goal-setting

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a couple of problems though:

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

Here are my thoughts on what we can do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What do we do with those questionnaires?


Courtesy of many influences in pain management practice, you’d have to have been hiding under a rock or maybe be some sort of dinosaur not to have noticed the increasing emphasis on using questionnaires to measure factors such as pain catastrophising, depression or avoidance. The problem is I’m not sure we’ve all been certain about what to do with the results. It’s not uncommon for me to hear people saying “Oh but once I see psychosocial factors there, I just refer on”, or “they’re useful when the person’s not responding to my treatment, but otherwise…”, “we use them for outcome measures, but they’re not much use for my treatment planning”.

I think many clinicians think psychosocial questionnaires are all very well – but “intuition”  will do “…and what difference would it make to my treatment anyway?”

Today I thought I’d deconstruct the Pain Catastrophising Scale and show what it really means in clinical practice.

The Pain Catastrophising Scale is a well-known and very useful measure of an individual’s tendency to “think the worst” when they’re considering their pain. Catastrophising is defined as “an exaggerated negative mental set brought to bear during actual or anticipated painful experience” (Sullivan et al., 2001). The questionnaire was first developed by Sullivan, Bishop and Pivik in 1995, and the full copy including an extensive manual is available here. Keep returning to that page because updates are made frequently, providing more information about the utility of the measure.

The questionnaire itself is a 13-item measure using a 0 – 4 Likert-type scale from 0 = “not at all” to 4 = “all the time”. Respondents are instructed to “indicate the degree to which you have these thoughts and feelings when you are experiencing pain”.

There are three subscales measuring three major dimensions of catastrophising: rumination “I can’t stop thinking about how much it hurts”; magnification “I worry that something serious may happen”; and helplessness “It’s awful and I feel that it overwhelms me”.

To score the instrument, simply sum all the responses to all 13 items, but to get a better idea of how to help a person, the subscale calculations involve the following:

Rumination: sum items 8,9,10, and 11

Magnification: sum items 6,7, and 13

Helplessness: sum items 1,2,3,4,5, and 12

There’s not a lot of point in having numbers without knowing what they mean, so the manual provides means and standard deviations relating to a population individuals with injury leading to lost time from work in Nova Scotia, Canada.

thingClinicians are typically interested in whether the person sitting in front of them is likely to have trouble managing their pain, so the manual also provides “cut off”scores for what could be described as “clinically relevant” levels of catastrophising. A total score of 30 or more is thought to represent the 75th percentile of scores obtained by individuals with chronic pain.

The “so what” question

Cutting to the chase, the question is “so what”? What difference will getting this information from someone make to my clinical reasoning?

Leaving aside the enormous body of literature showing a relationship between high levels of catastrophising and generally poor responses to traditional treatments that address pain alone (including surgery for major joint replacement, recovery from multiple orthopaedic trauma, low back pain, shoulder pain etc), I think it’s helpful to dig down into what the three subscales tell us about the person we’re working with. It’s once we understand these tendencies that we can begin to work out how our approach with someone who has high levels of rumination might differ from what we’ll do when working with someone who has high levels of helplessness.

As an aside and being upfront, I think it’s important to remember that a questionnaire score will only tell you what a person wants you to know. Questionnaires are NOT X-rays of the mind! They’re just convenient ways to ask the same questions more than once, to collect the answers and compare what this person says with the responses from a whole lot of other people, and they allow us to organise information in a way that we might not think to do otherwise.  I also think it’s really important NOT to label a person as “a catastrophiser” as if this is a choice the person has made. People will have all sorts of reasons for tending to think the way they do, and judging someone is unprofessional and unethical.

Rumination

Rumination is that thing we do when a thought just won’t get out of our mind. You know the one – the ear worm, the endless round and round, especially at night, when we can’t get our mind off the things we’re worrying about. If a person has trouble with being able to drag his or her attention away, there are some useful things we can suggest. One theory about rumination is that it’s there as a sort of problem solving strategy, but one that has gone haywire.

Mindfulness can help so that people can notice their thoughts but not get hooked up into them. I like to use this both as a thought strategy, but also as a way of scanning the body and just noticing not only where the pain is experienced, but also where it is not.

“Fifteen minutes of worry” can also help – setting aside one specific time of the day (I like 7.00pm – 7.15pm) where you have to write down everything you’re worried about for a whole fifteen minutes without stopping. By also telling yourself throughout the day “I’m not worrying about this until tonight” and afterwards saying “I’ve already worried about this so I don’t need to right now”, worrying and ruminating can be contained. By being present with the thoughts during that 15 minutes, the threat value of the thought content is also reduced.

Magnification

This is the tendency to think of the worst possible thing rather than the most likely outcome, and it’s common! Magnification can really increase the distress and “freeze” response to a situation. If a person is thinking of all the worst possible outcomes it’s really hard for them to focus on what is actually happening in the here and now. There’s some adaptive features to magnification – if I’ve prepared for the worst, and it doesn’t happen, then I’m in a good situation to go on, but in some people this process becomes so overwhelming that their ability to plan is stopped in its tracks.

Once again, mindfulness can be really useful here, particularly paying attention to what is actually happening in the here and now, rather than what might happen or what has happened. Mindful attention to breathing, body and thoughts can help reduce the “freeze” response, and allow some space for problem solving.

Of course, accurate information presented in nonthreatening terms and in ways the person can process is important to de-threaten the experience of pain. This is at the heart of “explain pain” approaches – and it’s useful. What’s important, however, is to directly address the main concern of the person – and it may not be the pain itself, but the beliefs about what pain will mean in terms of being a good parent, holding down a job, maintaining intimacy, being responsible and reliable. It’s crucial to find out what the person is really concerned about – and then ensure your “reassurance” is really reassuring.

Helplessness

Helplessness is that feeling of “there’s nothing I can do to avoid this awful outcome so I won’t do anything”. It’s a precursor to feelings of depression and certainly part of feeling overwhelmed and out of control.

When a person is feeling helpless it’s important to help them regain a sense of self efficacy, or confidence that they CAN do something to help themselves, to exert some sort of control over their situation. It might be tempting to aim for focusing on pain intensity and helping them gain control over pain intensity, but because it’s often so variable and influenced by numerous factors, it might be more useful to help the person achieve some small goals that are definitely achievable. I often begin with breathing because it’s a foundation for mindfulness, relaxation and has a direct influence over physiological arousal.

You might also begin with some exercise or daily activities that are well within the capabilities of the person you’re seeing. I like walking as a first step (no pun intended) because it doesn’t require any equipment, it’s something we all do, and it can be readily titrated to add difficulty. It’s also something that can be generalised into so many different environments. In a physiotherapy situation I’d like to see PTs consider exercises as their medium for helping a person experience a sense of achievement, of control, rather than a means to an end (ie to “fix” some sort of deficit).

To conclude
Questionnaires don’t add value until they’re USED. I think it’s unethical to administer a questionnaire without knowing what it means, without using the results, and without integrating the results into clinical reasoning. The problem is that so many questionnaires are based on psychological models and these haven’t been integrated into physiotherapy or occupational therapy clinical reasoning models. Maybe it’s time to work out how do this?

Sullivan M J L, Bishop S, Pivik J. The Pain Catastrophizing Scale: Development and validation. Psychol Assess 1995, 7: 524-532.

Main, C. J., Foster, N., & Buchbinder, R. (2010). How important are back pain beliefs and expectations for satisfactory recovery from back pain? Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 24(2), 205-217. doi:doi:10.1016/j.berh.2009.12.012

Sturgeon, J. A., Zautra, A. J., & Arewasikporn, A. (2014). A multilevel structural equation modeling analysis of vulnerabilities and resilience resources influencing affective adaptation to chronic pain. PAIN®, 155(2), 292-298. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2013.10.007

Pain Acceptance rather than Catastrophising influences work goal pursuit & achievement


We all know that having pain can act as a disincentive to doing things. What’s less clear is how, when a person is in chronic pain, life can continue. After all, life doesn’t stop just because pain is a daily companion. I’ve been interested in how people maintain living well despite their pain, because I think if we can work this out, some of the ongoing distress and despair experienced by people living with pain might be alleviated (while we wait for cures to appear).

The problem with studying daily life is that it’s complicated. What happened yesterday can influence what we do today. How well we sleep can make a difference to pain and fatigue. Over time, these changes influences can blur and for people living with pain it begins to be difficult to work out which came first: the pain, or the life disruption. Sophisticated mathematical procedures can now be used to model the effects of variations in individual’s experiences on factors that are important to an overall group. For example, if we track pain, fatigue and goals in a group of people, we can see that each person’s responses vary around their own personal “normal”. If we then add some additional factors, let’s say pain acceptance, or catastrophising, and look to see firstly how each individual’s “normal” varies with their own acceptance or catastrophising, then look at how overall grouped norms vary with these factors while controlling for the violation of usual assumptions in this kind of statistical analysis (like independence of each sample, for example), we can begin to examine the ways that pain, or goal pursuit vary depending on acceptance or catastrophising across time.

In the study I’m looking at today, this kind of multilevel modelling was used to examine the variability between pain intensity and positive and negative feelings and pain interference with goal pursuit and progress, as well as looking to see whether pain acceptance or catastrophising mediated the same outcomes.

variationsThe researchers found that pain intensity interfered with goal progress, but it didn’t do this directly. Instead, it did this via the individual’s perception of how much pain interfered with goal pursuit. In other words, when a person thinks that pain gets in the way of them doing things, this happens when they experience higher pain intensity that makes them feel that it’s hard to keep going with goals. Even if people feel OK in themselves, pain intensity makes it feel like it’s much harder to keep going.

But, what’s really interesting about this study is that pain acceptance exerts an independent influence on the strength of this relationship, far more than pain catastrophising (or thinking the worst). What this means is that even if pain intensity gets in the way of wanting to do things, people who accept their pain as part of themselves are more able to keep going.

The authors of this study point out that “not all individuals experience pain’s interference with goal pursuit to the same extent because interference is likely to depend on pain attitudes” (Mun, Karoly & Okun, 2015), and accepting pain seems to be one of the important factors that allow people to keep going. Catastrophising, as measured in this study, didn’t feature as a moderator, which is quite unusual, and the authors suggest that perhaps their using “trait” catastrophising instead of “state” catastrophising might have fuzzed this relationship, and that both forms of catastrophising should be measured in future.

An important point when interpreting this study: acceptance does not mean “OMG I’m just going to ignore my pain” or “OMG I’m just going to distract myself”. Instead, acceptance means reducing unhelpful brooding on pain, or trying to control pain (which just doesn’t really work, does it). Acceptance also means “I’m going to get on with what makes me feel like me” even if my pain goes up because I do. The authors suggest that acceptance might reduce pain’s disruptive influence on cognitive processes, meaning there’s more brain space to focus on moving towards important goals.

In addition to the cool finding that acceptance influences how much pain interferes with moving towards important goals, this study also found that being positive, or feeling good also reduced pain interference. Now this is really cool because I’ve been arguing that having fun is one of the first things that people living with chronic pain lose. And it’s rarely, if ever, included in pain management or rehabilitation approaches. Maybe it’s time to recognise that people doing important and fun things that they value might actually be a motivating approach that could instill confidence and “stickability” when developing rehabilitation programmes.

Mun CJ, Karoly P, & Okun MA (2015). Effects of daily pain intensity, positive affect, and individual differences in pain acceptance on work goal interference and progress. Pain, 156 (11), 2276-85 PMID: 26469319

Some people are ready to change and others are not – James Gordon


The full quote is actually:

“It’s not that some people have willpower and some don’t… It’s that some people are ready to change and others are not.”
― James Gordon

Oh how true is that. And any health professional will tell you that there’s just no point pushing for change when the person isn’t ready for it. So often we encounter people who are unhappy with their lot in life, struggling with this and that, and yet they just don’t make changes that seemingly sit right in front of their faces. It’s SO frustrating!

Or, in my case, it used to be so frustrating – because a few years ago I discovered an approach that revolutionised my practice and made me take another look at my expectations and beliefs about motivation. More about that shortly.

This post arose out of the recent publication of a paper by Sarah Hardcastle and colleagues from the Health Psychology and Behavioural Medicine Research Group at Curtin University in Perth. “Motivating the unmotivated: How can health behavior be changed in those unwilling to change?”

This paper outlines several theoretical approaches that have given health professionals some powerful tools to use when working with people who could change but haven’t.  In order to help people in this space, the authors argue that we really need to understand why it is they don’t have “motivation”. So, what is motivation? Simply put, it’s the desire to do things. And for many of us, we think of it as a “thing” that you either have, or you haven’t. But motivation is a tricky thing – ever been disinclined to go visit someone who’s invited you to dinner, dragged yourself there and then had a fantastic time? Or had one of those ideas that flash through your mind, get all excited about it … but never get around to it? Motivation is a fluid thing and doesn’t always equate to action!

Amotivation, or lacking in motivation, is quite specific to a particular action or set of actions. It may be because a person doesn’t think he or she will be successful if they try. Why bother if you know you’re going to fail? This is about having low self-efficacy, or low confidence and thinking it’s not possible to obtain skills or capabilities to be successful.

Amotivation can also occur if a person thinks it’s going to take more out of them than the rewards from doing it. The costs outweigh the benefits. And it can occur when the effort needed to overcome barriers or to push through feels too much, or the change just doesn’t seem worth it because it’s not that big a deal.

Here’s where I come back to my revolution a few years ago – I found that by using motivational interviewing, I was able to shift the responsibility for making a decision to change back to the person (instead of trying to “make it” happen), but at the same time, recognising the reasons for the person staying where they were. To me, it boils down to respecting that people don’t do dumb stuff for fun. There’s usually very good reasons for them having made a decision, either to make a change, or NOT to make a change. What they’re currently doing works, at least to a certain extent.

Using motivational interviewing, the first and most important thing to learn is to respect the person and take the time to understand the good things they recognise about their current situation. Because there are always some good things about being stuck – it’s easier, for one, than making a change. It’s familiar. It’s worked once or twice. People know what to expect. Change always means disruption somewhere, and that’s not comfortable or easy.

If we look at the reasons I outlined for NOT making a change, and work through them, I think (and so do the authors of this paper!) that there are some things we can do to make change less difficult, and in so doing, build momentum for change.

  1. Lack of self-efficacy – if someone doesn’t think he or she will succeed, why would they even begin? Personally I think this is a big part of “lack of motivation for returning to work” which is something I’ve seen written in way too many clinical reports. If someone doesn’t think they’ll be successful, how could we make the change less challenging? Increase support? Make the steps smaller? Look at other things the person has been successful in? Find out how they’ve made changes successfully in the past and use that?
  2. Not valued highly – or, something else is more valued than this right now. Respecting that there is a time and place for things to be done, and that other things in life can over-ride making changes is both authentic and human. It means that this change isn’t yet important enough – so, how do you build importance? To me, importance is about values and what a person wants in his or her life. There are often discrepancies between what we want and what we’re doing, and sometimes this is because it’s too difficult or messy to think about it. I think part of our job as health professionals of any discipline is to help people consider things that are tough. To reflect on the short and long-term outcomes of carrying on in status quo, and the same if we made a successful change. Things we do because they’re more comfortable in the short-term can be incompatible with what we really want long-term. It’s part of my job to help people think about this. NOT, I hasten to add, to “make” them decide in any particular direction. That’s not my job, I’m there to help people think about how their actions today might affect the future, and let them make their own decisions. At the same time, I can choose to reflect the reality of the long-term effects of today’s actions. That’s being responsible as a health professional.
  3. Feeling the end result isn’t worth it, or that there are too many things in the way – again, to me this feels a lot like addressing self-efficacy. If there are things in the way, or it feels too hard, then part of my job is to help the person find a way that is within their capabilities, and to grab a vision of what it might feel like to have successfully achieved that end result. Asking the person to “look forward” to a few months, years down the track – what would it look like if they made a change that worked? How would this affect what’s important to you? If you decided not to make a change, what would things be like? Would that be what you want?
  4. Habits making it hard to think about changing – It’s easy to over-indulge on chocolate when there’s one of those “treat boxes” in the workplace. It’s easy to go home and stay at home rather than go for a run if you don’t have running shoes and a change of clothes in your car. Environmental triggers where it’s easier NOT to do a healthy thing make it difficult for someone who’s just not even thought about making a change. Employers, healthcare facilities and both local and central government can make it harder for people to do unhealthy things simply by structuring when and where people can access them. So the carpark a little further from the workplace can make it easier to get more exercise each day, banning smoking from healthcare facility grounds makes it harder to get a smoke break, having healthy options in the “treat box” can make it easier to choose something healthy. This set of changes can feel a bit “nanny state”, but they’re effective and useful when it’s those simple little changes that make the difference between living well, or not.

Motivating for health behaviour change starts with building confidence and importance. Maintaining behaviour change involves a lot more – but that’s for another post. In the meantime, I think Atoine de Saint-Exupery had it right when he said:

“Quand tu veux construire un bateau, ne commence pas par rassembler du bois, couper des planches et distribuer du travail, mais reveille au sein des hommes le desir de la mer grande et large.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Hardcastle, S.J., Hancox, J., Hattar, A., Maxwell-Smith, C., Thøgersen-Ntoumani, C., & Hagger, M.S. (2015). Motivating the unmotivated: How can health behavior be changed in those unwilling to change? Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 835. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00835

Developing a shared plan


Last week I introduced you to one way I use to develop a shared understanding of the many factors influencing how and why a person seeks help for their pain.  The person and I work together to understand his or her perspective. I use a range of open-ended questions and reflective listening to guide our discovery of how his/her pain affects life and emotions.

Some points to note:

  • I don’t try to give explanations at this point – explanations will influence what the person says to me, and may inadvertently shape or change what he or she says without necessarily changing his or her beliefs.
  • I’m not trying to make any diagnoses either. A diagnosis is just a short-hand way of lumping a bunch of symptoms together. Great for research, and great for when we have a clear treatment, but a diagnosis tells us nothing about how the problem is affecting this person at this time. And in pain we’re always looking at the person and his or her experience, because even if we successfully get rid of the pain, the person will have learned something through the experience and this will influence the person in the future.
  • I’m informed by what we know about pain from research, so I’m constantly probing and looking for the relationships between factors we know will affect the person. Note that I’m not looking for tissue-level influences, but rather I’m investigating at a “person” level. This means I’m looking at psychological and sociological processes. I’m not ignoring those tissue-level factors, but I’m placing those off to one side for the moment. There are a couple of reasons for this: the first is that I’m probably not going to directly influence tissue-level factors. I don’t lay hands on people. I don’t give drugs. The second is that the person isn’t likely to be aware of those factors. They know much of their own experience (not all – but we’ll come to that), and experience and perception are the most potent drivers of what a person believes and therefore does.
  • I try wherever possible to flesh out my interview with additional information. This might be from questionnaires, or observing, or clinical notes from other people. And yes, I incorporate this information with the full knowledge of the person – in fact, they’re part of the process of integrating this information.

What do I end up with?

A spaghetti junction! A diagram that looks a lot like this:

formulationThis diagram is a pretty simple one, when you think of all the factors that could be involved – and in this case, I’ve made it much clearer than my usual scribble!

At this point I have a series of hypotheses to explain why Gerald is in this state. Together with Gerald, we’ve established that there could be some fear of pain, and in particular, fear that Gerald won’t be able to cope if his pain goes up and doesn’t settle. Gerald has also identified that he can feel helpless at these times, because he doesn’t know what else to do to manage his pain. He believes he’s getting unfit, and that’s adding to his feelings of frustration. He doesn’t want to go out with his mates because he’s irritable. He tries not to let his wife know how he’s feeling to protect her, but this adds to him feeling isolated. He doesn’t want to go back to work, not because he’s not motivated, but because he’s afraid he’ll let them down and this will add to his guilt. He doesn’t think his case manager understands this.

I could ask Gerald to list his main concerns and use these as a guide for my treatment outcomes, but I’ve recently started using a different approach. I’ll ask Gerald what he would be doing differently if his pain wasn’t such a problem to him.

Bronnie: Let’s imagine for a minute, what would you be doing differently if your pain wasn’t such a problem?

Gerald: Well, I’d be back at work, for one thing.

Bronnie: OK, and would you think you’d be back at work full time, or ease your way back in?

Gerald: Well, I think it would be sensible to ease myself back in because it’s been a while and I’m out of shape. Better to know I can do it than have a go and fail.

Bronnie: Great idea. What else would you be doing differently if your pain wasn’t such a problem?

Gerald: I’d take my wife out for dinner, it’s been hard on her while I’m so laid up and grumpy.

Bronnie: What’s your main concern about going out to dinner with your wife right now?

Gerald: I can’t sit long enough to enjoy a meal out. It all seems so hard, to get into a car, and drive to a restaurant, and sit there for three courses. I’m just too sore to do it.

Bronnie: So going to a restaurant and sitting to get there and while you’re there is going to increase your pain?

Gerald: Yeah. Is it worth it? What if it doesn’t settle? I can’t sleep and then the next day I’m shattered. I don’t think it’s worth it.

Bronnie: OK. Is there anything else you’d be doing if your pain wasn’t such a problem for you?

Gerald: I’d be going out and seeing my mates, going fishing and 4 wheel driving. I miss that. There’s no way I could do that right now.

Bronnie: What’s your main concern about going fishing, and seeing your mates at the moment?

Gerald: I’d be ready to go home before they’d even started. They’d get fed up with me slowing them down. And casting is really hard on my neck.

Bronnie: So to sum up then, it seems like there are some things you’d love to be doing, but reasons you think it would be better not to be doing them right now. If we go through them, you’d love to go back to work, but you’d like to do it gradually so you can get in shape again, and so you know you’ll succeed. You’d love to take your wife out for dinner, but the whole dinner thing feels too hard, and you’re worried that your pain will get out of hand and you won’t be able to sleep. And you’d really love to get back out with your mates again, and go fishing, but right now you think your mates would get fed up with you because you’d want to leave too early, and you wouldn’t be able to cast without setting your pain off. Does that sound about right?

Gerald: Yeah.

Bronnie: I think there are some things we could begin to work on so you feel more confident you can handle it when your pain levels go up and down. And I think we could work on some physical things that could help you feel a bit fitter, more able to do things for longer. And finally, I think it would be great if we could help you and your wife connect a bit more, perhaps not yet at a sit-down restaurant, but perhaps there are other ways this could happen. What are your thoughts? Is there anything you’d especially like to look at?

What I’ve tried to do here is identify the underlying reasons Gerald isn’t doing things. While pain appears to be the problem, it’s not the pain it self but the fear of possible effects of pain that haven’t even happened yet that are really stopping him from doing things. And this is adding to the misery of having neck pain.

By giving Gerald the chance to tell me his dreams, we’re going beyond “I need to get rid of my pain” and into the reasons for living in the first place. People don’t just live to get rid of pain, they live to have lives full of meaning, let’s not ever forget that.

Being: or doing?


I’ve posted a couple of times on goal-setting here and here and here.

You might get the message that I spend my time bimbling along without focusing on anything in particular. That’s just so not true! I definitely have things I want to achieve – and I achieve them (mostly – I never did learn German except to decipher my Burda pattern instructions!). It’s just that I think health professionals can use goals to clobber people with, and I don’t think that helps anyone, least of all the person in the middle.

Here are some more good reasons not to focus on goals:

  1. Goals can make all our efforts focused on the goal, and when the goal’s complete the actions stop. Goals can make daily actions things we do as a means to an end rather than something we do because we think they have value. Goals can make those actions temporary, a chore.
  2. Goals are external outcomes we want to achieve. That means achieving them is often out of our control. If I want to get a new job there are things I can do but in the end an employer must want to hire me. There’s nothing I can do to get a particular job if the employer just doesn’t want to employ me.
  3. When a goal takes a long time to reach, we can lose interest and give up. Then all that work is lost.

So, if I don’t just bimble along, randomly doing whatever takes my fancy, and I don’t set goals, what do I do?

I read a fabulous post by Nadira Jamal, The Belly Dance Geek

In it she’s looking at building a daily dance practice. Dancers need to practice, but many amateur dancers do a boom and bust approach to dance practice. “There’s a performance coming up – must practice! must practice!” Then once that performance is over, dance practice stops. Only to begin again once there’s another performance! No wonder some of us never get beyond struggling with hip drops. Nadira’s reasoning is that when we focus on “achieving the goal”, practice is a means to an end, not a means in itself.  Now the reason I want to dance is that it’s part of who I am, an expression of myself. So, you might wonder, why on earth don’t I practice as often as I can?  Well, it seems too hard to fit it in, I get bored, there are other people around, it’s too hot, it’s too cold, I’m still in my pj’s, I’ve had my shower already and don’t want to get all sticky…

People we work with have similarly good reasons for not doing those exercises we’ve recommended.

Instead, Nadira recommends using themes in dance practice. Picking some areas of dance to work on and working on them – selecting from a theme gives more variety for practice, they become a focus but not a prescription, and we choose them. A theme might be arms – and thinking of all the different ways I could improve my arms in dance. Pick a couple of activities, use these as a “menu”, then when you begin to practice, choose the one or ones that appeal that day.

Translating this into pain management, a theme might be “ways to down-regulate my sensitive nervous system”. The are a heap of ways to do this: mindfulness, yoga, walking in the garden, reading a good book, stretching, self-hypnosis. What a range of things I can choose from each day! I can write them all down, then depending on how I’m feeling that day I can choose the one that suits me the most.

I think it’s good to begin the day by reviewing my diary – and that when I plan my actions. I’ve decided, after listening to Nadira, to practice every morning. It’s easy because I just have to get out of bed five minutes earlier than normal. And yes, I’m only doing 5 minutes at the moment. For those who don’t know, I am NOT a morning person. And 5 minutes means I KNOW I can do it, even when I’m feeling sluggish. And it’s tied to getting up – usually I read, so I just finish reading 5 minutes early. I know the things that are likely to derail me from doing the practice, so I have my music ready, stay in my pj’s to do it (a vision that is not a sight for sore eyes), and go straight to the shower after. I’ve chosen themes for practice, and I focus on those.

With a client, I might look at “exercise” and consider all the activities that could be included in “exercise”. Not just the gym, but also gardening, vacuum-cleaning, dancing, walking along the beach, taking Sheba-the-wonderdog for a walk, throwing a stick for her. So flexible I can pick something to do each day.

The key, I think, is looking at why we think someone “should” do whatever it is we want them to do. Why should someone do exercises? Is it to be able to do something else? Yes? Then choose a number of activities that will contribute to doing that thing. Let the person decide exactly what to do each day.

Here’s an example: if we want someone to get fitter because this will help them return to work, list all the ways we (and the person) can think to get a bit of exercise into their day.

  1. Park the car a bit further away from home today, and walk to the park.
  2. Use the stairs instead of the lift.
  3. Take a bike ride around the blog.
  4. Take the dog for a walk.
  5. Walk along the beach with your partner.
  6. Build 5 minute exercise “snacks” throughout the day (I use Pomodoro technique to do this)

While these aren’t earth-shattering in intensity, for someone who is just not that into exercising, this might be a good beginning. And it allows for variety, builds on existing habits (daisy-chaining) Beginning where we are, allowing for variety and interest, and focusing on actions rather than goals gives us pleasure in the doing.

If we can’t say why we think they need to, for example, increase single leg standing balance, then seriously folks, why are we getting them to do it? If we don’t know why someone should sweat it out on a bike at a gym, then why do we think it’s a good thing? Is a spin class just for the thrill of the spin? If so, does the person enjoy it? Yes? Then fine, go for it. No? If it’s to be fit enough for something else – what other ways could that person “get fit enough”?

There is always more than one way to skin a cat, as they say. Don’t get trapped into getting your patients hooked into doing The One Exercise just because you think it’s a good thing. I’m pretty confident that this is the best way to lose people. Let’s instead focus on being, and the doing will happen in a myriad different ways.

Goals? I loathe them: What to do instead


I dislike that acronym “SMART” goals. I can never decide whether it’s meant to mean “Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound” or “specific, manageable, active, realistic and timed” And if it’s either of those, what’s the difference between achievable and realistic? Or is it meant to be “relevant”?

In previous posts I’ve established good reasons to have a focus for therapy. Unless the focus is something valued by the client, it’s either unlikely to get done or it’s not their goal and they’re going along with it to keep you happy. Goals, targets or focus are useful, and the logic goes that unless you have them you won’t know where you’re going or when you’ve got there.

I’m not going to argue against the idea of having a focus to therapy. I just think there are risks in having goals, like some sort of checklist that says “If you achieve this, you’re all good”.

Seriously, that doesn’t work in real life. That’s the same kind of logic that says “if I just buy enough things I’ll be happy”, “if I just earn a bit more I’ll be happy”. While there’s a bottom line below which it’s hard to think beyond survival, above that line, having stuff, and even doing things as an end in themselves doesn’t fulfill for long.

What gives forward momentum, enrichment, fulfillment and can’t be ticked off like some shopping list is recognising that life is actually a whole series of actions and events that, when we think back on them, make up a good life. The richer events and experiences and actions feel good and fulfilling. The empty routine and humdrum things feel deadly dull and empty.

When I think about the purpose of therapy my focus is helping people to live the kind of life they value, doing the things they believe are important. Given I don’t want to be a long-term feature in a client’s life (for all I love them, I’d rather they were doing it themselves), my focus is on helping them work out what makes a rich, fulfilled life they can look back on and feel satisfied. My job is to help them develop skills and strategies to carry out the actions needed to live a life aligned with what they value.

Let me unpack this a little.

Many people I see place value on being a good parent, a loving partner, a reliable employee. When I see them, their pain has interfered with doing the things they believe demonstrate “being a good parent” or “being reliable”. Pain has moved in to their lives, and come and sat on their laps right in front of their face so that all they can see is pain.  If I ask someone in this state to “set goals” they laugh, rather sarcastically sometimes, and say they don’t have goals, they can’t think of anything and what’s the point anyway. Perhaps not in those words, but the meaning is clear.

Instead, I ask them “what would you be doing if your pain was less of a problem for you?” Sometimes I’ll even hand over a plastic fairy wand I have, and suggest they dream a little. It’s then that the passion takes over – they’ll say “I’d be out working, having fun with my friends, caring for my family” – and the list goes on! If I stopped there, though, I’d be holding a tantalising dream just out of reach, which is cruel, so I don’t. Instead I ask why these things are important.

That’s how I find out that “family is everything”, “I just love creating”, “I need my friends”.

Then I switch tack for a moment and ask them “How well is what you’re doing to deal with your pain right now working to help you be the kind of person for whom family is everything? How well is what you’re doing with you pain helping you create?”

The reason for this tactic is to help generate what Acceptance and Commitment therapists (ACT) call “creative hopelessness“. Because motivation to change comes from inside – that it’s important enough, and the person is confident that change can happen.

I then suggest two things: 

  1. Is keeping pain happy more important than family ?(and yes, I know I’m personalising and objectifying pain here, and yes it’s an experience not a thing, but it works OK!)
  2. What would happen if you made a little room for pain to be there while you’re doing things that contribute to you being the kind of parent you want to be?

What I mean by this last statement is that pain can interfere with doing that things that help you feel you’re being a good parent. And that can lead to either completely abandoning those activities, or doing them while clutching resentfully to “the pain that interferes”. What if you attended to the value or importance of being the kind of person who is a good parent instead of focusing on the irritation, frustration and anger of having to bring pain along for the ride?

  • For many people, the things they believe contribute to “being a good parent” far exceed what they can currently achieve. So they give up and get demoralised. They both have their pain AND they don’t manage the very things they most value.

Now it’s here that I could begin to “set goals” and suggest we work towards them using all the traditional elements of goal setting. And that probably has excellent value. But here’s the catch: often we hold very strong internal rules about how these things should be done so that unless we can do them exactly the way we think they should be done, we’re not satisfied. And for many people this fails to recognise that as time goes on, life too goes on, and we change the way we do things to accommodate new habits or capabilities. So I try to begin a process of developing flexibility – and using the values a person identifies as a compass rather than a checklist.

What would happen if we thought a little about the range of things people might do to convey “being a good parent”? Maybe it would mean going to the children’s sports games and being a spectator. Maybe it would mean making lunches, helping to do homework. Maybe it would include listening while a kid tells you about his or her day. Many of these things can be done with pain present. Many might require altering how they’re done to accommodate having pain present but provided that they express the underlying value of being a good parent, can be fulfilling.

What’s important is less about the what a person does, and a whole lot more about why and how they do it.  When “being a good parent” becomes the direction we live (because we can never tick the box that says “being a good parent” is complete), then we focus on why and how we do it. Attention goes away from “but pain stops me”, and towards discovering all the ways “being a good parent” can be lived.

Often it’s through doing this that people seek new coping strategies so they can extend what they do. People may “set goals” or future actions they want to take but instead of feeling frustrated and dissatisfied, they begin to to take actions that bring them closer and closer to living the life they want to live. And that, my friends, is what I think “goal setting” is about.

This festive season is a good time to consider what’s important in your life. What actions are you taking to live a value-filled life?

Stepping out of the glue: How to generate goals


Chronic pain has been called one of the “most powerful and insidious disruptors” of routine, habit and wellbeing (Karoly, Okun, Enders & Tennen, 2014).  When a person experiences pain, a whole range of mechanisms come into play and work together to use thinking and processing space, and especially those areas we use when we’re developing and achieving goals.  When people are first trying to make sense of their situation, they can find it hard to think about future goals and plans, and instead focus on trying to solve the problem of pain – many people call this time like being in limbo (McGowan, Luker, Creed & Chew-Graham, 2007).

It’s not surprising, then, that when clinicians begin to work with someone who has had pain for a very long time, it can be very difficult for them to think of a “goal”. After all, not everyone sets goals anyway (I heard somewhere that it’s about 3% of people – but I can’t find the research to support it). But in pain management, funders often ask clinicians to work with the client to “set goals” for therapy from the first day as a way to ensure a client-centred programme, increase motivation, and monitor outcomes. This can be a problem in a couple of ways: first of all, if the person doesn’t have goals because they’ve been in “limbo land” for a long time, and feel pretty demoralised or their goal relates to “getting rid of the pain”; secondly, if the person has vague ideas that are difficult to set into the typical “SMART” formula (incidentally, I really don’t like that acronym!); thirdly, if the person doesn’t have strong ideas about what they want from therapy, the clinician can set the goals for them, and perhaps not those the client is really all that interested in; and finally, it’s hard to set goals without having spent some time listening to and collaborating with the client.

Pain can be experienced as a major obstacle to motivation for setting goals. Negative mood associated with pain can reduce motivation to think ahead, to dream. Morning pain in particular can make it more difficult to want to do things, unless those activities are important, there are relatively structured ways to pursue them, and they don’t need much planning.  This can influence whether a person gets out of bed to go to work, or the gym, or take the kids to school. In a daily diary study, Karoly, Okun, Mooris, Enders and Tennen (2014) found that people with relatively high overall pain over a two-week period, but not necessarily just in the morning, and who have chosen to stay working, often also carry out their “lifestyle” goals in the afternoon. They suggest this could be because goals that are further out in time, and the positive feelings associated with achieving work goals keep them motivated. But they also found that even then, on the days people had more than their usual pain in the morning, they were less inclined to do as much.

The implication of this finding by Karoly and colleagues is that people who experience a “high pain” morning might need some reminders of the pleasure they get when they achieve goals – perhaps to pay attending to people and places that support their goal achievement. Helping people develop goal planning skills might also be useful – do the thinking when you’re feeling a bit more positive and can see beyond “now”, then when pain is higher, the cognitive demanding work is already done and the reminders help to generate positive emotions to encourage doing them.

OK, so we know some ways of helping people keep motivated, but what do we do to help people set them in the first place?

People are motivated by both push and pull factors. We want to move towards things we experience as good, and away from things we don’t enjoy. When pain is present, not only does it become hard to think straight, it doesn’t feel like it will ever change. So we need to help people dream a little. One way I do this is ask “What would you be doing if pain wasn’t such a problem for you?” Note that I’m not saying pain isn’t there – but that it’s less of a problem. Sometimes I’ll use a plastic magic wand and hand it to the person, asking them to dream a little. Other times I’ll add in “What gives you joy and pleasure? What makes you lose your sense of time and place? What gives you a sense of satisfaction when it’s done?”

These questions begin to identify activities in which a person might experience “flow” – Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi.

Another way is to ask the person what they need to, or want to do, perhaps using the occupational therapy broad groups of “productivity/work”, “leisure/fun”, and “self care” as prompts.

I’ve also found that by asking “what’s important in your life” can be a good way to generate personal goals. Importance indicates that the person places value on it. Values are important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by people about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. Values underpin ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), because instead of setting goals, which can be achieved, values are like a compass – things we do (actions) allow us to move closer towards important values, and we never completely achieve them. They’re directional and aspirational, and allow us to do difficult things that have short-term negative consequences, just so we can move towards a better long-term consequence (van Huet, Innes & Stancliffe, 2013).

How can you use this in therapy?

Well, if a person really values family, and being a good Dad, anything that Dad does to enable him to be a better Dad will be motivational. So you can ask “What could you do today that would take you one step closer to being a great Dad?” And use whatever that might be as the foundation for a goal. Then you can go on and use all the other great goal-setting strategies like specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and so on.

This doesn’t mean that doing that thing will be easy – far from it! But it will make achieving it more relevant, powerful and motivating. Working with the challenges is why you are a therapist.

 

Karoly, Paul, Okun, Morris A., Enders, Craig, & Tennen, Howard. (2014). Effects of Pain Intensity on Goal Schemas and Goal Pursuit: A Daily Diary Study. Health Psychology, 33(9), 968-976.

McGowan, Linda, Luker, Karen, Creed, Francis, & Chew-Graham, Carolyn A. (2007). ‘How do you explain a pain that can’t be seen?’: The narratives of women with chronic pelvic pain and their disengagement with the diagnostic cycle. British Journal of Health Psychology, 12(2), 261-274.

van Huet, Helen, Innes, Ev, & Stancliffe, Roger. (2013). Occupational therapists perspectives of factors influencing chronic pain management. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 60(1), 56-65.

“I don’t know what I want to do” – Silent copers?


One of my friends on Facebook said it’s difficult working with someone who doesn’t come up with a goal, or a new direction in pain management, even when they accept that their pain isn’t a threat (it’s hurt, not harm). It sure is! So I thought today I’d review some of the factors that might maintain someone in this “limbo land” where, as a therapist, it feels like you’re doing all the work.

Firstly, let’s distinguish between having pain and being disabled by it. Pain is an experience that people have. It doesn’t live outside a person’s narrative of their life. It always has some meaning in some way, and this meaning makes it pain rather than any other experience.  To quote Joanna Bourke “Being-in-pain is a multifaceted sensory, cognitive, affective, motivational, and temporal phenomenon… people perceive pain through the prism of the entirety of their lived experiences, including their sensual physiologies, emotional states, cognitive beliefs and relational standing in various communities.” (Bourke, 2014, p. 13).

Being disabled by pain involves being unable to do things as a result of pain; the experience and meaning of that experience interfering with participating in daily life. Being disabled can emerge from physiological responses to pain, cognitions about the meaning of pain, reinforcement for behaviour arising from contextual features, and emotional responses to all of the above. In chronic pain, where pain intensity is difficult to reduce (if it can be at all), my main focus is on how I can help a person be less disabled by their experience of pain.

When someone looks for help for their pain, Ferreira, Machado, Latimer, Maher, Ferreira and Smeets (2010) found that the primary reason was associated with how much pain interfered with life. Disability rather than pain intensity is a strong motivator for help-seeking. This suggests to me that we should be able to identify what it is that a person can’t do and use this as a motivating factor for change. But of course it’s not quite as simple as that.

Reasons for not having goals

  • One reason is that people coming for help with chronic pain may have been waiting a very long time to be seen. For example, in Christchurch, last time I reviewed the data around referrals to the tertiary pain management service, the average pain duration before being referred (not even being seen) was four years. Imagine how that might affect someone. Four years of “I don’t know what’s wrong with you”, or “I’m sorry but you don’t seem to be responding well”, or “The surgery went well, I don’t understand why you’re still feeling pain” – it might make you feel slightly demoralised, perhaps a little hopeless. Remember that most people with chronic pain don’t know the point at which they shift from an acute pain problem which should resolve, to a chronic pain problem that, by definition almost, is going to persist. Pain like that just doesn’t make sense. It can be very frightening.

As a result, some people lose hope and feel that they must live very, very carefully in case they do something to increase their pain, or make their problem worse.

  • Another reason can be because of the messages people can be given. Mixed messages usually, and by anyone  – “Be careful, you don’t want to overdo it”, “last time you did that, it took you days to get over it”, “You have wear and tear in your joint [oh, does that mean I should stop so I don’t wear the joint away completely?]”, “don’t have flare-ups”, “you need to let your body/brain settle down”, “pace yourself”.

Some of these messages are ones we give – even enlightened people coming from a Therapeutic Neuroscience (TNE) perspective can inadvertently suggest a person should “take it easy” and “be kind to your sensitive nervous system” – which is all very well, except when the “take it easy” message is never reviewed, and the person learns that a painful flare-up means they’ve been “too hard” on their nervous system. Like the paced activity approach, both of these messages need to be reviewed so the person learns how to deal with a flare-up then resumes gradual increases in activity level. Erroneous messages from the media (yes! that “text-neck” meme that’s going around!), medical professionals, family and friends can all maintain avoidance, even in the face of TNE that reaches the head but not the heart.

  • Some people can find it very hard to think of goals because they’ve never learned about goal-setting. Goal-setting is a learned behaviour, something that health professionals learn how to do, business people learn how to do – but it doesn’t always transfer into daily life. Some people live in the flow of life, going with whatever happens, responding to situations rather than setting out with a purpose. Sometimes this happens because they live in poverty and can’t think beyond today. Sometimes it arises because they’ve had so many negative experiences when they have tried to move in a particular direction that they’ve given up. Sometimes it’s part of a family context, perhaps a cultural context. I suspect goals and achievement are a very eurocentric phenomenon, and if you’re from a different culture, perhaps this doesn’t make sense – because family or group goals are far more meaningful.
  • Some people may have contexts in which making change is extraordinarily difficult. A scenario I’ve met before: the person with pain who hasn’t worked for some years; the two parents – one has a long-term disability, the other is unemployed, the sibling who is on a sickness benefit. No-one gets up before 11.00, no-one works, and there’s little or no support for the person with pain to make any changes within the situation. Even if pain is reduced, it’s going to be difficult for a person to do anything differently because others in the family are also stuck.
  • Some contexts are actively punitive when a person begins to make changes. When another family member needs the person to “be cared for” because it meets his or her needs, it’s going to be hard for anyone to make a change.
  • Some people hold strong ideas about their performance, perhaps holding up an idealised vision of who they were before this all happened – now, even beginning to think about making a change highlights the discrepancy between who they are now and who they used to be, not exactly a great way to encourage change.

I haven’t started looking at what you can do to help someone step out of the glue that these factors can be. Don’t worry – that’s next week’s post! But in the meantime, here are some of my older posts that might be useful:

Individualising explanations with case formulation Coping with pain: A motivational perspective goals-values-and-motivation

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

Ferreira, Manuela L., Machado, Gustavo, Latimer, Jane, Maher, Christopher, Ferreira, Paulo H., & Smeets, Rob J. (2010). Factors defining care-seeking in low back pain–A meta-analysis of population based surveys. European Journal of Pain, 14(7), e1-e7. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ejpain.2009.11.005

Education or a cognitive behavioural approach?


ResearchBlogging.orgThere is a reasonable amount of evidence suggesting that self management of chronic pain is only moderately effective.  Some of the factors thought to influence outcomes include the “one size fits all” approach – people with chronic pain may not all equally benefit from the same aspects of a programme; that programmes are usually delivered within a university-based, middle-class, North American setting and that there may be moderating or mediating factors that influence the who and what actually works within a programme.

I was interested to read about an RCT of “education” and “cognitive behavioural approach” conducted by Day, Thorn and Kapoor.   Dr Bev Thorn has written many books and research papers on a structured cognitive behavioural approach for pain that specifically addresses the appraisals people make of their pain.   In this approach, people are taken through a process of firstly identifying their appraisals, then learning how to challenge and restructure their thoughts about pain, while at the same time learning to do activities that they may have avoided for some time.  One feature of a CBT approach is using  “home learning” activities to bridge between sessions and help generalise the learning.

By comparison, an educational approach provides accurate information on aspects of pain and coping strategies, but doesn’t include the “home learning” and doesn’t directly address ways to identify and restructure thinking about pain.

One of the problems with many cognitive behavioural programmes for pain management is that they demand a lot from their participants – and particularly, they require literacy.  There can be, if not carefully structured, a lot of writing.  For people who don’t do writing or pen and paper activities, this can be really off-putting.  The sessions are also somewhat “talky” – again, this can be off-putting for people who prefer action and doing.

In this study by Day, Thorn & Kapoor, the two approaches were used with a group of people from a rural area, with relatively low socio-economic status, and a reading grade level of about 8.  Both groups received a group-based programme of 10 sessions of 90 minutes.  They both received a workbook and additional reading material.  The CBT group had home-learning and also participated in behavioural activities such as relaxation in-session, while the education group did not.

Interestingly, this study presents qualitative information on how participants experienced the sessions, rather than outcomes measures, so it’s difficult to establish whether pain, disability, mood or acceptance were influenced.  Instead it presents thematic analysis from in-depth interviews of the participants.

What this analysis found was that while the CBT group participants initially found it difficult to “get into” the process, they spontaneously identified many of the CBT elements that were meaningful to them such as intermediate beliefs, the ability to “redirect” thinking, and integrating activity management strategies such as pacing and task perseverance.

Fewer of these themes emerged from the education group, although group process factors similar to that identified in the CBT group were found.  Both groups identified that it was good to know they weren’t alone and that they learned from other members in the group.  Both groups also identified that they felt more confident and in control of their situation, that they could “rise above” their pain.

Where the groups also differed was in their engagement in preferred life activities (occupations).  Participants in the CBT group indicated that they were returning to preferred social activities, sports and leisure activities and that they believed they were able to persist with these despite an increase in pain.  This didn’t occur in participants involved in the education group.

What does this tell me?

Well, a couple of really important things.  While we don’t know which parts of the self management programmes do the hard work for people with chronic pain, it seems that a group approach has some unique benefits irrespective of the type of programme offered.  People with chronic pain often feel isolated and very alone, as if they are the only people with their specific problems.  A group approach provides an opportunity to normalise these experiences.

I also take the idea that information alone doesn’t necessarily initiate change – structured goals seem to help, setting an expectation that learning and engaging in activities between sessions may help, the feedback and problem-solving may help too.  It could also be the process of cognitive therapy – learning to identify thoughts and beliefs, and restructure these may be helpful.

We can’t, from this study at least, determine which of these ‘active ingredients’ is doing the trick.  I rather fancy that although the cognitive aspects certainly play a part, it could be these other aspects – setting expectations, supporting change, problem solving – these could actually be the parts that get people started on doing things differently in their own environment.

Is it time for a different take on self management? Maybe it’s time to embark on a less educational, more occupation-focused approach that incorporates cognitive restructuring in an active and “doing” way as part of problem solving – what do you think?

Day, M., Thorn, B., & Kapoor, S. (2011). A Qualitative Analysis of a Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing a Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment With Education The Journal of Pain DOI: 10.1016/j.jpain.2011.02.354
Miles, C., Pincus, T., Carnes, D., Homer, K., Taylor, S., Bremner, S., Rahman, A., & Underwood, M. (2011). Can we identify how programmes aimed at promoting self-management in musculoskeletal pain work and who benefits? A systematic review of sub-group analysis within RCTs European Journal of Pain DOI: 10.1016/j.ejpain.2011.01.016