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

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.

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