Too much of a good thing: when people don’t really *get* pain science

I wanted to share a really important post with you all this morning, from the author of Chronically Undiagnosed.

She’s a therapist who is dealing with chronic illness.  Recently, she wrote about her experience attending a chronic pain support group that incorporated some of the theories of modern pain science… but did so very badly.

As someone who fervently believes in what pain science has to offer — it’s what originally inspired me to become a physical therapist– I have often felt many of her same frustrations, when people try to stretch pain science beyond the limits of its intended applications, or when they lump in their own personal beliefs about pain which have nothing to do with the actual scientific literature on the subject.

Reading her post, it sounds as though the social worker leading the class did have a basic understanding of pain science.

(By modern pain science, I mean the school of thought that says that pain is a function of our brains that’s meant to protect us, and as a protective mechanism, it doesn’t always work perfectly, or give us an accurate way to gauge what’s actually happening in our bodies. People can experience devastating injuries and feel no pain, or they can experience excruciating pain from injuries that are technically “minor.”  Pain scientists believe this knowledge can help us develop new treatment approaches, once we begin to tap into the fact that pain is here to protect us.  Some of the original proponents of this approach include David Butler and Lorimer Moseley).

It sounds as though Chronically Undiagnosed’s group leader did present some of these anecdotes, to prove that pain can be subjective.  But she did so in a way that was alienating to the group participants.

Chronically Undiagnosed writes:

“The instructors have cited reports of individuals who have either been injured and experienced no pain, or individuals who thought they were injured (but were not) and experienced extreme pain. One example was of a roofer who landed on a 6-inch nail that went through his steel toed boot who presented in the E.R with reports of excruciating pain. He was medicated for pain and the boot removed where it was discovered that the nail had gone through his shoe but between his toes, resulting in zero tissue damage. Additionally pictures of MRI’s were shown where a person had visible spine damage but no pain.

As someone with an advanced degree who has studied and taught research and statistics, I find fault with their examples. In a scientifically based research study, extreme results such as these are considered “outliers” and are not considered statistically significant. And as someone who has both counseled patients with chronic pain and experienced it daily for over 5 years, I find their assumptions to be not only scientifically incorrect but harmful to people experiencing chronic pain.

And now here come the people touting “modern pain science” as a breakthrough in treating pain. If pain is simply a perception created by the brain, then if we change our brains the pain should go away. When I expressed my concerns to the leader of the group she suggested that leading medical institutions in our country (such as Stanford, where I received “injections” that helped me) are “behind” in understanding pain.”

Reading about her experience made me really frustrated and sad, because I had a totally opposite experience when first presented with this information.

However, when I first came across it (under the guidance of my physical therapist Tim, and through watching physiotherapist Neil Pearson‘s lectures) I understood these stories– which ARE statistical outliers– to simply be examples illustrating how pain works.

They are extreme examples, but they demonstrate the fact that pain does not always provide an accurate indication of what is wrong in our bodies.  These stories are meant to educate, not to give people the impression that they ought to be able to magically “turn off” the pain in their brains tomorrow.

Following this, it sounds as though the social worker leading the group made another key mistake, one that I absolutely can’t stand:

She lumped her own personal beliefs about pain in with the theories of modern pain science, without making any distinction in between the two.

I’ve personally seen this before.  The first doctor who ever told me I had a heightened sensitivity to pain never actually told me about any of the neuroscience research behind this phenomenon (central sensitization).  Instead, she told me I was probably suffering from some form of psychological trauma, and that the only way for me to get better was through psychotherapy.

Years later, when I had finally discovered pain neurophysiology education, I found that the people actually researching modern pain science never talked about childhood trauma (or any other kind of psychological trauma).  They didn’t need to– the theory of pain as an imperfect protective mechanism was enough to explain so many of the things that could sometimes go wrong with it.

That’s not to say that no one, ever, experiences physical pain as a result of emotional trauma.  That’s not what I’m trying to say either.  But it’s wrong to be leading a group where you’re presenting people with the theories of modern pain science, and lump in your own personal beliefs about pain without making a distinction.

She did actually lump in other grains of truth.

Some of the other information Chronically Undiagnosed’s social worker presented is, technically, legitimate.

It is true that MRI’s are not always the best predictors of who will actually experience back pain.  There’s a great book, Back Sense, that talks about this.

In a nutshell, if you were to take 100 people off the street and take an MRI of everyone’s spine, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell, just by looking at the MRI’s, who was actually experiencing back pain.

We all experience some degeneration to our spines over time, but sometimes this degeneration can be symptom-less.

However, this information should never be used to tell a group of chronic pain patients they shouldn’t be experiencing any pain!

All of these bits of knowledge, which can be helpful– whether it’s pain science, or Back Sense– are meant to be one piece of the puzzle!

And they are meant to help illuminate aspects of patients’ experience.  They are meant to educate.  

They are not meant to blame people, or make them feel responsible for experiencing pain they shouldn’t be feeling!

I see this far too often in the field of pain science.

As a (hopeful) future physical therapist, I’ve followed a number of physical therapists, writers, and researchers on various social media platforms, hoping to learn more about how the field of pain science is evolving.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to go back and actually “unfollow” a bunch of people, because I see the same thing over and over again.  People will get annoyed and actually downright snarky about patients and fellow medical professionals trying to treat certain conditions which are the subject of controversy– the sort of “gray areas.”

One of these areas, in particular, is the sacroiliac joint.  There are a lot of physical therapists out there who don’t believe sacroiliac joint dysfunction is a real thing.

So I’ll sign on to Twitter, and find that someone I respected and followed to learn more about pain science is tweeting out some kind of derogatory commentary about how “the sacroiliac joint doesn’t really move” and what a “sham” it is that people are trying to treat it.

I suppose the evidence for sacroiliac joint dysfunction is really a topic for another post, however to me it’s just another example of people trying to take pain science too far.

Ultimately, I believe these physical therapists’ anger stems from a good place.  From their perspective, they’re probably tired of seeing other medical professionals “waste” patients’ time by treating them for musculoskeletal causes of pain, when they should be focusing on the nervous system.

But really, there are two sides of the same coin.

Yes, pain originates in our brains.  And our brains can shut pain off, in emergency situations.  

But that doesn’t mean patients’ pain isn’t valid.  That doesn’t mean that, once you put them in a 3-hour class where they hear about extreme examples of people not experiencing pain, they should automatically be able to “turn off” their own pain.

No approach will work if you don’t listen to people.  No approach will work if you aren’t kind.  That’s really the bottom line.

Pain science should be used to educate– not to deny the other potential reasons someone could be experiencing pain.

Just as MRI’s aren’t always accurate indicators of who will have back pain, it doesn’t mean that someone in excruciating pain shouldn’t have an MRI.

All of these things represent aspects of the truth, but no one piece should ever be a substitute for looking at the whole picture.

P.S. Please don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to learn about pain science from people who actually do get it!  

For more, you can check out my Resources section.

I also highly recommend Todd Hargrove’s article Seven Things You Should Know About Pain Science.

 

5 thoughts on “Too much of a good thing: when people don’t really *get* pain science

  1. Positively Alyssa says:

    Thank you for sharing! This was a great post that was wonderful to read! I also want to thank you for liking my post “Food for Thought”. I really appreciate the support and hope you will find more of my posts interesting! I am really looking forward to reading more of your posts! I hope you have a great evening!! Take care!

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