Do you know that you can experience a HUGE amount of pain, yet have no damage or injury in your body?
Have you ever heard of phantom limb pain? It’s when someone experiences pain, yet they don’t even have the body part? Think of someone who’s maybe had their arm amputated but still feels pain there. How can that be?
Or maybe you’re someone who has been diagnosed with fibromyalgia. No obvious damage or injury can be found yet absolutely, you feel pain.
Do you know the reverse is also true? You can have NO pain and yet have ‘damage or injury’ in your body?
Have you ever found a bruise on your body yet had no idea how it got there? Or maybe you broke a bone playing one of your favorite sports but didn’t really feel pain, until you got to the hospital? There was obviously tissue damage, yet no pain. At least at first, perhaps.
Maybe you’re someone who has disk degeneration, yet no pain. According to this study (brinjikji et al 2014) if you’re 60 years old, 88% of people whose back has been imaged will show disk degeneration, yet experience NO pain. If you’re up to 70 years of age, it’s up to 95% who have what looks like damage or injury and yet has NO pain.
When you have a headache, think of a really, really painful headache, … do you think you have something broken or damaged in your head? Likely not.
So why do we think that way about other parts of our body?
Pain is weird, for sure. And complex. And our understanding of it does not always match with what’s going on. Often, we are confused by it, don’t know what to do about it and just live with it.
Don’t get me wrong. You NEED pain. Otherwise you would likely not survive. You need a mechanism to tell you something is up and you need to attend to it.
It’s the persistent chronic pain that seems to be the trouble. In Canada and most places around the world, 1 in 5 people live with it. If it were an easy fix, we would have done so by now. Two areas that the evidence tells us seem to be most helpful are: understanding pain and movement. We’ll cover both.
Well, there is more to it but if you’re curious to know how you might change, how you can influence your own experience of pain, I’d love you to join a new 6-week online program starting July 22, 2020.
Advantages of this being online?
anyone can take it in the privacy of their own home,
at their own pace
all the content is yours to keep forever, and
I’ve made it affordable and accessible so anyone can enroll. $25 week, for 6 weeks (both a payment plan and options are available).
If you or someone you know might benefit, click the link below for all the details.
The second question people often ask me about Pain Care Yoga classes, after “who is it that comes to these classes” described here, is “what do you do in them”?
Pain is never just about one thing. You want to know what’s wrong. How you’re going to fix it. And how long it’s going to take. And rightly so, as having long-term pain often changes everything for you and how you live your life.
When it comes to pain, however, it is usually not that simple which is why searching for ‘the thing‘ usually doesn’t work in the long-term. Particularly if you’ve had pain for a long time. Which doesn’t mean to say that it can’t change. It can. We know what can help to bring about change, the best practices research points to.
Two key aspects, education … and movement, are important. So that’s what we do in these classes.
Some kind of education piece, usually at the start of the class, is provided. I only spend a few minutes on this, but it’s important to do so. One of the most common things I see with people in pain is the fear of moving. If I can help you to understand why it might be safe to move and why it’s important to do so, that’s a good place to begin.
“Current evidence supports the use of pain neuroscience education (PNE) for chronic musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders in reducing pain and improving patient knowledge of pain, improving function and lowering disability, reducing psychosocial factors, enhancing movement, and minimizing healthcare utilization.” 
Then, you practice. You get to experience how you might move, with guidance and guidelines, to learn what’s right for you. Which often won’t be the same as others in the room.
This is not a typical yoga class with sun salutations, downward dogs, lunges, forward folds, backbends. It is not even what I would call a ‘gentle yoga class’. Yes, we use slow, gentle movements. Yet, sometimes you might begin by just imagining the movement if you don’t yet feel safe to do it. Or you might practice it in your mind, plan out how you might go about it and if it feels right for you. It is always your choice to do or not do anything presented in class. You always get to decide how to move, how far to move, by using a slow, mindful exploration along with guidelines and principles utilized.
Most movements are fairly simple and modifications are always available. You’ll experience a lot of repetition, and rhythmic movements. Movements that cross the midline of the body. Movements that challenge your brain as well as challenging your body. You, anyone, can really begin wherever you’re at. With what’s right for you.
There will always be some kind of breathwork or a breath awareness piece in the practice. Again, it’s not so much about controlling the breath, rather what you might notice about your breath. How breath can be an indicator of your physical and emotional state at any given time. Also, learning how breath can help to bring about change to your nervous system, physiology, which can then change your experience of pain.
Like breath, awareness is key. So often when you are in pain the last thing you want to do is pay more attention to your body. But in fact, this paying attention is your guide to changing pain. It is in this noticing that you can begin to explore what the signals (or sensations) you feel might be indicating, what might be your unique contributors to pain, what might be the reasons for flare-ups. This practice is not only about noticing your body in class but then also paying attention to your whole self in your environment, in the larger world you live in.
There are many reasons, purposes and benefits to practice relaxation techniques. In most yoga classes this is done at the end of class. Though we’ll also do some kind of formal relaxation practice at the end, relaxation or creating a state of calm is facilitated right from the start.
It is when you are in a place of safety, when you are calm and relaxed, that change is likely to occur. It is this place of calm (a parasympathetic state) when you might first experience a change in your pain. Without this, it’s no different than trying to stretch, exercise, push through and strengthen your pain away, which seems not to work out so well.
If you’re interested in learning more, have any questions or would like to sign up for the next series of classes starting at the end of February, please get in touch here. I’d love for you to experience, how you might learn to change your pain. Or, if you prefer a one-to-one session, information can be found here.
 Adriaan Louw, Kory Zimney, Emilio J. Puentedura & Ina Diener(2016)The efficacy of pain neuroscience education on musculoskeletal pain: A systematic review of the literature,Physiotherapy Theory and Practice,32:5,332-355,DOI: 10.1080/09593985.2016.1194646
 Louw, Adriaan & Zimney, Kory & Puentedura, Emilio & Diener, Ina. (2016). The efficacy of pain neuroscience education on musculoskeletal pain: A systematic review of the literature. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice. 32. 1-24. 10.1080/09593985.2016.1194646.
My hope is perhaps you’ll come to see for yourself there are promising directions for those disabled and suffering from low back pain.
Most of the widely promoted interventions to prevent low back pain do NOT have a firm evidence base.
A surprising statement, isn’t it? These include what you have likely been told over and over again to do, yet evidence of their success is not there. Strategies about workplace education, no-lift policies, ergonomic furniture, mattresses, back belts, lifting devices. How often have you heard about most or many of these in terms of how we might prevent low back pain?
What then, seems to work?
First, is the recommended use of a biopsychosocial model.
I suggest most of the general public has never heard of this term or model of care. I surely didn’t just a couple years ago when I was first started to dig into the overarching problem of chronic or persistent pain that affects so many people.
What is this? Well, as often defined it encompasses “a dynamic interaction among and within the biological, psychological, and social factors unique to each individual.” My emphasis on the ‘unique to each individual’, as that’s turning out to be an important piece of the complexity of pain.
Second, greater emphasis is needed on
Physical and psychological therapies
Some forms of complementary medicine,
Along with less emphasis on
Pharmacological and surgical treatments.
What’s actually being utilized in our clinics?
Surprisingly, the treatments with less emphasis and effectiveness = pharmacological and surgical treatments.
Countries such as Denmark, the USA, and the UK do have guidelines around this. They are supposed to utilize exercise and a range of other nonpharmacological therapies such as massage, acupuncture, spinal manipulation, Tai Chi, and yoga.
Clinicians are meant to provide people with
Advice and education about the nature of their pain;
Reassurance that they do NOT have a serious disease and their symptoms will improve over time;
Encouragement to stay active and continue with usual activities.
I understand even the notion of engaging in movement and exercise is difficult for people who are experiencing pain. How do you keep active when you are in pain? How much does advice, education, reassurance really help? People typically go to their health care providers and want something to ‘fix’ the problem. Not more advice. However, evidence shows this does help. And, evidence shows that the pharmaceuticals and surgeries we’ve come to rely on, don’t. In the long-term, particularly. If they worked, we wouldn’t find ourselves in this predicament. Understanding that you have a part to play, in getting better, is critical.
Movement or Exercise Therapy
Going back to the problem of trying to move, when you’re in pain. Something that people may or may not be familiar with is the term graded exposure. Basically, it means you start where you can, and gradually, over time, work to increase your overall capacity.
I tell my clients it will help to do even the smallest of movements. Use your imagination and even just visualize movement if you must, but you CAN start somewhere. Move your feet, or hands, or arms an inch, if that’s what you can do today. Just begin.
It has been shown to be useful if you can tie in your exercise or movement with something you want or need to do, rather than just some kind of exercise that is not motivational for you.
It’s not really so much WHAT you do, but that you DO something.
“Since evidence showing that one form of exercise is better than another is NOT available, guidelines recommend programmes that take individual needs, references, and capabilities into account in deciding about the type of exercise.
I use tools that yoga offers and work to help keep clients joints moving in all the many ranges of motion they might need in their life. This does not mean they need to have a life-long love or commitment to yoga.
Yet, yoga does offer an important first step of building awareness and subsequently using gentle movement, breath awareness, and tools to ‘ease into a movement’ that may have be feared in the past. People can learn to calm their nervous system, work in a safe pain-free range of motion (or not increase pain). From there we work to build stability strength and power in whatever it is they want to do … be that swimming, walking, biking, skiing, playing with kids, sitting at a desk all day. Whatever it is they want to do in their life.
It should be noted that some guidelines DO NOT recommend passive therapies, such as manipulation or mobilization (think chiropractor, massage, acupuncture). Some guidelines consider these short-term options, optional. The same goes for other passive treatments received in a physical therapists office like ultrasound, nerve stimulation, etc.
Though these passive types of therapy may help to temporarily feel better, they often have many returning again and again, becoming dependent on them for relief. Much of the current research shows the need to get a person ‘involved’ in the treatment. Get their brain and nervous system participating in movements or other practices, so passively ‘being worked on’ might not be a long-term solution.
Guidelines also recommend Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), progressive relaxation and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
This again is where yoga can play a part in terms of relaxation. I’ll often incorporate strategies from MBSR when working with clients.
Guidelines now recommend pharmacological treatment ONLY following an inadequate response to (the above mentioned) first line non-pharmacological interventions.
Paracetamol was once the recommended first-line medicine for low back pain; however evidence of absence of effectiveness in acute low back pain and potential for harm has led to recommendations against its use.
Health professionals are guided to consider oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), taking into account risks … and if using, to prescribe the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time.
Routine use of opioids is NOT recommended, since benefits are small and substantial risks exists…
The role of gabaergic drugs, such as pregabaline, is now being reconsidered after a 2017 trial showed it to be ineffective for radicular pain … guidelines generally suggest consideration of muscle relaxants for short-term use, although further research is recommended.
The role of interventional therapies and surgery is LIMITED and recommendations in clinical guidelines vary.
Recent guidelines DO NOT recommend spinal epidural injections or facet joint injections for low back pain… they DO NOT seem to provide long-term benefits or reduce the long-term risk of surgery and have been associated with serious adverse events.
Benefits of spinal fusion surgery … are similar to those of intensive multidisciplinary rehabilitation and only modestly greater than non-surgical management.
UK guidelines recommend that patients are not offered disc replacement or spinal fusion surgery for low back pain.
For spinal stenosis … patients tend to improve with or without surgery and therefore non-surgical management is an appropriate option for patients who wish to defer or avoid surgery.
So why the GAP between evidence and practice?
Stay tuned and we’ll look to see how this is played out and why it’s imperative that we change it.
Why should all of this matter to you? Why do you need to pay attention?
The median 1-year period prevalence globally in the adult population is around 37%, so chances are you or someone you know is affected.
And, what’s even more important, is
the way we have been treating people isn’t working.
“Low back pain (LBP) is now the number one cause of disability globally.”
There are a LOT of people who experience chronic or persistent low back pain. On a purely personal note, I would say it is the most prevalent ‘problem’ people tell me about when they turn up at my yoga classes.
“Rarely can a specific cause of low back pain be identified; thus, most low back pain is termed non-specific. Low back pain is characterized by a range of biophysical, psychological, and social dimensions that impair function, societal participation, and personal financial prosperity.”
In other words, it’s complex.
Of course, there is always a need to rule out those cases where there is specific causes.
“but, this is for less than 1% of those presenting with LBP. Known causes may include vertebral fracture, axial spondyloarthritis, malignancy, infection, or cauda equine syndrome (very rare).”
So if any of these are suspected by presenting symptoms, a clinician is well advised to do testing, imaging, etc. for what are often referred to as ‘red flags’.
If these are ruled out or if you’re not suspect for these specific causes, what then?
“Most adults will have low back pain at some point. It peaks in mid-life and is more common in women, than in men.”
“Low back pain that is accompanied by activity limitation increases with age.”
“Most episodes of low back pain are short-lasting with little or no consequence…”
“But recurrent episodes are common and low back pain is increasingly understood as a long-lasting condition with a variable course rather than episodes of unrelated occurrences.”
It’s highest in working age groups so the effect to the workforce is impacted. People unable to work, earn income, the possibility of early retirement. “In the USA, LBP accounts for more lost workdays than any other occupational musculoskeletal condition”.
Then there’s a person’s identity. Consequences such as loss of independence, ability to fulfill expected social roles can be impacted. Common themes of worry and fear are identified, along with hopelessness, the strain on families, social withdrawal, job loss, and there’s the navigating through continual healthcare encounters.
Most studies underestimate the total costs of LBP, but the economic impact is comparable to other high-cost conditions like cardiovascular disease, cancer, mental health and autoimmune diseases.
Most cases are resolved within 6 weeks, however, there are risk factors for recurring episodes. For people with other chronic conditions like asthma, headaches, diabetes. Those with poor mental health are at increased risk, etc. As one example, a study of Canada’s population with 9909 participants, found that “pain-free individuals with depression were more likely to develop LBP within 2 years than were those people without depression”.
Lifestyle factors are also at play. Smoking, obesity and low levels of physical activity are associated, although independent associations remain uncertain.
Which brings us back to it being complex. There are multiple contributors, “including psychological factors, social, biophysical, comorbidities and pain processing mechanisms.”
We can see the complexity when there is a continual increase of those affected, an increase in our health care expenditures and by the recent opioid crisis that is literally taking people’s lives.
It also seems whatever we’ve been doing in terms of treatment doesn’t seem to be working.
Why is that and what needs to be changed?
Tune in next week… where we’ll get to the second paper, “Prevention and treatment of low back pain: evidence, challenges, and promising directions.”
Note: For those interested, all references/studies can be found in the Lancet paper, here.
The bad news is you may have or know someone that is experiencing chronic or persistent back pain. The good news is, there is a way forward.
Yesterday, three important papers about back pain published in the Lancet (one of the world’s oldest and best known general medical journals) were referenced in the The Guardian, The Telegraph, the BBC News and the Daily Mail . So current evidence-based information, at last, making its way to the public domain.
In briefly reviewing the papers (published March 21, 2018), the key points for me are these:
“Low back pain is now the leading cause of disability worldwide.
“Prevention of the onset and persistence of disability associated with low back pain requires recognition that the disability is inseparable from the social and economic context of people’s lives and is entwined with personal and cultural beliefs about back pain.”
“Most low back pain is unrelated to specific identifiable spinal abnormalities,”
“Globally, gaps between evidence and practice exist, with limited use of recommended first-line treatments and inappropriately high use of imaging, rest, opioids, spinal injections, and surgery. Doing more of the same will not reduce back-related disability or its long-term consequences.”
“Recommendations include use of a biopsychosocial framework to guide management with initial nonpharmacological treatment, including education that supports self-management and resumption of normal activities and exercise,…”
Thank goodness this is getting the attention it deserves so it can help people who need it most. And that’s a LOT OF PEOPLE.
Why now, finally? I think it’s gaining traction due to spiraling health care costs along with the opioid crisis that is so prevalent.
Over the next while I’m going to break down and comment upon some of the points and principles presented in the papers, as many form the basis of my work. In the meantime, if you care to read the papers yourself they can be found here.
Lorimer Moseley, one of the world’s top researchers on pain continues to make the related point that people need an understanding of what pain is and what it isn’t, as he does with a touch of humor in his TEDx Talk in 2011. Professor Moseley is most known, however, for publishing 260+ papers on pain science and his continued work as Professor of Clinical Neurosciences and Chair of Physiotherapy at the University of South Australia.And one of many leading the charge globally in what he calls a Pain Revolution.
A huge paradigm shift is required as understandably, information about what works to treat back pain and what doesn’t is confusing. It seems counter-intuitive to ask people who are in pain to ‘just move more”. As the latest interviews I’ve listened in to with Lorimer, he states that with what we’ve learned ‘recovery is, back on the table’. There is hope. As I mentioned earlier, there is a way forward.
I talk about this all the time with family and friends … who often have a hard time believing what I describe as it is a change from what we have believed for most of our lifetime.
But, if we really truly want to get people out of this pain cycle (and I will say most any pain cycle) we need to help with the understanding of what the evidence shows and how to best work with it. This will also require huge shifts in our public policy, etc. as stated in the Lancet papers.
“These potential solutions include focused strategies to implement best practice, the redesign of clinical pathways, integrated health and occupational interventions to reduce work disability, changes in compensation and disability claims policies, and public health and prevention strategies.”
So come along for the ride if you or anyone you know is experiencing chronic or persistent low back pain (or any pain, really). With 1 in 5 experiencing chronic pain of some kind, unfortunately, you won’t have to look too far.
People often sit at their desk, laptop, TV, or plugged into a smartphone with their earphones in. Listening to music, podcasts, videos on YouTube, working, or whatever.
As an experiment, the next time you put your earphones on, don’t ‘listen’ to anything except your breath.
It may not be as noticeable if you’re on the bus, driving, in an airport or a similar noisy environment. But, still, I think you’ll find it to be … telling.
How are you breathing?
Are you breathing fluidly?
Is there equanimity on the inhale and exhale. Or is one shorter or longer than the other?
A pause in between may be good. But do you find that you’ve actually stopped breathing? As in not breathing altogether of course, but that your breathing is not fluid. Easy. Continuous. That there is a long pause, perhaps, between the two. That you fail to begin the inhale, until long after the exhale.
Why might that be?
How do your neck muscles feel, while you’re noticing ‘this’ breath?
How does your torso or trunk feel?
How does your abdomen/belly feel?
Do you notice or feel anything at all?
Do you sense anything?
What might this noticing, this awareness tell you?
In the meantime, try this.
Inhale, and exhale, along with the shape below. Expansion, contraction.
I’m curious to hearof your experience.
I can say for sure, I noticed a few things about my own breathing patterns.
When there is quiet, what do I hear?
(Though we’re in the midst of a cold winter, I find I can ‘listen’ more clearly to my breath when swimming or floating in water, similar to listening with earphones in as above. Or if I submerge myself in bathwater. So choose what’s best for you, whatever might be your season.)
The bumper sticker on our last Yoga Tool was to recognize that just as we take a drink when we are thirsty, eat when we are hungry, we need rest when we are weary. All of which requires first, awareness of a particular sensation in our body.
There are signs and signals speaking to us all the time, but are we really listening?
Are you like me in that you eat regularly on a schedule or do you listen to the signal telling you when you’re hungry? Do you sleep only at certain times of the day or are you paying attention to the signs that you need to rest? These are two indicators built into the survival mechanism of our body. Similarly, if you enter a room with a smell so strong it seems toxic you know to immediately step out again. If you are suddenly ill bringing up something you ate, again a signal. Your brain’s number one job is to keep you safe and protected.
Below is a quick and easy Tool to begin learning to sense information your body or your brain, is providing. I often use it in the beginning of a yoga class, to bring some awareness to what we’re about to do.
Lie with your back on the floor. Bend your knees and place your feet hips-width apart. Let your knees gently fall towards each other, resting easy and comfortable.
To sense what you feel in terms of your body’s contact with the floor. What parts of your body are in contact with the floor? Is the surface of the floor hard, soft? Are you comfortable? Do you feel the support of the ground below? Lean in. Feel grounded. Feel supported.
To feel your breath moving through your body. Where do you first notice your breath? In your chest, your lungs? Your nostrils? In your belly perhaps? Does the air feel smooth flowing in, and out? Does it feel forced, soft, cool, warm? Can you sense movement, in tune with your breath, elsewhere in your body?
To notice the tone of your muscles. Are your muscles at rest, tense, or sore? Where in particular do you notice any tension? Where might you find softness? Can you soften the areas around your eyes? Let your jaw, feel relaxed. Your tongue loose and soft in your mouth. Can you contract a muscle somewhere and then for contrast, let it go?
To pay attention to your heartbeat. Can you sense it? Can you feel it? Where do you feel it?
Going even deeper, can you feel or sense the blood flowing through your body?
If you can’t feel a particular sensation, just notice that. Without judgement. Just let it be.
Body / Breath / Musculature / Heartbeat / Bloodflow
*Note: If you’re typically a doer, go-getter, Type-A, cannot sit still type of person, consider doing this AFTER a workout, brisk walk, end of your day, when you’re more likely to be at ease with the sense of quiet and stillness this exercise asks of you.
I’ve also learned it seems we may have been ‘wrong about stretching‘ insofar as we’re not really stretching or lengthening muscles. At least not as much as we once believed. Rather, we’re changing our response to a stimulus via the nervous system.
Our brain is naturally going to respond in a protective manner to anything it perceives as dangerous. If we are trying to re-train flexibility or just movement in the body and do so with strong, forceful pressure or stimulus … the brain/body will react by saying … stop! No! Don’t go there. It will send a (pain) signal to safeguard our movement.
However, if we move in small incremental ways within a safe and pain-free range of motion, the nervous system will react by saying … this feels okay. Safe. I’m happy to explore this.
This is a somewhat simplified way to explain all that’s going on, but it’s a starting point we can work from. We can even begin by just imagining movement and still create changes in the brain and our nervous system. So we can, really, start anywhere.
By learning to pay attention, moving in a way that allows your nervous system to adapt and create new patterns while it feels safe, you will make progress.