Getting persistent pain and disability confused

As I read blogs and tweets and posts on social media, and even peer reviewed papers in journals, I often read that what we’re trying to do in sub-acute pain management is to prevent chronic pain from developing (note, when I talk about pain that goes on beyond healing, more than three months, or has no useful function, I may use the term “chronic” or I may use the more recent term “persistent” – they mean the same thing, except persistent has perhaps less baggage…).

I want to take aim at that focus – to prevent pain from persisting – and think carefully about it. Let’s take a 56 year old woman with a painful knee, a knee that’s been diagnosed as having osteoarthritis (OA). Now, although we have surgical management for OA (a knee replacement – uni-compartment or even a total knee replacement), in most cases surgeons are not enthusiastic about doing a knee replacement on a younger person, particularly someone who is active (plays netball, golf, runs, gardens). So if a knee replacement is not a thing – yet – what do we do? Most of us will know about the value of remaining active and fit, losing weight and maintaining good range of movement (see here for the NICE guidelines, 2017). We know that these things will maintain function – but they won’t stop cartilage deterioration (much, if at all), and they won’t stop the pain. No matter what we do – even medications are not always especially helpful – pain is likely to persist. Does that mean we’ve failed? Reading some of these blogs, it certainly seems it does.

Let’s take back pain – most of us will know back pain occurs periodically throughout life, from the time we’re teens, through to old age. In some people a single bout of back pain happens and then they’re fully recovered and never bothered again, but for many of us, we’ll be troubled with repeated bouts throughout our lives. And still others will have one bout than just never ends (Axen & Leboeuf-Yde, 2013; Vasseljen, Woodhouse, Bjorngaard, & Leivseth, 2013).  This is despite our best efforts to prevent the onset of low back pain, and to treat it effectively – pretty much all our treatments provide a small amount of help but only exercise has been shown to prevent a new bout after the first one (Choi, Verbeek, Wai-San Tam & Jiang, 2010) – and even then the evidence was “moderate” and only at one year.

So… when we begin to examine claims that by treating musculoskeletal problems early we can prevent pain from becoming chronic or ongoing, I think we need to stop and pause before letting the blood rush to our head.

If we can’t prevent pain from hanging around, what can we do? What is the aim of all this treatment?

Well, let’s take a quick look at the Global Burden of Disease (Hoy, March, Brooks, Blyth, Woolf, Bain et al, 2014). In this piece of work, “Out of all 291 conditions studied in the Global Burden of Disease 2010 Study, LBP ranked highest in terms of disability (YLDs), and sixth in terms of overall burden (DALYs). The global point prevalence of LBP was 9.4% (95% CI 9.0 to 9.8). DALYs increased from 58.2 million (M) (95% CI 39.9M to 78.1M) in 1990 to 83.0M (95% CI 56.6M to 111.9M) in 2010. Prevalence and burden increased with age.” [emphasis mine].

What this means is that although low back pain is not a fatal disease, that may well be the problem – people don’t die from low back pain, they live with disability all the days of their life. And worse, the burden of low back pain is increasing. And this is despite all the work we (you, me, the entire health system) is putting in.

If we can’t “get rid of” low back pain (and it looks like we don’t yet have the tools to do so), what are we trying to do?

Given our poor outcomes for completely curing low back pain, we need to aim to reduce the impact of pain on people’s lives.

And not just low back pain, but things like tennis elbow, frozen shoulder, neck pain, abdominal pain, pelvic pain, headache, migraine, osteoarthritis…

For a moment, let’s think about the effect on a person going through treatment, being promised that “pain education” will reduce their pain, that exercises will get rid of their pain, that gadget A or B will get rid of their pain, that treatment Y or Z will get rid of their pain. What do you think it feels like to be completely adherent about everything you’re being asked to do, but still feeling a failure because that pain does not go? Think of the language used by some of our colleagues – “failed back syndrome”? Who failed, exactly?

Before I get harangued for breathing the word that, ooops, our treatments don’t work very well, let me address the issue of “pain education” and pain intensity. Don’t forget that the only way we can know how much it hurts someone is by asking them. And our usual tool is that 0 – 10 scale, where 0 = no pain and 10 = most extreme pain imagined. Have you ever tried doing that on yourself? Seriously – how do you rate your own pain? Some of that pain rating is about how much we’re prepared to (capable of) putting up with. Some of that rating is about how bothered (fed up, distressed, frustrated) we are about our pain. Some of it is about “OMG I don’t know what this is and how long it’s going to go on for”.

What this means is that when someone gives an explanation it can –

  • make the experience less frightening,
  • less distressing,
  • more understandable,
  • less bothersome

and as a result, when we’re then asked for our pain intensity rating on that darned scale, we reduce the score we give our pain. It does not necessarily mean the pain has reduced in intensity – a pain scale is a means of communicating something about our experience, thus it’s a pain-associated behaviour with the purpose of communicating something. So if a person isn’t ‘convinced’ by our pain education, you know they’ll keep their score pretty high.

So, there are some people for whom we cannot reduce or get rid of their pain. It’s likely to persist. And it’s these people who can be viewed as “heartsink” patients, who hang around not getting better. Well, unless we begin looking at their experience and examine what they’re looking for (and believe me, it’s not pain reduction – it’s what pain reduction means they can do) we’re going to be stuck. And so will they. Let’s get it into our heads that pain reduction is not achievable for all, but reducing the impact of pain on life is something we can all help with. Let’s stop demonising the person who has to live with pain that doesn’t respond to all our ministrations and begin looking deeply at ourselves and why we avoid recognising that we can’t win ’em all. And let’s get on with the business of helping people do what’s important in their lives, irrespective of pain.



Axén, I., & Leboeuf-Yde, C. (2013). Trajectories of low back pain. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 601-612. doi:

Choi, B. K. L., Verbeek, J. H., Wai-San Tam, W., & Jiang, J. Y. (2010). Exercises for prevention of recurrences of low-back pain. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 67(11), 795-796. doi:10.1136/oem.2010.059873

Hoy, D., March, L., Brooks, P., Blyth, F., Woolf, A., Bain, C., . . . Buchbinder, R. (2014). The global burden of low back pain: Estimates from the global burden of disease 2010 study. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 73(6), 968-974. doi:10.1136/annrheumdis-2013-204428

Vasseljen, O., Woodhouse, A., Bjorngaard, J.H., & Leivseth, L. (2013). Natural course of acute neck and low back pain in the general population: The HUNT study. Pain, 154(8), 1237-1244.


Knee pain – and central sensitisation

Last week I started to discuss central sensitisation indicators in people with osteoarthritic knees, based on a paper by Lluch, Nijs, Courtney, Rebbeck, Wylde & Baert, et al (2017). I’m going to continue with this topic this week, because with the rise of osteoarthritis in the general population and particularly the impact of an aging population, I think we will all need to think hard about how we conceptualise osteoarthritis, and what we do for management. While efforts within my own Department (CReaTE – tissue engineering) involve developing new ways to remodel knee-joint tissues, we know that it will be some years before this approach is widely available (human trials haven’t started yet), and given the relative lack of funding for joint replacements, I think developing effective assessment and rehabilitation for painful knees is a real area of development.

So last week I discussed using simple measures such as >5 on a 0 – 10 VAS (NRS), pain drawings/maps showing radiating pain or widely distributed pain, the pattern of pain fluctuation (during activity, with an increase after activity), and using a couple of fairly simple questionnaires to help identify those most likely experiencing more than the “simple” OA pain we’ve learned about. And as always, identifying psychosocial factors which can lead to increased disability and distress is important.

Along with the clinical interview, we usually incorporate physical examination or physical performance testing. There are some indicators that might be useful such as inconsistent responses to our usual physical examination (ie testing increases pain even though some of them shouldn’t do so) – this should not be interpreted as a sign that the person is “faking bad” or exaggerating their experience. I can’t emphasise this enough! It’s possible that anxiety on the part of a person can wind the nervous system up – leading to what is usually non-nociceptive input being interpreted as nociceptive (Courtney, Kavchak, Lowry et al, 2010).

Another indicator is the presence of widespread hypersensitivity to mechanical stimuli – it’s a common finding in people who have central sensitisation and includes increased response to pressure and touch. You could, as a clinician, use a pressure algometer both close to the knee, and further away, to establish over-excitability of the nociceptive pathways. Interpreting findings using pressure algometry is not straightforward because there is overlap between those with OA and those without, but it’s possible to use norms from the general population (such as Nesiri, Scaramozzino, Andersen et al, 2011). It’s a bit of a challenge because of the overlap between the two populations, but can add to the clinical picture. Pain (allodynia) on light touch or being stroked with a cottonwool ball around the knee, is definitely a clue that something’s up.

Both thermal hyperalgesia and tactile hypoaesthesia (reduced sensitivity to von Frey fibre testing) have been associated with central sensitisation – if you don’t have formal testing apparatus, the back of a warmed teaspoon placed on the skin for 10 seconds should be experienced as hot but not painful in someone who isn’t tending to central sensitisation, and you can use cottonbuds (or cottonwool) to identify loss of sensation acuity, provided you do so in a systematic way (the authors suggest starting where it’s most painful and stimulating the skin in a wheel spoke pattern, gradually widening out).

Putting it all together

Any single test, on its own, is unlikely to be a good predictor of central sensitisation, but when combined with the information you obtain from the person, along with the relevant questionnaires, should begin to help develop a picture of who is likely to have a less-than-ideal response to planned trauma. What we do about reducing the potential for central sensitisation is still  begin hotly debated but we DO know that giving good information about pain mechanisms, and encouraging graded exposure and graded activity can be helpful. Given that exercise is a good approach for reducing the impact of osteoarthritis in the knee, for those with the additional burden of central sensitisation, I think swimming or hydrotherapy could also be helpful, as could mindfulness and even mindful movement like tai chi, yoga or xi gong.


People living with OA in their knees often spend many years having difficulty managing their pain before they are able to have surgery. From recent research in New Zealand, I don’t think many people are offered a pain “education” approach, and indeed, I’d bet there are a lot of people who don’t get referred for movement-based therapy either. Misunderstanding is rife in OA, with some people uncertain of the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, and others very worried that they’re going to “wear the joint out” if they exercise. While OA isn’t as sexy as low back pain, doesn’t have the economic cost of low back pain, and has a reasonable surgical option – it is still a significant problem for many people. Helping those people be more confident to move, helping reduce their uncertainty about the effect of movement on their joints, and giving them an opportunity to think differently about their knee pain would be a real step forward. Surgery, while helpful for many, is either not available or unsuccessful for others, and it’s time we attended to their needs as well.


Courtney CA, Kavchak AE, Lowry CD, et al. (2010). Interpreting joint pain: quantitative sensory testing in musculoskeletal management. Journal of Orthopaedic Sports Physical Therapy. 40:818–825.

Lluch Girbes E, Meeus M, Baert I, et al. (2015) Balancing “hands-on” with “hands-off” physical therapy interventions for the treatment of central sensitization pain in osteoarthritis. Manual Therapy. 20:349–352.

Lluch, E., Nijs, J., Courtney, C. A., Rebbeck, T., Wylde, V., Baert, I., . . . Skou, S. T. (2017). Clinical descriptors for the recognition of central sensitization pain in patients with knee osteoarthritis. Disability and Rehabilitation, 1-10. doi:10.1080/09638288.2017.1358770

Neziri AY, Scaramozzino P, Andersen OK, et al. (2011). Reference values of mechanical and thermal pain tests in a pain-free population. European Journal of Pain. 15:376–383.

Conversations about cannabis for chronic pain

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

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

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

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

Why might I support a change to marijuana laws?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My conclusion?

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

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

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


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

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

Great expectations – and low back pain

Have you ever wondered why there are so many treatments for low back pain? Like there are actually hundreds of different ways to “treat” back pain… yet the truth is, none of them work for everyone. Actually, most of them seem to help pass the time until low back pain settles of its own accord. Until it’s back again (no pun intended!).

This post is prompted after reading a string of general news articles discussing the common non-specific low back pain – under various guises of “dead butt syndrome“, “Dr Tom: Ouch I’ve hurt my back” and the like – I think it’s time for a frank discussion about the natural history of low back pain, as found in large epidemiological studies. There’s no doubt that low back pain is a problem around the world, and I think it’s partly due to unmet expectations (along with a whole lot of other variables). The Global Burden of Disease found low back pain to be the most common reason for days lived with disability around the world – that’s more than anaemia, depression, hearing loss, migraine!

Low back pain is common in every single country in the world.

Dunn, Hestbaek & Cassidy (2013) examined the prevalence of low back pain across the life span – they found that many of us view low back pain as a simple “yes/no” question – do you have it, or don’t you. They point out that people with no back pain at the time of a survey are not all the same: some might never have had a bout ever, while some might have had several bouts but just don’t have one right now. These presentations are not the same! Those who have had a previous episode will have developed an understanding of back pain on the basis of what happened, and this will influence their expectations, and subsequent response, to treatments.

Dunn, Hestbaek & Cassidy found that children/adolescents have a point prevalence (ie at the time of the survey, they reported they had back pain) of 12%. As people get older the prevalence continues to be around 12%. The elderly, those over 60 (that doesn’t really feel old to me!), seem to have a prevalence similar to people in middle age, and activities affected by low back pain seem to increase as we age.

Given the lifetime prevalence of low back pain is around 80% (or more), following people up over time seems to paint a different picture from the point prevalence studies: it’s not the same 12% of people that has low back pain all the time. Some studies show that at least 40% of people do recover within a year of an episode (see Hestbaek, Leboeuf-Yde, & Manniche, 2003). A Danish study with 5 year follow-up found around 23% of people consistently reported no pain days during the previous year (during the study) but around 10% reported more than 30 days of back pain every time they were asked. So, while long-term low back pain isn’t common in the adult population, most people do have a couple of bouts over long periods of time.

What are the risk factors? Well one clear risk factor is having had a previous episode, although this isn’t a consistent predictor for long-term back pain. Perhaps we should take a look more closely at the natural course of acute neck and low back pain – from the Norwegian longitudinal studies. From one city in Norway, these researchers screened 9056 people between 20 – 67 years old to identify those with a brand new bout of neck or back pain in the previous month – 219 people were identified, then followed for 12 months. What these researchers found was pain decreasing rapidly in the first month, irrespective of treatment, thereafter though, back pain didn’t change for the rest of the year especially for those with pain in the neck as well as the back at the first assessment, and for those who had 4 or more pain sites in the beginning.

Now what’s really interesting about this study is that the pain reduction people experienced, particularly in low back pain, was pretty close to the pain reduction people achieved whether they had treatment, or not. Hmmmm. Next question: what if we look at all the treatments people get, and those who are in the control group, and pooled that information to find out what happens? Artus, van der Windt, Jordan & Croft examined whether just taking part in a study on low back pain might influence outcomes – so they pooled 70 RCTs and 19 cohort studies, and both sets of data showed “a rapid improvement in the first six weeks followed by a smaller further improvement until 52 weeks. there was no statistically significant different in pooled standardised mean change (a measure used to compared the pooled within-group change in pain in RCTs with cohort studies) – get this, at any time point.

But wait, there’s more!

Axen & Leboeuf-Yde (2013) looked at the trajectories of low back pain over time. They summarised four studies in primary care or the general population, finding that over the course of between 12 weeks and 12 months, participants could be divided into two to four groups: one group remained uncomfortable, perhaps staying that way over the whole 12 months (around 10 – 21%); one group also remained uncomfortable but they reported their pain as “moderate” or “mild” – around 36%; another approximately 30% experienced fluctuating or intermittent low back pain; and finally, the group we love – those who recovered and remained that way, around 30 – 58%.

This is not the picture we hear in the media. This is not what we were taught. And yes, I know there are problems with pooled data because individualised responses get ironed out. But what all this says to me is – our patients come to us expecting that low back pain should completely resolve. The reality is that for a lot of people, back pain will come and go throughout the lifetime.

What does this mean to me?

Isn’t it time to give people an idea that if they have a bout of back pain, chances are high they’ll have another. Complete resolution of low back pain may not occur for a large number of people. A new bout of low back pain may not mean a new “injury” (given we don’t know why many people develop back pain in the first place). Learning to self-manage a bout of back pain is likely to save people a load of heartache, not to mention a lot of money. And maybe it’s the latter that means it’s very hard to find clear, effective messages about just how safe a painful back is. It’s far easier to sell a message of vulnerability, of the need for treatment for that “unhappy spine” as a chiropractor in Christchurch calls it. And of course, if we continue to allow the expectation that all pain should be gone, we’re going to be in business for a very long time…


Artus, M., van der Windt, D., Jordan, K.P., & Croft, P.R. (2014). The clinical course of low back pain: A meta-analysis comparing outcomes in randomised clinical trials (rcts) and observational studies. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 15, 68.

Axén, I., & Leboeuf-Yde, C. (2013). Trajectories of low back pain. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 601-612. doi:

Dunn, K.M., Hestbaek, L., & Cassidy, J.D. (2013). Low back pain across the life course. Best Practice & Research in Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 591-600.

Hestbaek L, Leboeuf-Yde C, Engberg M, Lauritzen T, Bruun NH, Manniche C. (2003). The course of low back pain in a general population. Results from a 5-year prospective study. Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics, 26(4):213–9.

Hestbaek L, Leboeuf-Yde C, Manniche C. (2003). Low back pain: what is the long-term course? A review of studies of general patient populations. European Spine Journal, 12(2):149–65.

Vasseljen, O., Woodhouse, A., Bjorngaard, J.H., & Leivseth, L. (2013). Natural course of acute neck and low back pain in the general population: The HUNT study. Pain, 154(8), 1237-1244.

Primary pain disorders

In a move likely to create some havoc in compensation systems around the world (well, at least in my corner of the world!), the International Association for the Study of Pain has worked with the World Health Organisation to develop a way to classify and thus record persistent pain conditions in the new (draft) ICD-11. While primary headache disorder has been in the classification for some years, other forms of persistent pain have not. Recording the presence of a pain disorder is incredibly important step forward for recognising and (fingers crossed) funding research and treatment into the problem of persistent pain. As the IASP website states:

Chronic pain affects an estimated 20 percent of people worldwide and accounts for nearly one-fifth of physician visits. One way to ensure that chronic pain receives greater attention as a global health priority is to improve the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) diagnostic classification.

The classifications are reasonably straightforward, with an overall classification of “chronic pain”, and seven subcategories into which each type of pain can be placed.

Now there will be those who are uncomfortable with labelling a symptom (an experience, aporia, quale) as a separate diagnosis. I can understand this because pain is an experience – but at the same time, just as depression, which is an experience with clinical and subclinical features, so too is pain. There is short-term and useful pain, serving as an alert and warning, and typically an indication of the potential or actual threat to bodily integrity. Just as in depression which has short-term and usually useful episodes of sadness, withdrawal and tearfulness (as in grief). At the same time, there are periods when sadness becomes intractable and unhelpful – and we call this depression. Underlying both of these situations are biological processes, as well as psychological and social contributors. Until now, however, persistent pain has remained invisible.

The definition of chronic pain, at this time, is the IASP one from the 1980’s:

“Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage. Often, pain serves as a symptom warning of a medical condition or injury. In these cases, treatment of the underlying medical condition is crucial and may resolve the pain. However, pain may persist despite successful management of the condition that initially caused it, or because the underlying medical condition cannot be treated successfully.

Chronic pain is pain that persists or recurs for longer than three months. Such pain often becomes the sole or predominant clinical problem in some patients. As such it may warrant specific diagnostic evaluation, therapy and rehabilitation. Chronic pain is a frequent condition, affecting an estimated 20% of people worldwide. This code should be used if a pain condition persists or recurs for longer than 3 months.”

Chronic Primary Pain is defined as “…chronic pain in one or more anatomical regions that is characterized by significant emotional distress (anxiety, anger/frustration or depressed mood) and functional disability (interference in daily life activities and reduced participation in social roles). Chronic primary pain is multifactorial: biological psychological and social factors contribute to the pain syndrome. The diagnosis is appropriate independently of identified biological or psychological contributors unless another diagnosis would better account for the presenting symptoms. Other chronic pain diagnoses to be considered are chronic cancer pain, chronic postsurgical or posttraumatic pain, chronic neuropathic pain, chronic headache or orofacial pain, chronic visceral pain and chronic musculoskeletal pain. Patients with chronic primary pain often report increased depressed and anxious mood, as well as anger and frustration. In addition, the pain significantly interferes with daily life activities and participation in social roles. Chronic primary pain is a frequent condition, and treatment should be geared towards the reduction of pain-related distress and disability.” (definition are found here)

The definition doesn’t require identified biological or psychological contributors – so people with primary pain would be those who have fibromyalgia, persistent low back pain, perhaps even “frozen” shoulder. The main requirement is that the person is distressed by it, and that it interferes with life. Now here’s a bit of a problem for those of us who have learned to live well with our persistent pain – I experience widespread pain, but generally I’m not distressed by it, and seeing as I’ve lived with it since my early 20’s, I find it hard to work out whether I’m limited by it, or whether I’ve just adjusted my life around it, so it doesn’t really get in the way of what I want to do. Technically, using the draft definition, I might not be given the label. Does this mean I don’t have chronic primary pain?

Why did I suggest compensation systems might be interested in this new classification? Well, in New Zealand, if a person has a pre-existing condition, for example they have osteoarthritic changes in their spine even if it’s not symptomatic (ie it doesn’t hurt), and then lodges a claim for a personal injury caused by accident, they may well find their claim for cover is declined.  What will happen if someone who has fibromyalgia, has an accident (say a shoulder impingement from lifting something heavy overhead), and the problem fails to settle? I think it’s possible they’ll have their claim declined. Low back pain is probably the most common primary pain disorder. Thousands of people in New Zealand develop low back pain each year. Few will have relevant findings on imaging – and even if imaging shows something, the potential for it to be directly related to the onset of low back pain is open to debate. Especially if we consider low back pain to be a condition that doesn’t just appear once, but re-occurs thereafter (1-7). What will this mean for insurers?

I don’t know where this classification will lead insurers, but from my perspective, I can only hope that by incorporating chronic pain into the ICD-11 we will at least begin to show just how pervasive this problem is, and how many people need help because of it. And maybe, just maybe, governments like the New Zealand government, will begin to take persistent pain seriously and make it a national health priority.

  1. Dunn, K.M., Hestbaek, L., & Cassidy, J.D. (2013). Low back pain across the life course. Best Practice & Research in Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 591-600.
  2. Artus, M., van der Windt, D., Jordan, K.P., & Croft, P.R. (2014). The clinical course of low back pain: A meta-analysis comparing outcomes in randomised clinical trials (rcts) and observational studies. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 15, 68.
  3. Vasseljen, O., Woodhouse, A., Bjorngaard, J.H., & Leivseth, L. (2013). Natural course of acute neck and low back pain in the general population: The HUNT study. Pain, 154(8), 1237-1244.
  4. Hoy, D., March, L., Brooks, P., Blyth, F., Woolf, A., Bain, C., . . . Buchbinder, R. (2014). The global burden of low back pain: Estimates from the global burden of disease 2010 study. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 73(6), 968-974.
  5. Campbell, P., Foster, N.E., Thomas, E., & Dunn, K.M. (2013). Prognostic indicators of low back pain in primary care: Five-year prospective study. Journal of Pain, 14(8), 873-883.
  6. Axén, I., & Leboeuf-Yde, C. (2013). Trajectories of low back pain. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 601-612. doi:
  7. Hoy, D. G., Smith, E., Cross, M., Sanchez-Riera, L., Buchbinder, R., Blyth, F. M., . . . March, L. M. (2014). The global burden of musculoskeletal conditions for 2010: an overview of methods. Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, 73(6), 982-989. doi:10.1136/annrheumdis-2013-204344

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

Targeting the people who need it most

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The “Subjective” – and really hearing

I’m not a physiotherapist. This means I don’t follow the SOAP format because it doesn’t suit me. The first letter is intended to represent “subjective” – and when I look up the dictionary meaning of subjective and compare it with the way “subjective” notes are thought about, I think we have a problem, Houston.

Subjective is meant to mean “based on personal feelings” or more generally “what the person says”. In the case of our experience of pain, we only have our personal feelings to go on. That is, we can’t use an image or X-ray or fMRI or blood test to decide whether someone is or isn’t experiencing pain.

Now the reason I don’t like the term “subjective” when it’s part of a clinical examination is that so often we contrast this section with so-called “objective” findings.  Objective is meant to mean “not influenced by personal feelings”, and is intended to represent “facts” or “the truth”. Problem is… how we determine truth.

Let’s think about how the information we obtain fits with these two ideals, and how we use it.

Subjective information is all the things we ask a person about – their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, understanding and their own experience. Subjective information might even include the person’s report of what they can and can’t do, how they feel about this and what their goals are.

Objective information, on the other hand, is all the things we as clinicians observe and measure. Now here’s my problem. By calling this information “objective” we’re indicating that we as clinicians hold a less-than-subjective view of what we see. Now is that true? Let’s think about the tests we use (reliability, validity anyone?). Think about the choices we make when selecting those tests (personal bias, training variability, clinical model…). Think about the performance variables on the day we do the testing (time of day, equipment and instruction variability, observational awareness, distractions, recording – oh and interpretation).

Now think about how that information is used. What value is placed on the objective information? It’s like a record of what actually was at the time. If you don’t believe me, take a look at what’s reported in medico-legal reporting – and what gets taken notice of. The subjective information is often either overlooked – or used to justify that the client is wrong, and what they can actually do is contained in the “objective”.

Given the predictive validity of a person’s expectations, beliefs and understanding on their pain and disability over time, I think the label “subjective” needs an overhaul. I think it’s far more accurate to call this “Personal experience”, or to remove the two labels completely and call it “assessment”. Let’s not value our own world view over that of the people we are listening to.

How do we really hear what someone’s saying? Well, that’s a hard one but I think it begins with an attitude. That attitude is one of curiosity. You see, I don’t believe that people deliberately make dumb decisions. I think people make the best decisions they can, given the information they have at the time. The choices a person makes are usually based on anticipating the results and believing that this option will work out, at least once. So, for example, if someone finds that bending forwards hurts – doesn’t it make sense not to bend over if you’re worried that (a) it’s going to hurt and (b) something dire is happening to make it hurt? In the short term, at least, it does make sense – but over time, the results are less useful.

Our job, as clinicians, is to find out the basis for this behaviour, and to help the person consider some alternatives. I think one of the best ways to do this is to use guided discovery, or Socratic questioning to help both me and the client work out why they’ve ended up doing something that isn’t working out so well now, in the long term. I recorded a video for the Facebook group Trust Me, I’m a Physiotherapist (go here for the video) where I talk about Socratic questioning and Motivational Interviewing – the idea is to really respect the person’s own experience, and to guide him or her to discover something about that experience that perhaps they hadn’t noticed before. To shed a little light on an assumption, or to check out the experience in light of new knowledge.

Learning Socratic questioning can be tricky at first (Waltman, Hall, McFarr, Beck & Creed, 2017). We’re not usually trained to ask questions unless we already know the answer and where we’re going with it. We’re also used to telling people things rather than guiding them to discover for themselves. Video recording can be a useful approach (see Gonsalvez, Brockman & Hill, 2016) for more information on two techniques. It’s one of the most powerful ways to learn about what you’re actually doing in-session (and it’s a bit ewwww at first too!).

We also really need to watch that we’re not guiding the person to discover what we THINK is going on, rather than being prepared to be led by the client as, together, we make sense of their experience. It does take a little time, and it does mean we go at the pace of the person – and we have to work hard at reflecting back what it is we hear.

So, “subjective” information needs, I think, to be valued far more highly than it is. It needs to be integrated into our clinical reasoning – what the person says and what we discover together should influence how we work in therapy. And we might need to place a little less reliance on “objective” information, because it’s filtered through our own perspective (and other people may take it more seriously than they should).


Gonsalvez, C. J., Brockman, R., & Hill, H. R. (2016). Video feedback in CBT supervision: review and illustration of two specific techniques. Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 9.
Kazantzis, N., Fairburn, C. G., Padesky, C. A., Reinecke, M., & Teesson, M. (2014). Unresolved issues regarding the research and practice of cognitive behavior therapy: The case of guided discovery using Socratic questioning. Behaviour Change, 31(01), 1-17.
Waltman, S., Hall, B. C., McFarr, L. M., Beck, A. T., & Creed, T. A. (2017). In-Session Stuck Points and Pitfalls of Community Clinicians Learning CBT: Qualitative Investigation. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 24(2), 256-267.

Mulling over the pain management vs pain reduction divide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

A surfeit of learning

It’s been a busy few weeks as I’ve been at the San Diego Pain Summit and then the New Zealand Pain Society meeting where wonderful speakers presented on topics like exercise for pain, cognitive functional therapy, central sensitisation, opioid use in New Zealand, sensory profiles and other such topics. The chance to meet and spend time with clinicians who are passionate to not only learn about pain, but apply what they’ve learned in clinical practice is something I can’t miss.

What’s difficult, though, is deciding what to apply on Monday morning after having been to meetings or events where there’s so much new material to absorb. And that’s one of the problems, I think, in our clinical practice today. The years when it was relatively easy to do the same old, same old, have (thankfully!) gone – but in its place is the challenge of sifting through that new information and deciding what and how to do it.

So today I thought I’d go through some of the practices I’ve used – maybe it will help someone else?

Firstly, I try to take just one thing away from a meeting. If I absorb more than this, it’s fine, but one new thing is usually quite enough for me! Someone made the point that changing habits is hard – and, just for a moment, think about what we expect the people we treat to do, and then think about that last conference and what you intended to do, but just didn’t… Without  intention, planning and support to change what you do, you’ll carry on doing what’s easy, what’s worked before, and what feels “comfortable”. So be kind to yourself and pick just one thing. For me, that one thing is to feel OK about teaching people to ask “and what does that mean to you?” when someone is telling me their story about their pain.

Next, I let the rest of the information I heard just sit and percolate a while. This means I might casually read something related, or I might review the speaker’s slides or recordings, but I don’t do this in a way that I’m madly trying to cram in action points. This is because I’ve chosen one thing to do, and that’s enough. The rest of the information won’t just disappear because I’m letting it rest, it’s just going to connect with other concepts and pop out later when I stumble on it while reading something else.

To apply what I’ve learned, I plan. Yep, you heard it, I plan! Just like our clients, we need to make specific action plans if we’re going to do things differently. I think there are two factors to apply: the first is how important I think the concept/action is to me, the second is how confident I am to make a change.

  1. Importance: While simply selecting the single thing I take away from a meeting implies that I think it’s important, it’s worth considering why I decided it’s so important. So I list a few reasons I valued that concept. For me, it was the idea that we can uncover more of the real concerns of a person if we ask what it means to them, we can be more able to hear what the person really wants. I also took the idea that anyone: PT, OT, MT, Osteo, Chiro, Doc, Nurse ANYONE can ask this question. This is important to me because if that question isn’t asked, the person may go on fearing the worst even if they appear to be “doing well”. And we cannot rely on “someone else” asking this question. Even if we’re not psychologists, and so think that beliefs and attitudes are out of scope, we ARE experts in how the human body works. We know structure and function. This means we have a responsibility to help people understand what’s going on their body rather than living in ignorance or confusion.
  2. Confidence: It’s not enough to think that something is important. We need to make it easy to make a change. This means identifying what might get in the way of change and planning around that. It also means identifying what might make it easy to change and structuring life so it’s not hard. It could mean writing some “cheat sheets” giving brief phrases to use (Alison Sim and I used this approach in our recent workshop), or it might mean a poster in a prominent place to act as a reminder. It might mean removing something from the environment so you don’t use it as easily. It could mean simplifying for a couple of times. For me it will mean working through possible arguments people make against asking those questions about meaning, using open-ended questions. Often the questions relate to time available in clinic, scope of practice questions, “opening Pandora’s box” questions, “what do I say next” questions, or the “it’s not my focus” questions. I’ll work on responses to these in advance so I can explore what these mean to the clinician before asking if it’s OK to explain my perspective.

I ask myself “what would it look like if I applied this new strategy?”, or “how would I know I was using this strategy?”. I also take time to review how I’ve gone using that new strategy – recording myself, asking someone to sit in on a session, even just reviewing against the “cheat sheet” to see what I used, and what I could have used.

If you take a moment to review my process, hopefully you’ll see the elements of a motivational approach to behaviour change. I’ve written quite a bit about motivation – hope this helps you too!