It’s Not About The Pain

Being a good osteopath involves being good at communication.

Being good at communication involves being good at listening.

Being good at listening involves understanding, not only what was said, but what wasn’t said.

This is because:

People don’t seek your help because of their pain, they seek your help because of the pain their pain causes.

When We Start, We Don’t Know Where We Will End Up

When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough that my dad, for whatever reason, bought a copy of a book called Smart Sport, which is essentially a book of sports science for lay people.

I read that book multiple times, developing an interest in exercise physiology and sports performance.

Indirectly, that has lead me into my current profession, but that is not what this post is about.

Because of my interest in exercise physiology, I became interested in cycling, and if you were interested in cycling at the turn of the century, you were interested in Lance Armstrong. Say what you want about him, but the man made cycling exciting!

Part of his appeal was his back story, which he detailed in a book titled It’s Not About The Bike.

The book outlines Lance’s struggles in life, and with cancer, as well as his comeback from the brink of death. It peaks when Lance is on the recovery trail and is climbing a hill in Colorado, when he realises his life is meant to be a struggle.

Which brings me to pain.

Pain Is Good, And Bad

None of us is entitled to be pain free, all the time.

[Note: This actually wouldn’t be a good thing either, as people with congenital analgesia (genetically can’t feel pain) tend to have shorter lifespans than average.]

Most of us are lucky in that we only experience pain in a positive way. That is, short term pain that is protecting us from something obvious (or not so obvious); a broken bone, a strained muscle, too much exertion in too little time.

However, some people experience constant, chronic pain, which we could say is not positive at all, but rather negative.

This pain is still protective (all pain is), however it is also pathological.

It occurs when the nervous system has changed, both in structure and function and become hyper protective. This type of pain is negative, because in the vast majority of cases it doesn’t correlate well with any tissue damage needing protection, and becomes a big hurdle to living a full life.

What we (as a population) have to understand is, some pain cannot be resolved.

We just don’t know enough yet. And even if we did, perhaps some pain is not meant to be resolved?

So if you are suffering from chronic pain, you have to ask yourself:

If this pain never went away, can I still live a good life?

And to me, as an osteopath, the answer is always yes. Mind you, many people will actually experience their pain decreases as they learn how to manage it better, but more on that later.

If you have have chronic pain, and you cannot fathom a way to live a good life, then you need help.

You need a team of health professionals who understand pain, who can work with you on reshaping your expectations, improving your management and helping you get as much out of life as possible.

#TheStruggleIsReal

Back to Lance. This is what I think he was talking about: life is all about the struggle.

We all struggle.

Our struggles vary, but to the person struggling, as the internet says “the struggle is real”.

But this struggle defines us.

It is because we struggle that we become stronger people.

It is because we struggle that we rely on others, building relationships that add to the richness of life.

It is because we struggle that we can help others who share the same struggle.

Perhaps, if we can learn to find meaning in the struggle, the struggle isn’t so much of a struggle, but a journey. And like every journey, some have it harder than others. Some don’t even make it. It’s not fair, but it is life.

Knowledge Is Power

I have talked about pain over the last few years, using tens of thousands of words to try and help people understand what pain is, how it works and how to move, think and live in order to overcome pain and achieve optimal health.

But overcoming pain doesn’t always mean getting rid of pain.

It means overcoming the adversity that pain brings.

It means understanding the key points of pain science education, as my friend and colleague Alison Sim outlines:

  • Pain does not equal tissue damage
  • Focus on function, not pain
  • Use physiology to underpin management (i.e. manipulate physiology with exercise and pyschological techniques to reduce stress and anxiety)

Mostly, it means understanding that it’s not about the pain, it’s about living as well as possible given the circumstances.

Nick Efthimiou Osteopath

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 

 



 

 

How To Recover From Any Injury

Image credit: Marcus Needham

Pain is a complex, emergent experience.

Tissue injuries are not.

Tissue injuries occur when the loading on the tissue exceeds its capacity.

This can be an acute issue – think of a sprinter suddenly straining their hamstring mid race – or a chronic issue – think of a builder developing elbow pain over time.

In both circumstances, the principle is the same.

The formula for managing an injury is fairly simple on a macro level:

  1. Decrease the volume, intensity and/or frequency of aggravating activities to manageable levels
  2. Improve biomechanical efficiency
  3. Increase capacity with progressive overload


What is challenging is how to achieve these objectives in living, breathing humans who have needs, wants and annoying things like emotions that make us behave irrationally.

This is where a clinician needs to have excellent listening and communication skills, be a master of persuasion and thoroughly understand the physiological and biomechanical aspects of movement, stress and adaptation.

This post is going to outline a few of the methods I use to achieve the above outcomes.

Decrease Volume/Intensity/Frequency of Load

The most obvious thing to do when we are injured is often the hardest.

Why?

  • Necessity. We all need to continue working, caring for family or performing our activities of daily living (ADL). It can be hard to offload your injured body part when there is a baby crying or a load of laundry that needs doing. Let alone when you have a work deadline to meet.
  • Desire. This is an emotional issue. Many of us desire to continue doing something as it brings us pleasure, status, or allays a negative emotion like guilt or fear. For example, it is common for people to want to continue to push themselves exercising whilst they are injured because of body image issues.

However, in most cases, an all or nothing approach is not required.

You don’t have to stop something completely to reduce the loading effect.

Here are two examples from a patient who has lateral hip pain that I’ve diagnosed as a gluteal tendinopathy. In these cases we are reducing the volume of the load primarily:

  • Use the fitness tracker in her phone to estimate her daily activity level. Work out at what activity level her symptoms flare up. Stay below that activity level while gradually building up during recovery.
  • Track her walks accurately (pace/duration) and work out at what level her symptoms flare up. Stay below that activity level while gradually building up during recovery.

Here is another example of how I reduced the intensity of the load in a builder with elbow pain. He couldn’t stop working, and a lot of what he did (using tools) aggravated his injury.

  • Use tennis grip tape to wrap around the handle of his hammer. This increases the circumference of the handle, which reduces the mechanical leverage of the forearm muscles, taking the load off the tendons at the elbow.

In most cases, there are ways to continue doing what you need or want to do, with some modifications. And in most cases, this is actually better than complete rest.

Improve Movement Efficiency

Everybody knows Roger Federer. You don’t have to be a tennis fan to appreciate his skill and technique. He makes things look easy.

As we improve our skill at a task, we become more efficient as well. It takes less effort and as a result we tend to load our body less.

Roger Federer demonstrates this – his supreme technique has helped him accumulate very few injuries in his career, despite a demanding schedule and advancing age.

However, we don’t need to look to elite sport for examples of movement efficiency.

Think of your local pizza parlour. If it has been around for a while, watching the chefs put a pizza together is a picture of movement beauty (okay, I really love pizza). Every time I try and replicate this at home I just end up tired with a very messy kitchen bench.

Or let’s keep it closer to home. When I was younger, I didn’t know how to iron a shirt well. My mum could iron all of my dad’s and my brothers’ shirts in the time it took me to do one. All that effort, all that time under load. It’s easy to see how my inferior ironing skills could lead to more load on my body. Even though my mum was doing more total work, her body was adapted to it, and she did it in a way that was smooth and effortless. Contrast that to me, not adapted to ironing (still not) and very tense and inefficient.

When it comes to rehab for an injury, it’s not just the capacity of the tissue that we have to worry about, but the efficiency of movement, which affects the loading on that tissue for each movement/activity.

Improving movement efficiency is a topic in and of itself.

My approach is based on the following formula: 

The input is related to sensory information from the nervous system. The better the quality of sensory information, the better the output. This is why rehab should begin on the sensory side. Sensory input can be improved with manual therapy, which is likely one of it’s biggest roles in modern practice.

Processing is based on cues and context. We can change both, but we have no idea how it will affect the processing. I’m not a big fan of the word processing, as it sounds to much like a computer, and we are not a computer or machine.

I discuss this in more detail here, and also here.

Increase Capacity

Remember at the start of this post when I said:

Tissue injuries occur when the loading on the tissue exceeds its capacity.

Well it makes sense that as well as reducing the load on the affected tissue(s), we increase the capacity as well. This has two benefits. No, actually, it has three benefits:

  1. Loading tissues helps with repair.
  2. Loading tissues that are painful helps (re)build confidence in the injured tissue.
  3. Increasing tissue capacity protects against future injury.

I like to use a two pronged approach here:

  • A targeted exercise approach
  • A graded return to activity approach

This isn’t revolutionary. It doesn’t have to be. It just has to be done well.

In the targeted exercise approach, I use a simple progression. I like someone to be able to (where possible) perceive the tissues properly (sensory awareness) before we work on the following:

  • Isometric to dynamic
  • More stable to less stable
  • Simple to complex
  • Less task specific to more task specific

There is some evidence to suggest local loading, particularly with isometrics has a pain relieving effect, which is why I start there.

More stable positions allow people to focus on the movement or activation required, without the extra motor and sensory demands of stabilising their body in space.

Starting simple allows more mental energy to be directed to recruitment patterns, while progressing to complex reinforces these patterns in different contexts.

Finally, starting less specific to the task allows for the load to gradually be progressed as tissue capacity increases.

Graded Return to Activity

This is an expansion of the first topic, reducing the load.

Put simply, we simply reverse the process, gradually increasing the load until the tasks can be performed normally again.

A good rule of thumb is to progress no more than 10% per week, to allow the person and the tissues to adapt. You cannot go too slowly, but you can absolutely go too quickly.

Conclusions

This is my current approach to treating tissue injuries.

You have to remember that not all tissue injuries present with pain, and not all painful presentations are related to tissue injuries.

When pain is the primary problem, we can use a similar approach if localised tissue sensitivity is deemed to be the main contributing factor.

Finally, we know that past injury is a big predictor of future injury. So while the pain from an injury subsides as the tissue heals (the tissue will heal if you give it a chance, regardless if you rehabilitate function or not), if you want to minimise your chance of re-injury in the future, it pays to be thorough.

 

Nick Efthimiou Osteopath

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 

 



 

 

Your Body Is Not A Machine

Back of man with arms elevated exposing machine internals.

What a machine!

Food is fuel!

The heart is a pump.

The brain is a computer. Inputs. Outputs. Processing.

Analogies likening the body to a machine have been around for centuries, if not longer.

They exist in almost every culture.

They shape the way people think about their bodies.

They are wrong.

Your body is not a machine, and that is an extremely good thing.

Your body is a biological entity, which adapts over time to the stimuli it is exposed to.

Moreover, your body is part of you and you are part of your body – the separation is an illusion of the mind.

Let’s look at this a little more deeply.

Why Do We Use Machine Analogies?

In a word: simplicity (even I succumbed to computer based analogies in this post – my understanding is better now).

Even the most complex machines are computers are created by, and hence can be understood by humans.

When it comes to our body, our brain, our mind – we really don’t know that much.

We are learning at an astounding rate, but almost all research in human biology and psychology ends with the dreaded statement more research is needed.

So, to simplify things, we use analogies of machines. To the non-technical minded person, machines are complex, but we have an idea about them because of our interaction with them in daily life.

But, in the process of simplifying, we have made things too simplistic, and as a result, our explanations lead to incorrect ideas.

Incorrect Ideas Lead To Poor Health Behaviours

Many people are afraid of activity due to a fear that they will “wear out” their body.

You hear doctors described arthritis as “wear and tear” all the time.

This leads people to stop doing the very things that would improve their condition – exercise.

We see similar problems with the “hardware/software” analogies used (I have been guilty of this in the past).

When people are told their brain is like a computer, it is very limiting.

Computers cannot create.

Computers cannot feel.

Computers cannot express themselves.

At this point in time, computers can only do what they are programmed to do.

If we think our brain is like a computer, then it is becomes a tool for processing information, rather than the core of our experience.

Additionally, a computer can be reset. While we all love the idea of a clean slate (new diet on Monday, new year’s resolutions etc), in reality, everything we have experienced in our lives shapes us in ways seen and unseen, which affects what we do, think and feel going forward, which shapes us further, in a big, ever expanding circular fashion.

What Kind Of Analogies Should We Use Instead?

When it comes to adaptation, which is the hallmark of living organisms, I like to use examples from nature, like this tree from a Facebook post I made a couple of years ago.

I love how, despite the challenges of an unfamiliar, urban environment presented to this tree, it manages to adapt and thrive. This is true across all of biology. Species, both plant and animal, will do whatever they can to adapt to their environment in order to survive and reproduce.

From an evolutionary biology perspective, this is what our primary purpose of life is.

Now, as humans, we have higher aims – creation, expression, fulfilment, enlightment etc – but deep down, these biological imperatives are still there.

Instead of saying “the body is a car that needs servicing and alignment”, why not say the body is like a tree, it grows until maturity, then it endures good seasons and bad throughout its lifespan, but it adapts and survives?

Instead of saying “the heart is like a pump”, why not describe it as a river that keeps flowing to maintain it’s own health – sometimes it flows faster, sometimes it flows slower, but it still flows?

Instead of saying “what a machine”, why not say what an amazing person?

Why It’s So Important To Get This Right

Imagine if, instead of being told that her sore knee is because of wear and tear, a doctor tells her patient that her knee pain is because her nervous system is being protective of it. 

Imagine this doctor then tells her patient that to deal with the pain she needs to become more adaptable and resilient, and that she can do this by improving her flexibility, strength and endurance with exercise and activity.

Imagine if this doctor also told her patient that stress and fear makes her pain worse, and that she not only needs to become more physically adaptable and resilient, but more mentally as well, and that this is possible because even into older age, the brain and nervous system can learn and change for the better!

Conclusions

Medical and allied health practitioners need to lead the charge towards healthier attitudes towards bodies, pain, injury and ageing.

More needs to be done to build confidence in people’s health, especially in the face of pain and ageing – two big drivers of fear.

This can be achieved by stopping the use of machine based analogies and encouraging people to build strength and resilience in the face of pain, rather than retreat and avoid aggravation.

The evidence is clear: while short term rest in the case of tissue injury and post surgery is sometimes warranted, the sooner people resume activity, the better their outcomes.

We also know that expectations drive outcomes. This means more positive messages about recovery and less fear based mechanical analogies.

It’s time practice started reflecting the evidence, it’s been around for a while now.

Nick Efthimiou Osteopath

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.