Category Archives: Uncategorized

31Oct/11

Understand pain in a few minutes

Readers will be familiar with the importance that I attach to the explanation of pain. The data on the benefits of understanding pain is good and growing. This includes a raised pain threshold and an increase in range of movement–the straight leg raise (SLR). The more we understand about the power of language and learning, the better will become our educational interventions, recently termed ‘information medicine” by David Butler at an Explain Pain weekend. I like that term because of the implication that we are administering medicine by the provision of information. This can be given in doses, like pills and manual therapy, titrated and adjusted to the individual need at that moment, seeking the best route forwards.

This short animation really struck a chord with me. The narrative is clear and raises important points that are understandable.

09Oct/11

Mastery (2): practice, practice and then….practice

Mastery is defined in the Oxford dictionary as:

  • comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular subject or activity
  • control or superiority over someone or something

The concept of mastery is often applied to a musical instrument, golf, martial arts or a language. The word is rarely used in conjunction with the rehabilitation of an injury or a painful condition. It occurred to me that there are vast similarities between the principles and experience of training for a sport or a skill and the participation in a rehabilitation programme. The difference will be the end goals and the specific reason for the training. In the case of mastering a sport, it is about performance enhancement with greater skill and efficiency to achieve fewer shots or more accuracy for example. In rehabilitation the goal are pain relief, normal mobility, control of movement, restoration of strength, power and a return to daily activities (work, home, exercise).

Undoubtedly the body has incredible mechanisms that heal injured tissue. Unfortunately there are many people who despite the healing process do continue to suffer painful symptoms. We see many cases of enduring and problematic pain at the clinic and set about the problem with a contemporary approach. This involves a range of treatment techniques and strategies including active rehabilitation or training. This training requires instruction, understanding, dedication, awareness, consistency, intention and practice. Just like learning a golf shot or the piano.

Setting up the principles of training (I will refer to the rehabilitation now as training) creates the right context and mindset. This includes pain/condition specific education so that the programme makes sense, the aims of the exercises, when to do them, how often and how to progress or moderate the intensity. In laying out the way forwards, the concept of mastery is introduced. What is it that needs mastery?

When we are in pain we change the way that we move. The longer the condition has been existing, the more the body and brain will have adapted alongside your thoughts and beliefs about the problem. The meaning that you give to the pain can also change with time and this is important. If the ‘meaning’ of the problem is significant, negative in nature and threatening to you as an organism (evolution speaking), the brain is more likely to protect you. This protection includes pain and altered movement, therefore perpetuating the cycle. This subject is for another day, important though it is, but dealing with negative thought patterns and unhelpful beliefs is fundamental, and requires restructuring. Returning to altered movement, this needs to be re-trained to reduce the guarding and protection. Of course this is one aspect of a treatment programme, but it is a great example to use when thinking about how you are going to master normal movement.

Mastering normal movement as mastering a language takes instruction, practice and dedication as mentioned. Often along the road we meet challenges and resistance both physically and mentally. One of those challenges is the plateau when it appears that nothing is happening or changing. The performance still seems to be the same, the outcomes like before. It is during this time that there is change occurring but it has not yet clearly manifest. Understanding that the plateau is an important part of the process and using the time as a chance to learn and an opportunity to create change. The nervous system is very plastic and adaptable according to the stimuli that it receives. In rehabilitation, the repeated stimulus of the right movements, in the right setting and mind set create such an opportunity.

To be good at any skill we must fully engage and spend the time with ourselves practice for the sake of practicing. Applying similar principles to rehabilitation in re-training normal movement, thoughts about movement and exercise and the functional skills of your chosen activity, provides a framework and a well trodden philosophical pathway to success. You will have your chosen goals that you will seek to achieve and on reaching them you will have further targets to attain. This is the journey.

19Apr/11

Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS/RSD)

Complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), also known as reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), is undoubtedly a nasty condition in many cases. It can be hugely disruptive in the desire to lead a normal and fulfilling life due the experience of sheer pain and the difficulty in doing day to day activities.

I hear a huge range of stories of how the problem began and how it has been treated. Sometimes there is a significant injury, but often it is the type of event that one would associate with recovery such as an ankle sprain, a knocked elbow or a fracture. Unfortunately in a number of cases this simply does not happen. The injury is sustained, the area usually hurts as you would expect but then it continues to hurt and gets worse. There are associated signs and symptoms such as colour change, temperature change, altered sensation (pins and needles, numbness), an altered sense of position, a feeling of ‘largeness’, ‘thickened’ skin, huge sensitivity to light touch (allodynia), changes in skin, hair and nails. Fortunately we understand much more about the underlying mechanisms and can explain what and why this is happening, giving the problem a meaning which is so important in a condition that is troubling and causing great suffering.

CRPS in the foot and leg causes great difficulty in walking and standing in many cases. If the tissues are stiffened and the control of movement is poor, the ability to walk normally can be severely limited. Add the pain to this scenario and it becomes incredibly disabling at times as the sufferer simply cannot undertake normal activities. In CRPS in the upper limb it is writing, computer use, dressing, holding tools and self-care that are challenged.

Similar to any painful state, determining the pain mechanism(s) is important in deciding where to focus the treatment. Often there can be co-existing mechanisms such as inflammatory pain and neuropathic pain underpinned by different processes and manifesting in different ways. Neuropathic pain is often sharp, lancing, shooting and accompanied by a loss of sensation in the same area that can be confounding until you understand how it works. Inflammatory pain can be provoked by movement and touch with the mechanism being excited sensory nerves (nociceptors) as a result of the release of inflammatory molecules. Nerves themselves can release such chemicals into the tissues (neurogenic inflammation) and thereby keep the process going. There are many other aspects to the pain and the drivers and influences.

As well as elucidating the pain mechanisms, identifying the influences is also very important. This can include stress, fatigue, emotional state, past experience, culture, beliefs in addition to lifestyle factors and general health. Personally I look for risk factors for chronicity with all new assessments so that these can be fealty with swiftly. When a condition has been in existence for a longer period, adapting this to understand behaviours, choices and other factors that could be prolonging the problem is important.

Modern treatment of pain including CRPS should be within a biopsychosocial framework. That means looking at the biological mechanisms, psychology and social factors that are all part of the pain experience and mould the individual perception. In many cases the sufferer needs input from physiotherapy, pain medicine and psychology. Initially educating the patient to develop understanding, reduce fear of the pain and movement and enable effective coping and self-care is key. Desensitising the body with a range of techniques that blend the physical with the cognitive through the application of various stimuli is useful. This could be a paint brush or cotton wool for example. Tactile discrimination and two point discrimination are normal sensory functions that can be altered and according to recent studies are likely to need training. The graded motor imagery programme is part of the treatment, targeting brain changes that can occur. The three stages are laterality, imagined movement and mirror therapy. This is a newer intervention and is demonstrating good results in CRPS and with other nasty pains. The self-care aspects are fundamental. Teaching the patient to manage their activities and to develop consistency through their day is key. Sometimes activities are overdone and there is a trade off. For example standing at a party, but you really want to go and afterwards you know it will hurt but accept that this will be the case. Good flare-up management skills can play a huge role during these times. A further group of interventions I call perceptual exercises. Due to the plastic changes in the sensory and motor cortices, the sense of self, body and movement can feel different in many ways. Working with this through the use of imagery, mindfulness, awareness and other strategies can really help to get back in touch with the body alongside the other techniques. Finally, motor control exercise to normalise movement is very important but to be done at the right time in the right way.

The context of the treatment can affect the success of the strategy. Timing, environment, understanding and belief must all be considered when designing a programme. Newer ideas and research about neuroimmune responses to exercise, movement and thoughts suggest that we need to be mindful of these factors. This is the modern way of looking at the individual, their pain and circumstances to offer practical and effective strategies in improving outcomes and quality of life.

Subsequent blogs will look at the other symptoms, why and how they manifest and the effects of stress upon the body.