Health

Exercise? Who me? Yoga or physiotherapy or education…


Exercise, while one of The Most Important self management approaches for persistent pain, is not an easy sell to someone who is experiencing pain. Especially not if that exercise looks like huffing and puffing, hauling on bits of metal in a gym, or wearing lycra. Not to mention the “sports drinks”…  Those things aside, exercising is a good thing. You heard it from me, and I have declared my body an exercise free zone! The thing is, what kind of exercise, for what purpose, and how to get introduced to it.

Personally I’m a fan of exercise that achieves something else other than “getting fit”. I like gardening, I love dancing, I enjoy cycling (especially to the store to get a GREAT coffee!). Walking the dog is fun. Swimming (especially snorkeling) is awesome! I like my exercise to do more than bring on the endorphins, especially as I don’t get much of that post-exertional analgesia that many people do – and believe me, they do (Ellinson, Stegner, Schwabacher, Koltyn & Cook, 2016). I like my exercise to look like the things I need or want to do, so that when I need to do ’em, I’m in fit state to get on and do ’em.

So what kind of exercise works best? One sage told me “the exercise the person does!” and there is some truth to that, so when I begin talking to someone about exercise, I’m looking for something they can do regularly, that fits into their lifestyle, that makes them feel good, and has some other benefit to them. That benefit might be the social thing – going to a box-fit class with a group of others all bent on getting their fix of play-fighting. It might be the solitary thing – long walks along the beach with the dog for company. It might be the music – in my case, it’s belly dance (and I dare anyone to do a 5 minute shimmy drill while keeping an isolated upper body, a loose shimmy and smile!).

I like the idea of having variety – who says we need to do the same kind of exercise every day? So it’s a wet day and I don’t fancy taking my bike out in the rain, I can turn to my dance practice, or do the dusting, or vacuum the floors. It’s a frosty day and I can go for a brisk walk and take photographs of gorgeous sparkly frosty droplets while Sheba-the-wonderdog huffs steam and sniffs at the local scents. If it’s a warm day, why not head to the pool for a lap or two? If it’s a busy day and I don’t have time, what about some “exercise snacks”? Five minutes of exercise every 25 minutes adds some pretty quickly, so it’s lunges and chair dips and wall presses and shimmy practice in between writing.

Over time we’re seeing more research looking particularly at yoga for persistent pain of all kinds. Yoga comes in many different forms, and in this case I’m guessing the more extreme forms of hot yoga and contortion is not being studied. Some of the studies are appearing in rather eminent journals, like this one from the Annals of Internal Medicine and authored by a very large team including Saper, Lemaster, Delitto and colleagues (2017).

This study is a “non-inferiority” study, looking to establish whether yoga or physiotherapy, or indeed education, can help people living with chronic low back pain. Now I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow analysis of the study, that’s for you to do. What I am going to do is look at what the yoga consisted of – and see why, perhaps, yoga is getting so much research interest. BTW, yoga was found to be non-inferior to physiotherapy, and both yoga and PT were more likely than education to have a clinically meaningful response, although neither yoga nor PT were superior to education.

This is the basic format of the yoga class: Each class began with relaxation and meditation exercises, yoga breathing, and yoga philosophy. It continued with yoga poses and
concluded with relaxation. Pose variations and aids (such as chair, strap, and blocks) accommodated various abilities. Thirty minutes of daily home practice, facilitated by a DVD, a manual, and take-home yoga supplies, was strongly encouraged.

Yoga appeals to many because it seems to begin where people are at – it’s not huffy-puffy, things don’t jiggle, and generally the classes begin and end with the ritual of breathing and meditation. I like the idea of yoga (and yes, I’ve done a class or two!), because it doesn’t involve a lot of gadgets, you can do it alone or in a group, and it feels good. What I don’t like about yoga is the need to get effective and consistent feedback about how well you’re performing the poses, especially in the beginning, which means it can be difficult to do on your own without a teacher.

For people who find exercising both difficult and painful, yoga is a good place to start. I think attending classes is crucial (or at least having an instructor and a mirror!). Learning to use the meditation and breathing is integral to the exercise – and it’s this that I think makes yoga an effective addition to the exercise toolkit. What I’m less sure of is whether it’s better than any other form of exercise – or, in my case, the many different types of movements that I use in my weekly routine. And there’s the rub. As an occupational therapist, exercise is something people choose to do as a form of occupation (valued and meaningful activity). I also enjoy a bunch of other movement-based occupations, and to me these are as valid as yoga or the PT exercises included in this study. What my approach lacks, however, is a researched basis for it.

But here’s the thing: to date the research supporting exercise for people with persistent pain shows modest effects. And those effects are completely lost if the person doesn’t do the exercise. So why not have a wide range of whole-body movement practices to draw on, allowing the person to pick and choose and get out and do something every day, even if it doesn’t fit with our modern notions of what exercise should be?

 

 

Ellingson, L. D., Stegner, A. J., Schwabacher, I. J., Koltyn, K. F., & Cook, D. B. (2016). Exercise Strengthens Central Nervous System Modulation of Pain in Fibromyalgia. Brain Sciences, 6(1), 8. http://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci6010008

Saper, R. B., Lemaster, C., Delitto, A., & et al. (2017). Yoga, physical therapy, or education for chronic low back pain: A randomized noninferiority trial. Annals of Internal Medicine. doi:10.7326/M16-2579

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mulling over the pain management vs pain reduction divide


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Is central sensitisation really a thing?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End-of-year musings


It’s my last post for the year. It has been an extraordinary year, lots of surprises, shocks and enough excitement for anyone! I’m not even going to start on the political changes, here in NZ we’ve had yet another major earthquake, excitement as ACC (our national accident insurer) sets up new pain service contracts (with a LOT of people who haven’t been involved in pain management before… there’s an experiment in the making!), and continuing road cone carnage on the streets of Christchurch.

On the pain news front, I can’t think of any incredibly ground-breaking news – although one medic advised that “Virtually all cases of low back pain can now be diagnosed definitively by criterion standard methods as to source and cause.” That same medic also argued that a paper by Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder (2016) on non-specific low back pain, published in The Lancet, represented “the views of non-evidence-based troglodytes who (a) have apparently not read any scientific papers since 1966, and (b) have vested interests in “managing” non-diagnosed patients so their practices remain busy and they reinforce each other’s views that the burden of low back pain cannot be eased.” I’ll leave the critiquing of that view to those with more time and energy than I have!

It’s also been a year in which various commentators have critiqued the “biopsychosocial model” as it’s applied in musculoskeletal pain.  Some have pointed out that this is an unscientific model, it’s not a theory that can be tested and therefore can’t point to “truth” or whatever approximation we can currently identify. Others have argued that by adopting this framework, practitioners must either be versed in “life, the universe and everything” – or perhaps become exactly what advocates of this approach decry: reductionists. I’m not sure I follow this argument, but those that raise it are intelligent, articulate and far more thoughtful than those who believe that Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder are “troglodytes” or have “vested interests”.

I continue to hold that a biopsychosocial perspective explains more, and is of practical use when we consider the various factors that might influence why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be done to reduce their distress and disability. Here’s my take.

Biopsychosocial model

When we look into the original biopsychosocial model, we need to understand the context in which Engel first developed it. He was a psychiatrist, and at the time psychiatry was under threat from psychologists in particular, who were strongly advocating that many mental illnesses were actually “problems of living”. Things like alcohol abuse, forms of mood disorder, relationship issues and the like were seen as disorders influenced by learning and environment rather than biology. Psychiatrists were perhaps on the way to being sidelined from the very area in which they claim expertise. Engel, influenced by general systems theory and cybernetics, proposed a way for psychiatrists to remain relevant: look at the person as part of a wider system in which each element in the system could influence and be influenced by the next. Engel used this approach as a way to frame conversations with the patients he saw – attempting to understand how and why they were seeking help, and especially, attempting to understand the person and his or her priorities. I think that’s admirable.

How the model has evolved since then is an interesting tale. I first encountered the model during my occupational therapy training, where it was a foundation to viewing people-in-context. It was presented as a bit old hat (I started training in 1979), and was replaced in my profession by Gary Kielhofner’s Model of Human Occupation. This model similarly draws on general systems theory, and argues for the relevance of volition and habits as well as capacity from a biological/performance stance to undertake occupation and of course, contexts such as environment which includes the social environment. MOHO incorporates much of what we consider to be biopsychosocial – in fact, occupational therapy as a profession is based on the idea that people actively engage in purposeful and meaningful activities (occupations) that are formed out of the affordances available to them by virtue of biology, psychology and social elements within an environmental context.

So what?

For a model, or theory, to have value it needs to offer something that existing models or theories don’t. It needs to be more parsimonious (make fewer assumptions), explain more (be more consilient), hold together with existing knowledge (cohere), and predict more (Thagard, 1978).

For a clinician, a theory must also be useful in terms of explaining why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and directing what can be done to reduce distress and disability. Why these questions? Because people actively make decisions to seek treatment. They evaluate their experience in light of their past experiences, prevailing community beliefs about the trajectory of their problem, family influences, and yes, legislative influences. These are possibly more important than the biology of their problem – because we’re not going to treat someone who doesn’t believe they have a problem!

As clinicians I think we need to ponder exactly what we consider to be “treatment”.

When my fracture is reduced and immobilised, that is “treatment” – but it’s not actually ‘healing’ my bones, it’s actually up to my body to do the work. What immobilisation does is create an environment in which my body can heal itself. But the problem of a broken bone is not “treated” just by immobilisation. Treatment has to include the rest of my recovery – and involve prevention strategies too. My recovery will need to include restoring function. And some of that restoration will be by guiding me through various movements that increase tissue tolerance as well as my confidence that my limb will support me. My recovery also has to include me understanding and learning from my experience – will I jump off that cliff again? Will I leave the toys all over the floor again? Will I walk on a slippery path again?

I think clinicians simply create an environment in which people can recover. And we need to go beyond measuring range of movement or strength to establish that recovery has occurred. Recovery isn’t just about returning to “normal” whatever that is. It’s about moving beyond this interruption and into new possibilities and new challenges. It’s really about being able to be who we really are. While that’s primarily the person’s own responsibility, our job as clinicians is to create an environment where it’s possible. While a biopsychosocial model/theory/framework makes life complex, using this approach allows us to be aware of more of the factors relevant to recovery and growth than simply looking at people as if they’re bits of meat, bone, and juice.

In the new year

I’ve been blogging since 2007. In that time I’ve written over a thousand posts all on the topic of pain. Almost all of my posts are on the theme of how we can remember that we are working with people. Other human beings who have their own thoughts, beliefs and priorities. Humans who make sense of their situation as best they can. People who, like us, hold cognitive biases, and feel emotions, and get stuck, and hold values. My real focus is on how we can integrate these things into clinical reasoning – because until we do, we’re ignoring what matters most to the people we seek to serve.

 

Engel, G. L. (1977). The need for a new medical model: A challenge for biomedicine. Science, 196(4286), 129-136. doi:10.1126/science.847460

Maher, C., Underwood, M., & Buchbinder, R. (2016). Non-specific low back pain.  The Lancet. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30970-9

Thagard, P. R. (1978). The best explanation: Criteria for theory choice. The Journal of Philosophy, 75(2), 76-92.

Ups and downs and rocking and rolling


What a week it has been! Not only an unexpected result in the US elections, but also a very large earthquake north of Christchurch, along with a tsunami alert for the entire eastern coastline of New Zealand. Luckily I live far enough away from the shoreline that I didn’t have to evacuate, but the sirens certainly work!

As a result of these events, which I firmly believe are NOT associated except in time, the post I was going to make seems a bit redundant, so I’m going to talk about resilience and what it really means.

For someone who has lived through thousands of earthquakes since September 2010, resilience is almost a dirty word. People living in Christchurch are a bit tired of being called resilient.  You see, it’s not the quakes that are the problem – it’s the aftermath. The “new normal” that we’ve been living through these past years. The thousands of road cones lining almost every street. The constant detours as bits of road are dug up and sewerage, storm water and water pipes relaid. The delays. The ongoing processing needed to work out “where am I?” in the streets we used to know so well.

Resilience is intended to refer to “bounce back”. The thing is, I don’t think we bounce back to exactly the way we were before – we’re irrevocably changed by all experiences, but especially ones as significant as the earthquakes, or even political changes. That we don’t “return to normal” is one of the main reasons I don’t believe reports of people “going back to normal” if pain is completely removed. Why? Because people actively process and make meaning from everything that happens to them – and the meanings that are given to experiences don’t ever completely go.  We know, for example, that we can’t “unwire” nerves that have fired together, so what actually happens is that alternative paths or connections between nerves are formed. This means that under the right circumstances, those original paths will fire again… And people who have experienced chronic pain will, even if their pain eventually goes, know exactly what that pain meant, how it affected them, and I’m certain will be very aware of any new pain that seems to be similar to the one that was just there.

Resilience to me is therefore not so much about “bouncing back” as it is about being able to take stock of what actually IS, determine the paths that lead on in the direction of important values, and then choosing to take those paths. And this can often mean taking detours because old paths aren’t negotiable any more. That can be, and is, disturbing. It can be frustrating, fatiguing and far more demanding than the idea usually invoked by the word “resilience”.

So, in the next days and weeks, let’s think less about being resilient, and more about being flexible – flexibly persisting, if you will. We need to persist to get anywhere, do anything. We need to be flexible about how we get there and how we do what we value. We’ll need passion, but more than passion, we’ll need commitment.

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The thing is, pain ≠ suffering.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Flexibility: not just movement variability


For many therapists, learning the Right Way to treat a person experiencing pain means following rules. Observe this, identify that, follow the yellow brick road and end up with the right result. The problem is that people don’t always respond in the way the rules suggest meaning both clinician and patient can be confused about what to do next. While it’s normal to generate clinical heuristics, or rules of thumb, these can limit the way we approach helping someone.

I’ve been pondering this as I’m reading Villatte, Viullatte and Hayes Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. I posted last time I wrote about the problems that language can pose for us as we attend to the concepts and relationships those word generate for us rather than noticing what is actually happening right here and now. I was originally thinking of the people we work with and treat, but now I want to turn my attention to us – because we too can be imprisoned within rules that function well in one context – but hamper flexible responses in other contexts.

The rules we follow

Some of the rules we learn during our initial clinical training can be very helpful – for example, we learn that we need to attend to what people say and do; we learn to suppress our judgements about the person as “likeable” or “unlikable” (hopefully); we learn the importance of using correct terminology with one another. Other rules are far less helpful: in my case, learning that people “should” use a raised toilet seat after hip replacement (almost irrespective of the bathroom they have, the alternatives they’d already organised, or whether it actually reduced the risk of hip dislocation) meant that I tried to give the things out to people who didn’t actually need them. I quickly stopped doing that after I found too many of those toilet seats dumped on the roadside inorganic rubbish collection! And I became more sensitive to who, what, when and where. And I changed my thoughts once I read the research suggesting those “hip precautions” perhaps don’t hold up to scrutiny (for example: Schmidt-Braekling, Waldstein, Akalin, et al, 2015; Ververeli, Lebby, Tyler & Fouad, 2009).

We follow many other clinical rules – for example, we attend to certain features of a person’s presentation because we’ve been told it’s important. Depending on the model or theory we hold about the problem, we’ll attend to some things and not others.

Similarly in terms of our treatments – we’ve been told that some treatments are “good” and others not so. Some of us follow these rules very strictly – so patients are told to move in certain ways, to avoid certain movements, to do six repetitions of an exercise, to stop for a break every hour – and some of us have even been quite frustrated because the patients we’ve been advising tell us these rules aren’t working. We think “but they should”!

Explaining pain

A good example of this is the push to ensure every person experiencing pain gets an explanation for their pain. We’ve seen the evidence showing it’s a good thing, and we’ve even learned a set of phrases that we’ve been told “work”.

BUT is this a rule we should always follow?

Flexibility

In some instances giving pain education is unhelpful. Times I can think of are when a person is presenting with high pain intensity and in an acute situation – or when they’re stuck with an explanation they prefer and aren’t ready to consider another, or when they have other more important concerns.

Based on what I’ve been reading, perhaps we need to consider some alternative ways of looking at this “rule”.

Here’s the thing: for some people, at the right time, and when the person is being helped to discover for themselves, learning about pain neurobiology is a really good thing. But if we apply this as a rule, we risk becoming insensitive to other things the person might need AND to whether the education has had the intended effect. For some people, it’s not the right thing – the outcome for THAT person might be seen in increased resistance to your therapeutic approach, or arguing back, or them simply not returning because we “didn’t listen” or “told me it’s all in my head”. For others, this information might be useful but not as important as identifying that they’re really worried about their financial situation, or their family relationships, or their mood is getting them down, or they’re not sleeping…

Am I suggesting not to do pain education? Not at all. I’m suggesting that instead of developing a rule that “everyone must have pain education because it’s good” (or, for that matter, any other “must”), clinicians could try considering the context. Ask “is this important to the client right now?”, “what effect am I hoping for and am I measuring it?”, “how can I guide the person to draw their own conclusions instead of telling them?”

In other words, attending to those contextual cues might just help us think of a bunch of alternative ways to help this person achieve their goals. And if we then ask the person to collaborate on HOW to reach those goals, suggesting the plans are experiments that both of you can evaluate. This helps reduce our human tendency to latch onto an idea, and then create a rule that isn’t always helpful.

 

Schmidt-Braekling, T., Waldstein, W., Akalin, E. et al. Arch Orthop Trauma Surg (2015) 135: 271. doi:10.1007/s00402-014-2146-x

Ververeli P, Lebby E, Tyler C, Fouad C. Evaluation of Reducing Postoperative Hip Precautions in Total Hip Replacement: A Randomized Prospective Study. ORTHOPEDICS. 1; 32: doi: 10.3928/01477447-20091020-09 [link]

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

Being flexible – and how language can make you inflexible


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

Or are we?

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

Rules

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

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

Experiential avoidance and symbolic generalisations

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

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

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

Rule-governed behaviour

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

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

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

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

Next week: pliance and tracking and what these mean…

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

Getting stuck with language


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

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

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

How does this relate to pain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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