living well

Having The Conversation…


Over the past few weeks I’ve been posing some of the curly questions that I don’t think have yet been answered in pain rehabilitation. In fact, some of them have yet to be investigated in any depth. Today I’m stepping out into the abyss to offer my current thoughts on one question that has been rattling around for some time: how do we have a conversation about pain and its persistence? I want to begin by stating very emphatically, that I do believe pain can change. And that the way a person views or interprets their experience can change, and there is reversibility in pain intensity and quality. Having a conversation about persistence doesn’t mean pain will inevitably hang around. So why talk about it?

One major reason comes from people living with pain. In a recent book (Meanings of Pain) I quoted several qualitative studies where “pain acceptance” and conversations about this were highly valued by people with pain – in fact, in my own research, learning that pain would either likely remain in its current form, or would be a feature in some way, was part of a turning point (Lennox Thompson, Gage & Kirk, 2019). The turning point was away from pursuing pain reduction as a primary goal, and towards living a life. “And then I finally said to myself, nothing’s going to work. I might as well try to live with it, and learn to live with it, and since then I haven’t tried pursuing any type of pain relief” (Henwood, Ellis, Logan, Dubouloz & D’Eon, 2012), “All the previous treatments dealt with taking
away the pain. This is the first time one gets a treatment that focuses on acceptance of the pain, and you really understand that this is chronic pain that will never disappear; it’s the first time one has received the message from this angle”
( Pietilä, Stålnacke, Enthoven, Stenberg, 2018)

I guess I don’t see this as a dichotomous choice. It’s not simply “pain reduction” OR “pain acceptance”. I think we can have more than one goal. It’s a matter of emphasis, where energy gets spent. Mark Sullivan and Betty Ferrell argue that health professionals need to reconceptualise their contribution to health: is it to treat disease, or to “advance the person’s capacity for personally meaningful action?” (Sullivan & Ferrell, 2005).

The issue is, that doing what matters can mean “doing what matters provided that pain isn’t present”, or “doing what matters provided that pain has gone”, or “doing what matters provided that it feels good”.

Back to the conversation. The purpose of the conversation is to allow some wiggle room around the “provided that”. Because, in the pursuit of pain reduction life can pass by. Jobs go, relationships fail, kids grow up and leave home, expertise and capability become obsolete, mates develop new pursuits and meanwhile, as people living with persistent pain have said, they’re living in “limbo land”. Reconnecting with values-based activities as one way to feel more whole again often means navigating the meaning of pain fluctuations. It can mean developing ways to allow pain to be present without trying to change the experience, or escape the experience.

Guiding the conversation

I routinely use guided discovery as my main form of therapeutic communication. My approach to The Conversation is to begin by finding out about the person’s theory of their pain – what do they think is going on? What have they been told and what sense have they made of this? What has it been like to have this experience bring attention to daily movements and activities? How are they going about daily life? What’s helped, what hasn’t? What have they given up? What new things have they had to do? What’s that been like?

I usually jot down the good and not so good of all of this – it helps to have a record both for the person and for me. I like to reassure people that they’re doing their very best in what can feel like an unrewarding endeavour. I also explore the impact of treatments on the person. What is it like to take medications, do exercises, have to make time to attend appointments? What is it like to tell one’s story to so many people – who often don’t reciprocate?

Drawing from both my clinical experience and from what I’ve learned about ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy), I offer people a chance to reflect on the impact of not only pain, but also the process of getting treatment. On the work that goes into rehabilitation. I ask them what sense they make of life at the moment. What do they take from all of this?

And in that moment I also ask about what’s important in life. What matters. And how well is that person able to do at least something of what matters in their life? And is it possible to move towards doing more of what matters in life even in the presence of pain? And what sense does the person make of all we’ve discussed?

If I’m asked about whether pain will go, I am open about the possibility that it will not completely vanish. This reflects my understanding of neuroscience, the many many studies into all kinds of treatments, and from the words of people in qualitative studies who indicate that this is an important acknowledgement. I’m also not suggesting that anyone stop participating in pain reduction efforts, not at all. It’s not my decision. It’s never our decision – it’s the person with pain who must decide. I will point out, though, that I don’t think living well with pain is often offered to people as a positive option. It’s often delivered as “well if this doesn’t work, you can try doing some pain management”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Not even a neutral suggestion.

The Conversation isn’t about stopping treatment. It’s not about pain reduction vs pain management. It’s not about pain persistence as much as it is about ensuring rehabilitation focuses on what matters to people. For rehabilitation is not about eradicating the disease that caused the problem, it’s about restoring and optimising capabilities, enabling people to participate in their own lives as much as possible. Sometimes, in the pursuit of restoring capabilities, perhaps participating in life is forgotten.

Henwood P, Ellis J, Logan J, Dubouloz C-J, D’Eon J. Acceptance of chronic neuropathic pain in spinal cord injured persons: a qualitative approach. Pain Manag Nurs. 2012;13(4):215–22.

Lennox Thompson B, Gage J, Kirk R. Living well with chronic pain: a classical grounded theory. Disabil Rehabil. 2019:1–12.

Pietilä Holmner E, Stålnacke B-M, Enthoven P, Stenberg G. The acceptance. J Rehabil Med. 2018;50(1):73–9.

Sullivan, Mark, & Ferrell, Betty. (2005). Ethical Challenges in the Management of Chronic Nonmalignant Pain: Negotiating Through the Cloud of Doubt. The Journal of Pain, 6(1), 2-9.

Uncertainty: perennial controversies in pain understanding


As I write this post today, yet again there are new theories being proposed for that most common of experiences: pain. Not only theoretical controversies, but even the definition of pain is being debated – is pain an “aversive” experience? An aversive sensory and emotional experience typically caused by, or resembling that caused by, actual or potential tissue injury. Some researchers have recently “found” a new nociceptive fibre (though they persist in calling it a “pain fibre” – once again perpetuating the idea that pain is one and the same with nociception).

One of the conversations is whether pain is a sensation, or an emotion, or something else. When I went to University and studied psychology, sensation was defined as “information transmitted by sensory receptors” – in other words, activity in the sensory receptors prior to perception is classified as sensation. Emotions are also defined in psychology, and depending on the theory being followed might be defined as “a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral, and physiological elements.” Perception involves recognising and interpreting sensory information, and invokes the idea of awareness as an essential feature. (This is a good place to begin searching for definition – click)

The term aversive indicates “a physiological or emotional response indicating dislike for a stimulus. It is usually accompanied by withdrawal from or avoidance of the objectionable stimulus.” So pain, unlike most sensory experiences also contains an intrinsic element of distaste and avoidance – even people who pursue painful rituals like body suspension will acknowledge that the experience of being pierced is not pleasant but do it to achieve something else, often a feeling of achievement, accomplishment, meeting a challenge. Doesn’t sound too different from people who enjoy running a marathon, or lifting heavy weights.

The new proposed definition also includes the phrase “caused by, or resembling that caused by actual or potential tissue damage” – because we learn to associate the experience we call pain (or whatever word we use in our first language) with what happens when we graze our skin, get pricked by a needle, or knock our shin. For potential tissue damage, think of those staring contests we used to do as kids: who will blink first? Or consider how long we can sit before we’ll move to relieve the numbness-then-ouch on our buttocks! I prefer the term “associate” than “caused by” because we don’t always perceive pain at the time of tissue damage (think about the bruises we find in the morning after a sports game – but we don’t recall exactly how we got them).

So, for what it’s worth, pain isn’t simply a sensation (the experience is always aversive, and invokes an emotion alongside the sensory characteristics) and it’s not simply an emotionit’s a perception, an interpretation of sensory input via nociceptors in the context of current goals (and consequently, attentional focus), social meaning and values, and past experiences (both personal and vicarious). These latter aspects are really important because it’s not uncommon to fail to perceive “ouch” during an important sports game when the attention is elsewhere, and some beautiful experiments have shown that our perception of a potentially painful experience is influenced by what we’re told about the stimulus (Arntz & Claassens, 2004).

The controversies over a definition of pain matter because after the original definition of pain was agreed upon, it was finally possible for researchers, clinicians and commentators to distinguish between the experience and its sensory apparatus. This is important because it enables a focus beyond what goes on in the tissues, to the person’s experience. Prior to defining pain in this way, if a person claimed to have pain but there was no nociceptive activity, he or she was considered lying or mentally unwell. Traces of this attitude continue to this day, sadly.

Focusing on the person’s experience has allowed treatment to shift beyond “issues in the tissues” to help the person deal with what has happened. Even in the absence of current tissue damage and pain, people can continue to be fearful of potential tissue damage and potential pain. Should anyone question this, I usually point out the extraordinary lifestyle changes made by people who have had angina. These people may not be currently experiencing any chest pain at all – but yet protect themselves from the potential of chest pain because “it might happen again.”

A shift away from addressing sensory stimuli towards helping a person who is experiencing pain involves moving away from a biological-only model of disease. We usually call this a biomedical model where what goes on in the body is considered separately from the person who is the subject of “disease”. Of course, this is a straw man argument because biomedical models have been extending to include the person for at least 30 years. Most medical practitioners would want to address the “why has this person fallen and fractured their neck of femur” alongside “fixing the neck of femur fracture with a plate and pin.” But, it troubles me greatly when I hear people say “but what about the bio?” when it comes to incorporating a broad, multifactorial understanding of people experiencing pain into pain rehabilitation. A multifactorial model (call it biopsychosocial if you will) has never negated the biological contributing factors – but has instead placed those factors into relative importance with psychological and social contributions. And psychological and social factors seem to have more to contribute to our experience of pain and resultant disability than, in particular, what happens to a tendon or disc.

And this leads me to the perennial problem of what do we do if pain doesn’t settle, despite our best efforts. This problem is a real and ongoing challenge for both the person experiencing pain, and his or her health. I think it’s a question many health professionals shy away from. Are we afraid we’ve let the person down? Let ourselves down? Failed somehow? What is it like for the person with pain – constantly wondering if this next treatment will do the trick? Or the next? Or whether they’ve failed? Or is it something sinister? There’s no doubt that pain is aversive and it can invade so much of life – but if so much of our experience of pain is related to how we interpret it, what if we were able to re-interpret this experience as less sinister, less distressing?

Health professionals are powerful attitude shapers. Could we use this influence to help people be a little less afraid of pain, and maybe a little more confident that although pain is inherently aversive, humans are infinitely creative and resourceful and can make peace with pain’s presence?

“‘Specialized cutaneous Schwann cells initiate pain sensation”. Abdo H, Calvo-Enrique L, Martinez Lopez J, Song J, Zhang MD, Usoskin D, El Manira A, Adameyko I, Hjerling-Leffler J, Ernfors P.
Science. doi:10.1126/science.aax6452

Arntz A, Claassens L. The meaning of pain influences its experienced intensity. Pain. 2004;109: 20–25. pmid:15082122

Self-management: What do we think about it?


Self-management is all about the person living with their chronic health problem, learning how to maximise their wellbeing and limit the impact of their health problem on their life. The words might be well-known – but how self-management is best carried out, by whom, and when is a vexed question.

I stumbled upon a study carried out by Van Wely, Boiten, Verhoef, Eijckelhof, Van Hooft, Van Staa et al (2019) where, using Q-methodology (more about this shortly), they examined the beliefs about self-management of a group of Dutch physiotherapists.

First of all, why is this something to blog about on a blog about pain? My basic reason is that the only time we as health professionals can directly influence what a person does is when they’re in front of us. That might be about 30 – 60 minutes, maybe once a week if we’re lucky. The rest of the time that person is on their own. How closely the person follows what we’ve discussed in clinic depends on a whole bunch of factors, some of which are values (how important is health compared with everything else in that person’s life?), readiness to take action (maybe just thinking about it hasn’t yet moved to planning or doing), support or not from others, how well we’ve explained things (how many of us learned about teaching as part of our training?), confidence (are they worried they’re doing it wrong?) and so on. We’re a little inclined to believe that because we value health over other parts of life, so too does the person. And we’re familiar with what to do – but what we ask people to do can be very foreign and unfamiliar.

Living with persistent pain is a 24/7 7 days a week job. It doesn’t go on holiday, doesn’t switch off because you’re tired, doesn’t shuffle into the background because you have other things to do. I’ve referred to it as the ongoing burden of micro-decisions made every single moment of the day.

This means that knowing what helps, and what doesn’t, being able to decide what to prioritise in this moment on this day in this place, being able to communicate plans and negotiate with others, being “selfish” enough to prioritise what helps with wellbeing over what might feel important in the moment but drains.

So, turning to the study by Van Wely and colleagues, what did they find out?

Q-methodology is an approach to help establish correlations between participants’ beliefs and values by ranking a series of statements, and gradually reducing the list to one by forcing decisions about which statements to omit. Often there is an interview accompanying a Q-methodology sort, and in this case it was used to help participants explain their choices. 37 statements about self-management were sorted by participants into (1) agree (2) disagree or (3) neutral. The “agree” statements were then rank ordered starting from the right “strongly agree”, then moving to the left “strongly disagree” and finally, the neutral statements were sorted. For more information on q-methodology, this site is gold!

Statistical analysis was carried out using a by-person centroid factor analysis with varimax rotation. This process was used to identify the number of data-driven factors, factors representing people who sort the statements in a similar way to one another (ie they share similar beliefs). The qualitative material was then coded to identify topics related to self-management support, and clustered into themes which the authors then labelled.

39 physiotherapists were involved in this study, approximately 50% women, aged between 22 – 64 with an average age of 41 years. Most participants held a Bachelor degree, and the majority worked either in priamry care or nursing home settings.

Results – and what do they mean?

Three dimensions explained how the therapists ranked the statements – the physio’s role perception, the physio’s drive, and collaboration with the patient. The authors therefore coded the four perspectives (from the factor analysis) as (1) externally driven educator (2) internally driven educator (3) client centred coach and (4) client initiated coach.

(1) Externally driven educators thought self-management “ought” to be done to cut down health-care costs, or to reduce the need for clinical input. They thought of themselves as motivators and experts, and didn’t allow much autonomy for the person. Adhering to what is “prescribed” was important – while life goals were considered important, these physio’s thought treatment goals were more important.

(2) Internally driven educators thought self-management is best encouraged by identifying intrinsic motivation in the person, and support self-management by education within consultations. Unlike externally driven educators, they weren’t as motivated by healthcare system issues, and thought that self-management should be supported as an integral part of every session. These participants recognised the person’s autonomy and own expertise to find solutions, and also identified the need for them to obtain additional training to be able to provide support in this way.

(3) Client-centred coaches were influenced by their own internal drive for self-management support and focused on the person’s freedom to choose. Goals of reducing professional care and cost weren’t considered part of the equation, and they aimed to collaborate in a partnership with the people they were seeing. They believed in shared-goal setting, and thought they should be available when needed, but encouraged people to find solutions for their own problems. They particularly thought that healthcare reorganisation was needed to support this approach to healthcare.

(4) Client-initiated coaches also had an internal drive to support self-management but believed the person should ‘take the initiative’ to ask for help, and essentially passed the responsibility for maintaining self-management over to the person, rather than integrating either the environment or physiotherapy input. This group of participants thought distance technology would be useful to support people at a distance.

Overall, the physios in this study thought self-management was not a new concept, nor as something that was difficult or time-consuming. They recognised that self-management promotes the person’s freedom to choose – and that treatment should address the person’s needs so they could self-manage.

The authors were pleased that participants in this study thought of self-management as “business as usual”.

I thought it was interesting that the “educator” perspective was a strong theme. This tends to elevate the clinician above the person seeking help – although these participants did aim for shared decision-making mainly via providing education. I also thought it interesting that factors such as the need for healthcare reform and financial impact of self-management (to reduce cost) were important and I wonder what this study would look like in New Zealand where private practice physiotherapy, dependent as it is on (usually) ACC funding, might be less inclined to support an autonomous self-managing patient.

I think self-management is something all people with persistent pain engage in, whether it’s supported by clinicians or not. We don’t spend all our time “in therapy” which means the rest of our time is all about those decisions. Supporting people to be able to make thoughtful choices about what and how and when to do things that help promote well-being is, I think, something health professionals must do as equal partners. And I think it needs to be made explicit and part of every consultation. That means learning how to work alongside people, listen carefully to their priorities and values, help them develop skills to problem solve and find their own solutions – but most importantly, to have the confidence that people living with pain can make choices themselves.

Van Wely, L., Boiten, J. C., Verhoef, J., Eijckelhof, B. H. W., Van Hooft, S. M., Van Staa, A., & Roelofs, P. D. D. M. (2019). Perspectives of Dutch Physiotherapists on Self-Management Support: A Q-Methodology Study. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, 35(4), 318-326. doi:10.1080/09593985.2018.1443182

Why do clinicians fear telling people their pain may persist?


There is a big void in our understanding of interactions between clinicians and people who live with persistent pain, and that vacuum is about how people learn that their pain is not going anywhere soon. Recently I searched for qualitative research examining the conversations between clinicians and patients at the moment of diagnosis: that moment when a clinician says “I’m sorry, but you’ve tried all there is to try, and it looks like your pain might not respond”. Or it might be “We’ve found out what your problem is, but we know that right now, there aren’t any very effective treatments”.

Oddly enough – or perhaps not – this is incredibly difficult to find. I wasn’t able to locate any specific studies (though if someone else has found some I’d be very happy to get a list!). The closest I found was a synthesis of qualitative studies by Toye, Seers and Barker (2017) looking at the experiences of healthcare professionals while treating people with persistent pain. In it, the authors identify six themes that seemed apparent after synthesising the included studies:

  • Skepticism in medicine where a person is ill – but diagnosis is difficult. The authors point to the strong culture within medicine in which subjectivity is valued less (they say “shunned”) than objectivity. But of course, pain is always subjective.
  • Clinicians have to “do the work” of reconciling the person they see in front of them and the absence of objective clinical findings – this is difficult when a biomedical model is preferred over a biopsychosocial model. (I could add here that unless that biopsychosocial model is truly integrated as a whole, it could turn into a dichotomous not “bio” then “psychosocial” but that’s another discussion)…
  • Clinicians also have to work in a space where either their clinical knowledge is not relevant, or it’s actively unhelpful, meanwhile trying to help a person who wants and needs certainty and support.
  • Clinicians also have a dual duty: responding to the person who is distressed while also remaining aware that some of what the person wants may not be helpful or good – with some of the concerns being also about the healthcare system, and using investigations that are unnecessary and wasteful.
  • As a result of these multiple demands on clinical balance, clinicians may bear a personal cost in terms of emotional energy, empathy and perhaps as a result find it difficult to want to engage with people for whom they feel the “work” will be hard and unrewarding.
  • Ultimately, clinicians working in this field develop a “craft of pain management” which they believe defies algorithms and categorisations, and instead is an ongoing interplay of call and response.

I can completely understand these challenges. If clinicians “measures of success” are resolution or a problem, or at least effective management of a problem, the difficulty in most instances of persistent neuropathic or nociplastic pain is the limited number of medications, and their relatively poor effectiveness. And other approaches (exercise, coping strategies etc) are equally limited. So – we might need to establish a different measure of success, and that’s hard.

In the absence of research discussing clinician’s ways of giving a diagnosis, I asked people with persistent pain on a social media group to give me their account of how they were given the news about persistent pain. The themes that emerged were:

  • No-one told me my pain would persist.
  • Despite surrounding myself with a broad multidisciplinary team, no-one broached the subject.
  • Pointing to the presence of supposed pathology – “you’ll need surgery”
  • “what we’re doing isn’t helping” – despite best efforts.
  • Being put into a category of people who can’t be helped.
  • No-one showed me how to live with this pain
  • Being told casually as if it were no big deal – this shouldn’t have a big impact on you.
  • I was told there’s no cure, no effective treatment and the idea is to make life tolerable but I will probably never be pain free.
  • The diagnosis of a disease was given – but I wasn’t told it was the reason I hurt.
  • You have chronic pain and there’s not likely to be a cure in your lifetime.

In my interactions with people online, both people with pain and those hoping to treat, I’ve heard a number of opinions: we should never “give up” on pain reduction; we don’t want to “kill hope”; there’s always something we can do …

Here are a few questions:

  • When do we admit we don’t have a 100% success rate for treating persistent pain?
  • Given that people with pain often put their lives on hold until there is a diagnosis and treatment plan (usually aimed at pain reduction and/or cure) – how long does someone need to put their life on hold until we acknowledge that the cost of waiting outweighs the uncertain benefits of pain reduction?
  • Is this a decision we as clinicians should make? If it’s a collaborative decision, do we provide people living with pain an unbiased and neutral view of their options?
  • Fundamentally, do we fear living with pain ourselves, and does this in part fuel our desire to keep treating?
  • What do you think it’s like for a person living with pain to never be told that this is reality? Because people will blame themselves (for not trying hard enough), blame their health professionals (for not looking hard enough), blame the system (for not funding enough) – when actually there is no secret stash of treatments for people who are “good enough” to get them.
  • If someone is told “chances are high this won’t resolve quickly, if at all” does this mean nothing will ever change? Or simply that we’re giving permission to ourselves and the person to find ways to have a meaningful life with pain? What if we conveyed the reality that currently there may not be a way to reduce pain, but this doesn’t mean it will be forever – and in the meantime we can work together to create a life that is fulfilling?

I guess the sad thing for me is that even though we’ve had persistent pain management programmes available in various forms since the 1970’s, with the flush particularly evident in the 1990’s and waning ever since, people are still not given the opportunity to have good support while learning how to live well with pain.

Because until we have at least a 90% success rate with our treatments for persistent pain, I think we need to be humble and admit these approaches are still needed.

Toye, F., Seers, K., & Barker, K. L. (2017). Meta-ethnography to understand healthcare professionals’ experience of treating adults with chronic non-malignant pain. BMJ Open, 7(12), e018411. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-018411