Category Archives: Chronic pain

16May/15
blue jeans

Blue genes | more pain in winter?

blue jeansA new study has shown that our immune system increases its pro-inflammatory status in the winter months — blue genes! We are naturally more inflammatory at certain times of the day (early hours of the morning; one reason for morning stiffness), but with an overall increase in pro-inflammatory messengers there is a greater likelihood of sensitivity and pain. Recall that pain is a whole body response to a perceived threat, and with more inflammatory molecules floating around the body, sensitising nerve endings, and thereby raising the chances of nociception (nociception does not necessarily result in pain).

How often do you hear people blame the weather for their pain, especially joint pain? This could go some way to explaining this phenomena, as well as the idea that an association develops between cold, damp weather and stiff, painful joints. In winter, the reactive immune system sets the scene for these experiences, perhaps as a way to motivate hibernation.

As a consequence of these findings, we should think about how we both explain people’s experiences of pain and conditions with an inflammatory character: e.g./ coughs, colds, heart disease and autoimmune diseases, and what we do to promote health. This could also explain mood as there is good data that depression could be an inflammatory condition as well as affect diabetes, also thought to have an inflammatory basis.

Read the full article here.

Pain Coach Programme to overcome chronic pain – call us on 07518 445493

11May/15
Pain Coach Programme

The language of back pain

Low back pain specialist LondonThe language we use when we talk about back pain is revealing and worthy of noting. This is both the language of the back pain sufferer and the clinician or therapist. Why? Because it highlights the beliefs held about back pain. Why is this important? Because the beliefs underpin the thoughts and action taken in response to the back pain.

Common descriptions that patients use when I ask them to narrate include the ‘slipped disc’, ‘wear and tear’, ‘disc bulge’, ‘worn out joints’, ‘weak spine’, ‘weak muscles’, ‘weak core’, ‘worn out spine’ and let’s not forget the range of expletives that can be attached the the above as well, ‘my ****** spine’, ‘it’s ********’, ‘when he looked at my x-ray, he told me I was ******’ — and I am not joking when I state these are just a few of the things I hear. Do bear in mind that I spend my days listening to people’s stories, making sense of their experience so that we can create a way to move forward.

And where do people obtain such language? They have been told that this is the case, they have read it on the net or heard from well-meaning significant and not so significant others. Sadly, these terms are not useful in any shape or form and in most cases create the wrong image, construct the wrong beliefs, leading to the wrong action and on-going threat and hence protection and pain (pain is about protection as regular readers appreciate).

Clinicians need to watch their language as they are in a position to deliver the right messages at key moments. This creates understanding, which emerges as behaviours and actions that are healthy and groove a way forward to overcome pain. The clinician will have a set of beliefs about pain, and perhaps suffers chronic pain himself/herself. Sticking to the facts about pain, being honest about what we don’t know, avoiding extrapolating a research finding to the populous when it has only been validated in a small number of people and focusing on the ‘cans’ rather than the limitations are just a few notable strategies. I am not going to tell you how to treat or deal with back pain here, merely highlight some observations that I have made over the years.

Back pain is a huge problem the world over and we need to think about it in a different way; a whole-person way, just like any other pain. Considering what we say, how we say it and when we say it is vital. The potency of language and communication should not be underestimated. The words we use will form an internal dialogue in the back pain sufferer’s mind, flavouring their pain perception. Let’s get it right.

Pain Coach ProgrammePain Coach Programmes for chronic and persisting low back pain — coaching you to overcome pain.

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16Apr/15
UP | Understanding Pain

Bec’s Story — overcoming chronic pain

In support of the @upandsing chronic pain awareness campaign by UP | Understand Pain, Bec has very kindly written her story of achievement. Bec illustrates how we can change our pain and overcome chronic pain by understanding her pain, and taking action based on this knowledge. Enjoy.

“I suffer from chronic pain. This is when pain persists beyond the normal expected healing time. In writing this story, I wanted to describe to you the affect that living in chronic pain had on me as a whole person, since understanding this is vital in order to improve our understanding of both ongoing pain and its treatment.

‘YOU CAN IF YOU THINK YOU CAN.’ Norman Vincent Peale

‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’ Soren Kierkegaard

I didn’t crawl before I started to walk. I have never had a good sense of direction or spatial awareness – I get disorientated coming out of a shop, not knowing which direction I need to turn. I have hypermobility in my joints. I have perfectionist tendencies. I fractured a vertebra when I was eighteen. I have always placed a great deal of importance on exercise and struggle to be as happy without it. Doctors told me I would live in long-term persistent pain.

These are all facts about me. Facts that at first may seem to have no connection. But since nothing works in isolation, everything about us – our experiences, our personalities, the words we hear and stories are told, create a whole. And in order to overcome chronic pain we must learn to deeply understand it, not just from an external objective perspective, but also from a uniquely personal and internal one. Chronic pain comes from and affects the whole person and it therefore must be the whole person who is treated. Once this happens, it is possible not only to overcome chronic pain, but to redefine old stories, undo unhelpful thoughts, alter perspective of past experiences, develop healthier habits and ways of living, know that we can change. Not just our pain, but ourselves…in any way we wish to.

‘Movement anchors thought.’ Cara Hannaford.

I don’t believe that our minds and bodies are separate entities and I have always found a joyous energy in movement that I could not create in any other way. I am told that as a baby I was desperate to get moving and began walking at nine months. On my first trip to the swimming pool as a toddler, I jumped straight into the water the moment I saw it. Growing up, I spent hours outside, climbing trees, building dens, riding my bike. And I was always trying out new sports: dancing, gymnastics, trampolining, roller-skating. From the age of 10 to 18 I played competitive netball. But it was horse riding I really loved once my family moved to Norfolk when I was five. As I grew older, I recognised the deep sense of connection to the world I found when I was engaged in physical activities. It wasn’t the technical aspects of riding I enjoyed the most, but the sheer physicality of it – both whilst in the saddle and working on the yard.

In 2000, aged-18 (during my gap year before university), I had a seemingly uneventful fall during a riding lesson. But an awkward landing caused a compression or vertebral fracture to my spine. Looking back now, it was my first experience of the ambiguous nature of pain. In the first moments after the fall it was incredibly painful, but this quickly eased and I thought I had just winded myself. I got up, walked the horse back to the stables, untacked her and lay down for a rest. But in the following thirty minutes I experienced excruciating pain in my back. I was taken to A&E and x-rays and scans revealed the fracture – it was a clean break without any splintering. This was a fortunate discovery, not only because it meant an operation wasn’t necessary, but also because a splinter could have severed my spinal cord as I moved around after the fall. I remember the consultant berating me for this, which created an intense feeling of fear of how different my life could so easily have been, of the fragility of a life well known – a fear that never completely left me from that moment onwards.

I spent a week in hospital lying as still as possible until a back brace could be fitted. I can recollect the high level of pain only through memories of pleading for more morphine before it was allowed; and from attempts to writhe around to try to redistribute the pain to other parts of my body (although I was held still by the nurses). I spent the following four months in my back brace permanently, a rather unattractive bulky white contraction aimed at preventing kyphosis (curvature of the spine) while the fracture healed. For a further two months I used it only when I was out of the house for long periods. Occasionally, I used a wheelchair when a lot of walking would have been involved. But the pain subsided after just weeks of the accident.

Within six months I was back in the gym, running and horse riding again. I spent the two months I had left before starting university travelling around Europe: I ran the streets of waking cities; mountain biked in the Alps; paraglided off the coasts of Greek Islands; and went whitewater rafting in Austria. These are the parts of the trip I remember vividly due to feeling enormous gratitude that I was still able to do them. It was the type of gratitude created by a near miss, a lucky escape, the insight that life can change in a second. My accident made me realise the ability to move our bodies is a gift. It is a gift that not everyone is given, or gets to keep. Running became a prayer. The heightened awareness of the ground beneath me in those first few steps provides immediate comfort. And then as I settle into the rhythm, the motion becomes an energy, which is like life waking up inside me. Running gives me a connection to something bigger, something both within and beyond myself. I am mindful, totally present in the moment, immersed in the feeling of moving and, if outside, in my surroundings.

‘People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.’ Maya Angelou.

For the majority of the following twelve months my back gave me few problems, but towards the end of my first year at university I began getting bouts of terrible pain in it. A new MRI scan and x-ray revealed what I was told was Degenerative Disc Disease, and that the fluid from inside one of my discs had leaked, pressing on nerves – the cause of the pain. I received some physiotherapy and the pain subsided over the next couple of months.

I have since learnt that Degenerative Disc Disease is a very general term used to describe changes in the spine – a normal part of the ageing process. Aged 19, one of my discs had degenerated faster than was usual for someone my age, (but not an uncommon result of a spinal trauma), which it was why it was used to describe the cause of my pain at the time. However, what the label actually meant wasn’t explained to me, and the power of the word ‘degenerative’ (suggesting progressive deterioration) and ‘disease’ (implying impairment or abnormal function), remained long after the pain had disappeared. I became more cautious of activities that may threaten my back’s ‘safety’, especially falling, and concerned that in the future I may have further problems relating to a condition I now believed I irreversibly had. A more accurate description of the situation would have been to simply state that one of my discs had degenerated.

‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ William Shakespeare, Hamlet.

Throughout my twenties I experienced pain in my back on a fairly regular basis, but nothing too debilitating or lasting much longer than a month or so. I remained very active: as I was now living in London, mostly running and going to the gym. However, from the age of 26 I also began getting a recurrent pain in the outer part of my left knee – not an uncommon for problem runners. Various physiotherapists informed me it was Iliotibial Band Syndrome (a tightness or inflammation of the ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin), and gave me exercises to treat it. But they never provided a long-term solution and I began to find it increasingly irritating as the pain reoccurred more often; for five years it prevented me from running more than a few miles, and sometimes appeared when I was just walking.

In March 2013, the knee pain began again and this time I set out to find an alternative treatment since traditional physiotherapy hadn’t worked. Whilst I did so, I stopped running altogether. The knee pain simmered down but in May 2013 I noticed soreness in the front of my hip – it felt like I’d pulled a muscle. Yet despite reducing exercise even further over the summer, it didn’t improve – in fact the soreness heightened and spread around the back of my hip (a burning-like pain), and for a few weeks acute tenderness in my calves and shins developed.

In September 2013 I began seeing Christian Poole, a Sport and Exercise Rehabilitation Coach (specialising in running) who uses an Applied Functional Science approach, which targets the cause rather than symptom of an injury, unlike previous physiotherapy I’d received. Since my focus was very much on the returning knee pain, which I saw in isolation, in my naivety, I didn’t mention the other more recent pains I had. Short-term injuries were common because I exercised a lot, so I still didn’t think much of the hip pain. I presumed I simply hadn’t rested it enough yet.

We began a running re-education and rehabilitation programme targeting the potential cause of my knee pain, which would change my running form and improve the overall movement of my body. However, within weeks we had to discontinue because the soreness around the back and front of my hip worsened significantly, spreading into my right gluteus muscle and lower back. I also got sharp shooting pains down my right leg and in the outer left knee (a different type of pain to what I’d experienced in this area before). My emotional response to this was stress and further frustration: I’d finally found what I believed would be a way to alleviate my returning knee pain, only to be faced with a new set of problems.

I will never know for certain, but it seems probable that the following factors: whatever injury originally caused my hip pain; the importance I placed on running (or not running); my emotional response to pain at this point; and the prolonged and incorrect belief there was a structural abnormality in my spine (‘Degenerative Disc Disease’) contributed to what happened next – a persistent, ongoing pain response. Scans in 2014 showed that there is now no degeneration to my discs that wouldn’t be expected for my age, yet for many years I had a misguided perception that this wasn’t the case. What I had always attributed as the cause of my reoccurring back pains didn’t exist. Therefore, it is possible that for a long time my central nervous system was becoming gradually sensitized, firing pain as protection, when no protection was actually necessary…Perhaps the injury to my hip was just the final trigger.

‘When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That is relativity.’ Albert Einstein.

By December treatments were reduced to symptomatic relief as the pain spread further up my back and neck, more intense, ever present and distracting. Moving hurt. Not moving hurt. Walking and simple everyday activities (loading the washing machine, cooking, getting dressed) became challenges. My general level of energy dropped significantly: being in constant pain over a prolonged period is tiring.

Initial investigations didn’t reveal any obvious cause of my pain and I began to feel as though I was going insane: I would go to sleep with pain in one area only to wake with it somewhere else instead or in addition. The moving of the pain felt like a cruel game – like one of those tricks where someone hides the ball under a cup, moves it around, and no matter how carefully you watch, it’s never under the cup you think it’s going to be. I saw my pain as a separate entity, a small gremlin of a creature, which merrily jumped around my body parts, taunting and laughing at me as I tried to pin it down, unable to catch it and hold it still. My knowledge of pain at this point was that for pain to be present, there had to be a physical injury or illness. This idea – this myth – is embedded in most of us. If I’d had a better understanding of pain before this experience, then I would have felt less fearful. But I didn’t understand, and as a result I felt anxious and even more stressed.

Fortunately serendipity had been kind to me. It was lucky I’d decided to see Christian about my knee, because he did understand what the behaviour of my pain now suggested. He began educating me about the neurophysiology of chronic pain using the work of Professors Lorimer Moseley and David Butler. However, in order to rule out a physical cause for certain, I went for x-rays and MRI scans on my back and hip. Due to NHS waiting-times, it was further seven months from the referral in December before these were carried out and the NHS would offer me no treatment until we had the results.

Consequently, because the behaviour of my pain strongly indicated it, in the meantime Christian and I treated my pain as chronic – a result of an unstable central nervous system. Over the following months we used a variety of strategies to begin to overcome the pain: mobilisation and massage, trigger-point therapy, specific exercises, and graded exposure and pacing of physical activity. I educated myself as much as a could about chronic pain and neuroscience-based treatments. As a result, I understood that gradually increased activity was part of the treatment process and that movement, even if it hurt, wasn’t going to physically harm me (aerobic exercise at the correct level calms the central nervous system, and controlled movement prevents secondary pain from muscular deconditioning and joint stiffness). But moving parts of my body through pain was counterintuitive and the complexity of chronic pain scared me. My prior experience of pain, which stayed in one area, was familiar and felt concrete. There is damaged tissue or bone, which is treated in some way: the pain goes away. Now pain itself was the problem and this felt abstract and evasive. Despite this, in January I made some significant progress and even began introducing some very short run/walk exercises.

However, in that seven-month wait, in my mind there still remained a degree of uncertainty – and sometimes hope – as to the cause of my pain, that it still might be the result of an injury or structural issue. This option felt like it would be less complex to treat and more understood (by myself, doctors and those around me). The waiting for the MRI scans undoubtedly impacted negatively on my pain, mindset and therefore effectiveness of the treatment. It was a liminal space to live in for over half a year and to have been without the care of a private clinician at this stage (and as it turns out at any stage) would have made remaining at work and coping with my pain impossible, especially as my interactions with medical practitioners working for the NHS were largely a source of frustration and anxiety rather than supportive and constructive.

‘There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner.’ Diane Setterfield.

I saw numerous GPs over these seven months as they coordinated my care (providing medical notes when I needed to work reduced hours; sending me for and receiving the results of scans; and finally referring me to the pain management team). I also later saw a number of physiotherapists and a pain psychologist. With the exception of one physiotherapist I saw just once, but who I will forever remember for her positivity about my situation in a culture of different beliefs, all delivered a similar message: there is no cure for chronic pain. I would have to learn to live with it. They only ever talked of “pain management” as a long-term solution, usually with the help of painkillers. In the earlier months what my GPs said to me planted enormous doubt around my chances of getting better. These were medically trained doctors and I was no expert. Why would they say this to me if it wasn’t true? I couldn’t shake what they’d said: and what they said terrified me. I was very social, outgoing, active. These things were already becoming difficult to keep up in a constant pain-state.

I was desperate for reassurance from other sources that there was a way to overcome my pain. However, websites of the NHS and pain management clinics, along with those of pain charities, all delivered a similar message: it was possible to learn to manage chronic pain to gain a greater quality of life, but not to cure it. I was – and remain even more so now – confused as to why they all repeated this message when scientific, evidence-based research around the brain, pain and neuroplasticity has proved this no longer needs to be the case. Newer treatments have proved effective in overcoming chronic pain conditions. I am now evidence of this myself.

But back then I searched for blogs written by survivors of chronic pain who had made recoveries…I found none. Instead I found blogs and posts written by desperate people who had been living in pain for many years, possibly typed out sitting in the darkness at their computers, just like I was. I was left with two opposing messages. There is a Chinese proverb that says: ‘When faced with two points of view – better to choose to believe the more positive one.’ I made a conscious decision at this point to do just this and returned to what I knew to be the latest biopsychosocialist treatment approaches, adding the work of Dr. Adriaan Louw to my list of pain educators.

However, this was constantly tested as the GP who took on my case was frustrated by my determined attitude: he repeatedly told me I needed to accept that there was no cure for my pain and that private practitioners who said otherwise did so because they had a vested interest (i.e. my returning ‘business’). He was also annoyed I wouldn’t accept painkillers. I was adamant I didn’t want to begin a process of relying on them or want to mask the pain: I needed to feel it so I could work to overcome it, not a short-term fix. His response was to tell me I was in a state of denial, and that people who refused painkillers always came back in the end for them, often in a worst state. I felt criticised rather than cared for.

I believe that all the NHS practitioners I saw were well intentioned but either that their pain education is out of date and inadequate, or that the system doesn’t allow for necessary treatments to take place due to short-term cost demands. I have since spoken to a number of GPs, who informed me they know little of the latest neuroscience-based research around pain, yet they are the first contact for a chronic pain patient and what they say matters. I often wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t by chance been seeing Christian during this time: the only voices I’d have heard would have been of those who told me there was no way to fully recover…

The additional anxiety caused by negative medical prognosis and information on the Internet impacted on my pain – now living alongside it was fear. Fear that my pain would never go away. I tried to ignore it, but in the ever-presentness of the pain, the fear gnawed away at me in the background. And despite the progress made in January, by March the pain had spread to more parts of my body and significantly heightened. Some places, such as below my ribs became incredibly sore, I had stabbing pains continuously down the entire right side of my body, turning my right hip caused an intense shooting pain… And although my resolve to overcome my pain didn’t waver, Christian, and some practitioners whose research I’d read, were lone voices of hope in my world. I didn’t doubt the science, or the treatment approach, but I did often doubt myself. I knew it was necessary to manage my stress and fears to overcome my pain, but was struggling to do so. No one else I knew could offer me reassurance because most found it difficult to understand that there was no physical cause of my pain and were genuinely perplexed by what was happening to me.

‘My suffering left me sad and gloomy.’ Yann Martel, Life of Pi.

My pain, the gremlin, was winning. The constant state of discomfort had an ever-increasing affect on my life. Events that required I stay for a given length of time, (a birthday party, a wedding, a dinner out, a meeting at work), or imposed activities and environments (crowds, travel, sitting or standing for long periods) evoked a claustrophobic feeling.

My general health started to deteriorate. I couldn’t sleep, was fatigued and easily caught viruses. I felt guilty if I visited someone and then felt unwell. I often had to cancel plans to meet friends. My parents began travelling from Norfolk to clean my flat. Activities I could take part in were restricted. Walking and driving became problematic because my neck was too rigid and painful to turn – I had to rotate my whole body to cross the road or check at junctions. I have a physically and cognitively energetic job as a teacher and senior leader in a primary school, and although I remained at work for the majority of the time, my capacity and performance were affected.

And I deeply missed running and exercising. Not just because these had previously formed large parts of my identity and social life but because of what moving my body, and physically pushing myself means to me. Because of the clarity of thought and inner-calmness I find in them. Without them, I couldn’t see a way out: I saw myself standing, dressed in my running kit, alone in the middle of an empty road, enclosed by a thick fog. Being unable to run, felt like an ironic joke. What once had been a source of comfort, a means of escape, was an activity I associated with pain. And by March 2014 I was overwhelmed by how physically fragile I perceived myself to be. There was a total disconnect between my mind and my body, which scared and frustrated me in equal measure. By now just thinking about running made my pain worse. I was unable to truly imagine ever running again.

Pain infiltrated every movement, every thought, every plan, every conversation, every interaction. It was there in my body, in my facial expression, in my words, in the tone of my voice. It was there in my laughter. It was there in the reflection of light as I poured water into a glass. Others couldn’t see it, but I could feel it. It painted the world in muted colours. It was like watching each moment through a dirtied window, everything slightly marked and smudged, and always from a three-step distance from everyone else. My experience of the world now felt different because pain added an extra unpleasant sensation to every moment. My perceptions of space and pace altered: sometimes action around me became too fast, sometimes it became disorientatingly slow; busy, thriving, energetic places became threatening, oppressive. These things sometimes provoked a type of loneliness that was engulfing. A kind of detaching loneliness. A kind of loneliness at its most acute when I was surrounded by people. A kind of loneliness that made me want to be alone – because it was the least lonely place to be.

Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’ Mary Anne Madmacher

However, there was progress and hope – days when my pain lessened, and although initially just for short periods, moments when I was completely pain free. In these I experienced a lightness of body akin to floating. The same feeling as that very first day of spring after winter – that feeling that lasts only a second in the very moment you step outside and suddenly notice the air is warmer. Shapes and colours returned with a more intense clarity and brightness.

And I was intent on not being completely reduced by my pain. The deterioration in the quality of my life and my passion for running only made me more resolute. I refused to be signed off work, and as my pain improved I began volunteering at running events to reconnect with the community I missed. I felt a deep sense of identification and belonging here and was reminded that runners believe that our bodies achieve what our minds believe. Reconnecting with this helped me enormously to get back up each time I was knocked down. I gained resilience from recognising progress, no matter how small. And for a reason I cannot explain, throughout the whole experience, a notion that good would eventually be born from it drove me on. Some very close friends supported me in remaining focused on this when I became fearful or doubtful. These people still saw me, as me – a person beyond my pain. This too was important.

From April to June 2014 more steady improvements in my condition were made. Finally, in June the scans and x-rays were completed and showed there were no structural causes of my pain. I was put on a waiting list to see a NHS pain management team. By now, my pain was consistently at a much lower level and had settled along my right side in a line from hip to neck. Changing my pain so that it remained only in this area was significant progress and a relief. My pain was no longer a gremlin that jumped around, but a crocodile that rested along the side of my spine. Yet each time I attempted to increase my activity – walk a little further, cycle for a few minutes, or just be more active in day-to-day tasks – my pain flared up. The crocodile dragged me under water again every time I moved too much or whose presence I couldn’t ignore if I stayed still for too long.

I was told it would be at least another three months before an assessment with a NHS pain management team. I also understood by this point that whatever they might offer me in terms of support, would be from a viewpoint of helping me ‘manage’, rather that ‘treat’, my pain. This wasn’t what I wanted. I had no interest in engaging in a process of this nature: I knew it would feed my fears, and fear knocked me off course. I knew that my pain could go, but not that it would, or when this would happen. This, and worrying I’d never be able to run or exercise again was a limiting issue, preventing me from moving forward again. As a result, Christian referred me to Richmond Stace, feeling that at this stage a new voice; his expertise in chronic pain conditions specifically; a change of clinic I didn’t already associate with pain (or running), could help me to overcome my pain further.

‘When you become aware that pain can change you’ve started on the right path, when you know that you can change your pain, then you’re really moving forwards. Don’t fear pain – change it.’ Richmond Stace.

During my first appointment with Richmond, I described my pain to him. But he listened to and heard me – the whole person. He saw the altered sense of self that it had created. This was the first step that really enabled me to know, rather than just be aware of, my pain experience as one within a whole. My pain was not in isolation from the rest of my self. One of the first things he did was to get me to refer to my pain as my pain, rather than the pain as I had been doing. My pain was coming from me, my brain, and therefore was part of me. I felt fully seen for who I was at that moment. But he also reassured me that this wasn’t who I had to remain, since someone who was continually living in pain, was someone I desperately didn’t want to be.

We began a programme that built on the treatment I had already received, continuing to incorporate specific exercises, manual therapy and mobilsation techniques. We also added in a graded motor imagery programme. This included: mirror feedback (performing very precise movements in front of a mirror in order to provide visual feedback to rewire the neuro network within the brain to create new maps); and an online imagery recognition programme to treat my altered nervous system by exercising the brain in measured steps. But as well as treating my pain neurologically, we also began to look at improving other aspects of my life: ways to treat my fatigue, insomnia, and weakened immune system; ways to tackle my fears; ways to manage the demands of life that had become challenges in pain. I had already begun mindfulness meditation as I had read about its benefits in managing living in chronic pain. Richmond coached me how to use and apply it to improve my quality of life as a whole, and explained how it changes pain given its calming affect on the central nervous system’s ‘fight or fight’ mode. We also set very specific targets of what I wanted to achieve in the long-term, such as running a marathon.

Over the following months we began working on this goal. But since just thinking about physical activity would make my pain worse, we started by using visualization techniques to prepare my brain for these in a way it would perceive as non-threatening. First there was an imagery recognition process using photographs of other runners, and then by watching other runners themselves and imagining myself in their position. I then applied specific visualization techniques, which used brain and body, to imagine myself running. Over the course of the following months I would practise these daily, often with the help of music, words and mantras, and gradually, imagining running and other physical activities no longer made my pain worse. Within a couple of months my pain levels had reduced further, and I was able to walk and move more without my pain worsening. I was also experiencing longer periods without pain and by August I felt confident enough to do some yoga. In June, this had seemed like an impossible idea. In October I started running again. In November I completed a 5km. In February 2015 10km. In March (almost two years since the pain had begun) a half-marathon. I still had regular pain during these periods, but bit by bit I learnt to disassociate it from movement, learnt to nudge into it, work around it, sometimes even use it to my advantage. It didn’t all suddenly become easy – at times the process felt relentless and exhausting. However, I was now in control of my pain, rather than my pain being in control of me.

Key to the process was individualisation. Not only did we work towards the goals I had set – things so important to me they would drive me forward – but we also incorporated strategies to challenge the affect that negative words had previously had on my progress, as well as aspects of my personality, mindset and beliefs about past experiences that may be causing the persistence of my pain. As a result, even in times when my pain flared up, I could increasingly remain feeling focused, positive, safe and reassured. These strategies were taken from a variety of fields – from writing, philosophy, sport, psychology, and science. It was finding what worked best for me. I deepened my understanding of chronic pain to understand my own particular pain so well that I could overcome it. I now perceive any flare-up as an opportunity to learn, rather than something to be feared – although these flare-ups are becoming fewer and further between each month now.

‘YOU CAN IF YOU THINK YOU CAN.’ Norman Vincent Peale

Overcoming my chronic pain was the most physically, mentally and emotionally challenging thing I have ever done. But in retraining my body how to move, my mind how to think, myself how to be, it has left me not only running further than I have in eight years (with no knee or back pain). It has also taught me to find the same joy and energy in stillness as I find in movement. It taught me to live my life with greater positivity, confidence, compassion, gratitude, and to be more fully in the present moment.

And to anyone living in persistent pain: it is possible to overcome chronic pain. You do not have to learn to live with it, or manage it. You can treat it and change it. No matter how out of reach this may seem, know that it is true. ‘You can if you think you can.’

16Apr/15
George Clooney chronic back pain

George Clooney’s back pain

George Clooney chronic back painBack pain can affect anyone, and does affect most at some point in a lifetime. In fact, it is probably more unusual not to suffer back pain!

George Clooney has been suffering persisting back pain since 2005 when he sustained an injury whilst filming. Reports described a torn dura that can result in severe pain, and certainly did for Clooney. With so many nerve endings, an injury will trigger excitement locally. Danger signals are transmitted from the area to the spinal cord and then to the brain–note that there are no pain signals, but rather danger signals.

It is the normal inflammatory response (the release of inflammatory chemicals) that causes increasing excitement (sensitivity) in nociceptors, reducing their threshold for firing. This means that it becomes easier to stimulate the nerves to fire the danger signals. The bombardment of danger signals causes (plastic) changes in the spinal cord that in effect operates as a volume switch.

So if all these responses are normal, how does pain persist and become chronic? This is the BIG question. The answers are complex as is a pain response, but I would argue that within this complexity lie opportunities to change pain and overcome the problems.

Pain is not a structure, it is a response to a perceived threat — very different! Pain is a response that is influenced by context, environment, beliefs, prior experiences, the state of protective systems at the time of injury, gender, intentions to move, fatigue, emotional state and more. Pain is not a disc or a joint or a dura. Pain does not come from a disc, a joint or a dura. Yes, that is where you may feel it, in that part of your body, but those structures do not have the properties of pain. Your nose does not have the properties of a common cold, yet it will stream. There is an upstream biology that involves many body systems that are designed to protect. This biology is a complex blend of all the influences I have mentioned, interpreting a situation as being threatening and hence protecting: pain, altered movement, altered thinking, altered emotions–if you suffer on-going pain, how rational are you when in pain? Can you think clearly? We lose precision.

We lose precision of movement, sense of the body, where a stimulus is being presented to the body, where we feel pain (does yours move or grow?), as well as precision of thought and emotion. Our discrete ability to plan and execute thoughts and actions is marred, ‘smudged’, blurry.

So, to the way we can overcome pain and in particular chronic pain. It has to start with thinking differently, and changing our relationship with pain. On doing so, the way that pain is experienced changes. This, alongside strategies and training the develop precision of thought, movement and sense all reduce the perceived threat. Reduce the perception of threat, reduce the pain — you are answering the demands of your body. The caveat of course is that we are not separate in body and mind. There is no separateness to pain as it is part of you, part of every cell. To overcome pain then, you must become aware of what you are currently thinking and doing (habits) and then consciously change until it becomes unconscious and normal.

Pain Coach ProgrammeThis is an insight into the Pain Coach Programme that addresses the whole person as we must to overcome chronic pain. We are constantly changing and those who suffer chronic pain have been changing towards more and more protection in response to normal activities–how many normal activities now hurt? They shouldn’t!

It is time to take the science of pain and translate it into action to change your pain. Call us to start your programme for chronic back pain or chronic pain. 07518 445493

11Apr/15
IMG_0167.JPG

50 strokes

Ajahn Brahm tells the story of a monk who thought he deserved punishment for breaking a monastic rule. He had knowingly done wrong and expected reprimand, yet this was not the way. The monk insisted, so Ajahn Brahm prescribed 50 strokes. The thought of this ancient punishment undoubtedly filled the monk with fear yet he knew this was his fate. However, no whip was produced but instead a cat, which the monk was ordered to stroke—50 times. After the 50 strokes of the cat there was peace and calm and the passing of a learning experience. Change was afoot. 

In physiotherapy we use our hands to treat and create calm in a body that is protecting itself, perceiving a range of cues to be threatening. It has been thought that moving joints, muscles and nerves bring about the desired changes (or not if unwisely applied) because of a change in the structures. Science has since taught us otherwise, and that in fact what we are really doing is changing the processing in the body systems and then the recipient has a different and better experience—pain eased and movement more natural and thoughtless. 

Touch is very human. Touch is a part of the way we develop in the early years, a lack of touch being detrimental to normal development. So potent when the meaning is aligned with a sense of creating wellbeing and soothing woes both physical and emotional, touch should be part of therapy for any pain condition. Interweaving hands-on treatments during sessions, teaching patients how to use touch themselves, teaching carers and partners how they can use touch, all create the conditions for healthy change. 

Touch send signals from the nerves in the skin and muscles to the spinal cord and then onwards to the brain. In this way, the body is an extension of the brain and the brain an extension of the body, demonstrating  how we are  a whole person with no system or structure being in isolation to any other. Using touch is literally sculpting the representation of the body that exists in the brain, like moulding clay into a humanly shape. And of course, a shape has a function and the two are not distinct. The more precise the shape, the better the function. The manifestation of this being a normal sense of self in how we think and feel and a move. Normalising, desensitising, to me are one and the same. 

– 50 strokes of the area of the body being protected, much like stroking the cat then, sculpts our ever changing brain and sense of physical body. The physical body exists and occupies space with the ever-potential of action, yet this does not exists without thought—it is my thought, the meaning that I give to my body that creates what it is in any given moment. When the strokes feel pleasant, or at least not painful, then this is your body and brain perceiving the action as being non-threatening and learning that the area is safe. The more of this the better. The same applies with movement: any action that is tolerable or feels good is the body (your whole self) saying ‘yes, that’s ok’. And that’s what we practice and practice. 

To overcome and change pain is to normalise and to alter one’s relationship with pain and overall perception. We have much more say in this than most people realise but once they understand their pain, what pain really is and what they can do, change occurs in the desired direction. 

Puuurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. 

05Apr/15
Pain Coach Programme

At a distance

With people coming far and wide for some years now, the Pain Coach programme has been designed to work at a distance when individuals are not able to regularly attend the clinics. The best case scenario is meeting face to face, but subsequently the use of technology allows sessions to be conducted with ease thereafter. I use all forms of communication: text, email, phone and Skype; which means that people can access the programme in the vast majority of cases.

Having used distance sessions for some time, I have seen how individuals benefit and move forward. Overcoming chronic pain is a learning process and distance learning has always been a successful mode of education. If done in the right way, the learning required to overcome pain is no different.

What do I mean by learning as opposed to treatment?

Treatment encompasses many forms of learning. Learning is the way we take new information and adapt for the better. Overcoming chronic pain is an active process and not a passive process. And whilst there is a role for hands-on therapy in persisting pain, to simply lie in a treatment room and have something done to you is absolutely not enough to move forward with the potential that everybody has within themselves.

To overcome chronic pain, the individual must learn about their pain (some biology and what influences this biology) so that they can make informed and clear decisions about how to be healthy and create the conditions to move forward. Nothing happens without thinking in the right way about a problem. From this foundation of understanding, specific training is needed to re-learn normal movement and body sense as well as developing the confidence to move and be active once more in different scenarios. This is all learning.

The Pain Coach Programme

The programme is designed for you to overcome your pain. Individualised for your life and your vision of where you want to go, the concept of coaching is a potent way of moving forward. A coach is always looking at different ways of achieving success and tackling problems, learning and getting up quickly if things go wrong. The coach uses a growth mindset, the mindset that knows that things change. We are not fixed, we are always changing. Which way do you want to go? If you are suffering with chronic pain, all the changes have been about on-going protection. Now it is time to go in a different direction. Change is one of the few certainties in life. Buddhists call it impermanence. Nothing is permanent, even the pain you are in right now. This pain will change and there is something you can do. There are still, despite the science of pain telling us differently for years, too many messages about chronic pain that are simply untrue, including the one that says you must just manage or cope.

In essence, with your new knowledge and development of skills, you become your own Pain Coach, making effective decisions about how to move forward at each step. This releases you from the cycle that you are currently within, including how you learn from a flare-up (a temporary increase in symptoms) and return to the business of living your life. The overarching aim is just this: attaining a meaningful life that involves all the important people who you wish to include. The programme is designed to embrace the role of partners and carers where possible and when desired–please ask us about carers and partners training days and sessions, as they too can become pain coaches to help you overcome your pain.

Pain Coach ProgrammeCall us now to book your Pain Coach Programme: 07518 445493


05Apr/15
The art of batting

The art of batting

With the cricket season about to begin, I thought it timely to use a batting metaphor to illustrate how thinking can obstruct free flowing movement. For the cricket lover, there is great joy watching a batsman lean into his front foot, head towards the ball, eyes focused through the grill, as the bat arcs guided by fast hands, the wood kissing the leather ball in the briefest of seconds before accelerating to the rope.

Seeing an expert perform in any field has the common denominator of ease. They make it look so natural and effortless, whether playing a musical instrument, dancing or stroke play. The movements have been rehearsed and honed thousands and thousands of times before, the motor patterns in the brain grooved with the synaptic efficiency that results from hours of practice.

Most people are ‘experts’ at walking. We don’t think about it in this way necessarily but the walk is a movement pattern that has been practiced since we started, well… walking. It is only when things go wrong does the motion change. A limp for example. Walking can also change when we start thinking about it rather than naturally, unobservedly going about our business of ambulation. Note how much activity is afoot from the simple stepping action, involving the whole body, the whole person and his or her mood and the environment in which the individual resides at that moment. Of course, the perception or even attention upon the environment is affected by one’s mood — ‘how did I get here? I didn’t even notice’.

With movement and posturing being an expression of who we are and what we are thinking and feeling, there are characteristic styles that identify us to others and to self — you will recognise a friend from afar by the way he walks; and you will know that you are moving well and normally by detecting self, or rather when the self feels different. When all is well, the act of walking is not noticed, yet as I have said, this changes at the point of being conscious of how the arms swing, the legs lift and the body sways, and if heavy or light thoughts crowd into the mind.

It is well known that the batsman must concentrate on the ball until the last: ‘watch the ball onto the bat’. This happens quickly and hence any unnecessary thought can affect the end result. ‘He looks quick’, or listening to the banter from behind the stumps, and oops, it could be the long march back to the pavilion. Some high quality players have in recent years been subject to depression, which has certainly affected their ability to hit the ball. Thoughts crowding in. The art of batting then, is a mindful task whereby the mind must be quiet to allow for the free flow of movement. There is no difference between this and movement on a day to day basis.

The person suffering chronic pain moves differently. The body is protecting itself, the individual consciously protects and hence simple movements, once take for granted, are now anticipated, planned and executed in a timid and fearful way. This pattern is encoded and passed back into the sensorimotor system to plan the next movement and other possible actions that the brain predicts may happen. Where this does not match the normal pattern, a threat value is created, evoking activity in the salient network that detects when something is physiologically amiss. Part of this network’s role is to trigger responses that motivate behaviours and attention to the relevant areas of the body. Once satisfied that all is well, protection is lifted and wellness ensues.

Movement is fundamental to health and feeling normal. We can tell when someone is not well in many cases by the way they move and hold themselves. To restore flow and ease of movement often requires that we target fears and anxieties that are caused by thoughts that can obscure. Much as the batsman needs clarity, so does the person overcoming pain. And whilst sometimes we need to think about the way we move, most times we just desire natural, unconscious and purposeful action that results in a reward.

In rehabilitation and in overcoming chronic pain, just like batting, we need a clear mind so that we can focus upon the job in hand. Thoughts come and go, but if we let them interfere with the action rather than letting them pass, there will not be the same result. Practicing mindful movements where you learn the skill of focused attention allows for the right kind of concentration and attention, eradicating the effects of fear and anxiety that can so commonly be associated with normal movements and activities. Understanding pain is another key element of reducing these fears and their potent effects.

To set up the right conditions for recovery, we must consider beliefs, thoughts and fears as well as the environment and the vision of where the person wants to be. From here we can create an individualised programme that addresses all dimensions of the pain experience: the physical, the cognitive and the emotional; and how theses dimensions interact. This is the complete and whole person approach to pain that is necessary and indicated by modern pain neuroscience.

For informationPain Coach Programme or to book onto the Pain Coach Programme, please call us on 07518 445493

 

 

03Apr/15
Pain Coach

Change and pain

Change is happening all the time. Every moment is new and unique as we pass along our own timeline, being moulded by each new experience. Where we are right now has been determined by every thought, action and exposure to date. It has taken me 41 years to write this blog!

Change and pain — learn to change and overcome your pain on the Pain Coach Programme

Change is something that we are expert at, and it is something that we cannot prevent. Apart from death, change is the only certainty in life. So if we are always changing, why does pain persist and seem to be the same for the many people suffering chronic symptoms? The answer to this question is that the symptoms are not the same, but we just don’t realise.

Our memories are notoriously unreliable, yet we think that they give us an accurate recall of events. What did you have for lunch three weeks ago last Tuesday? If it was a particularly important lunch date, you may remember. Otherwise, it is a guess or there is no memory at all. And why should you remember anyway? How useful would it be to remember it unless food was hard to come by, in which case you may recall the location so that you can go back there to search again (evolutionary biology at play).

We do not remember events as well as we think we do. The same is for pain. Pain is experiential. We experience pain now. Not in the past or the future because the past and future only exist in our heads whereas pain exists in our body (space) in the now. In fact, this is the same for any experience. It can only really happen now, otherwise it is being created by our mind. This is the case even if we think about something unpleasant or dangerous that triggers a pain response; that pain response is now (some readers will be aware that imaging movement or watching someone else move can evoke pain in someone who is sensitive to that particular movement).

So, although we can recall that last Wednesday we had pain, we cannot recall the pain itself with any accuracy, but we can remember that it was a difficult day. Thinking about the day and things that we did may evoke a pain response, but you are feeling that now, and not then. What you feel now cannot be said to be the same as what you felt then. We also have further history to add to our timeline between the time we are trying to recall and the time that we are doing the recalling. We are thereby not accounting for the changes that have occurred between times.

We are masters of change. How do you want to be? Who do you want to be? What is your vision for you next week, next month, next year? To create that person, you need to take action now. Because now is the only real moment. Sculpting who you will be has to start in the present moment. In terms of overcoming pain, you work at a realistic vision of who you want to be and what you want to be doing, and the begin training and rehabilitation. This always begins with a thought based upon a belief, which drives big action. All of our thinking emerges from our belief system that has been grooved by all our experiences to date. This is why understanding pain is so important for overcoming the problems.

We create many habits around persisting pain, many of which are protective in nature in both thought and action, and are not actually taking us in the direction of changing pain for the better. Rather they are taking us down a path of change towards further protection. This gets us into trouble because it can look like there is no way out. Often this line of thought has been influenced by what you have been told and now believe. In essence though, consider all the change that has brought you to where you are now, and that is you have changed to get there, you can create conditions for change to go in another direction. Pain has come (a change in state), so why can pain not go (a change in state)?

Change in the direction that you want takes time. Change in the direction that you want takes hard work and dedication. But there’s nothing wrong with hard work and dedication to a better life full of meaning and a sense of wellbeing.

Pain Coach

Call us now to book your first step to overcoming pain with the Pain Coach programme: 07518 445493

Clinics in Harley Street, Chelsea and New Malden.

02Apr/15
Healthy revision tips

My tips for healthy revision

Easter holidays are here! Bunnies, chocolate eggs, Easter bonnets, spring and…..revision. Chatting to my younger patients, they all tell me that this holiday will be dominated by revision. So it is not so much a holiday but instead, 2-3 weeks of homework. Perhaps Easter Sunday will be a day off.

This appears to be the way of school life in the modern world. The demands increase, the pressures increase, the stress and anxiety increase, and the pains increase. Is this right? 1:5 children reporting chronic pain. Chronic pain is the number one global health burden and depression is at number two — and frequently they come as a pair.

Body systems are on alert. They are working hard for survival instead of orchestrating the biology of health. In adults we used to call the effects ‘burn out’. These systems that protect us can only function at that level for a finite period of time.

Of course there is nothing wrong with hard, conscientious work. But, we need to regularly put the heavy bags down and take a break.

If you or your kids are entering the revision season, here are some handy tips for them to reduce the risk of ill-health, persisting stress responses, and flare-ups of existing aches and pains. We not only need to be physically fit, we also need to be emotionally fit. The two are not exclusive but instead come together to form the whole person. The whole person is not in isolation to their environment, beliefs or what has been before. Dwelling on negative events in the past and anticipating an unpleasant future both create suffering, until you realise that both are in our minds. The problem is that we play these out in our body, e.g. tension, pain, anxiety. It is not the situation that is important, but rather how we respond.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Shakespeare (Hamlet)

My Tips for Healthy Revision

  1. Make a timetable that incorporates your best time of day for learning, chunks of 40 minutes, exercise, movement.
  2. Motion is lotion: change your posture every 15-20 minutes; stand up and move around every 40 minutes
  3. Take 3 breaths every 20-30 minutes (when you breathe out, muscle tension naturally relaxes, which you will notice if you pay attention). The breaths can be slightly deeper than normal. Of course you can do this for longer and more often if you wish. Focusing on breathing anchors you to the present moment which means that you are putting down the heavy bags of ‘past’ and ‘future’. The bonus is clarity of thought and hence performance, memory and learning can improve as you become more efficient.
  4. Exercise before you start working; e.g. a walk, a jog. And a little more later as well; 20-30 minutes is good.
  5. Test yourself on the material you are learning — many people tell me that they copy their notes out again and again. You will have a nice pile of notes, but how much do you know?

** BONUS tip 1: set up the right environment – your desk space, the lighting, odours (don’t under-estimate the effects of smell; e.g./ use an infuser for a fresh ambience).

** BONUS tip 2: dress for work and sit for work – this will put you in the right mindset. We respond to our body language as much as our body language communicates how we are feeling. Keep moving (motion is lotion) but concentrate and engage more by sitting up.

** BONUS tip 3: make sure you have enough sleep — minimum 8 hours, and if you are tired, have a power nap between 1pm and 3pm for 20-30 minutes. You need to refresh and renew and you need sleep to learn.

Pain CoachFor more information about Pain Coach programmes and wellbeing programmes for health and performance, call us today 07518 445493

23Mar/15
Mindfulness is a great skill

I used thirst to help someone understand pain

I used thirst to help someone understand pain. He had been given the structural explanation for recurring low back pain (trapped nerve that runs all the way to the toes), which naturally leads to a tissue based focus on ways to get better. Whilst this is a common way to describe pain, it is wrong. Pain is a protective response to a perceived threat.

Yes, if a nerve is sensitised by inflammation or injury, it will transmit danger signals to the spinal cord and then the brain. All the while, signals are being sent down from the brain to mingle with these ascending signals, the sum of which will be scrutinised by brain networks to determine whether a threat exists. If there is a threat deemed tangible, then the body will protect itself with pain, altered movement, altered thinking and altered behaviours:

  • it hurts in a location
  • you limp or limit how far you move the painful area
  • you consider how bad it is and whether you can go to the party, game, work etc
  • you don’t go to the party, the game, work etc

This is all very useful at the outset, but becomes less so as time goes on and the body is healing.

Often there is a kindling or priming effect. The first acute painful episode calms down but then recurring bouts of pain become more intense and with less and less time between–familiar? In the first instance, the systems that protect do so effectively, slowing you down and enforcing action to allow healing. This would usually be in response to inflammation, and is all entirely normal whilst being an unpleasant experience. Not nice, but nothing to worry about. Of course, you would be wise to take heed and do everything that you can to fully recover, which means that the tissues heal and the protective systems switch back to normal modus operandi. There is a chance that you will need some guidance.

It appears that there are some people who maybe vulnerable to developing on-going pain, which is on-going protection. There is likely to be a genetic aspect to this, and certainly a prior experience that may have primed the systems so that they kick in more vigorously, or simply do not turn off when they need to. An over-protect or sensitivity. The priming event(s) may happen much earlier in life so that when the body perceives a threat some years later, there is recognition of the need to protect based upon what has been learned before. Detecting this potential vulnerability is really important in the assessment so that the right action can be taken to counter on-going pain.

Back to thirst.

Where do you feel thirst? Think about it for a minute. Where in your body is thirst? It is not a dry mouth; so it is not your mouth (a dry mouth is a dry mouth and that is all). Is it in your stomach or chest? We have a sense of discomfort that can include a dry mouth, and when we note that sense we give it a meaning. That meaning is “I am thirsty’. The point of this is to motivate us to take action and seek water to quench the thirst.

The same happens in pain. We have a feeling or sensation in our body that grabs our attention. This sensation is given a meaning: this hurts, and then we look for a cause, why does this hurt? What have I done? What is going on? What are the implications, now and in the future? Naturally this happens very quickly, in a split second. The pain then motivates us to take action, like thirst. We rub, cry out, seek help.

In both thirst and pain it is the meaning that defines the experience, and whilst we feel things in certain places, it is how we think about them that gives the richness and implication. We therefore have these experiences with our whole body and self. We feel and experience thirst with our whole body, the sensation not distinct from how we then think and act. The same in pain. To se the whole creates marvellous opportunity for change, growth and moving forward. In most cases thirst is easily overcome, chronic pain being far more challenging.

Chronic pain is about on-going perception of threat as body systems adapt, we adapt and the world around us adapts. We are on a continuous timeline of development that we can influence by our knowledge, understanding and use of skills. Understanding your pain is the first step, creating a foundation for overcoming pain.

Pain Coach

Pain Coach courses for clinicians and therapists: a practical way to coach chronic pain sufferers how to overcome their pain; small group learning and 1:1 mentoring. Call us on 07518 445493