river gliding  by

Five critical skills for pain clinicians

I could be wrong: it might be seven or ten, but five is a good start. What do people working with those who have pain really need to know/do? What makes them effective? What keeps them positive in the face of what can be an extraordinarily demanding work?

  1. Effective listening skills, along with the ability to communicate that you’re listening. One of the most common complaints about health professionals made by people living with pain is that they don’t listen (Allegretti, Borkan, Reis & Griffiths, 2010; Stenberg, Fjellman-Wiklund & ahlgren, 2012).  While I’m sure there are some clinicians who deliberately protect themselves from engaging in a patient’s distress, I think there’s probably a more insidious version of this – some research shows that when patients report pain, physicians spend more time on technical tasks and less time helping the person actively participate in their own care (Bertakis, Azari & Callahan, 2003).  There’s also some research showing that when clinicians are trained in specific techniques for expressing empathy, patients believe they are more caring (Bonvicini, Perlin, Bylund, Carroll, Rouse & Goldstein, 2009). Physicians were trained to use “The 4 E’s” (engage, empathise, educate and enlist), with a particular focus on communicating that they had heard what was said. Techniques included rephrasing what a patient said; asking a question to elicit more detail; acknowledging or confirming that the person’s emotions are valid/legitimate; and expressing that he or she had experienced a similar feeling. Maybe it’s time for greater training in these skills for all clinicians working with those who have pain.
  2. Mindfulness skills to help deal with emotions during sessions. I hope I’m not just jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon, but I do think being able to be fully present but not caught up in judging or evaluating your own feelings is a critical skill to maintain openness in a clinical situation. A definition of mindfulness that I quite like is “a process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of non-elaborative awareness to current experience and a quality of relating to one’s experience within an orientation of curiousity, experiential openness, and acceptance” (Bishop, Lau, Shapiro et al, 2004). Being mindful and open allows you to be there for your patient while also making space for yourself. There’s good evidence that mindfulness improves psychological health (Keng, Smoski, & Robins, 2011), and some studies also show that it improves your own communication skills and improves patient satisfaction (Beach, Roter, Kortuis, Epstein et al, 2013).
  3. Case formulation skills. These skills are about pulling your assessment information together in a coherent way so you can generate some testable hypotheses to explain why your patient is presenting in the way they are at this time. To me it’s a waste to conduct assessments and then fail to use that information when you’re developing your treatment plan. And it’s even more of a shame to fail to share that information with your patient. The thing is, there’s often little training given to how to generate a case formulation: it’s got to be based on broad theoretical knowledge fleshed out with the specific information you’ve gathered from your patient. This makes a formulation a unique ideographic set of hypotheses about your patient. I’ve written about case formulations here and here and here.
  4. Superb research reading skills. I don’t think it’s enough to say you’re evidence-based if you’re only using clinical guidelines. I think clinicians need to be critical readers of both qualitative and quantitative research. And I think it’s a crying shame that so much research is hidden behind paywalls. That’s one reason I write so often – I can access research and make it accessible. Of course I’d prefer it if everyone took to reading research, but the cost of doing so is atrocious! And we know that getting into print isn’t always easy, and with the current funding models in tertiary education institutes I think the range and depth of research being published is likely to stay a bit skinny. And until research is widely available for free (remember, authors write for free, reviewers review for free, and much research is published electronically, so where’s the money being spent?) I think it’s going to be tough for clinicians working in private practice. Having said that, even when I was a private practitioner, I always had a subscription to the local medical library – it’s a valid deductible expense.
  5. Effective social media skills. Really? Social media? isn’t that just for people who want to share their food pix? Uh, no. I’ve had the best CPD experiences via Twitter, Facebook, and blogging. Some of the most challenging and thought-provoking discussions occur every day on Twitter. Links to new and emerging research. Links to opinions that make you think. Apps that help you be there for your patients, even when you’re not. Ways to remain in touch with people working in your field from around the world. Is it really a healthcare skill? I think so. Social media allows me to connect directly with researchers, other educators, clinicians, people working in niche fields, people living with chronic pain (the very people I so want to know about). Social media gives people living with pain a voice that can be heard. It allows my niche field to be visible. It has an impact on the general public. If we want chronic pain to be taken seriously by policy developers, and if we want to influence how people living with chronic pain can be heard, then social media is, I think, the way forward. It’s not just me – here’s paper reviewing and with tutorials of applications in medicine and healthcare (Grajales, Sheps, Ho, Novak-Lauscher & Eysenbach, 2014).

This list isn’t exhaustive: what else do you see as critical skills for clinicians working with people who experience pain? Add your thoughts to the list below!

Allegretti, Andrew, Borkan, Jeffrey, Reis, Shmuel, & Griffiths, Frances. (2010). Paired interviews of shared experiences around chronic low back pain: Classic mismatch between patients and their doctors. Family Practice, 27(6), 676-683. doi:

Beach, Mary Catherine, Roter, Debra, Korthuis, P. Todd, Epstein, Ronald M., Sharp, Victoria, Ratanawongsa, Neda, . . . Saha, Somnath. (2013). A Multicenter Study of Physician Mindfulness and Health Care Quality. The Annals of Family Medicine, 11(5), 421-428. doi: 10.1370/afm.1507

Bertakis, K, Azari, R, & Callahan, E. (2003). Patient Pain: Its Influence on Primary Care Physician-Patient Interaction. Family Medicine Journal, 35(2), 119-123.

Bishop, Scott R., Lau, Mark, Shapiro, Shauna, Carlson, Linda, Anderson, Nicole D., Carmody, James, . . . Devins, Gerald. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(3), 230-241. doi:

Bonvicini, K.A., Perlin, M.J., Bylund, C.L., Carroll, G., Rouse, R.A., & Goldstein, M.G. (2009). Impact of communication training on physician expression of empathy in patient encounters. Patient Education and Counseling, 75(1), 3-10. doi:

Grajales, Francisco Jose, III, Sheps, Samuel, Ho, Kendall, Novak-Lauscher, Helen, & Eysenbach, Gunther. (2014). Social media: A review and tutorial of applications in medicine and health care. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 16(2), 452-474.

Keng, Shian-Ling, Smoski, Moria J., & Robins, Clive J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1041-1056.

Stenberg, G., Fjellman-Wiklund, A., & Ahlgren, C. (2012). “Getting confirmation”: gender in expectations and experiences of healthcare for neck or back patients. J Rehabil Med, 44(2), 163-171. doi: 10.2340/16501977-0912


Faking pain – Is there a test for it?

One of the weird things about pain is that no-one knows if you’re faking. To date there hasn’t been a test that can tell whether you’re really in pain, or just faking it. Well, that’s about to change according to researchers in Israel and Canada.

While there have been a whole range of approaches to checking out faking such as facial expression, responses to questionnaires, physical testing and physical examinations, none of these have been without serious criticism. And the implications are pretty important to the person being tested – if you’re sincere, but someone says you’re not, how on earth do you prove that you’re really in pain? For clinicians, the problem is very troubling because allegations of faking can strain a working relationship with a person, and hardly lead to a sense of trust. Yet insurance companies routinely ask clinicians to make determinations about fraudulent access to insurance money – and worst of all, clinicians often feel they have little choice other than to participate.

In this study by Kucyi, Sheinman and Defrin, three hypotheses were tested: 1) Whether feigned performance could be detected using warmth and pain threshold measurements; 2) whether there were changes in the statistical properties of performance when participants were faking; and 3) whether an “interference” or distractor presented during testing interferes with the ability to fake and therefore provide a clue to when someone is being sincere or not.

Using university students (I hope they got course credits for participating!) who were not health science students, and were otherwise healthy, the investigators gave very little information about the procedure or hypotheses to minimise expectancy bias. Participants were then tested using a thermal stimulator to obtain “warmth sensation threshold” and “heat-pain thresholds” – this is a form of quantitative sensory testing (QST). TENS was used as a distractor in the experimental case, applied for 2 minutes before measuring the pain threshold, and during the heat pain threshold test. This was repeated with first the threshold test, then TENS. Participants were asked to pretend they were in an insurance office, being tested to establish whether they were experiencing genuine pain, after being told the test would be able to tell whether their pain was real.

What did they find out?

Well in situation one, where both threshold and warmth detection were used, and participants were asked to fake the pain intensity, respondents gave higher warmth detection ratings than normal. Not only this, but the ability to repeat the same response with the same temperature was poorer.  Heat pain threshold was also consistently different between the sincere and faked conditions, with heat pain threshold lower when people were faking (to around 3 degrees).

When the second testing option was carried out (using TENS to distract), heat pain threshold was significant lower when participants were faking, and the variance of the feigned + interference condition was three times that of the sincere condition, and the CV of the feigned + interference condition was twice that of the sincere condition.

What does this mean?

Well first of all, it means there are some consistent effects of faking in response to tests of warmth and heat-pain threshold when a distractor like TENS is used. Increased reports of warmth threshold and reduced heat pain threshold were observed, and where statistically significant. Interestingly, it was only when a distractor was used that the variability of reports were found – these authors suggest that people are pretty skilled at giving consistent reports when they’re not being distracted by an additional sensory stimulus.

Now here’s where I begin to pull this apart from a clinical and practical perspective. The authors, to give them credit, indicate that the research is both new and that it may identify some people who do have pain as malingerers. My concerns are that people with chronic pain may not look at all like healthy young university students.

We know very little about the responses to QST by people with different forms of chronic pain. We already know that people with impaired descending noxious inhibitory control respond differently to some forms of QST. We also know that contextual factors including motivation can influence how nervous systems respond to input. But my concerns are far more about the potential harm to those who are tested and found to be malingering when they’re not.

What do you do if you think a person is faking? How do you deal with this? What good does it do to suggest to someone their pain is not real, or isn’t nearly as bad as they make out? Once the words are out of your mouth (or written in a report) any chance of a therapeutic relationship has just flown right out the door. And you’re still left with a person who says they’re having trouble – but now you have an angry, resentful person who has a strong need to prove that they DO have pain.

You see, I think it might be more fruitful to ask why is this person faking pain? If it’s simply for money, surely there are far easier ways to get money than pretending to be disabled by pain? If it’s the case that a person is off out fishing or playing golf or living it up when “supposed” to be in pain, wouldn’t it make more sense to reframe their response as either recovering well (doing what’s healthy) and therefore get on with returning to work; or use a private investigator to demonstrate that he or she is actually capable of doing more than they indicate?

The presence or absence of pain is not really the problem, IMHO. To me we need to address the degree of disability that’s being attributed to pain and work on that. Maybe a greater focus on reducing disability rather than on expensive procedures to remove pain or otherwise get rid of pain is in order?

Kucyi, A., Sheinman, A., Defrin, R. (in press). Distinguishing feigned from sincere performance in psychophysical pain testing. The Journal of Pain.

troubled roads

Talking past each other: Secret conversations, hidden realities

Take a look at what is written about pain and people living with pain. Look at it with a critical eye. What do you see?

We have descriptions of battling, winning, losing, overcoming, finding a way, getting through, controlling, removing, reducing. Pain is the invader, the alien, something against which we must prevail. And we may prevail using the tools of modern science: we diagnose, we identify, we label and we explain. We treat, we medicate, we use novel movements, graded activity, we avoid sensitising a sensitised nervous system.

The results of this discourse are that when pain does not reduce, is not overcome, cannot be controlled, does not respond to treatment or explanation, we as treatment providers have lost.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. When faced with the situation in which pain “should” have reduced but hasn’t, treatment providers explain away this uncomfortable fact by suggesting that the person hasn’t been following instructions, the treatment wasn’t carried out properly or wasn’t the right treatment, the real cause wasn’t found, the explanation wasn’t thorough enough, the person wasn’t convinced, the treatment wasn’t carried out for long enough, or even that there was a change but the person didn’t recognise it, didn’t make the most of it, expected more.

How often do people living with pain fudge the outcome to avoid displeasing the person treating them? Fail to let the clinician know that yes, there’s still an impact on life despite pain being explained or managed?

Words, or discourse, are as John Shotter put it, “prostheses for moving about through our world’s physicality” (Shotter, 1993). By conversing, clinicians are given a glimpse into a client’s world, but at the same time, clinicians shape that conversation, guiding and leading it in directions that suit the clinician’s purpose. The words used by the client are translated into technical jargon, one prosthesis replaced with another, more “correct” one. Much of the “what it is like” to live with pain is never spoken of, perhaps never verbalised and never made tangible.

Let’s examine some of the expectations we as clinicians might hold about pain (taken from Strong, 1999):

  1. Pain is personal and individual. This means that outward demonstrations of pain are discouraged – those who do are labelled negatively and called “distressed”, “disabled”, their behaviour called “maladaptive”, and in some cases even called “histrionic”, “malingering”, or simply “wallowing”.
  2. Pain is valid only if “we” all agree on it. Although this discourse is slowly changing there’s a hint still present that if the person doesn’t “recover” the way they’re expected to, there’s something wrong with them – it’s those “psychosocial factors”, not the real pain mechanisms.
  3. Suffering, or the loss of self, is some sort of moral or physical failing of the person.  They haven’t “accepted” it, they have ongoing litigation or compensation, they must be getting secondary gain.

I am guilty of these kinds of attitudes. I have been guilty of projecting my own frustration at people who haven’t responded the way I think they ought to. I’ve held beliefs that people should get better because I’ve conducted good therapy and if they haven’t made changes it can’t possibly be my fault, it must be “them”.

In a conversation over the weekend I was reminded that despite generally being someone who deals with my pain (and depression) reasonably well, there is a whole hidden conversation that I rarely engage in, and in failing to acknowledge that part of the “what it is like” to live with pain I’ve missed being compassionate towards myself – and probably others.  That conversation for me was about the never-ending presence of pain at all times somewhere in my body. There is never a time when I’m not sore somewhere. I ache in my lower back, I burn between my shoulder blades, my neck is tight, my MCPs feel hot and bruised, my toes are tingling and sensitive.  I have heaviness behind my eyes. My belly hurts.

The point behind posting this is not that I seek comfort or support or anything from anyone else, but simply to acknowledge that although I know my pain is meaningless, it doesn’t reflect harm or damage and doesn’t pose a threat – it is still present. And in being present, in order to do what is good and enriching and valuable, I must use energy to put that pain experience to one side. I need to accommodate that pain, and take account of it at all times.  And that is tiring. It can be more than tiring, it can be exhausting.

In his article, Strong describes a practice that I guess today would be called mindfulness. He describes “listening for, and working within, the language of visceral experience” to help people transform the quality from one of rejection or judgement, into an “authenticating or welcoming stance”.  He suggests beginning by actively focusing in a relaxed manner on the area which most feels pained, using breathing and concentration. Using this focusing to explore the sensory quality of that area anew – a gentle curiosity. To stay “with” the area – and if working with a therapist, the therapist must “stay with” their client by using “clean language” or the client’s actual words to reflect that the experience has been “authenticated”, or verified by co-construction.

Hidden or secret experiences continue to have an impact although they are rarely discussed. While my experience of pain is certainly personal, the impact it has on me and what I do (and even on what I allow myself to acknowledge) is public. Or it can be if I allow it to be so. By hiding my experience from others I show a public face of energy and effervescence that isn’t complete. It’s not authentic. It suggests to others that I may not have this experience. I wonder how often I/we as clinicians make our therapeutic space safe and nonjudgmental enough for the people we work with to get in touch with those aspects of “what it is like” to live with pain that are hidden, are buried beneath the facade of winning, overcoming, battling, being explained away.

And here’s a final kicker: having been open to being vulnerable, how many of you find it hard to read this honesty? What’s your initial response? Do you want to fix it? Find a solution? Offer me something? Do something for me, to me? What would it be like to simply be present and experience the “what it is like” to be utterly fatigued by ever-present pain? Would you be willing to stay with that experience? And what would it mean to you? Your response will, if you let it, tell you a secret.


Shotter, J. (1993). The cultural politics of everyday understanding. London: Basil Blackwell.

Strong, Tom. (1999). Macro- and micro-conversation in conspiring with chronic pain. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 18(3), 37-50.


Using the Theory of Living Well with Chronic Pain

Last week I had the privilege to talk to a national gathering of occupational therapists, physiotherapists, nurses and educators from Arthritis NZ. I presented my Theory of Living Well with Chronic Pain which is the theory of re-occupying self to achieve self-coherence after developing chronic pain.

To give you a bit of background, in this theory which was developed using classical grounded theory, I identified that the thing that goes as soon as pain doesn’t fit the usual acute pattern is the sense of self-coherence – life doesn’t make sense any more. As so many people have said to me about their early experiences with chronic pain, “I don’t feel like myself any more”. The things we take for granted like our habits, routines, the things we can expect from ourselves (like how long it takes to do something, how much we can get through in a day) get scrambled by this invasive experience that takes over. In an effort to make life more coherent, many people stop doing things they enjoy so they can focus on just. keeping. going.

I identified that there are three important processes that help people when they’re making sense of their pain: the first is diagnostic clarity, then symptom understanding, and finally occupational existing. When these three processes are complete and in the presence of both a trustworthy clinician and occupational drive, people begin deciding – deciding whether to seek more treatment so they can return to the old normal, or take the bull by the horns and get on with life as it is. After deciding, people begin occupational engaging, using coping and they can finally begin future planning again.

I have a suspicion that if we asked a person who was living with chronic pain where they would put themselves in this process, we’d get a fairly accurate idea of what their clinical needs might be. Perhaps we’d understand what their focus is, and we’d be able to provide them with input targeting what they identify as important rather than what we think they need.

For example, if we look at the illustration below (andwhere are you“click” for a pdf copy of it), when someone is unsure of their diagnosis we might need to check their understanding of what the diagnosis means. Does it fit with their experience? What’s the prognosis and does the person understand this? Has that label been interpreted accurately? Does the person know that it’s chronic/ongoing and that the pain is now not a signal to stop? If not, we need to think about how to explain this, to help the person make sense of it, and this might be a good time to consider providing the person with information on what pain is.

If the person can’t yet answer the questions related to understanding symptoms, then our job might be to help guide them through the process of experimenting with different activities, noting changes and variations in pain intensity and quality, and fatigue, that occur. I think this is best carried out while doing the basics (or occupational existing).

Doing the basics refers to occupational existing, or just doing what’s necessary. NOT setting new goals, just simply keeping life ticking over. If the person is having trouble with sleep, mood, anxiety, keeping a normal routine going, we’re not going to have much luck in helping them focus on bigger or more valued goals, or getting them to add more obligations to the mix. I’ve indicated sleep and routines as the two areas for the person to think about, but it could be that asking the person “what have you stopped doing” is enough of a prompt – I’m just concerned that, at this stage, the person isn’t yet ready to look ahead, they might just need some breathing space before moving on to deciding.

If the person is currently in the process of deciding, they’re weighing up the costs of looking for more treatment (to help them return to “normal”, or how they were before their pain began). The longer it’s taken to get to this point, the less chance they have of getting back to normal in its entirety. At this point, I think our job is to help the person make this process explicit. Using a decisional balance  chart (similar to the one I’ve linked to, but you can change it), and reflecting on what’s important in the person’s life, we can help people resolve their ambivalence and make their own minds up as to whether they’re ready to get on with life, or carry on looking for treatments. Remember, every treatment carries the risk of failure: so even if you’ve got the newest, most groovy treatment ever, respect that many people would rather not go ahead with an uncertain outcome if they can instead return to doing something that’s really important to them. It’s just that making this decision explicit is rarely carried out.

Once someone’s finished deciding, they can begin doing what’s important or occupational engaging. To enter this process, the person needs to consider what occupations (activities to those of you who don’t use occupational therapy/occupational science language) are most highly valued, make them feel like themselves. While some people are very clear about what it is they want to do most, others might find this a bit of a struggle – especially if it’s been a long time, or if the thing they love the most is something other professionals have told them is “unrealistic”. Here’s my take on this: I think if a person wants something of value, they will find a way to do it. Who am I to disagree? My job is to help them develop ways of achieving it, or at least of achieving the value that this occupation expresses. Each occupation we do is underpinned by values, reasons we believe it’s important. It may not be the occupation itself, but instead may be how we do it that expresses an important value. Our job at this point is to help the person identify the values expressed within this important occupation, and help the person problem solve ways to express those values.

Then most people will begin developing coping skillsso they can do what’s important. Again, our job is to support the person to develop a range of ways to achieve or engage in valued occupations. There’s no “right” way or “wrong” way, there are simply ways to do things that work in that particular context. What’s important is that the person knows plenty of options, and can choose when they fit the context. Where we might need to help is in providing options for coping, and in helping the person develop flexibility in how they apply these strategies. Flexibility might need to come from helping the person think differently about their pain, or about using some of the strategies.

And finally, once a person is beginning to do what’s important and use coping strategies, then it’s time for them to begin future planning. This process (and the other two of occupational engaging and coping) are going to be relevant for the rest of the person’s life. Future planning needs to include setback planning, maintaining behaviour changes, thinking about other ways to keep expressing who the person really is. I think it’s an aspect of pain management that we rarely consider – having chronic pain can mean learning to grow, to keep developing, to become more resilient and allows us to develop different parts of ourselves. It’s more than just “returning to normal” because, after all, what’s normal?

blossom of snow

Deciding when to say when: pain cure? or pain managed?

I think the subject of this post is the singularly most important yet neglected topic in chronic pain research today. When is it time to say “All this looking at pain cure, or reducing your pain isn’t working, it’s time to accept that pain is going to part of your life.” It’s difficult for so many reasons whether you’re the person experiencing the pain, or the clinician trying to help. It’s also incredibly important for everyone including our community.

Cures for pain that persists are not easily found. One possibility is that the underlying disease or dysfunction has not yet been treated – pain in this case is the experience we have when there’s an unresolved threat to body tissues. Find the source of the problem, treat it, and voila! No pain.

Another possibility is that a new or groovy treatment has been developed – something extraordinary, or something that’s being applied to a different problem or something that’s emerging from the experimental phase to clinical practice.  This means clinicians need to have heard about it, maybe will have had to think hard about their clinical reasoning, have developed skills to apply it, and be ready to talk about it with the person they’re treating.

In the case of much chronic pain, pharmacological approaches simply do not work. Machado and colleagues (2009), in a large meta-analysis of placebo-controlled randomised trials, found 76 eligible trials reporting on 34 treatments. Fifty percent of the treatments had statistically significant effects, but for most the effects were small or moderate … the analgesic effects of many treatments for non-specific low back pain are small”, while Machado, Maher and colleagues found that paracetamol was “ineffective” for reducing pain intensity or improving quality of life for people with low back pain, and although there was a statistically significant result for paracetamol on osteoarthritis pain (hip or knee), this was not clinically important (Machado, Maher, Ferreira, Pinheiro, Lin, et al_2015).  Clifford Woolf said “most existing analgesics for persistent pain are relatively ineffective… the number of patients who are needed to be treated to achieve 50% reduction in neuropathic pain in one patient is more than four – a high cost for the three unsuccessfully treated patients and their physicians” (Woolf, 2010).

Woolf’s sentence ends with an important statement: A high cost for the three unsuccessfully treated patients and their physicians. I have emphasised the final three words, because this might be the most difficult to process. It’s hard for clinicians to say “I can’t reduce your pain”, and “there isn’t a cure”. It’s incredibly hard. And it’s perhaps because it’s so hard that I’ve found very little published research looking at the way clinicians go about telling people their pain is likely to be ongoing. It’s like a taboo – let’s not talk about it, let’s pretend it doesn’t happen, after all it doesn’t happen often.  Really?

Amongst allied health (I can’t bear to use the word “non-medical”), and in particular, physiotherapists, there continues to be a push to address pain intensity and (ultimately) to cure pain.  Innovative treatments such as mirror therapy, graded motor imagery, therapeutic pain neuroscience (we used to call it psycho-education in the 1980’s when I first started working in this area), reducing the threat value of the experience have all come into their own over the past 15 years or so. Even long-standing pain problems apparently respond to these approaches – people cured! Who wouldn’t be keen to try them?

Most of these latter treatments are based on the idea that our neurology is plastic; that is, it can change as we change input and thoughts/beliefs about what’s going on.  Unfortunately, the systematic reviews of trials, and at least one “real world” trial of graded motor imagery haven’t shown effects as great as promised from the early research (eg Johnson, Hall, Barnett, Draper, Derbyshire et al, 2012). There are sure to be people who can point to amazing outcomes in the people they treat. I’m certain that it’s not just the “treatment” but an awful lot to do with the person delivering the treatment – and the treatment context – that might make a difference to outcomes.

But where this all leads me to is who makes the decision to stop chasing pain reduction and pain cure? When does it happen? What’s the process? And what if we treatment providers are actually prolonging disability out of the goodness of our hearts to find a cure?

Let me unpack this a little.

In my research, several important factors led to people deciding to begin flexibly persisting (and getting on with life as it is, not as it was, or might be).

  • The first was knowing the diagnosis and that it would not be completely cured but could be managed.
  • The second, that hurting didn’t mean harm (pain is just pain, not a sign of ongoing damage).
  • The third, that there was something important the person wanted or needed to do to be themselves.

There were other things as well, like having a clinician who would stand by the person even if the person didn’t “do as the Doctor ordered”, and developing their own personalised model or explanation for their pain as it fluctuated from day-to-day. BUT the single most important factor was knowing that the problem needed to be managed because there was no cure. Knowing this meant that energy used chasing a cure was redirected towards learning to live well and be the person they were, rather than a patient or being dominated by pain.

Unfortunately, I think that many clinicians confuse the idea of managing pain with that of resignation to a lesser life. Even the wonderful Lorimer Moseley and crew wrote recently that “CBT literature seemed to focus on this idea of ‘pain is now unavoidable so it is now time to learn how to cope with it.’ He goes on to argue that because a CBT approach focuses on thoughts and beliefs (much like Explain Pain does), it’s not incompatible with the idea that the plastic brain can learn to reduce the threat value even further to ultimately “helping them live well with less pain, or perhaps without any pain at all.”

Here’s my concern: Right now there are many people living with chronic pain who have lost their sense of hope. They’ve pursued pain cure after pain cure, and in doing so, they’ve lost normal routines and habits, lost their usual occupations (activities), stopped being around people, stopped working, and have suffered in the true sense of the word – they’ve lost their sense of self. While I applaud the efforts of researchers like Moseley and colleagues, and I think we must continue to seek treatments to reverse the neurobiological underpinnings of pain, at the same time I think we need to look at the psychological and social aspects of our attitudes and expectations towards experiencing pain. And we must think of the negative effects of our emotional response to seeing another person who is experiencing pain.

Is it so terrible to experience pain every day? Speaking as one who does – despite my knowledge of neuroplasticity – my pain doesn’t represent a threat. It’s just an experience. It’s there. I notice it, I can feel it. And the participants in my research similarly acknowledged pain as present – but it didn’t have the emotional primacy that pain can represent before it is explained. In fact, some of the participants said they’d learned important things because they’d had pain. A lot like having a mood disorder (that must be managed), or diabetes (that must be managed), or heart disease (that must be managed), or respiratory disease (that must be managed), perhaps it’s OK to have pain – that must be managed. Because until our research has advanced a LOT further than it has, there are an awful lot of people living with chronic pain, and who will continue to live with chronic pain. And even more sadly, there are an awful lot of people who don’t even get the opportunity to know that it’s possible to live well despite experiencing chronic pain because we (as part of society) still don’t accept that pain can be present without it being a threat.

Sometimes I wonder at our (clinicians and researchers) blind spot. We just don’t seem to be ready to accept persisting pain as something that can be lived with. Is it time to look at our own discomfort with allowing pain to be part of life?


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

Cossins, L., Okell, R. W., Cameron, H., Simpson, B., Poole, H. M., & Goebel, A. (2013). Treatment of complex regional pain syndrome in adults: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials published from June 2000 to February 2012. European Journal of Pain, 17(2), 158-173.

Johnson, S., Hall, J., Barnett, S., Draper, M., Derbyshire, G., Haynes, L., . . . Goebel, A. (2012). Using graded motor imagery for complex regional pain syndrome in clinical practice: failure to improve pain. European Journal of Pain, 16(4), 550-561.

Machado, LAC, Kamper, SJ, Herbert, RD, Maher, CG, & McAuley, JH. (2009). Analgesic effects of treatments for non-specific low back pain: a meta-analysis of placebo-controlled randomized trials. Rheumatology, 48(5), 520-527.

Machado, Gustavo C, Maher, Chris G, Ferreira, Paulo H, Pinheiro, Marina B, Lin, Chung-Wei Christine, Day, Richard O, . . . Ferreira, Manuela L. (2015). Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials (Vol. 350).

Woolf, Clifford J. (2010). Overcoming obstacles to developing new analgesics. Nature Medical, 16(11), 1241-1247. doi: doi:10.1038/nm.2230

CPU #deepdream

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

chilly lake

“Sleep is my drug, my bed is the dealer, and my alarm clock the police.”

Sleep.  The “little death”, the “golden chain that binds health and our bodies together”, “sleep is a hint of lovely oblivion”.

There’s no doubt that having pain and sleeping well just don’t go together – having trouble with sleep is a common problem for people living with pain.  One study reports that over a period of 26 months, 67% of people living with chronic low back pain experienced poor sleep (Axen, 2015). More than this, in the same study one single day of bothersome pain increased the risk of reporting 2 to 7 nights with disturbed sleep by two, and people with chronic low back pain were more likely to report poor sleep than those with acute low back pain.

In another study, (Harrison, Wilson & Munafo, 2015) teenagers from a large cohort study in the UK were surveyed to identify the presence of sleep problems, mood problems and pain problems. 21% of the population reported trouble with sleep, 5.5% reported pain problems, and 2.8% experienced both pain and sleep problems.

And in yet another study, participants with fibromyalgia had significantly shorter and more frequent wake bouts than those with primary insomnia, and the researchers argue that sleep disruption in fibromyalgia does not lead to prolonged periods of wakefulness, but seems to be a disorder of the sleep system whereby internal or external events repeatedly disturb and fragment sleep, and suggest the resulting increased frequency of awakenings may be, at least in part, due to pain, as studies have shown that reducing pain also improves sleep.

These researchers also considered that there is a relatively intact homeostatic drive in participants with fibromyalgia that causes them to quickly return to sleep after an awakening. This is evidenced by shorter initial sleep latency (LPS) and increased slow wave sleep, in addition to shorter duration of wake bouts compared with individuals with primary insomnia (Roth, Brown, Pitman, Roehrs & Resnick, 2015).
People who experience chronic pain can often experience depression, while those who have depression commonly experience sleep disturbance. There are suggestions that common neurobiological pathways exist between all three states.  Atrophy of the hippocampus and increased limbic area activation has been reported across all three conditions, while increased limbic activation occurs in all three conditions as well. Neurochemical changes are also found in all three conditions: HPA-axis hyperactivity has been found, with subsequent alteration to glucocorticoid receptor downregulation, monoaminergic neurons are inhibited as a result of glucocorticoid-induced monoamine depletion, thus reducing inhibitory drive and therefore increasing pain.
Slow wave sleep has been found to inhibit the HPA axis and cortisol secretion, with wakefulness associated with increased cortisol which could lead to increased HPA activation and subsequent elevation of pain (Boakye, Olechowski, Rashiq, Verrier, Kerr, Witmans, Baker, Joyce and Dick, 2015).
Essentially it seems clear that there are neurobiological factors that are implicated in chronic pain, depression and poor sleep.
The importance of this finding shouldn’t be under-estimated. In qualitative studies, participants report that one of the most challenging aspects of dealing with chronic pain is handling fatigue and sleep-related problems (Turk, Dworkin, Revicki, Harding et al, 2008). Pain not only affects sleep quality, but because it intrudes on cognitive processing, there is perceived effort involved in just handling day-to-day situations.
What to do about it…
Well, here’s the thing. Most of the ways GP’s manage sleep problems is through short-term prescriptions of hypnotics such as zopiclone and occasionally benzodiazepines. While there are some useful short-term effects from these drugs, chronic pain is not a short-term problem. Sleep disturbance associated with chronic pain is thus less likely to be helped by simply increasing the length of prescription – these drugs are not intended to be taken long-term. Other medications are used primarily for their pain reducing effects (such as gabapentin and the tricyclic antidepressants), but happily, also possess sedative effects.  These can be taken long-term – but may not work for everyone.
Alternatives include using cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia. Actually, there are two alternatives – CBTi and sleep restriction, and in some cases, both together.
CBTi is a brief form of cognitive behavioural therapy that has been shown to be highly effective, and focuses on the thoughts and beliefs people hold about sleep, the habits people have associated with sleeping, and associations between habits, thoughts and sleep onset.  Sleep restriction, on the other hand, reduces the amount of time people are actually in bed overall, with the aim to consolidate sleep, and reduce the amount of time spent awake while in bed. Sleep restriction also influences the sleep architecture, so that people can descend into deep sleep more quickly, while reducing the amount of time in REM sleep and lighter levels of sleep.
A final alternative is to use mindfulness to help people become aware of their thoughts and habits about sleep, but instead of challenging or refuting them, learning to attend to them with curiosity and kindness, while at the same time reducing the amount of time awake while in bed.
As a long-time insomniac (now recovered!), I am well familiar with being awake when all else is silent, and on the troubles of trying to get off to sleep while my bed partner snoozes. I also know how hard it is to get back off to sleep after waking in the middle of the night.
Here’s what I did:
  1. Used deep relaxation hypnosis to help establish the association between being relaxed and being in bed. I used this every night for ages, then I realised that I could do the hypnosis “in my head” rather than having someone else’s voice do it for me.
  2. I got out of bed if I hadn’t been to sleep in about 30 minutes. Especially during the middle of the night! Not easy, but worthwhile so I didn’t lie there trying hard not to fidget and wake my partner. I found that if I tried to stay in bed I’d end up being so aware of my fidgeting and so strung out by trying NOT to fidget that I’d be wide awake and stressed. Not the best way to sleep!
  3. Keeping the lights down low, and reading a book I’d already read was the next step once I’d got out of bed. That way I didn’t need to read every word, and it didn’t matter if I snoozed a little.
  4. After about 30 minutes or so, I’d slide back into bed with my mind full of the story rather than being frazzled by not sleeping. And I’d return to my relaxation and breathing and gradually slip off to sleep.
  5. More recently I’ve kicked the mental hypnosis/relaxation habit, and I now go to bed and simply roll over and slow my breathing and fall asleep. Learning to do this without using the hypnosis has been fabulous so I no longer need to worry about being awake at 3.00 in the morning! If I do wake, I head to the toilet, do my business, then slide back into bed and roll over and slow my breathing.

What I’ve learned from this is that the main habit I needed to learn was how to put myself to sleep. I also learned to remind myself that the occasional night with poor sleep is OK, I can handle. And if my sleep really turns to custard I have the skills to manage it myself.

I can’t stop the fact that fibromyalgia means there are some changes to the way my brain processes information, and that this means I’m likely to have poorer sleep than many other people. What I can change is how much I allow that to affect me. And by learning how to go off to sleep by myself, without the external aids, has meant I actually do fall asleep more quickly and don’t feel the effects of disrupted sleep to the same extent as I used to.




More than something to blame when the treatment doesn’t work

A friend of mine told me that during her physiotherapy training when they discussed “psychosocial” factors it was usually in the context of explaining why a treatment didn’t work.  This still happens. Even well-informed and scientifically savvy people can unintentionally “blame” those pesky psychosocial factors for getting in the way of complete recovery. What do I mean? Well, let’s think about it: when we’ve done the “explaining” or “educating” – and the person still doesn’t understand and/or their pain doesn’t reduce, what’s our explanation?

We know that pain is an experience, not a separate thing to be treated, but the experience an individual has when his or her brain determines there is a threat to the body (and that threat is more important than other competing goals). We also know there are numerous mechanisms underpinning this experience, many of which are biological. But what we are always left with is the fact that we cannot know anything about this other person’s world except through (1) their behaviour and (2) our interpretation of their behaviour.

I’ve emphasised this because recently I’ve heard one registration board suggesting that a profession should not talk about pain, nor consider psychosocial factors because their domain of influence is bodily tissues.

I’ve also emphasised this because in our efforts to become all sciencey and sound (at least) like we know what we’re talking about, I think we may have forgotten that the only reason we know someone is sore is because they are doing something that we interpret as a signal that they’re sore. And that this occurs within a social setting that has emerged from a combination of historical practices and assumptions, and we are part of that social setting.

The biological substrates for our experience of pain have received the lion’s share of research attention and funds. What has received rather less is understanding some of the social aspects – what individuals learn throughout their life, including the assumptions we develop about what is “normal” and what is not. Unique family and cultural factors influence each individual’s experience – what does this person pay attention to? What does this person ignore? When this person recognises something as “not normal” what is the usual way of dealing with it? Who does this person first see for treatment?

More than this, what about the research looking at treatment provider’s decoding and response to the social communication of the person seeking treatment? We know, for example, that healthcare providers who view video vignettes of people displaying pain behaviour with no medical evidence but with psychosocial factors rate those individuals as experiencing less pain and interference, they have less sympathy, expect medication effectiveness to be less, and those individuals were more likely to be rated as potentially trying to deceive the treatment providers (De Ruddere, Goubert, Stevens, Deveugele, Craig & Crombez, 2014). These responses appear to use both automatic (unintentional, reflexive) and controlled (intentional, purposive) neuroregulatory systems. Observers (ie health professionals) also incorporate automatic (unintentional, reflexive) and controlled (intentional, reflective) reactions. We seem more likely to demonstrate instant ‘‘visceral’’ emotional reactions to unintentional, reflexive expression, while controlled expression characterised by purposive (deliberate) behaviour appears more likely to suggest to health professionals (or observers) that we should think a little about the purpose behind that individual’s pain expression (Craig, Versloot, Goubert, Vervoort & Crombez, 2010). The point is: this occurs even when we know about it, and even if the individual is experiencing pain, and even though the individual is only trying to get the treatment provider’s attention!

Pain behaviour as independent from the individual’s experience of pain is one of the key features of the behavioural model of pain. Pain behaviours were what Fordyce and Loeser and Turk and the very great original thinkers about chronic pain management first thought could and should be dealt with. The reason? Because despite all the surgical and pharmacological treatments available in the late 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s,  many people were still left experiencing pain and were also highly disabled by it. By helping people reduce their pain behaviour (eg stop guarding that body part, start moving more quickly and fluidly, be more relaxed, groan less) they noticed that people were also reporting that their pain bothered them less.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (or a cognitive behavioural approach, to be more accurate) incorporated more “education”, or helping people understand the mechanisms involved in their experience of pain, helping them understand the difference between hurting vs doing damage. A CBT approach meant people were acknowledged as being able to think differently about their pain, reduce their distress and begin to do more. A CBT approach combined education with behavioural experiments and encouraged people to get on with life.

Much more recently we have physiotherapists deciding that giving people pain neurobiology education (sounds almost exactly like the CBT education/explanation to me) is really good and reduces the threat value of the experience. And combined with graded reactivation, exposure to doing things that have been avoided, using methods to reduce distress and by avoiding flare-ups of pain, people are helped.

Two or three important points for me:

  1. Health professionals need to be aware of their own psychosocial responses/background/biases when they observe another person who is indicating they are sore.
  2. If we are two people interacting, all the messy psychosocial factors are immediately present – whether we attend to them, or not.
  3. Given how important those factors are in both our response to another person and their response to treatment (eg placebo, expectancy) it is critical that we integrate effective communication skills into every clinical interaction.

And probably another important point:

In the enthusiasm for pain neurobiology education and the potential for the person to no longer experience pain, we need to remember that reducing disability is arguably more relevant than reducing pain. Despite the impressive results reported by clinicians and some researchers there are many many people who continue to live with chronic pain. As clinicians we may even inadvertently delay recovery if our focus is inappropriately on pain reduction. I say this because there is SUCH clear evidence that pain intensity is less of a factor in ongoing disability than unhelpful beliefs and avoidance (Froud, Patterson, Eldridge, Seale, Pincus, Rajendran et al, 2014; Shaw, Campbell, Nelson, Main & Linton, 2013; Wilkens, Scheel, Grundnes, Hellum & Storheim, 2013).

To conclude, it seems to me that it’s high time for health professionals to take a hard look at what they consider to be “their” domain of concern. Not only must we avoid “blaming” psychosocial factors for poor outcomes from treatments we provide, we also must begin to recognise our own biases as we work with people living with pain. One of these biases is the temptation to believe that we are not influenced by our own psychosocial factors. Another is to recognise that delicate moment when it’s time to take our attention away from reducing pain and towards reducing disability. We need to elevate the status of effective communication – not just “can I make myself understood” and “can I establish rapport”, but that much more nuanced scope of implementing reflective listening, truly hearing our clients, and responding in a way that upholds client choice and self efficacy. I think this belongs to all health professions, not simply those tasked with dealing with “psychosocial” factors.


Craig, K.D. (2015). Social communication model of pain. Pain, 156(7), 1198-1199.

Craig, K.D., Versloot, J., Goubert, L., Vervoort, T., & Crombez, G. (2010). Perceiving pain in others: Automatic and controlled mechanisms. The Journal of Pain, 11(2), 101-108. doi:

De Ruddere, L., Goubert, L., Stevens, M.A.L., Deveugele, M., Craig, K.D., & Crombez, G. (2014). Health care professionals’ reactions to patient pain: Impact of knowledge about medical evidence and psychosocial influences. The Journal of Pain, 15(3), 262-270. doi:

Froud, R., Patterson, S., Eldridge, S., Seale, C., Pincus, T., Rajendran, D., . . . Underwood, M. (2014). A systematic review and meta-synthesis of the impact of low back pain on people’s lives. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 15, 50.

Shaw, W.S., Campbell, P., Nelson, C.C., Main, C.J., & Linton, S.J. (2013). Effects of workplace, family and cultural influences on low back pain: What opportunities exist to address social factors in general consultations? Best Practice & Research in Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 637-648.

Wilkens, P., Scheel, I.B., Grundnes, O., Hellum, C., & Storheim, K. (2013). Prognostic factors of prolonged disability in patients with chronic low back pain and lumbar degeneration in primary care: A cohort study. Spine, 38(1), 65-74.

silent angel comfort me

What does using a biopsychosocial framework mean in practice?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


An allied health response to primary care for musculoskeletal aches and pains

For as long as I can remember, the joke about doctors saying “take two paracetamol and ring me in the morning” has been a pretty accurate reflection of reality – but no more perhaps?

A large review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials of paracetamol in back pain and osteoarthritis has found that although paracetamol can provide a limited reduction in pain in osteoarthritis but not at a clinically important level, there is an elevated risk (four times) of having abnormal results on liver function tests (Machado, Maher, Ferreira, Pinheiro, Lin et al, 2015). The meaning of this elevated risk on liver function isn’t clear, but what is clear is the very minimal effect of what has been used as a mainstay drug for two of the most common complaints in the world.

Oh what are we to do? Because if the findings about paracetamol are stunning, add to it the clear evidence of harms associated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, and we have a situation where the two most common front-line treatments for musculoskeletal pain are being strongly questioned. What’s a busy GP meant to do?

As a community, I think health professionals working with people who have musculoskeletal pain need to begin a concerted campaign to show the value of nonpharmacological approaches to managing life with aches and pains. We already have this beginning with some of the physiotherapy social media campaigns – see a physio first! But I think we could add “See your allied health team first”.

What would it mean to see an allied health professional first? And what would allied health professionals need to do to make this a valid option?

I think allied health professionals would need to make some changes to how we assess people presenting with pain – I wouldn’t want to ban the biomechanical, but here’s a question: how well do physiotherapists consider the psychosocial in their history taking? Luckily I don’t need to have the answer because Rob Oostendorp, Hans Elvers and colleagues have done the work for me.  In this study, therapists were observed conducting their first assessment with a new patient experiencing chronic neck or back pain. Their interviews were reviewed against the SCEBS (Somatic, Psychological (Cognition, Emotion and Behaviour) and Social dimensions of chronic pain), and given scores for how well the interviews explored these domains. Perhaps unsurprisingly, history taking for the Somatic dimension (how sore, where are you sore, what triggers etc) was excellent, with 98% including this area. BUT, and you’d expect this perhaps, Cognition was 43%, Behaviour was 38%, Emotion was 28%, and Social was 18%. What this means is that despite the clinicians themselves considering their coverage for all but the social domain as being “adequate”, in reality the only aspect that these clinicians covered well was the most basic area – “what does it feel like?”.

Challenging indeed.

Now, what would happen if we then examined what these clinicians do with that information? Because if we’re not so wonderful at collecting useful information across domains, my bet is that we’re even worse at combining this information to make sense of it – in other words, developing useful formulations.

Unfortunately I don’t have any information on how we as allied health clinicians use the information we collect, but if my experience as an educator and the very limited number of papers discussing formulations is anything to go by, I don’t think we’re doing too well. I suspect we tend to collect information then blithely continue doing what we’ve always done in terms of treatments. And I’m sorry I don’t have the evidence to support my hunch – would someone take this on for a project, please?

I think allied health professionals also need to make some changes to how we present what we do to the general public. While most people in the general public know that physiotherapists help people move, osteopaths are gentle and work with their hands, chiropractic looks after backs and necks – I’m not so sure anyone really knows what occupational therapists might offer, and I’m certain there would be some angst if psychologists were recommended as front line clinicians for musculoskeletal problems!

You see, while we’ve been concerned about a biomedical dominance in musculoskeletal pain, we haven’t been as good at helping the general public recognise that aches and pains are fairly common and often not a sign of pathology. We’ve been pretty poor at showing the value of relaxation, mindfulness and down-regulation as useful ways to deal with pain. We haven’t addressed the need to engage in occupations and activities that are fulfilling and enjoyable and enriching. In fact, I venture to say that we have almost wholly bought into the biomedical model when it comes to how to conceptualise musculoskeletal aches and pains. We are as guilty as anyone for considering an ache or pain as a sign that the person needs to be “fixed” or “mended” or “aligned” or “stabilised”.

I think a more radical approach, and one that allied health professionals can really endorse because there is evidence for it, is that living well involves being fully human beings. That means allowing ourselves to engage in what we love to do, to not only be active but also to relax, to be exuberant and to be peaceful. To think of our lives as a whole, rather than an isolated ouchy hip or knee or neck. And to look to our whole lifestyle as key to living well rather than “treating” the bit that happens to be bothering us right now.

Imagine that – an allied health workforce that puts out the message that life and wellbeing are the products of balancing all the wonderful facets of being human.



Machado, G.C., Maher, C.G., Ferreira, P.H., Pinheiro, M.B., Lin, C.-W.C., Day, R.O., . . . Ferreira, M.L. (2015). Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials (Vol. 350).

Oostendorp, Elvers, Mikolajewska, Laekeman, van Trijffel, Samwel, Duquet (2015). Manual physical therapists’ use of biopsychosocial history taking in the management of patients with back or neck pain in clinical practice. The Scientific World Journal, 2015, art. 170463, doi: