pain management

Making the first contact


How do we begin working with someone who is asking for help with their persistent pain? In this post I’ll describe some of the considerations I have when I begin, because as Benedetti points out, the “meet the therapist moment” is one of the most potent times in the therapeutic ritual (Benedetti, 2011). It’s the time when the person’s expectations and the clinician’s empathy and competence meet, and the “meaning response” blooms.

My two clinical questions are:

  1. Why is this person presenting in this way at this time, and what’s maintaining their predicament?
  2. And what is this person’s main concern?

But before I ask these questions, I want to take a moment to think about the person and what might be going on in his or her mind.

Benedetti points out that expectancies are an important part of a response to treatment – whether that treatment has any active action, or not. Expectancies are about what a person brings to a therapeutic encounter: there are two, one is stimulus expectancies (anticipations of external events – eg that the next painful experience will be less), and the other is response expectancies (predictions of your own nonvolitional response – eg that after doing this thing, I expect to experience less pain) (Kirsch, 1985).

People who come to see a clinician, especially a clinician from a little-known profession (occupational therapy!) will hold expectancies about what that person will do, but these will likely be weaker than the expectancies a person might hold about seeing a well-known profession. The strength of an expectancy is different from the direction of an expectancy – for example, a negative experience with a physiotherapist might lead to a strongly negative expectancy about future treatments, while not having had an experience with an occupational therapist might lead to a weakly positive expectancy about what’s about to happen.

Along with expectancies, the person will likely be anxious about what’s to come. The possibility of something that might help (or not), meeting a new clinician, and living with pain are all stressors – and anxiety erodes a person’s ability to absorb lots of information, while biasing them towards remembering threatening words (Reidy & Richards, 1997).

So there’s a lot going on in the person’s mind when they attend that first session.

There’s also often a large power imbalance (Joseph-Williams, Edwards & Elwyn, 2014). This emerges from the fact that often clinicians hold a lot more information about the person we’re seeing than they do about us. Especially after we’ve asked a bunch of questions, often quite intimate in nature. For a person seeking help, this imbalance can make it hard to ask questions, to direct the conversation, to hold a sense of independence throughout the encounter.

So having set the scene for you, I’m sure you can agree that how we go about collecting information from a person is incredibly important – especially so that relationship can begin to build.

Introductions

In the introduction, I seek to give the person some information about who I am – not just as a clinician, and the kind of treatments I use, but also about who I am. I’ve drawn inspiration from tikanga Māori here, where the cultural tradition entails letting the person know where I come from and who I’m connected to. I like to let people know my childhood roots are in Turanganui a kiwa, or Gisborne. That the mountain my heart connects with is Mount Hikurangi – the first mountain in NZ to see the sun. The river I connect with is the Taruheru, flowing into the sea in Gisborne. I also let people know my whanau connections – the Lennox’s, and the Thompson’s, are my whanau (extended family), and I’m a 5th generation New Zealander. I now live in Otautahi/Christchurch. This introduction only takes a few minutes, and your culture might not value this form of introduction. For me in Aotearoa/New Zealand, it’s one way I can show respect and follow a tradition that means the person I work with knows something more about me than just my name.

I also include my profession – what I do. I’m an occupational therapist, my job is to help people do what matters in their life contexts.

I like to then let the person know that they’re brave and courageous for seeking help – it’s not easy to say you can’t do this on your own. It takes courage to tell someone that.

Questions

Then I open with a broad question about what has led this person to come to see me. I might add in something about “tell me about your pain and what you’ve done so far for it.” I’ll often ask what their theory is about their pain, what they think is going on.

Then I ask “What is your main concern today?”

Throughout this process I’m reflecting what I’ve heard, to ensure I’ve understood what the person has experienced. I’m NOT giving reinterpretations, I’m NOT giving out new information, I’m just listening.

I often spend time asking about four areas of life: relationships, fun, work, and health. Or I might ask the person to take me through a typical day, from the time they wake up.

I like to find out not just what the person has done to help themselves, but also what they’ve learned from these experiences. The messages they’ve received over time, and the things they’ve tried but perhaps didn’t like or that didn’t help.

Questionnaires

I was a big fan of questionnaires filled out ahead of time, and I am still a fan but don’t use them as much. This is mainly because so many people have filled out endless questionnaires and nobody has sat down with them to talk about what they mean! So I’m a little more selective and focus much more on listening first then choosing something that will offer me and the person some insight into what might be going on. For example, I might choose the PASS20 (McCracken & Dhingra, 2002) because it helps me figure out where to begin with reducing pain-related anxiety. It’s a good measure to use each week to track changes over time, and I’m beginning to delve into repeated measures of progress rather than a pre-post-follow-up approach that’s typical.

Observation

Covid has meant it’s not as easy to carry out observational assessments, but I’m always watching how the person sits, moves, walks, and body language. What I’m not doing is interpreting these observations without talking to the person about them! Too many clinicians make judgements about the person based on maybe one or two observations, out of context of the person’s life and environment, and without checking in with the person to work out what might be contributing to what they see. Let’s not do that – the person might be completely oblivious that they’re guarding their sore hand, or they keep shifting in the chair, or that a habitual movement like taking a jacket off might be easier to do than being asked to perform some weird movement at the command of the clinician!

Pulling it all together

Just as we wouldn’t expect to be marched in for surgery straight after our first consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon, I don’t believe it’s OK to offer something to a person on their first visit just because we feel internal pressure to do so. Having said this, I will often suggest to the person that they spend a bit of time doing some brief “noticing without judging” exercises. We’ll give it a go at this first appointment, so they’re not being expected to go do it without knowing how. The reason I start with brief noticing experiments is that it’s something we could all do more often, it gives the person a new skill (usually) to develop, and it’s often an introduction to being fully present without judging. Being fully present without judging is hard to do when you’re sore because the mind likes to anticipate how bad it’s going to be (“you’ll need to take it very quietly or you’ll pay for it”) or remember previous pains (“last time you just sat around your pain went nuts, you don’t want to risk that now do you?”).

Notes/Documentation

I write conversational notes directly to the person, going through what we’ve talked about and pulling together all the information I’ve gathered in this first meeting. I find it helps me to make sense of what’s going on, it allows me some time to reflect on what I’ve observed and heard, and I can assemble it in a case formulation that the person and I can explore if/when we meet again.

Assessment is never over. Every time I meet with a person I’ll be learning more about what’s going on. I don’t feel pressured to “find it all out” at that first session just because there are goals that must be developed. In fact, one goal I leave in for everyone is “develop goals” (well, I don’t use goal language – it’s more about directions and actions that take you there). Because seriously, how can anyone meet someone and immediately develop goals – that’s disrespectful to the person who may not have had time to think about what matters the most, and it’s disrespectful to the complexity of goal setting as a process anyway.

Theme and variations

I’ve written one approach I use for learning about the person I’m trying to help. There are others – a time line, drawing a life map, mind-mapping, walking and talking, making a coffee – all of these and more can be used to explore the same information.

Let’s not call it “the subjective” – let’s call it what it is, our first “getting to know you” meeting.

Kirsch, I. (1985). Response expectancy as a determinant of experience and behavior. American Psychologist, 40(11), 1189–1202.

Joseph-Williams, N., Edwards, A., & Elwyn, G. (2014). Power imbalance prevents shared decision making. Bmj, 348.

McCracken, L. M., & Dhingra, L. (2002). A short version of the Pain Anxiety Symptoms Scale (PASS-20): preliminary development and validity. Pain Research & Management, 7(1), 45-50.

Reidy, J., & Richards, A. (1997). Anxiety and memory: A recall bias for threatening words in high anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35(6), 531-542.

Thought experiment: Would therapists be out of a job if we could “fix” persistent pain?


Every few years someone, somewhere, announces that “it won’t be long before we have a treatment to rid the world of persistent pain.” And there’s a hiss and roar to celebrate this momentous finding, and much ado about how wonderful it will be.

I’m still waiting. BUT I thought it might be an interesting thought experiment to wonder what might happen if a “cure” was available for fibromyalgia.

As readers will know, I have lived with what eventually was named “fibromyalgia” since my early 20’s, and probably longer. I’ve dabbled in various treatments over the years but sadly, nothing but good clean living has helped (by which I mean early to bed, good diet, maintain healthy movement, manage stress, have good friends to connect with, play, have fun). So I would dearly love a treatment that would remove the constant aching, reduce the prolonged DOMs, keep a lid on delayed recovery after injury, and generally offer me a life relatively “normal.”

I am definitely pro-pain reduction and pain treatment. I just haven’t found anything that changes mine.

We have had some spectacular developments in therapies over the past 25 years – particularly in the inflammatory rheumatological diseases like ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. Treatments with anti-TNF alpha biologicals means that my partner who lives with anky spond now has normal C reactive protein levels, no pain, the disease activity has stopped, and he’s tickety-boo.

So why am I just a tad reserved about the notion of a “fix” based on new discoveries about mechanisms associated with neuropathic and nociplastic pains? Why am I just a little skeptical of a new psychological study showing outstanding results (Ashar, Gordon & Schubiner, 2021)? Am I just worried I’ll be out of a job if there’s an effective treatment?

Nope.

You see, even though some people like my Manly Jack have had a wonderful response to treatment for inflammatory disease, there are many more who have not. Or, who have significant reductions in inflammation – but not to “normal” levels, and accompanied by complications/adverse effects, and, in many instances, continued pain. Why is that? Well – I think it’s because while treatments target mechanisms, people are enormously variable in both biology and more importantly, psychology and sociology.

And it’s these last two that have been identified as amongst the most important contributors to ongoing disability and limited participation.

Now the social deserves a little attention. Drug developments are not cheap. The medication my partner uses is extremely expensive – NZ$1200 every two weeks. Luckily for us, this drug is fully funded by the NZ Government. There’s an economic argument for having meds like these publicly funded – without this drug, it would have been very difficult for my man to carry on working. He was having trouble rolling over in bed at night, had trouble coughing, couldn’t inhale fully, and walked like a little old man. He’s now fit as a buck rat and pays his taxes because he’s working.

The problem is, as we can see from the Covid vaccination roll-outs world-wide, people and countries without resources have less access to effective treatments. Even in NZ where we don’t have the “vaccine hesitancy” of other countries, the people who are least likely to be vaccinated right now are those who have trouble traveling to a centre, who don’t feel “at home” in healthcare, who are hard to reach, perhaps not very literate, don’t speak English or te reo Māori. The NZ government is working incredibly hard to ensure the vaccine is given to these people, and I’m proud of the variety of ways they’re doing so.

But spare a thought for countries where there is no relative affluence. Where other countries don’t have the will to help. Where infrastructure is poor. Where women, children, and people from different cultural backgrounds or religions are discriminated against. In these countries, vaccinations are very slow to reach those in need.

So one risk from a fancy new treatment is that people who need it but can’t afford it, don’t trust healthcare (who would after the stigmatisation so many people receive?), and people who are from countries where the rest of the world doesn’t help out – they risk missing out.

Another risk is that while pain might be reduced or even eliminated, these address only the biology, and people are people, and pain is multidimensional. People remember what it was like to be in pain. People have their own narratives about what’s going on to create their pain. We all learn from our experiences, and beliefs, attitudes, emotions, the influence of others around us, the communities and families and workplaces we come from, all of these have an effect on “what it is like to be experiencing pain.”

We know that people who have completely successful joint replacements without pain, don’t resume the activities they were doing before their joints became painful (see my last blog post). People successfully treated with biologicals still hold fears about future harm that developed before they got their treatment. We know that many people take years before being diagnosed and treated successfully – and that’s a long time to develop beliefs, habits, routines and relationships that don’t support recovery. We also know the trauma of unhelpful and stigmatising healthcare interactions can live long, even after successful care.

Resuming daily life and valued activities is integral to pain rehabilitation. Helping people safely do what matters to them in their life contexts is still needed. In the enthusiasm for applauding treatment advances, we need to remember that people are more than the sum of their diagnoses, more than their biology, and our societies are not fair.

Ashar YK, Gordon A, Schubiner H, et al. Effect of Pain Reprocessing Therapy vs Placebo and Usual Care for Patients With Chronic Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online September 29, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.2669
h ttps://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2784694?fbclid=IwAR23strMuoUXYs_Ae9EmTVz9eNAzYxgxAR1IBj64SePpbWeLQL_M_DOaXr8

One plus one may not always equal two


If it hurts – take notice, and avoid it. Learn from it. If there are other people around, make sure your behaviour is noticeable so they take care of you and don’t do what you just did. If they look after you, you’ll probably do the same thing again when you hurt, if they don’t you probably won’t.

This is one description of pain behaviour and how it works. It’s the only part of our pain experience that we can share directly with one another (actions and words). The “doing” part is also the part that is most affected by pain – even distress is signalled to others – so it’s unsurprising that a lot of attention has been paid to how therapists can change behaviours that are unhelpful.

Many of us start with offering an explanation. Language is something that sets humans apart from other creatures because we learn concepts, and associate one concept with another through it (see Beeckman, Hughes, Kissi, Simons & Goubert (2019) for excellent insights into relational frame theory and pain). I’m sure there are many clinicians who’ve tried to give information (to “educate”) to a person and found it works well. And then there are those who just don’t get it. There are three main points that people who respond well to “education” seem to find useful: (1) pain doesn’t mean my body is damaged (the old “hurt does not equal harm” message that originated with Fordyce. Butler (2017) offers us a selection of Fordyce’s wisdom – and wit); (2) thoughts, emotions and experiences affect my pain (again, something the cognitive behavioural therapists have been sharing with people since the beginning of multidisciplinary pain management programmes); and (3) I can retrain my over-protective nervous system (yes, another thing we’ve been doing in pain management for many years… not that we are unlearning pain, we’re helping the nervous system settle down and becoming less distressed by the experience).

We quite like talking to people – maybe because it appeals to our often dictatorial mind (read A Liberated Mind for a new take on this!). And so for people experiencing pain, we talk. But talk on its own isn’t super-effective. After all, for every one time we hear “pain doesn’t mean my body is damaged” we can Google and find literally hundreds of messages telling us our spine is fragile, our joints are damaged and pain is a sign there is harm.

So what is more potent than words? It’s learning by experience. Doing.

A brand new analysis of “sufficient conditions” for psychological therapy was published in Pain (Batho, Kneale, Sutcliffe & Williams, 2021).

Now I do have some reservations about calling this “psychological” because that word is loaded with meanings, not all of them helpful. Truth to tell, we humans use psychological approaches effortlessly in daily life – and it’s not “in the head/mind/emotions” which is almost inevitably what people first think of when they hear it…

In this analysis (which is complex – go read the paper!), the authors investigated 38 studies, did some horrendous statistical analysis and compared the ten most effective treatments with the ten least effective treatments. What they found was quite surprising, and I’m still pondering what it means.

They established that “interventions using graded exposure, graded exercise or behavioural rehearsal (exposure/activity), and interventions aiming to modify reinforcement contingencies (social/ operant) reduced disability levels when either approach was applied but not both.” [italics mine] They also found “exposure/activity can improve distress levels when combined with cognitive restructuring, as long as social/operant methods are not included in treatment.” [italics mine]

It pleased me to find that graded exposure or reactivation, when applied in the absence of social and operant contingencies, reduced disability and distress. And that social/operant approaches reduced disability on its own. The reason I’m happy is that graded exposure and reactivation with a dab of “let’s notice your thoughts and check out whether they’re helping you” are very common approaches used across occupational therapy, physiotherapy, chiropractic, osteopathy, coaching and a whole bunch of therapists who work with people in pain. Graded reactivation with information has been the mainstay of pain management since at least the 1980’s. We know it’s helpful. Graded exposure has gained popularity since the mid-1990’s and we know that it’s helpful too. And we use social reinforcement just because we’re humans.

In the analysis, ACT was used in only one study. ACT doesn’t do cognitive restructuring and instead, uses six interwoven processes that together support psychological flexibility. I use ACT as my primary approach, both for myself in daily living, and with people who come to see me for help with their pain.

What I like about ACT is that it’s flexible, allows people to notice what their mind tells them, but helps them to step back from that dictator within to make a choice about what to do. It’s the doing part (based on what matters in a person’s life) that I enjoy because it involves both graded exposure and graded reactivation. And if a person doesn’t relate to what they’ve been told about their pain, we don’t have to offer another explanation, we can help the person work out what works for them in the context of their own life.

So where are we with this now? Given that we can’t stop being social animals, and that we respond to one another without knowing it, I’m not sure we can avoid inadvertently using social and operant approaches as therapists. What we can do, though, is become more knowledgeable about behavioural approaches in pain management and rehabilitation – and that undoubtedly means learning a whole lot more psychology. Perhaps we might need to reframe our own understanding of psychology so we feel more comfortable with it – a bit like explaining pain and cognitive functional therapy have both helped us feel OK to step into doing what has often been the territory of psychologists.

Batho, A., Kneale, D., Sutcliffe, K., & Williams, A. C. C. (2021, Oct 1). Sufficient conditions for effective psychological treatment of chronic pain: a qualitative comparative analysis. Pain, 162(10), 2472-2485. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002242

Beeckman, M., Hughes, S., Kissi, A., Simons, L. E., & Goubert, L. (2019, Oct). How an Understanding of Our Ability to Adhere to Verbal Rules Can Increase Insight Into (Mal)adaptive Functioning in Chronic Pain. Journal of Pain, 20(10), 1141-1154. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2019.02.013

Butler, S. (2017). The wit and wisdom of Wilbert (Bill) Fordyce (1923-2009). Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 16(1), 160-163.

Leake, H. B., Moseley, G. L., Stanton, T. R., O’Hagan, E. T., & Heathcote, L. C. (2021, Oct 1). What do patients value learning about pain? A mixed-methods survey on the relevance of target concepts after pain science education. Pain, 162(10), 2558-2568. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002244

Adam’s slow recovery


Not long ago I wrote about Adam Meakins back pain, and the astonishing response he’s had from fellow clinicians as he’s documented his recovery. Sadly, the polarised views of how therapists should approach a person with low back pain show me just how appallingly badly we adhere to low back pain guidelines… and worse, the kind of language and attitudes shown to a colleague who knows what he’s doing, demonstrates why change is so very slow.

What do I mean? Well, Adam has been following evidence-based low back pain guidelines that haven’t really changed a great deal since the advent of New Zealand’s “Yellow Flags” and guide to low back pain published waaaaay back in 1997. I’ve jumped to the NICE guidelines, as an example of one guideline, but you could look to many others.

NICE suggest these steps:

Assess for alternative diagnoses – in particular, “cancer, infection, trauma or inflammatory disease such as spondyloarthritis”

Risk assessment – basically, sorting people into those who are pretty OK with their pain, non-distressed and recommending those people receive “reassurance, advice to keep active and guidance on self-management.”

If Adam was distressed, or had a whole lot of risk factors for ongoing disability, then he might benefit from “more complex and intensive support for people with low back pain.” And yes, this mentions exercise programmes, manual therapy, psychological approaches.

Imaging – is not recommended, with imaging only used if the result is likely to change management.

Treatment – self-management, no orthotics or belts, no traction, and only offer manual therapy as part of an overall package that includes exercise.

No acupuncture, no electrotherapy.

Maybe use psychological therapies in conjunction with exercise.

Add in some NSAIDs

And don’t do much else…

In other words – exactly what Adam has been doing.

Why are there so many clinicians offering unsolicited opinions, without examining Adam, and without listening to his preferences, and without referring to the evidence?

What does this say about our clinical practice? What does it say about our confidence? What does it say about knowledge translation?

Most of all, what does this DO to the people we hope to help?

Seriously, folks. Watching the responses gives me nightmares.

I’ve been working in this field for 30 years now, and saying essentially the same thing about low back pain management for most of those years. I worry that an enormous business is built around scaring people, offering treatments with limited effect, for a condition that is common and responds well to doing normal movements.

In fact, one gripe I do have with the NICE guidelines is that they utterly and completely ignore daily life activities that a person needs to return to, and quickly. There’s nothing on managing sleep – and Adam’s described really rotten sleep until two days ago. There’s nothing on how to manage washing yourself, driving your car, sitting at a desk, doing the grocery shopping, preparing a meal, care for kids (or older parents) – absolutely nothing on the daily life activities that people need and want to do.

But, then again, I would say this – occupational therapists are the profession concerned about daily doing. The context of every day life. Knowledge translation from clinic/gym/exercise to what people actually do in their daily routines. It looks oh so simple – until you have to do it.

Back to Adam’s slow recovery. As I’ve watched Adam’s videos, I’m struck with the thought that many people just don’t know what to say – and so offer advice because that’s one way to deal with their own disquiet at helplessness. Clinicians, we need to develop better skills at managing our OWN emotional responses. We need to develop greater skills at sitting with our uncertainty. We need to stop leaping in with unsolicited advice that we offer just because we’re not comfortable doing nothing.

Could we just, for a moment, stop thinking about our reactions – and listen to what Adam (and I’m sure a whole bunch of our patients, too) says he wants? Listening means stopping that inner voice that’s got the “good” advice. It means really hearing what a person says. And only formulating a verbal response after we’ve digested the meaning the person is trying to convey.

Kia kaha Adam. You’re a brave man, a strong man, and I have much respect for you.

When therapists get hurt


“Physician, heal thyself” – usually used to suggest that the person should fix their own problems before trying to fix someone else. And when a therapist gets hurt all the armchair critics (social media proclamists) go off pointing the finger and telling that person what to do – even when the therapist is doing exactly what evidence suggests is the right thing to do.

Adam Meakins has hurt his back while lifting weights in the gym – he’s documenting his progress on social media, which I think is both a very brave thing to do and also something I’d love to see more of. If you want to follow his progress, head to The Sports Physio on Facebook where he’s posted footage of the onset, and now Days 1 and 2.

Why do I think it’s brave? Well because Adam’s outspoken and highly visible on social media. That means anything and everything he does about his LBP is likely to be scrutinised in detail. All manner of opinions have already been put forth. Diagnoses made (yeah, I know – over the interwebs…), and so many treatment options offered!

Adam’s predicament gets much more attention than Mrs Jones down the road who hurt her back the same day. Yet Adam knows what to do, is doing it, and holding strong to what research suggests is best.

Mrs Jones, on the other hand, is likely subject to some of the opinions that Adam’s getting (go on, take a look, especially on Instagram and Twitter) but without the background and experience Adam has to draw on. No wonder Mrs Jones feels confused.

Adam is brave because, as he pointed out today, having LBP means your mind leaps to unhelpful conclusions, often “thinks the worst” and in the dark of the night, it’s probable that doubts about whether he’s doing the right thing creep in. And if Adam’s recovery is slower than usual, I can hear the chorus of bystanders roar for his blood “You didn’t do what I said you should do”

Because isn’t it peculiar, and common, that when recovery doesn’t follow the standard trajectory, it’s the person’s fault…

Think of Mrs Jones – if her recovery goes the way so many people’s recovery goes and burbles along with flare-ups and periods where it settles, then she’s likely to carry on seeing at least one clinician, probably more. She’ll likely get a whole range of different ways to manage her low back pain – but usually starting with one approach and getting more of it until the clinician decides to change tack, and then onto another one until that clinician decides it’s not working and changes tack….And along the way she’ll acquire labels like “catastrophiser” or “avoidant” or “noncompliant”.

I also said that I’d love more clinicians to post about their recovery. I’ve seen a few, but couldn’t we do more? Why? Because showing how clinicians also “think the worst”, worry, have trouble sleeping, want to keep going but find it tough – despite our knowledge of pain, and all our experience working with people who have pain – is good for us as clinicians.

Because if you’ve never had a bout of back pain it’s relatively easy to think that the way a person reacts to their pain is abnormal. The label “catastrophising” gets bandied about, along with all the other psychosocial factors that can often get used and abused in a way that lays the fault for the person’s predicament on them.

But back pain is really common. Most of us will have a bout at some point in our life – maybe more severe than Adam’s, maybe less severe, maybe associated with heavy lifting as Adam’s was, maybe just bending to pick up a pair of socks. Some of us will be really fit like Adam, others of us will be less fit.

Back pain isn’t very choosy and this is why we haven’t yet found a way to prevent it from ever happening, we can only work with the person to prevent it hanging around and getting in the way of life.

Being honest enough to show that clinicians are human too helps other clinicians rethink the “them and us” divide that is common between people seeking help, and those who would offer help. Because how often do we hear that Mrs Jones was unfit, probably lazy, had a bad lifestyle, ate the wrong foods, did no exercise, and it was probable that she’d develop a back pain. Yet Adam is pretty fit, lives a healthy lifestyle, is certainly not lazy, and like Mrs Jones does not deserve a low back pain.

I hope that Adam doesn’t get the advice I’ve heard given to so many people: get fit, change your lifestyle, get back to work, do more. Mrs Jones might be working two physically demanding jobs (cleaning, and waiting tables). She might walk 20 minutes to get to the bus-stop, and is on her feet all the time she’s at work. She might leave home at 6.00am, get back at 5.00pm to prepare a meal for the rest of her household, then go out again for another three or four hours to her second job, finally arriving home to sleep at 9.00pm. And some youngster suggests she needs to “prioritise herself” and “do exercise”! Who else is going to do what Mrs Jones does for her family?

Finally, I really hope that people offer Mrs Jones a lot more of an empathic response than Adam has had. Anyone experiencing pain needs support – and don’t need a whole bunch of well-intentioned advice from people who don’t know them personally. And some of the comments offered to Adam are not well-intentioned. What does that kind of vicious behaviour show to the general public?

Below – just a small selection of the longitudinal studies exploring the trajectories of back pain in the population. Worth looking at if you think you’ve got The Answer to What To Do – because so far it’s not working.

Canizares, M., Rampersaud, Y. R., & Badley, E. M. (2019, Dec). Course of Back Pain in the Canadian Population: Trajectories, Predictors, and Outcomes. Arthritis care & research, 71(12), 1660-1670. https://doi.org/10.1002/acr.23811

Chen, Y., Campbell, P., Strauss, V. Y., Foster, N. E., Jordan, K. P., & Dunn, K. M. (2018, Feb). Trajectories and predictors of the long-term course of low back pain: cohort study with 5-year follow-up. Pain, 159(2), 252-260. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001097

Gatchel, R. J., Bevers, K., Licciardone, J. C., Su, J., Du, Y., & Brotto, M. (2018, May 17). Transitioning from Acute to Chronic Pain: An Examination of Different Trajectories of Low-Back Pain. Healthcare (Basel, Switzerland), 6(2). https://doi.org/10.3390/healthcare6020048

Kongsted, A., Kent, P., Axen, I., Downie, A. S., & Dunn, K. M. (2016, May 21). What have we learned from ten years of trajectory research in low back pain? BMC Musculoskelet Disord, 17, 220. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-016-1071-2

Pico-Espinosa, O. J., Cote, P., Hogg-Johnson, S., Jensen, I., Axen, I., Holm, L. W., & Skillgate, E. (2019). Trajectories of Pain Intensity Over 1 Year in Adults With Disabling Subacute or Chronic Neck Pain [Journal: Article]. Clinical Journal of Pain, 35(8), 678-685.

Knowledge gaps for working together


Whenever we work with someone living with pain, we form a team. A team, by definition, is “a distinguishable set of two or more people who interact dynamically, interdependently, and adaptively towards a common and valued goal/objective/mission” (Salas et al., 1992). So while many clinicians work outside an interprofessional team, they are always working in a team consisting of at least the person with pain, and themselves.

There’s a good deal of research on teamwork, and a heap of references in pain management literature on the benefits and, indeed, the need, to work in a team for best outcomes (both in terms of effects for the person and in terms of cost-effectiveness). Gilliam and colleagues (2018) demonstrate that long-term outcomes are retained by participants attending an interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation programme, while Guildford and colleaguees (2018) also showed reductions in analgesic use during an interdisciplinary pain management programme. It’s not new news folks!

Teamwork is well-investigated in health, particularly interprofessional/interdisciplinary teamwork. Much of this research, however, is focused on nursing and medicine interactions, with rather less attention paid to allied health and nursing/medicine teamwork. This matters because while nursing and medicine are moving away from the old medical model, the professions probably represent the two most similar in terms of clinical models. And this matters because one thing that’s found to be important for good teamwork in health is having a shared mental model (for example – from operation room – Wilson, 2019).

All good so far – nothing new here, move along, right?

Hold it right there, folks.

You see, when we work together in a team, particularly for people with persistent pain, we often generate a heap of new information about the person we hope to help. In New Zealand, the person will have completed the ePPOC set of questionnaires, then there will probably have been some physical performance testing, maybe some basic ROM, and muscle testing, perhaps some daily life functioning tasks, certainly some more psychological questionnaires, if the person sees a medical practitioner, there will be the obligatory bloods, urine, perhaps imaging – you know what I mean! A heap of information that each clinician deems necessary and I haven’t yet gone into each clinician’s desire to “hear the story from the beginning again!”

What’s lacking in our research on teamwork in persistent pain is discussion about how we assemble this information so that we move from a multidisciplinary team – Multidisciplinary teams involve people from different health disciplines working alongside one another while using clinical models drawn from their own professional discipline (Körner, 2010) – to an interprofessional/interdisciplinary team – Interdisciplinary teams also involve people from different health disciplines working alongside one another but meet regularly to collaborate on treatment goals and priorities (Ruan & Kaye, 2016). There is limited hierarchy and considerable communication, cooperation and often overlap between team members (Körner, 2010).

Not only a lack of a shared mental model (because we all think our model is The Best), we also lack an understanding of team processes. How do we develop an effective way to communicate, to cooperate, to deal with conflict in an open and creative way, to coordinate our work so things happen at the right time, to be coached so that the team-as-a-whole moves in the same direction and new people coming to the team feel part of the culture? Not forgetting that teams work in an ever-changing context, and team membership changes over time, while the overall team culture is something that emerges from a team collective (Salas, et al., 2015).

Are pain rehabilitation teams different from teams working in older person’s health, or palliative care, or as part of a primary health team?

I suspect so, but I can’t find good research detailing how our pain teams are different. It’s like a black box of mystery (a bit like interprofessional pain management programmes – one murky black box out of which a person pops!)

I’m left with this feeling that because teams in pain management and rehabilitation have become scarce in most part of the US, and that this is where all the research funding lives, there’s not very much that we actually know. We don’t know who holds the positions of power – is it the medical practitioner? the psychologist? the physiotherapist? the occupational therapist? Who makes the call as to when it’s time to work with the person to move from pain reduction to living well alongside pain? Are the team members actually using a common model or are they really working in parallel? And how can a team be maintained over time – I’ve had the privilege of working in a very close-knit and effective team for some years, but I’ve seen that team become smaller, fragmented, more multidisciplinary than interprofessional, with limited attention to processes of induction, developing effective conflict management, and really becoming weakened.

There is one conclusion I can draw from the mountains of material I’ve been learning and it’s this: it’s impossible to put a bunch of clinicians together and call them a team without putting effort in to develop those processes I’ve listed above. And when was the last time you attended a CPD session on “how to work in a team?”

Gilliam, W. P., Craner, J. R., Cunningham, J. L., Evans, M. M., Luedtke, C. A., Morrison, E. J., Sperry, J. A., & Loukianova, L. L. (2018). Longitudinal Treatment Outcomes for an Interdisciplinary Pain Rehabilitation Program: Comparisons of Subjective and Objective Outcomes on the Basis of Opioid Use Status. J Pain, 19(6), 678-689. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2018.02.010

Guildford, B. J., Daly-Eichenhardt, A., Hill, B., Sanderson, K., & McCracken, L. M. (2018). Analgesic reduction during an interdisciplinary pain management programme: treatment effects and processes of change. Br J Pain, 12(2), 72-86. https://doi.org/10.1177/2049463717734016

Körner, M. (2010). Interprofessional teamwork in medical rehabilitation: a comparison of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary team approach. Clinical Rehabilitation, 24(8), 745-755. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269215510367538

Ruan, X., & Kaye, A. D. (2016). A Call for Saving Interdisciplinary Pain Management. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther, 46(12), 1021-1023. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.2016.0611

Salas, E., Dickinson, T. L., Converse, S. A., & Tannenbaum, S. I. (1992). Toward an understanding of team performance and training. In Teams: Their training and performance. (pp. 3-29). Ablex Publishing.

Salas, E., Shuffler, M. L., Thayer, A. L., Bedwell, W. L., & Lazzara, E. H. (2015). Understanding and Improving Teamwork in Organizations: A Scientifically Based Practical Guide. Human Resource Management, 54(4), 599-622. https://doi.org/10.1002/hrm.21628

Wilson, A. (2019). Creating and applying shared mental models in the operating room. Journal of Perioperative Nursing, 32(3), 33.

What do occupational therapists add to pain management?


I’ve struggled with professional identity from time to time, but after completing my PhD thesis looking at how people live well with pain, I’ve developed a new understanding of how occupational therapists add value in this area of practice.

Occupational therapists joke that “no-one knows what an occupational therapist does” – and sadly, that’s true. It’s not because what we do isn’t important, it’s because our view of people and the way we work with people differs from most health professions. Occupational therapists don’t treat disease per se, we work with people’s function and participation, with a person’s illness experience. We don’t fit inside a biomedical, disease-oriented model of humans.

This means an occupational therapist works with people using a process-oriented approach. This approach begins by understanding what a person values, what matters in their life, and how the person’s life context influences their participation. Occupational therapists are concerned with the daily minutiae of life: the way you clean your teeth, how you get to work, what you do for fun, the roles you undertake, the daily routine you follow, the things that make your life your own – not a facsimile of someone else’s.

In pain management/rehabilitation, occupational therapists are there to help people resume, or begin, a life that looks like their own. To integrate strategies into daily routines and habits. To contextualise the strategies other professionals introduce. We’re the professional who talks about the timing of exercise/movement practice – how to fit exercises into each day without compromising other important routines. The details of when and where and how exercises are done in the long term, for life, in life. We encourage people to look beyond the simple 3 x 10 and into the kinds of movement opportunities that hold meaning beyond the “it will help your pain”.

Occupational therapists translate what happens in clinic settings into the real, messy, chaotic and unpredictable worlds of the people we serve. When someone is learning to develop self compassion, occupational therapists work out what this might look like in the context of being a good father, or an efficient employee. When someone is developing effective communication skills, occupational therapists are there to review when, where and how these skills are brought into play with the kids, the uncle, the neighbour, the colleague. When someone needs to learn to down-regulate a sensitive nervous system, occupational therapists are there to help assess each setting, noticing the sensory load of a situation, problem-solving ways to remain engaged in what’s important without withdrawing or overloading.

When someone’s afraid of a movement, occupational therapists go into the real world to help that person begin to do that activity – our skills are there to titrate the level of difficulty not just around biomechanical demands, but also social, interpersonal, sensory, and cognitive loads. Ever wondered why a person can manage something really well in the clinic – but can’t do the groceries, go to a restaurant, stay with friends overnight, anywhere where the demands are different? Occupational therapists can help figure out why.

For those that don’t know, my profession has been established since the days of 1793, when Phillipe Pinel began what was then called “moral treatment and occupation”, as an approach to treating people with mental illness. In the US, a National Society for the Promotion of Occupational Therapy (NSPOT) was founded in 1917, and continued through the 1920’s and 1930’s until the Great Depression. Occupational therapy became more closely aligned with medicine as part of a rehabilitation approach to recovery with wounded soldiers, those with TB (in New Zealand especially), and those with chronic diseases. In fact, occupational therapy was a registered and protected health profession in NZ since 1945 (before psychology).

It was during the 1980’s and 1990’s that the profession began questioning the medical model – and during my training in the early 1980’s, Engel’s biopsychosocial model was promoted as an over-arching approach to viewing people. So for occupational therapists, this is our practice philosophy: to look at the whole person in context.

Occupational therapists are fully trained across both physical and mental health. Our profession is one of the very few that has retained this “whole person” model of health from its inception. The value of doing, being and becoming is at the centre of practice. The appreciation that people live in a physical and social context, and that people have biopsychosocial, cultural and spiritual aspects is central to practice.

Pain is a human experience that spans the biological, the psychological, the social, the spiritual. Pain can influence all of life. When life has lost meaning because it doesn’t look like the life a person had before pain – this is where occupational therapists practice the art and science of our work.

The hardly hidden costs


Chronic/persistent pain management is not sexy. No-one gets a magic cure. Lives are not saved – at least not in a way that mortality statistics show. Chronic pain management is under-funded.

And now: buried in a list of other proposed service cuts in the local health board’s plan to save millions of dollars, is a proposal to “save” $650,000 from the pain clinic. You’ll note also reductions in community services, GP support for vulnerable, and healthy lifestyles programmes.

https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/122558278/hundreds-of-staff-nurses-and-services-may-be-axed-at-canterbury-dhb

I know that nursing staff, senior medical staff and 200 admin staff are also in the firing line. I also know that this health board has been side-swiped by earthquake earthquake re-building, the terror attacks with so many victims needing urgent and ongoing surgery and rehabilitation, along with the mental health impacts of all of these events and now Covid-19… Delays and poor workmanship on new buildings on the main hospital site have meant these new facilities are well over-budget, and two years late – and there is still no car-parking for patients and staff. Historic under-funding by past governments has meant Canterbury DHB has developed innovative and nimble responses to these challenges – and been lauded internationally for their work. I won’t say anything about the growth in middle management, suffice to say that where there was once one general manager at one site, and a direct report line from the clinical director of a service – now there are three or four layers of management…

Let me turn to why cutting expenditure on pain services is likely to cost rather than save.

In 1987 or so, a new pain management service was developed in Christchurch. One of the primary reasons for opening this centre was to address the burgeoning rise in numbers of people presenting for orthopaedic surgery but for whom surgery was not an option. Either because there was nothing to find on imaging – pain can’t be imaged, and surgeons can’t operate on a normal x-ray or MRI – or because the person’s problem would likely not respond to surgery.

As a result of the new pain management service, people who weren’t suitable for orthopaedic surgery were referred for multidisciplinary pain management: medical assessment, functional assessment, psychosocial assessment, and appropriate pain management from there. Fewer people with low back pain were being admitted to the orthopaedic wards as a result. Win!

It’s only possible in the first few years of a service to clearly demonstrate the impact of it on the rest of the health system. Why? Because it’s not possible to show what isn’t happening. Now that pain management services have been in place for many years, the effect of people attending these services rather than other parts of the healthcare system is invisible.

For example, people who attend pain management services don’t need as many ambulance trips, visits to the Emergency Department, admissions via Emergency to hospital wards. They don’t stay in hospital beds while they undergo investigations – all the while using bed space, “hotel services” (food, linen, soap, towels, hot water, cleaning services), along with the skilled healthcare staff – doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, laboratory workers, phlebotomists, radiographers, pharmacists and on and on…

People who are served well through pain services don’t take up as much space in the rest of the system – and the very people who need pain services are the people who otherwise do end up in many places throughout the healthcare system (Blyth, March, Brnabic, Cousins, 2004; Duenas, Ojeda, Salazar, Mico & Failde, 2016). It’s evident from so many epidemiological studies that people with chronic pain will have an impact across “physical” health services, “mental” health services, primary care (General practice), secondary care and tertiary care. And an acute hospital setting is not the right place for people with chronic pain to be treated.

Until recently, though, admissions for chronic pain haven’t been counted as “chronic pain” because the coding used (ICD10) doesn’t have chronic pain as a stand-alone category. This means a person with chronic abdominal pain, for example, will have their condition listed within an acute pain admission category. Similarly with chronic non-cardiac chest pain – these admissions are coded as “cardiac”. The new ICD11 will help make these currently hidden admissions visible – but currently, it’s not possible to identify just how many people are being seen in these departments but who could be better managed in a persistent pain clinic.

Now I’m the first to admit that our treatments for chronic pain don’t show massive effects. Pain intensity, disability, distress all continue to have an impact on people even after attending a pain service. BUT that is the nature of a persistent pain problem – people don’t die from it, but like those with “long-Covid19”, they continue to need help. And yet, by comparison with the costs of not providing these services, pain clinics save a health system money – and this has been known since the 2000’s (Gatchel, McGeary, McGeary & Lippe, 2014; Loisel, Lemaire, Poitras, Durand, Champagne, Stock .et al, 2002).

The saddest thing about the proposal to cut funding is that by losing skilled and experienced – and passionate – clinicians, we all lose. Community pain services in New Zealand are largely staffed by clinicians who have little/no additional training in persistent pain. It’s well-documented that physiotherapists find it hard to identify and work with psychosocial factors – the main predictors for long-term distress and disability. Psychology programmes in New Zealand have little/no pain content. There are too few pain specialists. And most of the community pain services pay lip service to interprofessional teamwork because they’re not co-located, haven’t developed effective team structures because these are considered a “cost” to service delivery by private owners, and use contractors who are not paid to attend meetings.

New Zealand’s population is aging. Along with aging is an increase in painful conditions such as osteoarthritis and diabetic neuropathy (we have such high rates of diabetes). We have no national pain strategy. Our clinical workforce is under-skilled and many clinicians find pain management work is hard and demoralising. I can see why clinicians feel demoralised when what should be seen as essential services are in the sights of cost-cutting administrators.

Blyth, F. M., March, L. M., Brnabic, A. J., & Cousins, M. J. (2004). Chronic pain and frequent use of health care. Pain, 111(1-2), 51-58.

Dueñas, M., Ojeda, B., Salazar, A., Mico, J. A., & Failde, I. (2016). A review of chronic pain impact on patients, their social environment and the health care system. Journal of pain research, 9, 457.

Gatchel, R. J., McGeary, D. D., McGeary, C. A., & Lippe, B. (2014). Interdisciplinary chronic pain management: past, present, and future. American Psychologist, 69(2), 119.

Loisel, P., Lemaire, J., Poitras, S., Durand, M. J., Champagne, F., Stock, S., … & Tremblay, C. (2002). Cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analysis of a disability prevention model for back pain management: a six year follow up study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 59(12), 807-815.

Pacing, pacing, pacing…


If there’s one pain management and rehabilitation strategy that keeps me awake at night, it’s pacing. Living with persistent pain, I loathe the idea of pacing because I know everyone “booms and busts” from time to time, and few people like the idea of planning every single aspect of every single day as they come to grips with modifying their daily routines. BUT it’s one of the most popular strategies in textbooks, self-help books, and in treatment so there must be something in it, right?

Vexed definitions

One of the problems with the whole pacing concept is defining what we mean by it. I like Nicole Andrew’s approach: Nicole acknowledges that defining pacing is difficult, so when she talks about her research into pacing, she’s clear about the definition she’s using in that piece of work.

Various definitions abound. As a broad concept, pacing refers to organising daily activities in such a way that a specific end is achieved. The difficulty arises when we begin to determine the end goal of pacing (pain reduction? maintaining consistent activity levels? completing important tasks? avoiding a flare-up? reducing the relationship between pain fluctuations and activity? increasing overall activity levels over time?) and the means used to achieve these ends (time as a guide? activity intensity as a guide? importance and values as a guide? “spoons” of energy as a guide?). You can see how complex this concept is…

Nielson, Jensen, Karsdorp & Vlaeyen (2013) discussed this and identified two treatment goals (they weren’t considering the spontaneous use of pacing, nor the use of pacing outside a treatment context). “Whereas the operant approach seeks to improve function (decrease disability), the energy conservation approach is designed to reduce symptoms (pain, fatigue).”

Fordyce developed the operant conditioning approach, viewing pain behaviours as reinforced by other people – or by avoiding negative consequences such as a pain flare-up. His approach involved establishing a quota – a certain number, or a certain time in which people maintain activity irrespective of pain flucuations. In a clinical setting, this is the approach I mainly use, though there is an art to setting the “minimum” a person does (setting a baseline) and to nudging the activity levels up.

Sternbach, another influential pain management person from around the late 1970’s, followed a similar approach – but instead of simply establishing a baseline, he advised people to anticipate the point at which they would increase their pain and to stop the activity just before then. This is also a popular approach in pain management rehabilitation today – but has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing a pain avoidance (and pain contingent) approach, if not done very carefully.

Occupational therapists have frequently advocated the “5 p’s”. Pacing, positioning, posture, persistence and problem-solving. This approach was based on energy conservation, and while I can’t find the original papers from which this approach was developed, it was introduced to me as part of rheumatology practice, and in conditions where fatigue is a problem such as multiple sclerosis. I can see it being used today as part of the popular “spoons” meme where people are thought to have a fixed number of “spoons” of energy, and need to allocate their energy accordingly. My main criticism of this approach is that it doesn’t allow for people to increase their capabilities over time, either through “training” effects, or habituation.

Now, how about some evidence for any of these approaches?

Well therein lies a problem – there is very little research to support activity pacing despite its popularity. This is why I was so interested when I spotted a pilot study published in Journal of Pain, testing the energy conservation approach to activity managing (aka pacing) against an operant conditioning approach in a group of people with fibromyalgia. This group of people provides us with a useful population to test both approaches because fatigue is thought to be a prominent feature of fibromyalgia, and energy conservation has some degree of face validity for managing fatigue.

The design of the study involved four groups, two immediately treated using either an operant conditioning variant of pacing, or the energy conservation variant, and two groups with delayed treatments, again with the two versions (these groups acted as the control groups for this study). 178 participants were involved, with confirmed diagnoses of fibromyalgia given by occupational therapists using the American College of Rheumatology’s 2010 FMS diagnostic criteria. If the occupational therapist had doubts about the individual’s diagnosis, or the person wasn’t able to provide formal documentation confirming the diagnosis, the study rheumatologist assessed the potential participant for inclusion. This is an important procedure in studies of people living with fibromyalgia, given there is no definitive diagnostic test such as a blood test or imaging result.

The two treatment approaches were documented in treatment manuals to establish consistency, and it’s interesting to note that the approaches were applied across all activities in a day rather than just exercise, as often happens. For full descriptions of each of the ten treatment sessions, the article should be referred to, and the treatment manuals are available at http://research.melanieracine.com/activity management

Cutting to the chase, what did they find?

Well… to quote the authors “Inconsistent with the study’s primary hypothesis, neither treatment was effective in reducing average pain or usual fatigue symptoms. However, analyses of secondary outcome measures suggest the possibility that OL-based activity pacing treatments might be more effective than EC-based treatments in improving patient function.”

I didn’t expect pain reduction, or fatigue to be altered by an activity management approach: the relationship between movement and pain is highly variable, and there are many times we’ll be happy doing something and not experience pain simply because it’s something we enjoy. At the same time, I did hope to see a difference between the two approaches in terms of overall “doing” (function). My expectation was that pain may actually increase as people begin doing more, or alternatively, that people will feel more confident that they can achieve what’s important to them in a day, and that pain intensity becomes less of a guiding factor. The authors provide some explanations: perhaps the study numbers were too low to detect a difference (ie the study was under-powered); and perhaps a brief intervention isn’t intensive enough to help change over so many different aspects of a person’s life. Or perhaps, I want to add, neither approach is terribly great and while they both have intuitive appeal, persistent pain is too complex for any single activity management approach to make much of a difference. Maybe it’s something that needs other strategies to be incorporated such as exercise, mindfulness, medications, and even scheduling pleasant events.

So where does this leave us?

I guess for me, I like to think of activity pacing as one of many different tools in my toolbox. I bring it out when I’m attempting to increase my overall activity level – such as my walking programme, where I’m slowly but gradually increasing my capabilities without giving myself a whole two weeks of DOMs! I otherwise use a more flexible activity management approach: if something is important to me, and I think I can deal with the flare-up, I’ll do it. If it’s not as important to me, or I don’t think I can deal with the flare-up, I’ll probably modify my approach. Pacing, or activity management is only one tool…

Andrews, N. E., Strong, J., & Meredith, P. J. (2012). Activity Pacing, Avoidance, Endurance, and Associations With Patient Functioning in Chronic Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 93(11), 2109-2121.e2107.

Nielson, W. R., Jensen, M. P., Karsdorp, P. A., & Vlaeyen, J. W. S. (2013). Activity Pacing in Chronic Pain: Concepts, Evidence, and Future Directions. Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(5), 461-468.

Racine, M., Jensen, M. P., Harth, M., Morley-Forster, P., & Nielson, W. R. (2019). Operant Learning Versus Energy Conservation Activity Pacing Treatments in a Sample of Patients With Fibromyalgia Syndrome: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Pain, 20(4), 420–439. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2018.09.013

Pain science is not a thing


Today’s post is occasioned by reading several discussions on various forums where the term “pain science” and various adjectives to describe this kind of practice. For those who don’t want to read the rest of my ramblings: no, it’s not a thing, science is an approach to understanding phenomena, and I would have thought all health professionals would use a science-based approach to treatment.

I went on to Google, as you do, to find out when this term began its rise in popularity. Google wasn’t particularly helpful but did show that it’s been around since 2004 at least, and seems to have been centred around the US, UK and Australia in roughly May 2004. I can’t grab data from earlier than this, sadly, but I think it’s interesting to take a look at the popularity peaks and troughs…

So, what does “pain science” mean to commentators? I haven’t delved in too deeply to the social media use of the term, but given I’m a social animal and have written my blog since 2007 (which is mainly on “pain science”) I’ve encountered it many times. It seems to be related to using a neurobiological explanation for pain as an experience (referring to the phenomenon and the underlying biological processes involved) rather than focusing purely on biomechanics or tissue damage/nociception as the key force. And it does seem to tie in with the emergence of “Explain pain” as one way of helping people reconceptualise their experience as something they can influence rather than something other people need to “fix”.

Commentators who aren’t in love with the “explain pain” thing have said things like “the pain science camp” or as one person put it “There’s your manual PTs, your pain science PTs, and your just load it PTs etc”

I went on to Twitter and the hashtag #painscience was paired with #BPSModel and #PT and #physicaltherapy (or variations), #chronicpain #exercise #lowbackpain – and so on.

So what do I think pain science means if it’s not a neurobiological approach to pain management? Well – pain science is a lot like cardio-respiratory science, and neurological science, and psychological science – it’s about applying a scientific approach to understanding pain. Science has been defined as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” In this instance, Google is your friend. So science is about systematically studying phenomena through observation and experimenting. If we apply this to pain – it’s the systematic study of structure and behaviour of the phenomenon we call ‘pain’ through observation and experiment. For what it’s worth, scientific study of pain has been going on since… oh at least Descartes, but probably much earlier given that pain is a ubiquitous and essential part of human experience.

To me, understanding pain involves multiple disciplines: yes to biology, and especially neurobiology because the experience (as we understand it now) involves neurobiological processing. But it’s also about psychology
the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context; sociology – the study of the development, structure, and functioning of human society; the humanities – the study of how people process and document the human experience; politics – the activities associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power; and Anthropology –  the study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology and cultural anthropology study the norms and values of societies. Linguistic anthropology studies how language affects social life.

So to describe an entire approach to understanding a phenomenon as if it’s a “movement” or “camp” or “dogma” or even “tribe” suggests serious  misunderstanding of both science and of an intervention.

What is “explain pain” then, or pain neurobiology education? – it’s an explanation of some of the biological elements of our nociceptive system as they combine to produce the experience we know as pain. For some people it’s the first time anyone took the trouble to explain why the pain of a papercut feels so bad compared with, for example, the pain of a sprained ankle; and why they still experience pain despite having no “damage” as visible on imaging. It’s an attempt to give people a frame of reference from which to understand their own journey towards recovering from a painful injury/disease/problem. In itself it’s not new: explanations for pain have been used in pain management programmes since the 1970’s (and earlier, if we consider that Fordyce used explanations in his behavioural approaches to pain management), and have routinely drawn on current pain research to help provide explanations that make sense to both the person and the clinician. The distinction between earlier explanations which drew heavily on the gate control theory, and this latest iteration is that the explanations are more complex, pain is considered to be an “output” that emerges from multiple interactions between brain and body, and that’s about it. Oh and it’s been picked up and enthusiastically used by physiotherapists (and other primarily body therapists) around the world.

What’s the evidence for this approach? Well, IMHO it’s not intended to be a stand-alone “treatment” for most people experiencing pain. I see giving an explanation as integral to usual practice, just as we do when we explain why it’s not a good idea to go running on a newly sprained ankle or why we’re suggesting a mindfulness to someone with a panic disorder. So far there have been a lot of studies examining variants of “explaining pain” alone or in combination with a number of other treatments including exercise. A recent systematic review and meta-analsyis of “pain neuroscience education” for chronic low back pain found eight papers (with 615 participants) showing that in the short-term, this kind of education reduces disability (by 2.28 points on the Roland-Morris Disability Questionnaire which is a 24 point scale) in the short-term and a slightly lesser effect in the long-term  (2.18). There were greater effects when this was combined with physiotherapy, though we often don’t know exactly what is included in “physiotherapy”.  There was some evidence that this kind of education helps reduce pain scores (by 1.32) but only in combination with other physiotherapy interventions. The authors pointed out that the strength of evidence for education on pain in the short term was low to moderate, but that it doesn’t have much of an impact on pain-related fear and avoidance, or on pain catastrophising (Wood & Hendrick, in press).

To compare this with another active treatment, exposure therapy for fear of movement/reinjury in chronic low back pain, de Jong, Vlaeyen, Onghena, Goossens, Geilen & Mulder (2005) performed a careful study of six individuals, using a single case experimental design. (If you’re not familiar with this approach to research – it’s extremely rigorous and useful in a clinical setting, this link takes you to a chapter discussing its use).  The aim was to establish which part of treatment “did the work” to change behaviour, but also measured pain intensity, and fear of pain and movement.  The treatments were information about pain and mechanisms, and the activities were those the person particularly wanted to be able to do. Their findings identified that explanations do little to pain intensity, avoidance or fear – but what actually worked was doing graded exposure. In other words, experiencing something different, DOING that something different in the real world, was more effective than talking about why someone shouldn’t be afraid. A much more recent replication of this study was conducted by Schemer, Vlaeyen, Doerr, Skoluda, Nater, Rief & Glombiewski (2018) and shows the same result: doing trumps talking about doing.

When we sit down and take a cold hard look at what we do in pain management we can see that the field has to draw on a huge range of disciplines and fields of study to understand the problems people experiencing pain have. This is, in fact, why Bonica and colleagues first established the International Association for the Study of Pain, and why multidisciplinary (and now interprofessional) pain management teams and approaches were established. None of us can possibly hold all the knowledge needed to work effectively in the area. At the same time, as health professionals working with people, we do need to have some foundation knowledge about biology, disease, illness, psychology, sociology and anthropology. These areas of study inform us as we work hard to help people get their heads around their pain. Do we need to be experts in all of these fields? Yes – if you work completely in isolation. No – if you work within an extended team (whether co-located or otherwise). Pain research will continue to push our understanding ahead – and to be responsible health professionals, we must incorporate new understandings into our practice or we risk being unprofessional and irrelevant. I would go as far as to say we’re irresponsible and harming patients if we fail to incorporate what is known about pain as a multidimensional experience. It’s time to back away from temporary guruism and move towards a far more nuanced, and perhaps less flighty approach to understanding pain.

Pain science. No, it’s not a thing. Pain being examined through multiple scientific lenses: definitely a thing.

NB for the avoidance of doubt: pain is never a “thing” but examining pain through multiple scientific lenses involves many “things”. (Merriam-Webster – click)


de Jong, J. R. M., Vlaeyen, J. W. S. P., Onghena, P. P., Goossens, M. E. J. B. P., Geilen, M. P. T., & Mulder, H. O. T. (2005). Fear of Movement/(Re)injury in Chronic Low Back Pain: Education or Exposure In Vivo as Mediator to Fear Reduction? [Article]. Clinical Journal of Pain Special Topic Series: Cognitive Behavioral Treatment for Chronic Pain January/February, 21(1), 9-17.

Schemer, L., Vlaeyen, J. W., 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. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 108, 58-67.

Wood, L., & Hendrick, P. A. A systematic review and meta-analysis of pain neuroscience education for chronic low back pain: Short-and long-term outcomes of pain and disability. European Journal of Pain, 0(0). doi:doi:10.1002/ejp.1314