May 11, 2021
What do we think about when we consider “the social” as a factor in pain...

What do we think about when we consider “the social” as a factor in pain rehabilitation? Do we think of socioeconomic status? Maybe employment status? Perhaps societal attitudes towards pain and recovery? Do we ask if the person has someone they trust in their life? Maybe we even discuss how a relationship is going, whether the person sees their friends and family?

Have we forgotten that possibly the most potent influences on pain behaviour are the people around the person we’re seeing?

It will be no surprise to anyone reading my work over the past 10 or more years (yes, really! it HAS been that long!) that I love reading older pain theorists, researchers and historic approaches to pain. We can learn so much from the pioneers in this area – people like Waddell, Loeser, Main, and Fordyce. While some of the details of theoretical advances may have been superseded, the ideas they promoted remain as potent as ever.

Fordyce, in particular, attracts my interest. Bill Fordyce was a clinical psychologist who pioneered behavioural approaches to reducing disability for people living with persistent pain. Rather than offering repeated surgeries or medications, Fordyce looked to how what we do (behaviour) is reinforced by people and situations around us. From his work, we learned about activity pacing (decoupling the relationship between activity and pain by adopting a quota-based approach to activity), time contingent medication (using medications according to a time schedule rather than “as needed”), and we learned a great deal about how other people’s responses to an individual’s behaviour could inadvertently increase or reduce the frequency of that behaviour.

Why is this important? Well, aside from the way pain behaviours develop from childhood (crying? Mama will cuddle you. Want something? Cry – and Mama will cuddle you), responses from a person’s partner will likely influence both verbal complaints and physical movements (pain behaviours) such as grimacing, bracing and guarding, and in surprising ways. In fact, in an electronic diary study where people with chronic low back pain and their partners (who had no pain) were asked to record responses five times a day for 14 days, researchers found that when a spouse observed their partner’s pain behaviour at one time, they’d be more likely to be critical or hostile towards that person at a later time. If the spouses believed that the person with pain was “trying to influence their feelings” at the first observation, their responses were more likely to be critical or hostile – and it was the attributions made by partners that mediated between pain behaviours and the subsequent criticism leveled at the person (Burns, Gerhart, Post, Smith, Porter, Buvanendran, et al., 2018).

The so what question is sure to come up for some people. Why do we care? It’s not like we can do anything about this, is it? Well… you know me – writing about this stuff isn’t just for fun! The first thing to know is that if something is influencing a person’s behaviour and especially their disability, rehabilitation professionals should be aware of it. Relationship “stuff” is part and parcel of rehabilitation because it’s part of the person’s context. Secondly, it’s not about judging whether this is good, bad or indifferent – it’s about recognising an influence on the person and considering how we might support that person to respond in a way that enhances their recovery. Finally, we need to recognise how behavioural expressions and responses to them influence us. An earlier study by the same researcher (Burns, Higdon, Mullen, Lansky and Wei, 1999) found that expressions of anger and depression by the person influenced the therapeutic alliance with the health professional and this was perceived both by the person and his or her therapist.

Should we, can we do anything to help?

First, to the “should.” Whether we like it or not, these influences are occurring – so they are having an effect anyway, and both on us and the person we’re working with. We are also constantly influencing our patients because we’re inherently social animals. It’s just that we’re probably oblivious to our influence, and consequently are likely to react rather than respond. While I don’t advocate clinicians who haven’t undertaken specific training in relationship work to begin “therapy”, there are some basic things we can and I think, should, do. We should because we’re already influencing anyway – so let’s do something helpful.

The second is, can we do anything to help? Well, yes – because as I’ve said above, we’re influencing anyway. Everything we say and do will likely influence the person we’re seeing and possibly their partner and family.

The first thing we can do is let the person we’re working with know that what they say and do influences the people around them. This might be a revelation to some! We can let them know that this communication is not deliberate, and neither is the interpretation by the partner. It’s part of being human and social.

The next thing we do is offer some information to the person and their partner. Preferably written or video – something that the person can share with their partner. This information should be about the nature of persistent pain (in particular), and that a person’s pain behaviour is unintentional. In other words, that what a person does is explicitly not intended to make the partner “feel bad for them” (ie garner sympathy – in fact, quite often it’s the opposite of what the person really wants!); that they’re not intentionally wanting to avoid doing something; and finally, that they’re not intending to “give in to the pain too easily”.

Another thing we can share with the person and their partner is that because pain is personal and internal, openly communicating about what’s going on is important. None of us are good at mind-reading! The responsibility for obtaining help has to be with the person living with pain, not the person who is observing. This might mean the person with pain needs to think about what they want their partner to do. Often it’s nothing – no fuss, no molly-coddling (been dying to use that word for a while!). But if the person does want something, it’s really good to be specific and clear: “I can’t lift this, can you give me a hand”. This doesn’t mean taking over, BTW!

Where possible, I think it would be great to ask partners and family to be involved in rehabilitation. I wonder at insurers who don’t allow partners or family/whanau to be involved in rehabilitation. I think it’s detrimental – because increasingly, we know that the social context of daily life is such an important influence on disability. Asking partners to be part of rehabilitation might be a bit easier under “lockdown” conditions in many countries at the moment, but even without these conditions, perhaps recording selected parts of sessions, even having a meeting (virtual or face-to-face) might allow partners to be part of their loved one’s rehabilitation journey.

Burns, J. W., Gerhart, J., Post, K. M., Smith, D. A., Porter, L. S., Buvanendran, A., . . . Keefe, F. J. (2018). Spouse Criticism/Hostility Toward Partners With Chronic Pain: The Role of Spouse Attributions for Patient Control Over Pain Behaviors. J Pain, 19(11), 1308-1317. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2018.05.007

Burns, J. W., Higdon, L. J., Mullen, J. T., Lansky, D., & Wei, J. M. (1999). Relationships among patient hostility, anger expression, depression, and the working alliance in a work hardening program. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 21(1), 77-82.