Tendon pain has been a big topic for some years. The problem is seen commonly in the clinic and frequently poses a challenge because so often tendon pain persists. Local factors and nociception are typically blamed, yet when treatment is focused at the tissue level, the limitations are exposed. As an aside, tissue based strategies are cited, yet there is really no such thing as a tissue based treatment simply because the tissues are not separate from the person. They are the person, and of course the person knows that something is being done to them and hence emotions and thoughts are at play, affecting the outcome — consider the person who observes your hands whilst you mobilise or massage whilst remaining calm and curious versus the person who is anxious, guarded with their hand poised and ready to grasp your hand as you start treatment; the latter person demonstrating why it is vital that the threat value be diminished before starting any intervention.
Pete’s excellent blog about tendon pain acknowledges the person, perhaps for the first time in tendon literature, which is music to my ears. Having been heavily influenced by Oliver Sacks, my philosophy has always been to consider the person as much, if not more than the condition as it explains how a particular issue manifests uniquely in that person. Certainly in my mind, the ‘initial assessment’ for me is about getting to know the person, which then rolls into their own experience of pain.
I first started looking with interest at tendon pain some ten years ago as an example of a persistent condition in sport. With an interest in chronic pain, it appeared that the discussions about tendon pain remained within the boundaries of where the pain emerged, yet our understanding of pain had advanced to the higher centres and many body systems involved in the experience of pain. Even nociception was discovered as being an incomplete picture as this biological process can be afoot with or without pain. Detection of threat does not mean it has to hurt, and indeed nociception itself is not something we actually feel. However, when the brain (which is of course part of the person and not separate, although our language does sometimes suggest this) predicts the need for protection, pain emerges in the person in a location deemed under threat or potential threat. This complex activity, which includes consciousness and the mind (these are both small subjects……..), is a whole person experience that is lived moment to moment and hence a focus on what happens in the tendon is only part of the picture. There is still very little acknowledgement elsewhere within the hierarchy, so here are a few thoughts I would like to share.
Previously I have expressed the view that we treat, advise and educate a person; a whole person. The approach that I favour is one that delivers the (working) knowledge and skills for the individual so that they can overcome their pain problem and resume a meaningful life as defined by themselves. Fragmenting for convenience is common, breaking down a whole into parts, yet this can never give a full picture. Medicine and healthcare typically specialise and whilst this has value, in the case of a persisting pain that often means that people fall between the cracks. For example, a female with fibromyalgia, IBS, migraines and pelvic pain may be seeing a rheumatologist, a gastroenterologist, a neurologist and a gynaecologist, and whilst elimination of anything pathological is important, there is an understood common upstream biology. Interestingly, many of these cases also have tender tendons that can be a surprise to the person when the tendons are pressed, especially considering that they are not the primary reason for seeking help.
Nothing happens in isolation (is one of my favourite phrases), and hence the biological expressions in and around a tendon are not separate from the mechanisms that underpin how pain arises in our consciousness. We cannot explain how this happens — how do chemical reactions in our body become a lived experience? Despite the lack of an answer, it clearly involves more than the tissue or structure alone.
This is not to say that the brain and the mind alone are responsible. Where is the mind? Where is the seat of the mind? Again, we do not know. Yet surely the mind is not just in the brain, an argument put forward by supporters of embodied cognition. It is me that thinks, not my brain or my mind, but me. And I think with my whole person because I am a whole person, and indeed when I feel pain, it is me that feels pain and not the body part where I feel it. Because I am more than that body part, the experience of pain must involve the whole person in that moment in that context. It is also true to say that to be in pain, we must be thinking that we are in pain as much as experiencing the sensory qualities of pain. Thinking draws our attention to the said experience, otherwise it is subconscious and hence not occurring to me.
For tendon pain, practically speaking, we must of course consider the health of the tendon itself and surrounding tissues, but also the person’s general state (who are they, how are they), prior experiences relevant to the problem (e.g./ tendon pain, pain, general health), beliefs, expectations, vulnerabilities to developing persistent pain, their story of how the pain emerged, their movement patterns (and why they are moving in such a way; both at the planning stages of movement and actual movement), body sense and sense of self at the very minimum. This information is gathered within the first conversation, setting the scene as trust and rapport develops naturally from exploration of their story that validates and empathises.
This is a mere and brief overview of my thinking about tendon pain, which poses a significant clinical problem, often persisting for longer than is expected. Whilst the focus remains on the tendon and nociception, there will be limited results in my view as this only tells a part of the story of the person in pain. This is true for any pain, and not just tendon pain. Pain emerges in the person and all that that person means and embodies, hence we must address the person as much, if not more than the condition. As Oliver Sacks wrote on his father, a GP: ‘He knew the human, the inward side of his patients no less than their bodies and felt he could not treat one without the other’. So true and this has always been my abiding principle.
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