I’m Done Treating Pain.
Yes. You read that correctly. I’m over it.
Several different thoughts have crept into to my mind sparked by what I have read and conversations I have had. I would like to share these insights with you.
I remember when I was visiting Bill Hartman Dad a few months ago and we were talking about a specific treatment that is quite controversial in therapy today. He said something that really resonated with me:
“Maybe they measured the wrong thing.”
This sentiment was echoed in “Topical Issues in Pain 1” by Louis Gifford. Check out this fantastic excerpt:
“Thus, pain can be viewed as a single perceptual component of the stress response whose prime adaptive purpose is to powerfully motivate the organism to alter behavior in order to aid recovery and survive.”
Notice what I bolded there. Pain is a single component of the stress response. Not the stress response. Not a necessary component of the stress response. Just one possibility.
Why do we place so much importance on pain?
Many proponents of modern pain science (myself included) often use this statement against individuals who are over-biomedically inclined:
“Nociception is neither necessary nor sufficient for a pain experience.”
Agreed, pain is not always the occurring output when nociception is present. That said, pain is only one of several outputs that may occur when a tissue is injured. Just because pain is absent does not mean other outputs are also absent.
Many different outputs can occur when an individual is under threat.
Let me propose a new quote to those who focus solely on pain.
“Pain is neither a necessary nor sufficient output of the stress response.”
Why should we limit ourselves to only treating pain? Why should we limit ourselves to only treating outputs? (Spoiler alert, we can’t treat outputs, change them) I have a better idea.
Today, I start treating a human system under threat.
The Threat Matrix
Dad showed me this great editorial here in which Eric Visser expands upon Melzack’s original pain neuromatrix.
Visser calls this idea the threat matrix. To simplify the idea, threatening inputs from the body and the environment enter the system, are scrutinized by the brain, and then the desired output to combat the threat occurs.
Input –> processing –> output
This framework explains how any output, desirable or undesirable, can occur from a stressful input.
Let’s apply this to an example that we have all been through; a breakup with a significant other.
Your significant other decides to leave you, how do you feel?
The answer depends on the individual. Some folks may feel depressed. Some may feel anger.
Some may even experience pain.
These feeling are all outputs that occur as a result from an input (i.e. the breakup) that disrupts homeostatic balance of the human system. The outputs that occur are the ones that the brain determines best aid the individual in recovery and survival.
Let’s now take this thought to the therapy realm. I sustain tissue damage and nociceptive information travels to the brain to be scrutinized. What output(s) could occur? Let’s think of a few possibilities.
- Sympathetic dominance – increased sweat production, heart rate, blood pressure, etc.
- Motor responses to protective patterns
- Endocrine alterations in gut/reproductive function
- Increased/decreased immune activity
- Yada yada yada
All of these could occur, some of these could occur, or none of these could occur. The response to the offending input is going to depend on the individual’s brain scrutinizing the situation.
One could argue that a nociceptive event could lead to someone developing anxiety and poor immune function without ever experiencing pain if that is what the system feels best aids in survival.
Nonspecific Effects my Arse
There are many treatments out there that people deem worthless because research demonstrates minimal effects on pain compared to placebo. If someone gets better with this intervention, we deem that nonspecific effects led to the change in pain.
I call bullpoop…sort of.
Nonspecific effects could be a contributing factor to someone benefitting from a particular treatment, but the problem with most pain research is that often pain level is the only thing that is measured.
If pain is only one possible output of a system under threat, how do we know that a treatment didn’t affect a different output?
Answer: We don’t because it wasn’t measured!
Let’s take a controversial treatment for example: dry needling.
Some say it works wonders for pain, some are vehemently opposed, and research is mostly mixed. What do we do?
Perhaps both camps are wrong. Why? Pain is the only output being discussed.
What if this whole time, dry needling worked because it altered inputs coming in from the immune, autonomic, or [what the hell evahhhh] system, which led to changed output from this system primarily with pain output altered secondarily? And here is the kicker; the intervention only works if these systems respond as well as our pain system under a particular threat.
Well we don’t know that because we didn’t look at it. But looking at multiple systems when an intervention is implemented may give us more explanatory power as to why certain treatments help certain individuals. With this information, treatment could be streamlined and implemented.
Making pain our only concern to treat severely limit our capacity to help individuals. If we think of treating the stress response itself, we open up a huge realm of issues our interventions may affect.
If you take a look at the book “Spark” and the corresponding research, we see how exercise can alter many different outputs.
Why can’t rehab folks be a piece of this puzzle? It does not seem unreasonable to me that we could get referrals for anxiety, depression, or whatever output the stress response creates.
Strategically implemented exercise can help alter the stress response. That possibility makes me so hopeful for our professions.
How can one best assess a system under threat?
If clinicians are to assess if an individual is undergoing a chronic stress response, we need to find a reproducible methodology that gives us this information. We must look at the human system from the input/output standpoint.
There are several outputs that can be measured to assess an individual’s homeostatic state:
- Blood pressure
- Heart rate
- Respiratory rate
- Blood work
- Other specific medical tests
These are all great tests that can assess the amount of system stress an individual is undertaking. That said, I feel there is an even simpler method of assessing the stress response:
Our physical examination
Assessing the stress response begins with the subjective examination. This piece of the clinician-patient interaction helps us assess potential offending inputs as well as individual processing.
If we come across red or yellow flags, we can easily refer out to providers who can deal with that piece of the stress response. Here is where a psychologist, surgeon, oncologist, other medical professional can come into play. These individuals can alter the offending inputs or help influence processing that therapists and the like may not be able to touch.
Let’s say we get through our subjective and we screen out that the above professionals do not need to be a part of this person’s care. Let us now proceed to our objective examination.
Assessing movement may be the simplest way to assess an individual’s stress status.
If we are to provide the “ideal” physical examination, we need to perform tests and measures that best differentiate a stressed from nonstressed individual.
To undertake this task, we need to have a few assumptions about what a nonstressed individual looks like. Let’s call this individual the “adaptable human.”
- The adaptable human will have desirable multi-system variability. That is, human systems can perform as needed under certain situations without being “stuck” in a particular range. For example, blood pressure should stay lower when at rest and rise when performing physical activity. When blood pressure remains high at rest and with physical activity, that individual possesses system rigidity.
- The adaptable human will have desirable multi-system capacity. That is, human systems can tolerate prolonged stressors without faltering. For example, a human can perform longer durations of physical activity with blood pressure remaining in levels that would not threaten one’s life.
- The adaptable human will have desirable multi-system power. That is, human systems can tolerate intense stressors without faltering. For example, blood pressure can reach a desired level to allow for a particular physical activity to occur.
Our examinations ought to assess these three qualities: variability, capacity, and power.
Of the three, variability is most fundamental because almost every healthy human system functions in the manner. The movement system is no exception to this rule.
Movement variability, the ability to move in three planes, is the simplest reflection of this concept. A nonstressed system will possess movement variability. A stressed system shall become rigid and lose triplanar mobility.
Think to the last time you were stressed. Did your muscles tense or relax? As muscles tone increases, range of motion decreases. Assessing movement variability is an easy way to assess the general tone an individual has, and I speak more of why this notion is favorable here.
To assess variability, our examination must:
- Look at the entire individual’s body
- Cannot have bias toward one output (e.g. pain)
- Must be reproducible and predictable
First, let’s look at popular rehab systems that I feel would not work in this instance and why.
- Maitland: Biased toward altering one output (pain); segmental in nature.
- McKenzie: Biased toward altering one output (pain); segmental in nature.
- SFMA: Not necessarily biased toward one output, but does not look at entirety of human movement. Only two movement planes are assessed. Cannot see if an individual has variability in the frontal plane.
- DNS: Wait? Do they even assess?
I shall let my bias now creep in as I suggest the current best model we have for movement variability is PRI.
There are several reasons why I think PRI is currently the best model to assess threat:
- It is not biased toward altering one output, as movement rigidity can occur along with several other outputs besides pain.
- The entire human movement system is assessed in three planes.
- The protective patterns one undergoes in threat are predictable and similar for all individuals.
- When one deviates from these patterns, likely pathology had to be created in order to do so.
If an individual can produce nonpathological triplanar movement throughout his or her body, then movement variability is present. A movement system under threat will not have this capacity. A threatened movement system will become rigid.
Establishing movement variability is our primary way to reduce threat-response outputs.
If undesirable outputs remain once movement variability is established, then we know other interventions must be given to address these areas.
- If pain is still present, then previously mentioned assessment systems hold value, as does graded exposure.
- If psychosocial outputs are still occurring, we utilize therapeutic neuroscience education or refer to individuals that can address other factors.
- If one has issues coming from another system, we refer to a practitioner that treats that system.
- If one cannot perform a task well, then we build capacity and power.
The point being, once movement variability is restored the rehab clinician’s job for the most part is done.
Movement freedom through triplanar inputs to establish variable motor behavior is the simplest way to let the brain know that an individual is not under threat.
A Call to Arms
So I challenge you, my reader, to respect but look past pain. Look past the output. Let’s instead shift our focus to treating an individual who is under threat and stressed.
If you can attenuate threat with your current skillset, and refer to others who do the same with other skills, a much larger population can be helped.
Let’s continue to push our limits!