… 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.


Guide, don’t instruct: how we talk within sessions

Do you remember your favourite teacher in school? Mine was Mrs Jackson, teacher of my Form 2 class (I think I was 12 years old). She was an outstanding teacher because she expected that we’d do well. She also didn’t tell us what to do – she helped us explore. And if there was one thing I’d like to have happen in therapy sessions with clients, it would be that we learn how to guide instead of instructing.

It’s only recently that I’ve learned why guiding and facilitating is so much more helpful than telling or instructing, and yes it’s because I’ve been reading Villatte, Villatte & Hayes Mastering the Clinical Conversation.

Have you ever noticed that when we give an instruction like “Sit up straight” or “Use your core” our clients attend to how well they’re doing just that – sitting up straight, or using the core – and at the very same time, they no longer attend to other aspects of their movement (or the context, or even the purpose of the movement). It’s a human tendency to focus on a particular set of features of our environment – and it certainly helps us cognitively because it means we don’t have to attend to everything all at once. BUT at the same time, it means we become relatively insensitive to other features occurring at the same time.

Rules or instructions have their place, or they wouldn’t still be being used in therapy – but their utility depends on how rigidly they’re applied. It makes sense for a super athlete to really focus on certain aspects of their performance, especially when they’re training, and especially when there’s one particular set of movements that will maximise their performance. For people living with pain, however, life is not about a set of performance goals. Instead, it’s about being able to respond adeptly to the constantly changing demands of their lives. And one thing people living with pain often have trouble with is being able to notice what’s happening in their own bodies.

Let’s unpack this. People living with chronic pain live with ongoing pain in certain parts of the body – and human tendencies being what they are, we try to avoid experiencing those sore bits, so our attention either skips over the painful area or it focuses almost exclusively on the sore bits and not on other parts (technically this could be called experiential avoidance). By working hard to avoid experiencing the sore bits, or alternatively focusing entirely on those sore bits, people living with pain often fail to notice what actually happens during movement.

As therapists, we can complicate this. We can instruct people (give them rules) about the movements they “should” be doing. We try to ‘correct’ posture. We advise people to use specific lifting techniques. We say “use your core”.

The effect of these instructions is to further lead our patients away from experiencing what is happening in their body. Instead of becoming aware of the way their bodies move, they attend to how well they’re following our instructions. Which is fine – until the person experiences a flare-up, or moves into a new environment with different demands, or perhaps we complete our sessions and discharge them into the wild blue yonder.

So, people with chronic pain can progressively become less aware of how their body actually feels as they do movements, and at the same time, try to apply rules we’ve given them that may not be all that helpful in different contexts.

We end up with the plumber trying hard to crawl under a house, carrying all her tools, while at the same time being worried that she’s not “using her core”. Or the piano teacher trying to “sit up properly” while working with a student on a duet. And the nurse, working one day in a busy ward with heavy patients, and another day in a paediatric ward, trying to “lift properly” using the same technique.

If we want to help people respond effectively to the widely differing contexts they’ll experience in everyday life, perhaps we need to take some time to help people learn to trust their own body, to experience both painful areas – and those that aren’t painful. We might need to help people work out fundamental principles of movement to enable them to have movement variability and flexibility – and to adjust and adapt when the contexts change.

To do this, we need to think about the way we help people learn new ways of moving. There are two fundamentals, I think.

  1. Guiding people to attend to, or notice, what is – including being OK about noticing painful parts of the body. The purpose behind this is to help people become aware of the various movement options they have, and the effect of those options on how they feel. We might need to guide people to consider not only pain, but also feelings of strength, stability, responsiveness, reach, movement refinement, subtlety, delicacy and power. To achieve this, we might need to spend time developing mindfulness skills so people can experience rather than attempting to change what they experience. The art of being willing to make room for whatever experience is present – learning to feel pain AND feel strength; feel pain AND relaxation; feel comfort AND power.
  2. Guiding people to use their own experience as their guide to “good movement”. In part, this is more of the same. I use words like “experiment” as in “let’s try this as an experiment, what does it feel like to you?”, or “let’s give it a go and see what you think”, or “I wonder what would happen if….” For example, if a person tries to move a box on a ledge that’s just out of reach, how many of you have told the person “stand a bit closer?” While that’s one way of helping someone work out that they might be stronger if they’re close to a load, what happens if the ground underfoot is unstable? The box still needs to be moved but the “rule” of standing close to a box doesn’t work – what do you think might happen if the person was guided to “Let’s try working out how you can move the box. What’s happening in your body when you reach for it?” then “What do you think you might change to make you feel more confident?” (or strong, or stable, or able to change position?).

When we try guiding rather than instructing, we honour the person’s own choices and contexts while we’re also allowing them to develop a superior skill: that of learning to experience their own body and to trust their own judgement. This ultimately gives them more awareness of how their body functions, and the gift of being flexible in how they approach any movement task.

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

duck duck go

Pain exposure therapy – what is it?

Thanks to an enquiry on my About page, I’ve been prompted to read a little about pain exposure therapy. This is a little-known approach to helping people with CRPS type I (the type that is NOT associated with a peripheral nerve injury. Type II is the same phenomenon but IS associated with an injury to the nerve.)

Graded exposure is an approach commonly adopted to help those people who are afraid of, or phobic about, a “thing”. Most of us will know about spider phobia treatment where people are progressively encouraged to stay with feelings of anxiety and distress while being shown and eventually handling a spider. Graded exposure has also been used to help people who are fearful of experiencing painful flare-ups and therefore avoid doing things – it’s been a successful approach especially for people who report high levels of pain catastrophising (or, as I like to put it, “freaking out” at fluctuations in pain). I’ve reported on graded exposure several times in my blog over the years, and use the approach myself with great success. BUT this approach requires some foundation skills for both the clinician AND the person living with pain.

Before I delve into the skills I think clinicians and people living with pain need, let me outline the treatment and it’s rationale.

The basis for this treatment is the idea that if pain is going to be present, and it no longer represents an indication of the state of the tissues, then avoiding movements is no longer necessary for tissue healing. At the same time, people generally don’t want to do things that flare pain up, and so they tend to avoid those movements. The issue is then much more about how to gradually get used to the fluctuations in pain (ie freak out less) while at the same time beginning to do things with the painful limb. Supporting this approach is some basic science that suggests the less we use an area of our body, the more distorted our brain’s representation of that area becomes.

So, after discussing basic information about pain and tissues, in pain exposure therapy, clinicians work together with the person living with pain to:

  • begin doing movements that are usually avoided
  • avoid responding to any behaviour that is usually associated with experiencing pain – things like grimacing, groaning, saying ouch, and rubbing the area
  • provide progressively more demanding input to the painful area despite changes in reported pain
  • encourage increased normal use of the area within daily life – eg holding onto bottles, cups, utensils, putting shoes and sox on, walking normally

In addition, clinicians use this type of therapy also prescribe many exercises to be carried out frequently through the day despite painful flareups. Sometimes clinicians will restrain the other unaffected limb so that the painful limb HAS to be used just to get things done.

Some of you reading this blog will be reminded of the work by Doidge in which a very similar approach is used during rehabilitation from stroke or traumatic brain injury – by using the limbs in a normal way, new neuronal pathways are developed, allowing the limb to eventually return to pretty much normal function.

Others of you will probably be saying “how cruel!” and “but Moseley and Butler say don’t do things that increase pain because – neurotags!”

Here’s my take on it.

Currently there exist very few, if any, randomised controlled trials of this approach for CRPS I. Actually, there are few RCTs for ANY form of CRPS and ANY treatment for CRPS.

This means we don’t have a great deal of evidence to go on when trying to decide the best approach for managing the functional problems experienced by people living with CRPS. We know that for some people mirror therapy is helpful, while there is less support for graded motor imagery (Bowering, O’Connel, Tabor, Catley et al, 2013).  We know there are very few pharmaceuticals that provide any pain reduction for people living with CRPS. There is “low quality evidence that bisphosphonates, calcitonin or a daily course of intravenous ketamine may be effective for pain when compared with placebo” (O’Connell, Benedict, McAuley, Marston et al, 2013), but otherwise very little else has been shown to have any effect at all either on pain intensity or function.

We do know that physiotherapy and occupational therapy focusing on function rather than pain reduction may have some longterm positive effects (O’Connell, Benedict, McAuley, Marston et al, 2013), and we also know that graded exposure treatments for other types of pain problem, especially low back pain, have been effective (studied since 2001).

BUT here’s the thing. Unless the person living with chronic pain is comfortable with the idea that this approach directly confronts their fear of painful flare-ups, it’s just not going to float. Both the clinician and the person living with pain need to understand the underlying principles of this approach – and have some skills to deal with the very likely distress that will emerge when pain inevitably flares up.

What we should also know is that this approach does not try to reduce pain – although for many people, according to one study (Barnhoorn, Oostendorp, van Dongen et al, 2012) pain does reduce. Yet for others, pain increases – but people can do more.

Where do I stand on this?

I think it’s worth a try but only if the person conducting the therapy is VERY comfortable with the underlying principles of graded exposure as it’s used for phobia. AND has skills to manage their own discomfort at seeing someone else experiencing high levels of distress. To me this means having had some additional training in graded exposure for phobia, and lots of practice at using mindfulness and other forms of maintaining empathy despite seeing another person being distressed. It’s not easy to be empathic without either losing your own cool – or “giving in” to the distress of the person – and that just undoes the therapy.

It also means the person participating in the therapy, ie the patient, must be completely on board with it, and not just the person but also his/her healthcare team AND family. AND have some skills to deal with distress that comes with exacerbations of pain. This approach is not for the faint-hearted, or for anyone who feels coerced into participating in the treatment without feeling very confident that they can maintain their involvement.


Barnhoorn, K. J., van de Meent, H., van Dongen, R. T. M., Klomp, F. P., Groenewoud, H., Samwel, H., . . . Staal, J. B. (2015). Pain exposure physical therapy (pept) compared to conventional treatment in complex regional pain syndrome type 1: A randomised controlled trial. BMJ Open, 5(12), e008283. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2015-008283

Barnhoorn, K. J., Oostendorp, R. A., van Dongen, R. T., Klomp, F. P., Samwel, H., van der Wilt, G. J., . . . Frolke, J. P. (2012). The effectiveness and cost evaluation of pain exposure physical therapy and conventional therapy in patients with complex regional pain syndrome type 1. Rationale and design of a randomized controlled trial. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 13, 58.

Barnhoorn, K. J., Staal, J. B., van Dongen, R. T., Frolke, J. P., Klomp, F. P., van de Meent, H., . . . Nijhuis-van der Sanden, M. W. (2014). Are pain-related fears mediators for reducing disability and pain in patients with complex regional pain syndrome type 1? An explorative analysis on pain exposure physical therapy. PLoS ONE [Electronic Resource], 10(4), e0123008

Bowering, K. J., O’Connell, N. E., Tabor, A., Catley, M. J., Leake, H. B., Moseley, G. L., & Stanton, T. R. (2013). The effects of graded motor imagery and its components on chronic pain: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Pain, 14(1), 3-13

Ek, J. W., van Gijn, J. C., Samwel, H., van Egmond, J., Klomp, F. P., & van Dongen, R. T. (2009). Pain exposure physical therapy may be a safe and effective treatment for longstanding complex regional pain syndrome type 1: A case series. Clinical Rehabilitation, 23(12), 1059-1066.

O’Connell Neil, E., Wand Benedict, M., McAuley, J., Marston, L., & Moseley, G. L. (2013). Interventions for treating pain and disability in adults with complex regional pain syndrome- an overview of systematic reviews. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (4).

van de Meent, H., Oerlemans, M., Bruggeman, A., Klomp, F., van Dongen, R., Oostendorp, R., & Frolke, J. P. (2011). Safety of “pain exposure” physical therapy in patients with complex regional pain syndrome type 1. Pain, 152(6), 1431-1438.

bars across my window

Deconditioning? Or just not doing things any more?

For years there has been a general wisdom that people with chronic pain who gradually stop doing things “must” be deconditioned. That is, they must lose fitness, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal, and this is often used to explain low activity levels, high disability and the prescription of graded exercise.

While this explanation makes sense (remember what happens to limbs when they’re in plaster for six weeks? all skinny and wasted?) – it doesn’t inevitably hold, in my experience. I vividly recall a person who routinely swam 20 lengths of an Olympic pool in very fast time every day, yet could not, in his estimation, return to any kind of work, and who did not sit – for an entire three week programme. It’s always seemed a bit odd to me that even though people report they can’t do many everyday activities, they can complete a rigorous gym programme.

So, skeptical me was very pleased to see another paper by the wonderful Nicole Andrews, occupational therapist and PhD, and her colleagues Jenny Strong and Pamela Meredith. This one is about approach to activity engagement, certain aspects of physical function and pain duration and was published in Clinical Journal of Pain in January this year (reference at the bottom of the page). It’s an important paper because it challenges some of the assumptions often made about activity levels and “fitness”, as well as the use of an operant conditioning model for pacing – pacing involving working to a set quota, rather than letting pain be the guide. The concept of pacing has been woven into most pain management programmes since the early days of Fordyce, but more recently has been criticised for lacking a clear definition, and for very little in the way of empirical support as a stand-alone treatment.

In this study, Andrews and colleagues examined the relationship between certain activities and a “habitual” approach to activity engagement, and pain duration. This is a different approach to studying activity and over- or under- activity in that it examines specific activities rather than using a global measure of disability – and this is important because the people we work with do specific activities (or occupations as I’d call them) and it will be more important to be able to predict the types of activities people do, or not do, rather than simply using a general guide.

Andrews and colleagues used a tool I particularly like called the Pain and Activity Relations Questionnaire (McCracken & Samuel, 2007) – this is a 21-item measure that looks at how people approach their activities. It has three subscales – avoidance, confronting, and pacing. Confronting measures “over”activity, while the other two are self explanatory.  They also used the Oswestry Disability Index, an old standard in measuring physical functioning.

The analysis was really interesting, and well-described for those who want to dig deeper into how this team found their results. I’ll cut to the chase and simply point out that they used the items rather than the overall score of the ODI, which allows for a more fine-grained analysis of the kinds of activities individuals engaged in, and how they approached those activities. This is the stuff occupational therapists and physiotherapists really want to get their teeth into!

So, what did they find?

Firstly, individuals who reported high levels of avoidance and low over-activity also reported significant restriction in personal care tasks, compared with those people who reported low levels of both avoidance and activity. There was no relationship between this item and pain duration, but there was a relationship between pain intensity and interference.

Lifting tolerance, however, was affected by pain duration and pain intensity rather than avoidance patterns. Walking tolerance wasn’t affected by approach to activity, or pain duration, but age and pain intensity were important factors. Sitting tolerance was not related to approach to activity, and only pain intensity was a contributor rather than pain duration. Finally, standing was also not associated with approach to activity and was only related to pain intensity.

Sleep was influenced by approach to activity engagement – and with pain duration. This means people with pain for one year and who were inclined to be “over” active and not avoidant, and those who were highly avoidant and highly “over”active were more likely to report problems with sleep than those with low avoidance and low “over” activity. (BTW I put the “over” in quotes because it could also be called “confronting” or “pushing” or “doing” – I think it’s weird term not yet well-defined). The group most likely to report poor sleep were those reporting high “over”activity and low avoidance who reported sleep problems 9.23 times more than those reporting low “over”activity and low avoidance. Once again, pain severity was the only other variable influencing reporting.

Sex life was not associated with approach to activity engagement, nor to pain duration. Social life, however, was associated with approach to activity engagement with those reporting high avoidance and “over”activity reporting more restrictions than those with low levels of both, along with similar results for those reporting high avoidance and low “over”activity – again, pain duration wasn’t associated, but pain intensity was.

Finally, travel was more likely to be reported a problem by all those compared with the low avoidance, low “over”activity group, with the high avoidance, low “over” activity group most likely to report problems.

What does all this mean?

Bearing in mind that the population from whom these participants were taken were attending a tertiary pain management centre programme, and that this is self-report, the findings from this study are really very exciting. As the authors point out, when the ODI is mapped on to the ICF (International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health) the instrument covers sleep (body function), personal care, lifting, walking, sitting and standing (activity limitations), and social life and travel (participation restrictions). Activity limitations can also be divided into two domains – mobility and daily activities (basic and instrumental activities of daily life) – walking, standing and sitting are therefore “mobility”, while personal care and lifting are “daily activities”.

These findings show that mobility activities were not associated with an individual’s approach to activity engagement – they differ from the other items in that they’re performance skills, that is, they make up other activities can’t be reduced to a smaller component. The authors suggest that the responses to these items in this study may reflect the individual’s perceived capability to engage in daily activities, as opposed to their actual physical performance to engage in these tasks.

I think this means it’s important to ask about what people do in daily life, rather than rely simply on reported levels of walking or sitting. Tie self report into activities – for example, sitting tolerance might be best described in terms of whether a person can sit to watch a whole TV programme, or whether they need to get up during the ad breaks.  It’s important to note the relationship between approach to activity and poor sleep – sleep being one of those aspects of living with pain that people most want addressed. Perhaps by moderating the approach to activity we might be able to help people develop more effective sleep patterns. It also seems to me that we need to tie outcomes from pain management to real life activities in which an individual wants to participate – rather than a more “objective” measure such as the six minute walk test – which might satisfy our urge to measure things in a nice orderly way, but might not be relevant to an individual’s life.

Finally, this study shows that overactivity and avoidance patterns are not inevitably associated with reduced capacity over time. I think this is a “received wisdom” that needs to be unpackaged



Andrews, N. E., Strong, J., & Meredith, P. J. (2016). The relationship between approach to activity engagement, specific aspects of physical function, and pain duration in chronic pain. Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(1), 20-31

McCracken LM, Samuel VM. The role of avoidance, pacing, and other activity patterns in chronic pain. Pain. 2007;130:119–125.


Treat the pain… or treat the depression? Carpal Tunnel Syndrome management
Carpal tunnel syndrome is a very common pain disorder associated with compression of the median nerve at the carpal tunnel. Approximately 139 women and 67 males per 100,000 people will report this problem over the course of one year, although this depends on the definition used. The problem with CTS is not only that it is common, but also that it affects function – it is really difficult to carry out normal daily life with a numb or tingly hand, poor grip strength (particularly in the fingertips), and disruption to sleep from the ongoing deep achy sensation in the hand. Additionally, some studies show that people with CTS also experience widespread pressure pain hypersensitivity, and an increased response to heat, suggesting that the problem either triggers, or is part of a central sensitisation process.

Diagnosing CTS is conducted using two main approaches – firstly the clinical signs of pain, paraesthesia in the median nerve distribution, symptoms worse at night, and positive Tinel and Phalen signs; secondly, electrodiagnostic testing must show deficits of both sensory and motor median nerve conduction.

In this study, the authors were interested in establishing the relationship between clinical signs and symptoms, physical signs and symptoms (notably CROM and pinch grip force), as well as neurophysiological measures – and they also measured depression. I wish they’d included measures of pain anxiety, or catastrophising, but this was not included in this study.

224 women were included in the study, which carefully screened out individuals with potential confounding contributory causes such as whiplash, pregnancy or diabetes.  The initial and expected findings were that women with higher reports of pain also demonstrated poorer CROM, pinch grip, lower heat pain hypersensitivity, and overall poorer functional hand use.

The first interesting finding was that women in this study reporting only moderate levels of pain also reported poor functioning. The authors suggest that, as a result of this finding “it may not be necessary to report higher levels of pain to find a repercussion in functional activities.” In other words, the impact of CTS on functional use of the hand appears ahead of the pain intensity, although the two are associated.

The study also found that heat pain hyperalgesia over the carpal tunnel as also associated with the intensity of hand pain – they suggest this may be due to peripheral sensitisation which is present from very early on in the presentation.

Looking at depression and the relationship with CTS, interestingly, the women did not demonstrate very high levels of depression, which surprised me a little given they had been selected for inclusion on the basis of having CTS symptoms for 12 months or more. The analysis found that depression was associated with poorer hand function and greater pain, even though the women did not report very high levels of depression. These authors suggest that “perhaps proper management of depressive symptoms in CTS may reduce, not only chronicity, but also induce an improvement in hand pain-related disability.”

Somewhat more controversially for some physiotherapists, these authors also argue that because depressive symptoms resolve during (as a result of perhaps?) physiotherapy treatment in 40% of people with work-related musculoskeletal pain injuries, perhaps those treatments should target mood management as well. So much for “but it’s not in my scope of practice”!

In fact, the authors are very clear that “proper management of individuals with CTS should include therapeutic interventions targeting physical impairments, that is, manual therapies; psychological disturbances (cognitive behaviour), and mechanical hypersensitivity (that is, neuromodulatory pain approaches).” If ever there was a time to get upskilled in a whole person approach to rehabilitation, this paper supports doing so now.

Fernández-Muñoz, J., Palacios-Ceña, M., Cigarán-Méndez, M., Ortega-Santiago, R., de-la-Llave-Rincón, A., Salom-Moreno, J., & Fernández-de-las-Peñas, C. (2016). Pain is Associated to Clinical, Psychological, Physical, and Neurophysiological Variables in Women With Carpal Tunnel Syndrome The Clinical Journal of Pain, 32 (2), 122-129 DOI: 10.1097/AJP.0000000000000241


Using a new avoidance measure in the clinic

A new measure of avoidance is a pretty good thing. Until now we’ve used self report questionnaires (such as the Tampa Scale for Kinesiophobia, or the Pain Catastrophising Scale), often combined with a measure of disability like the Oswestry Disability Index to determine who might be unnecessarily restricting daily activities out of fear of pain or injury. These are useful instruments, but don’t give us the full picture because many people with back pain don’t see that their avoidance might be because of pain-related fear – after all, it makes sense to not do movements that hurt or could be harmful, right?

Behavioural avoidance tests (BAT) are measures developed to assess observable avoidance behaviour. They’ve been used for many years for things like OCD and phobias for both assessments and treatments. The person is asked to approach a feared stimulus in a standardised environment to generate fear-related behaviours without the biases that arise from self-report (like not wanting to look bad, or being unaware of a fear).

This new measure involves asking a person to carry out 10 repetitions of certain movements designed to provoke avoidance. The link for the full instructions for this test is this: click

Essentially, the person is shown how to carry out the movements (demonstrated by the examiner/clinician), then they are asked to do the same set of movements ten times.  Each set of movements is rated 0 = performs exactly as the clinician does; 1 = movement is performed but the client uses safety behaviours such as holding the breath, taking medication before doing the task, asking for help, or motor behaviours such as keeping the back straight (rotation and bending movements are involved); 2 = the person avoids doing the movement, and if the person performs fewer than 10 repetitions, those that are not completed are also coded 2. The range of scores obtainable are 0 – 60.

How and when would you use this test?

It’s tempting to rush in and use a new test simply because it’s new and groovy, so some caution is required.

My questions are: (1) does it help me (or the person) obtain a deeper understanding of the contributing factors to their problem? (2) Is it more reliable or more valid than other tests? (3) Is it able to be used in a clinical setting? (4) Does it help me generate better hypotheses as to what’s going on for this person? (5) I also ask about cost, time required, scoring and whether special training is required.

This test is very useful for answering question (1). It provides me with a greater opportunity to review the thoughts, beliefs and behaviours of a person in the moment. This means I can very quickly identify even the subtle safety behaviours, and obtain the “what’s going through your mind” of the person. If I record the movements, I can show the person what’s going on. NB This is NOT intended to be a test of biomechanical efficiency, or to identify “flaws” in movement patterns. This is NOT a physical performance test, it’s a test of behaviour and belief. Don’t even try to use it as a traditional performance test, or I will find you and I will kill (oops, wrong story).

It is more valid than other tests – the authors indicate it is more strongly associated with measures of disability than measures of pain-related fear and avoidance behaviour. This is expected, because it’s possible to be afraid of something but actually do it (public speaking anyone?), and measures of disability don’t consider the cause of that disability (it could be wonky knees, or a dicky ticker!).

It’s easy to do in a clinical setting – A crate of water bottles (~8 kg) and a table (heights ~68 cm) are needed to conduct the BAT-Back. The crate weighed  7.8 kg including six one-litre plastic bottles. One could argue that people might find doing this test in a clinic is less threatening than doing it in real life, and this is quite correct. The setting is contained, there’s a health professional around, the load won’t break and there’s no time pressure, so it’s not ecologically valid for many real world settings – but it’s better than doing a ROM assessment, or just asking the person!

Does it help me generate better hypotheses? Yes it certainly does, provided I take my biomechanical hat off and don’t mix up a BAT with a physical performance assessment. We know that biomechanics are important in some instances, but when it comes to low back pain it doesn’t seem to have as much influence as a person’s thoughts and beliefs – and more importantly, their tendency to just not do certain movements. This test allows me to go through the thoughts that flash through a person’s mind as they do the movement, thus helping me and the person more accurately identify what it is about the movement that’s bothering them. Then we can go on to test their belief and establish whether the consequences are, in fact, worse than the effects of avoidance.

Finally, is it cost-effective? Overall I’d say yes – with a caveat. You need to be very good at spotting safety behaviours, and you need to have a very clear understanding about the purpose of this test, and you may need training to develop these skills and the underlying conceptual understanding of behavioural analysis.

When would I use it? Any time I suspect a person is profoundly disabled as a result of their back pain, but does not present with depression, other tissue changes (limb fracture, wonky knees or ankles etc) that would influence the level of disability. If a person has elevated scores on the TSK or PCS. If they have elevated scores on measures of disability. If I think they may respond to a behavioural approach.

Oh, the authors say very clearly that one of the confounds of this test is when a person has biological factors such as bony changes to the vertebrae, shortened muscles, arthritic knees and so on. So you can put your biomechanical hat on – but remember the overall purpose of this test is to understand what’s going on in the person’s mind when they perform these movements.

Scoring and normative data has not yet been compiled. Perhaps that’s a Masters research project for someone?

Holzapfel, S., Riecke, J., Rief, W., Schneider, J., & Glombiewski, J. A. (in press). Development and validation of the behavioral avoidance test – back pain (bat-back) for patients with chronic low back pain. Clinical Journal of Pain.




Scopes, roles, boundaries, contributions: who does what in a brave new healthcare world?

I have been meaning to write a post like this for some time now, but prompted to today by two things: one is an ongoing debate about non-psychologists using “CBT” with people who are experiencing pain, and the other is a conversation with Chai Chuah, Director General of the Ministry of Health in New Zealand. Let me set the scene:

We know there are a lot of people in our communities who have relatively simple pain problems – a temporarily painful knee after walking up hills for the first time in ages, a painful back that “just happened” overnight, a rotator cuff problem that makes it difficult to get dressed or hang out washing. We know that there are some pretty simple things that will help in these situations: some reassurance that the awful thing the person is worried about isn’t likely to happen (no, you won’t end up in a wheelchair because of your back pain, and no it’s not cancer); some pain relief to help with sleeping more soundly and so we can keep doing things; and gradually returning to normal occupations including work even if the pain hasn’t completely gone.

We also know that approximately 8% of people with low back pain will ultimately end up contributing to the most enormous spend in healthcare that we know about – their pain continues, their distress increases, their disability is profound.

BUT before we put all our attention on to this small group of people, I think it’s worthwhile remembering that people in this group are also more likely to have other health conditions, they’re more likely to smoke, to be overweight, to have mental health problems; they also probably come from lower socioeconomic groups, groups including people from minority ethnicities, people who find it much harder to get work, to remain in education and perhaps even people who typically use healthcare more often than the people who get back on their feet more quickly. Data for these statements comes from the 2006 Health and Disability Survey in New Zealand and numerous studies by epidemiologists around the world  –  back pain is only one of a number of problems people in this group have to deal with. I’m also not saying everyone who gets back pain that lingers has all of these additional concerns – but there is a greater prevalence.

What does this mean?

Well, for a while I’ve been saying that people working in this area of health (musculoskeletal pain) seem to be developed a set of common skills. That is, there is more in common between me and Jason Silvernail, Mike Stewart, Paul Lagerman, Alison Sim, Lars Avemarie, Rajam Roose and many others around the world from many different health professions, than there is between me and a good chunk of people from my own profession of occupational therapy. And I don’t think I’m alone in noticing this. (ps please don’t be offended if I’ve left your name out – you KNOW I’m including you too!)

What’s common amongst us? The ability to see and work with complex, ambiguous, messy and multifactorial situations. Recognising that along with all of our individual professional skills, we also need to have

  • effective communication skills,
  • patient/person-centredness,
  • critical thinking,
  • generating a framework to work from,
  • identifying and solving the unique goals and situations the people we work with have,
  • ability to step beyond “this is my role” and into “what can be done to reduce this person’s distress and disability?”
  • And possibly the most important skill is being able to tolerate not knowing without freaking out.

That ongoing cycle of assess -> hypothesise -> test -> review -> reassess -> hypothesise -> test -> reassess ->  review

This is important because when people come to see us with a complex problem (and increasingly this seems to happen), the simple models break down. The tissue-based, the germ-based, the simple single-factor approaches do not fully explain what’s going on, and don’t provide adequate solutions.

What this means is we, ALL health professionals, will need to think about where our skills lie. Are we people who enjoy pumping through a big number of relatively simple problems? If so, that’s great! Your contribution is clear-cut, you know what you need to do, and you refine and practice your skill-set until you’re expert. I think this is awesome. Or, are we people who relish complex, who look at situations and see that it’s messy and complicated but don’t get put off? In this group we probably use skills for researching and planning, operationalising or getting things started, and we’re often the people who network furiously. We do this not because we’re social butterflies (me being the ultimate introvert), but because we know WE CAN’T DO THIS WORK ALONE!

What about clinical skills and scopes and boundaries?

You know, I am not entirely sure that anyone except the health professional him or herself cares who does what they do to help someone get better. It’s not whether a nurse or a speech language therapist or a podiatrist or a medical practitioner, it’s whether the person (or people) treats each person as unique, listens carefully, is honest and straightforward about what can and can’t be done, and knows when his or her skills are not sufficient so calls in the rest of a team for help. There is a time for working beyond your scope, and a time for calling in an expert – but to recognise when an expert is needed requires knowing enough about the problem to know that an expert might be helpful.

What this means in healthcare, I think, is adopting a framework that works across diagnosis and into the idea that people actively process what happens to them, they make their minds up about what’s needed, and they can learn to do things differently. I’d call this self-management, but I could equally call it a cognitive behavioural approach, or behaviour change, or motivational approaches or even patient-centred or person-centred care. The idea that people understand more than we often give credit, that they make sense from what happens to and around them, and that this knowledge influences what they do comes from a cognitive behavioural model of people, and fits beautifully within a biopsychosocial framework.

So, when I advocate getting skilled at cognitive behavioural skills, I could equally use the term “person-centred” or “self-management” – whatever the label, the contributions from each professional involved will ultimately influence the health experience and actions of the person we’re seeing.

Isn’t it time to be excited about opportunities to develop and to extend our skills? And if this doesn’t excite you, isn’t it great that there are a group of people who will respond to the simple and straightforward – but let’s not confuse the two situations.


Brandywine Falls

Who can do Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Rehabilitation?

I have heard many discussions about scopes of practice: the main concern as far as I can see is of people who are trained to work mainly with the body perhaps stepping out of scope to work with thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. There are risks from stepping too far away from what you’re trained to do, I acknowledge this, though I think health professionals who see people are probably exerting greater influence over thoughts, beliefs and emotions than many of us acknowledge.  And given that’s the case, I think it’s only ethical to learn to craft that influence in ways that are positive rather than inadvertently doing harm because of ignorance.

When I read about a post-surgical rehabilitation approach for people who had spine surgery, I was immediately interested and not because of the surgery! This study compared “cognitive-behavioural based physical therapy” with an education programme six weeks after laminectomy for a lumbar degenerative condition. People were included in the study if they reported high fear of movement using the Tampa Scale for Kinesiophobia. Assessments were completed before treatment, after treatment and at a 3 month follow-up, and included the Brief Pain Inventory, Oswestry Disability Index, SF-12, and three performance tests (5-chair stand, timed up and go, and 10 metre walk).

There was no discussion about the physical rehabilitation, but the CBT and education sessions were conducted by phone and participants also received a workbook to take home and follow. Sessions took 30 minutes, except the first session which was for one hour. The main components of the programme are reported as education on the mind-body connection, activity levels, graded activity plan (graded hierarchy) and weekly activity and walking goals. A cognitive or behavioural strategy was introduced in each session, with the therapist helping patients identify enjoyable activities, replace negative thinking with positive thoughts, find a balance between rest and activity, and manage setbacks by recognising high-risk situations and negative thoughts.

The education sessions included the usual contents delivered by a physiotherapist, and featured biomechanics, daily exercise, and ways to promote healing. Information on stress reduction, sleep hygiene, energy management, communicating with health providers and preventing future injury were also provided.

What did they find?

Firstly, only 68% of those eligible for the study agreed to take part, which in itself is interesting. A number of other factors influenced the total number of people entered into the programme – not being treated for a degenerative lumbar condition, not having high enough scores on the TSK were the main reasons. Dropout rates for both programmes were quite low – 7 – 5%, and both programmes had good follow-up outcomes (not too many people missed the follow-up).

Now here’s a thing: 91% of participants also received clinic-based physiotherapy during the treatment phase (roughly 8 visits), and right up until the three-month follow-up (about 6 – 7 visits). No real difference between the groups here.

What did differ was the long-term improvement in the cognitive behavioural group – in terms of back and leg pain, pain interference and disability. The education group still improved in their leg pain and disability, but back pain and pain interference stayed the same. Similarly, the CBT group continued to improve on measures of physical and mental health over time, while the education group’s physical scores improved but mental health scores stayed pretty much the same. The CBT group’s scores improved more than the education group on almost all the measures including the physical performance tests.

What does this mean?

Well, interestingly, the authors of this study suggest that they obtained large and clinically relevant changes because of the specific focus they had on decreasing barriers to functional activity and walking rather than focusing solely on resolving pain symptoms. I think this is very interesting indeed. Although this study used physiotherapists, the clinician was naive to using CBT and was trained specifically for this study. Participants received concurrent physiotherapy in a clinic – the CBT (and education sessions) were additional to what was delivered in the clinic setting. To me the results suggest that the occupational therapy focus on creating opportunities for people to do more within their own environment might be a potent tool in post-operative rehabilitation.

Once again, it also suggests that the professional discipline of the clinician delivering a CBT approach is far less important than the fact that the CBT approach is tailored to the concerns of the patient, and that the treatment targets factors within the real-world context.

Important points to note: these patients were selected on the basis of high levels of pain-related fear and avoidance. I don’t think the outcomes would be nearly as fabulous in a general or undifferentiated group. This approach, while relatively inexpensive to implement, is an added cost – though if we look at the effect on patient outcomes, I would argue that the financial cost is far outweighed by the positive human results.

Finally, I think this study also shows that addressing thoughts, beliefs and emotions is a part of what every health professional should be doing: it’s unethical not to learn to do this well.

Archer KR, Devin CJ, Vanston SW, Koyama T, Phillips S, George SZ, McGirt ML, Spengler DM, Aaronson OS, Cheng JS, Wegener ST, Cognitive-behavioral based physical therapy
for patients with chronic pain undergoing lumbar spine surgery: a randomized controlled trial, Journal of Pain (2015), doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2015.09.013.


“Failed back surgery” syndrome – who or what failed?

It’s a term I thought had died a natural death. Failed back surgery syndrome. I used to hear it in the late 1980’s when people with low back pain often had five or six surgeries to try to “fix” whatever wasn’t working in the back. I hadn’t heard it for a while and I really thought it had gone the way it should have – into that great rubbish bin diagnosis pile in the sky, along with “somatisation” and “functional pain” and trigger points. But, to my astonishment, there it is, now a separate MeSH title when you search through Ovid or Medline.

The question I always ask is “Who or what has failed?”

Is it the patient who dares to carry on saying that they have pain, sometimes even more pain than before surgery?

Is it the surgeon for choosing the wrong surgery, or perhaps for doing surgery at all?

Is it the nervous system, already sensitised, now subject to more sensitisation through the planned trauma of the surgical scalpel?

Is it the system for funding surgery?

In a paper written by Shapiro (2015), the rate of “failed back surgery syndrome” is reported as being between 10 – 40%. It seems to increase when the surgery is complex, and it hasn’t improved despite developing less invasive surgical techniques.  Shapiro goes so far as to define FBSS as  “a multidimensional chronic pain syndrome that has significant myofascial and psychosocial components that are directly related to the high incidence of lumbar surgeries in the United States.” Sorry to say, but it’s not just present in the US.

These are the psychosocial risk factors, as identified by Chan and Peng :

  • significant levels of depression,
  • anxiety,
  • poor coping,
  • somatisation
  • hypochondriasis

To be honest, I think these indications would be risk factors for ANY surgery (and probably ANY invasive procedure, including dry needling). But there’s more than this – preoperative risks such as having had prior surgery (spinal instability seems to become worse with repeated revisions); surgery carried out when imaging results suggest there may be good reason, but there is no corresponding clinical correlation; nonsurgical cases of radiculopathy and neuropathy (eg diabetes, viruses, inflammation, vascular disease). And intra-operative risks such as difficult radiographic imaging, inadequate decompression – this paper uses the term “pain generator” for the potential source of nociception, but you and I know that pain only occurs as an output of the brain within a biopsychosocial system; lots of other surgical issues including bleeding, fragments of tissue, “battered root syndrome” (!) where the nerve root is damaged during discectomy; and finally, there are a load of post-operative issues as well – such as haematoma, pseudoarthritis, fibrosis, irritation of the nerve roots, spinal instability, loss of disc height and the list goes on.

Shapiro suggests that some types of ongoing pain after surgery are misdiagnosed myofascial pain, stirring up or producing trigger points. He does add that central sensitisation in the dorsal horn could also play a part, expanding receptive fields in the spinal cord and amplifying “perception” (once again, think of this as amplifying nociceptive input reaching the brain). He also favours the notion of motor control problems following surgery, again compounding the problems that occur with movement after surgery and feeding back into the ongoing pain experienced by the individual.

Shapiro also goes on to suggest various ways the problems could be ameliorated, primarily through careful imaging and then possible surgical management.  The overall management, however, he argues should be pharmacological, “with the goal of increasing physical activity and community involvement”.  Interestingly, Shapiro says “FBSS patients are often pushed aside and told that their surgeons have little to offer them after their surgeries were unsuccessful. These patients are generally managed by community-based physicians, including primary care physicians, anesthesiologists, physiatrists, and neurologists.”  He goes on to say “Treatment of FBSS demands recognition that it is a chronic pain syndrome. One reason that FBSS is a difficult-to-treat syndrome and a public health problem is that the antecedent back pain did not respond to intervention and was often augmented with additional pain complaints caused by the surgery. The psychosocial burden for individuals is huge, especially if there is job loss or loss of function physically. Many of the immediate postoperative pharmacologic strategies complicate the situation further by altering the patient sensorium, mood, affect, and even libido. Opioid-induced hyperalgesia is probably under-recognized and under-reported.”

What does this mean to me?

It must be terribly distressing to be offered a treatment for low back pain and leg pain that is both invasive and expensive – only to find that it hasn’t helped one bit. And even more distressing to then be advised that “there is nothing more I can do, it’s a risk of having surgery”. Worse, then to be advised that the options for managing this pain are quite limited – and for many people, means repeated surgery, perhaps even to the point of having a spinal cord stimulator implanted (with all the known complications of this kind of intervention). Shapiro describes people being offered facet joint radiofrequency neurotomy, but even he acknowledges that “it does not offer a permanent fix to facet-mediated pain, which should raise concern with regard to overutilisation”.

What astonishes me, but probably shouldn’t, is that interdisciplinary pain management approaches continue to be seen as costly, yet there is ample research showing these programmes achieve clinical and cost-effective improvements in patient function.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from the following paragraph snipped from Shapiro’s paper:

The cost for this individually tailored 20-day outpatient program, including physical therapy, occupational therapy, and psychological support, is approximately $15,000 (Pain SolutionsNetwork, personal communication, 2013). This is similar to the cost for a single-level laminectomy not requiring a hospital stay and is substantially less costly than the direct costs for lumbar fusion when hospital, hardware, surgeon, and anesthesia costs are added up. [and I’d go even further to add that the 30% risk of a poor outcome is even more expensive…]

I think the health system has failed the people who undergo surgery for low back pain. With a failure rate quoted by Shapiro as approximately 30%, and an increase in epidural injections and facet joint injections of over 250% without any similar improvement in health status, something is going wrong. Very wrong.

Allied health professionals can and do provide cost-effective interdisciplinary pain management for people living with so-called “failed” back surgery syndrome. I think it’s time for allied health professionals to begin agitating, and perhaps even advertising direct to people who have pain – we can help. Our treatments don’t have the risks of invasive procedures. We are focused on helping you DO despite your pain. And what we do can hardly make your pain worse – unlike some of the very sad stories I’ve read.



Chan C, Peng P. (2011). Failed back surgery syndrome. Pain Medicine 12:577–606.

Shapiro, C.M. (2014). The failed back surgery syndrome: Pitfalls surrounding evaluation and treatment. Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, 25(2), 319-340.

Rhodin, A. (2014). A case of severe low back pain after surgery. Journal of Pain & Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy, 28(2), 167-168; discussion 168-169.

silent angel comfort me

What does using a biopsychosocial framework mean in practice?

A good friend of mine told me that during her training (as a physiotherapist), psychosocial factors were “what you blame when your treatment doesn’t work”. It’s something I’ve heard more than once. I’ve also been asked many times “…but are you sure you’re not doing something outside your scope of practice?” when I talk about using cognitive behavioural principles and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and other psychological strategies. And some of you might have seen earlier posts of mine where I ask “How social is your biopsychosocial model?”

Today’s medical students are trained in using a biopsychosocial framework in their undergraduate years. They leave medical school, begin their hospital and advanced training, and I guess I wouldn’t be alone in asking “what happened to the psychosocial?” when we see them working.

So today’s post is a bit of a reflection and a musing on what I think using a BPS approach might mean in pain practice.

BPS is, I think, less of a “model” than a way of thinking. Thinking that is based on a systems approach – every factor affects and is affected by every other factor. In fact, Engel, the originator of this way of viewing human health, was strongly influenced by general systems theory which was developed by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, a biologist who lived between 1901 – 1972. General systems theory was a model describing processes thought to be common in many different fields of knowledge. General systems theory is based on these five beliefs:

(1)  There is a general tendency towards integration in the various sciences, natural and social.

(2)  Such integration seems to be centred in a general theory of systems.

(3)  Such theory may be an important means of aiming at exact theory in the nonphysical fields of science.

(4)  Developing unifying principles running ‘vertically’ through the universe of the individual sciences, this theory brings us nearer to the goal of the unity of science.

(5)  This can lead to a much-needed integration in scientific education.

Engel then applied this to a model of the influences on human health. At the time he wrote his seminal article (Engel, 1977), psychiatrists were being challenged by reductionism on the one hand, particularly around approaches to mental health – the distinction between “diseases” where biological causal factors are influential, such as neurological disorders, and “problems of living” such as alcoholism, where the relevance of biology was, at the time, hotly debated; and concern that psychiatrists might lose ground to nonmedical practitioners such as psychologists. It’s an argument that continues today: should, for example, nonspecific low back pain be the domain of medical practitioners or should physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and others pick up primary responsibility for its management? (For a very interesting discussion of socio-political debates about this, read Wilson, N., Pope, C., Roberts, L., & Crouch, R. (2014). Governing healthcare: Finding meaning in a clinical practice guideline for the management of non-specific low back pain. Social Science & Medicine, 102(0), 138-145. doi:

Back to the story. The broad BPS “model” can’t be tested, and to some, was never intended to be a “scientific” model but rather a discussion tool. A way of shaping a dialogue between the person seeking help, and the clinician wanting to understand what was influencing how and why this person was presenting in this way at this time. I like to think of it as a way to remember that the person seeing you is a person-in-context.

We can argue the toss about exactly which factors belong in which “bit” of a biopsychosocial approach, but broadly speaking, we want to understand biological influences on health. Some of these are genetic (a bit hard to investigate for most of us), some of these are environmental (rickets? Vit D deficiency?), some are other organisms (M. leprae and M. lepromatosis? – Leprosy to you and me). Some are associated with what people do – tripping, jumping off things; while some are associated with what people don’t do – manage diabetes, exercise. The bio part is far more readily assessed and addressed than the other messy bits and pieces, so I won’t deal with that any further.

The psychosocial, on the other hand, is messy. It’s muddled and hard to measure and changes over time and geography and culture.

To me, it means remembering that when two people get together, it’s not just about the words we use, it’s about what we both bring to the setting in terms of experience, habits, expectations, vulnerabilities. It’s about where we meet. It’s about the purpose of meeting. It’s about recognising that everything we say and do is imbued with meaning – but it’s also about not necessarily knowing what we know, or what we don’t know.

So if I’m practicing in a biopsychosocial framework, I’m going to have to know a great deal about myself and my assumptions, my attitudes, habits, how others see me, and even what I don’t know. And the same applies to my knowledge about the person I’m seeing – only because I’m usually the “treatment provider”, I need to shape my conversation so that it’s OK for that person to tell me about this stuff, and this means knowing a bit about how people tick. I especially need to know how to hear what the person coming to me is saying – and not saying.

I see much that is called “psychological” as being about how we communicate and what we know about helping people change behaviour. I’m not “doing psychology” when I teach my child how to tie shoelaces, yet I’m using psychological techniques – modeling, reinforcement, verbal instructions and so on. Likewise when I’m helping someone feel OK about driving their car when they have back pain, I’m using psychological techniques such as verbal instruction, grading the difficulty, encouraging, supporting and so on. To suggest we can’t use psychological techniques to enable normal function is unthinkable.

Using CBT or ACT or motivation interviewing simply means refining my interpersonal skills so that I can optimise the chances that the person feels heard, can understand what I’m on about, and begins to feel OK about taking steps towards the life they want and being themselves. It’s about learning ways of explaining things, learning how to show that I’m listening, learning about the right level of support and challenge that will enhance the chances of success. Most people who live with chronic pain probably don’t need to see a psychologist – they need someone to help them make sense of pain, to show they’re there as they find their way through, and celebrate when they’re doing what’s important in their lives. I think all health professionals should be doing this.

Engel, G.L. (1977). The need for a new medical model: A challenge for biomedicine. Science, 196(4286), 129-136. doi: