research literature

When philosophy and evidence collide: is an occupation-focused approach suitable in pain management?

I have often described myself as a renegade occupational therapist: I like statistics, I think experimental research is a good way to test hypotheses, I don’t make moccasins (though I occasionally wear them!), I’m happy reading research and figuring out how I can apply findings into my clinical practice.

Occupational therapy is a profession that continues to evolve. The origins of occupational therapy lie back in the “moral” model of treatment for mental illness when advocates found that giving people things to do helped them become well (mind you, some of the reasons for admission to a “mental asylum” were things like “wandering womb”, novel reading, laziness and “female disease” read it here on Snopes). As time passed, occupational therapy was a way to “occupy” troops recovering from war wounds, and later, tuberculosis. At various points, occupational therapists have tried to enclose practice within prevailing models: anatomical, biomechanical, neurological. And then the scope broadens and the profession returns to “occupation” and all it means. Out of this latest movement, and informing occupational therapy practice today is the idea of “occupational science” – this is the “basic science” examining the factors that underpin occupational therapy practice (Yerxa, 1990).

Unlike most “basic sciences”, occupational science draws on areas of knowledge including anthropology, sociology and political science; all social sciences that bring their own philosophical biases to understanding social phenomena. Occupational science is about “what people do in daily life” – those routines, rituals, practices, customs and daily doings that support us in our roles, shape our place in the social world, and help us form an understanding of who we are in the world. Things like how we go about getting up, the way we serve a meal, the way we dress ourselves, how we go from one place to another, the hobbies and fun things we do – all fundamental building blocks of daily life. Occupational therapy, therefore, informed by occupational science, is focused on helping people participate in daily life as fully and equitably as possible, irrespective of health status, gender, ethnicity, religious belief, age and so on.

With a focus on not only helping people participate in occupations, but also using occupation as therapy, it’s not surprising to find a plurality of approaches to treatment. I have seen art used to help people with persistent pain represent the impact of pain on their sense of self – and to celebrate changes that have happened as a result of pain management. I have seen gardening used to help people become stronger, more confident to move and to reconnect with a hobby they had given up because of pain. I have seen people begin new hobbies (geocaching anyone?) as part of occupational therapy. I have used excursions to the local shopping mall to help people regain confidence and reduce their fear of crowded places where they might get bumped. Graded exposure is also an approach occupational therapists use to help people generalise their emerging skills to approach feared movements instead of avoiding them.

What I hope I don’t see is a return to a compensatory model for persistent pain. You know what I mean here: using gadgets or aids to “make life easier” when a person is dealing with persistent pain. Things like a special long-handled tool so people can pick something up from the floor – fine in a short-term situation like immediately post hip arthroplasty, but not so much when the problem is longstanding fear and avoidance. A special vacuum-cleaner so the person doesn’t have to bend – it’s so much easier yes, but it doesn’t address the underlying problem which can be remedied.

Why is a compensatory model not so good for persistent pain management? Well, because in most instances, though not all, the reason a person isn’t doing a movement when they’re sore is not because they cannot – but because that movement increases or might increase pain, and no-one really wants to increase pain, yeah? By providing a gadget of some sort, or even working through a way to avoid that movement, occupational therapists who use this sort of approach are ignoring the strong evidence that this reinforces avoidance as a strategy for managing pain, doesn’t address the underlying fear, and risks prolonging and actually reinforcing ongoing disability. This approach is harmful.

Helping people do things that might hurt isn’t a very popular idea for some clinicians and a lot of people living with persistent pain. It feels at first glance, like a really nasty thing to do to someone. BUT graded exposure is an effective, occupationally-focused treatment for fear of movement and fear of pain (Lopez-de-Uralde-Villaneuva, Munos-Garcia, Gil-Martinez, Pardo-Montero, Munoz-Plata et al, 2016). Used within an acceptance and commitment therapy model, graded exposure becomes “committed action” that’s aligned to values – and engaging in valued occupations is exactly what occupational therapy is all about.

Of course, not everyone enjoys this kind of work. That’s OK – because there are others who DO enjoy doing it! And it’s all in the way that it’s done – a framework of values, commitment, mindfulness and, that’s right, “chat therapy” – which some occupational therapists believe is right outside their scope of practice.

Now unless someone works in a vacuum, via some sort of mind-to-mind process, I cannot think of any therapist who doesn’t communicate with the person they’re working with. Humans communicate effortlessly and continuously. And “chat therapy” is about communicating – communicating skillfully, carefully selecting what to respond to and how, and focusing on clinical reasoning. Of course, if that’s ALL the treatment is about, then it’s not occupational therapy, but when it’s used in the aid of helping someone participate more fully in valued occupations using CBT, ACT, DBT or indeed motivational interviewing is one of the approaches occupational therapists can employ both within an occupation as therapy and occupation as outcome model.

I firmly believe that occupational therapists should follow an evidence base for their work. While I openly acknowledge the paucity of occupational therapy-specific research in persistent pain, particularly using occupation as therapy, there is plenty of research (carried out by other professions) to support approaches occupational therapists can adopt. After all, we already use developmental models, neurological models, sociological models, anthropological ones and yes, psychological ones. And that’s without venturing into the biomechanical ones! So it’s not an unfamiliar clinical reasoning strategy.

What makes occupational therapy practice in pain management absolutely unique are two things: a complete focus on reducing disability through enabling occupation, and a commitment to bringing skills developed “in clinic” outside into the daily lives and world of the people we are privileged to work with. What we should not do is focus on short-term outcomes like reducing (avoiding) bending with some new technique, while being ignorant of other occupational approaches. We are a fortunate profession because all of what we do is biopsychosocial, let’s not forget it.


López-de-Uralde-Villanueva, I., Muñoz-García, D., Gil-Martínez, A., Pardo-Montero, J., Muñoz-Plata, R., Angulo-Díaz-Parreño, S., . . . La Touche, R. (2016). A systematic review and meta-analysis on the effectiveness of graded activity and graded exposure for chronic nonspecific low back pain. Pain Medicine, 17(1), 172-188. doi:10.1111/pme.12882

Yerxa, E. J. (1990). An introduction to occupational science, a foundation for occupational therapy in the 21st century. Occup Ther Health Care, 6(4), 1-17. doi:10.1080/J003v06n04_04


A new year, a fresh beginning

It has been a long time since I last posted actively on this blog. This is because, over the last year, I have been writing my PhD thesis – and although I’m not yet completely finished, I’m very close. This means I’m ready to roll out the weekly blog posts again!

For people who are not familiar with my blog, the blog emerged as one way I could cope with, and rehabilitate from, a so-called “mild” traumatic brain injury – aka post-concussion syndrome.

My aim was, and still is, to provide clinicians with research-based information about chronic pain, and how to live well with it. Truly, to help those who help people to develop Health Skills.

I’m definitely a pain geek. I love reading the research literature. At the same time, I know that a good deal of research is hidden behind paywall subscriptions to j0urnals; many clinicians don’t have time to read through the enormous range of journals that are available; and some research doesn’t seem particularly relevant to daily clinical practice.

My mission, and I’ve chosen to accept it, is to do some of the work for you. I can access many journals as part of my academic work (I’m a Senior Lecturer in pain in the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery & Musculoskeletal Medicine, University of Otago, Christchurch, NZ). I have to read this stuff, and because I teach, research and work clinically, I need to work out the relevance of research in my own mind to make any sense of it.

I’ll carry on posting brief summaries of good research from peer-reviewed journals. I’ll also consider the clinical implications – or at least I’ll ponder them, whether I arrive at any conclusions is probably a moot point. At the very least I hope I’ll provoke some questions in your mind about what the research means for you in your clinical practice.

If you’re a person who has chronic pain, please note that this blog isn’t intended to provide you with answers to your personal situation. I don’t know you, and couldn’t possibly work out whether you should, or shouldn’t, apply anything to your situation. For what it’s worth, I do have chronic pain (fibromyalgia), but I don’t do this kind of work as some sort of personal crusade. I just think that anyone who has chronic pain deserves really good, open and honest pain management, and my little part is to make some of the research more widely available than it is otherwise. If you’ve found The Answer – fantastic! If you’ve got The Clinician – great! But what probably works for you, may not work for anyone else, and I won’t promote it unless it’s subject to systematic scientific examination.

Finally, I’m not into arguing with dogmatism, mystical beliefs, superstition or even engaging in terribly much argument. It rarely does anything for anyone, and wastes my energy. I’m a scientist – I have a Master of Science, and nearly a PhD. I’m not going to pretend tolerance of appeals to etheric energies or other wafty notions. With that in mind, I do love interacting with people who have genuine interest in understanding what this thing called pain really is, and how we can all help people live more fully despite having to deal with it long-term.