pain management


What to do with the results from the PCS

The Pain Catastrophising Scale is one of the more popular measures used in pain assessment. It’s popular because catastrophising (thinking the worst) has been identified as an especially important risk factor for slow recovery from pain (Abbott, Tyni-Lenne & Hedlund, 2010), for reporting high levels of pain intensity (Langley, 2011), and for ongoing disability (Elfving, Andersoon & Grooten, 2007). I could have cited hundreds more references to support these claims, BTW.

The problem is, once the PCS is administered and scored: what then? What difference does it make in how we go about helping a person think a little more positively about their pain, do more and feel more confident?

If you haven’t seen my earlier posts about the PCS, take a look at this, this, and this for more details.

Anyway, so someone has high scores on rumination, helplessness and magnifying – what does this mean? Let’s say we have two people attending the clinic, one has really high scores on all three subscales, while the other has low or average scores. Both have grumbly old low back pain, both have had exercises in the past, both are finding it tough to do normal daily activities right now.

For a good, general pain management approach to low back pain, and once red flags are excluded (yes, the “bio” comes first!) this is what I do. I establish what the person thinks is going on and ask if it’s OK to talk about pain neurobiology. Together we’ll generate a pain formulation, which is really a spaghetti diagram showing the experience as described by the person (I used guided discovery to develop it). I then ask the person what they’d be doing if their pain wasn’t such a problem for them, perhaps what they’re finding the most frustrating thing about their situation at the moment. Often it will be sleep, or driving or cooking dinner, or perhaps even getting clothes on (shoes and socks!). I’ll then begin with helping the person develop good relaxed breathing (for using with painful movements), and start by encouraging movement into the painful zone while remaining relaxed, and tie this in with one of the common activities (occupations) the person needs or wants to do. For example, I’ll encourage bending forward to put shoes and socks on while breathing in a relaxed and calm way. I’ll be watching and also encourage relaxing the shoulders and any other tense parts of the body. For someone who is just generally sore but doesn’t report high pain catastrophising, I will also encourage some daily movements doing something they enjoy – it might be walking, yoga, dancing, gardening, whatever they enjoy and will do regularly every day for whatever they can manage. Sometimes people need to start small so 5 minutes might be enough. I suggest being consistent, doing some relaxation afterwards, and building up only once the person has maintained four or five days of consistent activity. And doing the activity the person has been finding difficult.

If the person I’m seeing has high scores on the PCS I’ll begin in a similar way, but I’ll teach a couple of additional things, and I’ll expect to set a much lower target – and probably provide far more support. Catastrophising is often associated with having trouble disengaging from thinking about pain (ruminating), so I’ll teach the person some ways to deal with persistent thoughts that hang around.

A couple to try: mindfulness, although this practice requires practice! It’s not intended to help the person become relaxed! It’s intended to help them discipline their mind to attend to one thing without judgement and to notice and be gentle with the mind when it gets off track, which it will. I ask people to practice this at least four times a day, or whenever they’re waiting for something – like the jug to boil, or while cleaning teeth, or perhaps waiting for a traffic light.

Another is to use a “15 minutes of worry” practice. I ask the person to set a time in the evening to sit down and worry, usually from 7.00 – 7.15pm. Throughout the day I ask the person to notice when they’re ruminating on their situation. I ask them to remind themselves that they’re going to worry about that tonight and deliberately put that worry aside until their appointment with worry. Then, at 7.00pm they are asked to get a piece of paper and write ALL their worries down for a solid 15 minutes. No stopping until 15 minutes is over! It’s really hard. Then when they go to sleep, I ask them to remind themselves that they’ve now worried all their worries, and they can gently set those thoughts aside because they won’t forget their worry, it’s written down (I think worry is one way a mind tries hard to stop you from forgetting to DO something about the worry!). People can throw the paper away in the morning because then it begins all over again.

Usually people who score high on the PCS also find it hard to be realistic about their pain, they’ll use words that are really emotive and often fail to notice parts of the body that aren’t in pain. By noticing the worst, they find it tough to notice the best.  I like to guide people to notice the unloved parts of their body, the bits that don’t hurt – like the earlobes, or the belly button. I’ll offer guidance as to what to notice while we’re doing things, in particular, I like to guide people to notice those parts of the body that are moving smoothly, comfortably and that look relaxed. This is intended to support selective attention to good things – rather than only noticing pain.

Finally, I give more support to those who tend to be more worried about their pain than others. So I might set the goals a little lower – walking for five times a week, two days off for good behaviour rather than every day. Walking for five minutes rather than ten. And I’ll check in with them more often – by text, email or setting appointments closer together. It’s important for people who fear the worst to experience some success, so setting small goals that are achieved can build self efficacy – especially when I try hard to offer encouragement in terms of what the person has done despite the odds. So, if the person says they’ve had a real flare-up, I’ll try to boost confidence by acknowledging that they’ve come in to see me even though it’s a bad pain day, that they’ve tried to do something instead of nothing, that talking to me about the challenge shows guts and determination.

People who see the glass as half empty rather than half full are just people. Like you and I, they’re people who have a cognitive bias. With support, we can help people view their pain differently – and that process applies to all of us, not just those with high scores on the PCS.


Abbott, A. D., Tyni-Lenne, R., & Hedlund, R. (2010). The influence of psychological factors on pre-operative levels of pain intensity, disability and health-related quality of life in lumbar spinal fusion surgery patients. Physiotherapy, 96(3), 213-221. doi:10.1016/

Elfving, B., Andersson, T., & Grooten, W. J. (2007). Low levels of physical activity in back pain patients are associated with high levels of fear-avoidance beliefs and pain catastrophizing. Physiotherapy Research International, 12(1), 14-24.

Langley, P. C. (2011). The prevalence, correlates and treatment of pain in the european union. Curr Med Res Opin, 27(2), 463-480. doi:10.1185/03007995.2010.542136


End-of-year musings

It’s my last post for the year. It has been an extraordinary year, lots of surprises, shocks and enough excitement for anyone! I’m not even going to start on the political changes, here in NZ we’ve had yet another major earthquake, excitement as ACC (our national accident insurer) sets up new pain service contracts (with a LOT of people who haven’t been involved in pain management before… there’s an experiment in the making!), and continuing road cone carnage on the streets of Christchurch.

On the pain news front, I can’t think of any incredibly ground-breaking news – although one medic advised that “Virtually all cases of low back pain can now be diagnosed definitively by criterion standard methods as to source and cause.” That same medic also argued that a paper by Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder (2016) on non-specific low back pain, published in The Lancet, represented “the views of non-evidence-based troglodytes who (a) have apparently not read any scientific papers since 1966, and (b) have vested interests in “managing” non-diagnosed patients so their practices remain busy and they reinforce each other’s views that the burden of low back pain cannot be eased.” I’ll leave the critiquing of that view to those with more time and energy than I have!

It’s also been a year in which various commentators have critiqued the “biopsychosocial model” as it’s applied in musculoskeletal pain.  Some have pointed out that this is an unscientific model, it’s not a theory that can be tested and therefore can’t point to “truth” or whatever approximation we can currently identify. Others have argued that by adopting this framework, practitioners must either be versed in “life, the universe and everything” – or perhaps become exactly what advocates of this approach decry: reductionists. I’m not sure I follow this argument, but those that raise it are intelligent, articulate and far more thoughtful than those who believe that Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder are “troglodytes” or have “vested interests”.

I continue to hold that a biopsychosocial perspective explains more, and is of practical use when we consider the various factors that might influence why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be done to reduce their distress and disability. Here’s my take.

Biopsychosocial model

When we look into the original biopsychosocial model, we need to understand the context in which Engel first developed it. He was a psychiatrist, and at the time psychiatry was under threat from psychologists in particular, who were strongly advocating that many mental illnesses were actually “problems of living”. Things like alcohol abuse, forms of mood disorder, relationship issues and the like were seen as disorders influenced by learning and environment rather than biology. Psychiatrists were perhaps on the way to being sidelined from the very area in which they claim expertise. Engel, influenced by general systems theory and cybernetics, proposed a way for psychiatrists to remain relevant: look at the person as part of a wider system in which each element in the system could influence and be influenced by the next. Engel used this approach as a way to frame conversations with the patients he saw – attempting to understand how and why they were seeking help, and especially, attempting to understand the person and his or her priorities. I think that’s admirable.

How the model has evolved since then is an interesting tale. I first encountered the model during my occupational therapy training, where it was a foundation to viewing people-in-context. It was presented as a bit old hat (I started training in 1979), and was replaced in my profession by Gary Kielhofner’s Model of Human Occupation. This model similarly draws on general systems theory, and argues for the relevance of volition and habits as well as capacity from a biological/performance stance to undertake occupation and of course, contexts such as environment which includes the social environment. MOHO incorporates much of what we consider to be biopsychosocial – in fact, occupational therapy as a profession is based on the idea that people actively engage in purposeful and meaningful activities (occupations) that are formed out of the affordances available to them by virtue of biology, psychology and social elements within an environmental context.

So what?

For a model, or theory, to have value it needs to offer something that existing models or theories don’t. It needs to be more parsimonious (make fewer assumptions), explain more (be more consilient), hold together with existing knowledge (cohere), and predict more (Thagard, 1978).

For a clinician, a theory must also be useful in terms of explaining why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and directing what can be done to reduce distress and disability. Why these questions? Because people actively make decisions to seek treatment. They evaluate their experience in light of their past experiences, prevailing community beliefs about the trajectory of their problem, family influences, and yes, legislative influences. These are possibly more important than the biology of their problem – because we’re not going to treat someone who doesn’t believe they have a problem!

As clinicians I think we need to ponder exactly what we consider to be “treatment”.

When my fracture is reduced and immobilised, that is “treatment” – but it’s not actually ‘healing’ my bones, it’s actually up to my body to do the work. What immobilisation does is create an environment in which my body can heal itself. But the problem of a broken bone is not “treated” just by immobilisation. Treatment has to include the rest of my recovery – and involve prevention strategies too. My recovery will need to include restoring function. And some of that restoration will be by guiding me through various movements that increase tissue tolerance as well as my confidence that my limb will support me. My recovery also has to include me understanding and learning from my experience – will I jump off that cliff again? Will I leave the toys all over the floor again? Will I walk on a slippery path again?

I think clinicians simply create an environment in which people can recover. And we need to go beyond measuring range of movement or strength to establish that recovery has occurred. Recovery isn’t just about returning to “normal” whatever that is. It’s about moving beyond this interruption and into new possibilities and new challenges. It’s really about being able to be who we really are. While that’s primarily the person’s own responsibility, our job as clinicians is to create an environment where it’s possible. While a biopsychosocial model/theory/framework makes life complex, using this approach allows us to be aware of more of the factors relevant to recovery and growth than simply looking at people as if they’re bits of meat, bone, and juice.

In the new year

I’ve been blogging since 2007. In that time I’ve written over a thousand posts all on the topic of pain. Almost all of my posts are on the theme of how we can remember that we are working with people. Other human beings who have their own thoughts, beliefs and priorities. Humans who make sense of their situation as best they can. People who, like us, hold cognitive biases, and feel emotions, and get stuck, and hold values. My real focus is on how we can integrate these things into clinical reasoning – because until we do, we’re ignoring what matters most to the people we seek to serve.


Engel, G. L. (1977). The need for a new medical model: A challenge for biomedicine. Science, 196(4286), 129-136. doi:10.1126/science.847460

Maher, C., Underwood, M., & Buchbinder, R. (2016). Non-specific low back pain.  The Lancet. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30970-9

Thagard, P. R. (1978). The best explanation: Criteria for theory choice. The Journal of Philosophy, 75(2), 76-92.


What do we do with those questionnaires (ii)

In my last post I wrote about the Pain Catastrophising Scale and a little about what the results might mean. I discussed the overall score suggesting a general tendency to “think the worst”, with the three subscales of magnifying or over-estimating the risk; ruminating or brooding on the experience; and helplessness or feeling overwhelmed and that there’s nothing to be done.  At the end of the post I briefly talked about how difficult it is to find a clinical reasoning model in physiotherapy or occupational therapy where this construct is integrated – making it difficult for us to know what to do differently in a clinical setting when a person presents with elevated scores.

In this post I want to show how I might use this questionnaire in my clinical reasoning.

Alison is a woman with low back pain, she’s been getting this niggling ache for some months, but last week she was weeding her garden and when she stood up she felt a sharp pain in her lower back that hasn’t settled since. She’s a busy schoolteacher with her own two children aged 8 and 10, and doesn’t have much time for exercise after teaching a full day, and bringing children’s work home to grade at night. She’s completed the PCS and obtained an overall score of 33, with her elevated scores on the magnifying subscale contributing the most to her total score.

Her twin sister Belinda has coincidentally developed low back pain at the same time, only hers started after she had to change the tyre on her car over the weekend. She’s a busy retail manager preparing for the upcoming Christmas season, and also has two children just a bit younger than her sister’s two. She’s completed the PCS and obtained an overall score of 34, but her score on ruminating is much higher than her scores on the other two scales, and this is the main reason her overall score is high.

What difference does Belinda’s elevated score on ruminating mean for us as clinicians? What do we do when we see Alison’s overall elevated score?

Common themes

Both Alison and Belinda live busy lives, and have lots of stressors within their lives. While they both have similar presentations, we might go about helping them regain confidence in their bodies slightly differently. I’ll begin with Belinda who might, because of the elevated ruminating score, have trouble getting off to sleep and might spend more time attending to her back pain than her sister. Ruminating is that endless brainworm that keeps on dragging our attention back to the thing we’re worried about (or perhaps the problem we’re trying to solve).  Alison, on the other hand, might be more inclined to monitor her back pain and imagine all sorts of dire outcomes – perhaps that the pain will never go away, that it’s going to “cripple” her, and that it’s going to be a major problem while she’s at work.

While both sisters would benefit from learning to move with more confidence, to relax the muscle tension that occurs when back pain is present, and to return to their usual daily activities, we probably need to help Alison learn more about her back pain (for example, explain that most back pain settles down quite quickly, that it’s helped by moving again in a graduated way, and that we’ve ruled out any sinister reason for her developing her pain). During treatment sessions where we help her learn to move more normally, we might spend more time giving neutral messages about fluctuations in her pain (for example, we might let her know that it’s normal to have a temporary increase in pain when we start moving again, and that this is a good sign that she’s beginning to use her body normally). If we notice her looking anxious during a new movement or exercise we might take a moment to ask her about her concerns and provide her with neutral and clear information about what’s going on so she becomes more realistic in her judgements about what her pain means.

For Belinda I might be inclined to help her deal with her thoughts in a mindful way, so she can notice her thoughts and her body sensations without judging them, bringing her mind back to breathing, or to noticing the equally present but less “alerting” body sensations she may be experiencing. For example I might ask her to do a mindfulness of breath exercise where, as she notices her mind wandering off to worries or concerns, I would ask her to gently notice that this has happened, acknowledge her mind for trying to help solve an insoluble problem, and bring her attention back to her breathing. I might ask her to notice body sensations including those that are uncomfortable and around the area of her most intense pain, taking care to be aware not only of the painful sensations she’s experiencing, but also associated body responses such as breath holding, or muscle tension. I might guide her to also be aware of a neutral but generally unloved area like her left earlobe (when did you last attend to what your left earlobe felt like?), or her navel. Because at the same time as she’s noticing the painful areas of her body, she’s likely to be trying hard to avoid “going there” with the result that her mind (trying really hard to help her protect herself) actually goes there more often! (don’t believe me? Don’t think of a big fat spider crawling down your shoulder – betcha did!!). Belinda can use the same approach when she’s trying to get off to sleep – by non-judgmentally noticing her body and what’s going on, she can be aware of what it feels like – but not get hooked up in alarming appraisals of what “might” happen. In a clinic setting I might ask her to use this same mindfulness approach when we’re doing a new exercise, or returning to a new activity. She could take time to really feel the movements, to be “in” her body rather than her head, and in doing so gradually reduce the tendency for her mind to take off in new and frightening directions.

Using the PCS is not about becoming psychologists: it’s about being aware of what the person in front of us is telling us about their experience, and then tuning into that and responding appropriately while we do what we do. Our job isn’t to replace a psychologist’s contribution – but to use the results of psychometric questionnaires to augment and support the work we do in a setting where people are actively engaged in learning about their bodies. I think that’s a priceless opportunity.

Schutze, R., Slater, H., O’Sullivan, P., Thornton, J., Finlay-Jones, A., & Rees, C. S. (2014). Mindfulness-based functional therapy: A preliminary open trial of an integrated model of care for people with persistent low back pain. Frontiers in Psychology Vol 5 Aug 2014, ArtID 839, 5.

Tsui, P., Day, M., Thorn, B., Rubin, N., Alexander, C., & Jones, R. (2012). The communal coping model of catastrophizing: Patient-health provider interactions. Pain Medicine, 13(1), 66-79.


What do we do with those questionnaires?

Courtesy of many influences in pain management practice, you’d have to have been hiding under a rock or maybe be some sort of dinosaur not to have noticed the increasing emphasis on using questionnaires to measure factors such as pain catastrophising, depression or avoidance. The problem is I’m not sure we’ve all been certain about what to do with the results. It’s not uncommon for me to hear people saying “Oh but once I see psychosocial factors there, I just refer on”, or “they’re useful when the person’s not responding to my treatment, but otherwise…”, “we use them for outcome measures, but they’re not much use for my treatment planning”.

I think many clinicians think psychosocial questionnaires are all very well – but “intuition”  will do “…and what difference would it make to my treatment anyway?”

Today I thought I’d deconstruct the Pain Catastrophising Scale and show what it really means in clinical practice.

The Pain Catastrophising Scale is a well-known and very useful measure of an individual’s tendency to “think the worst” when they’re considering their pain. Catastrophising is defined as “an exaggerated negative mental set brought to bear during actual or anticipated painful experience” (Sullivan et al., 2001). The questionnaire was first developed by Sullivan, Bishop and Pivik in 1995, and the full copy including an extensive manual is available here. Keep returning to that page because updates are made frequently, providing more information about the utility of the measure.

The questionnaire itself is a 13-item measure using a 0 – 4 Likert-type scale from 0 = “not at all” to 4 = “all the time”. Respondents are instructed to “indicate the degree to which you have these thoughts and feelings when you are experiencing pain”.

There are three subscales measuring three major dimensions of catastrophising: rumination “I can’t stop thinking about how much it hurts”; magnification “I worry that something serious may happen”; and helplessness “It’s awful and I feel that it overwhelms me”.

To score the instrument, simply sum all the responses to all 13 items, but to get a better idea of how to help a person, the subscale calculations involve the following:

Rumination: sum items 8,9,10, and 11

Magnification: sum items 6,7, and 13

Helplessness: sum items 1,2,3,4,5, and 12

There’s not a lot of point in having numbers without knowing what they mean, so the manual provides means and standard deviations relating to a population individuals with injury leading to lost time from work in Nova Scotia, Canada.

thingClinicians are typically interested in whether the person sitting in front of them is likely to have trouble managing their pain, so the manual also provides “cut off”scores for what could be described as “clinically relevant” levels of catastrophising. A total score of 30 or more is thought to represent the 75th percentile of scores obtained by individuals with chronic pain.

The “so what” question

Cutting to the chase, the question is “so what”? What difference will getting this information from someone make to my clinical reasoning?

Leaving aside the enormous body of literature showing a relationship between high levels of catastrophising and generally poor responses to traditional treatments that address pain alone (including surgery for major joint replacement, recovery from multiple orthopaedic trauma, low back pain, shoulder pain etc), I think it’s helpful to dig down into what the three subscales tell us about the person we’re working with. It’s once we understand these tendencies that we can begin to work out how our approach with someone who has high levels of rumination might differ from what we’ll do when working with someone who has high levels of helplessness.

As an aside and being upfront, I think it’s important to remember that a questionnaire score will only tell you what a person wants you to know. Questionnaires are NOT X-rays of the mind! They’re just convenient ways to ask the same questions more than once, to collect the answers and compare what this person says with the responses from a whole lot of other people, and they allow us to organise information in a way that we might not think to do otherwise.  I also think it’s really important NOT to label a person as “a catastrophiser” as if this is a choice the person has made. People will have all sorts of reasons for tending to think the way they do, and judging someone is unprofessional and unethical.


Rumination is that thing we do when a thought just won’t get out of our mind. You know the one – the ear worm, the endless round and round, especially at night, when we can’t get our mind off the things we’re worrying about. If a person has trouble with being able to drag his or her attention away, there are some useful things we can suggest. One theory about rumination is that it’s there as a sort of problem solving strategy, but one that has gone haywire.

Mindfulness can help so that people can notice their thoughts but not get hooked up into them. I like to use this both as a thought strategy, but also as a way of scanning the body and just noticing not only where the pain is experienced, but also where it is not.

“Fifteen minutes of worry” can also help – setting aside one specific time of the day (I like 7.00pm – 7.15pm) where you have to write down everything you’re worried about for a whole fifteen minutes without stopping. By also telling yourself throughout the day “I’m not worrying about this until tonight” and afterwards saying “I’ve already worried about this so I don’t need to right now”, worrying and ruminating can be contained. By being present with the thoughts during that 15 minutes, the threat value of the thought content is also reduced.


This is the tendency to think of the worst possible thing rather than the most likely outcome, and it’s common! Magnification can really increase the distress and “freeze” response to a situation. If a person is thinking of all the worst possible outcomes it’s really hard for them to focus on what is actually happening in the here and now. There’s some adaptive features to magnification – if I’ve prepared for the worst, and it doesn’t happen, then I’m in a good situation to go on, but in some people this process becomes so overwhelming that their ability to plan is stopped in its tracks.

Once again, mindfulness can be really useful here, particularly paying attention to what is actually happening in the here and now, rather than what might happen or what has happened. Mindful attention to breathing, body and thoughts can help reduce the “freeze” response, and allow some space for problem solving.

Of course, accurate information presented in nonthreatening terms and in ways the person can process is important to de-threaten the experience of pain. This is at the heart of “explain pain” approaches – and it’s useful. What’s important, however, is to directly address the main concern of the person – and it may not be the pain itself, but the beliefs about what pain will mean in terms of being a good parent, holding down a job, maintaining intimacy, being responsible and reliable. It’s crucial to find out what the person is really concerned about – and then ensure your “reassurance” is really reassuring.


Helplessness is that feeling of “there’s nothing I can do to avoid this awful outcome so I won’t do anything”. It’s a precursor to feelings of depression and certainly part of feeling overwhelmed and out of control.

When a person is feeling helpless it’s important to help them regain a sense of self efficacy, or confidence that they CAN do something to help themselves, to exert some sort of control over their situation. It might be tempting to aim for focusing on pain intensity and helping them gain control over pain intensity, but because it’s often so variable and influenced by numerous factors, it might be more useful to help the person achieve some small goals that are definitely achievable. I often begin with breathing because it’s a foundation for mindfulness, relaxation and has a direct influence over physiological arousal.

You might also begin with some exercise or daily activities that are well within the capabilities of the person you’re seeing. I like walking as a first step (no pun intended) because it doesn’t require any equipment, it’s something we all do, and it can be readily titrated to add difficulty. It’s also something that can be generalised into so many different environments. In a physiotherapy situation I’d like to see PTs consider exercises as their medium for helping a person experience a sense of achievement, of control, rather than a means to an end (ie to “fix” some sort of deficit).

To conclude
Questionnaires don’t add value until they’re USED. I think it’s unethical to administer a questionnaire without knowing what it means, without using the results, and without integrating the results into clinical reasoning. The problem is that so many questionnaires are based on psychological models and these haven’t been integrated into physiotherapy or occupational therapy clinical reasoning models. Maybe it’s time to work out how do this?

Sullivan M J L, Bishop S, Pivik J. The Pain Catastrophizing Scale: Development and validation. Psychol Assess 1995, 7: 524-532.

Main, C. J., Foster, N., & Buchbinder, R. (2010). How important are back pain beliefs and expectations for satisfactory recovery from back pain? Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 24(2), 205-217. doi:doi:10.1016/j.berh.2009.12.012

Sturgeon, J. A., Zautra, A. J., & Arewasikporn, A. (2014). A multilevel structural equation modeling analysis of vulnerabilities and resilience resources influencing affective adaptation to chronic pain. PAIN®, 155(2), 292-298. doi:


When do we need to say we’ve done enough?

This post is food for thought for both clinicians and people living with pain. It has come about because of a conversation on Facebook where some clinicians felt that people with pain are only being offered the option to “learn to live with pain” when their pain intensity could either be reduced or go completely.  And this conversation is one repeated countless times around the world when those living with persistent pain seek help for their disability and distress.

I’m going to declare my hand right now: I think a the problem in chronic pain management isn’t that people get offered “pain management” or “learning to live with pain” or “accepting pain” too often – I think it’s not happening often enough, nor soon enough. But let me unpack this a little more…

We know that in New Zealand at least one person in every six lives with chronic pain that has gone on for more than six months (Dominick, Blyth & Nicholas, 2011). We also know the seven day prevalence of low back pain in New Zealand is 35% (men) and 48% (women) (Petrie, Faasse, Crichton & Grey, 2014).

Treatments for painful conditions abound. From the simple over-the-counter approach (medication, anti-inflammatory creams, hot packs, cold packs) to hands-on therapies (massage, osteopathy, chiropractic, physiotherapy), to exercise therapies (Pilates, core strengthening, gym programmes, spin classes, walking, exercise in water), and finally to the multitude of invasive therapies (injections, neurotomies, decompression surgery, fusion). There is no shortage of treatments that aim to get rid of pain, fix the problem and get life back to normal. And for the most part these treatments provide modest improvement in both pain intensity and functional gains. For low back pain it seems there is no single wonderful treatment that works for everyone – hence the proliferation of treatments! (cos if there was a single treatment that worked, we’d all be offering it – like we do with a broken bone or appendicitis).

Here’s a question: if pain “management” (ie helping people learn to live with their pain) was the main offering to people living with pain, wouldn’t there be a heap of places to get this kind of treatment? At least in New Zealand there are relatively few pain management centres although there are many, many places to go for pain reduction.

I’ve tried to find studies looking at how people are told they have persistent pain that won’t be cured. Strangely, I have had incredible difficulty finding such studies. They may be there in the research literature – but they’re fairly uncommon and hard to find. And given how poorly low back pain guidelines are followed despite being promulgated since at least 1997, even if there were studies examining the best way to convey this news, I’d be surprised if anything was routinely incorporated into clinical practice.

So, in my opinion there are many more clinicians offering to help reduce pain than there are those offering to help people “learn how to live with pain”.

I was asked recently “when you do decide to stop pursuing pain reduction?” I think I said “it’s ultimately the decision of the person living with pain” – but it’s complicated by the way we as a culture perceive this option. I think most people would be horrified to think “I’m going to have a lifetime of living like this” when our beliefs about pain are influenced by and attitude that “pain = suffering”, “pain is unnatural”, “pain is a sign of something badly wrong”, “pain is something to get rid of”. I know when I was told “I’m sorry but there’s nothing more we can do for your pain” I was terribly upset thinking I had a lifetime of feeling awful to look forward to! I was 22 and had low back pain that would not go away after 18 months. I’m now 52 and I still have pain – but I can tell you that I have done almost everything I’ve wanted to including SCUBA diving, tramping, fishing, dancing, working full time (overtime), and parenting.

When do we begin to think about living with pain rather than curing it? I think we need to take a hard look at what this sentence means.

Firstly it means living. Life continues whether we’re feeling like we’re moving forward, or we’re putting things on hold to pursue a particular goal. Life doesn’t actually stop – but the things we want to experience, the things we want to do change over time. Our focus at the age of 22 is quite different from our focus at age 52 – and I hope it will change again at age 82! We don’t get to hit the replay button and live life all over again. We get one shot at it. This could feel quite awful if we’re contemplating a life where looking for pain relief is our primary goal – especially when that process involves an endless round of hope then despair as treatments are tried – and then don’t quite work out. Even the process of looking for treatments is slow, fraught with anxiety, and it eats up time in a week. For me, taking time out from living to pursue a treatment that may work means a process of weighing up the costs against the benefits. The costs include time, energy, emotional investment in the result, and the discomfort of the treatment itself. The benefits? Well, that depends.

The second part of that sentence is “with”. Living with pain. To me this means establishing my willingness to experience something I don’t enjoy – and believe me, I’m not a fan of pain! If all I have to look forward to is pain, pain, pain I’m not keen on doing it. BUT I am keen on living and bringing pain along with me (because frankly, my pain is coming along for the ride anyway). Living with pain to me means making room to experience pain fluctuations while doing things that bring value and meaning to my life. It means I ache – but I have a beautiful garden. I have sore legs – but I’ve been dancing. I have an aching back and neck and arms – but my house is clean. Here’s the thing: even if I didn’t work in my garden, dance or clean my house I’d STILL be sore! And I’d be bored, feel like I hadn’t achieved anything, and would have had to ask other people to help because many of those things still need doing.

The thing is, pain ≠ suffering.

When do we make a decision to stop pursuing pain reduction? Well, if I’m honest I’m still on the lookout for something that will help reduce my pain. And I think anyone who does live with persistent pain would agree that we don’t really want to have this experience, just like people who have cancer don’t want it, or diabetes or stroke or any of the myriad other chronic conditions humans are prone to getting, especially as we age. When asked, I’m sure most people with chronic pain would say “Yes” to pain reduction as a goal. BUT, and this is important, living life as fully and richly as we can is just as important.  I would bet that anyone with any of those chronic conditions would also just love to have them cured too.

But pain is a funny thing, there are myths and unhelpful beliefs coming from clinicians and our cultural norms about pain being a bad thing that must go. Compared with the beliefs and attitudes about other chronic conditions, this is unhelpful. We don’t find health professionals constantly pursuing treatments to “get rid of” diabetes, the focus is on management. And we accept that people who have cancer may choose to no longer accept treatment – and we support them by providing good hospice care. How often do people with chronic pain get (a) support to make a decision to live with their pain and (b) support to learn to do this well without feeling like second class citizens who have failed. We even have a group of clinicians calling people who haven’t responded to their treatments “failed back syndrome” as if the person’s back has failed rather than the treatment failing.

What makes me decide to pursue a new treatment that promises to reduce my pain? Well, it has to fit into my life. It can’t interfere with what’s important to me in terms of time, energy or discomfort. The odds need to be pretty good for me to even look at it – I want to see more than a single research paper showing its effectiveness. I would have to trust the clinician, and they’d have to respect me and my lifestyle and priorities. I’d want to make sure that clinician was going to stick with me and help me decide whether it’s worth doing. I’d want to see that the treatment would help me achieve my goals and priorities – otherwise I’m not really interested.

Is this because I’m weird (say yes!)? Or that I have less intense pain than other people? (nope, because you can’t compare my pain with anyone else’s, and because pain intensity ratings are strongly influenced by distress, mood, anxiety, how much pain interferes with life, attention, culture yada yada yada (Linton & Shaw, 2011). I think it’s because right now I’m too busy living, I get more joy and satisfaction from doing things that make me feel like myself. But remember I’ve been doing this since I was 22. And it’s a process. And I’m weird. I am a pain geek.

The thing is, unless clinicians promote living well with pain as an equally valid option to trying to get rid of it, people will continue to think that it’s impossible to have a really good life unless their pain is gone. And that, to me, is a tragedy, because we only have one life to live.


Dominick, C., Blyth, F., & Nicholas, M. (2011). Patterns of chronic pain in the New Zealand population. New Zealand Medical Journal, 124(1337), 63-76.

Linton, S. J., & Shaw, W. S. (2011). Impact of psychological factors in the experience of pain. Physical Therapy, 91(5), 700-711. doi:10.2522/ptj.20100330

Petrie KJ, Faasse K, Crichton F, Grey A. How Common Are Symptoms? Evidence from a New Zealand National Telephone Survey. BMJ Open. 2014;4(6). doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005374.


Clinical reasoning “think aloud”

Occupational therapists are keen on helping people return to doing the things they value – meaningful activity, or participating in valued occupations (same thing, essentially). So, a person might come to see me because they have low back pain and want to work out how to get to work.

My first step is to understand what it is about the back pain that seems to be stopping the person from doing the tasks involved in their work. I usually begin by taking a history – what does the person understand about how their back pain came on, what’s their theory as to why it’s there, what have they done to help their recovery, how are they managing the everyday things they need to do right now. I ask about sleep, sex, personal care, daily routine, and in doing so I’m finding out about the person’s beliefs and attitudes towards their pain, their ability to regulate their arousal level, their mood, their confidence, the influence of others around them (both supportive – and those more subtle influences like their response when the person does something). I’m very careful to try to understand the contexts in which the person is having trouble – and what factors in the context might be supporting change.

In my mind I’m trying to establish a set of possible reasons for this person coming to see me at this time and in this way. I’m running through the various influences I know affect a person’s ability to engage in normal daily activities. Because I have a strong psychology background, I’ll consider functional behavioural analysis, but I’m also sensitive to personal values, cultural norms, and yes, even biological factors such as strength, range of movement, and motor control.

I can try to influence two things: the demands of the tasks in the context of work, and the capabilities of the person, but I need to keep a couple of things in mind.

  1. What is the effect of my intervention in the medium to long-term, not just the short-term?
  2. What does this person need in this context right now?

Depending on my clinical formulation, and the overall theoretical model I’m using, I can approach the decision-making in many different ways. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a fan of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, so my end goal is to help this person develop the ability to respond flexibly to the demands of any situation. I want to keep in mind that what I do now can have a long-term influence on what they’ll do over time. Some occupational therapists may instead focus primarily on “what will solve the problem for this person right now” without always thinking about the long-term impact.  As a result, we can see some people with low back pain being given special seating, perhaps a new bed, some adaptive equipment so they can achieve the goal of “doing” – but at the same time, being unaware of the constraints this can put on the person being able to participate in other contexts.

For example, if my client is having trouble getting to work because he thinks his car’s seat should be fixed. If my focus was purely on helping him drive his car in comfort, I could consider assessing his car and giving him some cushioning to make it more supportive. There, problem fixed! But, let’s take a look at the effect of that intervention in the medium term. While he can drive to and from work, he’s learned that he “needs” a special seat or cushioning to help stop his discomfort. He’s also learned that his back pain is something he “shouldn’t” experience.

Based on what he’s learned from my intervention, what do you think can happen if he continues to experience back pain in the work setting?

His personal model of pain will have developed a couple of interesting quirks (and ones we often see in clients) – he’s learned that posture influences his back pain, and that there is a posture that “fixes” it. He’s learned that he should have his back in a particular position to be comfortable. He’s also learned that because he can influence his sitting position in the car, he “should” be able to influence his sitting position in other contexts – like, perhaps, his office desk or the seat in his digger. He might even, if his belief that his back “should” be in a particular position is especially strong, begin to try to keep his back in this position while doing other activities like walking or carrying things, or using tools. Most insidiously, he has learned that his back pain is something he should not have. It’s a sign to him that he has to “fix” his sitting position or he’s doing something wrong. But back pain is common, many factors influence it, and it often doesn’t settle completely.

If I instead want him to be able to respond flexibly to many different settings, I’ll need to think more carefully about my intervention. My underlying reasoning has to capture the workability of any suggestions I make – and workability not just in the car while driving, but at work, while doing other tasks, at other times.

I may work together with him to find out what it is about the pain in his back that particularly bothers him. Pain itself is usually not the problem – it’s what the pain represents, the effect on doing things both here and now, and in the future. In my client’s case, perhaps his back pain is particularly frustrating for him because he values getting to work and feeling ready for anything. He doesn’t want to feel like his goals are being blocked (he doesn’t want to feel exhausted and not ready for work), he doesn’t want his back pain, and his mind is telling him he needs to be “ready for anything” even though he is in the middle of a bout of back pain. In ACT terms, he’s avoiding the negative feeling of frustration, of potential failure, of feeling exhausted and his back pain, and he’s doing what all humans do – trying to control those emotions so that he doesn’t feel them! Makes perfect sense – except that the solution (giving him a cushion for his vehicle) could pose its own problems.

I can position my intervention in a couple of different ways. Honouring the value he places on being ready for anything at work, I can talk to him about how well that’s working for him right now, given he’s having a bout of back pain. Could he be willing to allow himself to be less “ready for anything” while he recovers from his back pain? I could also suggest that he could take the time to be present to his back pain, to be aware of and experience his back – and his feet, arms, shoulders and breath – while driving to work, so that he can notice the times when it’s really bothering him, and when it bothers him less, and that along with his back pain he also has areas of comfort and strength. I could provide him with a cushion – but ask him to think about what happens when he has to sit in other chairs, and ask about the workability of carrying a cushion wherever he goes.

The point is that while occupational therapists can help people do the things they want and need to do, some of our efforts can constrain people’s options over time. We don’t live the lives of our clients – but sometimes we can assume the client’s priority is to solve an immediate problem, while overlooking the other competing values the person also holds dear.

I’ve included some readings that have informed this blog post – while they’re not directly referenced in my post, they help inform my clinical reasoning.

Damsgard, E., Dewar, A., Roe, C., & Hamran, T. (2011). Staying active despite pain: Pain beliefs and experiences with activity-related pain in patients with chronic musculoskeletal pain. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 25(1), 108-116. doi: 10.1111/j.1471-6712.2010.00798.x

DeGood, Douglas E., & Cook, Andrew J. (2011). Psychosocial assessment: Comprehensive measures and measures specific to pain beliefs and coping. Turk, Dennis C [Ed], 67-97.

McCracken, Lance M., & Vowles, Kevin E. (2014). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Mindfulness for Chronic Pain: Model, Process, and Progress. American Psychologist, 69(2), 178-187.

Stenberg, Gunilla, Fjellman-Wiklund, Anncristine, & Ahlgren, Christina. (2014). ‘I am afraid to make the damage worse’ – fear of engaging in physical activity among patients with neck or back pain – a gender perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 28(1), 146-154. doi: 10.1111/scs.12043

Trompetter, Hester R., ten Klooster, Peter M., Schreurs, Karlein M., Fledderus, Martine, Westerhof, Gerben J., & Bohlmeijer, Ernst T. (2013). Measuring values and committed action with the Engaged Living Scale (ELS): Psychometric evaluation in a nonclinical sample and a chronic pain sample. Psychological Assessment, 25(4), 1235-1246.

van Huet, H, & Williams, D. (2007). Self-Beliefs About Pain and Occupational Performance: A Comparison of Two Measures Used in a Pain Management Program. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health Vol 27(1) Win 2007, 4-12.


“I know my pain doesn’t mean I’m damaging myself – but I still have pain”

In the excitement of helping people understand more about pain neuroscience, which I truly do support, I think it’s useful to reflect a little on the history of this approach, and how it can influence the experience people have of their pain.

If we go right back to the origins of pain self management, in the groovy 1960’s and 1970’s – the first truly significant work in chronic pain self management came from Wilbert Fordyce (Fordyce, Fowler & Delateur, 1968). Bill Fordyce was a clinical psychologist working in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. He noticed that when people were given positive reinforcement (attention, and social interaction) for “well” behaviour, and ignored or given neutral responses to reports of pain, their “up-time” or activity levels increased. Interestingly for occupational therapists, in the paper I’ve cited, occupation was used as an integral part of the programme and occupational therapy was a part of the programme (somewhat different from most clinics nowadays!)  Thus the operant conditioning model of pain behaviour and disability was first developed.

As practice progressed, clinicians began discussing the gate control theory of pain to help people understand how incredibly powerful descending pain modulation could be. Included in those discussions was the distinction between “hurt” and “harm” – that simply because something hurt, did not mean it was a sign of harm in the tissues.

As the 1980’s wore on, interdisciplinary pain management programmes became popular, with much of the work involving helping people reappraise their pain as “noise in the system”, and encouraging participants to develop strategies to increase activity levels and at the same time employ approaches to “close the gate” and thus reduce pain intensity.  I started working in pain management in the mid-1980’s when not only did I develop a patter to explain gate control, chronic pain, the relationship between the brain and what was going on in the tissues, I also started using the case formulation approach I still use today.

The key effects of this approach were pretty profound: people said to me they had never realised their pain wasn’t a fixed thing. The commonplace examples I used to explain why the relationship between their pain and what was going on in the tissues was complicated and uncertain made sense – everyone had heard of phantom pain, everyone knew of people who played rugby and didn’t feel the pain until after the game, everyone had heard of hypnosis for pain, and people also recognised that when they felt bad, so their pain felt worse but when they were busy and happy doing things, their pain was less of a problem.

I’ve attached one of the original examples of “explaining pain” to this post.simple-explanation-of-biopsychosocial-model-of-chronic-pain

Now the interesting thing is that during the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s, there was still a lot of talk about ways to abolish chronic pain. Loads of nerve cutting and burning, lots of surgical fusing and metalwork, heaps of pharmacological strategies were all the rage. People felt sure there was a way to stop all this chronic pain from appearing – and the answer was to begin early, before pain behaviour was established, before people got the wrong idea that their pain was intractable.  As a result the “yellow flags” or psychosocial risk factors for chronicity were developed by Kendall, Linton & Main (at least in NZ). This created a great flurry of ideas about how to “get people moving”, and “assess and manage yellow flags” which have subsequently flourished and become a veritable rainbow of flags.

Sadly, I haven’t seen any significant reduction in the rates of chronic pain, or rates of disability associated with chronic pain – although there do seem to be fewer people having five or six or more surgeries for their lower back pain. Instead, there’s a far greater emphasis on “explaining pain” from the beginning – a good thing, you’d think! But hold on… a recent conversation on Facebook suggests that the purpose of explaining pain may have been misconstrued, perhaps even over-interpreted…

When we begin to untangle some of the elements involved in our experience of pain, we can see that at least part of the “yuk factor” of pain lies in our appraisal or judgement of what the pain signifies. Let me give you an example – say you were walking down a dark alley and someone approached you with a loaded syringe. They stab you with the needle! What do you do? Well – probably you’d run for the nearest Emergency Department, and my bet is that you’d be well aware of the sting of the needle as it went in. Now think about the last time you got your flu jab – same stimulus, but your response is likely to be quite different. You’ll notice the sting of the needle, but it will quickly fade, and you’ll generally be calm and matter-of-fact about it. Your appraisal of the sting is quite different from what I guess you’d be thinking if you’d been stuck by a needle in a dark alleyway.

When people are asked to rate their pain intensity, at least some of the “score” given on a visual analogue scale can be attributed to the “distress” portion of the pain experience. The part that we can attribute to “what this experience signifies to me”. And this is the part that an explanation about pain can influence – and thus pain intensity ratings can and do drop once a helpful explanation is given. BUT it does not change the biological elements, nor the “attention grabbing” aspects of pain (well, maybe the latter can be a little bit changed because if we don’t think of the experience as representing a threat, we can more readily put it aside and focus on other more important things).

Why is this important? Well, in the enthusiasm to explain pain to everyone, I think sometimes the application can be a bit blunt. Sometimes it becomes an info-dump, without really taking the time to listen to what the person is most concerned about. It may not be that they think their pain represents harm – instead it may be that they’re not sleeping well, or that they’re finding it hard to concentrate at work, that they’re worried about the effect of pain on their ability to drive safely. Because quite apart from the “yuckiness” of pain, pain intensity also has an effect on cortical processing space. And an explanation of the mechanics doesn’t take away the poor sleep, the worries about work, or make it easy to drive home. And there are times when the person remains unconvinced by an explanation – or has “head knowledge” but it makes no difference to what they’re doing. From our own experience in life, we know there’s a big difference between reading about something – and actually doing it. Experiential learning trumps “head knowledge”

Do I think it’s important to explain pain neurobiology? Most of the time, yes. But we need to do this with care, compassion and sensitivity.  We need to think about why we’re doing it. And we need to recognise that for some people, explanation doesn’t change their pain intensity, it just changes their judgement about the meaning of their pain – and if their concerns are about the effect of pain on their life, then an explanation may not be the most useful thing. And most of all, we need to remember that reducing pain intensity is not really the most important outcome: doing more is probably more important.


Fordyce, Wilbert E., Fowler, Roy S., & Delateur, Barbara. (1968). An Application of Behavior Modification Technique to a Problem of Chronic Pain. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 6(1), 105-107. doi:

Okifuji, Akiko, & Turk, Dennis C. (2015). Behavioral and Cognitive–Behavioral Approaches to Treating Patients with Chronic Pain: Thinking Outside the Pill Box. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 33(3), 218-238. doi: 10.1007/s10942-015-0215-x


Dealing with distress

From time to time anyone who works with people trying to help them make changes in their lives will encounter someone who is overwhelmed, distressed and generally not willing to (or able to) take even a tiny step forward. It’s hard for us as therapists because, after all, we want to help people – but hey! This person in front of us just isn’t up to it!

I think many of us who weren’t trained in psychology can find it really hard to know what to do, and like all humans, we deal with feeling helpless by hoping to avoid it.

Some of us will tell people what to do – this is the way most of us were trained, so it’s what we do when under threat. We might couch this advice in fancy words, but essentially we try to get the person to make a change on the basis of our expertise and superior position. After all, the person came to us for help, right?

Some of us will feel stuck ourselves. Perhaps we’ll give up, or blame the person we’re sitting in front of. They’re not motivated/willing/ready so we stop trying and back off.

In both of these situations, the person’s actual needs at the time can be inadvertently ignored. They’re distressed and we either ignore and advise, or back off – when perhaps what they’re really wanting is someone to be present with them and offer them time to work together on the next best step they can take.

Here’s one way I’ve used to help people who are stuck, distressed and not certain.

  1. Be fully present and let them express what’s going on. This means listening, perhaps asking “can you tell me more about that?” or “it’s tough but are you willing to talk me through what’s going on for you right now?” or “what’s your theory on why you are feeling what you’re feeling?”
  2. Listen with an open and enquiring mind and heart. That means absorbing what they’re saying without trying to respond to it. At the most, you can reflect what you hear, perhaps saying things like “I think I understand that you’re feeling [sad, afraid, overwhelmed], do I have this right?”, or “From what you’re saying, you’re not sure [what’s going on with your rehab] and this is incredibly hard”, “if I’ve heard what you’re saying… is that what you mean?”
  3. Breathe and be mindful of your own response before charging on with the session. It’s OK to tear up if someone is saying something that would make you feel sad. It’s OK to feel aghast that this terrible thing is happening. It’s OK to notice your own body tighten up, your breathing change, not to know what to say. Just notice this in yourself BEFORE you respond. If you do feel something, respond naturally – normalise the experience described by the person as being something anyone in their shoes would feel, and reflect your own response to it. You can say things like “Oh that sounds like such a tough situation” or “I feel a bit tearful myself when I listen to what you’ve been through”, or “I really don’t know how to respond to what you’ve said, I’m lost for words, it’s really hard”.  The purpose behind doing this is to acknowledge that we’re human too, and get affected by what we hear. To be transparent and real so that the person is aware of your own readiness to “show up” and be fully present alongside them.  If you need a moment to catch your breath after they’ve told you something emotionally charged, say so.
  4. When you do respond, summarise what you’ve heard and ask them if that’s what they intended to mean. In motivational interviewing terms this can be called “giving a bouquet” – collecting together a summary of what the person has said, then offering it back to them to check you’ve understood (and it also shows them you’ve been listening).
  5. Before doing anything else, ask them “where does this leave you?” or “what do you think you should do right now?” or “what’s the next step for you now?” People have ideas about what to do next, most times, and we work more effectively with those ideas than if we try to bolt on some piece of advice without recognising their thoughts.

A couple of nice tools to use at this point are the choice point  , and the matrix by Dr Kevin Polk.

The hardest part of responding this way is often our own response. Because we feel uncomfortable, and we’re aware of timeframes, expectations, and because we probably don’t enjoy people crying or being angry in our sessions, we often don’t want to take the few moments needed to be present with someone who is in the middle of it all. Being present is about being there and not trying to change the situation, or rush away from it, or fix the problem – it’s about being willing to bear witness and honour the vulnerability that person has shown us. What a privilege!

It can be emotionally tough after a day of seeing people who are feeling distressed. I think this is where using mindfulness as I’ve described above can be really worthwhile. Noticing what our body is doing when someone is distressed can help us notice the work we do (and help explain why some of us don’t want to talk to anyone at the end of a hard day!). The odd thing is, that when we honour someone by being present and not trying to change their situation at the time, we often find the person is ready to move on and engage in therapy far more quickly than if we’d tried to “make” it happen. At least, that’s my experience!

A good clinician once told me “never be afraid of allowing someone to have a crisis, because after a crisis, shift happens”. I’ve found that to be true.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this post – I don’t have loads of references for it, but a couple that come to mind are:

Beach, Mary Catherine, Roter, Debra, Korthuis, P. Todd, Epstein, Ronald M., Sharp, Victoria, Ratanawongsa, Neda, . . . Saha, Somnath. (2013). A Multicenter Study of Physician Mindfulness and Health Care Quality. The Annals of Family Medicine, 11(5), 421-428. doi: 10.1370/afm.1507

Goubert, Liesbet, Craig, K., Vervoort, Tine, Morley, S., Sullivan, M., Williams, A., . . . Crombez, G. (2005). Facing others in pain: The effects of empathy. Pain, 118(3), 285-288. doi:

from Mahia

Words are never enough – but does that stop us?

Pain may be said to follow pleasure as its shadow; but the misfortune is that in this particular case, the substance belongs to the shadow, the emptiness to its cause. CHARLES CALEB COLTON, Lacon

I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning. HARUKI MURAKAMI, 1Q84

But pain … seems to me an insufficient reason not to embrace life. Being dead is quite painless. Pain, like time, is going to come on regardless. Question is, what glorious moments can you win from life in addition to the pain?  LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD, Barrayer

Language is not just words, but what those words symbolise. We use movements of lips, tongue and throat to produce symbols we relate to other things. We then use the relationships we learn through symbols to frame or structure our experiences – language is a “form of cooperation that builds on the social nature of humans groups and enhances a culture of eusociality in which humans thrive” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016. p. 28). What this means is that humans learn to connect concepts together through language which represents concepts only because of a shared social understanding – and in sharing this understanding we feel connected.

Why am I talking about language? Well, relational frame theory is a theory of human behaviour that helps us understand how language can exert an influence on us through the way we understand symbolic relations.We learn symbolic relationships by interacting with our world – children learn concepts of  “I – you” (that you and I are different, but that I can take your perspective by imagining I was in your place); “here-there” (that here is where I am, but there is another place – and I can move to that place); “now – then” (what is happening now will become then soon) by handling objects, ultimately understanding that the concepts only make sense within the context of “here”, or “I”, or “now”.   To be empathic, we need to learn to take the perspective of another, see and feel things from another person’s point of view, and be willing to experience those feelings (Villatte, Villattee & Hayes, p.32).

To be empathic to another’s pain, we need to take the perspective of another, to be willing to experience “what it might feel like” from the other person’s shoes.

Why are symbolic relations important?

In Christchurch, as many people know, over the past five years we have been through over 10,000 earthquakes of more than 3 on the Richter Scale. The thought of having an earthquake, to someone raised in NZ, is a distinct possibility. We have small ones all the time. Then in September 2010 we had the first big earthquake. It happened in the middle of the night (early morning), when all was dark, and it was violent! Later that day we had many aftershocks, and I can remember my heart pounding and feeling anxious in the aftermath. What has happened since, though, is that I’ve learned to associate the word “earthquake” with a whole lot of concepts – a rumbling noise from a truck driving past, the deep rumble of earthworks, EQC (our national insurer), road cones, detours, heritage buildings being knocked down, having no water or power. I keep a look out for exits, I brace at the rumble of a truck, one of the topics of conversation is “how is your house” and I remember the fatigue of constant aftershocks in the middle of the night.

Learning the associations (symbolic relations) between the experience at the time of an earthquake and all these other things such as words, movements, actions and emotions means that as a person living in Christchurch, the word “earthquake” and the sight of road cones and the rumble of a truck have all gained additional meaning or salience to me.

Simply by remembering a particular day (for us it was September 22, 2011), or by looking at a road cone, or diggers operating in a trench in a road, I have emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses. This is the power of a symbol, once learned.

And once learned, that association will never be unlearned – I will always remember that trucks rumbling by sound a lot like the start of an earthquake, and I will probably always have a quick little bracing response that I may not even notice (but hitch me up to biofeedback and I’ll be skin conductance will be increased).

What does this have to do with pain?

In the same way that I learned about earthquakes being associated with a whole bunch of things that hadn’t been connected before September 2010, from the time we are born we develop associations between our experiences of pain and other things including language.

For the most part we learn that pain is associated with something not so good happening to our body. We learn that it’s something we don’t really want to experience, and so we try to avoid it (mainly). We learn words that are associated with that experience – “ouch!”, “hurt”, “painful”, “ache”. We also develop emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses to this experience. We learn that certain movements bring pain on, while others alleviate it; we learn that some people respond with sympathy to our words or movements while others don’t respond.

The thing about symbolic relations is that “the simplest act of remembering by using names and symbols … means that anytime, anywhere, we can remember past painful or difficult events based on a few cues…the past can become present through symbolic relations” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 33). While nonhuman animals can become fearful in situations that are similar to those they’ve felt threatened in, humans can experience the same emotions and responses even when a word is spoken – like earthquake for me brings on a heightened awareness of how vulnerable I am when the ground shakes.

What this learned association means is that for all humans, there are many cues that will elicit the same response as the actual event. And given the ubiquity of pain and the words we use to describe pain – and the associations we develop since we’ve been children – it’s no wonder that changing some of the more unhelpful associations and responses we have to the experience is a challenge.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about relational frame theory and how this theory can help us understand why words can be used to help – and harm – and how to implement useful verbal strategies in sessions to help our clients see their pain from a different frame.

Villatte, M., Viullatte, J., & Hayes, S. (2016). Mastering the clinical conversation: Language as intervention. The Guilford Press: New York. ISBN: 9781462523061


Ambiguity and uncertainty

Humans vary in how comfortable we are with uncertainty or ambiguity: Tolerance of ambiguity is a construct discussed in cognitive and experimental research literature, and refers to the willingness to prefer black and white situations, where “there is an aversive reaction to ambiguous situations because the lack of information makes it difficult to assess risk and correctly make a decision. These situations are perceived as a threat and source of discomfort. Reactions to the perceived threat are stress, avoidance, delay, suppression, or denial” (Furnham & Marks, 2013, p. 718).  Tolerance to uncertainty is often discussed in relation to response to stress and emotions associated with being in an ambiguous situation, or it may refer to a future-oriented trait where an individual is responding to an ambiguous situation in the present. Suffice to say, for some individuals the need to be certain and clear means they find it very difficult to be in situations where multiple outcomes are possible and where information is messy. As a result, they find ways to counter the unease, ranging from avoiding making a decision to authoritatively dictating what “should” be done (or not done).

How does this affect us in a clinical setting? Well, both parties in this setting can have varying degrees of comfort with ambiguity.

Our clients may find it difficult to deal with not knowing their diagnosis, the cause of their painful experience, the time-frame of its resolution, and managing the myriad uncertainties that occur when routines are disrupted by the unexpected. For example, workers from the UK were interviewed about their unemployment as a result of low back pain. Uncertainty (both physical and financial) was given as one of the major themes from interviews of their experience of unemployment (Patel, Greasley, Watson, 2007).  Annika Lillrank, in a study from 2003, found that resolving diagnostic uncertainty was a critical point in the trajectory of those living with low back pain (Lillrank, 2003).

But it’s not just clients who find it hard to deal with uncertainty – clinicians do too. Slade, Molloy and Keating (2011) found that physiotherapists believe patients want a clear diagnosis but feel challenged when they’re faced with diagnostic uncertainty. What then happens is a temptation to be critical of the patients if they fail to improve, to seek support from other more senior colleagues, and end up feeling unprepared by their training to deal with this common situation. The response to uncertainty, at least in this study, was for clinicians to “educate” care-seekers about their injury/diagnosis despite diagnostic uncertainty (my italics), and a strong desire to see rapid improvements, and tend to attribute lack of progress to the client when either the client doesn’t want “education” or fails to improve (Slade, Molloy & Keating, 2003).

Physiotherapists are not alone in this tendency: There is a large body of literature discussing so-called “medically unexplained diseases” which, naturally, include chronic pain disorders. For example Bekkelund and Salvesen (2006) found that more referrals were made to neurologists when the clinician felt uncertain about a diagnosis of migraine. GP’s, in a study by Rosser (1996) were more likely to refer to specialists in part because they were uncertain – while specialists, dealing as they do with a narrower range of symptoms and body systems, deal with less diagnostic uncertainty. Surprisingly, despite the difference in degree of uncertainty, GP’s order fewer tests and procedures yet often produce identical outcomes!

How do we manage uncertainty and ambiguity?

Some of us will want to apply subtypes, groupings, algorithms – means of controlling the degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in our clinical practice. Some of the findings from various tests (eg palpation or tender point examination) are used as reasons for following a certain clinical rule of thumb. In physiotherapy, medicine and to a certain extent my own field of occupational therapy, there is a tendency to “see nails because all I have is a hammer” in an attempt to fit a client into a certain clinical rule or process. We see endless publications identifying “subtypes” and various ways to cut down the uncertainty within our field, particularly with respect to low back pain where we really are dealing with uncertainty.

Some of these subgroupings may appear effective – I remember the enthusiasm for leg length discrepancies, muscle “imbalance”, and more recently neutral spine and core stability – because for some people these approaches were helpful! Over time, the enthusiasm has waned.

Others of us apply what we could call an eclectic approach – a bit of this, a bit of that, something I like to do, something that I just learned – and yes, even some of these approaches seem to work.

My concern is twofold. (1) What is the clinical reasoning behind adopting either a rule-governed algorithm or subtyping approach or an eclectic approach? Why use X instead of Y? And are we reasoning after the fact to justify our approach? (2) What do we do if it doesn’t work? Where does that leave us? As Slade, Molloy & Keating (2003), do we begin blaming the patient when our hammer fails to find a nail?

I’ve long advocated working to generate multiple hypotheses to explain how and why a person is presenting in this way at this time. It’s a case formulation approach where, collaborating with the person and informed by broad assessment across multiple domains that are known to be associated with pain, a set of possible explanations (hypotheses) are generated. Then we systematically test these either through further clinical assessment, or by virtue of providing an intervention and carefully monitoring the outcome. This approach doesn’t resolve uncertainty – but it does allow for some time to de-bias our clinical reasoning, it involves the client in sorting out what might be going on, it means we have more than one way to approach the problem (the one the client identifies, not just our own!), and it means we have some way of holding all this ambiguous and uncertain information in place so we can see what’s going on. I know case formulations are imperfect, and they don’t solve anything in themselves (see Delle-Vergini & Day (2016) for a recent review of case formulation in forensic practice – not too different from ordinary clinical practice in musculoskeletal management IMHO) . What they do is provide a systematic process to follow that can incorporate uncertainty without needing a clinician to jump to conclusions.

I’d love your thoughts on managing uncertainty as a clinician in your daily practice. How do you deal with it? Is there room for uncertainty and ambiguity? What would happen if we could sit with this uncertainty without jumping in to treat for just a little longer? Could mindfulness be useful? What if you’re someone who experiences a great deal of empathy for people who distressed – can you sit with not knowing while in the presence of someone who is hurting?


Bekkelund, S., & Salvesen, R. (2006). Is uncertain diagnosis a more frequent reason for referring migraine patients to neurologist than other headache syndromes? European Journal of Neurology, 13(12), 1370-1373. doi:
Delle-Vergini, V., & Day, A. (2016). Case formulation in forensic practice: Challenges and opportunities. The Journal of Forensic Practice, 18(3), null. doi:doi:10.1108/JFP-01-2016-0005
Furnham, A., & Marks, J. (2013). Tolerance of ambiguity: A review of the recent literature. Psychology, Vol.04No.09, 12. doi:10.4236/psych.2013.49102
Lillrank, A. (2003). Back pain and the resolution of diagnostic uncertainty in illness narratives. Social Science & Medicine, 57(6), 1045-1054. doi:
Patel, S., Greasley, K., Watson, P. J. (2007). Barriers to rehabilitation and return to work for unemployed chronic pain patients: A qualitative study. European Journal of Pain: Ejp, 11(8), 831-840.
Rosser, W. W. (1996). Approach to diagnosis by primary care clinicians and specialists: Is there a difference? Journal of Family Practice, 42(2), 139-144.
Slade, S. C., Molloy, E., & Keating, J. L. (2012). The dilemma of diagnostic uncertainty when treating people with chronic low back pain: A qualitative study. Clinical Rehabilitation, 26(6), 558-569. doi:10.1177/0269215511420179