I wholeheartedly believe in people’s ability to change their pain. Why? Because I have seen it so often and heard how individuals have improved their lives. We also see the effects of changing people’s perceptions in the research settings.
Many scientific studies have shown how we can alter experiences in many different ways. My role as a clinician is to translate this into something practical for people to use day to day to get better. This is why I spend time with scientists, researchers and philosophers on a regular basis, but also draw upon many fields to create programmes for people to get the best of themselves.
Here is a story about a person’s experience of changing their pain. In this case, chronic headache. I act as an encourager, a supporter and a coach, but it is always the person who must do the work to get better.
I suffered from Chronic Daily Headaches for twelve years, before I was eventually referred to Richmond by my neurologist, Dr Marie-Helene Marion, to whom I am eternally grateful for doing so.
Before visiting Richmond, the only option I had to relieve my headaches was medication and, when the drugs stopped working, I would feel completely hopeless in their wake. But, in just a few short sessions, Richmond completely reconfigured my relationship with my headaches – giving me tools to manage the pain and, more importantly, feel in control.
Very soon the hopeless despair was gone because now, when I was faced with a headache, I had options. Whether it was as simple as a full body meditation, going for a run, or turning to my daily journal, there were things I could do that had a direct impact on the pain and therefore my state of mind. I no longer felt crushed by the onset of a headache because I could take action. If the drugs didn’t work, it wasn’t the end of the road, there was something I could do to better the situation.
As a result of my treatment, I am slowly coming off my medication (something I would never have imagined possible, having been on them for so long) and feel better than ever about my headaches. It has honestly changed my life.
And there’s one other thing – until I saw Dr. Marion and Richmond about my headaches, no one had ever told me that I would ‘get better’. It was always about managing the symptoms with medication. It’s a simple thing to say , that you might ‘get better’ but, for the first time, I had been given permission to believe that I didn’t have to live with my headaches forever – from the outset this was a huge psychological boost. And, I am pleased to say, they were right. I am getting better.
For the 7th ultra I am hitting the hills, or rather mounting the mountains….
Most of the races so far have included some steep hills. Over the South Downs near Ditchling Beacon on my way to Brighton from London, traversing the Seven Sisters from Eastbourne towards Brighton and along The Ridgeway on Race to the Stones, have all challenged my thighs. Running and walking uphill is one thing, coming down is another. There’s an art to the latter. A balance between controlling one’s descent so you don’t fall and saving your quads! The Maverick inov-8 ultra has an elevation of 3020 over 60-odd k.
Traditionally I am not great with heights. So this ultra presents an additional element and feature for me to cope with whilst climbing, descending, walking trotting, hopping, shuffling and running. Don’t look down! Having said that, I have been on mountains plenty of times before and usually enjoyed the views, fresh air and freedom.
Recently I was thinking that #upandrun would continue for 12 months, #12in12. But then I thought about afterwards and what I would do. I can’t see that I will stop, so this will continue indefinitely with a blend of races and solos that accompany the monthly UP workshops (next one on 18th Sept >> tickets here).
You can support Understand Pain here, helping us to run the workshops each month so that they are free for those most in need, to increase the number of workshops and the reach. Meanwhile, I’ll keep running to raise awareness and bring the tools to people so that they can improve their lives.
#upandrun is an Understand Pain project raising awareness of the problem of pain — the No1 global health burden. We are working to reduce the enormous suffering caused by chronic pain that affects millions and costs billions.
Are you a GP who sees people suffering chronic pain?
The answer is most likely yes considering 20% of the population suffer chronic pain. There are many presentations (in no particular order): back pain, neck pain, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, arthritis, post-injury, headaches, migraines, pelvic pain, endometriosis, menstrual pain, tendonitis, as a feature of a particular condition, cancer, heart disease and more.
Chronic pain is the No1 global health burden. Pain is the main reason why people seek help. Yet it remains poorly understood, meaning that people’s expectations are out of step with what they need to get better, and the treatment offered can take them down the wrong path. Together these contribute to the on-going problem that is showing no signs of change in the right direction: less suffering and less cost. We must and can make this happen. The ‘we’ being society.
GPs are in a prime position to help drive this change with the right support and systems in place. As a GP or healthcare clinician, how do you feel when a patient (person) suffering chronic pain comes into your room? Be honest. Does the challenge excite you, or is it the so-called ‘heart-sink’ time? For me, I have always loved the challenge and the fact that we can always do something to help the person improve their life. But this is because I have always felt that I can work in this specialist field and make a difference, building knowledge and experience over 20 years. Without the practical knowledge and the coaching approach, I am certain I would feel lost and overwhelmed.
Now, I do not believe that you need 20 years in the world of pain to be able to have a positive impact. But I do know that understanding pain is vital, as is having confidence in your approach. Both are transmitted to the person in front of you whether you are aware or not.
Steps to take
The first step is to be aware of your own beliefs, biases and behaviours in these situations. These will frame your approach. What is your approach? Establishing the way you ‘treat’ is the next step. Do you treat chronic pain? Do you treat the person? Do you coach the person? What do you do, how and why?
On knowing your start point, you can then build your knowledge of pain: what is pain really? For example, understanding that pain and injury are poorly related, that pain and tissue state bear little relation to each other, that pain is a need state, and that pain is the brain’s best guess to explain the current state. Further, you learn that pain is related to the perception of threat and the state of the person. It is of course the person who suffers pain, not the body part. And, most of the biology in the dark when we are in pain, is not actually where we feel it. The pain experience itself is just the tip of the iceberg.
You have a choice. You can continue using the same approach, and indeed there may well be some ways that you find to be effective. Or you can add to your repertoire of tools and design a system or process. This I can help you create.
One of the biggest challenges is always the time factor. Perhaps you have 7 minutes, 10 minutes or the ‘luxury’ or more. It is tight. This is a complex situation that requires time and the human touch. How can effective care be achieved? How can we really help this person improve their life? The primary choice remains medication. There is a role for medication and it is often expected by the person and hence a pressure to prescribe exists. However, whether you do or not is your choice as the clinician. But of course medication does not teach someone how to improve their life and will mean that the natural systems of (biological) protection become lazy together with a limitation upon the person’s responses. People commonly rely upon and hope for the quick fix option when there is none. Instead there is a way forward that eases suffering and improves life, but it takes longer and is more effort. That is the reality, the uncomfortable and inconvenient truth about chronic pain.
To address pain you have to address your needs in life, build wellness, create new heathy habits, take a new perspective, expect and know that life can get better and practice day to day to day, much like cleaning your teeth — you know this is true when you truly understand pain.
The questions are: what does this person really need? What are they telling you in the narrative? And then, how good are my deep listening skills?
So, with limited time and the desire to make a positive impact, we need a plan. One that we can roll out in an individual way. We need a set of options and resources that can meet the needs of the person step by step. When you know that you have a plan, the pressure eases because you know that you can make a positive impact. You outline the plan to the patient, start the wheels turning as you help them understand their pain (always the key), and focus on what they CAN do to improve their life.
The Pain Coach approach focuses upon what the person wants in their life and how they want their life to be: focus on what you want, not what you don’t want. See how often we do the latter, and sure enough…. . This is why coaching offers so much because we tap into the person’s strengths to move on towards their picture of success. We have a clear direction and steps to take each day. It is a challenge, but coaching encourages and supports the person to live their best life, to show up in the best version of themselves, and to reach their potential.
What would it be like if you had a process?
How would you feel about supporting, encouraging and coaching people suffering chronic pain if you knew that you had a process in place? Would this have a positive impact upon their lives? Your practice? Your stress levels? Costs?
Your process includes a range of ways that you address particular problems that arise together with resources to call upon. Within each session you have 1-2 key points to cover. Sessions are scheduled according to the priorities for that person. This removes some of the time pressure because instead of trying to cram in as much as possible, or prescribing as the first port of call, you know that you have a number of appointments set up for particular issues to be discussed and acted upon.
In essence, when a person has an idea about what is happening, why, what they must do, what the clinician will do and over a rough time period, they will be satisfied and engage. The trusted advisor status is vital when working with someone suffering chronic pain. This takes time and follows reliable, compassionate care, i.e./ positive actions in line with the person’s needs.
There are many pressures upon GPs. From society, patients, and themselves to deliver the best care. Resources are always limited in some shape or form, in particular the most valuable one: time. This being the case, we must work out the best ways of moving forward. For chronic pain, currently the greatest health burden, creating a process within your practice that enables you to listen (deeply) to the patient, and step by step meet their needs will increase efficiency and improve outcomes. Within this process, pain coaching is a means of working with the person so that they can reach their potential.
As the UP story gathers momentum, in particular the #upandrun project (ultrarunning, marathon running and the UP education programme), we are delighted to welcome two new UP ambassadors: Chris and Jeff. Both will be running for #upandrun so keep an eye out for blogs, pictures and always the hashtag!
If you see #upandrun hashtag, give us a shout out! Take a pic and post it on Twitter or Instagram.
Chronic pain affects so many people for so many reasons. The measure of our success will be how many people we can inspire to move on to live their best lives.
This week look out for…
Richmond running along the Thames Path tomorrow (Thursday) from Hampton Court to the Thames Barrier
Next week look out for…
The UP talk and workshop on Weds 3rd July at 2pm at The Groves Medical Centre. Get your place here >> tickets
The next stage of #upandrun for Understand Pain is the London (Richmond upon Thames) to Brighton. 100k from city to coast. I lived in Brighton for some years, so it feels a little like running home.
This time I will be doing it in one day; the full 100k. Of course I am expecting and preparing for challenging moments along the way. That’s why we do it! To face, overcome and complete.
Running can be a great metaphor for life. Inevitably life is full of ups and downs. These are unavoidable. However, our approach and attitude define them as opportunities or obstacles. Whilst these moments maybe hard and unpleasant, the way we view them determines whether we learn and move on or suffer more than is necessary.
The tougher moments when running include fatigue and heaviness in the legs, knowing that despite going for hours, there are still hours remaining, and various aches and pains. I’ll share a few strategies that I use to re-focus and keep going.
1. Re-focus on what you want and keep going
Everything comes through the mind. The mind is embodied. These are both important considerations. There is no separation between body and mind. Instead we have a (whole) person. The way we think is embodied, the decisions we make are affected by our body state, and our bodies keep the score of all our thoughts and emotions. Skilfully appreciating this and using it to our advantage is one of the habits of peak performers. We can all be peak performers in our own way.
In that tougher moment, you learn to take a perspective and re-focus on what you want to achieve as an outcome. What is my picture of success, or dream? When you focus on what you want, you feel your energy lift. In one way, this is how you know you are focusing on your picture of success rather than something else. For instance, paying attention to the feeling of heavy legs and any on-going thoughts brings on further sensations of heaviness — it gets worse.
2. Remember your purpose
Knowing one’s purpose is healthy according to research to date. Since Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, there has been interest in purpose as something that spurs us on, gets us up in the morning and drives persistence in the face of adversity.
Many people run with purpose. Often this is for a cause such as a charity, chosen in the name of a loved one who suffers or has passed on. I believe that is why events such as the London Marathon are so emotive.
In that moment when it is ‘sticky’, you recall your purpose, the person or people you are representing and drive on. You know that no matter how much it hurts right now, it is nothing compared to the suffering of others.
3. Fuelling skilfully
On longer runs, your fuelling is essential. It is also personal and unique in as much as each person must find out what they need. The experimentation should take place on training runs so that you know and can prepare fully for the actual event.
The night before I always have a (big) bowl of spaghetti bolognese. In the morning, I am up early having porridge with blueberries and honey. At least one shot of coffee is also essential for me, together with two shots of beetroot juice. Until the start, I will nibble: a banana, a Pursu nutrition bar, cashew nuts; and sips of water.
During ultra runs, I re-fuel around the first 10-12k mark and then at the rest points. On the Ultra Challenges, the rest points are every 10-15k ish, offering a range of fruit, pastries, cookies, flapjacks, sweets, coffee, water, sports drinks, pick n mix, hot meals (at lunch) and more. Typically I will have a banana, salt and vinegar crisps, a cookie, water, a shot of coffee, pick n mix (yum!), watery fruit (e.g./ melon), sports drink and refill my bottles. I carry gels and use them as needed, but typically towards the end when I need a little booster.
The principle I follow is to keep hydrated and fuelled rather than wait. I used thirst as a guide, but only very mild thirst, sipping regularly, especially if it is hot. When I notice a particular type of heaviness and I know that there is a way to go before the next stop, I will use a gel.
Marathons are different because the are no rest points; the run is non-stop. Fuelling and drinking are on the go. It can be messy!
Whichever way you find works, it is a key strategy to use in order to keep going.
It’s been a great weekend in Brighton, but now it’s straight back into training to be ready for the Isle of Wight Challenge at the start of May. That means a 20k trot today.
The route yesterday was lined with supporters giving enthusiastic encouragement. Some of the stretches were long and straight, meaning that as you were running, you could see the sea of bobbing heads stretched out in front for some distance. Coming back from the power station to Madeira Drive, the 360 and the pier were landmarks. With the wind blowing at you, they seemed so far away!
The final stretch to the finish line is an incredible moment. The crowd are going absolutely crazy and because you are stretched out, it feels like you are the only runner. Suddenly you’re filled with energy and find yourself sprinting (it feels like sprinting…) to the line. Awesome!
So now onto a longer run that is a totally different experience. My preference is off road, trailing running so although this is 53k x 2 (Sat/Sun), for me there’s no sense of needing to hit a pace. Instead it is about enjoying the ride, meeting others who are in for the long haul and marvelling at the scenery of the island’s coastal path.
As ever, this is for UP, so do follow us with the #upandrun as we seek to raise the awareness of the problem of pain, especially chronic pain, and what we can do as a society to ease suffering.
There is no quick fix for persistent (chronic) pain, but you can understand your pain and move on to a fulfilling life
In a world where we have become accustomed to immediate gratification, the really important things take time and effort. For example, relationships, work satisfaction and wellness. There’s no quick fix for any of these, and the same goes for pain. All require understanding, a picture of success that you work towards each day by taking positive steps. This is normal.
People often ask if they can get better. I say yes. We can always improve and get better. What does this mean? It’s individual of course, but in essence it means that the person feels liberated from their suffering and is able to live a fulfilling life. Do they still experience pain? Probably. But there’s a big difference.
A suffering society ~ time for change
Pain is part of the way we protect ourselves and survive. It is normal and necessary. Yet why do so many people continue to experience pain when there is no immediate threat or danger? Similarly, why do people who suffer PTSD continue to suffer repeated episodes? Why do people with anxiety disorders feel anxious when nothing is actually happening? Why do people feel depressed when there is joy all around? Hopefully you can see the similarity in the patterns here. The words are interchangeable and the suffering immense. This can and must change, and driving this change is the purpose of Understand Pain.
The answers to these questions lie in the way we live and the way society has evolved and is working. This is why a social shift is necessary as we develop a new level of consciousness, understanding the causes of suffering so that we can focus on building wellness.
The difference is the impact factor. The inner disturbance lessens, life fills with meaning and great states more often as the person pursues a purpose and reconnects with people and the planet. We only have a limited capacity for awareness, so when we fill this with people who inspire us, support and love us, when we share and give, when we get outside into nature and feel that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves, life transforms.
There is no super-highway. To achieve a better life requires us to know what that life would look like and take steps in that direction each day. We need a clear direction and tools and practices to use to keep us motivated, orientated and an awareness of the achievements along the way.
We are designed to change — life would not be possible without change. Embracing this natural development, we can learn to create the conditions for moving on, whatever our start point. We continually ask questions of ourselves and the answers determine the quality of our lives via the answers and what we focus upon and decide to do. So asking the right questions is key. Here are some examples >> What CAN I do? How can I build my energy? How can I best look after myself? What steps can I take today towards my picture of success? What can we do together to move forwards? What is the best decision now? And now? Whatever you ask, you will answer.
Suffering chronic pain, you are likely to need support, help and encouragement with practical advice about what you must do each day. Pills do not provide this, nor any other form of quick fix. We are encouraged to push down emotions, distract and turn away yet it is by facing our ‘stuff’ and all the reasons in our life why we continue to suffer. This takes courage but it is the way to transform our lives. And we all want the best life we can create.
Sanjay is a superb example of someone who did exactly this, moving on to a meaningful, fulfilling, challenging, scary, exciting project, Pursu. I would encourage you to read his story on the Pursu website as he has created both an incredible product but more so is the meaning behind it and what he is doing to contribute to society. And this from a story of pain: Sanjay’s story
On May 22nd I will be talking about this and more, giving practical tips and knowledge about pain to help people gain insight and move on. This is free and you can get tickets here
Look out for the orange shirt and share pics >> #upandrun
I am pretty excited now. As usual I woke early, so we will get on the road to the South Coast. I’ve not done a road marathon since the London in 2017, and that brings back great memories.
This week has been a coaster, or tapering, which has its own challenges that are more mental than physical. Although it all comes as one experience of course — I don’t want to disappoint regular readers into thinking I have become a dualist!
I have noticed that the really short, easy paced runs of between 3 and 8 km to be more tough than the long ones! Although important to keep moving and the feel of the stride, I find them heavy, rather boring and puffy (I puff). There you go.
Anyway, it’s off to Brighton, one of my favourite places, to pick up the running pack, take in the sea air, meander through the lanes, end up with a big bowl of pasta and an early night.
If you are supporting or coming to watch the Brighton Marathon, give me a shout and a wave, take a pic and share with #upandrun so we can spread the word and gain momentum. Understand Pain is all about a better world that we can create together.