The old saying goes, “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never harm me”, however this is not exactly true when it comes to messages that are used to explain pain. Of course you could argue that words only cause harm if we interpret them as harmful rather than what they are per se, just words. Easier said than done!
Earlier this week I saw the word ‘instability’ written in reference to low back pain. This is a word that has been used frequently as a means to justify the use of something to create ‘stability’ and hence solve back pain. It has not worked.
The reason it has not worked is because there is no instability, and more importantly because pain is not a structure. I emboldened those words.
Pain is a whole person, emerging in that whole person in respect of a perceived threat. That is not a structure or a pathology. It is the whole person’s response to that pathology or injury that manifests as pain (in a bodily location), involving a number of systems that have a role in protecting us: e.g./ the nervous system, autonomic nervous system, immune system, sensorimotor system.
An injury or a pathology is not the same as pain. We cannot equate them as they are poorly related. An injury is an injury, and pain is pain, the latter being one of a number of responses to the former.
Back to instability. What does it suggest to the recipient of the message, “You have instability, which is why you have back pain”? How will this affect their pain, bearing in mind this is a pretty threatening thought? How will it affect their movement?
If there is true instability from a serious injury or a pathology that has affected the vertebrae to a significant degree, this calls for urgent surgical care. We are not talking about this scenario though, rather the number one global health burden that is low back pain. This pain is not explained by instability. If anything, the use of this word creates dependence rather than a proactive approach to restoring normal, confident movement and living life with less or no pain.
Pain is the vehicle that brings most people to the clinic. We need to give meaning to the individual’s meaning about their pain that they have already created, bringing their thinking into alignment with what we really know about pain. We must convey the right messages from the start to reduce the risk of chronicity. I just want to add that we need to tackle pain in the broadest way from the beginning, incorporating all dimensions–physical, emotional and cognitive–but importantly, how these interact as the whole person with prior experience, beliefs, genetics, gender, co-morbidities etc. The step-wise approach of trying medication, then physio, then interventions, then psychology etc (not always in that order!) does not work. It does not work. The whole-person needs to be addressed from word go. The whole climate and culture of health-caring for pain must change. And this includes the words we use, in reference to my earlier point.
When we understand pain, the actions that we take change for the better. When it makes sense and we know that we are safe to move and live, it takes us in the right direction. Each person has their own lived experience of pain that has been cultivated through the development of all the protective systems that have been subject to prior demands, and learned how to react in certain situations. This makes some people more vulnerable to chronic pain. Let’s help these people by asking the right questions at the start so that we can change the course that they are heading on.
We can and must do better. The science is there to be used and the thinking is there to be used. With the blending of neuroscience and philosophical thought, we are now in a time of great optimism. We can make lasting change for our generation and the next as we change our thinking and take big action across society and the globe, together.
Richmond Stace: Specialist Pain Physiotherapist
My overarching aim is to change the way that society thinks about pain so that we can tackle what is the number one global health burden, chronic pain. One to one with individual sufferers, via writing and talking, and the UP | Understand Pain campaign, I hope to shift thinking so that we can reduce the suffering that people feel across the globe.