The “Subjective” – and really hearing

I’m not a physiotherapist. This means I don’t follow the SOAP format because it doesn’t suit me. The first letter is intended to represent “subjective” – and when I look up the dictionary meaning of subjective and compare it with the way “subjective” notes are thought about, I think we have a problem, Houston.

Subjective is meant to mean “based on personal feelings” or more generally “what the person says”. In the case of our experience of pain, we only have our personal feelings to go on. That is, we can’t use an image or X-ray or fMRI or blood test to decide whether someone is or isn’t experiencing pain.

Now the reason I don’t like the term “subjective” when it’s part of a clinical examination is that so often we contrast this section with so-called “objective” findings.  Objective is meant to mean “not influenced by personal feelings”, and is intended to represent “facts” or “the truth”. Problem is… how we determine truth.

Let’s think about how the information we obtain fits with these two ideals, and how we use it.

Subjective information is all the things we ask a person about – their thoughts, beliefs, feelings, understanding and their own experience. Subjective information might even include the person’s report of what they can and can’t do, how they feel about this and what their goals are.

Objective information, on the other hand, is all the things we as clinicians observe and measure. Now here’s my problem. By calling this information “objective” we’re indicating that we as clinicians hold a less-than-subjective view of what we see. Now is that true? Let’s think about the tests we use (reliability, validity anyone?). Think about the choices we make when selecting those tests (personal bias, training variability, clinical model…). Think about the performance variables on the day we do the testing (time of day, equipment and instruction variability, observational awareness, distractions, recording – oh and interpretation).

Now think about how that information is used. What value is placed on the objective information? It’s like a record of what actually was at the time. If you don’t believe me, take a look at what’s reported in medico-legal reporting – and what gets taken notice of. The subjective information is often either overlooked – or used to justify that the client is wrong, and what they can actually do is contained in the “objective”.

Given the predictive validity of a person’s expectations, beliefs and understanding on their pain and disability over time, I think the label “subjective” needs an overhaul. I think it’s far more accurate to call this “Personal experience”, or to remove the two labels completely and call it “assessment”. Let’s not value our own world view over that of the people we are listening to.

How do we really hear what someone’s saying? Well, that’s a hard one but I think it begins with an attitude. That attitude is one of curiosity. You see, I don’t believe that people deliberately make dumb decisions. I think people make the best decisions they can, given the information they have at the time. The choices a person makes are usually based on anticipating the results and believing that this option will work out, at least once. So, for example, if someone finds that bending forwards hurts – doesn’t it make sense not to bend over if you’re worried that (a) it’s going to hurt and (b) something dire is happening to make it hurt? In the short term, at least, it does make sense – but over time, the results are less useful.

Our job, as clinicians, is to find out the basis for this behaviour, and to help the person consider some alternatives. I think one of the best ways to do this is to use guided discovery, or Socratic questioning to help both me and the client work out why they’ve ended up doing something that isn’t working out so well now, in the long term. I recorded a video for the Facebook group Trust Me, I’m a Physiotherapist (go here for the video) where I talk about Socratic questioning and Motivational Interviewing – the idea is to really respect the person’s own experience, and to guide him or her to discover something about that experience that perhaps they hadn’t noticed before. To shed a little light on an assumption, or to check out the experience in light of new knowledge.

Learning Socratic questioning can be tricky at first (Waltman, Hall, McFarr, Beck & Creed, 2017). We’re not usually trained to ask questions unless we already know the answer and where we’re going with it. We’re also used to telling people things rather than guiding them to discover for themselves. Video recording can be a useful approach (see Gonsalvez, Brockman & Hill, 2016) for more information on two techniques. It’s one of the most powerful ways to learn about what you’re actually doing in-session (and it’s a bit ewwww at first too!).

We also really need to watch that we’re not guiding the person to discover what we THINK is going on, rather than being prepared to be led by the client as, together, we make sense of their experience. It does take a little time, and it does mean we go at the pace of the person – and we have to work hard at reflecting back what it is we hear.

So, “subjective” information needs, I think, to be valued far more highly than it is. It needs to be integrated into our clinical reasoning – what the person says and what we discover together should influence how we work in therapy. And we might need to place a little less reliance on “objective” information, because it’s filtered through our own perspective (and other people may take it more seriously than they should).


Gonsalvez, C. J., Brockman, R., & Hill, H. R. (2016). Video feedback in CBT supervision: review and illustration of two specific techniques. Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 9.
Kazantzis, N., Fairburn, C. G., Padesky, C. A., Reinecke, M., & Teesson, M. (2014). Unresolved issues regarding the research and practice of cognitive behavior therapy: The case of guided discovery using Socratic questioning. Behaviour Change, 31(01), 1-17.
Waltman, S., Hall, B. C., McFarr, L. M., Beck, A. T., & Creed, T. A. (2017). In-Session Stuck Points and Pitfalls of Community Clinicians Learning CBT: Qualitative Investigation. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 24(2), 256-267.

What difference does it make to know about psychosocial risk factors?

The “psychosocial yellow flags” or risk factors for developing ongoing disability after a bout of acute low back pain have been promulgated in New Zealand since 1997. Introduced as part of the Acute Low Back Pain Guidelines, the yellow flags were lauded both locally and internationally and subsequently there have been many international guidelines which have adopted this kind of integration. But what exactly do we do with that information? How does it help if we find out that someone is really afraid their pain means something awful, or if they fear their life will never be the same again, or if they truly worry about doing movements that provoke their pain?

Truth to tell, although there have been a lot of studies examining the relevance of psychosocial risk factors, the uptake among clinicians has been fairly abysmal. This is particularly so among clinicians who work either mainly with acute musculoskeletal pain, or amongst those who are mainly involved in treated the body. One physio I know said she got the impression during her training that psychosocial factors “are the things we can blame when our treatments don’t work”.

I think part of the problem is the focus on assessment “technology”. There is a proliferation of questionnaires that can be used to help spot the person who’s likely to have difficulty recovering. We have STartBack, Orebro Musculoskeletal Questionnaire, Pain Catastrophising Scale, Tampa Scale of Kinesiophobia, Depression Anxiety Stress Scale, Pain Self Efficacy Scale – most of which are known by their abbreviations, so it’s like an alphabet soup! But despite knowing about these questionnaires, and perhaps even administering them to people we think might need assessment, once the results come in it’s pretty difficult to know what to do next.

So what if a person reports really high levels of catastrophising? Or that they’re very high on the Fear of Injury/Reinjury on the TSK? Or that they have the lowest ever score on the PSEQ? What on earth do you do to make an impact?

Some people are very actively engaged in “Pain Education”. It’s given to absolutely everyone because “the evidence says” it “works”. Pain reduces. People get engaged in their exercise. Life returns to normal.

Some people refer immediately on to a psychologist. Let them deal with the “difficult” patients.

Others just carry on as normal but in the back of their mind have the “out” that “Oh but they have yellow flags” – and drop their expectations accordingly.

To me that’s just not good enough, and it suggests to me that we need to learn more about what these measures mean – and what to do differently as a result.

There’s a couple of problems though:

  1. How do we choose who to give a questionnaire to? – do we rely on “intuition” or do we give them out to everyone?
  2. Which questionnaires do we use? There’s no “gold standard” – just a mix of various measures that tap into part of the picture…
  3. How much do we rely on strong RCT’s examining whole treatment packages, versus how much do we rely on principles of behaviour change and knowledge of the underlying theories relevant to pain and disability?
  4. What if our clinical reasoning models are completely silent on the work involved in supporting people who present with these risk factors – what if our clinical reasoning models suggest that this work is not all that important compared with the “real” work of tissues and muscles and movement?

Here are my thoughts on what we can do.

I think we should give screening questionnaires to everyone who comes in with an acute bout of musculoskeletal pain, and I think there are a couple that really work well – Orebro is clearly one of them, PCS or PASS are both useful, and I think it’s helpful to screen for mood problems. Why do I think everyone needs these? Well, it’s easier to give them to everyone than to rely on our terribly inaccurate intuition. The risk of failing to identify someone who needs more support is high (and the consequences of omitting this is serious). By routinely administering screening measures we can de-stigmatise the process (though there shouldn’t be any stigma associated with understanding that pain involves the whole person!). We can make the administration easy by integrating it within routine clinic entry process – and by using electronic forms of each questionnaire we can make entering and scoring them easy.

We then need to learn what the questionnaires actually measure – not just the total score, but the subscales as well. Then we need to use those subscale scores to understand what we need to ask the person when we see them face-to-face. This helps us begin to understand the person and how they came to develop these beliefs and attitudes, and in doing so we can develop greater empathy for their experience – and alter our treatments to reflect their needs.

For management, I think we have to, at this stage, step beyond the RCT for evidence. There’s a few reasons for this: one is that RCTs naturally omit individual responses to the treatment meaning we lost the detail as to who responds to which aspect of the treatment. Another is that RCTs often group patients together to ensure power is reached – but in doing this, omit important individual differences. And finally, each person we see is a unique individual with a unique interaction between the various factors influencing their presentation – and there are simply insufficient RCTs to account for these differences. Does this mean we stop using evidence? Oh no!! It just means we need to look at the principles behind many treatments – what are the guiding principles and why might they apply to this person at this time? Finally we need to monitor outcomes so we can establish whether our approach actually helped.

Finally, I think our clinical reasoning models need to include important aspects of treatment that we vary, often without being aware that we do.

For example, if we see someone who scores very high on the PCS and tends to ruminate or brood on the negative, we can’t go ahead and give that person the same set of exercises or activities we’d give someone who is quite confident. We’ll need to lower the physical demands, give really good explanations, take the time to explain and de-threaten various sensations the person may experience, we’ll probably need to move slowly through the progressions, and we’ll definitely need to take time to debrief and track progress.

These “invisible” aspects of treatment are, I think, often the most important parts – but they’re often not mentioned in clinical protocols, and perhaps our skill in titrating the challenges we give our patients is not well developed. These factors incorporate psychological techniques of behaviour change – things like reinforcement, motivational interviewing, problem solving, Socratic questioning, how to fade support, how to bolster confidence, how to vary the environment, and how to avoid pliance and tracking (or going along with things rather than truly integrating the learning). If we want to work with people and help them change their lives, we need to learn how people change behaviour. That means, I’m afraid, learning some psychology…!

… a little more about Pain Catastrophising subscales

I’ve been writing about the Pain Catastrophising Scale and how to use this instrument in clinical practice these last two posts here and here because the construct of catastrophising (thinking the worst) has become one of the most useful to help identify people who may have more distress and disability when dealing with pain. Today I want to continue with this discussion, but looking this time at a large new study where the subscales magnification, rumination and hopelessness have been examined separately to understand their individual impact on pain severity and disability.

Craner, Gilliam and Sperry looked at the results of 844 patients with chronic pain prior to taking part in a group programme (a heterogeous sample, rather than a single diagnosis, so this group probably look at lot like those admitted to high intensity tertiary chronic pain management services such as Burwood Pain Management Centre here in Christchurch).  Most of the participants were female, European/white and married, and had chronic pain for an average of 10.7 years. Just over half were using opioid medication to manage their pain.

Along with the PCS, participants also completed some very common measures of disability (Westhaven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory – MPI) and quality of life (SF-36), and the CES-D which is a measure of depression.

Now here comes some statistical analysis: multiple hierarchical regression! Age, sex, duration of pain and use of opioids were entered into the equation and found to account for only 2.0% variance of the pain severity subscale of the MPI – but once the PCS was added in (subscales entered separately) an additional 14% of the variance was accounted for, but the helplessness subscale was the only one to contribute significantly to the overall variance.

When Pain Interference was  entered as the dependent variable, all the same demographic variables as above contributed a meagre 1.2% of the variance, but when the Pain Severity subscale scores were added, 25.5% of the variance was explained – while the combined PCS subscales contributed 6.5% of the variance. Again, helplessness was the only subscale to contribute to Pain Interference.

Moving to quality of life – the physical subscale of the SF-36 was used as the dependent variable, and once again the demographic variables accounted for only 1.5% variance in physical QOL, with Pain Severity accounting for 23%. PCS subscales contributed only 2.6% of the variance, with only the magnification subscale being identified as a unique contributor. When the mental health subscale was used, again demographics only accounted for 1.2% of variance, with pain severity accounting for 12.4% of the variance. This time, however, the PCS subscales contributed 19.5% of the variance with both Magnification and Helplessness contributing to the variance.

Finally, examining depression, demographics contributed a small amount of variance (3.3%), with pain severity additing 9.8% of variance. The PCS subscales were then entered and contributed a total of 21% to the prediction of depression with both Magnification and Helplessness contributing to the overall depression variance.

The so what factor

What does this actually mean in clinical practice? Well first of all this is a large group of patients, so we can draw some conclusions from the calculations – but we need to be a little cautious because these participants are a group who have managed to get into a tertiary pain management facility. They’re also a group with a large percentage using opioids, and they were pretty much all European – and from North America, not New Zealand. I’m not sure they look like the people who might commonly come into a community-based facility, or one where they’d be referred directly from a GP or primary care centre.

At the same time, while this group may not look like the people most commonly seen for pain management, they share some similar characteristics – they tend to magnify the “awfulness” of pain, and then feel helpless when their pain is bothering them. Surprisingly, I thought, ruminating or brooding on pain wasn’t a unique contributor and instead the helplessness scale contributed the most to pain severity, pain-related interference (disability associated with pain), poor mental health quality of life, and low mood, while magnification scale contributed to poorer physical health quality of life, mental health quality of life and low mood.

What this means for practice

The authors suggest that the construct measured by the helplessness subscale might be a factor underlying poor adaptation to life’s difficulties in general, leading to passivity and negative emotions. They also suggest that magnification might be a unique contributor to perceiving obstacles to doing the things we need to do every day, while hopelessness might mean people are less likely to participate in enjoyable activities and then in turn contribute to feeling low.

Importantly, the authors state: “We offer that simply collapsing the 3 dimensions of this phenomenon (ie, rumination, magnification, helplessness) may actually conceal nuanced relationships between specific dimensions of catastrophizing and outcomes that would might inform treatment approaches.” Looking at the overall scores without thinking about the subscales is going to give you less information to use for individualising your treatment.

In a clinical setting I’d be reviewing the individual subscales of the PCS alongside both disability and mood measures to see if the suggested relationships exist in the scores this person has given.

I’d be taking a look at the repertoire of coping strategies the person can identify – and more, I’d be looking at how flexibly they apply these strategies. Extending the range of strategies a person can use, and problem-solving ways to use these strategies in different activities and contexts is an important part of therapy, particularly occupational therapy and physiotherapy. Another approach you might consider is helping people return to enjoyable activities that are within their tolerance right here, right now. By building confidence that it’s possible to return to things that are fun we might counter the effects of helplessness, and help put pain back where it belongs – an experience that we can choose to respond to, or not.

I’d also be taking a look at their tendency to avoid feeling what their pain feels like, in other words I’d like to see if the person can mindfully and without judging, complete a body scan that includes the areas that are painful. This approach is intended to help people notice that alongside the painful areas are other nonpainful ones, and that they can successfully be with their pain and make room for their pain rather than attempting to block it out, or over-attend to it. The way mindfulness might work is by allowing people to experience the sensations without the judgement that the experience is bad, or indicates some terrible catastrophe. It allows people to step back from the immediate reaction “OMG that’s BAD” and to instead take time to view it as it actually is, without the emotional halo around it.

Pain catastrophising is a useful construct – but I think we need to become more nuanced in how we use the scores from the questionnaire.

Craner, J. R., Gilliam, W. P., & Sperry, J. A. (2016). Rumination, magnification, and helplessness: How do different aspects of pain catastrophizing relate to pain severity and functioning? Clinical Journal of Pain, 32(12), 1028-1035.

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.

Guide, don’t instruct: how we talk within sessions

Do you remember your favourite teacher in school? Mine was Mrs Jackson, teacher of my Form 2 class (I think I was 12 years old). She was an outstanding teacher because she expected that we’d do well. She also didn’t tell us what to do – she helped us explore. And if there was one thing I’d like to have happen in therapy sessions with clients, it would be that we learn how to guide instead of instructing.

It’s only recently that I’ve learned why guiding and facilitating is so much more helpful than telling or instructing, and yes it’s because I’ve been reading Villatte, Villatte & Hayes Mastering the Clinical Conversation.

Have you ever noticed that when we give an instruction like “Sit up straight” or “Use your core” our clients attend to how well they’re doing just that – sitting up straight, or using the core – and at the very same time, they no longer attend to other aspects of their movement (or the context, or even the purpose of the movement). It’s a human tendency to focus on a particular set of features of our environment – and it certainly helps us cognitively because it means we don’t have to attend to everything all at once. BUT at the same time, it means we become relatively insensitive to other features occurring at the same time.

Rules or instructions have their place, or they wouldn’t still be being used in therapy – but their utility depends on how rigidly they’re applied. It makes sense for a super athlete to really focus on certain aspects of their performance, especially when they’re training, and especially when there’s one particular set of movements that will maximise their performance. For people living with pain, however, life is not about a set of performance goals. Instead, it’s about being able to respond adeptly to the constantly changing demands of their lives. And one thing people living with pain often have trouble with is being able to notice what’s happening in their own bodies.

Let’s unpack this. People living with chronic pain live with ongoing pain in certain parts of the body – and human tendencies being what they are, we try to avoid experiencing those sore bits, so our attention either skips over the painful area or it focuses almost exclusively on the sore bits and not on other parts (technically this could be called experiential avoidance). By working hard to avoid experiencing the sore bits, or alternatively focusing entirely on those sore bits, people living with pain often fail to notice what actually happens during movement.

As therapists, we can complicate this. We can instruct people (give them rules) about the movements they “should” be doing. We try to ‘correct’ posture. We advise people to use specific lifting techniques. We say “use your core”.

The effect of these instructions is to further lead our patients away from experiencing what is happening in their body. Instead of becoming aware of the way their bodies move, they attend to how well they’re following our instructions. Which is fine – until the person experiences a flare-up, or moves into a new environment with different demands, or perhaps we complete our sessions and discharge them into the wild blue yonder.

So, people with chronic pain can progressively become less aware of how their body actually feels as they do movements, and at the same time, try to apply rules we’ve given them that may not be all that helpful in different contexts.

We end up with the plumber trying hard to crawl under a house, carrying all her tools, while at the same time being worried that she’s not “using her core”. Or the piano teacher trying to “sit up properly” while working with a student on a duet. And the nurse, working one day in a busy ward with heavy patients, and another day in a paediatric ward, trying to “lift properly” using the same technique.

If we want to help people respond effectively to the widely differing contexts they’ll experience in everyday life, perhaps we need to take some time to help people learn to trust their own body, to experience both painful areas – and those that aren’t painful. We might need to help people work out fundamental principles of movement to enable them to have movement variability and flexibility – and to adjust and adapt when the contexts change.

To do this, we need to think about the way we help people learn new ways of moving. There are two fundamentals, I think.

  1. Guiding people to attend to, or notice, what is – including being OK about noticing painful parts of the body. The purpose behind this is to help people become aware of the various movement options they have, and the effect of those options on how they feel. We might need to guide people to consider not only pain, but also feelings of strength, stability, responsiveness, reach, movement refinement, subtlety, delicacy and power. To achieve this, we might need to spend time developing mindfulness skills so people can experience rather than attempting to change what they experience. The art of being willing to make room for whatever experience is present – learning to feel pain AND feel strength; feel pain AND relaxation; feel comfort AND power.
  2. Guiding people to use their own experience as their guide to “good movement”. In part, this is more of the same. I use words like “experiment” as in “let’s try this as an experiment, what does it feel like to you?”, or “let’s give it a go and see what you think”, or “I wonder what would happen if….” For example, if a person tries to move a box on a ledge that’s just out of reach, how many of you have told the person “stand a bit closer?” While that’s one way of helping someone work out that they might be stronger if they’re close to a load, what happens if the ground underfoot is unstable? The box still needs to be moved but the “rule” of standing close to a box doesn’t work – what do you think might happen if the person was guided to “Let’s try working out how you can move the box. What’s happening in your body when you reach for it?” then “What do you think you might change to make you feel more confident?” (or strong, or stable, or able to change position?).

When we try guiding rather than instructing, we honour the person’s own choices and contexts while we’re also allowing them to develop a superior skill: that of learning to experience their own body and to trust their own judgement. This ultimately gives them more awareness of how their body functions, and the gift of being flexible in how they approach any movement task.

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

Why does “doing exercise” work?

Bless all the physiotherapists in the world, they keep us doing exercises. And exercises are good because they get us doing the things we want to do in our daily lives. But how does it work?  This is not an exposition on exercise physiology – I’m not au fait enough with physiology to do that and there are many other people out there with vast amounts of knowledge giving us the benefit of their wisdom who have written at length about exercise and why it’s important. Instead I want to talk about some observations – and maybe pose some critical questions too.

For many years I’ve worked in a chronic pain management centre where people with chronic pain attend a three week intensive pain management programme. Staff members from outside the Pain Management Centre (we were located as an outpatient facility on the grounds of a rehabilitation hospital) always told us they could spot a person with pain the moment they saw them wandering from our building to the main cafeteria: people walking slowly, sometimes limping, but often just walking very slowly towards the cafe.

Over the course of the three weeks, this group of people would go from this slow amble to walking briskly and attending the hydrotherapy sessions, doing a daily exercise session (circuit-style); and in the final week of the programme, catching a bus to the shopping centre, purchasing food, coming back and preparing a shared barbecue for friends and family. What a turn-around!

Now, I said I wasn’t going to talk about physiology and I won’t, but I WILL point out that three weeks is not a long time. It’s so little time that it’s impossible for muscle length and strength to change significantly. And yet movements (measured using the six minute walking test and timed up and go) were quicker. Postures changed. People looked more alert and took more notice of the world around them. The question of how it is that this group of people could go from being recognisably “pain patients” to people who could do everyday activities has to be asked.

There are a couple of points to make before I do my thing. Firstly, while the people attending the programme were undeniably uncomfortable, clearly slow in their movements, and most definitely disabled, they weren’t, by usual measures “deconditioned”. In other words, they were of pretty average fitness – and indeed, many had been attending daily gym sessions at the behest of a case manager and under the supervision of a physiotherapist for months! At the same time they were not DOING much and felt extremely limited in their capabilities.

The second point is that although the programme had two “exercise” sessions each day, these were not high intensity sessions! The aim in most cases was to help people establish a baseline – or a reliable, consistent quota of exercise that they could do irrespective of their pain intensity. Most of the work within the exercise sessions was to help people become aware of their approach to activity, to modify this approach, and to then maintain it. Movement quality rather than quantity was the aim.

Here’s where I want to propose some of the mechanisms that might be involved.

  1. Humans like to, and almost need to, compare their performance with other people. It’s not something we choose to do, it’s an innate social bonding mechanism and whether we then modify what we do to match others – or deliberately try to do the opposite to mark out our own stance – we’ve based our behaviour on having observed what’s “normal” around us. And this applies even when people develop disability (Dunn, 2010), but perhaps more importantly, may well be fundamental to how we experience our world – and ourselves (Santiago Delefosse, 2011). When a group of people meet, their behaviour rapidly becomes more similar – similar gestures, similar body positions, and similar facial expressions. I wonder if one of the mechanisms involved in change within a group of people who live with chronic pain is this tendency to mirror one another’s behaviour.
  2. Having proposed that mirroring is one mechanism of change, why don’t groups of people with chronic pain ALL remain slowed and showing pain behaviour? Well, another mechanism involved in behaviour change is operant conditioning. When a group is performing exercise under the supervision of a “wise and caring authority” (ie a physiotherapist), many reinforcements are present. There’s the “no, that’s not quite the right movement” response, and the “oh you did it!” response. The “you can do it, just push a bit more” response, and the “if you can do that, how about another?” At the same time people are set quota or “the number of repetitions” to complete within a timeframe. Simply recording what is happening is sufficient to change behaviour – just ask someone who is on a diet to record their food intake for a week and you’ll likely see some changes! But add to this a very potent response from the wise and caring physiotherapist, and you’ll get warm fuzzies for doing more, and possibly cold pricklies if you don’t try.
  3. And finally, and possibly the most powerful of all, is the process of confronting feared movements – and doing them. Doing them without “safety behaviour” and doing them to specifically confront the thing that makes them scary. And doing them in many, many different settings, so as to alter the tendency to avoid them because they’re scary. A recently published systematic review and meta-analysis of graded activity (usually based on operant conditioning principles, and perhaps on cardiovascular fitness training principles) compared with graded exposure (deliberately confronting feared and avoided movements in a whole range of different contexts) found that graded exposure more effectively reduces catastrophising than just doing graded activation. This shouldn’t surprise us – one of the mechanisms involved in disability associated with nonspecific low back pain is avoiding doing things because people are fearful either of further injury, or of being unable to handle the effects of pain.

Where am I going with this post? Well, despite the face validity of exercise for reducing pain and disability, it’s not the physiological effects that first produce results. It can’t be because tissues do not adapt that quickly. What does appear to happen are a range of social-psychological processes that influence whether a person will (or won’t) do something. What this means is two things:

  • Physiotherapists, and indeed anyone who helps people do movements to reduce disability, really need to know their psychological processes because they’re inherent in the work done.
  • Becoming expert at analysing what a person wants and needs to do, and in being able to analyse then carefully titrate exposure to the contexts in which things need to be done is vital. That’s fundamental to occupational therapy theory, training and expertise.



Dunn, D. S. (2010). The social psychology of disability. In R. G. Frank, M. Rosenthal, & B. Caplan (Eds.), Handbook of rehabilitation psychology, (2 ed., pp. 379-390). Washington , DC: American Psychological Association

Lopez-de-Uralde-Villanueva, I., Munoz-Garcia, D., Gil-Martinez, A., Pardo-Montero, J., Munoz-Plata, R., Angulo-Diaz-Parreno, S., . . . La Touche, R. (2015). A systematic review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness of graded activity and graded exposure for chronic nonspecific low back pain. Pain Med. doi:10.1111/pme.12882

Santiago Delefosse, M. (2011). An embodied-socio-psychological perspective in health psychology? Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 5(5), 220-230.

Waitangi Day – or how to live together in unity

Today is New Zealand’s Waitangi Day ‘Mondayisation’ – the actual day was Saturday 6th Feb. It’s an important day in New Zealand because it’s the day when two completely different nations signed a treaty allowing certain rights between them – and allowed my ancestors to travel from Ireland and England to settle in the country I call my home. Unlike many country’s celebrations of nationhood, Waitangi Day is almost always a time of turbulence, dissension and debate. This is not a bad thing because over the years I think the way in which Maori (Tangata Whenua, or original settlers) and non-Maori settlers (Tangata Tiriti) relate in our country is a fantastic example of living together well. Not perfectly – but certainly in a more integrated way than many other countries where two completely different cultures blend.

Thinking of Waitangi Day, I’m reminded of the way in which the multidimensional model of pain attempts to integrate biological, psychological and social factors to help explain this experience and how such a primitive response to threat can ultimately lead to adaptation and learning – in most cases – or the most profound misery and disability in others.

Like the treaty relationship in New Zealand, there’s much room for discussion and debate as to the relative weight to place on various components of the model.  And like the treaty relationship, there are times when each part is accused of dominating and not giving the other/s due credit. Truth, at least to me, is, we need all of us (and all the factors) to integrate – not to become some bland nothing, but to express the components fully.

Just last week I was astonished to find that a clinician thought that I believed low back pain is “psychological”. Absolutely astonished because this has never been my position! While this blog and much of my teaching and reading is around psychological and more recently social factors influencing pain and disability, my position has never been to elevate the influence of these factors over the biological. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised – it’s hard to deal with the state of play in our understanding of low back pain which finds that many of the assumed causal mechanisms (like disc prolapses, poor “core” muscles, the biomechanics of lifting and so on) just don’t apply. It’s also really difficult to know that so far there are no particular exercise treatments that work more effectively than any other. Cognitive dissonance anyone? Just because these factors are less relevant than presumed does not mean that (a) I think low back pain is psychological and (b) that all biological factors are irrelevant. What it does mean is that we don’t know. I’ll say that again. We. Don’t. Know. Most back pain falls into this “nonspecific” group – and by calling it “nonspecific” we are actually admitting that We. Don’t. Know.

How do people assume that because I point out that we don’t know the causal mechanisms of low back pain but we DO know the critical importance of psychosocial factors on disability associated with low back pain – and the treatments that can mitigate these factors – that I believe back pain is psychological? I think it’s a simple fallacy – some people believe that because a person responds to psychosocial interventions this therefore means their problem is psychological. This is not true – and here are some examples. Exercise (a physical modality) is shown to be an effective treatment for depression. Does this mean depression is a purely biological disorder? Biofeedback provides visual or auditory information related to physical aspects of the body like blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension – does this mean that blood pressure is “psychological”? Diabetes management often includes learning to resist the urge, or “urge surf” the impulse to eat foods that increase blood sugar levels – does this mean diabetes is psychological?

Here’s my real position on nonspecific low back pain, which is let me remind you, the most common form of low back pain.

Causes – not known (Golob & Wipf, 2014), risk factors for onset are mainly equivocal but one study found the major predictor of an onset was – prior history of low back pain, with “limited evidence that the combination of postural risk factors and job strain is associated with the onset of LBP” (Janwantanakul, Sitthipornvorakul,  & Paksaichol, 2012), exercise may prevent recurrence but mechanisms of LBP remain unclear (Macedo, Bostick and Maher, 2013), while subgroup analysis carried out by therapists were “underpowered, are only able to provide exploratory or insufficient findings, and have rather poor quality of reporting” (Mistry, Patel, Wan Hee, Stallard & Underwood, 2014).

My take from this brief review? The mechanisms presumed to be involved in nonspecific low back pain are unknown.

Treatments – mainly ineffective but self-management provides small effects on pain and disability (moderate quality) (Oliveira, Ferreira, Maher, Pinto, Refshauge & Ferreira, 2012), “the evidence on acupuncture for acute LBP is sparse despite our comprehensive literature search” (Lee, Choi, Lee, Lee, Shin & Lee, 2013), no definitive evidence supports the use of orthoses for spine pain (Zarghooni, Beyer, Siewe & Eysel, 2013), acetaminophen is not effective for pain relief (Machado, Maher, Ferreira, Pinheiro, Lin, Day et al, 2015), and no specific exercises are better than any other for either pain relief or recovery – not even motor control exercises (Saragiotto, Maher, Yamato, Costa et al, 2016).

My take from this set of references is that movement is good – any movement, but no particular form of exercise is better than any other. In fact, the main limitation to exercise is adherence (or actually continuing exercising after the pain has settled).

The factors known to predict poor recovery are pretty clear – catastrophising, or thinking the worst (Kim, Cho, Kang, Chang, Lee, & Yeom, 2015), avoidance (usually arising from unhelpful beliefs about the problem – see commentary by Schofferman, 2015), low mood – which has also been found to predict reporting or treatment seeking of low back pain (see this post from Body in Mind, and this one).

What can I take from all of this? Well, my view is that because psychosocial factors exert their influence at multiple levels including our nervous system (see Borkum, 2010), but also our community understanding of what is and isn’t “illness” (Jutel, 2011) and who to see and what to do about it, the problem of nonspecific low back pain is one of the purest forms of an integrated biopsychosocial and multifactorial health concern in human life. I therefore rest my case: nonspecific low back pain is not psychological, but neither is it biomechanical or biological only. It is a biopsychosocial multifactorial experience to which humans are prone.

The best we can do with our current knowledge base is (1) limit and avoid the use of nocebic language and attempts to explain low back pain via biomechanical or muscle control mechanisms, (2) be honest about the likelihood of low back pain recurring and our treatments essentially doing very little, and (3) encourage return to normal activity by doing normal activity including exercise. Being honest about the state of play in our knowledge is a good starting point for better understanding – sounds a lot like race relations, doesn’t it?


Borkum, J. M. (2010). Maladaptive cognitions and chronic pain: Epidemiology, neurobiology, and treatment. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 28(1), 4-24. doi:

Golob, A. L., & Wipf, J. E. (2014). Low back pain. Medical Clinics of North America, 98(3), 405-428.

Janwantanakul, P., Sitthipornvorakul, E., & Paksaichol, A. (2012). Risk factors for the onset of nonspecific low back pain in office workers: A systematic review of prospective cohort studies. Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics, 35(7), 568-577.

Jutel, A. (2011). Classification, disease, and diagnosis. Perspectives in Biology & Medicine, 54(2), 189-205.

Kim, H.-J., Cho, C.-H., Kang, K.-T., Chang, B.-S., Lee, C.-K., & Yeom, J. S. (2015). The significance of pain catastrophizing in clinical manifestations of patients with lumbar spinal stenosis: Mediation analysis with bootstrapping. The Spine Journal, 15(2), 238-246. doi:

Lee, J. H., Choi, T. Y., Lee, M. S., Lee, H., Shin, B. C., & Lee, H. (2013). Acupuncture for acute low back pain: A systematic review. Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(2), 172-185.

Macedo, L. G., Bostick, G. P., & Maher, C. G. (2013). Exercise for prevention of recurrences of nonspecific low back pain. Physical Therapy, 93(12), 1587-1591.

Machado, G. C., Maher, C. G., Ferreira, P. H., Pinheiro, M. B., Lin, C.-W. C., Day, R. O., . . . Ferreira, M. L. (2015). Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: Systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials. BMJ, 350, h1225.

Mistry, D., Patel, S., Hee, S. W., Stallard, N., & Underwood, M. (2014). Evaluating the quality of subgroup analyses in randomized controlled trials of therapist-delivered interventions for nonspecific low back pain: A systematic review. Spine, 39(7), 618-629.

Oliveira, V. C., Ferreira, P. H., Maher, C. G., Pinto, R. Z., Refshauge, K. M., & Ferreira, M. L. (2012). Effectiveness of self-management of low back pain: Systematic review with meta-analysis. Arthritis care & research, 64(11), 1739-1748.

Saragiotto Bruno, T., Maher Christopher, G., Yamato Tiê, P., Costa Leonardo, O. P., Menezes Costa Luciola, C., Ostelo Raymond, W. J. G., & Macedo Luciana, G. (2016). Motor control exercise for chronic non-specific low-back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (1).

Schofferman, J. A. (2015). Commentary on the significance of pain catastrophizing in clinical manifestations of patients with lumbar spinal stenosis: Mediation analysis with bootstrapping. The Spine Journal, 15(2), 247-248. doi:

Zarghooni, K., Beyer, F., Siewe, J., & Eysel, P. (2013). The orthotic treatment of acute and chronic disease of the cervical and lumbar spine. Deutsches Arzteblatt International, 110(44), 737-742.

Choosing the right PT: 3 things to consider

This post is a patient’s perspective on choosing a physiotherapist. Some useful thoughts about why a person might choose YOU as their therapist.

By Adnan Iqbal

I tore both my ACL and meniscus playing soccer as an undergrad at UC Berkeley. After successful knee surgery, I needed to start my physical therapy immediately.

I was lucky. As an intercollegiate athlete, I benefitted from our athletics department’s rehabilitation and training resources. I didn’t have to find or choose the best PT — I was able to work with world-class trainers and physical therapists, all at essentially no cost and within walking (or crutching) distance from class. I was back on the soccer field within months and returned to full activity.

Two years later, I tore my ACL again while playing pick-up football. This time, I needed to find and choose my own PT. As I was searching for the ‘best’ PT, I had three key criteria in mind:

Hands-on Care

I did a lot of research, met with a lot of PTs, and spoke with many prior patients — I knew how important the right PT would be to my recovery.

My goal was to get back to game-ready strength and speed. So, I focused my search for PTs to those who had directly worked with leading college and/or professional sports teams. I consulted with local coaches and athletes, looked at Yelp reviews, poured over my surgeon’s recommendations, and read the PT bios.

Once I narrowed down my list, I talked to patients the PTs worked with in the past and asked a lot of questions:

What level of recovery did they achieve? Were they able to get back to playing sports at the same pre-injury level?
Did their PT provide individualized attention, or was the PT more focused on certain high-profile clients?

Reputation equaled results and trust in my mind. Even though I was limited by my health insurance to in-network providers, I was willing to pay out-of-pocket if the PT’s reputation was stellar.

I knew myself well enough to know that if I had to drive more than thirty minutes to see my PT, I wouldn’t keep my appointment. I looked for places close to home or work. Even when I did have to cancel last minute, the short distance I had to travel made me more willing to quickly reschedule, sometimes even to a different appointment time the same day.

Convenience isn’t just about location–it’s also about the ability for a PT to work with your schedule. As a committed patient, I highly valued my PT’s flexibility to quickly get me in for a session, even if I had to cancel due to meetings, work-travel, or just unpredictable Bay Area traffic.

Keeping up with regular PT appointments is critical to recovery. I knew I had to make it as easy as possible for me to get to my PT, and to work with a PT who could easily accommodate changes to my schedule.

Hands-on Care

Let’s be honest, PT appointments can be painful. You’re essentially signing up for 45 minutes of well-intentioned torture. Just the thought of struggling through exercises can make you dread sessions. For this reason, I needed a PT who was empathetic, encouraging, spent a lot of time with me, and someone who I enjoyed spending time with.

Hands-on personal time with a PT keeps you motivated and focused on results. Some PTs resort to assigning aides to do a lot of the session with you. While this can make sense for an understaffed facility, it really changes the patient experience. Committing to physical therapy and actually continuing it requires a strong bond with your PT.

I’ve worked with three different PTs over the past ten years, and all of them spent whole sessions with me. The PT did the actual scar tissue loosening, led me through exercises, corrected my posture and form, and kept me motivated.

It’s all about accountability. Knowing that my PT was personally invested in my success ensured that I stuck to my exercise plan in between sessions.

My PTs understood my goals each time, which increased my trust in them even more. It’s important to know that your PT holds the same goals for you that you do for yourself, and it’s important for your PT to be able to guide you to goals that are the best fit for your condition and lifestyle.

I attribute my recovery and ability to enjoy an active lifestyle to the PTs I worked with, and their ability to provide stellar care, to offer flexibility and convenience, and to spending one-on-one time with me to help me achieve my recovery goals.

Thanks to Jenna Gain from

Who can do Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Rehabilitation?

I have heard many discussions about scopes of practice: the main concern as far as I can see is of people who are trained to work mainly with the body perhaps stepping out of scope to work with thoughts, beliefs, and emotions. There are risks from stepping too far away from what you’re trained to do, I acknowledge this, though I think health professionals who see people are probably exerting greater influence over thoughts, beliefs and emotions than many of us acknowledge.  And given that’s the case, I think it’s only ethical to learn to craft that influence in ways that are positive rather than inadvertently doing harm because of ignorance.

When I read about a post-surgical rehabilitation approach for people who had spine surgery, I was immediately interested and not because of the surgery! This study compared “cognitive-behavioural based physical therapy” with an education programme six weeks after laminectomy for a lumbar degenerative condition. People were included in the study if they reported high fear of movement using the Tampa Scale for Kinesiophobia. Assessments were completed before treatment, after treatment and at a 3 month follow-up, and included the Brief Pain Inventory, Oswestry Disability Index, SF-12, and three performance tests (5-chair stand, timed up and go, and 10 metre walk).

There was no discussion about the physical rehabilitation, but the CBT and education sessions were conducted by phone and participants also received a workbook to take home and follow. Sessions took 30 minutes, except the first session which was for one hour. The main components of the programme are reported as education on the mind-body connection, activity levels, graded activity plan (graded hierarchy) and weekly activity and walking goals. A cognitive or behavioural strategy was introduced in each session, with the therapist helping patients identify enjoyable activities, replace negative thinking with positive thoughts, find a balance between rest and activity, and manage setbacks by recognising high-risk situations and negative thoughts.

The education sessions included the usual contents delivered by a physiotherapist, and featured biomechanics, daily exercise, and ways to promote healing. Information on stress reduction, sleep hygiene, energy management, communicating with health providers and preventing future injury were also provided.

What did they find?

Firstly, only 68% of those eligible for the study agreed to take part, which in itself is interesting. A number of other factors influenced the total number of people entered into the programme – not being treated for a degenerative lumbar condition, not having high enough scores on the TSK were the main reasons. Dropout rates for both programmes were quite low – 7 – 5%, and both programmes had good follow-up outcomes (not too many people missed the follow-up).

Now here’s a thing: 91% of participants also received clinic-based physiotherapy during the treatment phase (roughly 8 visits), and right up until the three-month follow-up (about 6 – 7 visits). No real difference between the groups here.

What did differ was the long-term improvement in the cognitive behavioural group – in terms of back and leg pain, pain interference and disability. The education group still improved in their leg pain and disability, but back pain and pain interference stayed the same. Similarly, the CBT group continued to improve on measures of physical and mental health over time, while the education group’s physical scores improved but mental health scores stayed pretty much the same. The CBT group’s scores improved more than the education group on almost all the measures including the physical performance tests.

What does this mean?

Well, interestingly, the authors of this study suggest that they obtained large and clinically relevant changes because of the specific focus they had on decreasing barriers to functional activity and walking rather than focusing solely on resolving pain symptoms. I think this is very interesting indeed. Although this study used physiotherapists, the clinician was naive to using CBT and was trained specifically for this study. Participants received concurrent physiotherapy in a clinic – the CBT (and education sessions) were additional to what was delivered in the clinic setting. To me the results suggest that the occupational therapy focus on creating opportunities for people to do more within their own environment might be a potent tool in post-operative rehabilitation.

Once again, it also suggests that the professional discipline of the clinician delivering a CBT approach is far less important than the fact that the CBT approach is tailored to the concerns of the patient, and that the treatment targets factors within the real-world context.

Important points to note: these patients were selected on the basis of high levels of pain-related fear and avoidance. I don’t think the outcomes would be nearly as fabulous in a general or undifferentiated group. This approach, while relatively inexpensive to implement, is an added cost – though if we look at the effect on patient outcomes, I would argue that the financial cost is far outweighed by the positive human results.

Finally, I think this study also shows that addressing thoughts, beliefs and emotions is a part of what every health professional should be doing: it’s unethical not to learn to do this well.

Archer KR, Devin CJ, Vanston SW, Koyama T, Phillips S, George SZ, McGirt ML, Spengler DM, Aaronson OS, Cheng JS, Wegener ST, Cognitive-behavioral based physical therapy
for patients with chronic pain undergoing lumbar spine surgery: a randomized controlled trial, Journal of Pain (2015), doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2015.09.013.

Five critical skills for pain clinicians

I could be wrong: it might be seven or ten, but five is a good start. What do people working with those who have pain really need to know/do? What makes them effective? What keeps them positive in the face of what can be an extraordinarily demanding work?

  1. Effective listening skills, along with the ability to communicate that you’re listening. One of the most common complaints about health professionals made by people living with pain is that they don’t listen (Allegretti, Borkan, Reis & Griffiths, 2010; Stenberg, Fjellman-Wiklund & ahlgren, 2012).  While I’m sure there are some clinicians who deliberately protect themselves from engaging in a patient’s distress, I think there’s probably a more insidious version of this – some research shows that when patients report pain, physicians spend more time on technical tasks and less time helping the person actively participate in their own care (Bertakis, Azari & Callahan, 2003).  There’s also some research showing that when clinicians are trained in specific techniques for expressing empathy, patients believe they are more caring (Bonvicini, Perlin, Bylund, Carroll, Rouse & Goldstein, 2009). Physicians were trained to use “The 4 E’s” (engage, empathise, educate and enlist), with a particular focus on communicating that they had heard what was said. Techniques included rephrasing what a patient said; asking a question to elicit more detail; acknowledging or confirming that the person’s emotions are valid/legitimate; and expressing that he or she had experienced a similar feeling. Maybe it’s time for greater training in these skills for all clinicians working with those who have pain.
  2. Mindfulness skills to help deal with emotions during sessions. I hope I’m not just jumping on the mindfulness bandwagon, but I do think being able to be fully present but not caught up in judging or evaluating your own feelings is a critical skill to maintain openness in a clinical situation. A definition of mindfulness that I quite like is “a process of regulating attention in order to bring a quality of non-elaborative awareness to current experience and a quality of relating to one’s experience within an orientation of curiousity, experiential openness, and acceptance” (Bishop, Lau, Shapiro et al, 2004). Being mindful and open allows you to be there for your patient while also making space for yourself. There’s good evidence that mindfulness improves psychological health (Keng, Smoski, & Robins, 2011), and some studies also show that it improves your own communication skills and improves patient satisfaction (Beach, Roter, Kortuis, Epstein et al, 2013).
  3. Case formulation skills. These skills are about pulling your assessment information together in a coherent way so you can generate some testable hypotheses to explain why your patient is presenting in the way they are at this time. To me it’s a waste to conduct assessments and then fail to use that information when you’re developing your treatment plan. And it’s even more of a shame to fail to share that information with your patient. The thing is, there’s often little training given to how to generate a case formulation: it’s got to be based on broad theoretical knowledge fleshed out with the specific information you’ve gathered from your patient. This makes a formulation a unique ideographic set of hypotheses about your patient. I’ve written about case formulations here and here and here.
  4. Superb research reading skills. I don’t think it’s enough to say you’re evidence-based if you’re only using clinical guidelines. I think clinicians need to be critical readers of both qualitative and quantitative research. And I think it’s a crying shame that so much research is hidden behind paywalls. That’s one reason I write so often – I can access research and make it accessible. Of course I’d prefer it if everyone took to reading research, but the cost of doing so is atrocious! And we know that getting into print isn’t always easy, and with the current funding models in tertiary education institutes I think the range and depth of research being published is likely to stay a bit skinny. And until research is widely available for free (remember, authors write for free, reviewers review for free, and much research is published electronically, so where’s the money being spent?) I think it’s going to be tough for clinicians working in private practice. Having said that, even when I was a private practitioner, I always had a subscription to the local medical library – it’s a valid deductible expense.
  5. Effective social media skills. Really? Social media? isn’t that just for people who want to share their food pix? Uh, no. I’ve had the best CPD experiences via Twitter, Facebook, and blogging. Some of the most challenging and thought-provoking discussions occur every day on Twitter. Links to new and emerging research. Links to opinions that make you think. Apps that help you be there for your patients, even when you’re not. Ways to remain in touch with people working in your field from around the world. Is it really a healthcare skill? I think so. Social media allows me to connect directly with researchers, other educators, clinicians, people working in niche fields, people living with chronic pain (the very people I so want to know about). Social media gives people living with pain a voice that can be heard. It allows my niche field to be visible. It has an impact on the general public. If we want chronic pain to be taken seriously by policy developers, and if we want to influence how people living with chronic pain can be heard, then social media is, I think, the way forward. It’s not just me – here’s paper reviewing and with tutorials of applications in medicine and healthcare (Grajales, Sheps, Ho, Novak-Lauscher & Eysenbach, 2014).

This list isn’t exhaustive: what else do you see as critical skills for clinicians working with people who experience pain? Add your thoughts to the list below!

Allegretti, Andrew, Borkan, Jeffrey, Reis, Shmuel, & Griffiths, Frances. (2010). Paired interviews of shared experiences around chronic low back pain: Classic mismatch between patients and their doctors. Family Practice, 27(6), 676-683. doi:

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

Bertakis, K, Azari, R, & Callahan, E. (2003). Patient Pain: Its Influence on Primary Care Physician-Patient Interaction. Family Medicine Journal, 35(2), 119-123.

Bishop, Scott R., Lau, Mark, Shapiro, Shauna, Carlson, Linda, Anderson, Nicole D., Carmody, James, . . . Devins, Gerald. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(3), 230-241. doi:

Bonvicini, K.A., Perlin, M.J., Bylund, C.L., Carroll, G., Rouse, R.A., & Goldstein, M.G. (2009). Impact of communication training on physician expression of empathy in patient encounters. Patient Education and Counseling, 75(1), 3-10. doi:

Grajales, Francisco Jose, III, Sheps, Samuel, Ho, Kendall, Novak-Lauscher, Helen, & Eysenbach, Gunther. (2014). Social media: A review and tutorial of applications in medicine and health care. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 16(2), 452-474.

Keng, Shian-Ling, Smoski, Moria J., & Robins, Clive J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1041-1056.

Stenberg, G., Fjellman-Wiklund, A., & Ahlgren, C. (2012). “Getting confirmation”: gender in expectations and experiences of healthcare for neck or back patients. J Rehabil Med, 44(2), 163-171. doi: 10.2340/16501977-0912