Back pain

In a recent Daily Mail Good Health, an article boldly claims that an ingenious new approach to back pain could transform your life. This is indeed a big statement to make about one of the largest ‘public health’ issues — chronic pain and depression are the top 2 global health burdens.

The authors describe the biopsychosocial model for pain (BPS) that incorporates factors relating to the biology, psychology and sociology of pain. This is the model claimed for most modern pain services, although whether all are fully addressed in an integrated manner is a separate point. It is good for the BPS model to gain some air time as it is certainly a step forward in the right direction compared to the dominant biomedical model that would suggest we need to look for a structural or pathological reason for pain. For anyone with even a basic knowledge of pain, the biomedical model will be deemed outdated and lacks any use for understanding persistent pain. This is simply because pain cannot be explained by a structure or pathology.

For the first time, perhaps ever (in my memory), I was delighted to read about danger signals rather than pain signals in the public press. This is a vital piece of information as we do not have pain signals or pain centres, instead we have a biological system that detects salient events and orientates our attention — termed the salience network by Giandomenico Iannetti and colleagues. Conjoining this model with current models of consciousness, AI and brain (e.g. predictive processing) and you are getting somewhere near a very, very good way of thinking about pain. Of course we have some way to go yet and need to be careful about how we frame the current knowledge in terms of existing data.

There are many biological and behavioural changes that occur when we have back pain and other on-going pains. We change with every moment as every moment is unique. We feel that we are the authors of our own inner dialogue and this often means drifting into the past or future, becoming embroiled with what has been (as far as we can recall) and what may be, but of course neither actually exist despite the embodied sense we have in that moment. Keeping a close eye on what is in front of us, also known as being present, helps us to see what is really happening versus a story that we construct. By regularly thinking about a painful event in the past, we can easily ‘prime’ or sensitise this moment. Equally by anticipating pain or projecting ourselves forward by imagining that a movement will hurt, we change our way of moving and the sense of our body as anxiety and tension emerge. This is one of the reasons why awareness of one’s own breathing helps.

An important aside: It is important to clarify here that although we talk about the mind, thinking and emotions in relation to pain, the actual experience of pain emerges in the person and is felt in the body or the space in which the body should reside (for many biological reasons). The notion that pain is in the brain or in the head is nonsense. And, we are more than a brain.

Turning one’s attention to breathing means that you are being aware of this moment, now. There are other important ways of cultivating this skill, which allows you to think clearly about what action you can take to create a new experience, a better experience that takes you towards your desired outcome. Additionally, on the out-breath we naturally relax as the parasympathetic nervous system increases its activity. This is opposite to the sympathetic that is involved with protection in the face of perceived threat. And this is really what pain is all about.

In the face of a predicted perceived threat, we can feel pain as part of a whole person defence strategy. There is no pain system. Instead systems that have a role in protection: musculoskeletal system, sensorimotor system, immune system, endocrine system, autonomic system. Then consider how systems support each other as they are all integrated: the gastrointestinal system’s role in providing nutrients to energise the other systems — consider how many people with persisting back pain also have digestion issues as their resources are diverted away from digestion and towards protect. So, more threat to ‘me’ (the self — that’s a huge area to discuss alongside consciousness), more pain. Less threat to me, less pain. How often will a person report an increase in pain when they perceive to be in a threatening situation. The beauty of this is ‘perception’, because we can change it. So in changing our perception of threat we can change our pain. We are designed to change so we can use this biological advantage and with practice become good at it. Remember, pain and injury have a poor or absent relationship — consider phantom limb pain. There is no body part yet there is most certainly pain.

Our understanding of pain has moved on enormously over the past ten years. We are in a very exciting time now as we draw upon many areas of science and philosophy to advance this knowledge, asking new questions and gathering new data. The biomedical model is not sufficient and the BPS model has been a useful step forward but now we need to think about pain in terms of a public health issue. People need practical ways of overcoming their pain moment to moment, coaching themselves so that increasingly they generate their own better and better experiences driven by internal messages as they motivate themselves to a healthier life. This is the reason for my term ‘Pain Coach’ as the individual becomes their own coach using continuously updated thinking and actions to get better, overcome pain and resume a meaningful life.

Vulvodynia

VulvodyniaVulvodynia is a painful condition, often exquisitely so, located in the vulva, which is the skin surrounding the vagina. Usually unexplained, this troubling condition can arise seemingly from nowhere, interfere with intimate relations and hence attempts to conceive. Vulvodynia is also known as a functional pain syndrome–these are painful problems that lack a pathology of note that explains the extent of the pain and include irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, TMJ dysfunction, migraine and pelvic pain. Functional pain syndromes are often concurrent with hypermobility, anxiety and depression, a further common character trait being perfectionism and a tendency for the person to be hard on themselves thereby creating a cycle of chronic stress.

The pain of vulvodynia is often very localised and triggered by direct contact. Naturally this occurs during sex and touch, but sometimes sitting position can bring on the pain. As with any sensitisation, there is a primary location of pain but there can also be a secondary area surrounding that is due to central nervous system (and other systems) involvement. Suspected vulvodynia or other pains in the pelvis should be assessed and examined by a gynaecologist as a first step before beginning treatment, and by a consultant who knows and understands both the condition and the impact — Miss Deborah Boyle at 132 Harley Street.

With vulvodynia often being part of an overall picture of sensitivity, it means that there is a common biological adaptation that is upstream of the range of seemingly different conditions (the functional pain syndromes). As soon as the individual understands that pain is not an accurate indicator if tissue damage, but rather a reflection of the perceived threat and prioritisation by the body-person, there is a realisation that the pain can change. Pain can change because perceptions can change as we take on board new information and consequently think and act differently, creating new habits. The new habits set the conditions for on-going and sustained change that includes overcoming pain.

We have limited attention and hence can only be aware of certain amount of stimuli in any given moment. If pain is consuming much or all of your attention and consciousness, then this is all that is happening in that moment, with all other possible experiences being disregarded–it is a matter of prioritisation. When the perception of threat is reduced by a constructive thought or action, the pain moves out of our attention span and we become aware of other thoughts, feelings and experiences. How we respond to pain is unique and learned through our lifetime right up until that point; all those bumps and bruises as a child, how our parents reacted, more serious injuries or illnesses and the messages we received from doctors, teachers and other ‘big people’, then through adult life, moulding our beliefs about ourselves, the world, health and pain each time we feel it. The sum of all this activity, most of which we are unaware of, sets up how you respond to the next ache, pain or injury, blended of course with genetics. It seems that some people are genetically set up to be more inflammatory, meaning that responses to injury are potentially more vigorous and go on for longer. Understanding this means that the right messages and treatment can be given, thereby appropriately addressing the injury or pain. One of the big problems is that this does not happen, and the explanations are structural and based upon the body tissues. This ignores the fact that we have body systems that protect and these systems have sampling mechanisms in the tissues and organs but largely exist elsewhere–e.g./ nervous system, autonomic nervous system, endocrine system, sensorimotor system, immune system. We have to go upstream as well as improve the health and mobility of the local tissues.

Going upstream is vital in overcoming vulvodynia, and this is where the Pain Coach Programme works–this is my part of the treatment programme. You may also choose to work with a women’s health physiotherapist who will work more locally. So what is the Pain Coach Programme?

The Pain Coach Programme is a a blend of the latest neuroscience of pain with a strengths based coaching approach to success. Understanding your pain and that you have the biology and strengths to overcome your pain is a vital start point. You have been successful in the past using these strengths, and you can do so again by drawing on these characteristics and using them to develop your health in terms of how you think and act. Overcoming pain is all about resuming a meaningful life, engaging with activities and people as you want to, in a way that allows you to flourish. The Pain Coach Programme provides you with the knowledge and skills that you need to in effect become your own coach, moment to moment making clear decisions that take you towards your vision of how you want to live. This alongside treatment and specific training to develop normal movement and a healthy body-mind. The skills you learn also help you to fully engage in life, whether this be at home, at work or at play.

Andy Murray wins despite back pain

karlnorling | https://flic.kr/p/d5cPyA

Andy Murray wins despite back pain, a classic example of how the meaning and situation flavours the lived experience. Simon Briggs of The Telegraphsaid: “Not many players are capable of winning three points in a Davis Cup semi-final, as Andy Murray did to put Great Britain into the trophy match against Belgium in late November. But to do so with a bad back – an issue that Murray revealed only once the combat had finished – was a different story again: a quite exceptional feat of courage and stamina”. Pain is not well related to the state of the body tissues (joints, discs etc) but instead the perception of threat detected by body systems that protect us: nervous system, immune system, autonomic nervous system, endocrine system, sensorimotor system — one only has to consider phantom limb pain to realise this fact. One of the biggest reasons why persisting pain is feared is the belief that the severity equates to more damage or something more serious. You may also consider that some cancers remain painless and this is certainly serious. Pain is a protective device that motivates thinking and action to reduce the threat and restore normal physiological activity (homeostasis); it is a need state lived by the whole person — with ‘back pain’, it is the person who is in pain, not their back.

In Murray’s case, he was quite capable of focusing on the game, his body allowing this due to the context and the significance. There are many stories of sportsmen and women sustaining injuries and only knowing when the game is finished. We also had the scenario a few years ago when Messi collided with the keeper and experienced such pain that he thought his career was over. It was a bruise and he played the next weekend. The pain was still severe at the time though, reflecting the situation and the need as deemed by his body systems that protect. It works both ways.

Between games Murray may well have felt some stiffness, but he was able to re-focus. A few simple movements to nudge fluids around, ease off the muscular tension that is initiated and executed by the brain sending signals down via the spinal cord, perhaps a few reflexive messages contributing alongside the immune and autonomic activity. Context remained king though, as it was wholly more important to put all his attention on what was required to win than to start worrying about his back. That could be dealt with later, and indeed this is what happened as Murray did what he knew he needed to do to be victorious. All those top down signals, cultivated and delivered from a neuroimmune system, which countered those danger signals coming from his back (not pain signals — there are no pain signals or pain centres) — top down signals generated from his beliefs, expectations, mastery of focus and attention, as he hit flow, that state of being utterly in the moment. That’s a wonderful place to be and not a room where pain can enter.

Now that the game has finished, familiar aches and pains will flood Murray’s consciousness. There maybe additional and new feelings that evoke new thoughts and a need for re-assessment for the next best steps. These steps will need to include consideration of how Murray’s neuroimmune system and other systems that protect have learned to react (priming or kindling), the possibility of sub-conscious and environmental cues, expectations and of course an assessment of tissue health and function. From thereon in, a comprehensive treatment, training and coachng programme can address movement, body sense, neuroimmune-sympathetic-sensorimotor interactions to name but a few. It is worth pointing out here that such a programme is not unique to elite sports people, but a modern approach to pain and injury that should be accessible to all.

Richmond Stace

Richmond is the co-founder of a pain awareness campaign called UP | Understand Pain. Together with Georgie, they are using music and song to deliver the right messages about pain, particularly chronic and persisting pain; which are:

  • Pain can and does change
  • You can overcome pain and lead a meaningful life when you really understand it and know what you can do