Targeting the people who need it most

A couple of things came to mind today as I thought about this post: the first was an article in the local newspaper about a man complaining that the government is “promoting disability” because he couldn’t get surgery for a disc prolapse – and the pain was affecting his ability to work. The second was how to direct the right treatment at the right person at the right time – and how we can be derailed by either wholesale over-servicing “everyone needs treatment X”, or by overburdening people with assessment just to give a fairly basic treatment.

Now with the first man, I don’t know his clinical situation – what I do know is that there are many people every day who must learn to live with their pain because there simply is not an effective treatment of any kind, and that amongst these people are those go on to live wonderful lives despite their pain. I wonder if this man has ever been offered comprehensive self management for while he waits for his surgery. Whether the government could spread some funding away from surgery as the primary option for such pain problems – and instead provide better funding for the wider range of approaches offered through the interdisciplinary pain management centres (approaches which include injection procedures, physiotherapy, psychology, occupational therapy and medications). When there is an effective treatment (and this is arguable in the case of disc prolapse – in fact, it’s difficult to know whether even MRI imaging can give a clear indication of who might respond best to what treatment (Steffens, Hancock, Pereira et al, 2016), we should be able to give it, provided it fits within our country’s health budget. Ahh – that’s the problem, isn’t it… expensive treatments mean fewer people can get basic treatment. And with lumbar disc prolapse, the evidence for surgery is less favourable than many people recognise (Deyo & Mirza, 2016) – they state:

“Patients with severe or progressive neurologic deficits require a referral for surgery. Elective surgery is an option for patients with congruent clinical and MRI findings and a condition that does not improve within 6 weeks. The major benefit of surgery is relief of sciatica that is faster than relief with conservative treatment, but results of early surgical and prolonged conservative treatment tend to be similar at 1 year of follow-up. Patients and physicians should share in decision making.”

So here we have a person with lots of pain, experiencing a great deal of distress, and reducing his work because of pain and disability. My question now (and not for this person in particular) is whether being distressed is equivalent to needing psychological help. How would we know?

There’s been a tendency in pain management to bring in psychologists to help people in this kind of situation. Sometimes people being referred for such help feel aggrieved: “My problem isn’t psychological!” they say, and they’re quite correct. But having a problem that isn’t psychological doesn’t mean some psychological help can’t be useful – unless by doing so, we deny people who have serious psychological health problems from being seen. And in New Zealand there are incredible shortages in mental health service delivery – in Christchurch alone we’ve had an increase in use of mental health services of more than 60% over the past six years since the massive 2010/2011 earthquakes (The Press).

People living with persistent pain often do experience depression, anxiety, poor sleep, challenges to relationships and in general, feeling demoralised and frustrated.  In a recent study of those attending a specialist pain management centre, 60% met criteria for “probable depression” while 33.8% met criteria for “severe depression” (Rayner, Hotopf, Petkova, Matcham, Simpson & McCracken, 2016). BUT that’s 40% who don’t – and it’s my belief that providing psychological services to this group is allocating resources away from people who really need it.

So, what do we do? Well one step forward might be to use effective screening tools to establish who has a serious psychological need and who may respond just as well to reactivation and return to usual activities with the support of the less expensive (but no less skilled) occupational therapy and physiotherapy teams. Vaegter, Handberg, & Kent (in press) have just published a study showing that brief psychological screening measures can be useful for ruling out those with psychological conditions. While we would never use just a questionnaire for diagnosis, when combined with clinical assessment and interview, brief forms of questionnaires can be really helpful for establishing risk and areas for further assessment. This study provides some support for using single item questions to identify those who need more in-depth assessment, and those who don’t need this level of attention. I like that! The idea that we can triage those who probably don’t need the whole toolbox hurled at them is a great idea.

Perhaps the New Zealand politicians, as they begin the downhill towards general elections at the end of the year, could be asked to thoughtfully consider rational distribution of healthcare, and a greater emphasis on targeted use of allied health and expensive surgery.


Deyo, R. A., & Mirza, S. K. (2016). Herniated Lumbar Intervertebral Disk. New England Journal of Medicine, 374(18), 1763-1772.

Hahne, A. J., Ford, J. J., & McMeeken, J. M. (2010). Conservative management of lumbar disc herniation with associated radiculopathy: A systematic review. Spine, 35(11), E488-504.

Koffel, E., Kroenke, K., Bair, M. J., Leverty, D., Polusny, M. A., & Krebs, E. E. (2016). The bidirectional relationship between sleep complaints and pain: Analysis of data from a randomized trial. Health Psychology, 35(1), 41-49.

Rayner L, Hotopf M, Petkova H, Matcham F, Simpson A, McCracken LM. Depression in patients with chronic pain attending a specialised pain treatment centre: prevalence and impact on health care costs. Pain. 2016;157(7):1472-1479. doi:10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000542

Steffens, D., Hancock, M.J., Pereira, L.S. et al.(2016) Do MRI findings identify patients with low back pain or sciatica who respond better to particular interventions? A systematic review. European Spine Journal 25: 1170. doi:10.1007/s00586-015-4195-4

Vaegter, H. B. P., Handberg, G. M. D., & Kent, P. P. Brief psychological screening questions can be useful for ruling out psychological conditions in patients with chronic pain. Clinical Journal of Pain.

The “Subjective” – and really hearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

End-of-year musings

It’s my last post for the year. It has been an extraordinary year, lots of surprises, shocks and enough excitement for anyone! I’m not even going to start on the political changes, here in NZ we’ve had yet another major earthquake, excitement as ACC (our national accident insurer) sets up new pain service contracts (with a LOT of people who haven’t been involved in pain management before… there’s an experiment in the making!), and continuing road cone carnage on the streets of Christchurch.

On the pain news front, I can’t think of any incredibly ground-breaking news – although one medic advised that “Virtually all cases of low back pain can now be diagnosed definitively by criterion standard methods as to source and cause.” That same medic also argued that a paper by Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder (2016) on non-specific low back pain, published in The Lancet, represented “the views of non-evidence-based troglodytes who (a) have apparently not read any scientific papers since 1966, and (b) have vested interests in “managing” non-diagnosed patients so their practices remain busy and they reinforce each other’s views that the burden of low back pain cannot be eased.” I’ll leave the critiquing of that view to those with more time and energy than I have!

It’s also been a year in which various commentators have critiqued the “biopsychosocial model” as it’s applied in musculoskeletal pain.  Some have pointed out that this is an unscientific model, it’s not a theory that can be tested and therefore can’t point to “truth” or whatever approximation we can currently identify. Others have argued that by adopting this framework, practitioners must either be versed in “life, the universe and everything” – or perhaps become exactly what advocates of this approach decry: reductionists. I’m not sure I follow this argument, but those that raise it are intelligent, articulate and far more thoughtful than those who believe that Maher, Underwood & Buchbinder are “troglodytes” or have “vested interests”.

I continue to hold that a biopsychosocial perspective explains more, and is of practical use when we consider the various factors that might influence why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and what might be done to reduce their distress and disability. Here’s my take.

Biopsychosocial model

When we look into the original biopsychosocial model, we need to understand the context in which Engel first developed it. He was a psychiatrist, and at the time psychiatry was under threat from psychologists in particular, who were strongly advocating that many mental illnesses were actually “problems of living”. Things like alcohol abuse, forms of mood disorder, relationship issues and the like were seen as disorders influenced by learning and environment rather than biology. Psychiatrists were perhaps on the way to being sidelined from the very area in which they claim expertise. Engel, influenced by general systems theory and cybernetics, proposed a way for psychiatrists to remain relevant: look at the person as part of a wider system in which each element in the system could influence and be influenced by the next. Engel used this approach as a way to frame conversations with the patients he saw – attempting to understand how and why they were seeking help, and especially, attempting to understand the person and his or her priorities. I think that’s admirable.

How the model has evolved since then is an interesting tale. I first encountered the model during my occupational therapy training, where it was a foundation to viewing people-in-context. It was presented as a bit old hat (I started training in 1979), and was replaced in my profession by Gary Kielhofner’s Model of Human Occupation. This model similarly draws on general systems theory, and argues for the relevance of volition and habits as well as capacity from a biological/performance stance to undertake occupation and of course, contexts such as environment which includes the social environment. MOHO incorporates much of what we consider to be biopsychosocial – in fact, occupational therapy as a profession is based on the idea that people actively engage in purposeful and meaningful activities (occupations) that are formed out of the affordances available to them by virtue of biology, psychology and social elements within an environmental context.

So what?

For a model, or theory, to have value it needs to offer something that existing models or theories don’t. It needs to be more parsimonious (make fewer assumptions), explain more (be more consilient), hold together with existing knowledge (cohere), and predict more (Thagard, 1978).

For a clinician, a theory must also be useful in terms of explaining why this person is presenting in this way at this time, and directing what can be done to reduce distress and disability. Why these questions? Because people actively make decisions to seek treatment. They evaluate their experience in light of their past experiences, prevailing community beliefs about the trajectory of their problem, family influences, and yes, legislative influences. These are possibly more important than the biology of their problem – because we’re not going to treat someone who doesn’t believe they have a problem!

As clinicians I think we need to ponder exactly what we consider to be “treatment”.

When my fracture is reduced and immobilised, that is “treatment” – but it’s not actually ‘healing’ my bones, it’s actually up to my body to do the work. What immobilisation does is create an environment in which my body can heal itself. But the problem of a broken bone is not “treated” just by immobilisation. Treatment has to include the rest of my recovery – and involve prevention strategies too. My recovery will need to include restoring function. And some of that restoration will be by guiding me through various movements that increase tissue tolerance as well as my confidence that my limb will support me. My recovery also has to include me understanding and learning from my experience – will I jump off that cliff again? Will I leave the toys all over the floor again? Will I walk on a slippery path again?

I think clinicians simply create an environment in which people can recover. And we need to go beyond measuring range of movement or strength to establish that recovery has occurred. Recovery isn’t just about returning to “normal” whatever that is. It’s about moving beyond this interruption and into new possibilities and new challenges. It’s really about being able to be who we really are. While that’s primarily the person’s own responsibility, our job as clinicians is to create an environment where it’s possible. While a biopsychosocial model/theory/framework makes life complex, using this approach allows us to be aware of more of the factors relevant to recovery and growth than simply looking at people as if they’re bits of meat, bone, and juice.

In the new year

I’ve been blogging since 2007. In that time I’ve written over a thousand posts all on the topic of pain. Almost all of my posts are on the theme of how we can remember that we are working with people. Other human beings who have their own thoughts, beliefs and priorities. Humans who make sense of their situation as best they can. People who, like us, hold cognitive biases, and feel emotions, and get stuck, and hold values. My real focus is on how we can integrate these things into clinical reasoning – because until we do, we’re ignoring what matters most to the people we seek to serve.


Engel, G. L. (1977). The need for a new medical model: A challenge for biomedicine. Science, 196(4286), 129-136. doi:10.1126/science.847460

Maher, C., Underwood, M., & Buchbinder, R. (2016). Non-specific low back pain.  The Lancet. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30970-9

Thagard, P. R. (1978). The best explanation: Criteria for theory choice. The Journal of Philosophy, 75(2), 76-92.

… a little more about Pain Catastrophising subscales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The so what factor

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

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

What this means for practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we do with those questionnaires (ii)

In my last post I wrote about the Pain Catastrophising Scale and a little about what the results might mean. I discussed the overall score suggesting a general tendency to “think the worst”, with the three subscales of magnifying or over-estimating the risk; ruminating or brooding on the experience; and helplessness or feeling overwhelmed and that there’s nothing to be done.  At the end of the post I briefly talked about how difficult it is to find a clinical reasoning model in physiotherapy or occupational therapy where this construct is integrated – making it difficult for us to know what to do differently in a clinical setting when a person presents with elevated scores.

In this post I want to show how I might use this questionnaire in my clinical reasoning.

Alison is a woman with low back pain, she’s been getting this niggling ache for some months, but last week she was weeding her garden and when she stood up she felt a sharp pain in her lower back that hasn’t settled since. She’s a busy schoolteacher with her own two children aged 8 and 10, and doesn’t have much time for exercise after teaching a full day, and bringing children’s work home to grade at night. She’s completed the PCS and obtained an overall score of 33, with her elevated scores on the magnifying subscale contributing the most to her total score.

Her twin sister Belinda has coincidentally developed low back pain at the same time, only hers started after she had to change the tyre on her car over the weekend. She’s a busy retail manager preparing for the upcoming Christmas season, and also has two children just a bit younger than her sister’s two. She’s completed the PCS and obtained an overall score of 34, but her score on ruminating is much higher than her scores on the other two scales, and this is the main reason her overall score is high.

What difference does Belinda’s elevated score on ruminating mean for us as clinicians? What do we do when we see Alison’s overall elevated score?

Common themes

Both Alison and Belinda live busy lives, and have lots of stressors within their lives. While they both have similar presentations, we might go about helping them regain confidence in their bodies slightly differently. I’ll begin with Belinda who might, because of the elevated ruminating score, have trouble getting off to sleep and might spend more time attending to her back pain than her sister. Ruminating is that endless brainworm that keeps on dragging our attention back to the thing we’re worried about (or perhaps the problem we’re trying to solve).  Alison, on the other hand, might be more inclined to monitor her back pain and imagine all sorts of dire outcomes – perhaps that the pain will never go away, that it’s going to “cripple” her, and that it’s going to be a major problem while she’s at work.

While both sisters would benefit from learning to move with more confidence, to relax the muscle tension that occurs when back pain is present, and to return to their usual daily activities, we probably need to help Alison learn more about her back pain (for example, explain that most back pain settles down quite quickly, that it’s helped by moving again in a graduated way, and that we’ve ruled out any sinister reason for her developing her pain). During treatment sessions where we help her learn to move more normally, we might spend more time giving neutral messages about fluctuations in her pain (for example, we might let her know that it’s normal to have a temporary increase in pain when we start moving again, and that this is a good sign that she’s beginning to use her body normally). If we notice her looking anxious during a new movement or exercise we might take a moment to ask her about her concerns and provide her with neutral and clear information about what’s going on so she becomes more realistic in her judgements about what her pain means.

For Belinda I might be inclined to help her deal with her thoughts in a mindful way, so she can notice her thoughts and her body sensations without judging them, bringing her mind back to breathing, or to noticing the equally present but less “alerting” body sensations she may be experiencing. For example I might ask her to do a mindfulness of breath exercise where, as she notices her mind wandering off to worries or concerns, I would ask her to gently notice that this has happened, acknowledge her mind for trying to help solve an insoluble problem, and bring her attention back to her breathing. I might ask her to notice body sensations including those that are uncomfortable and around the area of her most intense pain, taking care to be aware not only of the painful sensations she’s experiencing, but also associated body responses such as breath holding, or muscle tension. I might guide her to also be aware of a neutral but generally unloved area like her left earlobe (when did you last attend to what your left earlobe felt like?), or her navel. Because at the same time as she’s noticing the painful areas of her body, she’s likely to be trying hard to avoid “going there” with the result that her mind (trying really hard to help her protect herself) actually goes there more often! (don’t believe me? Don’t think of a big fat spider crawling down your shoulder – betcha did!!). Belinda can use the same approach when she’s trying to get off to sleep – by non-judgmentally noticing her body and what’s going on, she can be aware of what it feels like – but not get hooked up in alarming appraisals of what “might” happen. In a clinic setting I might ask her to use this same mindfulness approach when we’re doing a new exercise, or returning to a new activity. She could take time to really feel the movements, to be “in” her body rather than her head, and in doing so gradually reduce the tendency for her mind to take off in new and frightening directions.

Using the PCS is not about becoming psychologists: it’s about being aware of what the person in front of us is telling us about their experience, and then tuning into that and responding appropriately while we do what we do. Our job isn’t to replace a psychologist’s contribution – but to use the results of psychometric questionnaires to augment and support the work we do in a setting where people are actively engaged in learning about their bodies. I think that’s a priceless opportunity.

Schutze, R., Slater, H., O’Sullivan, P., Thornton, J., Finlay-Jones, A., & Rees, C. S. (2014). Mindfulness-based functional therapy: A preliminary open trial of an integrated model of care for people with persistent low back pain. Frontiers in Psychology Vol 5 Aug 2014, ArtID 839, 5.

Tsui, P., Day, M., Thorn, B., Rubin, N., Alexander, C., & Jones, R. (2012). The communal coping model of catastrophizing: Patient-health provider interactions. Pain Medicine, 13(1), 66-79.

What do we do with those questionnaires?

Courtesy of many influences in pain management practice, you’d have to have been hiding under a rock or maybe be some sort of dinosaur not to have noticed the increasing emphasis on using questionnaires to measure factors such as pain catastrophising, depression or avoidance. The problem is I’m not sure we’ve all been certain about what to do with the results. It’s not uncommon for me to hear people saying “Oh but once I see psychosocial factors there, I just refer on”, or “they’re useful when the person’s not responding to my treatment, but otherwise…”, “we use them for outcome measures, but they’re not much use for my treatment planning”.

I think many clinicians think psychosocial questionnaires are all very well – but “intuition”  will do “…and what difference would it make to my treatment anyway?”

Today I thought I’d deconstruct the Pain Catastrophising Scale and show what it really means in clinical practice.

The Pain Catastrophising Scale is a well-known and very useful measure of an individual’s tendency to “think the worst” when they’re considering their pain. Catastrophising is defined as “an exaggerated negative mental set brought to bear during actual or anticipated painful experience” (Sullivan et al., 2001). The questionnaire was first developed by Sullivan, Bishop and Pivik in 1995, and the full copy including an extensive manual is available here. Keep returning to that page because updates are made frequently, providing more information about the utility of the measure.

The questionnaire itself is a 13-item measure using a 0 – 4 Likert-type scale from 0 = “not at all” to 4 = “all the time”. Respondents are instructed to “indicate the degree to which you have these thoughts and feelings when you are experiencing pain”.

There are three subscales measuring three major dimensions of catastrophising: rumination “I can’t stop thinking about how much it hurts”; magnification “I worry that something serious may happen”; and helplessness “It’s awful and I feel that it overwhelms me”.

To score the instrument, simply sum all the responses to all 13 items, but to get a better idea of how to help a person, the subscale calculations involve the following:

Rumination: sum items 8,9,10, and 11

Magnification: sum items 6,7, and 13

Helplessness: sum items 1,2,3,4,5, and 12

There’s not a lot of point in having numbers without knowing what they mean, so the manual provides means and standard deviations relating to a population individuals with injury leading to lost time from work in Nova Scotia, Canada.

thingClinicians are typically interested in whether the person sitting in front of them is likely to have trouble managing their pain, so the manual also provides “cut off”scores for what could be described as “clinically relevant” levels of catastrophising. A total score of 30 or more is thought to represent the 75th percentile of scores obtained by individuals with chronic pain.

The “so what” question

Cutting to the chase, the question is “so what”? What difference will getting this information from someone make to my clinical reasoning?

Leaving aside the enormous body of literature showing a relationship between high levels of catastrophising and generally poor responses to traditional treatments that address pain alone (including surgery for major joint replacement, recovery from multiple orthopaedic trauma, low back pain, shoulder pain etc), I think it’s helpful to dig down into what the three subscales tell us about the person we’re working with. It’s once we understand these tendencies that we can begin to work out how our approach with someone who has high levels of rumination might differ from what we’ll do when working with someone who has high levels of helplessness.

As an aside and being upfront, I think it’s important to remember that a questionnaire score will only tell you what a person wants you to know. Questionnaires are NOT X-rays of the mind! They’re just convenient ways to ask the same questions more than once, to collect the answers and compare what this person says with the responses from a whole lot of other people, and they allow us to organise information in a way that we might not think to do otherwise.  I also think it’s really important NOT to label a person as “a catastrophiser” as if this is a choice the person has made. People will have all sorts of reasons for tending to think the way they do, and judging someone is unprofessional and unethical.


Rumination is that thing we do when a thought just won’t get out of our mind. You know the one – the ear worm, the endless round and round, especially at night, when we can’t get our mind off the things we’re worrying about. If a person has trouble with being able to drag his or her attention away, there are some useful things we can suggest. One theory about rumination is that it’s there as a sort of problem solving strategy, but one that has gone haywire.

Mindfulness can help so that people can notice their thoughts but not get hooked up into them. I like to use this both as a thought strategy, but also as a way of scanning the body and just noticing not only where the pain is experienced, but also where it is not.

“Fifteen minutes of worry” can also help – setting aside one specific time of the day (I like 7.00pm – 7.15pm) where you have to write down everything you’re worried about for a whole fifteen minutes without stopping. By also telling yourself throughout the day “I’m not worrying about this until tonight” and afterwards saying “I’ve already worried about this so I don’t need to right now”, worrying and ruminating can be contained. By being present with the thoughts during that 15 minutes, the threat value of the thought content is also reduced.


This is the tendency to think of the worst possible thing rather than the most likely outcome, and it’s common! Magnification can really increase the distress and “freeze” response to a situation. If a person is thinking of all the worst possible outcomes it’s really hard for them to focus on what is actually happening in the here and now. There’s some adaptive features to magnification – if I’ve prepared for the worst, and it doesn’t happen, then I’m in a good situation to go on, but in some people this process becomes so overwhelming that their ability to plan is stopped in its tracks.

Once again, mindfulness can be really useful here, particularly paying attention to what is actually happening in the here and now, rather than what might happen or what has happened. Mindful attention to breathing, body and thoughts can help reduce the “freeze” response, and allow some space for problem solving.

Of course, accurate information presented in nonthreatening terms and in ways the person can process is important to de-threaten the experience of pain. This is at the heart of “explain pain” approaches – and it’s useful. What’s important, however, is to directly address the main concern of the person – and it may not be the pain itself, but the beliefs about what pain will mean in terms of being a good parent, holding down a job, maintaining intimacy, being responsible and reliable. It’s crucial to find out what the person is really concerned about – and then ensure your “reassurance” is really reassuring.


Helplessness is that feeling of “there’s nothing I can do to avoid this awful outcome so I won’t do anything”. It’s a precursor to feelings of depression and certainly part of feeling overwhelmed and out of control.

When a person is feeling helpless it’s important to help them regain a sense of self efficacy, or confidence that they CAN do something to help themselves, to exert some sort of control over their situation. It might be tempting to aim for focusing on pain intensity and helping them gain control over pain intensity, but because it’s often so variable and influenced by numerous factors, it might be more useful to help the person achieve some small goals that are definitely achievable. I often begin with breathing because it’s a foundation for mindfulness, relaxation and has a direct influence over physiological arousal.

You might also begin with some exercise or daily activities that are well within the capabilities of the person you’re seeing. I like walking as a first step (no pun intended) because it doesn’t require any equipment, it’s something we all do, and it can be readily titrated to add difficulty. It’s also something that can be generalised into so many different environments. In a physiotherapy situation I’d like to see PTs consider exercises as their medium for helping a person experience a sense of achievement, of control, rather than a means to an end (ie to “fix” some sort of deficit).

To conclude
Questionnaires don’t add value until they’re USED. I think it’s unethical to administer a questionnaire without knowing what it means, without using the results, and without integrating the results into clinical reasoning. The problem is that so many questionnaires are based on psychological models and these haven’t been integrated into physiotherapy or occupational therapy clinical reasoning models. Maybe it’s time to work out how do this?

Sullivan M J L, Bishop S, Pivik J. The Pain Catastrophizing Scale: Development and validation. Psychol Assess 1995, 7: 524-532.

Main, C. J., Foster, N., & Buchbinder, R. (2010). How important are back pain beliefs and expectations for satisfactory recovery from back pain? Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology, 24(2), 205-217. doi:doi:10.1016/j.berh.2009.12.012

Sturgeon, J. A., Zautra, A. J., & Arewasikporn, A. (2014). A multilevel structural equation modeling analysis of vulnerabilities and resilience resources influencing affective adaptation to chronic pain. PAIN®, 155(2), 292-298. doi:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words are never enough – but does that stop us?

Pain may be said to follow pleasure as its shadow; but the misfortune is that in this particular case, the substance belongs to the shadow, the emptiness to its cause. CHARLES CALEB COLTON, Lacon

I can bear any pain as long as it has meaning. HARUKI MURAKAMI, 1Q84

But pain … seems to me an insufficient reason not to embrace life. Being dead is quite painless. Pain, like time, is going to come on regardless. Question is, what glorious moments can you win from life in addition to the pain?  LOIS MCMASTER BUJOLD, Barrayer

Language is not just words, but what those words symbolise. We use movements of lips, tongue and throat to produce symbols we relate to other things. We then use the relationships we learn through symbols to frame or structure our experiences – language is a “form of cooperation that builds on the social nature of humans groups and enhances a culture of eusociality in which humans thrive” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016. p. 28). What this means is that humans learn to connect concepts together through language which represents concepts only because of a shared social understanding – and in sharing this understanding we feel connected.

Why am I talking about language? Well, relational frame theory is a theory of human behaviour that helps us understand how language can exert an influence on us through the way we understand symbolic relations.We learn symbolic relationships by interacting with our world – children learn concepts of  “I – you” (that you and I are different, but that I can take your perspective by imagining I was in your place); “here-there” (that here is where I am, but there is another place – and I can move to that place); “now – then” (what is happening now will become then soon) by handling objects, ultimately understanding that the concepts only make sense within the context of “here”, or “I”, or “now”.   To be empathic, we need to learn to take the perspective of another, see and feel things from another person’s point of view, and be willing to experience those feelings (Villatte, Villattee & Hayes, p.32).

To be empathic to another’s pain, we need to take the perspective of another, to be willing to experience “what it might feel like” from the other person’s shoes.

Why are symbolic relations important?

In Christchurch, as many people know, over the past five years we have been through over 10,000 earthquakes of more than 3 on the Richter Scale. The thought of having an earthquake, to someone raised in NZ, is a distinct possibility. We have small ones all the time. Then in September 2010 we had the first big earthquake. It happened in the middle of the night (early morning), when all was dark, and it was violent! Later that day we had many aftershocks, and I can remember my heart pounding and feeling anxious in the aftermath. What has happened since, though, is that I’ve learned to associate the word “earthquake” with a whole lot of concepts – a rumbling noise from a truck driving past, the deep rumble of earthworks, EQC (our national insurer), road cones, detours, heritage buildings being knocked down, having no water or power. I keep a look out for exits, I brace at the rumble of a truck, one of the topics of conversation is “how is your house” and I remember the fatigue of constant aftershocks in the middle of the night.

Learning the associations (symbolic relations) between the experience at the time of an earthquake and all these other things such as words, movements, actions and emotions means that as a person living in Christchurch, the word “earthquake” and the sight of road cones and the rumble of a truck have all gained additional meaning or salience to me.

Simply by remembering a particular day (for us it was September 22, 2011), or by looking at a road cone, or diggers operating in a trench in a road, I have emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses. This is the power of a symbol, once learned.

And once learned, that association will never be unlearned – I will always remember that trucks rumbling by sound a lot like the start of an earthquake, and I will probably always have a quick little bracing response that I may not even notice (but hitch me up to biofeedback and I’ll be skin conductance will be increased).

What does this have to do with pain?

In the same way that I learned about earthquakes being associated with a whole bunch of things that hadn’t been connected before September 2010, from the time we are born we develop associations between our experiences of pain and other things including language.

For the most part we learn that pain is associated with something not so good happening to our body. We learn that it’s something we don’t really want to experience, and so we try to avoid it (mainly). We learn words that are associated with that experience – “ouch!”, “hurt”, “painful”, “ache”. We also develop emotional, cognitive, motivational and perceptual responses to this experience. We learn that certain movements bring pain on, while others alleviate it; we learn that some people respond with sympathy to our words or movements while others don’t respond.

The thing about symbolic relations is that “the simplest act of remembering by using names and symbols … means that anytime, anywhere, we can remember past painful or difficult events based on a few cues…the past can become present through symbolic relations” (Villatte, Villatte & Hayes, 2016, p. 33). While nonhuman animals can become fearful in situations that are similar to those they’ve felt threatened in, humans can experience the same emotions and responses even when a word is spoken – like earthquake for me brings on a heightened awareness of how vulnerable I am when the ground shakes.

What this learned association means is that for all humans, there are many cues that will elicit the same response as the actual event. And given the ubiquity of pain and the words we use to describe pain – and the associations we develop since we’ve been children – it’s no wonder that changing some of the more unhelpful associations and responses we have to the experience is a challenge.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about relational frame theory and how this theory can help us understand why words can be used to help – and harm – and how to implement useful verbal strategies in sessions to help our clients see their pain from a different frame.

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

Ambiguity and uncertainty

Humans vary in how comfortable we are with uncertainty or ambiguity: Tolerance of ambiguity is a construct discussed in cognitive and experimental research literature, and refers to the willingness to prefer black and white situations, where “there is an aversive reaction to ambiguous situations because the lack of information makes it difficult to assess risk and correctly make a decision. These situations are perceived as a threat and source of discomfort. Reactions to the perceived threat are stress, avoidance, delay, suppression, or denial” (Furnham & Marks, 2013, p. 718).  Tolerance to uncertainty is often discussed in relation to response to stress and emotions associated with being in an ambiguous situation, or it may refer to a future-oriented trait where an individual is responding to an ambiguous situation in the present. Suffice to say, for some individuals the need to be certain and clear means they find it very difficult to be in situations where multiple outcomes are possible and where information is messy. As a result, they find ways to counter the unease, ranging from avoiding making a decision to authoritatively dictating what “should” be done (or not done).

How does this affect us in a clinical setting? Well, both parties in this setting can have varying degrees of comfort with ambiguity.

Our clients may find it difficult to deal with not knowing their diagnosis, the cause of their painful experience, the time-frame of its resolution, and managing the myriad uncertainties that occur when routines are disrupted by the unexpected. For example, workers from the UK were interviewed about their unemployment as a result of low back pain. Uncertainty (both physical and financial) was given as one of the major themes from interviews of their experience of unemployment (Patel, Greasley, Watson, 2007).  Annika Lillrank, in a study from 2003, found that resolving diagnostic uncertainty was a critical point in the trajectory of those living with low back pain (Lillrank, 2003).

But it’s not just clients who find it hard to deal with uncertainty – clinicians do too. Slade, Molloy and Keating (2011) found that physiotherapists believe patients want a clear diagnosis but feel challenged when they’re faced with diagnostic uncertainty. What then happens is a temptation to be critical of the patients if they fail to improve, to seek support from other more senior colleagues, and end up feeling unprepared by their training to deal with this common situation. The response to uncertainty, at least in this study, was for clinicians to “educate” care-seekers about their injury/diagnosis despite diagnostic uncertainty (my italics), and a strong desire to see rapid improvements, and tend to attribute lack of progress to the client when either the client doesn’t want “education” or fails to improve (Slade, Molloy & Keating, 2003).

Physiotherapists are not alone in this tendency: There is a large body of literature discussing so-called “medically unexplained diseases” which, naturally, include chronic pain disorders. For example Bekkelund and Salvesen (2006) found that more referrals were made to neurologists when the clinician felt uncertain about a diagnosis of migraine. GP’s, in a study by Rosser (1996) were more likely to refer to specialists in part because they were uncertain – while specialists, dealing as they do with a narrower range of symptoms and body systems, deal with less diagnostic uncertainty. Surprisingly, despite the difference in degree of uncertainty, GP’s order fewer tests and procedures yet often produce identical outcomes!

How do we manage uncertainty and ambiguity?

Some of us will want to apply subtypes, groupings, algorithms – means of controlling the degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in our clinical practice. Some of the findings from various tests (eg palpation or tender point examination) are used as reasons for following a certain clinical rule of thumb. In physiotherapy, medicine and to a certain extent my own field of occupational therapy, there is a tendency to “see nails because all I have is a hammer” in an attempt to fit a client into a certain clinical rule or process. We see endless publications identifying “subtypes” and various ways to cut down the uncertainty within our field, particularly with respect to low back pain where we really are dealing with uncertainty.

Some of these subgroupings may appear effective – I remember the enthusiasm for leg length discrepancies, muscle “imbalance”, and more recently neutral spine and core stability – because for some people these approaches were helpful! Over time, the enthusiasm has waned.

Others of us apply what we could call an eclectic approach – a bit of this, a bit of that, something I like to do, something that I just learned – and yes, even some of these approaches seem to work.

My concern is twofold. (1) What is the clinical reasoning behind adopting either a rule-governed algorithm or subtyping approach or an eclectic approach? Why use X instead of Y? And are we reasoning after the fact to justify our approach? (2) What do we do if it doesn’t work? Where does that leave us? As Slade, Molloy & Keating (2003), do we begin blaming the patient when our hammer fails to find a nail?

I’ve long advocated working to generate multiple hypotheses to explain how and why a person is presenting in this way at this time. It’s a case formulation approach where, collaborating with the person and informed by broad assessment across multiple domains that are known to be associated with pain, a set of possible explanations (hypotheses) are generated. Then we systematically test these either through further clinical assessment, or by virtue of providing an intervention and carefully monitoring the outcome. This approach doesn’t resolve uncertainty – but it does allow for some time to de-bias our clinical reasoning, it involves the client in sorting out what might be going on, it means we have more than one way to approach the problem (the one the client identifies, not just our own!), and it means we have some way of holding all this ambiguous and uncertain information in place so we can see what’s going on. I know case formulations are imperfect, and they don’t solve anything in themselves (see Delle-Vergini & Day (2016) for a recent review of case formulation in forensic practice – not too different from ordinary clinical practice in musculoskeletal management IMHO) . What they do is provide a systematic process to follow that can incorporate uncertainty without needing a clinician to jump to conclusions.

I’d love your thoughts on managing uncertainty as a clinician in your daily practice. How do you deal with it? Is there room for uncertainty and ambiguity? What would happen if we could sit with this uncertainty without jumping in to treat for just a little longer? Could mindfulness be useful? What if you’re someone who experiences a great deal of empathy for people who distressed – can you sit with not knowing while in the presence of someone who is hurting?


Bekkelund, S., & Salvesen, R. (2006). Is uncertain diagnosis a more frequent reason for referring migraine patients to neurologist than other headache syndromes? European Journal of Neurology, 13(12), 1370-1373. doi:
Delle-Vergini, V., & Day, A. (2016). Case formulation in forensic practice: Challenges and opportunities. The Journal of Forensic Practice, 18(3), null. doi:doi:10.1108/JFP-01-2016-0005
Furnham, A., & Marks, J. (2013). Tolerance of ambiguity: A review of the recent literature. Psychology, Vol.04No.09, 12. doi:10.4236/psych.2013.49102
Lillrank, A. (2003). Back pain and the resolution of diagnostic uncertainty in illness narratives. Social Science & Medicine, 57(6), 1045-1054. doi:
Patel, S., Greasley, K., Watson, P. J. (2007). Barriers to rehabilitation and return to work for unemployed chronic pain patients: A qualitative study. European Journal of Pain: Ejp, 11(8), 831-840.
Rosser, W. W. (1996). Approach to diagnosis by primary care clinicians and specialists: Is there a difference? Journal of Family Practice, 42(2), 139-144.
Slade, S. C., Molloy, E., & Keating, J. L. (2012). The dilemma of diagnostic uncertainty when treating people with chronic low back pain: A qualitative study. Clinical Rehabilitation, 26(6), 558-569. doi:10.1177/0269215511420179

What is our goal in pain management?

One of the cool things about having worked in chronic pain management since the mid-1980’s is that I’ve seen a few things come and a few things go.  Some things remain, of course, and the things that seem most long-lived are debates about pain reduction vs living with pain. On one hand, there’s an enormous industry set up to help people reduce their pain experience through pharmacology, injection procedures, surgery, hands-on therapy, movement practice, and novel approaches like brain stimulation and even mirror therapy. On the other hand, there’s a smaller but equally well-established industry established to help people live with their pain, usually involving self-management of some sort and following a cognitive behavioural approach.

The two seem almost incompatible in many respects – why would someone choose to live with pain if their pain can be reduced or alleviated? What are the ethics of not offering pain reduction if it’s available? Why focus on hard work learning to live within the constraints of pain if there’s a way to get rid of it?

I wonder if it’s time to look at the underlying reasons for offering pain management. What is the goal? (BTW occasionally I might write “our” goal – and I do this deliberately because I think there are assumptions made by people who live with pain, and treatment providers, that may not always be explicit).

Why do we offer pain treatments?

Looking beneath the “oh but it’s a good way to earn a living” economic argument, I think some of the reasons we offer pain treatment is a sense of moral concern at seeing people in distress. As a society we’ve cast pain as a “thing” that needs to be fixed, a wrong that must be righted. We have cast ill health and disease as something that should not exist, and we use words like “war” or “battle” when we discuss treatments.  The Hippocratic Oath makes it clear that physicians “must not play at God” yet defining the limits of treatment is a challenge our society has yet to fully resolve.

At the same time as we view pain as an ill that must be removed, underneath the moral argument are a few other reasons – we think it’s wrong to allow someone to suffer. We think it’s wrong that people might not be able to do as they wish. We respect individual agency, the freedom to engage in life activities, to express the self, to participate in life fully and completely. And we think it’s important that, when disease or illness strikes, we offer something to reduce the restrictions imposed on individuals.

What’s wrong with these reasons for offering treatment?

Well, superficially and in the main, nothing. As humans we do have a sense of compassion, the desire to altruistically help others. Whether this is because, as a species, we hope someone will help us if we’re in the same situation, or whether we do it because of some other less selfish reason, I’m not sure. But there are problems with this way of viewing pain as an inevitably negative harmful experience. And I think it has to do with conflating (fusing together) the concepts of pain and suffering.

We offer people some treatments create suffering: I’ve just quickly skimmed a recent paper on using long-acting opioids for chronic noncancer pain where it was found that “prescription of long-acting opioids for chronic noncancer pain, compared with anticonvulsants or cyclic antidepressants, was associated with a significantly increased risk of all-cause mortality, including deaths from causes other than overdose, with a modest absolute risk difference” (Ray, Chung, Murray, Hall & Stein, 2016).

Given the poor response to pharmacological approaches experienced by so many people living with chronic pain (see Turk, Wilson & Cahana, 2011), not to mention “failed” surgery – the rates of persistent postsurgical chronic pain range from 12% (inguinal hernia) to 52% for thoracotomy (Reddi & Curran, 2014) – it surprises me that we often don’t discuss what to do (and when) if our treatments produce pain, or make it worse.

Nonmedical treatments can also be lumped in with these medical approaches – how many years of back-cracking, pulling, pushing, prodding, needling and exercising do people living with pain go through before someone pulls the plug and says “how about learning to live with your pain?”

What’s my goal in pain management?

When I see someone who is experiencing pain, whether it’s persistent or acute, my goal is for them to be able to respond to the demands of their situation with flexibility, and to live a life in which their values can be expressed.

That means no recipe for treatment, because each person is likely to have a whole bunch of different demands, things they’re avoiding, things that limit what they’re OK with doing. Values also differ enormously between people – we might all choose to work, but the reasons for working (and the kind of work we do) is informed by what we think is important. I’m intrigued by new learning, new information, and complexity. Others might be focused on ensuring their family is secure. Others still might be working to have a great social network. All of these values are relevant and  important.

Many of our treatments actually limit how flexibly people can respond to their situation – think of “safe” lifting techniques! And sometimes even the time people take away from living their normal life means their values are not able to be expressed. The thoughts and beliefs instilled by us as treatment providers (and from within our discourse about pain treatment) may also limit flexibility – think about “pain education” where we’ve inadvertently led people to believe that their pain “should” reduce because “know they know about neuroscience”.

At some point in the trajectory of a chronic pain problem, the person experiencing pain might need to ask themselves “Is what I’m doing helping me get closer to what I value, or is it getting in the way of this?” As clinicians we might need to stop for a minute, think of this part of the Hippocratic Oath “I will remember that I do not treat a fever chart, a cancerous growth, but a sick human being, whose illness may affect the person’s family and economic stability. My responsibility includes these related problems, if I am to care adequately for the sick”  and begin to talk about overall wellbeing rather than just treating “the problem”.

To alleviate suffering we may not need to eliminate pain – we may instead need to think about how we can help people move in the direction of their values


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Ray, W. A., Chung, C. P., Murray, K. T., Hall, K., & Stein, C. M. (2016). Prescription of long-acting opioids and mortality in patients with chronic noncancer pain. JAMA, 315(22), 2415-2423.

Turk, D. C., Wilson, H. D., & Cahana, A. (2011). Pain 2: Treatment of chronic non-cancer pain. The Lancet, 377(9784), 2226-2235. doi:10.111/j.1468-1331.2010.02999.x