10 tips for the practical application of pain science

Knowledge about pain science is rapidly growing with articles and blogs aimed at everybody from personal trainers to doctors and surgeons springing up on the topic. It could be argued that anyone who deals with the body should have a basic understanding of how pain works.

We have criticism that we still have not gone far enough in this field and others seeing the pendulum as having swung far to far already!

Whilst it is important to digest this barrage of information, we also need to think about the real world application of the academia to the end user, e.g. the person you are trying to help understand all this information, and often this is the bit people find hard.

1. Pain science can help us to understand what NOT to say, but not what TO say.


At the very LEAST a better understanding of pain science should influence us to know that what we say can have a profound affect on the way someone perceives themselves and their current state. Unfortunately words that hinder rather than help can often easily trip off the tongue as they have been used so many times before!

Just staying away from certain words may help to not create detrimental nocibo effects.

• Rip
• Tear
• Instability
• Damage
• Degeneration
• Chronic
• Out of place

These words have the potential to alter people’s perceptions of their capabilities, beliefs and expectations for recovery. ‘Thought viruses’ is a catchy term regarding negative beliefs and how they can be generated and passed between people.

What should we say? Well that is an infinitely harder question to answer and will vary between individuals, there are certainly are no recipes here.

Hence why learning what NOT to say is often a great start!

2. Learn more about the subject!


A criticism of our current educational processes is that they do not teach much about the mechanisms behind the experience of pain at undergraduate level or in many courses that deal with injury.

While it is a start to watch a few videos or read a few blogs, using the concepts of modern pain science should be underpinned by a good working knowledge of how pain works. A few buzz words or analogies probably aren’t quite enough to get it across to the target audience, especially when they have a habit of asking tricky questions.

Here are some questions it may just be worth knowing the answer to or how to explain:

What is pain?
How does nociception work?
What is central sensitisation?
What is peripheral sensitisation?
What are the supra spinal mechanisms involved in the pain experience?
What are descending inhibition & facilitation?
Why do stress, context & emotion have an effect on the pain experience?

3. Explanation of a complex subject like pain takes practice.


Everything is hard before it is easy - motivational slogan on a clipboard with a cup of coffee

People can feel under pressure to be able to ‘explain pain’ like an expert. Firstly you need the basic science then you need to learn how to articulate it and this does not happen over night.

As Einstein says, “If you can’t explain it simply you don’t know it well enough”.

Complexity and confusion during an explanation may lead to confusion and uncertainty in someone’s understanding and actually increase rather than dampen down someone’s pain experience.

Perhaps it is something than should be practiced away from a ‘live’ environment to build your own confidence and communication skills? Fuck it up a few times, learn from this and be ready to roll it out when you need it.

All the best presenters practice after all!

4. You may need more than one analogy.


Analogies have been promoted as a great way to get across complex subjects such as pain. As we use analogy so much in everyday life this makes a lot of sense but it is good to keep in mind always that these things depend on the person receiving the analogies previous experiences, cultural factors and education level.

SO if it aint working then switch it up.

5. Challenge concepts and not people.


A great way to ruin rapport, which can be vital to the success of what you are trying to achieve, is to tell people they are wrong or make them feel stupid. Beliefs can be like superglue and adding confrontation into the mix can make things go downhill quickly. If it is not working STOP, maybe you can come back to it later or drip feed in over time.

6. Always find out how someone has perceived what you have told them.


This is vital, it maybe the information you have presented is perceived in precisely the way that you did not mean it to be! Prof Kieran O’Sullivan promotes a most sensible course of action by asking “What would you tell your friends and family about what I have told you”.

This means any miscommunications can be (hopefully) remedied before they turn into ‘thought viruses’ such as “they told me the pain was all in my head”.

7. There are no recipes or protocols - It is about the individual.


What works for one person may not work for another. Perhaps a plus for pain science is it points towards being person centered rather than having a specific protocol across humans such as more protocol based approaches do.

Strategies that have been promoted from the fields of psychology involve techniques such as exposure therapy and expectancy violation. We have to be careful that the patient/client identifies the specific fears and beliefs to be addressed, and hopefully inhibited, and this is not seen as a general concept.

8. Changing beliefs is not an instantaneous process, an exact science or even always possible.


As discussed in point 5, beliefs can be sticky and contagious between friends, family and work colleagues (even more so with Dr Google!). Rarely do people walk out from chatting with their therapist or trainer and suddenly change their outlook and opinion on themselves or beliefs they hold.

It could be a slow and laborious process (likely!) or in fact never happen at all!

9. People often have their OWN epiphanies away from you.


Reconceptualising can happen in mysterious ways with mysterious triggers, a bit like an apple falling on your head! You may have to wait for someone to come to their own realisations about the information you are giving them rather than expecting an epiphany in front of your eyes.

10. You can’t talk tolerance into a tissue.


One of the major parts of the BPS model is the B for biological. Just because you can help someone understand they are not fragile does not mean they suddenly develop an enhanced capacity for moving. The less you move the less likely you are to be robust at moving, that’s the SAID principle in action.

Someone once said “you can’t talk tolerance into a tissue” a very true statement. But you may have to talk to someone first to get them to do that work and get the tolerance!

11. BPS model is still in the minority away from social media.


For the eagle eyed yes it did say 10 and this is number 11!

It may feel like social media is awash with pain science from every angle to the delight of some and not to others! Go out into the wider world of the internet and shock, horror the actual real world and it feels like the information being delivered in the medical and training world regarding pain is still pretty traditional with structural and biomechanical factors being promoted.

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