This post has been a long time coming. There’s no doubt that giving explanations about pain mechanisms is common, and that we’ve (health professionals) been doing it a looooong time. Yes, way back to the 1970’s! In the early 1980’s when I started working in this field it was already commonplace to offer people an explanation for chronic pain (and to explain why some pains are such pains, while others bother us less – even when they involve the same degree of nociceptive input). Of course, way back then we used Gate Control Theory (GCT) to explain the distinction between hurt and harm, to explore why attention and emotion matter, and to introduce the idea of counter-stimulation and TENS: suffice to say clinicians used these metaphors especially for people with persistent pain (Katz & Rosenbloom, 2015).
Then along came Moseley, Nicholas and Hodges (2004) with a nicely-designed RCT comparing “pain neurophysiology” education with “back anatomy and physiology” provided by “trained physical therapist educators.” The results of this study showed “Education about pain neurophysiology changes pain cognitions and physical performance but is insufficient by itself to obtain a change in perceived disability.” Somehow the lack of relationship between changes in pain cognitions and physical performance and perceived disability got lost in translation, but what happened next was an explosion of interest in the effects of providing explanations about pain mechanisms.
Today, the old adage “if you have a hammer, all you see are nails” seems to apply when it comes to “pain mechanism explanations.” Everyone gets an explanation, many of the explanations are exactly the same (sometimes down to the same book being used), and I wonder how people with pain feel about this. Like the way we feel at the end of Christmas Day feasting – noooooo! not another mouthful!
Recently I was asked “how much pain ed do people need?” and my first thought was “it depends.” That’s my answer to most things in pain! Suffice to say, I think we need sound clinical reasoning before we launch into any intervention, and this means we need to understand the rationale for giving someone a pain mechanisms explanation. This post attempts to shed some light on when it might be useful.
One reason given for “educating” people (please, no! “educating” someone sounds so like an info-dump, and focuses us on what WE do, rather than on the EFFECT this information is intended to have) – one reason is to reduce pain intensity. Education, however, doesn’t have an incredibly powerful action on my pain when I burn myself doing silversmithing. The effect of information on pain may be via appraisal: if I think my pain is not a direct measure of tissue damage, then I might not be as distressed by it (and indeed, this is one of the effects identified in the Moseley, et al., 2004 study – changes in the Survey of Pain Attitudes and the Pain Catastrophising Scale showing reduced catastrophising brought about by recognising that hurt isn’t equal to harm).
As a result of not being as distressed, a person doesn’t have to communicate their fear through a number on a 0 – 100mm VAS. Because remember, we don’t have a pure measure of pain intensity and the VAS is a communication device. Pain behaviour, or what we do about our pain, is at least partly about communicating to others (Hadjistavropoulos et al., 2011; Lackner & Gurtmann, 2004) – and we all know we’d never get prescribed analgesia in an Emergency Dept with 30mm pain on a 0 – 100mm VAS!
Similarly, if we’re not as afraid of what pain means, we’re less likely to be worried about moving – so I wasn’t at all surprised to see the changes in straight leg raising and other physical performance measures. I also wasn’t surprised to see no change to perceived disability because doing functional activities in the real world is a whole lot more scary than in a controlled, supervised clinical setting. Remember this, folks, when you’re prescribing movement practices: they do not directly transfer into confidence and performance in daily life!
So if giving an explanation is about reducing distress, maybe it’s also about reducing uncertainty. Zaman and colleagues (2021) found that uncertainty hasn’t been studied as much as I’d hope and worse, it’s often studied in experimental settings where there is certainty that the pain will end, and this in turn is quite unlike me and my fibromyalgia pain which is both unpredictable and not controllable. There’s no doubt that helping someone understand that their pain isn’t a dread disease (cancer, some weird inflammatory disease, a nasty neurological – oh wait, it IS a nasty neurological thing…!) will likely reduce their distress, and might even reduce uncertainty – because at least we know what it’s not! But uncertainty remains with persistent pain because no-one knows when/if it will end, often we don’t know why it gets set off, and we clearly don’t have a handle on why it goes on and flares.
It makes sense, then, to consider pain mechanism explanations when a person 1) is not sure what it all means, 2) worries that it’s something nasty, and 3) thinks it’s both a direct reflection of what has happened to their tissues and 4) that they personally can’t do much about it.
We might also think of giving someone some information about their pain if we want to help them understand why we might be trying something like mindfulness, relaxation, stress management, or even normal movement. We can employ the little we know about cortical processes and descending inhibition, and polyvagal theory and sympathethic arousal, as well as physiological responses to movement/exercise to explain the rationale for these interventions if we so choose.
BUT we don’t have to all the time. Why? Because we can do these things anyway and help the person explore their responses in vivo! This may be more powerful than giving any kind of ham-fisted explanation, whether it be a cookie cutter one, or a tailor-made metaphor.
A few posts ago, I wrote about McCracken and Scott’s (2022) paper exploring the potential problems of making sense. This showed that sense-making can impede a person’s readiness to engage in therapy if their desire to make sense means they reject explanations that don’t fit with their understanding or when they overthink what the explanations mean. In these instances, it makes much more sense for us (see what I did then?) to help them begin to do what matters in their life than continue looking for explanations.
My guidelines for working through “pain mechanisms”?
- If the person is a geek and likes to delve into learning about their body and responses – go for it! (ie, people like me :-))
- If the person asks for information, or has questions about specific aspects of their pain or treatment
- As part of generating a case formulation, where the person and you collaborate to develop a model of what’s going on for them. As a clinician you’ll be using guided discovery to work out the processes that occur in predictable patterns, and these patterns in turn can become the focus of where and how you might interrupt them.
- After asking the person for their understanding, and there’s something in their version that’s unhelpful for their progress. For example, if the person tells you that they think a scan will uncover “the real reason” for their pain, or if they’ve taken on board an unhelpful belief that their joints are grinding bone on bone… you know the sort of thing. After asking permission to explore these thoughts/beliefs, you might find it OK to offer an alternative – but if it’s not getting in the way of them engaging in therapy, then just go along with it and use guided discovery instead.
What to do instead of explaining mechanisms?
- Focus on helping the person move towards what matters in their life, even if it doesn’t always make sense to the person. Use their experiences to guide their understanding, it’s far more powerful than any kind of external “truth”.
- Use guided discovery, drawing from their own experiences and asking them to reflect on the effect of what they do and know on their experience. For example, ask the person what it’s like when they’ve been worrying about what’s going on in their OA knee, what do they notice about their overall stress level, what does that do to their pain, what effect might that worry have on sleep or fatigue and how this might influence their pain and doing what matters.
- Offer skills to help deal with uncertainty and worries such as mindfulness (but OMG not to reduce pain, puhleaze!), attention management, and cognitive defusion.
- Always draw a connection between what you explain and what this means clinically. For example, if you want to discuss nociplastic mechanisms, what this might mean is a tendency for “normal” injuries or tissue disruption pain to hang around a lot longer. It might also mean pain spreads out a bit more. It can help explain why many medications are ineffective. And it’s useful when another clinician has suggested that because “there’s nothing on your scan, therefore there’s nothing wrong.” But tread lightly because there is SO much we do not know!
I like to draw on the principles of motivational interviewing in my work with people. Respecting their autonomy and right to decide means I need to ask permission before I give information to them. I need to have a clear clinical reason for doing so – and this isn’t “because it reduces pain” – it needs to have specific indications for this person. Understanding how and why “pain education” can be helpful is critical, and always remembering that knowing “about” something doesn’t mean it changes behaviour. I’m still not keen on spiders even though I know we have no poisonous ones here in Aotearoa, and I’m much bigger than them!
Katz, J., & Rosenbloom, B. N. (2015). The golden anniversary of Melzack and Wall’s gate control theory of pain: Celebrating 50 years of pain research and management. Pain Research & Management: The Journal of the Canadian Pain Society, 20(6), 285-286.
Hadjistavropoulos, T., Craig, K. D., Duck, S., Cano, A., Goubert, L., Jackson, P. L., Mogil, J. S., Rainville, P., Sullivan, M. J., de C. Williams, A. C., Vervoort, T., & Fitzgerald, T. D. (2011). A Biopsychosocial Formulation of Pain Communication. Psychological Bulletin, 137(6), 910-939. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023876
Lackner, J. M., & Gurtman, M. B. (2004). Pain catastrophizing and interpersonal problems: a circumplex analysis of the communal coping model. Pain, 110(3), 597-604. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2004.04.011
McCracken, L. M., & Scott, W. (2022). Potential Misfortunes in ‘Making Sense’: A Cross-sectional Study in People with Chronic Pain. J Pain. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2022.09.008
Moseley, G. L., Nicholas, M. K., & Hodges, P. W. (2004). A randomized controlled trial of intensive neurophysiology education in chronic low back pain. Clinical Journal of Pain, 20(5), 324-330.
Zaman, J., Van Oudenhove, L., & Vlaeyen, J. W. S. (2021). Uncertainty in a context of pain: disliked but also more painful? Pain, 162(4), 995-998. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002106