Tribalism in pain rehabilitation

When working in pain management, rehabilitation or treatment, it doesn’t take very long before we become painfully (no pun intended) aware that there are different schools of thought about pain and its management.

Straw man

On the one hand, we have a the straw man version of medicine. To simplify (and believe me, this is the more extreme version of this approach), this model appeals to our desire to find simple explanations for what ails us, and to believe that once found, treating it by removing it, eliminating it, or somehow righting wrongs, will allow the person to live the way they used to, aka “return to normal”. A medical model is predicated upon the idea that diseases can be viewed as separate from the people experiencing them, that those problems can be rectified, and that people are relatively unaffected by what goes on in and around them. Remember I said that this is the extreme, straw man version, because it would be difficult today to find a medical person who wouldn’t also consider “lifestyle” factors.

For example, Alloubani, Saleh & Abdelhafiz (2018) reviewed hypertension and diabetes as risk factors for stroke. They pointed out that “Changes in the lifestyle include dietary changes, which essentially involves consuming vegetables and fruits more (meta-analysis of 9 autonomous types of research has depicted that three to five servings every day decrease stroke risk for 0, 89) and eating less salt [17]. Further lifestyle changes include weight loss, aerobic activity and restricting alcohol intake. It is not suggested to undergo pharmacological treatment till systolic pressures increase to more than 140 mm Hg as well as diastolic increases to over 90 mm Hg brain perfusion. The significance of treating hypertension to decrease the stroke risk injuries is evident; however, the most optimal choice of antihypertensive medicine is not so evident [18].”

What are the single-factor “disease”-oriented models in pain at the moment? It’s not too hard to find them, so we see studies like Staartjes, Vergroesen, Zeilstra & Schroder (2018) searching for reasons to fuse vertebrae, with the following conclusion: “In patients without prior surgery, the PCT appears to be the most promising prognostic tool. Other prognostic selection tools such as discography and Modic changes yield disappointing results. In this study, female patients and those without prior spine surgery appear to be most likely to benefit from fusion surgery for DDD.” The PCT is essentially a cast around the hips from waist to the top of the leg with a longer leg cast on the side that hurts.

We can see similar appeals to single-factor causal models in studies of core stability – De Blaiser, Roosen, Willems, Danneels, Bossche, & De Ridder (2018) investigating whether this is a risk factor for lower extremity injuries in athletes, while Tayashiki, Mizuno, Kanehisa, & Miyamoto, (2018) investigated the causal effect of intra-abdominal pressure on maximal voluntary isometric hip extension torque.
Now before anyone jumps down my throat, I know we need to isolate factors in order to understand a phenomenon. We do. What I’m more concerned about is when clinicians begin to change their practice on the basis of a study like these – and then apply this to people who are (a) not athletes, (b) not performing maximal hip extension torque, or who otherwise do not fit the research population!

Another straw man

What are the other schools of thought in pain management, rehabilitation and treatment? Well, another is the idea that pain is “all in the brain” – or the mind – and that education alone is both essential, and powerful all on its own. Once again, this idea has some seeds of relevance. Certainly, if you happen to be worried that the pain in your back is going land you up in surgery (after all, you’ve had the PCT!), getting to understand that the pain and what’s going on in your tissues have a very complex relationship, and that it’s OK to move because you’re not doing damage, you’re likely to heave a sigh of relief.

BUT is that all that’s necessary? Once again I head off to some of the lovely single subject experimental studies carried out by Johan Vlaeyen’s lab. One is by Schemer, Vlaeyen, Doerr, Skluda, Nater, Rief & Glombiewski (2018) and clearly shows that clinical change (behavioural as well as changes in pain, disability, fear, acceptance, and self efficacy) occurs mainly during the DOING phase of treatment. Education alone didn’t change these factors, and the authors go on to say “We recommend integrating exposure elements in the management of CLBP to increase its efficacy. Psycho-educational sessions might not be necessary or should be adapted, e.g. with stronger focus on motivational aspects”

A previous study, using cognitive functional therapy showed some similar changes over time (Caneiro, Smith, Rabey, Moseley, & O’Sullivan, 2017).

It seems to be the doing that’s important.

Not a straw man

So what about the much maligned, and much loved, biopsychosocial model?

The tribe adhering to this model is pretty large – and varied in how it actually interprets it! However, it has taken hold in pain conceptualisation since the IASP adopted it in the late 1970’s. IASP was established in 1973 by John Bonica, and represents the largest group in the world of clinicians, researchers, policy-makers, and now people living with pain. It adopted the BPS model as a way to understand a person’s illness (note: not the disease). A great outline from 2010 (the Global Year against Musculoskeletal Pain) can be found here: click

What does it actually mean? Simply put, it means that while a person might have a disease process within their body, at the same time, they’re a person who has (1) identified that they don’t feel right; (2) decided it’s worth seeking some help for it; (3) consequently now receives the special exemptions his or her society has reserved for people who are ‘ill’; (4) chosen the kind of therapist/’healer’ they think is most appropriate (5) within his or her own sociocultural context; (6) has chosen to proceed with the treatment while simultaneously embarking on culturally-appropriate recovery behaviour. And when this has all finished, *the person remembers what has happened, projects into the future to anticipate what might have happened (or might happen if it reoccurs), carries on with life with this new understanding of what those symptoms mean. Oh, and the initial “identified that they don’t feel right” part – that’s based on past experiences, both personal and vicarious, or in other words, the entire bit from the * to here… again.

Why can’t we all get along?

The question arises then, as to why there are so many tribes who just don’t get along? Well I think we can return to Sapolsky for this. He neatly describes ‘Why your brain hates other people” in this article – click. We can find all sorts of reasons to reject “others”. In pain treatment, rehabilitation and management, tribalism seems to be strongly influenced by income generation, political power, the need to attract followers, and a host of human bias reasons like cognitive dissonance and projecting our assumptions onto others, to preserve autonomy and group status, to stick to things we’ve invested in, to prefer the immediate and simple as opposed to messy and complex, to seek confirmation for what we believe we know… And so on.

My philosophy… for now

So… which tribe do I feel most at home with? I suppose I’m a conservative. I’ve seen many models come and go and I feel most comfortable with a cognitive behavioural approach to pain – that is, that people DO think about their situation, feel various emotions, and then do things as a result. That pain is both a personal experience, but often elicits behaviours that others can see – and respond to. That the body/mind is indivisible. That psychological and social aspects of being human are as important and relevant (but harder to study) than tissues or nerves. That if we can help people experience something, and attribute that new experience to something they’ve done for themselves, then we’re well on the way to helping them manage their situation without having to rely on a healer.

And of course, within different cultural settings, the attribution may be more or less connected with others and their priorities. A loose framework borrowing from psychology (particularly behavioural psych, social psych, and cognitive psych), sociology and anthropology, family systems, as well as traditional “health sciences” of anatomy, physiology, neurobiology and so on. And what that means is reading really widely, holding off on new and groovy theories and practices until more is known about them, and not being swayed by the majority rules. Because in my day-to-day work, within an orthopaedic surgery and musculoskeletal department, mine is possibly a fairly outlying position.

Where does this leave me? Well I think consistently reading and flexibly considering the various pieces of information being discovered helps me to be pretty humble about what I prefer to teach, and to do in the clinic. I’ve been blogging continuously for 11 years now, and I think my reputation is of being moderate, considerate and thoughtful. I’m not terribly shouty. I don’t call people names, or get angry because someone has quoted something I might have said out of context. Why? Because I’d rather focus on what I think matters. And in the end, what people think of me matters a lot less than (hopefully) what the research I present shows.

Alloubani, A., Saleh, A., & Abdelhafiz, I. (2018). Hypertension and diabetes mellitus as a predictive risk factors for stroke. Diabetes & Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research & Reviews, 12(4), 577-584. doi:

Caneiro, J., Smith, A., Rabey, M., Moseley, G. L., & O’Sullivan, P. (2017). Process of change in pain-related fear: clinical insights from a single case report of persistent back pain managed with cognitive functional therapy. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 47(9), 637-651.

De Blaiser, C., Roosen, P., Willems, T., Danneels, L., Bossche, L. V., & De Ridder, R. Is core stability a risk factor for lower extremity injuries in an athletic population? A systematic review. Physical Therapy in Sport, 30, 48-56.

Johnson, C. D., Whitehead, P. N., Pletcher, E. R., Faherty, M. S., Lovalekar, M. T., Eagle, S. R., & Keenan, K. A. The Relationship of Core Strength and Activation and Performance on Three Functional Movement Screens. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(4), 1166-1173.

Staartjes, V. E., Vergroesen, P. A., Zeilstra, D. J., & Schroder, M. L. (2018) Identifying subsets of patients with single-level degenerative disc disease for lumbar fusion: the value of prognostic tests in surgical decision making. Spine Journal: Official Journal of the North American Spine Society, 18(4), 558-566.

Schemer, L., Vlaeyen, J. W. S., Doerr, J. M., Skoluda, N., Nater, U. M., Rief, W., & Glombiewski, J. A. (2018). Treatment processes during exposure and cognitive-behavioral therapy for chronic back pain: A single-case experimental design with multiple baselines. Behav Res Ther, 108, 58-67. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2018.07.002

Tayashiki, K., Mizuno, F., Kanehisa, H., & Miyamoto, N. Causal effect of intra-abdominal pressure on maximal voluntary isometric hip extension torque. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 118(1), 93-99.