

In an interesting study I found today, Baker, Gibson, Georgiou-Karistianis, Roth and Giummarra (in press), used a brief screening measure to compare the executive functioning of a group of people with chronic pain with a matched set of painfree individuals. The test is called Behaviour Rating Inventory of Executive Function, Adult version (BRIEF-A) which measures Inhibition, Shift, Emotional Control, Initiate, Self-Monitor, Working Memory, Plan/Organize, Task Monitor, and Organization of Materials.

Executive functioning refers to “higher” cortical functions such as being able to attend to complex situations, make the right decision and evaluate the outcome. It’s the function that helps us deal with everyday situations that have novel features – like when we’re driving, doing the grocery shopping, or cooking a meal. It’s long been known that people living with chronic pain experience difficulty with these things, not just because of fatigue and pain when moving, but because of limitations on how well they can concentrate. Along with the impact on emotions (feeling irritable, anxious and down), and physical functioning (having poorer exercise tolerance, limitations in how often or far loads can be lifted, etc), it seems that cognitive impairment is part of the picture when you’re living with chronic pain.

Some of the mechanisms thought to be involved in this are the “interruptive” nature of pain – the experience demands attention, directing attention away from other things and towards pain and pain-related objects and situations; in addition, there are now known to be structural changes in the brain – not only sensory processing and motor function, but also the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex which is needed for complex cognitive tasks.

One of the challenges in testing executive functions in people living with chronic pain is that usually they perform quite well on standard pen and paper tasks – when the room is quiet, there are no distractions, they’re rested and generally feeling calm. But put them in a busy supermarket or shopping mall, or driving a car in a busy highway, and performance is not such an easy thing!

So, for this study the researchers used the self-report questionnaire to ask people about their everyday experiences which does have some limitations – but the measure has been shown to compare favourably with real world experiences of people with other conditions such as substance abuse, prefrontal cortex lesions, and ADHD.

What did they find?

Well, quite simply they found that 50% of patients showed clinical elevation on Shift, Emotional Control, Initiate, and Working Memory subscales with emotional control and working memory the most elevated subscales.

What does this mean?

It means that chronic pain doesn’t only affect how uncomfortable it might be to move, or sit or stand; and it doesn’t only affect mood and anxiety; and it’s not just a matter of being fogged with medications (although these contribute), instead it shows that there are clear effects of experiencing chronic pain on some important aspects of planning and carrying out complex tasks in the real world.

The real impact of these deficits is not just on daily tasks, but also on how readily people with chronic pain can adopt and integrate all those coping strategies we talk about in pain management programmes. Things like deciding to use activity pacing means – decision making on the fly, regulating emotions to deal with frustration of not getting jobs done, delaying the flush of pleasure of getting things completed, having to break a task down into many parts to work out which is the most important, holding part of a task in working memory to be able to decide what to do next. All of these are complex cortical activities that living with chronic pain can affect.

It means clinicians need to help people learn new techniques slowly, supporting their generalising into daily life by ensuring they’re not overwhelming, and perhaps using tools like smartphone alarms or other environmental cues to help people know when to try using a different technique. It also means clinicians need to think about assessing how well a person can carry out these complex functions at the beginning of therapy – it might change the way coping strategies are learned, and it might mean considering changes to medication (avoiding opiates, but not only these because many pain medications affect cognition), and thinking about managing mood promptly.

The BRIEF-A is not the last word in neuropsych testing, but it may be a helpful screening measure to indicate areas for further testing and for helping people live more fully despite chronic pain.

 

Baker, K., Gibson, S., Georgiou-Karistianis, N., Roth, R., & Giummarra, M. (2015). Everyday Executive Functioning in Chronic Pain The Clinical Journal of Pain DOI: 10.1097/AJP.0000000000000313