Protect the body with armour - the muscular system

Pain – the unseen force

Le Horla“Do we see the hundred-thousandth part of what exists? Look, here is the wind, which is the strongest force in nature, which knocks men down, destroys buildings, uproots trees, whips the sea up into mountains of water, destroys cliffs, and throws great ships onto the shoals; here is the wind that kills, whistles, groans, howls–have you ever seen it, and can you see it? Yet it exists.” Guy De Maupassant – the monk talking to the author at Mont Saint-Michel.

Pain, have you ever seen it, and can you see it? The unseen power of pain that is the cause of suffering is one of our greatest enigmas. We are understanding where pain comes from with greater precision but with every painful experience being unique, the pattern of activity in the brain is rightly different on each occasion. The widespread networks of neurons that are active when we are in pain are not specific to hurting, there is no pain centre. It is fascinating that we can see similar brain activity during a pain that results from nociceptive stimulation of the body and from social isolation. Neither pain can be seen from the outside, only the facial expression and verbalisation with the hundreds of words that can describe the feeling.

Is this the reason why people are disbelieved? Because pain cannot be seen. How can anyone truly measure the pain of another? Hurting is subjective. I know and only I know how much it hurts and how it affects me. All too often a patient describes returning to work and feeling a sense that colleagues do not believe or understand their suffering. This can only increase the threat and elucidate further protective responses that feed into the cycle of thoughts–physical responses–emotions–thoughts.

Thoughts cannot be seen but they are real as they play in the mind, each one creating a body response: “I am hungry,”, the stomach rumbles; “I don’t know my lines,” the stomach tightens and tingles; “I have pain, what does it mean?” the body tightens, the pain intensifies. None of these can be seen but they exist as much as the wind that can bend a tree.

Protect the body with armour - the muscular system

Protect the body with armour – the muscular system

Pain is embodied. We feel pain in a location in the body, even if the body part no longer exists such is the case in phantom limb pain. The brain networks ensure that we attend to the body region deemed in need of protection, creating the unpleasant experience that is pain so that action is taken to resolve the issue. In the early stages of an injury we actively protect the area by reducing movement, guarding with increased tension, warning others away with bandages and crutches. If you are travelling in London on the tube, this may even afford you a seat in rush hour. Persisting pain is not related to the extent of tissue damage, if it ever really is–for pain is not an accurate indicator of tissue damage. Chronic pain can feel like a fresh injury and drives the same behaviours: attention towards the painful area, guarding with the musculoskeletal system by tightening up the muscles–our natural armour, and avoidance. These behaviours feed back into the body systems that tell the brain something is up and the brain responds by continuing to protect. The cycle continues until there is a good reason for it to stop because a safe state has been achieved.

The challenge of tackling chronic pain means that we must look beyond the tissues. Exploring the brain, the immune system, the endocrine system, the motor system and how they interact to create our moment to moment experiences, the interface with life and how we respond at any given time. Nothing is permanent. Pain can come and pain can go. Cultivating the conditions for pain to change is the contemporary way of thinking and each person requires a unique approach based on sound scientific principles. So, much like we can harness the wind to create power, we can harness our biology to create a meaningful life.


To book an appointment or for information about our bespoke treatment and training programmes for pain and chronic pain, contact us today: 07932 689081




Bear traps and how to avoid them

My old headmaster would warn us not to fall into bear traps. By this he meant pay attention to what you are doing so that you do not make a simple mistake. He would set a few bear traps and see if we were concentrating or if we were on autopilot. It was also a way to note tomfoolery.

As clinicians we can also fall into bear traps by not attending to or challenging our own thinking and beliefs. This is especially true with pain, where we can so easily rely on our own beliefs about pain and what we should do in response to pain. We know for example, that GPs can give advice about back pain according to what they would do if they suffered back pain — rest or remain active.

Cultivating awareness of our understanding, beliefs and noticing the messages that we give to patients is a simple habit. It takes practice but allows us to ensure that we are giving the best possible advice and information, perhaps in the form of a metaphor. This includes the mode of delivery: body language, tone of voice, timing of the message and the environment in which the message is given.

Here are a few simple tips:

1. Before each patient, gently notice your breathing — in, and sense the chest rise and expand; out, and feel the body tension ease. This helps to create an awareness of what is happening now, including preconceptions and thoughts that could flavour the coming session.

2. Listen deeply — by continuing to breath, remaining present and listening to every word and noticing the patient’s body language, we can learn all that we need to intervene in the right way. The most potent way for that moment.

3. Speak with compassion — our brains are wired to thrive on kindness. We can create an effective session by both listening and communicating in a mindful way without the clarity being lost by intrusive thoughts that obstruct effective messages being passed.

The Specialist Pain Physio Clinics in London provide treatment and training programmes for pain and dystonia based upon the latest neuroscience of pain, brain and mind. The approach is comprehensive, addressing the problems and influences in a compassionate and encompassing way. If you are suffering with chronic pain, call us now to book your first appointment: 07932 689081

Specialist Pain Physio Clinics in London

20 years in healthcare — what have I learned?

Specialist Pain Physio Clinics in LondonReflecting back on over 20 years of time spent in healthcare there are a few things that stand out as being important. Much of what is learned has been pruned and will continue to be sculpted as knowledge emerges from the research.

Here are my top three:

1. Harnessed from the great writing of Oliver Sacks: it is as much about the person as it is the condition.

2. The effects of any intervention are affected by the patient’s perception and expectation, moulded by prior experiences and their belief system.

3. Communication sits at the heart of successful therapy, both verbal (this includes body language) and written.


The Specialist Pain Physio Clinics in London deliver the very latest in treatment and training for chronic pain, persisting and recurring injuries 

Call us for information or to book an appointment: 07932 689081

Massage for pain and chronic pain in London

5 reasons why I use manual therapy for cases of persisting pain

Some will argue that manual therapy — joint and/or soft tissue techniques — has no role in chronic pain. I disagree. Why?

(In no particular order)

1. Touch is normal and it is something that we do when we care.
2. Hands on treatment is expected when you visit a physiotherapist or physical therapist.
3. Stimulation in the area of the body that hurts can feel good. If it causes little or no pain, the brain is happy and interpreting the stimulus (touch, pressure, movement) as being safe. More of that please! A great way to desensitise and for the experience of pleasure in the affected area.
4. Change the brain’s output by addressing the area with therapy that feels good — that’s the output feeling good, along with reflexive reduction in protection.
5. What do you do if you bang your elbow? Rub it. In chronic pain, you may need to think about how and when to rub it, but nonetheless, rubbing it needs. Combine rubbing with visual feedback and there you have a pain relieving strategy.

Mindfulness for pain, health and performance

5 reasons why mindfulness is part of our treatment programmes

1. Mindfulness reduces suffering: pain, anxiety, tension.

2. Mindfulness promotes clarity of thought.

3. Mindfulness develops a sense of calm.

4. Mindfulness creates an ability to focus ones attention where you want to, and not in response to the wandering mind.

5. Mindfulness changes physiology, triggering restorative processes: e.g./ healing, digestion, sleep, anti-inflammatory action.

For pain, stress, anxiety, performance, concentration, call us to make an appointment: 07932 689081

Pain is a whole person experience

Where do we tackle pain?

Where does pain come from?

Where does pain come from?

When someone tells you that they have a painful knee, it makes sense to have a look at the joint to see what has gone wrong. Perhaps an x-ray or a scan would help to determine the state of the cartilage, bone and surrounding soft tissue. An assessment of the range of motion, motor control and the responses to sensory testing reveal any functional limitations and adaptations. Is this enough to truly understand where pain really sits? Is it enough to decide where to intervene? In some cases yes is the answer, but not always!

Important that this kind of evaluation maybe, we must consider the significant pile of literature that points out pain is not an accurate indicator of tissue damage, as so eloquently concluded by Lorimer Moseley. One has only to think about phantom limb pain to realise that there is no need to have an arm, or a leg, or indeed any body part, for there to be pain in that location.

Phantom limb painPhantom limb pain is the condition that illustrates the concept that pain is allocated a space. This space could be the knee as in our example above, any other body region or regions, or even outside of the body. A study by Lorimer Moseley also suggested that pain is felt in a space and not within the tissues. Subjects were asked to cross their arms, placing the affected hand into the space usually occupied by the unaffected hand. The effect? Pain relief. This is of course one study, however there was an impact that needs to be further investigated. Assuming that pain is allocated a space, this would explain why, when you position the hand in that of the non-painful side, both the pain and movement quality improve.

This is easily tested in the clinic with both hands and feet. The demonstration is a potent one for the individual as their limb experience can change. Seemingly there is an ease of the tension and guarding as well as the sensitivity. It can be profound, especially when someone has been suffering with a nasty pain such as in complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) or neuropathic pain. The caveat is that this is not a cure, and it does not work every time, however in those that the effect is apparent, the ability to move more normally promotes healthy tissue and perception by the brain, especially if you are looking at the movement — extra sensory feedback via the visual system.

In summary, as best we know, pain is allocated a space. This can be a space that is occupied by a body region that why we feel pain in the tissues, the place where the pain emerges. The actual location of the pain is determined by the brain as it decides where we need to attend for protection. Recall that pain is a protective device involving a widespread network of neurons within the brain. There is no higher pain centre, but rather a network that monitors the sensory situation and responds as needed. On the basis that the sensory feedback suggests something dangerous is happening, the network will create an output that we experience in the body via a space that is deemed to need protection. Unfortunately, this output can occur without sensory input in some cases of persisting pain as the neuroimmune system becomes very sensitised and responsive to a range of stimuli including those that are not actually dangerous, hence why normal activities can hurt.

On this basis, when considering where to treat pain, we have to consider the space where the brain feels we need protecting. With the emergent property that is pain, the sensation is at the end of a process and it is therefore wise to target the entire biology from top to bottom and bottom to top. This means we need to address the higher centres, for example developing the individual’s understanding of their pain, reducing fears and using strategies for the brain maps of the body concurrent with using techniques within the space, i.e. the body area where the pain is felt.

For more about our comprehensive treatment and training programmes for persisting pain and injury, call us on 07932 689081 to make an appointment. Clinics in London & Surrey.


Turned on?

Are you turned on?

Turned on?

Turned on?

At the risk of sounding ambiguous, many people are turned on. In particular, city dwellers and workers who are being hit with innumerable stimuli, bombarding the senses, triggering on-going responses by the brain, the mind and the body. Whether it be the noise of the traffic, the lights at night, the phantom vibrations of the phone, pollution or close-quarter travel on the train, outputs are being generated by the nervous system, the immune system and the endocrine system that are experienced as thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, some being pleasant, others not so.

Once a chronic state of arousal has been reached, the on-going energy demands can eventually result in burn-out or a gradual state of declining physical and mental health — the two being inextricably linked.

How does this manifest?

The all-too common conditions that we see include general body-wide muscular aches and pains, headaches and migraines, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety, indigestion, pelvic pain, fertility issues. The thread that ties these seemingly unrelated problems is stress. Stress however, is a physiological response to a situation that is perceived to be threatening. Two people can give entirely different meanings to a particular scenario, thereby having diverse experiences — it is all about an individual’s perception. Our perception is based upon beliefs about the world, sculpted over the years by exposure and influences.

stress-2The biological response to threat involves the autonomic nervous system and the motor system at least, preparing to either flee from the danger or confront the situation. An incredible set of responses, they evolved from the need to deal with wild animals. Fortunately this does not happen too often these days, but there are plenty of potential threats including the thoughts that pass through our mind. The brain does not differentiate between a thought and actually being present. The response is similar and usually thinking about something unpleasant that may happen will lead to feelings of anxiety — tingling in the tummy, tension, increased pain.

If these systems are persistently triggered by stress, there is less opportunity for smooth digestion, conception, healing and clarity. Being chronically turned on hence results in digestive issues, sensitivity of the bowel (bloating, pain etc), difficulty conceiving (thoughts of sex and conceiving are not going to be high on the brain’s agenda if there is a constant perception of danger) and pain that results from gradual changes in the tissues. In fact, every body system is impacted upon by the chemicals released during an on-going stress response. And not in a good way. Performance is affected, mood varies, sleep is disrupted, concentration is poor, catastrophising becomes rife and negative thinking about life predominates.

How do we turn off?

Specialist Pain Physio Clinics in London for pain, complex pain and injuryRelaxation or having the ability to switch off is often a skill that requires learning and practice. Going to the gym, having a cigarette or a coffee is not turning off. These are all stimulating a system that is already fraught. It is the calming, restorative, digestive and healing mechanisms that need to be fortified.

Promoting calm in a habitual way across the day is a potent way of re-programming the right responses for the right scenarios. Checking in on the body and thought processes, attending to the present moment rather than automatically drifting into the past or future, avoiding stimulation (e.g./ electronic screens, coffee, cigarettes, sugary foods and drink, certain reading material), mindful practice, breathing techniques and cultivating focused attention are all ways in which we can build our positive bank account in terms of energy and feeling good. Creating good habits. Exercise although stimulating, and certainly in a gym with bright lights and loud music, should form part of a routine for the overall healthy benefits. It is the best wonder drug that we know of and it is free.

Changing behaviours is difficult but it is achievable with the right programme that addresses both body and mind. Cultivating a routine around sleep, movement, diet, exercise, mindfulness, work and family will groove a healthy, resilient, positive and happy path forward. Turn off.

For more on our healthy programme and treatment for painful conditions, stress and anxiety, call us now on 07932 689081

Lumbar spine MRI scan

MRI for back pain – does the report content affect the management?

Lumbar spine MRI scan

Lumbar spine MRI scan

Lumbar MR Imaging and Reporting Epidemiology: Do Epidemiologic Data in Reports Affect Clinical Management? This is the question posed by the authors of this recent study, seeking to determine whether adding details about changes seen on an MRI scan in those without symptoms had any impact. The conclusion was: ‘Patients were less likely to receive narcotics prescriptions from primary care providers when epidemiologic information was included in their lumbar spine MR imaging reports’. 

Why may this be?

We can start by saying that jumping down the route of an MRI scan for back pain is not a given, but rather it requires wise thought. The American College of Physicians published a paper in 2011 stating: Diagnostic imaging is indicated for patients with low back pain only if they have severe progressive neurologic deficits or signs or symptoms that suggest a serious or specific underlying condition. In other patients, evidence indicates that routine imaging is not associated with clinically meaningful benefits but can lead to harms. Addressing inefficiencies in diagnostic testing could minimize potential harms to patients and have a large effect on use of resources by reducing both direct and downstream costs. In this area, more testing does not equate to better care. Implementing a selective approach to low back imaging, as suggested by the American College of Physicians and American Pain Society guideline on low back pain, would provide better care to patients, improve outcomes, and reduce costs’. 

One immediate issue is that an MRI scan can show structural changes that could be assumed to be the cause of the back pain. On making that assumption, both the clinician and the patient can be pulled down a route of thinking to somehow alter the structure, or remove the tissue will henceforth change the pain. Of course there are many cases of intervention, including surgery, that lead to pain relief. Is it simply because the structure has been removed? The same is true of joint replacement when relief is frequently obtained. However, there are many cases when this does not happen, with pain and other symptoms persisting. We know that this is because pain is not an accurate indicator of tissue damage — see Lorimer Moseley talking about this here. Phantom limb pain is the ultimate example of pain without body.

A scan does not show pain

A scan does not show pain

Including information about common scan findings in people without back pain appears to be a potent message that affects the patient journey. In essence that is what we are seeking to change, the trajectory of the condition and the patient experience, for the better. Cultivating the conditions for the body’s physiology to adapt and develop in such a way as to emerge with healthy function.

What are we doing with this message? Normalising. The key point is the fact that we can have certain changes in the body, in the spine, that do not cause problems. Clearly, the person sitting in the clinic does have a pain problem that needs to be solved, but not necessarily via an MRI scan. If a scan has been taken and shows no serious pathology, this is great news. Having said that, many people describe uncertainty and anxiousness at the lack of a structural explanation for their pain. This is entirely understandable as they have not had their pain explained to them at that time, hence there is no meaning. No meaning creates further worry and this most certainly affects pain.

So, the first point of action once all the information has been scrutinised, is to create a perspective based upon what we know about the body and pain. Describing the pain mechanisms, the underpinning biology that involves many body systems, and the influences upon pain such as fatigue, previous experience, self-analysis of the situation, stress, anxiety, movement and other factors that are all biological. Everything is biological — this is a key data point. A movement, a thought, an emotion; they are all underpinned by brain activity that often creates and colours sensations in the body. We can use the different yet inter-related dimensions of pain (physical – cognitive – emotional) to construct bespoke programmes to tackle both the sources of pain and the influencing factors.

The second point of action is to plan an individual programme that encompasses specific training to re-programme the way in which the body has been working. This sits alongside techniques to develop confidence and awareness of the body, both vital for normal functioning. The patient’s role in this training cannot be over-emphasised, hence why motivational factors, and barriers, must be considered and addressed.

The third point is the monitoring and progression of the training and treatment, sculpting the change in pain and function that is entirely possible once the right conditions have been set for both understanding and action.

The questions regarding MRI and other investigations will continue to be asked and rightly so. We must continually challenge our own thinking about the best route forward for each individual patient. Understandably, patients will continue to expect and hope for the fullest assessment including MRI, the gold standard, and from this we must use the information wisely and objectively, explaining the findings and creating a perspective that makes sense and propels the best possible treatment.

If you are suffering with back pain or persisting back pain, perhaps with leg pain — sciatica — come and see us to find out how to move forward 07932 689081


Postural Tachycardia Syndrome

PoTS — Postural tachycardia syndrome

Postural Tachycardia Syndrome

Postural Tachycardia Syndrome

The autonomic dysfunction that manifests as PoTS is poorly understood yet can cause alarming and distressing symptoms that hugely impact upon an individual’s quality of life. The experience of PoTS includes dizziness, palpitations and syncope, triggered by a range of stimuli such as heat, exertion, food ingestion and others. The variable nature and the plethora of symptoms that can be subtle on occasion, extending to the more overt collapse, can mean that day to day living becomes extremely challenging. The shift in the sense of self with PoTS as with other conditions, defines the suffering that the individual bears.

PoTS is often associated with hypermobility, joint hypermobility syndrome (JHS) and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Hypermobility Type (EDS-HT). Many patients who visit the clinic with chronic pain and functional pain syndromes will demonstrate hypermobility on moving — lumbar spine, knees, elbows, thumbs, little fingers. It makes sense then, to be vigilant for symptoms of PoTS and dysautonomia.

For further information about PoTS, visit the PoTS UK website

There are several very good reviews of PoTS:

Postural tachycardia syndrome–current experience and concepts -Mathias CJ, Low DA, Iodice V, Owens AP, Kirbis M, Grahame R.

Postural tachycardia syndrome (PoTS) is a poorly understood but important cause of orthostatic intolerance resulting from cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction. PoTS is distinct from the syndromes of autonomic failure usually associated with orthostatic hypotension, such as pure autonomic failure and multiple system atrophy. Individuals affected by PoTS are mainly young (aged between 15 years and 40 years) and predominantly female. The symptoms–palpitations, dizziness and occasionally syncope–mainly occur when the patient is standing upright, and are often relieved by sitting or lying flat. Common stimuli in daily life, such as modest exertion, food ingestion and heat, are now recognized to be capable of exacerbating the symptoms. Onset of the syndrome can be linked to infection, trauma, surgery or stress. PoTS can be associated with various other disorders; in particular, joint hypermobility syndrome (also known as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome hypermobility type, formerly termed Ehlers-Danlos syndrome type III). This Review describes the characteristics and neuroepidemiology of PoTS, and outlines possible pathophysiological mechanisms of this syndrome, as well as current and investigational treatments.


Postural tachycardia syndrome: a heterogeneous and multifactorial disorder — full article free here
Benarroch EE.

Postural tachycardia syndrome (POTS) is defined by a heart rate increment of 30 beats/min or more within 10 minutes of standing or head-up tilt in the absence of orthostatic hypotension; the standing heart rate is often 120 beats/min or higher. POTS manifests with symptoms of cerebral hypoperfusion and excessive sympathoexcitation. The pathophysiology of POTS is heterogeneous and includes impaired sympathetically mediated vasoconstriction, excessive sympathetic drive, volume dysregulation, and deconditioning. POTS is frequently included in the differential diagnosis of chronic unexplained symptoms, such as inappropriate sinus tachycardia, chronic fatigue, chronic dizziness, or unexplained spells in otherwise healthy young individuals. Many patients with POTS also report symptoms not attributable to orthostatic intolerance, including those of functional gastrointestinal or bladder disorders, chronic headache, fibromyalgia, and sleep disturbances. In many of these cases, cognitive and behavioral factors, somatic hypervigilance associated with anxiety, depression, and behavioral amplification contribute to symptom chronicity. The aims of evaluation in patients with POTS are to exclude cardiac causes of inappropriate tachycardia; elucidate, if possible, the most likely pathophysiologic basis of postural intolerance; assess for the presence of treatable autonomic neuropathies; exclude endocrine causes of a hyperadrenergic state; evaluate for cardiovascular deconditioning; and determine the contribution of emotional and behavioral factors to the patient’s symptoms. Management of POTS includes avoidance of precipitating factors, volume expansion, physical countermaneuvers, exercise training, pharmacotherapy (fludrocortisone, midodrine, β-blockers, and/or pyridostigmine), and behavioral-cognitive therapy. A literature search of PubMed for articles published from January 1, 1990, to June 15, 2012, was performed using the following terms (or combination of terms): POTS; postural tachycardia syndrome, orthostatic; orthostatic; syncope; sympathetic; baroreceptors; vestibulosympathetic; hypovolemia; visceral pain; chronic fatigue; deconditioning; headache; Chiari malformation; Ehlers-Danlos; emotion; amygdala; insula; anterior cingulate; periaqueductal gray; fludrocortisone; midodrine; propranolol; β-adrenergic; and pyridostigmine. Studies were limited to those published in English. Other articles were identified from bibliographies of the retrieved articles.

Visit our Hypermobility Clinic page here or call 07932 689081 to book an appointment

Turn 'no' into 'yes'

Too many cases of “I can’t” — the effects of persisting pain

Turn 'no' into 'yes'

Turn ‘no’ into ‘yes’

Frequently patients tell me at the first meeting that they cannot do x, y and z. Naturally, when something hurts we avoid that activity or action because pain is unpleasant. It hurts physically and mentally. In the acute stages of an injury or condition, it is wise to be protective as this is a key time for the tissues to heal, and although some movement is important for this process, too much can be disruptive. As time goes on, gradually re-engaging with normal and desirable activities restores day to day living. However, in some cases, in the early stages of pain and injury, the protection in terms of the thinking about the pain and subsequent behaviours becomes such that they persist beyond a useful time. The longer that this continues, the harder it becomes to break the habits.

Don’t feed the brain with “I can’t”, feed it with “I can” — cultivate the natural goal seeking and creative mechanisms of the brain

The vast majority of patients who come to the clinic have had their pain for months or years. I would like to have seen them earlier so as to break the habits of thought and action that are preventing forward movement. As a result of the longevity and severity of the pain, the impact factors, distress and suffering, a blend of experiences, expectations and thinking about the problem, it is common to slip gradually into a range of avoidances that are strongly linked with thoughts that “I can’t do …. or …..”. These thoughts may have been fuelled by messages from care providers.

As a general statement, most activities that someone avoids because they fear that it will be damaging or painful can be approached with specific strategies that address both the thinking about the activity and the actual task itself. Recalling that pain is a protective device, an emergent experience within the body in an area that is perceived to be under threat and requiring defence, by diminishing the threat we can change the pain. And there are many ways of doing this on an individual basis — as pain is an individual experience with unique features for that person.

One of the main aims of our contemporary approach is to ensure that the individual understands their pain and problem so that the fear and threat value dissolves away. This leaves a more confident person willing to engage in training that promotes normal activities and re-engagement with desired pass-times.

To learn how you can do this, call us now 07932 689081