How To Overcome Recurrent Pain

 I have a bad back.

People often say that when they come to me with recurrent low back pain.

You could replace back with knee, hip, shoulder, elbow or any other painful body part.

I’ve heard it all.

But I’m here to dispel the myth of bad body parts.

There’s Usually A Reason

It’s impossible to determine cause and effect in a complex system.

But when people tell me there was no reason for their pain, I dig a little deeper.

What usually emerges is that something had changed before the onset of pain.

Of course this doesn’t mean that change is the cause of their pain, only that something changed.

Sometimes this change occurs so gradually, it’s barely perceptible.

Pain Is Protective

Usually, we will feel pain before we have done anything serious – as in injury.

Pain is a protective output of the brain.

It is generally a good thing, that keeps us safe, but it can become a problem in and of itself.

When you experience pain it usually means that your brain is trying to protect you .

You feel pain in a body part, but your brain is trying to protect you as much as it is trying to protect your sore body part.

After all, you are what’s important to your brain. Without you, it ceases to exist.

The Recurrent Pain Cycle

Recurrent pain cycle

What we can see is a pretty typical cycle for many people.

The problem is, they never get better until something breaks that cycle.

As you can see, something is missing. Change.

If we could create meaningful and lasting change, maybe we would have less recurrent pain?

Resilience and Adaptability

Resilience is not about being strong, though that is a component.

Resilience is able being able to withstand a variety of stressors.

Adaptability is about being able to responds to a variety of stressors.

These stressors can be physical, psychological, environmental or whatever else.

How do we develop this?

Desensitise

Graded exposure is a psychological technique.

It involves exposing yourself to situations that scare you, in a manner that allows you to control your fear.

Over time, you become less fearful and can increase your exposure.

Often pain is associated with movements, social settings or other contexts.

By applying the principles of graded exposure to pain, we can desensitise your response to certain contexts.

Desensitising is the first step to breaking the recurrent pain cycle.

Optimise Your Senses

Having limited sensory input can affect pain.

Sensory input is the information your brain receives from nerves throughout the body. This can be from muscles, tendons joints and organs.

When the brain receives better sensory input, it can better interpret each situation and respond accordingly.

There are 3 main impairments to sensory input relevant to osteopaths:

  1. Past injuries that haven’t been completely rehabilitated
  2. Soft tissues and joints that are stiff and/or immobile
  3. Under-stimulation due to lack of use

Improving your sensory input improves your adaptability.

Yet, even with perfect sensory input, you can only adapt as much as your health allows.

Adaptability isn’t only a neurological attribute.  Or even a physiological attribute.

Adaptability is a human attribute.

Load: Progressively and Contextually

Loading develops resilience.

But, if you are not adaptable, then you can only load so far before you break down.

This is why we seek to enhance adaptability and resilience.

Loading about more than lifting weights.

It is about challenging yourself across a variety of environments, contexts, movements etc.

Remember, resilience is not only physical.

Resilience, like adaptability is a human attribute.

Humans are physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual.

It is important to development resilience across all the entire human spectrum.

Conclusions

Recurrent pain is a form of chronic pain.

People often don’t consider it chronic, because it isn’t constant.

To break the recurrent pain cycle, you need to identify why your pain is recurring.

Then you need take the necessary steps to change.

This can be hard, which is why you should get help along the way.

Only when you create meaningful change will your pain change in a meaningful way.

 

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.

 

 



 

 

Pain Is A Mystery, But How Do You Solve It?

Puzzle

It is easy to think of pain as a simple puzzle. Find the missing pieces, put it all together in the right order and then voila, you feel better.

Unfortunately, as much as we’d like things to be this simple, it’s not the case, and pain is more like a mystery.

Allow me to let Malcolm Gladwell explain (1):

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much. – Malcolm Gladwell

Although it seems like there a new discoveries about pain being published almost monthly. So much about is still unknown.

And, because pain is invisible and has many unconscious components, we simply cannot know why you, or any individual is experiencing pain at a particular moment.

The Case Against Diagnostic Imaging

You would think that being able to visualise the structure of the body would be helpful to clinicians treating pain.

It turns out that this isn’t quite the case.

Firstly, there is a large, and growing, body of research that shows there is very poor correlation between the structure of our bodies and symptoms of pain.

From disc injuries (2) to degeneration (3)  and even partial or full thickness tendon tears (4), most of us are walking around with structural “damage” that would show up on diagnostic imaging (X-ray, CT, MRI etc).

Secondly, and most interesting to me, is due to the fact that the interpretation and reporting on diagnostic imaging varies wildly.

In a recent study on MRI reporting and interpretation (5), a woman with low back pain and neurological referral was sent for an MRI at 10 different locations. The results reported 49 total findings, with not one interpretive finding consistent across all 10, and only 1 finding consistent across 9 of the 10 reports.

This means:

  1. MRIs require skill to interpret, and not all radiologists are equally skilled, thus, it matters where you get an MRI done.
  2. Radiologists working in isolation from the patient, are assessing an image, not a person, and have to make a lot of assumptions, even with a comprehensive history.

What About Physical Assessments?

Physical assessments are a necessity for clinicians, but which assessments are valuable, and which just add confusion?

We can break physical assessment into 3 components:

  1. Vital signs like pulse, blood pressure and breathing
  2. Neuro-orthopaedic examinations that are designed to rule in or rule out specific pathology or conditions
  3. Functional assessment designed to determine an individual’s movement competency and capacity

It is the third area which is the most “grey”.

This is because human movement, being an emergent property, is not an easy thing to classify (6).

We can define good and poor movement, but again the definitions are somewhat arbitrary, and their are many exceptions who fall outside those defined ranges who do not have an consequences (injury, pain etc).

This isn’t to say their isn’t such thing as good movement, bad movement or better movement, but only that it is person specific.

So if we use a movement assessment to gain insight to a person’s movement at that moment in time, in those conditions (in the clinic for example)then we can look for a movements that can be better.

If we identify movement that could be better, we can challenge to brain to improve movement, with a variety of techniques.

Even Histories Can Be Misleading

A good clinician will help someone in pain by creating the right context, or environment for them to heal.

To do this, a good clinician will know what they need to know, and more importantly, what they don’t.

By focusing only on the important, relevant, information, a good clinician minimises the chance of nocebo, and maximises the chances for recovery.

What exactly then does a good clinician need to know?

Is this pain dangerous?

When consulting with a patient, first, we want to rule out risk – some musculoskeletal pain can be caused by serious pathological conditions that need medical intervention. We have to rule these out first, and when in doubt, err on the side of conservative.

As a caveat to the above section on imaging, an “unnecessary” X-ray is a small price to pay if the alternative is missing an early cancer diagnosis. This does not mean imaging should be routine!

Is this pain affected by movement or position?

Mechanical pain is characterised by changes related to movement or position. If the answer to this question is yes, this rules in mechanical pain as a diagnosis. This does not yet rule out other origins of pain.

We can follow this up with more exploratory questions around which movement or positions feel good and which don’t.

Combined with the assessment findings, this will give us some more insight into how to proceed with treatment.

What is your current autonomic state?

Your autonomic state says a lot about you.

If you are wound up tightly – in a sympathetic or stressed state, characterised by elevated heart rate and blood pressure, shallow breathing and decreased blood flow to the periphery of the body (including the skin) – then it will be hard to resolve your pain until you enter a more balanced autonomic tone.

What are the barriers to recovery?

These are often implied, and a good clinician will be able to identify these as much from what a patient doesn’t say, as what they do.

Factors that can affect recovery include:

  • Age
  • Disease
  • Nutrition
  • Thoughts
  • Comorbid conditions – anxiety, depression, high blood pressure etc
  • Medications
  • Family and friends
  • Employment, or lack thereof

As always, it’s not simple, and it’s definitely not linear.

We are, after all, dealing with people – you know, those confusing, irrational beings who like to “go out”, but not for too long, because then they have to “go home” (Seinfeld reference, video below).

The Downside of Irrationality

Human beings are irrational. This is a fact.

Being irrational has positives, the most obvious being love.

Love is a fantastic human emotion that is completely irrational. If we were completely rational beings, then we wouldn’t spend so many of our resources chasing love, or any feeling for that matter.

But, this is exactly why too much information does not help us treat pain.

Too much information can lead us to make false assumptions and draw erroneous conclusions.

This doesn’t help patients seeking help for pain at all.

Pain has very tenuous links to tissue damage, body structure, posture, strength, symmetry and stability. (8,9)

Investigating these to a high level, and then describing pain as a result of these findings is not only inaccurate, but also harmful. (9, 10)

Every time someone is told their pain is the result of the above findings, a link is made in their brain. This is called a neurotag. Think of it like a storage file in the brain. (11, 12)

If a clinician, family member or friend tells someone with low back pain they lack “core stability”, then this is added to the low back pain neurotag.

Then, because of the way our brains function, when we have existing knowledge, we look for examples to confirm this knowledge – this is called confirmation bias.

So the person with low back pain, who has been told their pain is caused by a lack of core stability, finds “evidence” to support this.

If their back hurts when they lift something, they blame their lack of core stability. If their back hurts after activity, it’s core stability’s fault.

They forget to focus on the times that they lifted something without pain, or that activity didn’t hurt.

This is just one simple example. There are many others like it.

Conclusions

Mysteries are interesting to us as humans – as long as we get closure and the mystery is solved in the end. This is the basis of the “open loop”*  TV shows, movies and books use to keep their audiences engaged.

Unfortunately life is not like a movie. We don’t always get a neat and tidy closure.**

The challenge facing any clinician, when we treat people in pain, is to focus only the important and relevant information, and to educate patients on why this is so.

The even bigger challenge, is helping patients face the reality that the mystery of pain can’t always be solved, no matter how much (or little) information you have.

 

*An open loop is used by writers whereby earlier in the story they introduce something, but don’t address it immediately, in order to keep your attention, because you want to find out what happens next.

**Except not all movies or TV shows have closure. One of the greatest TV shows of all time, The Sopranos, has a famous ending that didn’t give it’s audience the closer they were hoping for.

 

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.

 

 



 

 

 

References

(1) Enron’s Open Secrets

(2) MRI findings of lumbar spine in people without back pain

(3) Abnormal magnetic-resonance scans of the lumbar spine in asymptomatic subjects. A prospective investigation

(4) MRI findings in throwing shoulders: abnormalities in professional handball players

(5) Variability in diagnostic error rates of 10 MRI centers performing lumbar spine MRI examinations on the same patient within a 3-week period

(6) Metastability and emergent performance of dynamic interceptive actions

(7) The fall of the postural-structural-biomechanical model in manual and physical therapies: exemplified by lower back pain

(8) Different contexts, different pains, different experiences

(9) Nocebo hyperalgesia and the startle response

(10) Context as a drug: some consequences of placebo research for primary care

(11) Pain really is in the mind, but not in the way you think

(12) Reinstatement of pain-related brain activation during the recognition of neutral images previously paired with nociceptive stimuli

Chronic Pain Is Rooted In Fear

fear painChronic pain is rooted in fear.

Chronic pain is defined as pain persisting more than 3-6 months, this is the time it typically takes for injured tissue to heal.

However, both acute and chronic pain have a tenuous association with injury (tissue damage).

People can exhibit the signs and symptoms of chronic pain earlier than 3 months.

This is influenced by factors associated with developing chronic pain, including, but not limited to, a history of anxiety and/or depression, low education level, lower income and age.

In general, most treatment of chronic pain is unsuccessful.

This is related to poor expectations of patients (after many failures, who can blame them) (1), and treatments that are overly focused on the biomedical (tissue) factors of pain, that often don’t match up with patients’ goals (2).

There have been promising results achieved by combining physical therapies with cognitive based therapies to treat chronic pain. (3)

Why Do We Experience Pain?

Professor of neuroscience and world leading expert on pain, Lorimer Moseley, has previously described pain as:

…a conscious correlate of the implicit perception that tissue is in danger

For most, the perception of danger evokes feelings of fear, heightened sensory awareness and decreased cognition.

When we assess danger, there are two main forms:

  1. Actual danger – situations where our life or safety is at risk.
  2. Perceived danger – situations where we perceive our life or safety to be at risk, but it really isn’t.

Both actual and perceived danger activate the same neuro-networks in the brain and the same physiological responses in the body. (4)

Our perceptions of danger are shaped by numerous factors, including:

  • Our age
  • Our gender
  • Our social
  • Our cultural upbringing
  • Our experiences
  • Our current capabilities.

If pain is related to a perception of danger, and our perception is shaped by all those factors, it is fair to say that pain is shaped by those factors too.

Pain science has moved forward, and beyond simply being a perception of danger, pain is beginning to be defined as a “need to protect”. (5)

The perception of danger, or threat, is in part based on predictive processing. (6)

Predictive processing is what our brains do to make sense of the world we experience and take shortcuts to achieving a conclusion.

An optical illusion based on predictive processing.

An optical illusion based on predictive processing.

Because of predictive processing, and other neural processes, we tend to not see an objective reality, but rather a subjective reality.

This is especially true when it comes to pain.

When we are experiencing pain, our brain makes predictions about whether something is going to be “dangerous”, and produces pain preemptively, in order to protect us.

Pain is not the only time that our brains use predictive processing.

Take a look at the brick wall, and see if you can spot what is not quite right.

The Neurobiology of Pain

The big problem with pain, is that pain is perception that we perceive as a sensation.

It tricks us into thinking that it is coming from our body, when in actual fact, pain is always produced by the brain and localised to the body. (7)

It is complex, and emergent, not linear.

So just because you feel a certain way after doing something, or not doing something, does not mean that your actions, or lack thereof, caused that feeling.

In the diagram below, I’ve simplified the neurobiology of pain with injury (remember, pain can occur without injury, and injury without pain as well).

neurobiology-of-pain-injury

Injury here is used loosely to describe the inciting physical event that damages the body tissue – it could be physical trauma, it could be an immune response from an infection or an auto-immune condition, like rheumatoid arthritis.

This leads to nociception – “danger” signals that convey a change to the status of the cellular environment.

That could mean a change to the mechanical load, a change to the chemical environment or a change to the temperature (the three primary types of nociceptors).

Inflammation is an immune response, and we know the brain and nervous system has a large role to play in the immune response (these days, doctors are calling it the neuro-endocrine-immune system). (8, 9)

Inflammation can lead to increased nociception, and if nociception increases, then this is a mechanism for increased inflammation. (10)

This can lead to peripheral sensitisation – where the sensory nerves in the affected body region become more sensitive due to physiological changes that take place.

All of this takes place locally, but we do not experience pain as a result of this just yet.

The Brain Modulates Everything

Modulation is a process whereby signals (nociception) reaching either the brain or spinal cord are amplified or inhibited. (11, 12)

Modulation can be affected by our thoughts – conscious or unconscious.

Here is where it gets interesting: we often think that our thoughts are ours, but there is compelling evidence that this may not be the case, and that our culture and environment shapes our thoughts, feelings and actions more than many of us would care to admit. (13, 14)

“You can do what you decide to do — but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.”
― Sam HarrisFree Will

Using this line of thought – when it comes to pain, our ideas and understanding, especially at an unconscious level are already implanted by the culture we live in.

Currently our culture around pain is:

  • Pain is bad.
  • Pain is caused by damage, or degeneration (the dreaded “wear and tear”) or misalignment.
  • “I’m just getting old.”
  • Pain needs to be “fixed” – and can be done so by the right practitioner.
  • We need to find the cause of pain, and this can be done by physical assessment and diagnostic tests (MRIs, X-rays etc).
  • The weather causes pain to flare up.

If you live in Australia, or any other Western nation with a similar culture, all of these memes, plus many others, have been implanted into your thoughts.

You don’t even question them most of the time, because you don’t know you have them, until you experience pain.

Our thoughts shape our emotions, our emotions shape our actions and our actions reinforce both.

This is especially evident when we experience pain.

Changing The Unchangeable?

We discussed earlier that pain is a protective response, which is based on the perception of threat.

There is a greater evidence of danger to ourselves, than there is of safety for ourselves. (15)

Going back to the premise of this post: chronic pain is rooted in fear.

Fear changes our perceptions.

Fear makes us think or feel that we are in danger moreso than we actually are.

Fear makes us want to find safety.

But if fear is influenced by a host of factors, many that we don’t know, and most that are unconscious, can we change it, and as a result, change pain?

I say yes.

Cognitive Based Therapy

CBT

When we can identify our fears around pain, then we take away some, if not all of its power.

Yes, pain will still hurt, that’s the nature of pain, but our suffering is different.

We stop catostrophising.

We stop worrying.

We start focusing on what we can do.

We start focusing on who we are.

The challenge of identifying and treating unconscious fears is obvious.

Fortunately, over the years, psychologists have developed many ways to explore our unconscious.

One of which, is cognitive behavioural therapy.

Cognitive based therapy is based on the premise that each thought is related to a certain emotion and behaviour, and vice versa.

By exploring each aspect around our beliefs and understanding of pain, we can change what we think, feel and do, to decrease our pain and suffering and eventually, change our unconscious thoughts.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is not only effective for treating pain, but also something that can be performed by suitably trained manual and physical therapists*.

A Way Into The Neuromatrix

The most up to date, and most widely accepted model of pain, is the neuromatrix model, proposed by Melzack and Wall (pictured).neuromatrix

What you can see in this diagram, is that there are multiple inputs (on the left) to the “body-self neuromatrix” (the representation of ourselves, within our brain) from both the body and brain, which influence what our body does, how it feels and how it functions (outputs, on the right)

These include:

  • Cognitive related brain areas
  • Sensory signalling systems
  • Emotion related brain areas.

But, that’s not all, each of these inputs can affect each other, as can each output.

Everything affects everything when it comes to pain.

What any good clinician is trying to do when treating someone in pain, is provide enough context for the outputs of the neuromatrix to change.

We do this by influencing the inputs in a way that promotes increased descending inhibition (as discussed earlier).

In addition to CBT, we can use other interventions like touch (manual therapy from intelligent, responsive hands) and movement.

Basically, we are trying to tell your brain that it’s okay, things are safe and you don’t have to be on edge.

When your brain is no longer in “fear mode”, it can resume normal modulation duties and you start to feel better.

Conclusions

Most chronic pain occurs in post surgical patients. (16)

There is an obvious physical trauma that takes place.

Many others develop chronic pain conditions after intense and/or prolonged psychological and/or emotional distress.

Something occurs to shift the brain into “fear mode”, in which it wants to do nothing more than protect itself (and you), which it does by producing pain.

We know that pain is complex and multi-factorial, but too often we think we are the exception.

It can feel like we just need to “release” that tight muscle or “crack” that stiff joint.

It can feel like there is “wear and tear” or “damage”.

But at least 40% of people with widespread arthritis don’t experience pain.

Amputees with no limbs do experience pain, in the absent limb!

You have to be fully engaged in the process, and willing to confront a lot of home truths about what you think, feel and believe if you want to treat your chronic pain successfully.

Even when you do that, sometimes you’ll still be in pain.

But, if you don’t, you’ll definitely still be in pain.

 

 

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.

 

 



 

 

 

*If your condition was too complex for the therapist alone, we would refer you to a psychologist. In Australia, there is a mental health plan, under which your GP can refer you for up to 10 consultations with a psychologist, partly subsidised by medicare.

References

(1) Expectations and chronic pain outcomes

(2) Patient goals and measuring treatment outcomes

(3) Cognitive functional therapy for low back pain 

(4) Activation of threat-reward neural networks

(5) What is pain?

(6) Predictive processing simplified

(7) Pain

(8) Nervous and immune system interactions

(9) Structure and function of nervous system lymphatic vessels

(10) Mechanisms of inflammatory pain

(11) Descending control of pain

(12) Continuous descending modulation revealed by FRMI

(13) Free Will

(14) Myth of free will

(15) DIM-SIMS

(16) Chronic pain and surgery

Stop Blaming People For Their Pain

Blame

This post is directed at the friends, families and health professionals of chronic pain sufferers: stop blaming people for their pain.

It is really common, whether overt or subtle, for people suffering from chronic pain to be blamed for their pain.

I would argue that this stems from a lack of visibility (you can’t see low back pain or migraines) and a lack of understanding, which I’m hoping to change.

Previously I have posted about both personal responsibility and pain as well as mindset and pain.

In these posts, I am not blaming people for being in pain.

Rather, I am urging people to take responsibility for their actions in the face of their pain, because that is the only way things will ever improve for them.

Chronic Pain Is Nobody’s “Fault”

Whilst you can definitely contribute to, or even cause your pain in certain circumstances, when it comes to chronic pain, it isn’t anyone’s fault that they have become “victims of their own nervous system”.

Let’s look at how most chronic pain arises:

  • Post surgical
  • Post physical trauma
  • Post major stressful event
  • Secondary to disease (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, dengue fever etc.)

Now, we don’t know why certain people develop chronic pain whilst others don’t, despite having the same experience.

All we know is that each person has a unique psychological, emotional and physical makeup.

And that there is something about the event’s effect on that individual that sets their nervous system off on a path of persistent pain.

We can look at factors that are correlated with chronic pain, but again, very little is predictive.

In fact, in terms of pain epidemiology (which is the study of health and diseases across populations), it seems the two biggest correlates are out of anyone’s control:

  • Age
  • Gender (females suffer from more chronic pain than males)

So whilst we can definitely control how we act and react in the face of pain, we can’t control the onset or presence of chronic pain.

It’s Human To Judge

It is a human instinct to judge others, based on our own perceptions of the world and experiences with people.

Equally, it is important to recognise that all of us have limited experiences, and our judgements are made on limited (if any) factual information, and lots of assumptions.

We have evolved this way for survival reasons, but it can often get us into trouble when dealing with humans – we don’t know what’s going on in our own “unconscious mind”, let alone others’.

Considering this, it is easy for our brains to lump people into categories and assign blame – it makes our worldview “neater” and simpler, but it does so at the cost of making things simplistic, when often that is not the case.

Whilst you can’t (and shouldn’t) stop judging, you have to acknowledge the limitations that are inherent within our judgements and use your cognition (yes, you’ll have to think), before you act and speak.

What To Do Instead

You’re probably thinking, “gosh, this is hard, I’m going to feel like I’m walking on eggshells any time I have to talk to someone with pain”.

When someone is constantly complaining about their pain, they are expressing a need.

This need can be for attention, care, acknowledgement or reassurance.

Pain is rooted in fear; our brains have decided that there is danger (real or not), and that pain is the best motivator for change.

Unfortunately, chronic pain is the dark side of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change), where the brain has become more efficient and skilled in the pain response, and so pain is not indicative of any damage within the body, but rather a heightened sensitivity to normal stimuli.

Instead of blaming someone with pain, try practicing empathy – that is, understanding what that person is experiencing, from their point of view.

It could be a loss of independence, a frustration at lost capabilities, a fear for the future, a combination of all three or something else entirely.

Conclusions

Pain is a normal part of the human experience.

We will all experience pain at different points in our life, and we hope that it is brief and not serious.

However, for many people, pain is not brief, but daily and ongoing, and a great disruption to their lives and their personality.

The vast majority of sufferers of pain have not done anything to “deserve it”, and so should not be blamed for their condition.

Instead, practicing empathy and acknowledging someone’s suffering is a better approach, without dwelling on pain and making it a focal point of your interaction.

 

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.

 



 

References

(1) McMahon, S.B., et al, Wall and Melzack’s Textbook of Pain, Elsevier Saunders, Philadelphia, 2006

(2) Chronic pain epidemiology and its clinical relevance

(3) Preventing chronic pain following acute pain: risk factors, preventative strategies and their efficacy

(4) Risk factors associated with the onset of persistent pain

Pain and Personal Responsibility

The Mind Is Key

When it comes to persistent/chronic pain, taking responsibility for your thoughts, emotions and actions is paramount to achieving any semblance of a normal life.

If you’ve ever experienced any intense or lasting pain, there’s a big chance you’ve said to yourself at least once “I don’t deserve this”.

Unfortunately, the world is not a fair place, and bad things happen to good people, but, viewing yourself as a victim of pain helps no one, least of all yourself.

This post isn’t about blaming your (or anyone for your pain), but rather to encourage you to take responsibility for the things you can control, in order to give yourself the best possible chance of living a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Is It Your Fault You Are In Pain?

The most commonly accepted model of pain is Melzack’s “neuromatrix model” (1). This model says that pain is an output of the brain, based on multiple sensory inputs, including:

  • Cognitive: memories, attention, meaning and anxiety
  • Sensory: inputs from skin, musculoskeletal tissues and the viscera (organs)
  • Emotive: inputs from the limb system

With this in mind, it is fair to say that any time you experience pain, you probably aren’t at fault based on anything you were consciously aware you were doing, because so much of the pain experience is generated unconsciously.

It is also fair to say that you can influence your pain based on what you think and do when you experience it.

So, to answer the question, in general, the answer is no, it’s not your fault you’re in pain.

However, as always, there are a few exceptions:

  • Acute pain is your fault if it stems from an injury that occurred because you did something stupid – think alcohol related injuries or playing a game of pick-up football knowing you haven’t been active in years.
  • Gradual onset pain stemming from overuse type injury (work, exercise etc) is very preventable with appropriate workload management.
  • Acute, non-specific pain is often the result of psycho-emotional components, more so than any tissue trauma, thus if you constantly put yourself in stressful situations and don’t know how to manage your thoughts and emotions, then you are probably playing a big role in your pain.

No One Can “Fix” You

One of the biggest examples of not taking personal responsibility for your pain, is the misguided notion that someone, or something, will fix you.

There is a growing body of research demonstrating that people with the highest expectations about making a recovery from pain do so. (2)

Combined with the large (and growing) body of research that suggests passive approaches to managing chronic pain aren’t very effective, it is obvious to see that there is a big role for you to play in your own recovery.

This doesn’t mean more passive therapies are useless. It just means the appropriate context has to be set.

What we can boil this down to is as follows: if you can find a knowledgeable practitioner that your like and connect with on some level, who inspires confidence in your ability to recover and gets you involved in the process, then you probably will.

Now, before you think that you have found and done all of that and you’re still in pain, it’s important to define “recovery”.

Defining Recovery

Most of the data on chronic pain comes from specialist chronic pain clinics. These are often public funded and run in, or in association with hospitals. They are typically “end of the line” treatments for people who have not responded to any other form of pain management.

The results these clinics achieve are “fair” when taken objectively, often decreasing a persons self-rated pain by a couple of points on a 10 point scale.

But, when we take into account that nothing has worked before, this improvement is quite impressive.

Additionally, when people are asked to rate their quality of life, measuring things like anxiety, depression and fear of the future, things are generally even more positive.

This gives us good insight into what is realistic for chronic pain sufferers.

If “end of the line” sufferers can improve this much, then good management earlier in the timeline can theoretically achieve even better results.

One of the biggest differences between those who succeed in managing their pain and those who don’t, is that they take action despite their pain.

Don’t Wait For Your Pain to Get Better to Start Living Well

In personal finance circles, there is a lot of talk about developing the habit of saving money, no matter your income.

That is, if you are on the minimum wage, and can only afford to save a few dollars each week, it is still important to do so, even though the amount across a year might not be very much, the habit developed carries on with you throughout life, as you (hopefully) increase your income.

A similar approach can be taken when you are in pain.

Instead of thinking “when I feel better, I can finally do x”, try shifting your mindset to “how can I find a way to do x, despite my pain”.

Now this is often easier said than done, but a good practitioner will be able to guide you through the process. Many times the limitations are self imposed, and a graded exposure approach can work wonders.

What Can You Do About Your Pain?

  • Accept your circumstances, rather than looking for someone or something to blame.
  • Seek out an excellent health practitioner to work alongside you and help build a team around you.
    • Don’t be afraid of medications. Used appropriately, they can be life changing. It goes without saying that you should talk to your doctor before starting or stopping any medications for your pain.
    • Consider working with a psychologist who specialises in chronic pain, in Australia there is an excellent Medicare rebate for psychology – discuss it with your doctor.
  • Outline functional based goals, rather than pain based goals. For example, saying “I’d like to walk my dog for 45 minutes” as opposed to saying “I’d like to walk completely pain free”.
  • Focus on processes, rather than outcomes. Processes are the things you do, outcomes happen based on what you do, but they are always variable (because of factors beyond your control).
  • Start small and build up slowly. 
  • Don’t “let pain be your guide”. Chronic pain is an unreliable guide of what to do or not do. Some days or weeks are worse than others. The challenge is to persist through the bad weeks as much as you can, and enjoy the good weeks without being fearful.
  • Stay positive. I know this can sound like throaway type advice, but there is evidence to suggest that if you can get through your pain, your brain returns to normal – the changes associated with pain are not permanent! (3)

Conclusions

It can seem like an impossible journey at times, and a completely isolating one, but you are definitely not alone.

People have gone before you and conquered pain. Others going on to live full lives despite their pain. Both, in no small part, due to their determination to make their lives better.

This doesn’t mean that you can will yourself better, but it does mean that there is hope.

There are dedicate professionals out there who study hard and work even harder to help people in pain live better lives.

Sometimes you have to work to find them. Sometimes you have to travel to reach them.

But you must, you owe it to yourself, because, the right advice, the right words at the right time, the right actions in the right amount, can change your life.

 

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.

 



References

(1) Melzack and Katz, Pain

(2) Expectation and low back pain recovery

(3) Brain structure during and after pain