Therapeutic approaches

Experiential avoidance – and persistent pain


Most of us will recognise that when we experience a pain, we firstly notice where it is, and the sensory qualities of it. We automatically make judgements about that pain – some of this judgement is about whether we recognise this pain (have we had it before?), some is about whether it’s important enough to interrupt what we’re doing (should I drop this hot cup of coffee, or can I hold onto it long enough to place the cup carefully on the bench), and some is about how we feel emotionally (yes, swearing is common when we smack our thumb with a hammer!).

In our response to acute pain, we often want to avoid or escape whatever we think gave us the pain – unless, of course, it’s something we choose to do even though it hurts. You know, things like lifting really heavy weights, running distances, taking rugby tackles, eating chilli! But in most cases where the pain is unexpected we’re inclined to want to make it stop, get away from the thing that probably caused it, and take a few minutes (or longer) to not do the things that make it worse. So we avoid walking on a newly sprained ankle and we don’t keep poking and prodding at a cut or a bruise.

Avoiding is quite common and even helpful when we experience the initial onset of a pain.

So why do we talk about “fear avoidance” as if it’s a bad thing?

Well, it’s because avoiding beyond a useful period of time often leads to ongoing problems. Some of these problems are possibly over-stated: things like “deconditioning” are probably not as much of a problem as we once thought (see Andrews, Strong & Meredith, 2021; Tagliaferri, Armbrecht, Miller, Owen et al, 2020). While other forms of avoidance may never even be considered.

What do I mean?

For a moment, think of a “weekend warrior”. The kind of person who heroically plays sport on a Saturday, trains once or twice during the week, and otherwise works hard and plays hard. Let’s think of this person as a male, perhaps in his late 30’s, thinks of himself as a hard worker and a family man. When he sprains his wrist after a particularly hard tackle in a weekend rugby game, he’s the kind who shrugs it off, and just keeps going. After a few weeks and his wrist doesn’t get much better, he heads off to see his local physio.

We wouldn’t usually think of him as an “avoider”. He’s not pain-avoidant, but sometimes because he doesn’t stop to take care of his wrist sprain, he ends up with a more troublesome injury. He might even develop a “boom and bust” pattern of activity: on a day he’s feeling good he’ll push through, but then his wrist starts playing up and he needs to take a day or two off.

I’m going to call it like I see it: this bloke is avoiding. What he’s avoiding is the experience of being vulnerable, of seeking help, of being advised to stop pushing himself for a day or so.

You see, experiential avoidance is what we do to avoid feelings (emotions) and actions that we don’t like or don’t want.

We see experiential avoidance most often described in pain research in the group of people who don’t resume their usual daily activities in part because they’re afraid of their pain. Or they’re afraid of what their pain might mean, or the effect of their pain on other things they need or want to do. For example, Angelina (see here) might be worried about the effect of pain on her sleep. And we’re reasonably OK with offering these people some information about what might be going on in their tissues, and that the relationship between pain and what’s going on in the tissues might not be as straightforward as it is when we hit our thumb with a hammer.

What we might be less aware of, and perhaps struggle to deal with is when a person appears to be doing the right things, like they’re remaining active and staying at work, but might be overdoing it. What might this person be avoiding? Perhaps, as I’ve suggested in the example above, it’s about avoiding feeling vulnerable, feeling like he’ll be told to slow down for a bit. Slowing down might be a sign, at least to our weekend warrior, that he’s not as young as he used to be. Perhaps he’s afraid of stopping because that means his busy mind can start to plague him with unhelpful thoughts about things he’s worrying about.

Experiential avoidance, like avoidance when a painful injury first happens, isn’t always a negative. When it’s used as the key strategy for life, indiscriminately and with an eye only to short-term benefits and not long-term consequences, then it’s not so good.

You see I hope we can help people to develop psychological flexibility: the ability to choose a response to any given situation that maintains moving towards what matters even if this means doing what feels odd or even a backwards step.

I also think we might benefit from developing psychological flexibility ourselves as clinicians. If we continue using the same old, same old strategy even if the results aren’t what we hoped for, we’re not helping anyone.

Andrews NE, Strong J, Meredith PJ. (2012). Activity pacing, avoidance, endurance, and associations with
patient functioning in chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. 93(11): 2109–21.e7, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apmr.2012.05.029 PMID: 22728699

Tagliaferri, S., Armbrecht, G., Miller, C., Owen, P., Mundell, N., Felsenberg, D., Thomasius, F., & Belavy, D. (2020). Testing the deconditioning hypothesis of low back pain: A study in 1182 older women, European Journal of Sport Science, 20:1, 17-23, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2019.1606942

Skyline

Your patient has psychosocial risk factors: what now?


Congratulations! You’re an insightful clinician who’s offered your patient a screening assessment to find out if she or he has psychosocial risk factors – and yes! they do! Well done. Now what?

Do you…

  • send your patient to the nearest psychologist?
  • spend at least one treatment session offering pain neurobiology education?
  • scramble to find a “psychologically informed physio” to send them to, because it takes really highly trained and special clinicians to work with these people
  • give your patient the same exercise prescription you were going to anyway because, after all, they still have things going on in their tissues (or is it their nervous system? I forget – whatever, they just need to move, dammit!)
  • throw your hands up in horror and say “I never wanted to deal with people in pain anyway!”

You’d have to be hiding beneath a rock to avoid learning that people with musculoskeletal pain with psychosocial risk factors such as feeling that back pain is terrible and it isn’t going to get better, believing that it’s not safe to move or exercise with back pain, having worrying thoughts going through their mind, or not enjoying things very much should have special attention when they seek help for their pain. And we’ve all read studies showing that many of our frontline clinicians who see people with musculoskeletal pain aren’t comfortable, confident or clear about what to do with people who are, frankly, scared and distressed.

Papers like Caneiro, Bunzli & O’Sulllivan’s (2021) Masterclass clearly show that messages people with pain get told include avoiding certain movements to prevent damage, being advised that special exercises ‘protect’ the body, and that clinicians believe that certain postures and movements are inherently unsafe (bending, lifting with a rounded back). At the same time, Sajid, Parkunan & Frost (2021) found that only 11.8% of people referred by GPs for musculoskeletal MRIs had their mental health problems addressed, while only 16.7% of the MRI results were correctly interpreted by GPs and in 65.4% of cases were referred for “spurious overperception of surgical targets.”

Worse, Nicola, Correia, Ditchburn & Drummond (2021) conducted a systematic review of the effects of pain invalidation on individuals – invalidation from family, friends and healthcare individuals, and the person themselves. They found five themes: not being believed, lack of compassion, lack of pain awareness and understanding, feeling stigmatised and critical self-judgement. Perceived social unacceptability of experiencing pain was found to have an impact on the emotional state and self-image of those with persistent pain. Ya think?!

If I return to the case I presented last week, Angelina, a pretty common case of someone with a neck pain who is having trouble sleeping and generally handles her pain independently, we could assume that she doesn’t have significant psychosocial risk factors. After all, she’s managing to stay working, does a bit of self-help, and she’s not depressed though she’s a bit irritable.

What would you do?

I guess my first thought is: would Angelina even get a screening assessment to see whether she has any psychosocial risk factors? Might she present superficially well enough for her therapist to think she’s fine, let’s just treat the neck?

Of all the neck pain treatments available, what would she be given? And what might she be told about the rationale for that treatment? A recent systematic review with meta-analysis pointed out that while specific exercises helped in the short to medium term, the quality of that evidence was low (Villaneuva-Ruiz, Falla, Lascurain-Aquirrebena, 2021), while a systematic review with network meta-analysis of 40 RCTs found “There is not one superior type of physical exercise for people with chronic non-specific neck pain.
Rather, there is very low quality evidence that motor control, yoga/Pilates/Tai Chi/Qigong and strengthening exercises are equally effective.” (de Zoete, Armfield, McAuley, Chen, & Sterling, 2020).

More than this: would her sleep and relationship concerns be discussed? What about her safety while driving? How about how she manages her work, and her belief that perhaps her pain is happening because of a period at work where she wasn’t positioned “correctly”?

You see, at the moment in our musculoskeletal treatment literature, the focus has been almost entirely on grouped data. And this, folks, is where Steven Hayes points out that the ergodic theorum is violated. Ergodic theory is “…the idea that a point of a moving system, either a dynamical system or a stochastic process, will eventually visit all parts of the space that the system moves in, in a uniform and random sense. This implies that the average behavior of the system can be deduced from the trajectory of a “typical” point. Equivalently, a sufficiently large collection of random samples from a process can represent the average statistical properties of the entire process.” (I stole that from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergodicity).

Hayes, Hofmann & Ciarrochi (2020) point out that “We cannot assume that the behavior of collectives (e.g., a volume of gas) models the behavior of an individual element (e.g., a molecule of gas) unless the material involved is “ergodic” and thus all elements are identical and are unaffected by change processes.” Humans are not ergodic (only a few noble gases are…) and what this means is that “statistical techniques based on inter-individual variation cannot properly assess the contribution of given elements to phenotypic change.” In other words: humans actively respond and change to what they’re exposed to – each of us presents to treatment with our own incredibly unique range of responses and past history, and these influence how we respond to a treatment. And perhaps this explains why most of our treatments (RCTs, using grouped data and uniformly applied and consistent treatments) particularly for persistent pain problems end up showing pretty small effect sizes. We’re violating the assumptions of the ergodic theorum. What we need are more sophisticated ways to analyse the impact of any therapy, and far fewer algorithms and cookie cutter treatments.

Where does this leave us? I have loads of ideas about where to from here, but not nearly enough space today to write about them!

My first suggestion is to avoid blindly following a treatment algorithm that fails to support YOU to sensitively and reflexively offer treatments that fit for your patient.

My second is to avoid measuring the impact of what you do only at the end of treatment (or worse, not at all!). Measure often, and measure things that matter – either to how you get to the end outcome, or that the person values. Or both.

And third: Get reading outside of your profession. Dig into psychology (I especially recommend Hayes); look at sociology (try Jutel); anthropology (try Sarah Pink’s “Sensuous futures: re-thinking the concept of trust in design anthropology”); make 2022 the year that you lean into uncertainty. I know the past two years have been incredibly unsettling – but this is the perfect time to continue on this journey into new ideas, fresh concepts, and ambiguity.

Caneiro, J. P., Bunzli, S., & O’Sullivan, P. (2021). Beliefs about the body and pain: the critical role in musculoskeletal pain management. Braz J Phys Ther, 25(1), 17-29. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bjpt.2020.06.003

Nicola, M., Correia, H., Ditchburn, G., & Drummond, P. (2021, Mar). Invalidation of chronic pain: a thematic analysis of pain narratives. Disability and Rehabilitation, 43(6), 861-869. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2019.1636888

Sarah Pink (2021) Sensuous futures: re-thinking the concept of trust in design anthropology, The Senses and Society, 16:2, 193-202, DOI: 10.1080/17458927.2020.1858655

Sajid, I. M., Parkunan, A., & Frost, K. (2021, Jul). Unintended consequences: quantifying the benefits, iatrogenic harms and downstream cascade costs of musculoskeletal MRI in UK primary care. BMJ Open Quality, 10(3). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjoq-2020-001287

Villanueva-Ruiz, Iker, Falla, Deborah, Lascurain-Aguirrebeña, Ion. (2021) Effectiveness of Specific Neck Exercise for Nonspecific Neck Pain; Usefulness of Strategies for Patient Selection and Tailored Exercise—A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis, Physical Therapy, 2021;, pzab259, https://doi-org.cmezproxy.chmeds.ac.nz/10.1093/ptj/pzab259

de Zoete, R. M., Armfield, N. R., McAuley, J. H., Chen, K., & Sterling, M. (2020, Nov 2). Comparative effectiveness of physical exercise interventions for chronic non-specific neck pain: a systematic review with network meta-analysis of 40 randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2020-102664

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! Part 5


People come to see us because they have a problem. So the formulation approach I’m taking today begins from “the problem” and works back and forward. It’s called a “network” model, and is something many of us do without knowing that’s what we’re doing. The network model can also be called a functional analysis where we’re looking at what happens, and what a person does, and the ongoing consequences or loops that occur over time.

Angelina comes to see you because her neck is very sore. She’s not sure why it’s sore, or what happened to start it off, but she thinks it could be after working for a week at a new workstation where she had to look to the right to read documents, and straight ahead to work on the main monitor. It’s been there for over six months, and she’s come to see you now because she has a week of annual leave and some time to spend on herself. She’s played with changing her pillows because her neck is more uncomfortable in the morning, and it gets painful towards the end of the day just before she heads to sleep. She’s having trouble turning her head to reverse down her driveway, and looking up is almost her least favourite thing. Her sleep is OK once she’s got off to sleep, but initially it takes her a while to fall asleep because she can’t get comfortable. Her partner is getting frustrated with her because she doesn’t want to kiss him because that means she has to look up, and she doesn’t sit on the couch with him any more because he likes to rest his arm around her shoulders – and that increases her pain. She’s irritable and finds herself getting snappy at him. Angelina is in her mid-50’s, otherwise well, but has always lived with various aches and pains, most of which she ignores until they go away. She has had a painful shoulder and lateral elbow pain that lasted for over a year, but has gradually settled down – she didn’t do anything special to manage those after having only a small response to a steroid injection into her shoulder.

Angelina’s main concern is to establish whether her neck pain is anything to worry about, or whether it’s just more of the same, like her shoulder and elbow pain. Her other focus is on getting a comfortable position to go off to sleep because she thinks this is adding to her problem.

OK, so we have a lot of information about Angelina, and we can organise this information in many different ways. Given her main concern is her prognosis and then her sleep, we need to make sure the way we organise the information offers a possible explanation – a hypothesis.

Take a look at the network diagram below to see how I’ve sketched the information out – you’ll note that at this point I’m not trying to develop a diagnosis, I’m focusing on the problem as she sees it.

The matrix I’ve used here comes from Hofmann, Hayes & Lorscheid (2021) Learning Process-based Therapy, published by Context Press, New Harbinger.

What I’ve done is summarised the processes that I think might be relevant to Angelina’s presentation, and drawn the relationships between various aspects that she’s described. You might organise this information differently – and I’d usually do this in collaboration with the person.

If you look closely at the networks, you’ll see several loops that likely will continue if something doesn’t change. One to spot is this set below:

You can see that she’s worrying about her sleep, doesn’t get comfortable as she goes off to sleep, feels fed up, has changed her pillow (in line with her self-concept of someone who is a practical person), and the whole network will likely remain winding itself up unless “something” comes to disrupt this pattern.

This set of relationships raises some factors we need to consider when we’re thinking of interventions. As someone who sees herself as a practical person who doesn’t seek healthcare often, and has had previous bouts of pain that settled without specific treatment (though she sought it for her shoulder), we could interpret this as meaning she doesn’t panic about her situation too much – but we could also wonder if, because she’s seeking help now, she’s seeing her problem as different from previous pain problems and maybe this one is worrying her more than she’s ready to acknowledge. Just to the right of the loop I’ve shown above, you’ll see a box where she says “I’ll deal with it if it doesn’t get in the way of my family and relationship”. This is important – it’s an expression of how she sees herself, an important value, and her motivation for seeking help is also framed in terms of maintaining her loving relationship. For this reason, I’d be looking for interventions that either won’t intrude on her family life and routines, or I’ll be looking for ways to frame whatever treatment suggestions I make in terms of how this will support her relationship.

By drawing a network diagram showing potential processes that might be influencing Angelina’s presentation, I’m answering my question “why is she presenting in this way at this time, and what might be maintaining her predicament” – she really wants a prognosis so she can establish a strategy to maintain her relationship with her family, keeps her “practical person” view of herself alive, and in a way that she can still fulfill her desire (and others’ expectations) to be fully productive at work.

I could analyse (or organise) Angelina’s information in lots of different ways. This is just one – and in some ways, the particular model I use to assemble her information is less important than ensuring Angelina is an equal partner in sketching out these relationships. I could have drawn the Tim Sharpe CBT model or used an ACT-based model and looked for patterns of psychological flexibility. I could have used Vlaeyen’s fear-avoidance model – and I’m sure there are plenty of others that might have been useful.
Irrespective of the model, what needs to be evident is using the information the person offers us, modifying the way we approach therapy as a result, and collaborating with the person to decide treatment priorities. This means we as clinicians need to be nimble, responsive, adaptive, and stop using treatment protocols! Any approach that suggests offering the same approach irrespective of the unique things influencing a person’s presentation is doomed to do a half-arsed job. These protocols might work for some, but they won’t work for all, and they may fail to address the real reason the person came to see us in the first place.

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! Part 4


In the previous few posts on what to do with all that assessment information I’ve talked about generating a formulation to guide treatment, and a little about how teams might work together to generate one. This post is a little different because I want to situation the discussion around the ultimate aim of therapy.

I usually work with people who have long-standing pain that hasn’t changed much and doesn’t seem to be disappearing. I’m not a nihilist, but I do wonder if clinicians are trying too hard to “change pain” when the body doesn’t seem to respond all that much to whatever we offer when it comes to musculoskeletal pain! Perhaps all we do is offer support to the person as their body gets on with the job of settling down…?

Anyway, my focus is to help people respond flexibly to what life has thrown at them – because while pain poses one of the greatest problems for people, often it’s not the pain as such but what we do to avoid or control pain – or, for that matter, what we do to avoid or control the results of avoiding or controlling pain. Confused? Let me unpack it a little with an example.

About the time I started this blog wayyyyy back in 2007 I had a concussion and developed post-concussion syndrome. I found it incredibly difficult to concentrate, find words, remember things, switch my attention from one thing to the next, and to deal with sensory overload. I was advised to rest and let my brain recover in its own time – all good. BUT I never expected that recovery to take almost two years! so I returned to part-time work after two weeks. In my head I was balancing my fatigue/headache/difficulty concentrating against my need to return to work, keep my employer happy, and do things that mattered.

If I flip that motivation on its head, I wanted to control both my symptoms and my fear/guilt of failing and perhaps losing my job/fear of sitting still and doing nothing/fear of feeling useless. After all, I was the vocational rehabilitation therapist for the service I worked in!

By trying to control my fear of not doing, I created a whole bunch of trouble for myself – I failed at controlling my symptoms – they grew out of hand and I eventually had to take some time off work, got quite depressed, and achieved exactly what I’d hope to avoid – needing to stay at home doing nothing!

When we think of ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) for living with pain, we often think of the person working hard to control or avoid pain and our focus is on helping them to be willing to make room for pain and begin doing things – and yet I’ve met a great many people who have got caught up in a vicious cycle of over-doing and under-doing, or who “get on with it” with gritted teeth and sheer determination! So one thing we can be looking for in our “first contact” is to identify how workable are the ways the person is approaching this time in their life, a time when they’re dealing with pain and life restrictions, stress, balancing priorities, working, family and so on.

ACT provides a series of six processes that together offer a way to be flexible about how we handle what life throws at us, and help us do what matters in our life. In an ACT formulation, we’re looking for unhelpful patterns that constrain how flexibly we can do what matters. Some of the patterns we might see could be:

  1. Unwillingness to stop and create space for pain so the person gets stuck acting as if there is no pain, trying to do everything the same way as normal but either getting fatigued and stressed and just hanging on in there, or doing short bursts of “normal” and crashing periodically.
  2. Getting stuck with rigid beliefs about what’s going on like thinking the pain must be able to be fixed and quickly, or that the pain is the most horrible disaster ever and everything about life must be shelved until it’s fixed.
  3. Comparing what he or she can currently do against a previous level of performance and being frustrated and angry because this doesn’t fit with how they see themselves, and especially thinking that this is the way it’s going to be forever…
  4. Losing sight of important things like being with family, or seeing friends because of feeling irritable, sad, thinking they don’t want to see them like this, not being able to do the things they used to do, waiting for the pain to reduce, or looking for the fix.
  5. Anticipating calamity or remembering disasters either about “the last time I tried doing this” or “because I saw this happen to [name]” and then feeling utterly stuck.
  6. Casting about being erratic or just not sticking to a plan, getting off track maybe because results don’t happen, or maybe because it’s something new and feels unfamiliar, or perhaps because someone else suggested another option…

There are always other ways people respond to pain, not just the patterns I’ve listed here, but these are some common ones I’ve seen. In ACT we’re looking for unworkable patterns that don’t lead the person towards being the kind of person they want to be, doing the things that bring meaning in their life.

When I’m jotting these things down, I’m looking to identify the core things the person isn’t willing to experience: thoughts, emotions, memories, situations. I want to understand what the person does to avoid them – like things the person has stopped doing or deliberately avoids, the ways the person avoids or controls emotions associated with that thing (like drinking more alcohol, zoning out, lashing out), and what I observe during our initial assessment like skipping over topics that feel uncomfortable.

I want to understand the cost or “unworkability” from the person’s perspective: what’s the impact of responding in these ways. I need to understand what’s going on in the person’s context – their family life, employment situation, influence of case manager or insurance/compensation, friendships. And I want to look at the factors that might be adding to the person’s inflexible responses, and these are myriad and often include what we do as clinicians – like being told to stop doing a favourite hobby “because it might be damaging” (how many people with low back pain have been told to stop running, stop fishing, stop dancing, stop lifting, to sit in a certain way, walk in a certain way, lift in a certain way, stop slouching, walk faster, slower…?). And of course I want to understand a person’s strengths: have they had an experience like this before? Do they have strong values? Have they succeeded in some area in life? What brings them joy and takes them into the zone? How have they modified the way they do things so they can do what matters?

I like to do this in collaboration with the person (how else could I do it?!) and to look at the good and not so good of everything they’ve done along with the context. Because one thing that always resonates with me is that people do what they do because it’s worked in the past. Always. At least once.

For more on ACT, you can’t go past the Association for Contextual Behavioural Science – https://contextualscience.org/

And Chapter 2 from Lance McCracken’s book Mindfulness and Acceptance in Behavioral Medicine, 2011, Context Press, New Harbinger:

Vowles, K.E, & Thompson, M. (2011). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Chronic Pain, pp31 – 60.

Making first contact: What to do with all that information! part 2


Last week I described some of the reasons for using a case formulation approach when working through initial assessment information, and today I’m going to describe one approach for organising a formulation. This is the “4 P” formulation, and it’s one that’s often used in mental health (Bolton, 2014).

In the 4 P model, there are four questions to ask yourself:

  1. Preconditions – Why is this person vulnerable to this problem?
  2. Precipitating factors – Why now? This can mean “why is this person having symptoms now?” or “why is this person presenting to this person for treatment right now?”
  3. Perpetuating factors – Why is this person still ill?
  4. Protective factors – Why is this person not more ill?

Remembering that people are whole people, and that pain is always multifactorial, this formulation approach incorporates diagnostic information (disease) alongside a person’s response to disease (illness). The two facets of “being unwell” go together – but not synchronously. We can have a disease and be oblivious to it (think of many forms of cancer, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis…and even Covid-19). Once we begin to experience symptoms and decide that this is not “normal” we call it illness. And if symptoms and signs begin to impinge on what we can and can’t do in life, we can call this disability or functional limitations. These in turn (more or less) influence participation in community life. The relationships are not straightforward, and this is partly why a formulation can be so helpful. Formulations help us explore – in collaboration with the person – why is this problem such a problem? – whether it’s simply the presence of pain, or more related to the disability and distress that pain is posing for the person.

Preconditions include biological factors such as gender, ethnicity, and age. Preconditions also include psychological factors such as previous experiences in life, prevailing beliefs, emotional reactivity, and attention. Social factors such as employment status, social connection, stigma, socio-economic status, family and living situation are all contributors to a person’s vulnerability to the problem they’re presenting with. In our pain formulations, we know about many of these preconditions that make the people we see vulnerable to having trouble with their pain.

Precipitating factors can be considered in several ways. I like to consider behavioural antecedents for seeking help – what’s been happening in the immediate weeks before a person seeks help – as well as antecedents to the onset of symptoms. For example, people might wait for some weeks before seeking help for a back pain because “it usually settles down” – and this suggests to me that their current episode hasn’t settled down, and they have some thoughts or worries about why. Others might be seeking help because of insurance or workplace requirements where, if they don’t seek help and have the problem recorded, they may not get cover for treatment if the problem reoccurs. Some might be seeking help because their partner or family member is worried, or because they read something in the media or online. I also ask about what was happening at the time the symptoms started. Sometimes this is about an unusually busy time (at work or home), a change in activity level, a new tool or piece of equipment, a new manager or coworkers, perhaps a new daily routine, or a change in living circumstances. While these factors may not be directly causal (biologically) the meaning of these events is valuable because they inform me of the person’s beliefs about their problem.

Perpetuating factors are again, multifactorial and often unrelated to the factors that precipitated the problem. There could be factors associated with disuse influencing changes to the tissues and neurobiology; there could be steps the person has taken to deal with the problem that impact on how quickly it resolves such as using NSAIDs or strapping/wrapping, wearing splints, changed movement patterns. Some of the factors are likely to be beliefs about what’s going on and what should be done about it – like “all the pain must be gone before I start back at work”, or “it’s damaged so I need surgery”. Others could be instructions from people (or held in the community at large) about what to do, like resting, moving in particular ways, or when to seek treatment. Some can be how others respond to the person, like getting irritated because the person isn’t 100% “yet”, or mollycoddling the person (wrapping them up in cottonwool and not letting them do things again). Workplace factors like policies not allowing a person back “until fully fit” or “there are no light duties” also contribute to trouble resuming normal activities.

Protective factors help explain resilience, or strengths the person has that help them maintain well being in the face of this problem. They can be attitudes and practices of the person like believing the body is good at recovering, or maintaining healthy eating and sleeping. They may be factors such as the person’s age, gender, general health. They can include the ability to get to and from treatment (and pay for it), the person’s social supports, their relationships with other health professionals, perhaps strategies they’ve used for other problems (including similar ones to this event) that they haven’t thought to use for this one.

The 4P approach has multiple variants. Some include “the Problem” and call it a 5P model. Some are explicitly tied to a theory of human behaviour (such as a CBT model, ACT model or applied behaviour analysis). Some are entirely developed from the person’s own words and experiences, while others draw on reports from other team members, or previous interactions. The over-riding themes of all of these are that a formulation is developed in collaboration with the person, and considers the whole person in their own usual context.

Next time I’ll look at another formulation approach, and discuss it in relation to teams and how they might use it to form a “team model” of pain and musculoskeletal problems.

Bolton, J. W. (2014). Case formulation after Engel—The 4P model: A philosophical case conference. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, 21(3), 179-189.

Cox, L. A. (2021). Use of individual formulation in mental health practice. Mental Health Practice, 24(1), 33-41. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.7748/mhp.2020.e1515

Farmer, R. F., & Chapman, A. L. (2016). Behavioral case formulation and treatment planning. In Behavioral interventions in cognitive behavior therapy: Practical guidance for putting theory into action (2nd ed.). (pp. 53-100). https://doi.org/10.1037/14691-003

Gilbert, P. (2016). A biopsychosocial and evolutionary approach to formulation. In Tarrier, Nicholas [Ed]; Johnson, Judith Ed Case formulation in cognitive behaviour therapy: The treatment of challenging and complex cases , 2nd ed (pp 52-89) xvii, 384 pp New York, NY, US: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group; US (pp. 52-89).

Making the first contact


How do we begin working with someone who is asking for help with their persistent pain? In this post I’ll describe some of the considerations I have when I begin, because as Benedetti points out, the “meet the therapist moment” is one of the most potent times in the therapeutic ritual (Benedetti, 2011). It’s the time when the person’s expectations and the clinician’s empathy and competence meet, and the “meaning response” blooms.

My two clinical questions are:

  1. Why is this person presenting in this way at this time, and what’s maintaining their predicament?
  2. And what is this person’s main concern?

But before I ask these questions, I want to take a moment to think about the person and what might be going on in his or her mind.

Benedetti points out that expectancies are an important part of a response to treatment – whether that treatment has any active action, or not. Expectancies are about what a person brings to a therapeutic encounter: there are two, one is stimulus expectancies (anticipations of external events – eg that the next painful experience will be less), and the other is response expectancies (predictions of your own nonvolitional response – eg that after doing this thing, I expect to experience less pain) (Kirsch, 1985).

People who come to see a clinician, especially a clinician from a little-known profession (occupational therapy!) will hold expectancies about what that person will do, but these will likely be weaker than the expectancies a person might hold about seeing a well-known profession. The strength of an expectancy is different from the direction of an expectancy – for example, a negative experience with a physiotherapist might lead to a strongly negative expectancy about future treatments, while not having had an experience with an occupational therapist might lead to a weakly positive expectancy about what’s about to happen.

Along with expectancies, the person will likely be anxious about what’s to come. The possibility of something that might help (or not), meeting a new clinician, and living with pain are all stressors – and anxiety erodes a person’s ability to absorb lots of information, while biasing them towards remembering threatening words (Reidy & Richards, 1997).

So there’s a lot going on in the person’s mind when they attend that first session.

There’s also often a large power imbalance (Joseph-Williams, Edwards & Elwyn, 2014). This emerges from the fact that often clinicians hold a lot more information about the person we’re seeing than they do about us. Especially after we’ve asked a bunch of questions, often quite intimate in nature. For a person seeking help, this imbalance can make it hard to ask questions, to direct the conversation, to hold a sense of independence throughout the encounter.

So having set the scene for you, I’m sure you can agree that how we go about collecting information from a person is incredibly important – especially so that relationship can begin to build.

Introductions

In the introduction, I seek to give the person some information about who I am – not just as a clinician, and the kind of treatments I use, but also about who I am. I’ve drawn inspiration from tikanga Māori here, where the cultural tradition entails letting the person know where I come from and who I’m connected to. I like to let people know my childhood roots are in Turanganui a kiwa, or Gisborne. That the mountain my heart connects with is Mount Hikurangi – the first mountain in NZ to see the sun. The river I connect with is the Taruheru, flowing into the sea in Gisborne. I also let people know my whanau connections – the Lennox’s, and the Thompson’s, are my whanau (extended family), and I’m a 5th generation New Zealander. I now live in Otautahi/Christchurch. This introduction only takes a few minutes, and your culture might not value this form of introduction. For me in Aotearoa/New Zealand, it’s one way I can show respect and follow a tradition that means the person I work with knows something more about me than just my name.

I also include my profession – what I do. I’m an occupational therapist, my job is to help people do what matters in their life contexts.

I like to then let the person know that they’re brave and courageous for seeking help – it’s not easy to say you can’t do this on your own. It takes courage to tell someone that.

Questions

Then I open with a broad question about what has led this person to come to see me. I might add in something about “tell me about your pain and what you’ve done so far for it.” I’ll often ask what their theory is about their pain, what they think is going on.

Then I ask “What is your main concern today?”

Throughout this process I’m reflecting what I’ve heard, to ensure I’ve understood what the person has experienced. I’m NOT giving reinterpretations, I’m NOT giving out new information, I’m just listening.

I often spend time asking about four areas of life: relationships, fun, work, and health. Or I might ask the person to take me through a typical day, from the time they wake up.

I like to find out not just what the person has done to help themselves, but also what they’ve learned from these experiences. The messages they’ve received over time, and the things they’ve tried but perhaps didn’t like or that didn’t help.

Questionnaires

I was a big fan of questionnaires filled out ahead of time, and I am still a fan but don’t use them as much. This is mainly because so many people have filled out endless questionnaires and nobody has sat down with them to talk about what they mean! So I’m a little more selective and focus much more on listening first then choosing something that will offer me and the person some insight into what might be going on. For example, I might choose the PASS20 (McCracken & Dhingra, 2002) because it helps me figure out where to begin with reducing pain-related anxiety. It’s a good measure to use each week to track changes over time, and I’m beginning to delve into repeated measures of progress rather than a pre-post-follow-up approach that’s typical.

Observation

Covid has meant it’s not as easy to carry out observational assessments, but I’m always watching how the person sits, moves, walks, and body language. What I’m not doing is interpreting these observations without talking to the person about them! Too many clinicians make judgements about the person based on maybe one or two observations, out of context of the person’s life and environment, and without checking in with the person to work out what might be contributing to what they see. Let’s not do that – the person might be completely oblivious that they’re guarding their sore hand, or they keep shifting in the chair, or that a habitual movement like taking a jacket off might be easier to do than being asked to perform some weird movement at the command of the clinician!

Pulling it all together

Just as we wouldn’t expect to be marched in for surgery straight after our first consultation with an orthopaedic surgeon, I don’t believe it’s OK to offer something to a person on their first visit just because we feel internal pressure to do so. Having said this, I will often suggest to the person that they spend a bit of time doing some brief “noticing without judging” exercises. We’ll give it a go at this first appointment, so they’re not being expected to go do it without knowing how. The reason I start with brief noticing experiments is that it’s something we could all do more often, it gives the person a new skill (usually) to develop, and it’s often an introduction to being fully present without judging. Being fully present without judging is hard to do when you’re sore because the mind likes to anticipate how bad it’s going to be (“you’ll need to take it very quietly or you’ll pay for it”) or remember previous pains (“last time you just sat around your pain went nuts, you don’t want to risk that now do you?”).

Notes/Documentation

I write conversational notes directly to the person, going through what we’ve talked about and pulling together all the information I’ve gathered in this first meeting. I find it helps me to make sense of what’s going on, it allows me some time to reflect on what I’ve observed and heard, and I can assemble it in a case formulation that the person and I can explore if/when we meet again.

Assessment is never over. Every time I meet with a person I’ll be learning more about what’s going on. I don’t feel pressured to “find it all out” at that first session just because there are goals that must be developed. In fact, one goal I leave in for everyone is “develop goals” (well, I don’t use goal language – it’s more about directions and actions that take you there). Because seriously, how can anyone meet someone and immediately develop goals – that’s disrespectful to the person who may not have had time to think about what matters the most, and it’s disrespectful to the complexity of goal setting as a process anyway.

Theme and variations

I’ve written one approach I use for learning about the person I’m trying to help. There are others – a time line, drawing a life map, mind-mapping, walking and talking, making a coffee – all of these and more can be used to explore the same information.

Let’s not call it “the subjective” – let’s call it what it is, our first “getting to know you” meeting.

Kirsch, I. (1985). Response expectancy as a determinant of experience and behavior. American Psychologist, 40(11), 1189–1202.

Joseph-Williams, N., Edwards, A., & Elwyn, G. (2014). Power imbalance prevents shared decision making. Bmj, 348.

McCracken, L. M., & Dhingra, L. (2002). A short version of the Pain Anxiety Symptoms Scale (PASS-20): preliminary development and validity. Pain Research & Management, 7(1), 45-50.

Reidy, J., & Richards, A. (1997). Anxiety and memory: A recall bias for threatening words in high anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 35(6), 531-542.

Thought experiment: Would therapists be out of a job if we could “fix” persistent pain?


Every few years someone, somewhere, announces that “it won’t be long before we have a treatment to rid the world of persistent pain.” And there’s a hiss and roar to celebrate this momentous finding, and much ado about how wonderful it will be.

I’m still waiting. BUT I thought it might be an interesting thought experiment to wonder what might happen if a “cure” was available for fibromyalgia.

As readers will know, I have lived with what eventually was named “fibromyalgia” since my early 20’s, and probably longer. I’ve dabbled in various treatments over the years but sadly, nothing but good clean living has helped (by which I mean early to bed, good diet, maintain healthy movement, manage stress, have good friends to connect with, play, have fun). So I would dearly love a treatment that would remove the constant aching, reduce the prolonged DOMs, keep a lid on delayed recovery after injury, and generally offer me a life relatively “normal.”

I am definitely pro-pain reduction and pain treatment. I just haven’t found anything that changes mine.

We have had some spectacular developments in therapies over the past 25 years – particularly in the inflammatory rheumatological diseases like ankylosing spondylitis, rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis. Treatments with anti-TNF alpha biologicals means that my partner who lives with anky spond now has normal C reactive protein levels, no pain, the disease activity has stopped, and he’s tickety-boo.

So why am I just a tad reserved about the notion of a “fix” based on new discoveries about mechanisms associated with neuropathic and nociplastic pains? Why am I just a little skeptical of a new psychological study showing outstanding results (Ashar, Gordon & Schubiner, 2021)? Am I just worried I’ll be out of a job if there’s an effective treatment?

Nope.

You see, even though some people like my Manly Jack have had a wonderful response to treatment for inflammatory disease, there are many more who have not. Or, who have significant reductions in inflammation – but not to “normal” levels, and accompanied by complications/adverse effects, and, in many instances, continued pain. Why is that? Well – I think it’s because while treatments target mechanisms, people are enormously variable in both biology and more importantly, psychology and sociology.

And it’s these last two that have been identified as amongst the most important contributors to ongoing disability and limited participation.

Now the social deserves a little attention. Drug developments are not cheap. The medication my partner uses is extremely expensive – NZ$1200 every two weeks. Luckily for us, this drug is fully funded by the NZ Government. There’s an economic argument for having meds like these publicly funded – without this drug, it would have been very difficult for my man to carry on working. He was having trouble rolling over in bed at night, had trouble coughing, couldn’t inhale fully, and walked like a little old man. He’s now fit as a buck rat and pays his taxes because he’s working.

The problem is, as we can see from the Covid vaccination roll-outs world-wide, people and countries without resources have less access to effective treatments. Even in NZ where we don’t have the “vaccine hesitancy” of other countries, the people who are least likely to be vaccinated right now are those who have trouble traveling to a centre, who don’t feel “at home” in healthcare, who are hard to reach, perhaps not very literate, don’t speak English or te reo Māori. The NZ government is working incredibly hard to ensure the vaccine is given to these people, and I’m proud of the variety of ways they’re doing so.

But spare a thought for countries where there is no relative affluence. Where other countries don’t have the will to help. Where infrastructure is poor. Where women, children, and people from different cultural backgrounds or religions are discriminated against. In these countries, vaccinations are very slow to reach those in need.

So one risk from a fancy new treatment is that people who need it but can’t afford it, don’t trust healthcare (who would after the stigmatisation so many people receive?), and people who are from countries where the rest of the world doesn’t help out – they risk missing out.

Another risk is that while pain might be reduced or even eliminated, these address only the biology, and people are people, and pain is multidimensional. People remember what it was like to be in pain. People have their own narratives about what’s going on to create their pain. We all learn from our experiences, and beliefs, attitudes, emotions, the influence of others around us, the communities and families and workplaces we come from, all of these have an effect on “what it is like to be experiencing pain.”

We know that people who have completely successful joint replacements without pain, don’t resume the activities they were doing before their joints became painful (see my last blog post). People successfully treated with biologicals still hold fears about future harm that developed before they got their treatment. We know that many people take years before being diagnosed and treated successfully – and that’s a long time to develop beliefs, habits, routines and relationships that don’t support recovery. We also know the trauma of unhelpful and stigmatising healthcare interactions can live long, even after successful care.

Resuming daily life and valued activities is integral to pain rehabilitation. Helping people safely do what matters to them in their life contexts is still needed. In the enthusiasm for applauding treatment advances, we need to remember that people are more than the sum of their diagnoses, more than their biology, and our societies are not fair.

Ashar YK, Gordon A, Schubiner H, et al. Effect of Pain Reprocessing Therapy vs Placebo and Usual Care for Patients With Chronic Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. Published online September 29, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.2669
h ttps://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2784694?fbclid=IwAR23strMuoUXYs_Ae9EmTVz9eNAzYxgxAR1IBj64SePpbWeLQL_M_DOaXr8

“Just a little scratch”


If you’ve had a blood test, flu jab or Covid-19 vax (please do, not just for you but for the vulnerable) you’ll probably have heard those words “Just a little scratch” then the needle goes in and ouch! I’ve wondered why phlebotomists and vaccinators use those words: is it to reduce the pain? give you some warning so you don’t pull away? why use the word “scratch” when it’s not a scratch?!

I suspect, though I haven’t read up on it, that the reason people say “just a little scratch” is to influence expectancies. Expectancies are defined as “cognitions regarding the probability of future experiences, events, and behaviour” (Peerdeman, van Laarhoven, Peters & Evers, 2016). In other words, what we expect to experience, happen or do influences what we actually experience, what happens, and what we do. Expectancies are really important when we consider placebo – and nocebo. Despite commentators who don’t consider placebo to be a thing (the response to being in a treatment ritual, over and above the effects of any active therapeutic agent), in pain, it is most definitely a thing, and one we need to be aware of as clinicians.

Back to expectancies.

Mostly, what we expect is what we experience. If we expect something to REALLY HURT then it’s likely to REALLY HURT! But what happens when we don’t expect something and it happens? Or when we expect something not to really hurt, but it actually does?

Peerdeman, Geers, Porta, Veldhuijzen and Kirsch (2021) investigated this mismatch between what we expect and what actually happens. It’s fascinating because the results weren’t quite in line with what the researchers thought…

What did they do?

The authors selected 82 healthy adults, aged between 18 and 30, with no health problems (physical or psychologist), no chronic pain, no current pain, no medications, no pacemakers, and no pregnancy. The participants weren’t allowed to use any medication, alcohol or other drugs in the 24 hours before the experiment.

Two experimenters undertook the experiments – one wasn’t aware of who was getting what, while the other was unaware of what was getting what until just before she gave the verbal suggestion. The experimenter who was blinded left the room before the second one gave the suggestion, in order to remain blinded throughout.

The participants were wired up to record heart rate, skin conductance, and then thermal and nociceptive perception thresholds were identified – at least in part to give participants a chance to get used to the heat stimulus. The experimenters went in to increase the heat to identify the temperature where participants indicated the pain was “moderately high” (who volunteers for these experiments? Oh – they recruited from around the university and on social media...). Then the experimenters got to work: participants were randomised to get either a suggestion of “no pain” (they’d already had three occasions where the thermal stimulus wasn’t painful, and three where it was), or a suggestion of moderately high pain. Then the stimulus was applied four times, with participants having to rate the expected pain intensity, how certain they were of this prediction, and how afraid they were. Afterwards, they were asked to rate pain intensity and unpleasantness.

For all the details of this experiment, head to the paper itself – it’s very detailed, and could be replicated.

Results

One person dropped out before the trial began – it was too painful – leaving 81 people remaining. The average age was 22 years, but the investigators don’t report gender.

When people were told “it’s not going to hurt” participants rated the pain lower than those who were told it was going to hurt, and while the ratings changed depending on what they experienced, when it was again suggested they’d feel no pain – again their pain ratings were lower than expected. Who knew pain intensity could vary so much? Reported pain intensity in the people who were told they wouldn’t experience pain was 4/10 points lower than the other group who were told it would hurt, and a bit over 2 points lower the second time (on a 0 – 10 numeric rating scale). That’s a thumping great amount of pain reduction! Add to this, these participants also were less afraid of their pain than the other group.

BUT, and this is important, participants in the “it’s not going to hurt” group reported less trust in the experimenter (who would have thought, huh?!). So beware: if you tell someone “oh this won’t hurt a bit” – they may experience less pain, but they’ll look at you sideways and be a bit wary of you because you violated their trust.

Discussion

I haven’t described the second experiment because of space, but go ahead and read it. Essentially they added some more participants, varied the procedure a little to reduce the memory burden on participants, and added a “medium” underprediction element into the process. The results showed similar outcomes – lower ratings of pain in both the “you won’t feel a thing” and the “it’ll hurt but not much” experiments, and yet again, less trust in the experimenter suggesting that it wouldn’t hurt.

Lessons to learn?

Think carefully about inflating how much pain relief someone will experience, especially if you’re going to see that person again. While people might experience less pain, losing someone’s trust in a therapeutic setting is a serious problem. The authors point out that healthy volunteers in a lab setting, getting short-term pain, is not like a therapeutic setting where it’s probable that trust is well-established. We don’t know what effect violating trust in a longer-term relationship might have.

At the same time – it does strike me as intriguing that simply being told “it won’t hurt” can influence pain intensity rating. What’s going on? How can a communication stimulus influence an experience? How could a psychological input change the way we perceive a noxious stimulus? Perhaps the way forward might be to use neutral language or, more positively, suggest that the person can handle it? “Just a little sting and you’ll get through”

Peerdeman, K. J., Geers, A. L., Della Porta, D., Veldhuijzen, D. S., & Kirsch, I. (2021, Jul 1). Underpredicting pain: an experimental investigation into the benefits and risks. Pain, 162(7), 2024-2035. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002199

Peerdeman KJ, van Laarhoven AI, Peters ML, Evers AW. An Integrative Review of the Influence of Expectancies on Pain. Front Psychol. 2016;7:1270. Published 2016 Aug 23. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01270

When living with pain is too hard


**If you’re a person living with pain, and this headline caught your attention because you’re feeling it’s just too hard to carry on – PLEASE take a moment to seek help. If you’re feeling you can’t because they might judge you, or try to stop you feeling this way, at the very least give yourself an hour before you take any action. If that feels too long, give yourself a minute. Get through that, and give yourself another minute. And so on – until you’ve give yourself some time to let this awful feeling ease up a little. You can always revisit your decision to wait. Speak to someone – anonymously if you need to. There are helplines in every country. Phone one. Please.**

Living with persistent pain can be really hard, and clinicians, family and the person with pain can be worried about suicidal thoughts and possible actions. There’s good reason to be concerned, too, as a recent study from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey shows.

Grocott, Sommer and El-Gabalawy (2021) used the data obtained from this Canadian Health Survey to explore the relationships between pain intensity and suicidality in people with arthritis, migraines and low back pain.

The first question is how many people in the overall population involved in this study had any of the three diagnostic groups – and, as expected and in line with many epidemiological studies, between 10.3% (migraines) and 18.1% (low back pain) indicated they had been diagnosed. The “usual” pain levels across all three groups were between 25.9 – 27.7% indicating their pain was “mild”, 52.5 – 54.5% said it was “moderate”, and 19.7 – 20.9% described it as “severe”. This does not surprise me one bit – moderate levels of pain intensity are really common, and, albeit acknolwedging the difficulty of rating pain intensity on a numeric scale and the complex relationship between pain intensity and interference with daily life, demonstrate just how necessary persistent pain services are as a health services priority.

The team then identified the rates of “lifetime” suicidality – these were measured using the following questions.

“you seriously thought about committing suicide or taking your own life” (i.e., suicide ideation; yes, no), “you made a plan for committing suicide” (i.e., suicide plans; yes, no), or “you attempted suicide or tried to take your own life” (i.e., suicide attempts; yes, no).

It’s important to note that this question asked about whether the person had ever, during their life, had these thoughts – not that they were currently present. Remember this as you interpret this study, because suicidal thoughts are relatively common but acting on those thoughts is less common.

The authors found that people who were usually in pain were more likely to have suicidal thoughts, plans or had made an attempt than those who had periods of time without pain (ie intermittent pain). The different rates were reasonably large, too – just in terms of ideation, between 18.7 – 34.0% of people who were usually in pain had suicidal thoughts as opposed to those with intermittent pain (10.5-16.6%), and this association was particularly strong for people with migraine. For people with low back pain, having pain all the time was associated with much greater odds of suicidal thoughts (1.79, 95% CI [1.19-2.68], p<.05).

Pain intensity was also a factor – lifetime suicidality prevalence increased as pain intensity increased, and this was relevant to all pain conditions measured, and especially amongst people with severe pain and migraines.

A good question to ask is whether the odds were the same for people with current mental illness as for those without – and using the magic of statistics, the authors found that this only held for some forms of pain. People with arthritis (note they didn’t identify the kind of arthritis people had) reported lower levels of suicidality even in the presence of mental ill health.

The authors point out that this is an interesting study in that yes, suicidality was higher in people with migraines, and similar to other studies, but their intriguing finding was that differences in the intensity of usual pain increased the odds, along with elevated odds if people reported higher levels of pain intensity.

Why did I choose to summarise this paper?

A few reasons: one is that as health professionals, we may not be aware of just how many people in our communities live with pain. It’s a lot – and this study only included specific diagnoses. Yet, at least in New Zealand, pain management services for people with pain are scarce.

Most people in New Zealand will maybe get referred to a physiotherapist, but it’s often difficult for people with persistent pain to raise their issues with pain with their health provider and for those providers to respond with empathy (Thompson, Dowell, Hilder, Macdonald, Stubbe & Alchin, 2021). This means that many people may not be seen by clinicians with confidence to help people with psychosocial aspects of their pain (eg Holopainen, Simpson, Piirainen, Karppinen, Schutze, O’Sullivan & Ken, 2020, Zangoni & Thompson, 2017) if they even indicate that this is a concern for them during the consultation.

Another reason is that many clinicians who work mainly in “physical” health may not know what to do if someone does disclose suicidal thoughts. It is confronting to hear someone say they don’t want to live any more – and knowing what to do next can feel highly risky. How does this fit within my scope of practice? What if I say something wrong and the person goes ahead and attempts suicide?

Note though, that this study didn’t look at current levels of suicidal thought – it’s lifetime prevalence. Perhaps people who have had occasion to think about killing themselves have a greater degree of vulnerability for persistent pain, particularly when pain is intense. We don’t know – but the authors speculate. Worth reading the paper in full to find out their thoughts.

My thoughts (briefly!) are:

  • Prepare ahead of time. We’ll all likely encounter a person who is really distressed, at the end of their tether, and indicates they’re thinking of harming themselves. Being prepared makes responding to this situation much easier.
  • Preparation should include writing a policy for your practice or your setting. It should include a list of people to contact in a psychiatric emergency (when a person indicates they’re ready to take action to harm themselves), as well as specific actions to take when talking to the person.
  • We’re not all psychologists and it’s not our job to be psychologists – all we’re asked to do in this kind of situation is be a human. What I mean by this is – listen, affirm that the person is feeling really bad and support them to access the help they need. This might mean calling the psychologist if you have one you work with regularly, or calling the person’s family doctor, or calling psychiatric emergency services.
  • Ensure you hand the person to someone who will take care of them. This means not letting them go off in their car without letting their family doctor know, even if they say they’re fine. For your own reassurance this is important.
  • Take care of yourself. Don’t just go on to see the next person waiting for you. Take some time to process what’s happened, what you did, and debrief with someone you trust. It doesn’t need to be a trauma counsellor – it’s just as useful to talk to your colleagues who know you and the kind of work you do. Go have a cup of coffee, go for a walk, give yourself space to recognise that you just helped someone who was really distressed. That’s an important job.
  • Don’t ignore the person and pretend they didn’t just say that. Affirm that they’re feeling rotten. Don’t trivialise it and suggest they should just harden up, or it’s not really that bad, or that they’re at fault for feeling this way. Just be gentle and human, and recognise the privilege you have – this person trusts you enough to say how they’re really feeling. It’s an honour. So if you can’t think of anything to say, just sit with them and bear witness to their distress. Hand them a tissue. Be there for them.

Oh, and in that paper, while 18.7 – 34.0% had suicidal thoughts over their lifetime, 7.2–14.5% had made actual plans, while 6.6–14.7% had made attempts. Don’t trivialise suicidal thoughts, but at the same time, don’t freak out that the person is going to kill themselves – just take action to support them, and in most cases, the thoughts will fade as the person gains hope.

Grocott, B., Sommer, J. L., & El-Gabalawy, R. (2021, Jun 28). Usual presence and intensity of pain are differentially associated with suicidality across chronic pain conditions: A population-based study. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 148, 110557. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2021.110557

Holopainen, M. R., Simpson, M. P., Piirainen, D. A., Karppinen, P. J., Schutze, D. R., Smith, P. A., O’Sullivan, P. P., & Kent, A. P. (2020, Jan 16). Physiotherapists’ perceptions of learning and implementing a biopsychosocial intervention to treat musculoskeletal pain conditions: a systematic review and metasynthesis of qualitative studies. Pain. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000001809

Thompson, L., Dowell, A., Hilder, J., Macdonald, L., Stubbe, M., & Alchin, J. (2021, Jan 4). How do patients and General Practitioners talk about pain and negotiate empathy in consultations? A direct observational study. Health & Social Care in the Community. https://doi.org/10.1111/hsc.13259

Zangoni, G., & Thomson, O. P. (2017, 2//). ‘I need to do another course’ – Italian physiotherapists’ knowledge and beliefs when assessing psychosocial factors in patients presenting with chronic low back pain. Musculoskeletal Science and Practice, 27, 71-77. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.msksp.2016.12.015

From the particular to the general – Clinical reasoning in the real world


From the particular to the general –
Clinical reasoning in the real world

I make no secret of my adherence to evidence-based healthcare. I think using research-based treatments, choosing from those known to be effective in a particular group of people in a specific context helps provide better healthcare. But I also recognise problems with this approach: people in clinical practice do not look like the “average” patient. That means using a cookie cutter, or algorithm as a way to reduce uncertainty in practice doesn’t, in my humble opinion, do much for the unique person in front of me.

I’ve been reading Trisha Greenhalgh’s recent paper “Of lamp posts, keys, and fabled drunkards: A perspectival tale of 4 guidelines”, where she describes her experience of receiving treatment based on the original description given for her “fall”. The “fall” was a high-impact cycle accident with subsequent limb fractures, and at age 55 years, she was offered a “falls prevention” treatment because she’d been considered “an older person with a fall”. Great guidelines practice – wrong application!

Greenhalgh goes on to say “we should avoid using evidence-based guidelines in the manner of the fabled drunkard who searched under the lamp post for his keys because that was where the light was – even though he knew he’d lost his key somewhere else”

Greenhalgh (2018), quoting Sir John Grimley Evans

When someone comes to see us in the clinic, our first step is to ask “what can I do for you?” or words to that effect. What we’re looking for is the person’s “presenting symptoms”, with some indication of the problem we’re dealing with. Depending on our clinical model, we may be looking for a diagnostic label “rheumatoid arthritis” or a problem “not sleeping until three hours after I go to bed”.

What we do next is crucial: We begin by asking more questions… but when we do, what questions do we ask?

Do we follow a linear pattern recognition path, where we hypothesise that “rheumatoid arthritis” is the problem and work to confirm our hypothesis?

Our questions might therefore be: “tell me about your hands, where do they hurt?” and we’ll be looking for bilateral swelling and perhaps fatigue and family history and any previous episodes.

Or do we expand the range of questions, and try to understand the path this person took to seek help: How did you decide to come and see me now? Why me? Why now?

Our questions might then be: “what do you think is going on? what’s bothering you so much?”

Different narratives for different purposes

Greenhalgh reminds us of Lonergan (a Canadian philosopher), as described by Engebretsen and colleagues (2015), where clinical enquiry is described as a complicated process (sure is!) of 4 overlapping, intertwined phases: (a) data collection – of self reported sensations, observations, otherwise known as “something is wrong and needs explaining”; (b) data interpreting “what might this mean?” by synthesising the data and working to recognise possible answers, or understanding; (c) weighing up alternative interpretations by judging; and (d) deciding what to do next, “what is the right thing to do”, or deliberation.

Engebretsen and colleagues emphasise the need to work from information from the individual to general models or diagnoses (I’d call this abductive reasoning), and argue that this process in the clinic should be “reflexive” and “informed by scientific evidence” but warn that scientific evidence can’t be replaced simply by reflexive approaches.

The reason for conceptualising clinical reasoning in this way is that a narrative primarily based on confirming a suspicion will likely reduce the number of options, narrow the range of options considered, and if it’s focused on diagnosis, may well over-ride the person’s main concern. A person may seek help, not because he or she wants a name or even treatment, but because of worries about work, the impact on family, or fears it could be something awful. And without directly addressing those main concerns, all the evidence-based treatments in the world will not help.

Guidelines and algorithms

Guidelines, as many people know, are an amalgamation of RCT’s and usually assembled by an esteemed group of experts in an attempt to reduce unintended consequences of following poorly reasoned treatment. They’re supposed to be used to guide treatment,  supporting clinical reasoning with options that, within a particular population, should optimise outcomes.

Algorithms are also assembled by experts and aim to provide a clinical decision-making process where, by following the decision tree, clinicians end up providing appropriate and effective treatment.

I suppose as a rather idiosyncratic and noncomformist individual, I’ve bitterly complained that algorithms fail to acknowledge the individual; they simplify the clinical reasoning process to the point where the clinician may not have to think critically about why they’re suggesting what they’re suggesting. At the same time I’ve been an advocate of guidelines – can I be this contrary?!

Here’s the thing: if we put guidelines in their rightful place, as a support or guide to help clinicians choose useful treatment options, they’re helpful. They’re not intended to be applied without first carefully assessing the person – listening to their story, following the four-step process of data collection, data interpretation, judging alternatives, and deciding on what to do.

Algorithms are also intended to support clinical decision-making, but not replace it! I think, however, that algorithms are more readily followed… it’s temptingly easy to go “yes” “no” and make a choice by following the algorithm rather than going back to the complex and messy business of obtaining, synthesising, judging and deciding.

Perhaps it’s time to replace the term “subjective” in our assessment process. Subjective has notions of “biased”, “emotional”, “irrational”; while objective implies “impartial”, “neutral”, “dispassionate”, “rational”. Perhaps if we replaced these terms with the more neutral terms “data collection” or “interview and clinical testing” we might treat what the person says as the specific – and only then move to the general to see if the general fits the specific, not the other way around.

 

Engebretsen, E., Vøllestad, N. K., Wahl, A. K., Robinson, H. S., & Heggen, K. (2015). Unpacking the process of interpretation in evidence‐based decision making. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 21(3), 529-531.

Greenhalgh, T. (2018). Of lamp posts, keys, and fabled drunkards: A perspectival tale of 4 guidelines. Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 24(5), 1132-1138. doi:doi:10.1111/jep.12925