Therapeutic approaches

Pain concepts for practice: Occupational therapists


Registration opens 11 Feburary 2023, click here for more details – click

Numbers limited to 20 to ensure a great learning experience.

Fundamental concepts for clinical practice including pain neurobiology, assessment, formulation and therapy.

Persistent pain and movement practices


Here I go, stepping into “the bio” to write about movement. Oh dear, what am I doing?

Movement practices of various kinds are part and parcel of pain management. In fact, to read some of the material in social media-land, exercise is the be-all and end-all of pain management, maybe with a dash of psychology. Can we please stop doing this?

I’ve said it often, for many forms of persistent pain, especially the most common forms – nonspecific chronic low back pain, fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritic pain – movement is a good thing, but the effect sizes are small for both pain intensity and disability (eg Jayden, et al., 2021). I’ve reproduced the author’s conclusions below:

We found moderate‐certainty evidence that exercise is probably effective for treatment of chronic low back pain compared to no treatment, usual care or placebo for pain. The observed treatment effect for the exercise compared to no treatment, usual care or placebo comparisons is small for functional limitations, not meeting our threshold for minimal clinically important difference. We also found exercise to have improved pain (low‐certainty evidence) and functional limitations outcomes (moderate‐certainty evidence) compared to other conservative treatments; however, these effects were small and not clinically important when considering all comparisons together. Subgroup analysis suggested that exercise treatment is probably more effective than advice or education alone, or electrotherapy, but with no differences observed for manual therapy treatments.

So for chronic low back pain, short-term pain intensity reduction is clinically significant, but neither functional limitations nor pain intensity reductions over the long-term reached clinical significance. Ouch! This means that we must not oversell the usefulness of exercise as a panacea for chronic pain.

Some missing bits in this meta-analysis: how many people carried on doing their exercise programmes? Why did they keep on going if they didn’t experience reduced pain or better function? How many people dropped out from follow-up?

But my biggest question is “Why does increased physical fitness and reduced pain not translate into better function in daily life?” And of course, my next question is “What might improve the daily life outcomes for people with pain?”

I might also ask why there is so much emphasis on exercise as an approach for chronic pain? Why oh why? One reason could be the assumptions made about the reasons people have trouble with daily life activities. A reasonable assumption might be that people are unfit. Another might be that people don’t have confidence to move. But if these assumptions were true, we’d see better results than this. Perhaps we need to be much more sophisticated and begin to explore what really does impact a person’s daily life activities? My plea therefore is that we cease doing RCTs comparing exercises of various forms to placebo, no treatment or usual care. Please. We know movement is a good thing, and with the enormous number of studies carried out, surely we can stop now?!*

Here are some clinical reasoning pointers when employing movement practices. I’m being agnostic with respect to what form of movement practice [insert your favourite here].

  • Find out what the person enjoys doing for movement/exercise. Aim to do this, or build towards doing this. Start low and build up intensity, load and frequency.
  • Find out why the person has stopped doing their movement/exercise practice. If pain has stopped them, be curious about what they think is going on, what they think the pain means, what happens if they experience pain doing their favourite movement practice, and find out how long and how much they’ve done before pain stops them. Then address unhelpful beliefs, re-set the starting point and progress in a gentle graded way.
  • If the person hasn’t ever been a movement/exercise person, be curious about why. Explore this in detail – beliefs about movement, movement practices they’ve tried, time available, cost, all the things that might get in the way of doing a movement practice. You might find it was a high school physical ed. practice that totally put them off – but look beyond “exercise” or “sports” and remember that movement includes walking, dancing, gardening, playing with the dog, fishing, kayaking….

When you’re starting to generate a movement practice programme, for goodness sake ask the person when they’re going to find time to do it, and don’t make it too long! Explore when might be the most convenient time, and what might make it easy to do. Use low cost, low-tech practices. Find out what might get in the way of doing the movement practice, and do some problem-solving – anticipate what goes through a person’s mind and together, come up with counter-arguments or better, think of some really important values that might underpin the reason to do what is undoubtedly difficult for this person in their life.

Think about life-long habits and routines. How might this person explore options that could fit into their life as they get older? What might they do if the weather is bad, or they have an addition to the family? How many different movement practices can you and the person think of? And remember, if it’s OK for a person at a gym to do “leg day” one day, and “arm day” another, it’s perfectly fine for someone to do gardening one day, and go for a walk up the hill the next. Don’t be boring! Invite exploration and variety.

Work on translating the movement practices you and the person do in clinic into the daily life movements the person is having trouble doing. This might mean asking the person about their daily life and what’s most difficult for them to do right now. If it’s bending to load/unload the dishwasher, ask them what’s going on, what comes up for them when they do this? Is the problem about physical capability – or is it because it’s at the end of a long day at work, they’re tired and haven’t been sleeping and they’re worrying about how the pain in their back is going to affect their sleep tonight? If it’s the latter – guess what, physical exercise isn’t going to change this! So talk about what they can do to help with their sleep, or if that’s not your forte, talk to another team member (occupational therapist, psychologist) about what might help.

Note that as clinicians, we have no right to dictate what a person’s life looks like. This means we can’t judge a person for their choice of movement practice. We also can’t dictate how often or how intense their “workout” should be. It’s going to vary, depending on all the things this person in front of you values most. And we must respect this – don’t be judgemental, their values may be very different from yours, and this is perfectly OK. Just help them explore the good – and not so good – of their choices.

Finally, don’t be afraid to have fun with movement! Play a little. If disc golf is the person’s thing – go try it out! If jive dance is their thing, maybe it’s time you gave that a go. If they like hiking to a quiet spot to do a little bird photography, go with them and carry your own camera gear. If their life is so busy that movement practice gets squeezed out, work with them to find ways to get movement snacks into their day. Don’t be boring. And worry a little less about “prescribing” movement, and much more about experiencing your body as a living sensory being – get in the moment and enjoy what your body is able to do. That is really what we’re encouraging in movement practices for chronic pain.

*A couple of other guesses for why exercise gets seen as The Best Thing – it’s “cheap” in comparison with other options, people can do it reasonably easily after therapy, there are LOTS of physiotherapists and others who offer this, it appeals to our “simple” (but wrong) beliefs about pain, psychological approaches are more expensive (though don’t offer better outcomes), daily life occupational therapy approaches are really hard to conduct as RCTs….

Hayden JA, Ellis J, Ogilvie R, Malmivaara A, van Tulder MW. Exercise therapy for chronic low back pain. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2021, Issue 9. Art. No.: CD009790. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD009790.pub2. Accessed 18 December 2022.

The joy of having many data points


Researchers and clinicians are drawn to studies with many participants. Especially randomised controlled trials, where two groups are randomly divided and one gets “the real thing” while the other does not. The joy comes from knowing that results from these kinds of studies suggest that, all things being equal, the differences between the groups is “real” and not just by chance.

When we come to analyse the graphs from these kinds of studies, what we hope to see are two nice bell-shaped curves, with distinct peaks (the arithmetic mean) and long tails either side – and a clear separation between the mean of one group (the experimental one) and the control group.

It should look a bit like this:

Now one of the problems in doing research is that we can’t always guarantee a large sample – for example, it’s difficult to find enough people with a relatively rare problem like complex regional pain syndrome to randomly split the groups to iron out major differences between them. And, this kind of research design presumes the principle of ergodicity – here for more information from Wikipedia, or here for a more detailed examination relating to generalising from groups to individuals.

This research design also struggles to deal with distributions that don’t conform to the lovely bell curve – things like bimodal distributions, or skewed distributions. And if we draw only on the mean – we don’t get to see these delightful peaks and troughs – or the people at either end of the curves.

The more variables we add to analysis, the more complex the statistics needed – so in the case of pain research, we often have to simplify the research question, do complex maths to “normalise” the results, and ultimately we get research that doesn’t look the slightest bit like the people we see in clinical practice. No wonder we get results that don’t look nearly as nice as the research studies!

Now I don’t mind statistics at all, but I do mind research papers that don’t declare the assumptions made when using analyses. Many papers assume the reader knows these assumptions – unlike qualitative research where the authors philosophical assumptions are openly stated, and where epistemology and ontology are considered part of the research design.

So why might lots of data points be cool?

Most of us working in a clinic will be seeing an individual. One person, with all their unique history, attributes, vulnerabilities, preferences and values. When we extrapolate the findings from RCTs especially, and apply them to this unique person, we risk failing to acknowledge that we’re violating the principle of ergodicity, and that our person may be one of those falling at the tails of that bell curve: or worse, in the middle of a bimodal distribution. Given that most pain problems, particularly persistent pain, are multifactorial, applying a single “solution” no matter how many studies showing a positive effect there are, may not cut it.

For years I’ve been pointing out the value, both in research and in clinical practice, of single case experimental designs. There are loads of reasons for using this approach, and it’s a method with a long history. Essentially, the person serves as their own control, they take lots of measurements before introducing a treatment, the treatment is applied and changes in the measurements are closely monitored. If there’s a change in the expected direction, we can test whether it was the treatment by withdrawing said treatment, and closely monitoring any changes in the measurements. Of course, there are challenges to using this approach – we have to be able to withdraw the treatment, and that doesn’t work if it’s something like “information”. But there are ways around this – and the method of intensive longitudinal repeated measures is becoming a rich source of information about change processes.

Change processes are changes that mediate the final outcome. In other words, when we do a treatment, either the treatment directly causes the end outcome – eg give someone a raised toilet seat, and they can get off the toilet because the toilet is at a good height for them – or via some other process – eg by giving the raised toilet seat, the person gains confidence to get on and off the toilet so it’s not the toilet seat per se, but enhanced confidence that mediates the outcome.

Change processes matter because once we’ve identified them, we can develop ways to work with them more effectively. We can also measure the progress a person makes on more than one change process, and refine what we do in our treatments in response. The more data points we collect from that one person, the more we can track their trajectory – and the better we can understand what’s going on in their world to influence their responses.

Technology for repeated measures in real time has become much smarter and more invisible than it used to be. We can still employ some of the simpler techniques – a pen and paper diary still has used! But we then have to rely on the person remembering to fill them in. Passive data collection using wearable technology is something many of us use to track fitness, diet, sleep, travel, heart rate variability and so on. Set the parameters, and as long as you’re wearing the gadget, your data is captured.

Before anyone leaps in to tell me the gadgets are prone to measurement error, believe me I know! For example, monitoring sleep using a phone (or even a smartwatch) doesn’t monitor sleep depth, it monitors movement (and records snoring LOL). However – and this is important – it is more likely to get used than anything requiring me to do something extra in my day. And we can integrate both passive data collection and active data collection using similar technologies. For example, it’s not difficult to send an SMS (instant text message) at random times during the day to ask someone a brief and simple question.

Where these repeated measures approaches get a bit gnarly is in analysing the data – but even this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The analyses require a good understanding of what it is being measured (and why), and how best to use complex statistical analyses to understand how one factor (variable) might influence another.

The advantages of using intensive measures in clinic lie with understanding how, for example, one day of additional activity (measured using the step counter combined with GPS tracking) might directly influence mood the next day (or pain, or energy levels or whatever). We still need to apply critical thinking to uncover the causal mechanisms (is it plausible for factor X to directly cause a change in factor Y?) and to check whether the results are stable over time (or just a chance fluctuation). Another advantage is that we can quickly step in to experiment with an intervention – and watch what happens. For example, if we think being very active on one day has an effect on mood the following day, we can test this out: try experimenting with a day of lots of activity, and monitor what happens the next day, or the converse, do very little and monitor what happens with mood the following day. Rinse and repeat until we’re certain that for this person, activity level has an effect on mood.

And the study that made me think about all this? It’s this one by Whibley, Williams, Clauw, Sliwinski and Kratz (2022) – click

If we want to really develop excellent clinically-relevant research-based ways to understand what might be going on for the one person in front of us, and not for the large mixed group of people included in a randomised controlled trial, we could be inspired to look at intensive repeated “micro-longitudinal” research strategies as models for clinic-based research.

Whibley, D., Williams, D. A., Clauw, D. J., Sliwinski, M. J., & Kratz, A. L. (2022). Within-day rhythms of pain and cognitive function in people with and without fibromyalgia: synchronous or syncopated? Pain, 163(3), 474-482. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002370

On making things easier…Occupational therapists and ‘compensatory’ approaches


If there is one part of occupational therapy practice that gets more of my middle-aged grumpiness than any other, it’s occupational therapists using compensatory approaches for managing pain. And like anything, it’s complicated and nuanced. So here’s my attempt to work my way through the quagmire.

Compensatory approaches consist of a whole range of interventions that aim to “make up for” a deficit in a person’s occupational performance (see Nicholson & Hayward (2022) for a discussion of compensatory approaches in “functional neurological disorder”). The rationale for compensatory approaches is that by employing these strategies, a person is able to do what they need and want to do in daily life: the raison d’etre for occupational therapy (WFOT, 2012). End of story, right? If the person wants to be able to use the toilet independently, then a piece of equipment (a rail, a toilet seat, a long-handled wiper, easily removed and replaced clothing) makes sense, surely?

Short answer is no, not always. And long answer is – well, it depends.

First of all, let’s take a quick look at compensatory approaches used with people experiencing pain. Remember that people seeing occupational therapists may have acute post-surgical pain (eg post arthroplasty pain) or they may have long-term pain from conditions like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis etc. In an acute hospital setting, it makes sense for someone to be helped to leave the hospital ward by providing them with a safe way to manage important daily life tasks such as using a toilet, shower/bath, getting dressed, making a meal. The intention behind using a compensatory approach is to give short-term strategies to foster independence, or to provide strategies to “make up for” functional deficits the person may never overcome.

The strategies can include adaptive equipment – I’ve mentioned the ubiquitous raised toilet seat and rails, but there are also chair raisers, bathboards, commodes, kitchen trolleys and so on. Strategies can also include “ergonomic”* approaches intended to reduce biomechanical demands, and often applied in the workplace such as adjustable office chairs, wrist rests, monitor height adjustment, sit/stand desks, lighting etc. Occupational therapists might discuss task simplification, where people are encouraged to consider whether a task needs to be done, needs to be done in a particular way, needs to be done right now, or needs to be done by that person. Activity pacing could be added to the list: choosing when and how to carry out various daily life tasks over the course of a day, a week, a month. So far, so good.

The problems arising from this approach lie in its long-term use, or use in a rehabilitation context. Let me unpack why.

In rehabilitation, our aims are to support a person to go through a process of change (relating to their health and the impact of a disease or disorder) that aims to enhance health outcomes including quality of life (Jehanne Dubouloz, et al., 2010). The person’s capabilities are in a state of flux during this process, and our intentions are (usually) to improve the person’s ability to do daily life tasks. Early rehabilitation might occur in a hospital setting, but generally the expectation is that the person will end up doing their daily life in their own context. In many cases, people don’t get admitted to a hospital, but receive all their rehabilitation as an outpatient, or in their own home.

In persistent pain management and rehabilitation, there are often two phases: 1) the secondary prevention phase, where the focus is on reducing or ameliorating the impact of pain on daily life and often focusing on reducing pain, increasing function, reducing healthcare use, reducing distress and enhancing quality of life. 2) the tertiary prevention phase, where the focus is less on reducing pain (although this is still part of the picture) and much more on helping the person do what matters in daily life in the presence of pain, increasing function, reducing healthcare use, reducing distress and enhancing quality of life. Good examples of occupational therapy for persistent pain are in the literature, although like most interventions, the results are equivocal (eg Nielsen, et al., 2021). The main distinction between these two phases lies in how much attention is paid to pain reduction or elimination. Perhaps this is where so many of our conversations about pain management and rehabilitation come unstuck, because the point at which we (the person and his or her clinician) discuss the likelihood of pain persisting despite all of our best efforts is pretty opaque. We simply don’t know, and we have very little to guide us, and furthermore, both clinicians and people living with pain are loath to talk about what is a highly challenging topic. More about that some other time!

For occupational therapists, offering compensatory equipment during the secondary prevention phase might be where we come unstuck. While they help the person do what matters to them, if they are not reviewed and gradually removed, they can foster remaining stuck with that technique or strategy with all its inherent limitations.

What are those limitations? Well, take the example of a raised toilet seat – great when it’s available for use in a person’s home, but pretty darned useless when that person is out doing the grocery shopping, visiting another family member, going to a restaurant or the cinema. Toilet seat raisers are not the easiest thing to carry around! Similarly with a cushion to make sitting easier: fabulous for reducing discomfort, but then you have to carry the thing around wherever you go!

My point is that when a person’s capabilities are changing, so must our solutions. Occupational therapists need to be responsive to changes in a person’s function, and change compensatory strategies accordingly. When this doesn’t occur, we risk working at odds with the rehabilitative approach used by other team members.

Am I saying don’t use compensatory approaches? Not at all! I’ll be very happy to use task simplification or a shower stool if I return home following hip or knee arthroplasty. And if my cognitive capabilities are limited as they were when I had post-concussion syndrome, I’m very happy to incorporate activity management, fatigue management and compensatory ‘aide memoirs’ (my ever-handy lists and diary!) as part of my life – until I don’t need them any more. Thankfully I had great therapists who helped fade or withdraw the range of compensatory supports I used as my recovery progressed.

Soon I’ll be writing about a framework occupational therapists (and other rehabilitation and pain management clinicians) can use to review their therapeutic approaches. In the meantime, it’s crucial for occupational therapists to take the time to understand the factors contributing to a person’s difficulty doing daily life. If those factors are able to be changed, and if the context is not constrained by “we must get this person out of hospital”, then perhaps we need to stop and think carefully about when, where and whether a compensatory approach is useful.

*I use the term “ergonomic” in quotes because technically, ergonomic approaches are not just about office equipment, but is actually a larger and almost philosophical practice of ensuring that work fits the person/humans doing the tasks. It sprang from work undertaken during the Second World War when it was found that dashboards on aeroplanes, and the machines that fabricated parts for them, did not work for most people. Essentially, it is a systems-based approach to ensuring human capabilities and limitations are considered during the design of workplaces to minimise errors, maximise productivity, reduce cognitive load, and enhance performance.

Jehanne Dubouloz, C., King, J., Ashe, B., Paterson, B., Chevrier, J., & Moldoveanu, M. (2010). The process of transformation in rehabilitation: what does it look like?. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 17(11), 604-615.

Nicholson, C., Hayward, K. (2022). Occupational Therapy: Focus on Function. In: LaFaver, K., Maurer, C.W., Nicholson, T.R., Perez, D.L. (eds) Functional Movement Disorder. Current Clinical Neurology. Humana, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-86495-8_24

Nielsen, S. S., Christensen, J. R., Søndergaard, J., Mogensen, V. O., Enemark Larsen, A., Skou, S. T., & Simonÿ, C. (2021). Feasibility assessment of an occupational therapy lifestyle intervention added to multidisciplinary chronic pain treatment at a Danish pain centre: a qualitative evaluation from the perspectives of patients and clinicians. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, 16(1), 1949900.

World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Statement of occupational therapy. 2012. http://www.wfot.org/about-occupational-therapy.

How much “pain ed” do people need? And what to do when someone is not convinced…


This post has been a long time coming. There’s no doubt that giving explanations about pain mechanisms is common, and that we’ve (health professionals) been doing it a looooong time. Yes, way back to the 1970’s! In the early 1980’s when I started working in this field it was already commonplace to offer people an explanation for chronic pain (and to explain why some pains are such pains, while others bother us less – even when they involve the same degree of nociceptive input). Of course, way back then we used Gate Control Theory (GCT) to explain the distinction between hurt and harm, to explore why attention and emotion matter, and to introduce the idea of counter-stimulation and TENS: suffice to say clinicians used these metaphors especially for people with persistent pain (Katz & Rosenbloom, 2015).

Then along came Moseley, Nicholas and Hodges (2004) with a nicely-designed RCT comparing “pain neurophysiology” education with “back anatomy and physiology” provided by “trained physical therapist educators.” The results of this study showed “Education about pain neurophysiology changes pain cognitions and physical performance but is insufficient by itself to obtain a change in perceived disability.” Somehow the lack of relationship between changes in pain cognitions and physical performance and perceived disability got lost in translation, but what happened next was an explosion of interest in the effects of providing explanations about pain mechanisms.

Today, the old adage “if you have a hammer, all you see are nails” seems to apply when it comes to “pain mechanism explanations.” Everyone gets an explanation, many of the explanations are exactly the same (sometimes down to the same book being used), and I wonder how people with pain feel about this. Like the way we feel at the end of Christmas Day feasting – noooooo! not another mouthful!

Recently I was asked “how much pain ed do people need?” and my first thought was “it depends.” That’s my answer to most things in pain! Suffice to say, I think we need sound clinical reasoning before we launch into any intervention, and this means we need to understand the rationale for giving someone a pain mechanisms explanation. This post attempts to shed some light on when it might be useful.

One reason given for “educating” people (please, no! “educating” someone sounds so like an info-dump, and focuses us on what WE do, rather than on the EFFECT this information is intended to have) – one reason is to reduce pain intensity. Education, however, doesn’t have an incredibly powerful action on my pain when I burn myself doing silversmithing. The effect of information on pain may be via appraisal: if I think my pain is not a direct measure of tissue damage, then I might not be as distressed by it (and indeed, this is one of the effects identified in the Moseley, et al., 2004 study – changes in the Survey of Pain Attitudes and the Pain Catastrophising Scale showing reduced catastrophising brought about by recognising that hurt isn’t equal to harm).

As a result of not being as distressed, a person doesn’t have to communicate their fear through a number on a 0 – 100mm VAS. Because remember, we don’t have a pure measure of pain intensity and the VAS is a communication device. Pain behaviour, or what we do about our pain, is at least partly about communicating to others (Hadjistavropoulos et al., 2011; Lackner & Gurtmann, 2004) – and we all know we’d never get prescribed analgesia in an Emergency Dept with 30mm pain on a 0 – 100mm VAS!

Similarly, if we’re not as afraid of what pain means, we’re less likely to be worried about moving – so I wasn’t at all surprised to see the changes in straight leg raising and other physical performance measures. I also wasn’t surprised to see no change to perceived disability because doing functional activities in the real world is a whole lot more scary than in a controlled, supervised clinical setting. Remember this, folks, when you’re prescribing movement practices: they do not directly transfer into confidence and performance in daily life!

So if giving an explanation is about reducing distress, maybe it’s also about reducing uncertainty. Zaman and colleagues (2021) found that uncertainty hasn’t been studied as much as I’d hope and worse, it’s often studied in experimental settings where there is certainty that the pain will end, and this in turn is quite unlike me and my fibromyalgia pain which is both unpredictable and not controllable. There’s no doubt that helping someone understand that their pain isn’t a dread disease (cancer, some weird inflammatory disease, a nasty neurological – oh wait, it IS a nasty neurological thing…!) will likely reduce their distress, and might even reduce uncertainty – because at least we know what it’s not! But uncertainty remains with persistent pain because no-one knows when/if it will end, often we don’t know why it gets set off, and we clearly don’t have a handle on why it goes on and flares.

It makes sense, then, to consider pain mechanism explanations when a person 1) is not sure what it all means, 2) worries that it’s something nasty, and 3) thinks it’s both a direct reflection of what has happened to their tissues and 4) that they personally can’t do much about it.

We might also think of giving someone some information about their pain if we want to help them understand why we might be trying something like mindfulness, relaxation, stress management, or even normal movement. We can employ the little we know about cortical processes and descending inhibition, and polyvagal theory and sympathethic arousal, as well as physiological responses to movement/exercise to explain the rationale for these interventions if we so choose.

BUT we don’t have to all the time. Why? Because we can do these things anyway and help the person explore their responses in vivo! This may be more powerful than giving any kind of ham-fisted explanation, whether it be a cookie cutter one, or a tailor-made metaphor.

A few posts ago, I wrote about McCracken and Scott’s (2022) paper exploring the potential problems of making sense. This showed that sense-making can impede a person’s readiness to engage in therapy if their desire to make sense means they reject explanations that don’t fit with their understanding or when they overthink what the explanations mean. In these instances, it makes much more sense for us (see what I did then?) to help them begin to do what matters in their life than continue looking for explanations.

My guidelines for working through “pain mechanisms”?

  • If the person is a geek and likes to delve into learning about their body and responses – go for it! (ie, people like me :-))
  • If the person asks for information, or has questions about specific aspects of their pain or treatment
  • As part of generating a case formulation, where the person and you collaborate to develop a model of what’s going on for them. As a clinician you’ll be using guided discovery to work out the processes that occur in predictable patterns, and these patterns in turn can become the focus of where and how you might interrupt them.
  • After asking the person for their understanding, and there’s something in their version that’s unhelpful for their progress. For example, if the person tells you that they think a scan will uncover “the real reason” for their pain, or if they’ve taken on board an unhelpful belief that their joints are grinding bone on bone… you know the sort of thing. After asking permission to explore these thoughts/beliefs, you might find it OK to offer an alternative – but if it’s not getting in the way of them engaging in therapy, then just go along with it and use guided discovery instead.

What to do instead of explaining mechanisms?

  • Focus on helping the person move towards what matters in their life, even if it doesn’t always make sense to the person. Use their experiences to guide their understanding, it’s far more powerful than any kind of external “truth”.
  • Use guided discovery, drawing from their own experiences and asking them to reflect on the effect of what they do and know on their experience. For example, ask the person what it’s like when they’ve been worrying about what’s going on in their OA knee, what do they notice about their overall stress level, what does that do to their pain, what effect might that worry have on sleep or fatigue and how this might influence their pain and doing what matters.
  • Offer skills to help deal with uncertainty and worries such as mindfulness (but OMG not to reduce pain, puhleaze!), attention management, and cognitive defusion.
  • Always draw a connection between what you explain and what this means clinically. For example, if you want to discuss nociplastic mechanisms, what this might mean is a tendency for “normal” injuries or tissue disruption pain to hang around a lot longer. It might also mean pain spreads out a bit more. It can help explain why many medications are ineffective. And it’s useful when another clinician has suggested that because “there’s nothing on your scan, therefore there’s nothing wrong.” But tread lightly because there is SO much we do not know!

I like to draw on the principles of motivational interviewing in my work with people. Respecting their autonomy and right to decide means I need to ask permission before I give information to them. I need to have a clear clinical reason for doing so – and this isn’t “because it reduces pain” – it needs to have specific indications for this person. Understanding how and why “pain education” can be helpful is critical, and always remembering that knowing “about” something doesn’t mean it changes behaviour. I’m still not keen on spiders even though I know we have no poisonous ones here in Aotearoa, and I’m much bigger than them!

Katz, J., & Rosenbloom, B. N. (2015). The golden anniversary of Melzack and Wall’s gate control theory of pain: Celebrating 50 years of pain research and management. Pain Research & Management: The Journal of the Canadian Pain Society, 20(6), 285-286.

Hadjistavropoulos, T., Craig, K. D., Duck, S., Cano, A., Goubert, L., Jackson, P. L., Mogil, J. S., Rainville, P., Sullivan, M. J., de C. Williams, A. C., Vervoort, T., & Fitzgerald, T. D. (2011). A Biopsychosocial Formulation of Pain Communication. Psychological Bulletin, 137(6), 910-939. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023876

Lackner, J. M., & Gurtman, M. B. (2004). Pain catastrophizing and interpersonal problems: a circumplex analysis of the communal coping model. Pain, 110(3), 597-604. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pain.2004.04.011

McCracken, L. M., & Scott, W. (2022). Potential Misfortunes in ‘Making Sense’: A Cross-sectional Study in People with Chronic Pain. J Pain. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpain.2022.09.008

Moseley, G. L., Nicholas, M. K., & Hodges, P. W. (2004). A randomized controlled trial of intensive neurophysiology education in chronic low back pain. Clinical Journal of Pain, 20(5), 324-330.

Zaman, J., Van Oudenhove, L., & Vlaeyen, J. W. S. (2021). Uncertainty in a context of pain: disliked but also more painful? Pain, 162(4), 995-998. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002106

Frustration in the clinic


I’m prompted to write this post because it’s something I see in social media so often – a clinician gets frustrated. Things don’t work. The person getting treatment doesn’t respond in the way that was expected. The person doesn’t look like what the clinician usually sees. The evidence doesn’t fit with practice. All the things! So I thought today I’d write about emotions and thoughts that might turn up – and what might underlie those feelings. (For people living with pain – we also have frustration in the clinic. Things don’t work out. The therapist isn’t what we expected. I’ll write more about this soon!)

Emotions are a complex reaction pattern, involving experiential, behavioral and physiological elements (https://dictionary.apa.org/emotion). From a cognitive behavioural perspective, an event happens, we appraise it (judge it), and we experience an emotion – then we do something as a response. It’s much more complex than this, and each part interacts with the others – so we end up with a big diagram looking something like this: (from – https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Cognitive-behavioral-therapy-model-of-depression_fig1_338695579).

Instead of “depressive”, just put in “beliefs/expectations about who I am and what I can expect from myself”. This is a pretty generic model in CBT, and is well-established even if there are plenty of arguments about accuracy and adequacy!

Clinicians generally want to help. Yes, some are in it for fame or fortune (choose something else, kthx), but on the whole people enter a clinical profession because they think they can do some good, and people will “get better.” Our communities hold long-standing expectations about what seeing a health professional should entail: read Benedetti’s “The Patient’s Brain” for a much more detailed description of the historical and evolutionary basis for a therapeutic encounter.

Why does this matter? Because it sets the scene for how we think a therapeutic encounter should go.

Rules and assumptions about what “ought” to, or “should” happen often underlie emotions.

We’re happy when all the things line up and the patient does what we expect of patients while the clinician does things that work. When things don’t go to plan (ie our expectations are violated) that’s when we get some feelings, and they can be pretty big.

What do we expect from patients?

Despite moves towards person-centred care where patients are seen as people and clinicians offer options rather than dictate orders, our societies still hold expectations about the roles a patient and a clinician should play.

Patients are expected to seek help when they’re sick. They’re expected to be truthful about their symptoms, and tell clinicians everything that is relevant about their condition – AND about any other aspect of their health, even if it’s not immediately relevant to their current problem. Symptoms experienced by patients are expected to be what the clinician expects, and the disease a patient has should fit within “typical” parameters (usually based on males). Patients are also expected to follow instructions, not do things that go against instructions, and of course, to get better. Patients are meant to be grateful for their treatment, even if it’s disruptive, has unpleasant side effects, or isn’t 100% effective. Patients should do their best all the time.

As a corollary, clinicians have a huge number of expectations they take on (and are given!). Some of us have these explicitly handed to us during our training, while others find they’re an implicit set of assumptions that we adopt, perhaps in the guise of “being professional.”

What do we expect from clinicians?

Clinicians expect to be in control in the clinical encounter. We’re expected to know what to ask about, and from this, what to test for. We’re expected to have the answers, and be right. We’re also expected to be calm, caring and focused – even when our personal lives are topsy-turvy. We’re meant to know what the patient wants, and how to give that to them. We’re also expected to be up-to-date, do no harm, change our practice according to evidence (even when that evidence is contradictory, or just emerging), and to stay interested in our work even if we’ve been doing it for years.

We’re expected to know our scope of practice, but practice using a broad “whole person” framework even if we were never trained to do this. We think we should be compassionate and caring, even if we were selected for training on the basis of our academic prowess and not on emotional literacy. We must take on responsibility for outcomes, even though we’re not there to “make sure” the patient “does what they’re told” in their own time. We assume when we tell someone to do something, they’ll drop everything in their life to do it – because their health should matter most, and even when other things in their life matter more.

Clinicians can be expected to practice independently from the moment they qualify, and are either “right” or “wrong” and never shades of in between. Clinicians expect that if something goes wrong, and the person doesn’t get better, it’s either the person’s fault (they didn’t do what they should have done), or the clinician has done something wrong and made a wrong diagnosis, or chosen the wrong treatment (or the treatment was right but the intensity was wrong…. so just do it again). And clinicians shouldn’t ask for emotional help because that means they’re “too emotionally invested” or “not distanced enough.”

Expectations suck

We all have them. And the ones I’ve listed above, while not always present, often underpin the way we expect clinical encounters to go. Many of them are implicit, so we don’t even realise we hold them – until BAM! Something goes wrong.

When expectations are violated, we feel emotions and some of these can be pretty strong. Many are less strong, just little niggles, little irritations, a bit of cynicism, some disappointment, some frustration. And they go both ways: people seeking help, and people trying to help. Over time, violated expectations feel like your head hitting against a brick wall, or swimming against the tide, or just plain demoralisation or even burnout.

Ways through them

Some of us have professionally-endorsed support systems to help us. Occupational therapists and psychologists have mandatory clinical supervision with someone who is there for you, who supports your development as a clinician, who challenges your assumptions, who pokes and prods at your reactions, who encourages taking a broader view. Individual clinicians in other professions may also pick up on using supervision in this way.

Some of us don’t have that kind of support. So we seek it elsewhere – I suppose, in part, I started writing this blog those years ago to “find my tribe.” Social media is one way we get affirmation, validation and even (sometimes!) great ideas to help us shift our approach.

Some clinicians leave their profession, do something else that’s more lucrative and less emotional effort. Some move out of practice and into academia. Some use “outside work” interests to blow off steam, or give emotional space.

Some of us are a little fused with the assumptions we hold. It’s hard to create a little space around those assumptions, because they’re held so tightly (or they’re so deeply buried). When we do get a tap on the shoulder suggesting our beliefs are out of whack it can feel so terribly humiliating, so inherently WRONG that we shut off, or bite back.

Creating “wiggle room”

Slowing down is a good way to begin creating some space to feel what is showing up when we’re feeling frustration. This could be by taking one or two minutes at the end of a session to be present. Yes, a little mindfulness to notice what is present in the body. To be OK with being aware of emotions, thoughts, and body sensations. NOT TO CHANGE THEM! To simply be with them. (An explanation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9NkUomOO_w). This helps in many ways, but it does not (and isn’t intended to) reduce them. It helps you notice that you’re having feelings. It helps you pay attention to your own state of mind. It can create a moment to ask yourself “I wonder why I feel this way?” It can help you be more present with the next person you see because you’re not carrying those feelings into the next encounter.

Reflective practice is another way to create some space to be human, feel things, be curious about why they happen, and check in with your own values. A great resource that’s freely available is Positive Professional practice: a strength-based reflective practice teaching model – it might be a ‘teaching’ model, but clinicians teach All The Time!

Taking small steps, making small changes

The first step towards making a change is knowing that it’s needed. And the second is knowing that it’s possible. The third? Knowing what to do. I hope these suggestions help a little in this seldom-discussed aspect of practice. My own preference is to question WHY do we hold these expectations? WHO made them a thing? WHAT purpose do they serve? WHEN might those expectations be a good thing – and when might they not? WHERE can we nudge just a little to make change? And preferably, as clinicians, I think it’s OUR job to make the adjustments because we’re not ill or sore or seeking help.

Some references:

Dobkin, P. L., Bernardi, N. F., & Bagnis, C. I. (2016). Enhancing Clinicians’ Well-Being and Patient-Centered Care Through Mindfulness. Journal of Continuing Education in Health Professions, 36(1), 11-16. https://doi.org/10.1097/CEH.0000000000000021

Huft, J. (2022). The History and Future of the Sociology of Therapy: a Review and a Research Agenda. The American Sociologist, 53(3), 437-464. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12108-022-09534-3

McGarry, J., Aubeeluck, A., & De Oliveira, D. (2019). Evaluation of an evidence-based model of safeguarding clinical supervision within one healthcare organization in the United Kingdom. International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare, 17 Suppl 1, S29-S31. https://doi.org/10.1097/XEB.0000000000000180

Spencer, K. L. (2018). Transforming Patient Compliance Research in an Era of Biomedicalization. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 59(2), 170-184. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022146518756860

What do occupational therapists add to pain management/rehabilitation?


Coming from a small profession that has side-stepped (more or less) a conventional biomedical model, I’ve found my inclusion in pain management and rehabilitation is not always easily understood by other clinicians. It doesn’t help that occupational therapists practice in very diverse settings, and what we do may look superficially like handing out raised toilet seats, playing with kids, doing work-site assessments or hand therapy!

Today I hope to remedy this a bit, and extend a challenge to clinicians from other professions to sum up what your profession adds in 25 words or less (the first sentence in this definition below is fewer than 25 just sayin’).

“Occupational therapy is a client-centred health profession concerned with promoting health and well being through occupation. The primary goal of occupational therapy is to enable people to participate in the activities of everyday life. Occupational therapists achieve this outcome by working with people and communities to enhance their ability to engage in the occupations they want to, need to, or are expected to do, or by modifying the occupation or the environment to better support their occupational engagement. (WFOT 2012)

In occupational therapy, occupations refer to the everyday activities that people do as individuals, in families and with communities to occupy time and bring meaning and purpose to life. Occupations include things people need to, want to and are expected to do.

In other words, although we may often be found dragging adaptive equipment around a hospital, our work is really about what people need and want to do – every day, and in every way.

One of the major impacts of pain for people is on their capability for doing, whether this is short-term, or becomes a long-term change.

How and what we do in daily life is influenced by individual values, the various contexts we interact with, temporal changes over the days and as we develop and mature, our culture and what helps us express who we are. The choices of what we wear, how we spend our work life, what we do for fun and leisure, how we communicate, how we navigate health systems, what we choose to eat and how we prepare it – all of these reflect our self concept. Occupational therapists focus on helping people resume or develop ways to do all of these things, so when someone develops pain that interferes with daily doing, it’s our job to help them do what matters in their life.

Something that many clinicians seem unaware of is that occupational therapy training covers both physical health and mental health (not that I think it’s possible to divide them!). As a profession we’re able to use (almost) any therapeutic approach that we can use to enable participating in a person’s occupations. We also employ occupations as therapies – such as dog walking for exercise, or blogging to develop executive functioning skills, or going to the mall for graded exposure to sensory input, or preparing an evening meal as part of applying pacing skills.

In fact, given that daily life is occupational therapy’s “domain of concern”, one way you could define the profession’s contribution to pain management and rehabilitation is to call us knowledge translators. Our job is to help people embed what can often be “theoretical” concepts developed in physiotherapy or psychology, into the daily life contexts of people being seen. It’s an occupational therapist’s work to help establish whether pacing, for example, can actually be used in a conveyer-belt process job. It’s an occupational therapist’s job to look at when and where and how a person can integrate their home exercise programme in light of all the other responsibilities a person has. It’s an occupational therapist’s joy to help someone discover the many ways a father can “be a good Dad” even in the presence of low back pain that means playing rough and tumble isn’t a good thing right now.

What’s the evidence for occupational therapy? Well, one way to consider this is to think about how we might study what are bespoke solutions tailored to suit an individual in his or her home/work/leisure context. I personally don’t think RCTs are the best strategy because those individually-tailored solutions don’t lend themselves to being applied in a recipe-like way. I know that people may change their expectations (and therefore their goals) as they move through pain management, so the end point shifts, making standardised outcome measures especially of function/disability not especially useful.

Another way we can think about this is whether the techniques/strategies themselves require further research to validate their usefulness. Given the enormous literature on, for example, exercise for chronic pain, the conclusion I’ve come to is that the form of exercise is less important than that it gets done. And in the case of ongoing pain, we know that movement practices will need to be done – yep, for life! This means they need variety (plenty of options), they need intrinsic motivation (the “why” is so important), they need to be embedded into a person’s routines (so they get done), and there needs to be room for future change. And all of these are within occupational therapy’s scope of practice.

When it comes to dealing with the demoralisation, stigma and perhaps even low mood and sense of loss of self that’s associated with pain, doing what matters at the right level of intensity, complexity and expression is intrinsically part of therapy. Psychological therapies such as ACT, CBT, EMDR, graded exposure, trauma management, mindfulness, relaxation training, effective communication – these are all bread and butter for occupational therapists – in the context of taking the person from the clinic office into their daily life. After all, the most effective way to find out what’s going through someone’s mind when they’re starting to do movements they’ve been worried about is to – oh yeah, do it in real time in the real world. Similarly, doing things that help people feel productive, capable, creative and “back to normal” are all part of occupational therapy’s remit.

Wondering about the training and competence? Some readers might be surprised that occupational therapy training is equivalent to physiotherapy, nursing, social work, and indeed any of the other allied health. Many occupational therapists hold occupational therapy master’s degrees, and there are a growing number of us with PhDs. We come from backgrounds including psychology, physiotherapy, nursing, teaching…What is most important, according to the OTBNZ, our NZ Regulatory Body, is that occupational therapists adhere to the requirements for competence. There are five broad areas, and every occupational therapist must undertake both supervision and maintain a Portfolio of ongoing learning and reflection. CPD “points” and “hours” are irrelevant: what matters is that occupational therapists reflect on what they learn and consider how it might influence their practice. Finally, in Aotearoa/New Zealand, our profession has embraced bicultural practice, and you’ll find occupational therapists equally at home calling themselves kaiwhakaora ngangahau. Whakaora means to restore to health and ngangahau is an adjective meaning – active, spirited, zealous. In choosing this translation, the Maori Language Commission is conveying the idea of reawakening, or restoring to health one’s activeness, spiritedness and zeal – occupational therapy.

My plea to clinicians working in pain management and rehabilitation is to take some time to listen to your occupational therapist colleagues. Understand where they’re coming from and why they offer what they do – and take up the challenge I made at the beginning of this post: sum up what you offer in 25 words or less.

Ways to stop good clinicians leaving pain management (i)


I’ve been asked to amend (actually, to remove) these two posts, so I’ve altered the opening sentence – you’re reading it now. I’ve also added some comments to preface these two posts.
I’m an old hack when it comes to teamwork and pain management: I’ve worked in this field a long time. I’m familiar with reactions to both interpersonal differences within a team (and the myriad ways these can be expressed), and to the discourse that happens when posting a publicly available message. In fact, that’s why I publish on social media: so we can have open conversations rather than ones hidden behind paywalls, or in rarified academic settings. Humans are odd, and when poked – even when poked with good evidence – want to react, to bite back. The following comments are not about any specific organisation. I’ll repeat that: comments about what we do in healthcare (ie bullying – nurses call this ‘horizontal violence’, stigmatising, excluding, not supporting etc) in the two articles I’ve written so far on how to prevent good clinicians do not relate to any one organisation. They are based on personal experience (my own) and experiences I’ve read in the literature.
[added 12 September 2022]

I thought I’d look at what we can do to stop good clinicians leaving pain management.

While our jurisdictions have differences in pay rates, reimbursement approaches and treatment codes, at the heart of good healthcare is good people who want to help. So why, when healthcare is populated with caring clinicians, do we strike bullying, lack of support for one another, non-existent teamwork, and poor career pathways? What is going on?

I’ll tackle these in bite-sized chunks, starting with the funders. And of course, I want to point out some of the contributing factors.

Funders

Funders (insurers, agencies paying for treatment) have at their heart, a fear of being taken for a ride. People with pain can be viewed with suspicion because their problems cannot be imaged. Why else spend such inordinate amounts of money on investigating whether someone ‘meets criteria’ for treatment?

Historically in New Zealand, we have one national accident insurer – a no-fault, 24/7 insurance for any accidental injury sustained in work, out of work, in school, while on the roads, wherever. At times this insurer has been fairly generous – certainly when I started working in this area in the 1980s there were plenty of people with chronic pain that I saw having had 300 or more physiotherapy sessions. “Passive” therapy (hot packs and ultrasound) was carried out routinely. Our insurer certainly got stung by the over-use of unhelpful treatments and since then has systematically reduced access to passive therapies, and also seems to have physiotherapy practice in its sights. Sadly, it has not been quite as focused on reducing unhelpful surgeries, repeated injection procedures, and medical reports denying that chronic pain is a thing.

The community pain contracts funded by our insurer were, at initial conception, a good thing. Bring community-based therapists together to form local pain teams to respond early to people at risk of developing long-term disability associated with pain. Lots of new set-ups emerged with lots and lots of cobbling teams together: ad hoc coalitions of clinicians who didn’t know one another. Set on a background of messy referral processes, limited understanding of how the contracts worked, and a very limited budget, now was the time for large international groups to swoop in and sweep up small practices to form national organisations which simplified contracting for our insurer. And so they did.

Large organisations offer benefits to insurers. The risk of a single provider failing is reduced because the uneven nature of referrals is smoothed across the country. There are economies of scale from an administrative point of view. Some organisations have employed excellent people as clinical leaders for pain teams.

And yet… limited understanding of what teamwork is in pain management and how teams need to be supported and developed, combined with poor funding, and scarcity of skilled and specialised clinicians has led to teams on paper. Teams who rarely, if ever, meet; teams with no common model of pain; teams who don’t work collaboratively – serial therapy? not even that – a series of disjointed, uncoordinated therapies where the physical exercise programme is delivered by an entry-level physiotherapists a month or more before the person sees a psychologist who may not have any training or knowledge about pain management, while funding is spent on an unnecessary pharmacy session, and a pain assessment by a pain specialist who are scarcer than hen’s teeth and far more expensive than the rest of the entire programme combined.

What’s the answer? As usual, more than one…

  • Adequate funding for team meetings – preferably face-to-face, and preferably weekly. Co-location helps
  • Ensuring the team has a common model of pain.
  • Workforce stability – outcomes reduce if the team has a high staff turnover
  • Effective orientation and induction to the team
  • Processes and structures that foster sharing information that often doesn’t get shared
  • Training in how to negotiate, collaborate, amalgamate differing opinions
  • Training and recognition of specialised knowledge that transcends individual professions (in other words, professionals become transprofessional rather than silos)

And what of these organisations swooping in to carry out cookie-cutter approaches?

I am not an advocate of private providers working in health. What we’ve seen here since 2017 and the community pain contracts is the top slice of money heading off to shareholders and managers with fancy new cars, little to no career pathway planning for senior clinicians, an increase in placing newly graduated therapists into pain management without adequate clinical or emotional support, and an overall high level of turnover amongst clinicians in the field.

This is partly because our insurer has restricted pain funding. It is also partly because these organisations (including the insurer) fail to recognise that chronic pain management is a specialised field with specialised requirements. It’s not a place for new graduates – but if you have limited profit from programmes, what would you do? Yep, you’d employ clinicians you don’t have to pay as much to, and allow the senior clinicians to leave. You’d avoid offering effective clinical and emotional supervision because this is seen as a cost to the company. You’d fund weekend courses in pain management, but not fund time for teams to integrate this knowledge. Similarly, you wouldn’t fund meetings or induction because you’d see these as an unnecessary cost. After all, isn’t pain management simple?

The two most heartbreaking aspects of this current situation are (1) the burnout of clinicians who initially put heart and soul into their work, do their best to maximise the scant funding, work long hours, seek contracts that might offer the person/patient/client something useful – but do so and obscure just how poorly the funding model is working. And (2) the people with pain who are offered disjointed therapy (not a team approach) delivered by junior therapists who feel unsupported and don’t have the skill or knowledge to work in this area, and who deliver cookie cutter treatments because of this and leave. The patients receive ineffective therapy but the insurer can tick the box that they’ve “had pain management.”

Is this the view of an old hack who wants the glory days to return? Maybe – but I feel for the people with pain who are just not getting good pain management. Access to services may be there – but access to unhelpful, cookie cutter, disjointed therapy from disheartened clinicians does not lead to good outcomes. And the sad thing is that there’s enough teamwork research in pain management to show what does work.

NZ Pain Society Report on the impact of a new contract: request this from the NZ Pain Society

Buljac-Samardzic, M., Doekhie, K. D., & van Wijngaarden, J. D. H. (2020, Jan 8). Interventions to improve team effectiveness within health care: a systematic review of the past decade. Human Resoures for Health, 18(1), 2. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12960-019-0411-3

Griffin, H., & Hay-Smith, E. J. C. (2019). Characteristics of a well-functioning chronic pain team: A systematic review. New Zealand Journal of Physiotherapy, 47(1).

Matthew, O. T., & Samuel, E. H. (2021). Examining Team Communication and Mutual Support as Drivers of Work Performance among Team Members. Asian Research Journal of Arts & Social Sciences, 45-54. https://doi.org/10.9734/arjass/2021/v13i430223

O’Donovan, R., De Brun, A., & McAuliffe, E. (2021). Healthcare Professionals Experience of Psychological Safety, Voice, and Silence. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 626689. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.626689

Zajac, S., Woods, A., Tannenbaum, S., Salas, E., & Holladay, C. L. (2021). Overcoming Challenges to Teamwork in Healthcare: A Team Effectiveness Framework and Evidence-Based Guidance. Frontiers in Communication, 6(6). https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2021.606445

Biopsychological pain management is not enough


I recently read a preprint of an editorial for Pain, the IASP journal. It was written by Prof Michael Nicholas, and the title reads “The biopsychosocial model of pain 40 years on: time for a reappraisal?” The paper outlines when and how pain became conceptualised within a biopsychosocial framework by the pioneers of interprofessional pain management: John Loeser (1982) and Gordon Waddell (1984). Nicholas points out the arguments against a biopsychosocial model with some people considering that despite it being a “holistic” framework, it often gets applied in a biomedical and psychological way. In other words, that biomedical concerns are prioritised, with the psychosocial factors relegated to second place and only after the biomedical treatments have not helped. Still others separate the relationships between “bio” “psycho” and “social” such that the interdependent nature of these factors is not recognisable.

Nicholas declares, too:

“… that cognitive behavioural therapy interventions that did not also include workplace modifications or service coordination components were not effective in helping workers with mental health conditions in RTW. That means, just like in the case of reducing time lost at school for children in pain, the treatment providers for adults in pain for whom RTW is a goal should liaise closely with the workplace. Unfortunately, as the studies from the systematic reviews examined earlier for a range of common pain therapies indicated, engaging with the workplace as part of the treatment seems to be rarely attempted.

I find this confusing. In 1999 I completed my MSc thesis looking at this very thing: pain management combined with a focus on using pain management approaches in the workplace. The programme was called “WorkAbilities” and included visits to the workplace, liaison with employers and even job seeking for those who didn’t have a job to return to. The confusion for me lies in the fact that I’ve been doing pain rehabilitation within the workplace since the mid-1980’s – and that while today’s approach for people funded by ACC is separated from pain management (more is the pity), there are many clinicians actively working in pain rehabilitation in the context of returning to work here in New Zealand.

I’m further puzzled by the complete lack of inclusion by Nicholas of occupational therapy’s contribution to “the social” aspects of learning to live well with pain. This, despite the many studies showing occupational therapists are intimately connected with social context: the things people do in their daily lives, with the people and environmental contexts in which they do them. You see, occupational therapists do this routinely. We work with the person in their own environment and this includes home, work, leisure.

For those that remain unaware of what occupational therapists offer people with pain, I put it like this: Occupational therapists provide contextualised therapy, our work is in knowledge translation or generalising the things people learn in gyms, and in clinics, and helping people do these things in their life, their way.

An example might help.

Joe (not his real name) had a sore back, he’d had it for about three months and was seeing a physiotherapist and a psychologist funded by ACC (NZ’s national insurer). Not much was changing. He remained fearful of moving especially in his workplace where he was a heavy diesel mechanic and was under pressure from a newly promoted workshop manager to get things done quickly. Joe was sore and cranky, didn’t sleep well, and his partner was getting fed up. Joe’s problems were:

  • guarding his lower back when moving
  • fear he would further hurt his back if he lifted heavy things, or worked in a bent-over position, or the usual awkward positions diesel mechanics adopt
  • avoiding said movements and positions, or doing them with gritted teeth and a lot of guarding
  • poor sleep despite the sleep hygiene his psychologist had prescribed
  • irritability
  • thoroughly enjoying the gym-based exercise programme
  • hating mindfulness and any of the CBT-based strategies the psychologist was offering him, because as he put it “I never did homework when I went to school, do you think I’m going to do it now? and this mindfulness thing doesn’t work!”

The occupational therapist visited Joe at home. She went through his daily routine and noticed that he didn’t spend any time on “fun” things or with his mates. His intimacy with his partner was scant because the medications he was on were making it hard for him to even get an erection, and his partner was scared he’d be hurt when they made love. Besides, she was fed up with all the time he had to spend going in to the gym after work when he wasn’t doing simple things around home, like mowing lawns, or helping with grocery shopping.

She went into his workplace and found it was a small four-person operation, with one workshop manager, two mechanics and one apprentice. The workshop was a health and safety hazard, messy and cramped, and open to the weather. The relationships between the team were strained with unpleasant digs at his failure to keep up the pace. The workshop manager said that he’d do his best to help Joe out – but in the end he needed to get the work out on time. The other mechanic, an old hand, meanwhile was telling Joe to suck it up and be a man, but also to watch out because Joe shouldn’t do as he’d done and shagged his back.

What did our erstwhile occupational therapist do? Absolutely nothing new that the physiotherapist and psychologist hadn’t taught Joe – but she worked out when, where and how Joe could USE the strategies they’d discussed in his life contexts. She went through the way he moved in the workshop and guided him to relax a little and find some new movement patterns to be able to do his work. She graded the challenges for him, and stayed with him as he experimented. She discussed alternating the tasks he did, interspersing tasks that involved bending forward with those where he could stand upright or even work above his head (in the pit). She discussed how he could use being fully present at various times during the day (mindfulness) to check in with his body and go for a brisk walk if he felt himself tensing up. She worked through communication strategies that they rehearsed and he implemented to let his manager know what he could – and could not – do.

They discussed his home life, and ways he could begin doing some of the household tasks he’d been avoiding, and she showed him how to go about this. They worked out the best time of day to do this – and to vary the exercise he did so that it wasn’t all about the gym. He started to walk over rough ground to get more confident for when he went fishing again, and he got himself a little stool to sit on from time to time. Joe and his occupational therapist talked about his relationship with his partner, and they met together with her so they could share what his back pain meant, the restrictions he had, what he could do, and how else they could be intimate. Joe was encouraged to rehearse and then tell his doctor about the effect of his meds on his sex life.

The minutiae of daily life, translating what is learned in a clinic to that person’s own world is, and always has been, the province of occupational therapy. It’s just a little sad that such a prominent researcher and author hasn’t included any of this in this editorial.

Just a small sample of research in which occupational therapists are involved in RTW.

Bardo, J., Asiello, J., & Sleight, A. (2022). Supporting Health for the Long Haul: a literature synthesis and proposed occupational therapy self-management virtual group intervention for return-to-work. World Federation of Occupational Therapists Bulletin, 1-10.

Berglund, E., Anderzén, I., Andersén, Å., Carlsson, L., Gustavsson, C., Wallman, T., & Lytsy, P. (2018). Multidisciplinary intervention and acceptance and commitment therapy for return-to-work and increased employability among patients with mental illness and/or chronic pain: a randomized controlled trial. International journal of environmental research and public health, 15(11), 2424.

Cullen K, Irvin E, Collie A, Clay F, Gensby U, Jennings P, Hogg-Johnson S, Kristman V, Laberge M, McKenzie D. Effectiveness of workplace interventions in return-to-work for musculoskeletal, pain-related and mental health conditions: an update of the evidence and messages for practitioners. J Occup Rehabil 2018;28:1–15.

Grant, M., Rees, S., Underwood, M. et al. Obstacles to returning to work with chronic pain: in-depth interviews with people who are off work due to chronic pain and employers. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 486 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2877-5

Fischer, M. R., Persson, E. B., Stålnacke, B. M., Schult, M. L., & Löfgren, M. (2019). Return to work after interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation: one-and two-year follow-up study based on the swedish quality registry for pain rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 51(4), 281-289.

Fischer, M. R., Schults, M. L., Stålnacke, B. M., Ekholm, J., Persson, E. B., & Löfgren, M. (2020). Variability in patient characteristics and service provision of interdisciplinary pain rehabilitation: A study using? the Swedish national quality registry for pain rehabilitation. Journal of Rehabilitation Medicine, 52(11), 1-10.

Ibrahim, M.E., Weber, K., Courvoisier, D.S. et al. Recovering the capability to work among patients with chronic low Back pain after a four-week, multidisciplinary biopsychosocial rehabilitation program: 18-month follow-up study. BMC Musculoskelet Disord 20, 439 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-019-2831-6

Marom, B. S., Ratzon, N. Z., Carel, R. S., & Sharabi, M. (2019). Return-to-work barriers among manual workers after hand injuries: 1-year follow-up cohort study. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 100(3), 422-432.

Michel, C., Guêné, V., Michon, E., Roquelaure, Y., & Petit, A. (2018). Return to work after rehabilitation in chronic low back pain workers. Does the interprofessional collaboration work?. Journal of Interprofessional Care, 32(4), 521-524

Nicholas, M.K. (in press). The biopsychosocial model of pain 40 years on: time for a reappraisal? Pain.

Scopes, roles, interprofessional practice and person-centred healthcare


A topic that almost immediately gets my hackles up is the one of scopes and roles in pain management and rehabilitation. It’s like “Oooh but that’s MY stuff, get out of it!” and I can see Gollum saying “my preciousssss”…

I trained and graduated in 1984. As a raw newbie occupational therapist I couldn’t articulate much of what my profession brought to healthcare, except that I knew “doing”, “activities” or “occupation” was important to human wellbeing, and that I’d been trained to analyse these. I’ve learned a lot since then and got a PhD in the process. Developing as people and as clinicians is, I hope, deeply embedded in us as professionals.

Interprofessional practice is a model of healthcare recommended in pain management and rehabilitation (Oslund, et al., 2009). Interdisciplinary/interprofessional teams involve different health professionals working alongside one another using their areas of expertise, but where all use a common over-arching model such as a biopsychosocial approach. Teams meet regularly to collaborate on treatment goals and priorities (Ruan & Kaye, 2016). There is limited hierarchy and extensive communication, cooperation, and overlap between team members (Körner, 2010).

True interprofessional practice is rare. Why? Because teams on paper are not teams. Teams need time together both formally and informally, stability amongst members, a pool of common knowledge as well as an understanding of what each team member brings in to the mix. Needless to say, high trust is crucial, along with ongoing communication (Zajak et al., 2021). We can’t just use professional labels to know what another profession can offer because we [should] keep on developing.

One of the largest contributors to poor interprofessional teamwork is lack of confidence. Not just lack of confidence in the skills of the other team members, but lack of confidence in one’s own professional contribution. High trust in one another, and yourself is critical.

When you’re feeling uncertain and find it hard to articulate what you bring to a team, any encroachment on “your” turf (call it scope) will likely engender a worry that you’re unnecessary. That others are “taking over” – and in turn, this can mean you search for faults in what other team members do because this helps affirm your rights and your specialness. You might want to rigidly control who does what in a team. It boosts your sense of worth but at the expense of other team members, and more importantly, at the expense of the person the team is trying to help.

The thing is, the person with pain does not care which person in a team works with them. What they care about is that the clinician is knowledgeable, and empathic. Trustworthy. The quality of the interpersonal relationship accounted for 54.5% reduction in pain in one study by Fuentes (Fuentes et al., 2014). People with pain want to know that their individual needs have been taken into account in their treatment plan (Kinney et al., 2020).

If you’re finding it hard to work in a team, perhaps feeling vulnerable about your worth, try this:

Ask your team to meet for an hour, tops.

Ask each member of your team to say what they bring to the team – not just their profession, but what else? Consider age, humour, cultural background, additional courses, personal interests outside of work, the “social secretary”, the “librarian”…and professional skills.

Pool all of these contributions on a big piece of paper – use post-it notes of different colours for each person.

Group similar contributions together in the middle of the paper – and spread unique contributions around the outside.

Review the paper and ask each participant to add any contributions they’ve just been reminded of.

Take a good look at the common contributions and the unique ones: these are what make up your team and they’re there to use for better person-centred care.

You can add some reflective questions to this activity.

  • What are the areas of overlap? It could be goal-setting, offering information about pain, movement practices, addressing fear of pain/reinjury, helping build confidence…
  • What areas of uniqueness are there? These could be hypnosis, knowledge translation from clinic to daily life, exercise prescription, the ability to write a prescription for medications
  • What surprised you? This could be the degree of overlap, or the contribution you didn’t expect from someone, or perhaps a gap in the team’s knowledge or skills
  • What shows up in yourself as you review these contributions? These could be “yeah, right, I don’t believe you can do THAT!” or “but I can do that too!”

Handling your response to what shows up to that last question is where the enormous value of this activity lies. Remember, the team is there for the person with pain, not for you as clinicians. If you think someone is claiming a contribution you can do with more skill, this only means that you can offer that person help from time to time. If you think that you’d like to contribute in an area and you didn’t add that as one of your contributions, now is the time to put it on the paper.

Take a copy of that piece of paper, and keep it close to you.

Your mission from then on, should you choose to accept it, is to review this set of contributions when you are next developing a treatment plan for a person seeking your help. Choose the combination of clinicians that offers the range of skills and knowledge, the interpersonal skills suited, and the availability of each clinician so that the person you hope to help will be seen by a team, and not just a set of individual clinicians. Oh and add in a good case formulation as well…

Remember: it’s all about the person in person-centred pain management and rehabilitation.

Fuentes J, Armijo-Olivo S, Funabashi M, Miciak M, Dick B, Warren S, Rashiq S, Magee DJ, Gross DP. (2014). Enhanced therapeutic alliance modulates pain intensity and muscle pain sensitivity in patients with chronic low back pain: An experimental controlled study. Physical Therapy. 94:477–89.

Kinney, M., Seider, J., Beaty, A. F., Coughlin, K., Dyal, M., & Clewley, D. (2020, Aug). The impact of therapeutic alliance in physical therapy for chronic musculoskeletal pain: A systematic review of the literature. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, 36(8), 886-898. https://doi.org/10.1080/09593985.2018.1516015

Körner, M. (2010). Interprofessional teamwork in medical rehabilitation: a comparison of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary team approach. Clinical Rehabilitation, 24(8), 745-755. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269215510367538

Oslund, S., Robinson, R. C., Clark, T. C., Garofalo, J. P., Behnk, P., Walker, B., Walker, K. E., Gatchel, R. J., Mahaney, M., & Noe, C. E. (2009). Long-term effectiveness of a comprehensive pain management program: strengthening the case for interdisciplinary care. Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, 22(3), 211-214. https://doi.org/10.1080/08998280.2009.11928516

Ruan, X., & Kaye, A. D. (2016). A Call for Saving Interdisciplinary Pain Management. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 46(12), 1021-1023. https://doi.org/10.2519/jospt.2016.0611

Wampold, B. E. (2018). The Therapeutic Value of the Relationship for Placebo Effects and Other Healing Practices. International Review of Neurobiology, 139, 191-210. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.irn.2018.07.019

Zajac, S., Woods, A., Tannenbaum, S., Salas, E., & Holladay, C. L. (2021). Overcoming Challenges to Teamwork in Healthcare: A Team Effectiveness Framework and Evidence-Based Guidance. Frontiers in Communication, 6(6). https://doi.org/10.3389/fcomm.2021.606445