Thinking the worst – and willingness to do things despite pain

Catastrophising, perhaps more than any other psychological construct, has received pretty negative press from people living with pain. It’s a construct that represents a tendency to “think the worst” when experiencing pain, and I can understand why people who are in the middle of a strong pain bout might reject any idea that their minds might be playing tricks on them. It’s hard to stand back from the immediacy of “OMG that really HURTS” especially when, habitually, many people who have pain try so hard to pretend that “yes everything is really all right”. At the same time, the evidence base for the contribution that habitually “thinking the worst” has on actually increasing the report of pain intensity, increasing difficulty coping, making it harder to access effective ways around the pain, and on the impact pain has on doing important things in life is strong (Quartana, Campbell & Edwards, 2009).

What then, could counter this tendency to feel like a possum in the headlights in the face of strong pain? In the study I’m discussing today, willingness to experience pain without trying to avoid or control that experience, aka “acceptance”, is examined, along with catastrophising and measures of disability. Craner, Sperry, Koball, Morrison and Gilliam (2017) recruited 249 adults who were seeking treatment at an interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation programme (at tertiary level), and examined a range of important variables pre and post treatment.  Participants in the programme were on average 50 years old, mainly married, and white (not a term we’d ever use in New Zealand!). They’d had pain for an average of 10.5 years, and slightly less than half were using opioids at the time of entry to the programme.

Occupational therapists administered the Canadian Occupational Performance Measure, an occupational therapist-administered, semi-structured interview designed to assess a person’s performance and satisfaction with their daily activities (Law, Baptiste, McColl, Opzoomer, Polatajko & Pollock, 1990). The performance scale was used in this study, along with the Chronic Pain Acceptance Questionnaire (one of my favourites – McCracken, Vowles & Eccelston, 2004); the Pain Catastrophising Scale (Sullivan, Bishop & Pivik, 1995), The Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (Kroenke, Spitzer & Williams, 2001); and The Westhaven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory (Kerns, Turk & Rudy, 1985).

Now here’s where the fun begins, because there is some serious statistical analysis going on! Hierarchical multiple regression analyses is not for the faint-hearted – read the info about this approach by clicking the link. Essentially, it is a way to show if variables of your interest explain a statistically significant amount of variance in your Dependent Variable (DV) after accounting for all other variables. Or, in this study, what is the relationship between pain catastrophising, acceptance and pain severity – while controlling for age, gender, opioids use, and pain duration. The final step was to enter a calculation of the interaction between catastrophising and acceptance, and to enter this into the equation as the final step. A significant interaction suggests one of these two moderates the other – and this is ultimately captured by testing the slopes of the graphs. Complex? Yes – but a good way to analyse these complex relationships.


Unsurprisingly, pain catastrophising and acceptance do correlate – negatively. What this means is that the more a person thinks the worst about their pain, the less willing they are to do things that will increase their pain, or to do things while their pain is elevated. Makes sense, on the surface, but wait there’s more!

Pain catastrophizing was significantly (ps < .01) and positively correlated with greater perceived pain intensity, pain interference, distress due to pain, and depression – and negatively correlated with occupational therapist-rated functioning. Further analysis found that only pain catastrophising (not acceptance) was associated with pain severity, while both catastrophising and acceptance predicted negative effect (mood) using the WHYMPI, but when the analysis used the PHQ-9, both pain catastrophising and pain acceptance uniquely predicted depressive symptoms.  When pain interference was used as the dependent variable, pain acceptance uniquely predicted the amount of interference participants experienced, rather than catastrophising. The final analysis was using the performance subscale of the COPM, finding that pain acceptance was a predictor, while catastrophising was not.

What does all this actually mean?

Firstly, I found it interesting that values weren’t used as part of this investigation, because when people do daily activities, they do those they place value on, for some reason. For example, if we value other people’s opinions, we’re likely to dress up a bit, do the housework and maybe bake something if we have people come to visit. This study didn’t incorporate contexts of activity – the why question. I think that’s a limitation, however, examining values is not super easy, however it’s worth keeping this limitation in mind when thinking about the results.

The results suggest that when someone is willing to do something even if it increases pain, or while pain is elevated, this has an effect on their performance, disability, the interference they experience from pain, and their mood.

The results also suggest that catastrophising, while an important predictor of pain-related outcomes, is moderated by acceptance.

My question now is – what helps someone to be willing to do things even when their pain is high? if we analyse the CPAQ items, we find things like “I am getting on with the business of living no matter what my level of pain is.”;  “It’s not necessary for me to control my pain in order to handle my life well.”; and “My life is going well, even though I have chronic pain.”. These are important areas for clinicians to address during treatment. They’re about life – rather than pain. They’re about what makes life worth living. They’re about who are you, what does your life stand for, what makes you YOU, and what can you do despite pain. And these are important aspects of pain treatment: given none of us can claim a 100% success rate for pain reduction. Life is more than the absence of pain.



Craner, J. R., Sperry, J. A., Koball, A. M., Morrison, E. J., & Gilliam, W. P. (2017). Unique contributions of acceptance and catastrophizing on chronic pain adaptation. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 24(4), 542-551.

Kerns IVRD,TurkDC, Rudy TE. (1985) West Haven-Yale Multidimensional Pain Inventory (WHYMPI). Pain. 23:345–56.

Kroenke K, Spitzer RL, Williams JB. The PHQ-9: validity of a brief depression severity measure. Journal of General Internal Medicine. 16(9), 606-13.

Law M, Baptiste S, McColl M, Opzoomer A, Polatajko H, Pollock N. (1990). The Canadian Occupational Performance Measure: an outcome measure for occupational therapy. Canadian Journal of Occupational Therapy. 57(2), pp82–7.

McCracken LM, Vowles KE, Eccleston C. (2004). Acceptance of chronic pain: component analysis and a revised assessment method. Pain. 107(1–2), pp159–66.

Quartana PJ, Campbell CM, Edwards RR. (2009) Pain catastrophizing: a critical review. Expert Reviews in Neurotherapy, 9, pp 745–58.

SullivanMLJ, Bishop SR, Pivik J. (1995). The Pain Catastrophizing Scale: development and validation. Psychological Assessment. 7:524–32.


Minding your body: Interoceptive awareness, mindfulness and living well

We all grow up with a pretty good idea of what our body feels like; what normal is. It’s one of the first “tasks” of infancy, it seems, to work out what is me and what is not. When people experience a disturbance to the way their body moves or feels, it can take some time to get used to that new way of being. In pregnancy, where the body takes on a different shape and dimension, it’s not uncommon to bump into things because the new shape hasn’t yet sunk in!

This awareness of “what my body feels like” is called interoceptive awareness (IA), and I was intrigued to read this paper by Hanley, Mehling and Garland (2017) in which IA is examined in relation to dispositional mindfulness (DM). DM is thought to be the innate tendency to notice without judging or automatically reacting to what is going on. IA may be extremely sensitive in some people – for example, people with health anxiety might notice their sweaty palms and heart palpitations and then worry that they’re about to have a heart attack, or the same symptoms in someone with social anxiety might be experienced as indications to LEAVE RIGHT NOW because EVERYONE is looking at ME.

I’m not sure of research into IA in people with persistent pain, although I am positive it’s something that has been studied (see Mehling, Daubenmier, Price, Acree, Bartmess & Stewart, 2013). As a result, in my conclusions I’m going to draw from my experience working with those living with persistent pain, and extrapolate wildly!

This study aimed to establish the relationship between various items on two questionnaires used to measure IA and DM: the MAIA (Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness), and the FFMQ (Five Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire). The paper itself discusses the first measure as empirically derived and confirmed by focus groups, and having associations with less trait anxiety, emotional susceptibility and depression – in other words, high scores on this measure (awareness of body sensations and judging those sensations) are associated with important factors influencing our wellbeing. The second measure is described as “one of the most commonly used self-report measures of DM”. It consists of five scales thought to measure important aspects of mindfulness (observing, not reacting and acting with awareness).

Along with these two measures, the authors examined wellbeing, which essentially was defined as a tendency to accept oneself, have a purpose, manage the environment, develop good relationships, continue to grow as a person and be independent and autonomous. We could probably argue about these dimensions in view of what may be a cultural component (autonomy may not be highly favoured in some communities).

Recruitment was via mTurk, Amazon’s crowdsourcing website. As a result participants possibly don’t represent the kinds of people I would see in clinical practice. And half of the 478 participants were excluded because people didn’t complete all the questionnaires. I could quibble about this sample, so bear that in mind when you consider the results.


Turning to the results, the first finding was a good correlation between all three questionnaires, with the FFMQ more strongly correlated with psychological wellbeing than the MAIA. But these researchers wanted more! So they carried out canonical correlation analysis, which is used to correlate the latent variables present in measurement instruments. It’s complicated, but what it can tell us is how underlying aspects of two unrelated measures might fit together. In this instance, the researchers found that two of the FFMQ (non-reacting and observing) were related to six of the eight MAIA factors (attention regulation, self-regulation, trusting, emotional awareness, body listening and noticing). They also found that FFMQ ‘non-judging’ and ‘acting with awareness’ were associated with MAIA ‘not worrying’ subscale.

What does this tell us? Well, to me it’s about grouping somewhat-related items together from two instruments to work out their contribution to something else. The authors thought so too, and therefore completed a further analysis (told you it was complicated!), to look at a two-step hierarchical multiple regression where the two sets of scales were entered into equations to see how much each contributed to the psychological wellbeing score. Whew!

What they found was interesting, and why I’m fascinated by this study despite its shortcomings.

What can we do with this info?

Being mindfully observant and non-reactive seems to be associated with a person’s ability to notice and control attention to what’s going on in the body. Makes sense to me – knowing what goes on in your body but being able to flexibly decide how much to be bothered about, and what you’re going to do about those sensations will make a difference to how well you can cope with things like fatigue, hunger, the need to change body position or to sustain a position when you’re focusing on something else – like hunting!

Apparently, being able to attend to body sensations is also part of regulating your emotional state, and if you can do this, you’ll generally experience your body as a safe and “trustworthy” place. And if you can do this when your body doesn’t feel so good yet still remain calm and accepting, this is a good thing. In the final analysis, these authors called the first cluster of statements “Regulatory awareness” – being aware of your body and regulating how you respond to it. The second cluster related more with non-judging and acting with awareness, so the authors called this “Acceptance in action”.

For people living with persistent pain, where the body often does not feel trustworthy and there’s an increased need to “ignore” or “let go” or “not judge” painful areas, it seems that one of the most important skills to learn is how to self regulate responses to IA. To take the time to notice all the body (not ignore the sore bits, nor obsess about the sore bits). This doesn’t come easily because I think for most of us, we’ve learned we need to notice pain – after all, ordinarily it’s helpful! The second part is to accept in action – in other words discriminating between unpleasant body sensations are should be worried about, and those not needing our attention is an adaptive skill. Perhaps mindfulness gives us better capabilities to discriminate between what needs to be taken into account, and what does not.

Interestingly, the least strongly associated response items were related to using words to describe what goes on in the body. For me this suggests experiential practices might be more useful to help people develop these two skills than simply talking about it. And suggests that maybe we could use meditative movement practices as a good way to develop these skills.

R.A. Baer, G.T. Smith, J. Hopkins, J. Krietemeyer, L. Toney, (2006) Using self-report assessment methods to explore facets of mindfulness, Assessment 13 27–45.

Hanley, A. W., Mehling, W. E., & Garland, E. L. (2017). Holding the body in mind: Interoceptive awareness, dispositional mindfulness and psychological well-being. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 99, 13-20. doi:

W.E. Mehling, J. Daubenmier, C.J. Price, M. Acree, E. Bartmess, A.L. Stewart, (2013). Self-reported interoceptive awareness in primary care patients with past or current low back pain, Journal of Pain Research. 6

W.E. Mehling, C. Price, J.J. Daubenmier, M. Acree, E. Bartmess, A. Stewart, (2012) The multidimensional assessment of interoceptive awareness (MAIA), PLoS One 7  e48230.

Great expectations – and low back pain

Have you ever wondered why there are so many treatments for low back pain? Like there are actually hundreds of different ways to “treat” back pain… yet the truth is, none of them work for everyone. Actually, most of them seem to help pass the time until low back pain settles of its own accord. Until it’s back again (no pun intended!).

This post is prompted after reading a string of general news articles discussing the common non-specific low back pain – under various guises of “dead butt syndrome“, “Dr Tom: Ouch I’ve hurt my back” and the like – I think it’s time for a frank discussion about the natural history of low back pain, as found in large epidemiological studies. There’s no doubt that low back pain is a problem around the world, and I think it’s partly due to unmet expectations (along with a whole lot of other variables). The Global Burden of Disease found low back pain to be the most common reason for days lived with disability around the world – that’s more than anaemia, depression, hearing loss, migraine!

Low back pain is common in every single country in the world.

Dunn, Hestbaek & Cassidy (2013) examined the prevalence of low back pain across the life span – they found that many of us view low back pain as a simple “yes/no” question – do you have it, or don’t you. They point out that people with no back pain at the time of a survey are not all the same: some might never have had a bout ever, while some might have had several bouts but just don’t have one right now. These presentations are not the same! Those who have had a previous episode will have developed an understanding of back pain on the basis of what happened, and this will influence their expectations, and subsequent response, to treatments.

Dunn, Hestbaek & Cassidy found that children/adolescents have a point prevalence (ie at the time of the survey, they reported they had back pain) of 12%. As people get older the prevalence continues to be around 12%. The elderly, those over 60 (that doesn’t really feel old to me!), seem to have a prevalence similar to people in middle age, and activities affected by low back pain seem to increase as we age.

Given the lifetime prevalence of low back pain is around 80% (or more), following people up over time seems to paint a different picture from the point prevalence studies: it’s not the same 12% of people that has low back pain all the time. Some studies show that at least 40% of people do recover within a year of an episode (see Hestbaek, Leboeuf-Yde, & Manniche, 2003). A Danish study with 5 year follow-up found around 23% of people consistently reported no pain days during the previous year (during the study) but around 10% reported more than 30 days of back pain every time they were asked. So, while long-term low back pain isn’t common in the adult population, most people do have a couple of bouts over long periods of time.

What are the risk factors? Well one clear risk factor is having had a previous episode, although this isn’t a consistent predictor for long-term back pain. Perhaps we should take a look more closely at the natural course of acute neck and low back pain – from the Norwegian longitudinal studies. From one city in Norway, these researchers screened 9056 people between 20 – 67 years old to identify those with a brand new bout of neck or back pain in the previous month – 219 people were identified, then followed for 12 months. What these researchers found was pain decreasing rapidly in the first month, irrespective of treatment, thereafter though, back pain didn’t change for the rest of the year especially for those with pain in the neck as well as the back at the first assessment, and for those who had 4 or more pain sites in the beginning.

Now what’s really interesting about this study is that the pain reduction people experienced, particularly in low back pain, was pretty close to the pain reduction people achieved whether they had treatment, or not. Hmmmm. Next question: what if we look at all the treatments people get, and those who are in the control group, and pooled that information to find out what happens? Artus, van der Windt, Jordan & Croft examined whether just taking part in a study on low back pain might influence outcomes – so they pooled 70 RCTs and 19 cohort studies, and both sets of data showed “a rapid improvement in the first six weeks followed by a smaller further improvement until 52 weeks. there was no statistically significant different in pooled standardised mean change (a measure used to compared the pooled within-group change in pain in RCTs with cohort studies) – get this, at any time point.

But wait, there’s more!

Axen & Leboeuf-Yde (2013) looked at the trajectories of low back pain over time. They summarised four studies in primary care or the general population, finding that over the course of between 12 weeks and 12 months, participants could be divided into two to four groups: one group remained uncomfortable, perhaps staying that way over the whole 12 months (around 10 – 21%); one group also remained uncomfortable but they reported their pain as “moderate” or “mild” – around 36%; another approximately 30% experienced fluctuating or intermittent low back pain; and finally, the group we love – those who recovered and remained that way, around 30 – 58%.

This is not the picture we hear in the media. This is not what we were taught. And yes, I know there are problems with pooled data because individualised responses get ironed out. But what all this says to me is – our patients come to us expecting that low back pain should completely resolve. The reality is that for a lot of people, back pain will come and go throughout the lifetime.

What does this mean to me?

Isn’t it time to give people an idea that if they have a bout of back pain, chances are high they’ll have another. Complete resolution of low back pain may not occur for a large number of people. A new bout of low back pain may not mean a new “injury” (given we don’t know why many people develop back pain in the first place). Learning to self-manage a bout of back pain is likely to save people a load of heartache, not to mention a lot of money. And maybe it’s the latter that means it’s very hard to find clear, effective messages about just how safe a painful back is. It’s far easier to sell a message of vulnerability, of the need for treatment for that “unhappy spine” as a chiropractor in Christchurch calls it. And of course, if we continue to allow the expectation that all pain should be gone, we’re going to be in business for a very long time…


Artus, M., van der Windt, D., Jordan, K.P., & Croft, P.R. (2014). The clinical course of low back pain: A meta-analysis comparing outcomes in randomised clinical trials (rcts) and observational studies. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 15, 68.

Axén, I., & Leboeuf-Yde, C. (2013). Trajectories of low back pain. Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 601-612. doi:

Dunn, K.M., Hestbaek, L., & Cassidy, J.D. (2013). Low back pain across the life course. Best Practice & Research in Clinical Rheumatology, 27(5), 591-600.

Hestbaek L, Leboeuf-Yde C, Engberg M, Lauritzen T, Bruun NH, Manniche C. (2003). The course of low back pain in a general population. Results from a 5-year prospective study. Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics, 26(4):213–9.

Hestbaek L, Leboeuf-Yde C, Manniche C. (2003). Low back pain: what is the long-term course? A review of studies of general patient populations. European Spine Journal, 12(2):149–65.

Vasseljen, O., Woodhouse, A., Bjorngaard, J.H., & Leivseth, L. (2013). Natural course of acute neck and low back pain in the general population: The HUNT study. Pain, 154(8), 1237-1244.

What is pain for?

We’re told we need pain – without the experience, we risk harming our bodies and living short lives. With pain, and for most people, we learn to not go there, don’t do that, don’t do that AGAIN, and look at that person – don’t do what they’re doing! Thirst, hunger, fear, delicious tastes and smells, the feelings of belonging, of safety and security, of calm and comfort: all of these are experiences we learn about as we develop greater control over our bodies.

Pain is an experience we learn to associate with actual or possible threat to “self”. Let’s take a moment to think about what “self-hood” means.

If I ask you “who are you?” you’ll tell me your name, probably your occupation, maybe where you live and who you live with. Baumeister (1997) suggests our sense of self is about “the direct feeling each person has of privileged access to his or her own thoughts and feelings and sensations.” He goes on to say “it begins with the awareness of one’s own body and is augmented by the sense of being able to make choices and initiate action.” We learn about who we are through interacting with the environment, but also as we interact with other people and begin to sort through our roles, contributions and relationships.

Of course, our sense of self changes over time and is reciprocally influenced by choices we make as well as opportunities (and threats) around us, both environmental and social.

We work really hard to avoid threats to our sense of self. For example, I’ll bet we’ve all seen that person who steadfastly refuses to stop colouring his hair, wearing the same clothing styles as he did in his 20’s, holding on to the same habits as he did at the same age even when he’s now in his 50’s, has a paunch, and still looks for partners 20 years younger than he is…  He still believes he’s that young stud despite the evidence in the mirror. And of course the same applies to women perhaps more so!

So what happens when our mind/body is threatened? How do we know it? And what do we do about it?

In this instance I’m not talking about social threats, though there’s interesting research suggesting that being socially excluded has similar neurobiological effects as being physically threatened (or experiencing pain – though this may reflect the distress we experience when we’re hurt and when we’re socially excluded – see Iannetti, Salomons, Moayedi, Mouraux & Davis, 2013; Eisenberger, 2015). I’m instead talking about threats to our physical body. Those threats may be violence from another person, physical trauma to the body, or the threat of physical harm to the body. When we experience these kinds of threats, and once an aspect of mind/body has disentangled the threat evaluation from whatever other goals we’re currently engaged in, we experience pain. Tabor, Keogh and Eccelston (Pain, in press) define pain in terms of action: an experience which, as part of a protective strategy, attempts to defend one’s self in the presence of inferred threat.

So pain is there to help us maintain an intact sense of self in the presence of threat – threat that we’ve inferred from our context (or drawn a conclusion from incomplete data). It’s part of a system that works to maintain “us” in the face of multiple threats that we encounter.

Tabor, Keogh and Eccleston also argue that pain is an experience designed to intrude on awareness to show that “boundaries have been reached and action must be taken”. Pain is one way our mind/body can give us an indication of boundary – just how much, or how little, we can do. For example, I experience pain when I bend my thumb down to reach my wrist – it’s one way I can learn how far I can bend without disrupting something! The purpose of that pain is to help “me” defend against doing really dumb things, like stretching my thumb out of joint!

Interestingly, when we feel overwhelmed by our pain, when we can’t defend against it (because it feels too intense, has meanings that threaten our deepest sense of self) we tend to withdraw from responding to everything else – our conversations stop, we don’t notice other people or events, we pull into ourselves and ultimately, we can lose consciousness (think of the accounts of early surgery without anaesthesia – the surgeons were kinda grateful when the patient lapsed into unconsciousness because at last they weren’t writhing to get away – see Joanna Bourke’s book “The Story of Pain” for some harrowing stories!).

When we lose consciousness, our sense of self disappears. We lose contact with the “what it is to be me”.

Our sense of self also disappears when we experience pain we can’t escape and we can’t make sense of. Throughout the time while people are trying to label their pain, establish the meaning of their symptoms, and while people are searching for a solution to their pain, people’s experience of both time and “who I am” is threatened (Hellstrom, 2001).

To me, this is one of the primary problems associated with pain – and one we’ve almost completely ignored in our healthcare treatments. All our treatments are aimed at helping “get rid of the pain” – but what isn’t so often incorporated in these efforts is a way of engaging and rebuilding a resilient sense of self. So while the pain may ebb away, the “self” remains feeling vulnerable and threatened, especially if there’s any hint of pain returning.

What can we do better? Perhaps talk about what vision a person has of themselves as a “self”. Help them work towards becoming the “self” they believe they are – or at least helping them express the underlying values that their “self” has previously been expressing. That way perhaps people can find flexible ways to express that “self” – which will make them more capable of living well under any circumstances.


Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Identity, self-concept, and self-esteem: The self lost and found. Hogan, Robert [Ed], 681-710.

Bourke, J. (2014). The story of pain: From prayer to painkillers: Oxford University Press.

Eisenberger, N. I. (2015). Social pain and the brain: Controversies, questions, and where to go from here. Annual review of psychology, 66, 601-629.

Hellstrom, C. (2001). Temporal dimensions of the self-concept: Entrapped and possible selves in chronic pain. Psychology & Health, 16(1), 111-124. doi:

Iannetti, G. D., Salomons, T. V., Moayedi, M., Mouraux, A., & Davis, K. D. (2013). Beyond metaphor: Contrasting mechanisms of social and physical pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(8), 371-378.

Tabor, A., Keogh, E. and Eccleston, C. (2016) Embodied pain— negotiating the boundaries of possible action. Pain. ISSN 0304- 3959 (In Press)

Ups and downs and rocking and rolling

What a week it has been! Not only an unexpected result in the US elections, but also a very large earthquake north of Christchurch, along with a tsunami alert for the entire eastern coastline of New Zealand. Luckily I live far enough away from the shoreline that I didn’t have to evacuate, but the sirens certainly work!

As a result of these events, which I firmly believe are NOT associated except in time, the post I was going to make seems a bit redundant, so I’m going to talk about resilience and what it really means.

For someone who has lived through thousands of earthquakes since September 2010, resilience is almost a dirty word. People living in Christchurch are a bit tired of being called resilient.  You see, it’s not the quakes that are the problem – it’s the aftermath. The “new normal” that we’ve been living through these past years. The thousands of road cones lining almost every street. The constant detours as bits of road are dug up and sewerage, storm water and water pipes relaid. The delays. The ongoing processing needed to work out “where am I?” in the streets we used to know so well.

Resilience is intended to refer to “bounce back”. The thing is, I don’t think we bounce back to exactly the way we were before – we’re irrevocably changed by all experiences, but especially ones as significant as the earthquakes, or even political changes. That we don’t “return to normal” is one of the main reasons I don’t believe reports of people “going back to normal” if pain is completely removed. Why? Because people actively process and make meaning from everything that happens to them – and the meanings that are given to experiences don’t ever completely go.  We know, for example, that we can’t “unwire” nerves that have fired together, so what actually happens is that alternative paths or connections between nerves are formed. This means that under the right circumstances, those original paths will fire again… And people who have experienced chronic pain will, even if their pain eventually goes, know exactly what that pain meant, how it affected them, and I’m certain will be very aware of any new pain that seems to be similar to the one that was just there.

Resilience to me is therefore not so much about “bouncing back” as it is about being able to take stock of what actually IS, determine the paths that lead on in the direction of important values, and then choosing to take those paths. And this can often mean taking detours because old paths aren’t negotiable any more. That can be, and is, disturbing. It can be frustrating, fatiguing and far more demanding than the idea usually invoked by the word “resilience”.

So, in the next days and weeks, let’s think less about being resilient, and more about being flexible – flexibly persisting, if you will. We need to persist to get anywhere, do anything. We need to be flexible about how we get there and how we do what we value. We’ll need passion, but more than passion, we’ll need commitment.


Making sense of pain

Humans have an incredible desire for things to make sense. We want things to fit a story or what’s expected – and we get right discombobulated (it’s a word) if we encounter a situation where things don’t make sense. To a certain extent we can blame our use of language for this, because it’s the way we’ve learned to pair words with concepts, and to associate multiple concepts together. For example, we learn “ouch” is associated with that unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that we’ve learned goes along with scrapes or bumps or cuts. We’ve also learned that “ouch” goes along with “it will go soon” and “don’t use that bit too much or it will hurt for longer” as well as “big boys don’t cry” and “you’re just being lazy if you don’t suck it up” and “whiners talk about their back pain all the time” and other similar notions. This is how humans connect visible objects (nouns) with words and other invisible concepts to create a network of meaning that, among others who share similar language and culture, means we can communicate with one another and go beyond the here and now and into the future and recall the past.

Even when events don’t make sense, we struggle to create a sense from it – we even say things like “this doesn’t make sense” as a way to classify the event along with a bunch of other “events that don’t make sense”. 

Why does this matter?

Well, because we want life to make sense, and to understand what we and others are up to, we create meaning and sense (coherence) even where there is no sense. Sometimes we grasp at straws (otherwise known as explanations from people who may not actually know what’s going on, but can spin a good tale). And at times, grasping at these straws means we ignore our own experience just so we can  hold on to what we think ought to be there. Here’s an example: some of us have back pain. We don’t know why it started, but we try to make sense of why we experience it by drawing on things we’ve been told by others – we might blame age, lifting “incorrectly”, weak “core” muscles, or differences in how long our legs are. Now the explanation itself doesn’t need to even be accurate – what’s important is that by accepting an explanation we become less sensitive to alternative explanations, and even more importantly, we begin to ignore what our own body feels like because we think we should believe what an expert tells us.

The problem with trying to make an explanation work for us, when it’s not necessarily so, is that in adopting that explanation we may find it a lot more difficult to respond flexibly to different situations. For example, if we’ve learned that back pain happens because of poor posture (where “poor posture” means not holding the spine a certain way), then we have more difficulty doing things when we’re in situations where being hunched over is the only way to get into an awkward situation, like when we have to lift a child into the back seat of a car, or put the pots back into the back of the bottom shelf of the cupboard.

Explanations for pain

Because pain is so common, and critical for human survival, we hold deep and powerful beliefs about what pain should mean, and how we should handle it. We probably all learned that pain is temporary and generally settles down once tissues have healed. We might have learned to hide our tears and not to ask for help when we’re sore. We probably grew up knowing that if tissues are really mangled, then it really hurts, and if it’s a paper cut it shouldn’t bother us. And we learned all the myriad concepts associated with pain – like being too withdrawn or tearful means we’re not really very brave, that if we get angry and hit out at someone who’s helping us with our pain, it’s very bad. We learned that it doesn’t hurt as much when someone “kisses it better”, and we learned that we should find out what’s wrong, get it fixed, and get over it.

But what happens when pain violates our past experience and all the explanations we’ve been given before?

What if we have pain that doesn’t disappear? What if the explanations we get given don’t fit with our own experience? What if the very things we’ve been told to do to “help” our pain actually make our lives worse? What if we’re clinicians who find that all the things we’ve been told should work – just don’t.

If we’ve been good learners, most of us will be unsettled by these inconsistencies. Things don’t add up. We probably keep on looking for “the answer” that will fix the problem. We’ll probably feel guilty and perhaps even a bit embarrassed that this pain is different. We might doubt our own experience and worry that we’re being just a bit pathetic or a really don’t want to get better. Or if we’re clinicians, we may wonder if the person wants to get better, or if they’re really doing the exercises the way they should…

And this isn’t helped by well-meaning people who might suggest that we should keep on looking for “the answer” – even when doing this gets in the way of important things we want to be able to do! So we might take the pills that make us feel groggy and constipated. We keep on doing the exercises that are boring and don’t seem to change anything. We do these things not because they work – but because we think they should work. And so we all get frustrated and irritated and just don’t live lives of richness and fulfillment. Perhaps we forget what we want our lives to stand for anyway.

Difficult conversations

It isn’t easy to talk about pain that doesn’t do what it ought to. Our very human nature makes the situation difficult. I’m hoping that by beginning to think more contextually, more about what works in the here and now, about having a range of options to try so we don’t get backed into an unworkable corner just because that’s what someone has suggested should work, that we the people (those living with chronic pain and those working with those who live with chronic pain) might gently and creatively develop some flexibility around what can be such a sticky  concept. Maybe that’s what resilience is?


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

Your brain has no delete button

Yesterday, nearly five years after the devastating earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, we had another rude reminder that we live on an active fault zone. A 5.7 magnitude earthquake hit just after lunch, throwing me to the ground, breaking our pendant lights, and a bottle toppled off the shelf beside the toilet, falling into the toilet and smashing the rim (lesson to the men in the house: do not leave the toilet seat up!). Needless to say, my heart was racing for a wee while afterwards!

People living in our fair city have had thousands of quakes to deal with over the past five years, most of them not as powerful as yesterday’s one, but nevertheless rather unsettling. In reflecting on the experience I’m reminded that our nervous system is wired more towards learning and reacting to immediate threat – and anything that represents a threat – than it is to calming and soothing the beast within. In fact, there’s good evidence to suggest that we don’t ever “unlearn” a learned response, instead we develop new pathways that can become stronger and more heavily myelinated than the learned paths – but given a similar context we’re as likely as not to activate that same old set of neural impulses and some researchers suggest this is because of epigenetic changes. (Take a look at this study in rats for one reason – it seems contextual memory triggered by cues is more powerful than we thought!)

As I mused on my startle response which is as well-developed as ever (though I jump less often at trucks going past than I did in the months just after the big quake), I thought about our experience of low back pain – or indeed any other chronic pain. While we’ve got very excited about neuroplasticity, and I think we should, I also think we need to temper our enthusiasm with some reality checks. Even though we seem to be able to reduce pain by using neuroplasticity within our treatments (see Pelletier, Higgins and Bourbonnais, 2015, among others), we need to remember that the pathways associated with chronic pain are many – and not just those to and from the sore part! In fact, because we’re fantastic learning creatures, there are many, many ways in which we encode an experience.

We have already seen that seeing a painful limb can increase the experience of pain in people with CRPS and vice versa (Sumitani, Shibita, Iwakura, Matsuda, Sakaue, Inoue et al, 2007), and this phenomenon has been used in mirror therapy and virtual reality treatments for people with CRPS and some other forms of pain (Foell, Bekrater-Bodmann, Diers & Flor, 2014). As a result of this fascinating finding, treatments using laterality, graded motor imagery and novel movements have all become very popular with varying degrees of effectiveness (especially outside the clinic!).

What perhaps we’ve forgotten is that because we’re incredibly good at learning, we’ve associated not just the “internal” location/intensity/quality of that experience, but also a whole bunch of other associations – words (pain, ouch, suffer, back, leg, doing, lifting, crumbling, disc – and others!), movements (sitting, walking, turning, twisting, crouching, climbing), emotions (happy, sad, glad, awestruck, helpless), images (of a back, leg, someone else sitting or walking or moving), locations (treatment facilities, workplace, the garage, making the bed, the pill bottles in the bathroom) – the list goes on! Even the smell of liniment or whatever rubbing lotion was used can bring all those associations back into consciousness.

And each association branches off and associates with other things in a never-ending network of related experiences and memories and relationships. Is it any wonder that some people don’t miraculously “get better” when we decide to “educate” someone about their pain? Especially if we haven’t given them the respect of listening to how they’ve made sense of their situation…

Now in the series of earthquakes from 2011 until now, I haven’t ever really become overwhelmed with anxiety and helplessness. Yes I have been fed up, frustrated, saddened, and I’ve grieved, got angry at bureaucracy and thought that things surely could be done more quickly. Until yesterday, when the growing anxiety (because the houses being built close to us mean there are many hundreds of thumps and thuds as foundations are hammered into the ground far deeper than ever before) I’d been feeling over the past month or so really got triggered by a very real and unexpected event.

Intellectually I know this quake is just another in the same series as we’ve been having. Nothing terribly awful happened. No-one got hurt. BUT my jitters are back – and every time I look at cracks in the ring foundation, the smashed toilet, look at my broken vase, or go to use the Pyrex jug that got smashed, I’m reminded that this event has happened – and could again. Pictures of the cliffs falling at Sumner, clouds of dust rising from them as they tumbled into the sea; images of broken crockery at Briscoes and wine and beer at the local supermarket; the news, and friends talking on Facebook – all of these remind me of what we’ve just been through and have been for so long.

Now picture the person you’re about to see today. That person with the painful back. The person who flicks through the magazines in your waiting room and sees adverts for lotions, analgesia. Who smells the scents in your area. The one who finds it so hard to roll over in bed every night. Or to sit and watch TV. Just remember that you may be able to develop new and novel pathways for moving so that the pain itself isn’t triggered by movements – but all these other associations are still there, and will be from now on. And think beyond the clinic door and into your patient’s daily life. How will you help them transfer the feeling of safety that being with YOU evokes into a feeling of safety everywhere they are? This is why developing effective self management skills, especially becoming nonjudgemental despite experiencing pain is so very, very important.


Foell, J., Bekrater-Bodmann, R., Diers, M., & Flor, H. (2014). Mirror therapy for phantom limb pain: Brain changes and the role of body representation. European Journal of Pain, 18(5), 729-739. doi:10.1002/j.1532-2149.2013.00433.x

Pelletier, R., Higgins, J., & Bourbonnais, D. (2015). Addressing neuroplastic changes in distributed areas of the nervous system associated with chronic musculoskeletal disorders. Physical Therapy, 95(11), 1582-1591.

Sumitani, M., Shibata, M., Iwakura, T., Matsuda, Y., Sakaue, G., Inoue, T., . . . Miyauchi, S. (2007). Pathologic pain distorts visuospatial perception. Neurology, 68(2), 152-154.

Talking past each other: Secret conversations, hidden realities

Take a look at what is written about pain and people living with pain. Look at it with a critical eye. What do you see?

We have descriptions of battling, winning, losing, overcoming, finding a way, getting through, controlling, removing, reducing. Pain is the invader, the alien, something against which we must prevail. And we may prevail using the tools of modern science: we diagnose, we identify, we label and we explain. We treat, we medicate, we use novel movements, graded activity, we avoid sensitising a sensitised nervous system.

The results of this discourse are that when pain does not reduce, is not overcome, cannot be controlled, does not respond to treatment or explanation, we as treatment providers have lost.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. When faced with the situation in which pain “should” have reduced but hasn’t, treatment providers explain away this uncomfortable fact by suggesting that the person hasn’t been following instructions, the treatment wasn’t carried out properly or wasn’t the right treatment, the real cause wasn’t found, the explanation wasn’t thorough enough, the person wasn’t convinced, the treatment wasn’t carried out for long enough, or even that there was a change but the person didn’t recognise it, didn’t make the most of it, expected more.

How often do people living with pain fudge the outcome to avoid displeasing the person treating them? Fail to let the clinician know that yes, there’s still an impact on life despite pain being explained or managed?

Words, or discourse, are as John Shotter put it, “prostheses for moving about through our world’s physicality” (Shotter, 1993). By conversing, clinicians are given a glimpse into a client’s world, but at the same time, clinicians shape that conversation, guiding and leading it in directions that suit the clinician’s purpose. The words used by the client are translated into technical jargon, one prosthesis replaced with another, more “correct” one. Much of the “what it is like” to live with pain is never spoken of, perhaps never verbalised and never made tangible.

Let’s examine some of the expectations we as clinicians might hold about pain (taken from Strong, 1999):

  1. Pain is personal and individual. This means that outward demonstrations of pain are discouraged – those who do are labelled negatively and called “distressed”, “disabled”, their behaviour called “maladaptive”, and in some cases even called “histrionic”, “malingering”, or simply “wallowing”.
  2. Pain is valid only if “we” all agree on it. Although this discourse is slowly changing there’s a hint still present that if the person doesn’t “recover” the way they’re expected to, there’s something wrong with them – it’s those “psychosocial factors”, not the real pain mechanisms.
  3. Suffering, or the loss of self, is some sort of moral or physical failing of the person.  They haven’t “accepted” it, they have ongoing litigation or compensation, they must be getting secondary gain.

I am guilty of these kinds of attitudes. I have been guilty of projecting my own frustration at people who haven’t responded the way I think they ought to. I’ve held beliefs that people should get better because I’ve conducted good therapy and if they haven’t made changes it can’t possibly be my fault, it must be “them”.

In a conversation over the weekend I was reminded that despite generally being someone who deals with my pain (and depression) reasonably well, there is a whole hidden conversation that I rarely engage in, and in failing to acknowledge that part of the “what it is like” to live with pain I’ve missed being compassionate towards myself – and probably others.  That conversation for me was about the never-ending presence of pain at all times somewhere in my body. There is never a time when I’m not sore somewhere. I ache in my lower back, I burn between my shoulder blades, my neck is tight, my MCPs feel hot and bruised, my toes are tingling and sensitive.  I have heaviness behind my eyes. My belly hurts.

The point behind posting this is not that I seek comfort or support or anything from anyone else, but simply to acknowledge that although I know my pain is meaningless, it doesn’t reflect harm or damage and doesn’t pose a threat – it is still present. And in being present, in order to do what is good and enriching and valuable, I must use energy to put that pain experience to one side. I need to accommodate that pain, and take account of it at all times.  And that is tiring. It can be more than tiring, it can be exhausting.

In his article, Strong describes a practice that I guess today would be called mindfulness. He describes “listening for, and working within, the language of visceral experience” to help people transform the quality from one of rejection or judgement, into an “authenticating or welcoming stance”.  He suggests beginning by actively focusing in a relaxed manner on the area which most feels pained, using breathing and concentration. Using this focusing to explore the sensory quality of that area anew – a gentle curiosity. To stay “with” the area – and if working with a therapist, the therapist must “stay with” their client by using “clean language” or the client’s actual words to reflect that the experience has been “authenticated”, or verified by co-construction.

Hidden or secret experiences continue to have an impact although they are rarely discussed. While my experience of pain is certainly personal, the impact it has on me and what I do (and even on what I allow myself to acknowledge) is public. Or it can be if I allow it to be so. By hiding my experience from others I show a public face of energy and effervescence that isn’t complete. It’s not authentic. It suggests to others that I may not have this experience. I wonder how often I/we as clinicians make our therapeutic space safe and nonjudgmental enough for the people we work with to get in touch with those aspects of “what it is like” to live with pain that are hidden, are buried beneath the facade of winning, overcoming, battling, being explained away.

And here’s a final kicker: having been open to being vulnerable, how many of you find it hard to read this honesty? What’s your initial response? Do you want to fix it? Find a solution? Offer me something? Do something for me, to me? What would it be like to simply be present and experience the “what it is like” to be utterly fatigued by ever-present pain? Would you be willing to stay with that experience? And what would it mean to you? Your response will, if you let it, tell you a secret.


Shotter, J. (1993). The cultural politics of everyday understanding. London: Basil Blackwell.

Strong, Tom. (1999). Macro- and micro-conversation in conspiring with chronic pain. Journal of Systemic Therapies, 18(3), 37-50.

Deciding when to say when: pain cure? or pain managed?

I think the subject of this post is the singularly most important yet neglected topic in chronic pain research today. When is it time to say “All this looking at pain cure, or reducing your pain isn’t working, it’s time to accept that pain is going to part of your life.” It’s difficult for so many reasons whether you’re the person experiencing the pain, or the clinician trying to help. It’s also incredibly important for everyone including our community.

Cures for pain that persists are not easily found. One possibility is that the underlying disease or dysfunction has not yet been treated – pain in this case is the experience we have when there’s an unresolved threat to body tissues. Find the source of the problem, treat it, and voila! No pain.

Another possibility is that a new or groovy treatment has been developed – something extraordinary, or something that’s being applied to a different problem or something that’s emerging from the experimental phase to clinical practice.  This means clinicians need to have heard about it, maybe will have had to think hard about their clinical reasoning, have developed skills to apply it, and be ready to talk about it with the person they’re treating.

In the case of much chronic pain, pharmacological approaches simply do not work. Machado and colleagues (2009), in a large meta-analysis of placebo-controlled randomised trials, found 76 eligible trials reporting on 34 treatments. Fifty percent of the treatments had statistically significant effects, but for most the effects were small or moderate … the analgesic effects of many treatments for non-specific low back pain are small”, while Machado, Maher and colleagues found that paracetamol was “ineffective” for reducing pain intensity or improving quality of life for people with low back pain, and although there was a statistically significant result for paracetamol on osteoarthritis pain (hip or knee), this was not clinically important (Machado, Maher, Ferreira, Pinheiro, Lin, et al_2015).  Clifford Woolf said “most existing analgesics for persistent pain are relatively ineffective… the number of patients who are needed to be treated to achieve 50% reduction in neuropathic pain in one patient is more than four – a high cost for the three unsuccessfully treated patients and their physicians” (Woolf, 2010).

Woolf’s sentence ends with an important statement: A high cost for the three unsuccessfully treated patients and their physicians. I have emphasised the final three words, because this might be the most difficult to process. It’s hard for clinicians to say “I can’t reduce your pain”, and “there isn’t a cure”. It’s incredibly hard. And it’s perhaps because it’s so hard that I’ve found very little published research looking at the way clinicians go about telling people their pain is likely to be ongoing. It’s like a taboo – let’s not talk about it, let’s pretend it doesn’t happen, after all it doesn’t happen often.  Really?

Amongst allied health (I can’t bear to use the word “non-medical”), and in particular, physiotherapists, there continues to be a push to address pain intensity and (ultimately) to cure pain.  Innovative treatments such as mirror therapy, graded motor imagery, therapeutic pain neuroscience (we used to call it psycho-education in the 1980’s when I first started working in this area), reducing the threat value of the experience have all come into their own over the past 15 years or so. Even long-standing pain problems apparently respond to these approaches – people cured! Who wouldn’t be keen to try them?

Most of these latter treatments are based on the idea that our neurology is plastic; that is, it can change as we change input and thoughts/beliefs about what’s going on.  Unfortunately, the systematic reviews of trials, and at least one “real world” trial of graded motor imagery haven’t shown effects as great as promised from the early research (eg Johnson, Hall, Barnett, Draper, Derbyshire et al, 2012). There are sure to be people who can point to amazing outcomes in the people they treat. I’m certain that it’s not just the “treatment” but an awful lot to do with the person delivering the treatment – and the treatment context – that might make a difference to outcomes.

But where this all leads me to is who makes the decision to stop chasing pain reduction and pain cure? When does it happen? What’s the process? And what if we treatment providers are actually prolonging disability out of the goodness of our hearts to find a cure?

Let me unpack this a little.

In my research, several important factors led to people deciding to begin flexibly persisting (and getting on with life as it is, not as it was, or might be).

  • The first was knowing the diagnosis and that it would not be completely cured but could be managed.
  • The second, that hurting didn’t mean harm (pain is just pain, not a sign of ongoing damage).
  • The third, that there was something important the person wanted or needed to do to be themselves.

There were other things as well, like having a clinician who would stand by the person even if the person didn’t “do as the Doctor ordered”, and developing their own personalised model or explanation for their pain as it fluctuated from day-to-day. BUT the single most important factor was knowing that the problem needed to be managed because there was no cure. Knowing this meant that energy used chasing a cure was redirected towards learning to live well and be the person they were, rather than a patient or being dominated by pain.

Unfortunately, I think that many clinicians confuse the idea of managing pain with that of resignation to a lesser life. Even the wonderful Lorimer Moseley and crew wrote recently that “CBT literature seemed to focus on this idea of ‘pain is now unavoidable so it is now time to learn how to cope with it.’ He goes on to argue that because a CBT approach focuses on thoughts and beliefs (much like Explain Pain does), it’s not incompatible with the idea that the plastic brain can learn to reduce the threat value even further to ultimately “helping them live well with less pain, or perhaps without any pain at all.”

Here’s my concern: Right now there are many people living with chronic pain who have lost their sense of hope. They’ve pursued pain cure after pain cure, and in doing so, they’ve lost normal routines and habits, lost their usual occupations (activities), stopped being around people, stopped working, and have suffered in the true sense of the word – they’ve lost their sense of self. While I applaud the efforts of researchers like Moseley and colleagues, and I think we must continue to seek treatments to reverse the neurobiological underpinnings of pain, at the same time I think we need to look at the psychological and social aspects of our attitudes and expectations towards experiencing pain. And we must think of the negative effects of our emotional response to seeing another person who is experiencing pain.

Is it so terrible to experience pain every day? Speaking as one who does – despite my knowledge of neuroplasticity – my pain doesn’t represent a threat. It’s just an experience. It’s there. I notice it, I can feel it. And the participants in my research similarly acknowledged pain as present – but it didn’t have the emotional primacy that pain can represent before it is explained. In fact, some of the participants said they’d learned important things because they’d had pain. A lot like having a mood disorder (that must be managed), or diabetes (that must be managed), or heart disease (that must be managed), or respiratory disease (that must be managed), perhaps it’s OK to have pain – that must be managed. Because until our research has advanced a LOT further than it has, there are an awful lot of people living with chronic pain, and who will continue to live with chronic pain. And even more sadly, there are an awful lot of people who don’t even get the opportunity to know that it’s possible to live well despite experiencing chronic pain because we (as part of society) still don’t accept that pain can be present without it being a threat.

Sometimes I wonder at our (clinicians and researchers) blind spot. We just don’t seem to be ready to accept persisting pain as something that can be lived with. Is it time to look at our own discomfort with allowing pain to be part of life?


Bowering, K. J., O’Connell, N. E., Tabor, A., Catley, M. J., Leake, H. B., Moseley, G. L., & Stanton, T. R. (2013). The effects of graded motor imagery and its components on chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Pain, 14(1), 3-13.

Cossins, L., Okell, R. W., Cameron, H., Simpson, B., Poole, H. M., & Goebel, A. (2013). Treatment of complex regional pain syndrome in adults: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials published from June 2000 to February 2012. European Journal of Pain, 17(2), 158-173.

Johnson, S., Hall, J., Barnett, S., Draper, M., Derbyshire, G., Haynes, L., . . . Goebel, A. (2012). Using graded motor imagery for complex regional pain syndrome in clinical practice: failure to improve pain. European Journal of Pain, 16(4), 550-561.

Machado, LAC, Kamper, SJ, Herbert, RD, Maher, CG, & McAuley, JH. (2009). Analgesic effects of treatments for non-specific low back pain: a meta-analysis of placebo-controlled randomized trials. Rheumatology, 48(5), 520-527.

Machado, Gustavo C, Maher, Chris G, Ferreira, Paulo H, Pinheiro, Marina B, Lin, Chung-Wei Christine, Day, Richard O, . . . Ferreira, Manuela L. (2015). Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials (Vol. 350).

Woolf, Clifford J. (2010). Overcoming obstacles to developing new analgesics. Nature Medical, 16(11), 1241-1247. doi: doi:10.1038/nm.2230