meaning

Why learning about pain can help – an old study worth revisiting


If you’ve read my blog over the years you’ll see that I love a bit of history. Learning from older studies, and older opinions, can help us position our current thoughts in a larger context. Older studies can also highlight concepts that haven’t grabbed the attention nearly as much as more recent studies but still have value.

Today’s post is about a studied published in 2004. It’s one I’ve often used to illustrate how influential our expectations or beliefs are when it comes to pain intensity and pain aversiveness/unpleasantness.

Take 31 healthy undergraduate students (50% were women in this case). Split them into two groups, and offer them a small incentive (a large bar of chocolate and a soft drink – OK I’m in!). Hold a set of objects to the back of their necks and ask them to rate the experience on a set of visual analogue scales ((1) very soft–very hard; (2) not prickling–very prickling; (3) not noticeable–very noticeable; (4) not painful–very painful; (5) not rough– very rough; (6) not damaging–very damaging; (7) not pleasant–very pleasant; (8) very cold–very hot; (9) very simple–very complex.). The objects were:

a feather, a small mirror, a rough brush, a paper handkerchief, a metal bar, a piece of hard plastic, a piece of sand paper, and a gel. The metal bar (aluminium, length 17.5 cm, diameter 3 cm) was cooled down to -25 degrees Celcius. This temperature was chosen because it’s not damaging when held briefly against the skin.

Each person was then individually exposed to the item, and asked to complete the ratings. The only difference between the groups was that participants were told just before the metal bar was applied, “this is very hot” or “this is very cold”.

The findings supported the hypothesis: when people thought the stimulus was hot they rated it as more painful AND more damaging than when they thought it was cold.

What do we make of this? The simple interpretation is that people interpret what happens to them in light of what they think is going on. That meaning influences the experience of pain. And that this interpretation occurs rapidly and without conscious awareness. The authors argued that attentional focus, anxiety and interpretation all influence the experience – however, in this instance, attention to the stimulus was greater in the case of the “cold” stimulus than the hot. Anxiety might influence attention to a stimulus, and “hot” might be more anxiety-provoking than “cold”, enhancing attentional awareness – or not. So the final consideration from this study is that if interpretation is essential in perceptual processing, tissue-damage related meaning might itself influence how pain is perceived.

The authors conclude by saying that their findings “support the hypothesis that higher order psychological processes influence the experience of pain” and go on to say they are “also of clinical importance, as they suggest that correction of dysfunctional interpretations of pain might help to reduce the burden the experience of pain poses on many people.”

Since this paper was published we have seen a proliferation of educational approaches to help people experiencing pain interpret this in a different way. I’m loathe to describe a person’s interpretation as “dysfunctional” because it is their experience – and at the same time I’m also aware that many unhelpful terms are used to describe what might be going on inside a person’s body. Some examples include “wear and tear” for osteoarthritis, “an unstable pelvis”, “your back has gone out”, “your spine is out of alignment” – the list goes on.

Here’s the thing: we can absolutely acknowledge a person’s distress at what they understand is going on, and what it feels like to them. We should, I think, always be compassionate and validate the distress we see in a person. That is real and their experience.

Here’s another thing: when the distress is based on inaccurate or unhelpful information, then I think it’s unethical to leave a person thinking this – even if we’ve offered validation and compassion. Would we leave a person to believe they had cancer when they didn’t? And yet some people would argue that to offer an alternative explanation somehow invalidates the person’s experience. We can both validate the distress a person is feeling AND offer a more workable or useful alternative.

At this point in my blog I want to be absolutely crystal clear – I do not know all the mechanisms involved in pain. Nobody does. And none of our explanations are terribly “True” with a capital T, because we actually don’t know. We do have some workable explanations to dispute or replace some unhelpful or unworkable explanations – eg that what we can see on imaging doesn’t equate with pain; that “issues in the tissues” are poorly correlated to pain; that “wear and tear” is often interpreted by people as “I’m wearing out” when it might be more useful to describe osteoarthritic changes as “age-related changes”. We definitely know that the brain is involved in our pain experience, and we know that various so-called psychological processes influence how much of a nociceptive stimulus is processed. What we don’t know is how – and that’s OK. To a great extent the “how is pain ‘produced'” question remains unanswered. But to leave people with an impression that “if I bend without using my core, I’ll do serious damage”, or “this could leave me in a wheelchair if I’m not very careful” in the name of validating a person’s experience is, I think, the very worst example of paternalism.

Do I espouse any particular way of helping someone make sense of their experience? Yes, glad you asked. My preference is to take the person through their own experiences, to help them “join the dots” of the various factors that might be influencing their pain. If, and when, it’s appropriate I might add in some things we know about pain such as increased anxiety likely increases pain and attention to pain – and this is why, in the middle of the night when there’s not much going on, and a person isn’t sleeping, they might notice their pain really going nuts. I accept that pain is present, and how or why isn’t nearly as important as exploring what this person notices about their own pain. And sometimes that might include some gate control theory, some neuromatrix, some descending inhibition information, and so on. In the service of my clinical reasoning about why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining this person’s predicament.

TL:DR – what a person thinks is going on has a powerful influence on both pain intensity and unpleasantness (oh and beliefs about harm). This matters because some explanations given to people (and some of the rubbish found on the internet) are not helpful at all.

Arntz, A., & Claassens, L. (2004). The meaning of pain influences its experienced intensity. Pain, 109(1-2), 20-25. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2003.12.030

Who am I? The sense of self in chronic/persistent pain


One of the most pervasive descriptions of what it is like to live with persistent pain is the loss of sense of self. Time after time in qualitative research we read about people feeling they’re in “limbo land”, losing confidence that they can do what matters in their lives, feeling stigmatised and isolated – not themselves any more. An in-depth meta-ethnography of qualitative research showed that pain undermined participation, ability to carry out daily activities, stymied a sense of the future, and intruded on the sense of self (MacNeela, Doyle, O’Gorman, Ruane & McGuire, 2015).

To understand the idea of “self”, I poked about a little in the literature, and found a title I like “Becoming who you are” (Koole, Schlinkert, Maldei & Baumann, 2019). The theoretical propositions of this paper relate more to self-determination than self-concept – but that title “Becoming who you are” resonated strongly with me.

When I read through pain rehabilitation research and theory, especially that dealing with learning how to live well with pain, I rarely see anything written about how we might help people who feel alienated from their sense of self. Scarcely a word. Except in the psychological literature. There’s a bit about self-discrepancy theory (See E. Tory Higgins works for much more about self-discrepancy), where the “imagined self”, the “real self”, the “feared self” and the “ought self” don’t match – but not much about what to do about helping people restore a sense of self, particularly in physical and “functional” rehabilitation.

Silvia Sze Wai Kwok and colleagues (2016) argue that psychological flexibility can play a role in helping people adjust to chronic pain. They found that psychological flexibility mediated between self-discrepancy (how close is my current self to my feared or ideal self?) and pain outcomes (distress, disability and so on). In other words, the degree to which people could flexibly adjust their goals and actions to suit what they could and couldn’t do made a difference.

This seems like common sense. Kinda. As the authors put it: “recognition of self worth and self-values could be attuned through flexible (re)construction of self-concept in response to changing contexts. These adaptations and regulatory functions then in turn may predict the subjective feelings of pain interference, emotional distress and pain tolerance level perceived.”

So my question is: how often does this become openly discussed in pain rehabilitation? Particularly by occupational therapists and physiotherapists – the clinicians who most often work on goals and helping people achieve them?

Whether a person is “motivated” to pursue important goals depends on whether the goals are important to them and whether they think they’ll successfully achieve them. When someone is “non-compliant” it’s because either the rehabilitation activities are not as important as something else in the person’s life, OR they’re not at all confident they can be successful at it. An enormous part of our job as rehabilitation professionals is helping people re-examine what they want to do and helping them adjust how to achieve the underlying values, even if the particular goal isn’t possible – yet. So, for example, if a person really values being a conscientious worker but can’t sustain a full working day, we can either help them fell OK about being conscientious for fewer hours, or we can make the work less demanding. I see this as an especially valuable contribution from occupational therapists.

Should rehabilitation clinicians be involved in this kind of “self-concept” work? I think so – especially occupational therapists. Occupational therapists are about doing, being and becoming – by doing things, we express who we are, and what we choose to engage in also shapes our perceptions of ourselves. As therapists we can’t help but influence a person’s self-concept – if we’re hoping to increase self-efficacy, we’re automatically influencing self-concept. If we’re working on goals, we’re influencing self-concept. If we’re working on participation in life, we’re working on self-concept.

And physiotherapists? Self-concept? Yep – of course. If we’re helping someone do exercise, that’s going to influence that person’s beliefs about exercise and their capabilities – that in turn is going to influence self-concept. (psst! it might be even more powerful if movements are done in the context of daily life, where feedback is real, meaningful and ever-present).

Persistent pain challenges the automatic assumptions people hold about what they can and can’t do, what they’re good at, what’s important in life, and how to engage with “the world” at large. Our job as clinicians is to be sensitive to just how confronting it is to find that what used to be effortless and meaningful is now daunting and requires more concentration and thought than we ever believed. I think that’s part of our job, irrespective of professional labels.

Koole, Sander L., Schlinkert, Caroline, Maldei, Tobias, & Baumann, Nicola. (2019). Becoming who you are: An integrative review of self-determination theory and personality systems interactions theory. Journal of Personality, 87(1), 15-36. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12380

Kwok, Silvia Sze Wai, Chan, Esther Chin Chi, Chen, Phoon Ping, & Lo, Barbara Chuen Yee. (2016). The “self” in pain: The role of psychological inflexibility in chronic pain adjustment. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 39(5), 908-915.

MacNeela, Padraig, Doyle, Catherine, O’Gorman, David, Ruane, Nancy, & McGuire, Brian E. (2015). Experiences of chronic low back pain: a meta-ethnography of qualitative research. Health Psychology Review, 9(1), 63-82.

Informing — and knowing


Learning is perceived as a process of personal and social construction where people are actively involved in making sense of information they interact with, rather than passively receiving it (Kuhthau 2004). This cumulative and developmental process involves the whole person in thinking, acting, reflecting, discovering ideas, making connections, and transforming prior knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values into new knowledge (Dewey 1933).

I’m an educator for much of my time. When I think about it, I’ve been an educator for most of my clinical career – after all, when I helped people learn how to shower and dress again after a stroke, I was teaching. When I help someone work out how to organise their day to optimise energy levels, I’m teaching. And when I interact online in some of the Facebook groups I’m part of, I’m also teaching.

Teaching is the process of attending to people’s needs, experiences and feelings, and intervening so that they learn particular things, and go beyond the given.

http://infed.org/mobi/what-is-teaching/

When I look at what people do for continuing education, and also how we approach helping people with pain to understand something about how their nervous system works, I think we often do a fine job of providing information. “Information is to behaviour change as spaghetti is to a brick”, said Prof Bill Fordyce, father of behavioural approaches to pain management. As clinicians and educators we spend a great deal of time working out “what” people should/need to know. There’s talk of a “curriculum” for people living with pain so the basic concepts are provided. Information is the “what” – those facts, concepts and often context-free bites of data that are gathered together into information through analysing, cross-referencing, selecting, sorting, summarising or otherwise organising them (Stonier, 1997).

Perhaps where we’re less capable is in supporting people in the process of turning information into knowledge. Knowledge is about integrating information into meaning. It’s magic to see someone have that lightbulb moment when suddenly one bit of information connects with something else the person knows and it begins to make sense!

With CPD I wonder how many of us go to a course, then walk away with our heads jam-packed with new information – then when we walk into clinic we get caught up in the everyday of clinical life, and promptly forget how that new information we’ve stored relates to what we do.

I think the same when I listen to patients talk about what they’ve been told, perhaps about pain, or perhaps about ways they might do things – and they talk of these information bites as disconnected from their daily reality.

To me, the process of developing knowledge involves processing information into personal relevance. It means that, as we learn a new piece of information, we sift through what we already know and establish how the new information might be similar to or different from what we already know. We might ponder when, where, and how this new information can apply. We try using the new information to test its utility. We talk about “what does this mean” with other people as we do this.

A community of practice (Wenger) is a “group of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”. In a community of practice, people who have become expert or more experienced in doing this activity share their expertise and “knacks of knowing” – novices spend time absorbing what the experts say and do, and ultimately learn to become expert themselves. Communities of practice are everywhere and in our internet and social media-based lives, communities of practice exist virtually as well.

Clinicians often turn to online discussions to carry out their process of turning information into knowledge. Through the debates and discussions (yes, and arguments and flame wars) clinicians become familiar with new information and discuss the implications for practice. It’s common to see clinicians use Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, blogging (yes!) as ways to not only produce information but to also make sense of it.

But when I think of comparable and positive opportunities for people living with pain who are also trying to make sense of the many different bites of information they’re provided with, I’m less certain there is a good place to go to be supported in this process. Much of our clinical treatment is carried out individually, one-to-one with patient. Because pain is invisible and so many people are hopeful the experience will be temporary, meeting with and discussing information about pain and ways to live with pain are rare. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence from research showing that people living with pain feel isolated, abandoned and judged (Cagle & Bunting, 2017; Collier, 2018; Wilbers, 2015). Not the best place to be when trying to put pieces of information together.

While as clinicians, we can offer much information – how good are we at helping people connect that information with what that person already knows? How can we – especially if we don’t experience pain? What would we know of the process of going to various therapists, being told many different things, of the highs and lows of benefits and failures?

I run a group programme called Springboard. It’s a six-week programme, one session a week, with home-based “missions” people can do over the week. I’ve always thought the magic happens not when I give out information, but when participants return with their experiences and share what they’ve learned with one another. I don’t the group is simply bridging a feeling of loneliness or stigma, although it certainly seems to do that. I think the magic happens because participants share what this information means to them, when participants help one another connect a new piece of information to what they already know. Because no-one knows better what the meaning of a new understanding is than people living with pain.

So I question us all. Clinicians – do we help people connect with others who are in the same boat to learn from one another? To make sense of what we try to tell them? People living with pain, do you have ways of sifting through new information so you can work out its relevance to you? Can we bring people together – experts in living well with pain and novices learning how this information might apply?

Cagle, J., & Bunting, M. (2017). Patient reluctance to discuss pain: understanding stoicism, stigma, and other contributing factors. Journal of social work in end-of-life & palliative care, 13(1), 27-43.

Collier, R. (2018). “Complainers, malingerers and drug-seekers”—the stigma of living with chronic pain. In: Can Med Assoc.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (Rev. ed.), Boston, MA: D. C. Heath.

Kuhlthau, C.C. (2004). Seeking meaning: a process approach to library and
information services. (2nd ed.). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Stonier, T. (1997). Information and meaning—An evolutionary perspective.
Berlin: Springer.

Wilbers, L. E. (2015). She has a pain problem, not a pill problem: Chronic pain management, stigma, and the family—An autoethnography. Humanity & Society, 39(1), 86-111.