Articles Of The Week September 15, 2019


This is an important topic, so important it’s a two-part series and both made our articles this week. Part one helps us understand managing someone dealing with this, boundaries, informed consent, our role, and proper communication. Give these a read!

“Working With Clients Who Have Experienced Assault Part 1” – Robert Libbey

In part 2, Robert helps us understand what to avoid, and what things could possibly be a trigger for a patient who has experienced assault. He also shows us why we should embrace the opportunity to help this population of people.

“Working With Clients Who Have Experienced Assault Part 2” – Robert Libbey

I think we have all had a patient come to us who was told by another practitioner they had to come in for weekly, biweekly, or some other range of appointments in order for the said practitioner to “heal” them. While this may work on some patients (and boost said practitioners ego and pocketbook), it turns out humility is probably a better way for us to get patients.

“Healer Syndrome” – Paul Ingraham

Most of us work and contractors in a clinic, some of us are clinic owners. However, the government has started cracking down on the way things are structured in some clinics which put both the owner and contractor at risk. This helps us understand the differences and what we need to consider for a clinic setup.

“Independent Contractor Or Employee? Common Mistakes In Massage Therapy Invite Government Scrutiny And Penalties” – Erin Jackson

I love this as it’s an analogy I use to explain to patients that pain doesn’t necessarily equate to tissue damage.

“I Slept On It Wrong” – Dean Disanjh

Articles Of The Week September 8, 2019

So many patients have heard things like “your pain is all in your head” because a doctor didn’t understand a tricky condition the person was dealing with. While “it’s all in your head” is a terrible way to communicate with a patient, there is a direct correlation between trauma and chronic diseases, so mental health certainly has an impact on our physial health.

“Can Trauma Cause Chronic Illness?” – Renee Fabian

As seen in the above article, mental health is extremely important to our well being. However, one population where this is often overlooked or forgotten about is professional athletes. But thankfully this is starting to change and the stigma around it is changing to an attitude of strenth, not weakness.

“Why It Matters That More Athletes Are Talking About Their Mental Health” – John Affleck

Unfortunately our profession is often linked to prostitution, in spite of the great work so many of you are doing. Because of this, it is really important for us to protect ourselves and each other. This is why sharing this article is important, as a protection for each other. No matter how you decide to have your business, make sure YOU are in charge of it and protect yourself accordingly.

“They’re Putting People At Risk: Sexual Misconduct, Harassment, And Inaction At Zeel, The Top Massage App” – Brian Merchant

I remember teachers in college telling me how I may get a patient one day who comes in strictly to experience human touch. Well, now more than ever this may be a prime reason people come to see you, and this puts us into a pretty important position.

“We’re Living In An Age Where People Have Forgotten The Importance Of Physical Touch” – Eva Jackson

I’ve always been a big fan of this lady and she’s back to blogging again. If you haven’t looked at her stuff, check out her blog all about patients living with pain. In this post she gives lots of links to different sites which can help you understand the patients perspective. I hope she gets back to blogging frequently again…thanks Jo.

“Reconnecting, The First MyCuppaJo Email In A While” – Joletta Belton

4 Instant Ways To Help Increase Shoulder Movement

It’s the most mobile, yes least stable joint in the body.

This makes for a joint that can sometimes be a bit confusing to treat, especially with the various diagnosis names and syndromes that are thrown around.

With names like frozen shoulder, rotator cuff tears, impingement syndrome, and various other scary-sounding titles, we quite often just need to help get the shoulder moving again.

Here are four of my favourite graded exposure/altered movements I use to help patients get their shoulder moving again.

This first one is a great way to help when a patient is having difficulty with shoulder flexion.

This one is a great way to help with shoulder extension.

Here’s one to use on your table to assist with abduction.

And finally, if you have a broomstick, a piece of dowel, or something similar in your clinic, here’s another way to help with shoulder abduction.


  • The biggest thing we want to do is instill confidence in our patients by showing how these movements are safe. 
  • Showing patients that a little discomfort is okay, and it’s not the same as pain.
  • Make the movements meaningful to patients so they will do them at home.
  • Do the movements before and after your treatment demonstrating to the patient how much improvement THEY have made.
  • Make it fun.

Resilience – What It Is And Why Is It A Big Deal For Recovery?


Resilience is a term used more and more by therapists, some might suggest it is a buzz word, so I wanted to put down my thoughts about this complex subject. I have wanted to write this blog for a while and the struggle I have had here is to keep it bloggy, not too academic and above all not too long! I have tried to strike a balance between research and also some personal experiences of resilience I have collected.

Before we get into it, there are 3 main points I would like to make in this blog.

Firstly, resilience is NOT about manning (or womaning) up, it is NOT SIMPLY about just keeping going. It’s a flexible, adaptable state that recognizes the importance of specific actions, mental or physical, that have a positive impact on life.

Secondly, resilience is not a binary state between resilience and not resilient. It is a continuum that we move along dependent on a balance of internal and external factors.

Thirdly that resilience looks and feels different between people. What you may regard as resilience MAY NOT be the same as the person you are working with.

What Is Resilience?

Resilience is defined by Sturgeon *HERE* as,

“Maintenance of positive physical and emotional functioning in spite of significant difficulty or challenge”

So resilience is both a physical and a psychological thing. It is important that we don’t separate the two, however (much like pain!). Although physical things often signify resilience, they require a strong psychological component to achieve and also give a lot of psychological benefits.

This is also a good read *HERE*

Karoly *HERE* defines resilience as (2006) as

“Effective functioning despite the exposure to stressful circumstances and internal distress”

Both definitions use the word FUNCTIONING and ‘in spite’ or ‘despite’ of pain.

This makes resilience a REALLY individual thing that looks quite different between different folk. We should not make the mistake of assuming what signifies resilience to us is the same as someone else’s.

Pain is definitely a stressful circumstance for many, and it really becomes a problem when it interrupts our functioning. Focusing on the stressor, pain, however, could be part of this problem. Essentially resilience should be seen as a problem of function rather than pain. This is an important distinction, as identification and engagement of functions must form the key focus (IMO) rather than the focus that many can have (patient & therapist), pain itself.

Sturgeon writes;

”Attempts to control a chronic stressor like chronic pain are often counterproductive and can magnify the negative effects of the stressor”


Goubert & Trompetter *HERE* introduce the concept of sustainability; this is defined as:

“ability of a person to move towards long-term positive outcomes in life in the presence of adversity”

Here is a nice graphic outlining sustainability vs recovery from their paper.

Screen Shot 2018 10 26 At 07.32.40

Sustainability targets the PERSON in pain rather than the pain itself. Perhaps sometimes the focus can be on the pain going away before function is resumed, but we could view this the other way around with functioning through resilience being the first step.

The concept of sustainability is important, as it looks more at positive traits rather than risk factors. This is a bit like Antonovsky’s Salutogenic approach *HERE* that focuses on health rather than disease.

So to sum up resilience, it is about PEOPLE and FUNCTION more than pain and withstanding pain (IMO). Working through ANY pain or injury will require some element of resilience. Acute back pain, one of the most prevalent painful issues, probably exemplifies the need for resilience, with the first-line treatment for back pain being the advice to remain active and engage in your normal activities *HERE*.

Perhaps initial resilience may mediate the transition to more persistent pain states?

Adaptability & Flexibility

Resilience should not be seen as a brick wall. A resilient person is not simply a cold piece of rock impervious to any stressor. It is not about toughness, it is instead a flexible and adaptive state.

It could be quite the opposite, in that resilient people might be willing to seek out help instead of the strong silent type who may not be as resilient as they appear externally, unable to appear weak or vulnerable by asking for help. Resilience may be the ability to open the pressure valve and allow the excess to release and lower the stress by identifying things that allow them to do this or provide a balance with stressful situations.

Pain Relief Vs Resilience

Therapy has long been driven by pain relief, and whilst there is no doubt this is a reason why people seek care, they also seek care because pain is disrupting their lives and functioning, perhaps even more so for this reason.

This paper by Ferrara found that disability was a greater reason for care-seeking than pain intensity *HERE*

So perhaps to understand resilience we have to understand to understand our patients functioning and what THEY view as key markers to signify resilience. Traditionally VAS scales and physical measures such as strength have been used to measure clinical success. But do these measures capture valued activities and what resilience might mean for the person? Perhaps not. This paper looks at this subject of what is measured clinically vs peoples ACTUAL goals *HERE*.

So in order to help people BE resilient a good place to start is to find out more about how THEY view resilience, what defines their effective functioning and how we might bridge the gap between their current and desired states.

Resilience Is Personal

Valued activities may provide balance during stressful situations. Especially people that suffer from persistent pain can lose sight of things they used to do and the things that might define resilience. These are the people that may need a guide or a coach to find some meaning or goal again.

The sustained engagement in cherished activities, or stuff that MEANS stuff, seems to be a huge marker of resilience. To get a better idea of some of the meaningful activities, I asked some of the folk on social media (not in-depth research I know) to let me know some of the things they found important during painful times.

Exercise seems to be a really important sign of resilience for people and it was amazing to hear so many success stories against some pretty adverse situations. On a side note, communicating patient success stories to other patients, delivered at the right time and in the right way, can be a very powerful tool in my experience.

  • Weightlifting
  • Capoeira
  • Yoga
  • Pilates
  • Boxing
  • Bike riding
  • Crossfit
  • Running
  • Walking
  • Bouldering
  • Various sports
  • Gymnastics
  • Dancing
  • Making things
  • Hiking

Work also featured heavily. Just day to day functioning seemed important. Much like exercise, our working lives are pretty varied from being a therapist to nursing to simply driving. The concept of family also featured heavily with helping and providing for them forming an important part of resilience for many.

Resilience seems to be a rich tapestry of different things. The clinical implication of this is being able to effectively listen and ask a few questions that allow us to find out more about what activities may signify resilience and then be able to guide someone towards them and also provide planning and support for engagement.

Here are some example questions I use:

“What would your perfect day without pain look like?”

“What have you stopped doing because of the pain?”

“Are there things you feel are important that you avoid because of the pain?”

I also picked out some quotes. I have not used any names : )

“For many years, my default position was to isolate myself, try to power through, and go out of my way not to seek out resources or strategies. I thought that was the way I was supposed to do it; “man up” and push through. For me, I think I discovered (still am) resilience when I learned about acceptance. Getting to acceptance, and I think I still struggle with that a bit to this day, was a difficult time as I had to admit that I could not do this on my own. I hated that feeling”

“Resilience is in all of us, but sometimes we need a guide to help us find our path forward, but there is always a path forward”

“I would say the thing that made me the most resilient was asking for help. From my mentors, friends, counselors and family. Vulnerability helped me be more resilient”

“I love riding my bike but on a steep hill climb, my pain would escalate 10 fold. I persisted and after 30 mins or so of cycling it would go back down to normal levels. The bike ride was more important for my mental well being than the back pain maybe that is why I persisted”

“Resilience for me is knowing that there are things you can and can’t control and you put energy and focus into those things you can control/accept”

“Resilience is I get up every day and work with injuries on others. Sometimes leaving bed is the hardest part”

 It could be balancing the stressful parts of life with things that bring us happiness and joy is most important and when we lose this balance is when we start to become more vulnerable and our job may be to help with this process.

What Components Make Up Resilience?

Both Sturgeon and Goubert outline some positive elements AND some risk factors involved in resilience.

Lets first start with the positive elements.

Optimism & Positive Emotions

Optimism appears to be a key characteristic, with optimism being related to lower levels of pain and this may support why predicted expectations are related to outcomes. Optimism should be viewed both from a clinician and patient viewpoint and withou,t doubt both viewpoint will interact within the ‘third space’.

Here are some good papers *HERE* & *HERE*

Questions we can ask ourselves:

  • Are you a generally optimistic clinician/person?
  • How optimistic are you about a positive outcome?
  • Do you discuss what a positive outcome might look like, especially in regards to improved function?
  • Can we highlight positive aspects from the person’s story/history, previous positive experiences to be optimistic about?

Although it is important to not seem disingenuous, the need for positivity and a positive emotional perspective on life and activity should be highlighted, although this should probably come after a validation of normal negative responses to a tough situation such as persisting pain.

I feel it is also important to highlight the negative aspects of negative thinking and behaviour.

Pain Acceptance & Sustained Engagement In Valued Activities

Pain acceptance is defined as acknowledging that one has pain, stopping attempts to control pain, and learning to live a richer life in spite of pain. This in turn can lead to more engagement in valued activities.

Sturgeon writes

“individuals with greater levels of activity engagement are better able to bolster their positive emotions through sustained pursuit of valued activities despite their pain”

This appears to be a key factor, both highlighted in the research and also in the in depth qualitative research I performed above on social media ; )

Social Support

People who actively seek out social support seem to have lower levels of pain. We know from work such as Riikka Holopainen’s *HERE* that people with persisting pain reported that their circle of life had shrunk and they had given up doing things they used to enjoy.

Pain can interrupt positive social interactions that are important for resilience, however, pain can also narrow our ability to identify these positive social interactions and positive resilience resources in general.

Risk Factors

Pain Catastrophisation & Avoidance

Higher levels of pain catastrophizing and fear are linked to higher levels of pain and pain catastrophizing can also lead to ineffective coping strategies such as an avoidance approach to coping. This behaviour is consistent with the affective-motivational side of pain that can often motivate people to avoid things such as social interactions and physical activities. Essentially this can limit the enjoyment and positive aspects gained from valued activities, often for fear of pain, and can reduce resilience behaviours. This prolonged avoidance can also lead to depression and disability.

I feel it is important to highlight avoidant approaches and also help someone to rationalise if they are actually helpful for them or not.

But it is also important NOT to simply label people avoiders. Avoidance like all things is complex. Some activities may display avoidance behaviours whilst other things are engaged in. It is a touch harsh to take an area of someone’s life they are struggling with and use it to define them.

Resilience Or Vulnerability

We must be mindful that resilience does not appear to be a stable state. People are not simply resilient or vulnera,ble. Instead they appear to have components of both aspects co-existing in a sort of balancing act. Sometimes we maybe more susceptible to vulnerability, even the most resilient is resilient until they are not. We may also be vulnerable in some areas of our lives but not in others. We could be physically resilient but emotionally vulnerable or the other way around. It could switch from day to day. The one thing we know about the experience of pain, and all the dimensions that go into it, is that it pain is predictably unpredictable.

Resilience should really be seen as a continuum. Different injuries may require different levels of resilience and the person will have a current resiliency state dependent on many factors in their life. Some people may be super resilient or the injury type or state may not require much resilience. As with all painful problems, this relies on clinical reasoning to apply the right care at the right time.

Screen Shot 2018 10 26 At 07.40.13

Take Homes

  • Resilience IS NOT TOUGHNESS
  • Resilience is about adaptability and physical and psychological flexibility
  • Resilience lies on a continuum
  • Resilience looks and feels different to different people
  • Optimism is key
  • Sustained engagement in valued activities is key
  • Pain catastrophization and avoidance behaviour are risk factors

How to Screen if the Cervical Spine is Impacting Shoulder Pain. (Yes it’s in Your Scope!)

We’ve spent the last couple weeks at The Massage Development Center exploring a variety of shoulder diagnoses and treatments. But what happens when shoulder pain isn’t coming from a source in the glenohumeral joint or its structures? Are you able to screen for these conditions?

Now, I am a physical therapist and it was in my training to look at the cervical spine when evaluating a patient for a shoulder injury.

However, depending on your schooling and licensure, it may not have been part of your education. From my understanding, if you are a massage therapist, even what state or province you work in determines if you can do a full screen of the cervical spine.

However, I want to argue it is in everybody’s scope of practice to do due diligence to take a good history and make sure an outside referral isn’t warranted. My goal with this post is not to teach a bunch of cervical screening tests, but to familiarize everybody with risk factors in patient’s history and signs and symptom that would warrant further investigation either from you or outside referral.

Recognizing Referral Pain

The cervical nerve roots and cervical discs can refer to the shoulder area. Your patient may come in complaining of upper trapezius pain or rhomboid pain but it could be a C6-7 nerve root radiculopathy causing pain.

The referred pain may continue further down the upper extremity or may stop in the shoulder region. The following table outlines the common areas for referral:

Nerve Root Shoulder area referral pattern:

C2 – Pain primarily in the posterior aspect of skull, headaches, ears, eyes
C3 – Pain in necks and Upper Trapezius
C4 – Pain in Upper Trapezius, lower neck
C5 – Pain in upper lateral arm, neck, shoulder Weakness in Deltoid and           Elbow Flexion
C6 – Pain in the dorsolateral arm, Neck upper/middle trapezius                       Weakness in biceps
C7 – Pain Middle trapezius/rhomboid area and neck Weakness in triceps
C8 – Pain in neck and middle/lower trapezius Weakness largely in hand
T1 – Pain in lower trapezius and forearm Weakness largely in hand

If your practice acts allow differential assessment and shoulder tests are negative, it is worth considering cervical radiculopathy. Research shows that grouping the Spurlings Test (also known as the Foraminal Compression Test), Upper limb nerve tension testing, Cervical Distraction Test and the patient presenting with involved side cervical rotation of less than 60 degrees has a 90% positive likelihood ration that cervical radiculopathy is present.

What if your practice acts do not allow you to perform special tests for the neck?

Ask some questions and observe, to help determine if it might be cervical radiculopathy.

First does it look like your patient has less than 60 degrees of cervical rotation of their symptomatic side? Do they describe their pain as “pins-and-needles or tingling or stinging” or occasional numbness? Do they have muscle weakness? Does the pain increase when they rotate to that side and concurrently extend their neck (a sign of compressing the nerve root)?

In younger patients, the most common cause of nerve root irritation is disc herniation or a direct blow such as in football or hockey game (a “stinger”). In older patients, the leading cause is stenosis or bony spurs.

If the answer to these questions is yes, you may want to consider having your patient follow-up with another healthcare practitioner if they have not had the cervical spine evaluated (particularly if they have significant weakness present). However, largely these conditions will respond to massage therapy and strengthening along with other physical therapy treatments and potentially other medical management.

However, you may have patients whose history is not as straight forward or the presentation may be more serious and you need to do a more immediate referral. The cervical spine structures can also refer to the shoulder complex for much more serious reasons.

Knowing When To Refer Out

Upper cervical fractures can irritate nerve roots and refer to the shoulder as well. These typically won’t refer into the glenohumeral joint proper but may refer into the upper trap area. You may wonder how somebody could be walking around with an undiagnosed cervical vertebral fracture, but it is actually not that uncommon.

A Dens fracture of C2, for example, is often not seen unless an open mouth x-ray is performed (which is not always standard protocol or people think they are “fine” after an MVA). It is typically injured with a hyperextension type of injury (i.e. whiplash in a car accident or hyperextension of the neck in football with another player falling on the injured player). The fracture can compress the spinal cord and cause swelling which can also cause the nerve roots to refer pain. The injury does have a good outcome potential with proper treatment.

However, if your patient has the appropriate mechanism of injury and has neck pain, neck swelling, complaints of swallowing and has muscle weakness and has not been evaluated for a fracture you should refer out prior to treatment.

Cervical Central Cord Compression is probably the most severe diagnosis to should be making sure you screen. This occurs when the spinal cord becomes compressed from bone fragments from a fracture or disc, swelling due to an injury from a trauma or a tumor.

Because it may take time for swelling to develop and compress the cord, symptoms may develop over many hours or days so they may be walking in your office now experiencing a medical emergency. Your patient will have a history of major trauma (fall, motor vehicle accident, a blunt blow to the spine). Classic signs of central cord compression include: gait disturbances (they may be walking with a wide base of support or say they feel unsteady since the accident), arm and hand sensory complaints and muscle weakness including very quick atrophy of the muscles, and complaints of sudden onset incontinence (not just a few drops, full bladder uncontrollably leaking).

If these are new-onset symptoms with a trauma history, immediately send your patient to a physician or emergency room. You cannot be too careful with this sort of diagnosis.

It’s also important to remember that shoulder pain may not be referring from the cervical spine at all but from another area of the body such as abdominal gas, heart issues such as a heart attack or from an organ such as the gallbladder. We shared such a case of referred pain in a post you can find here. In summary, it is important to get a good patient history prior to treating their shoulder to assess whether the cervical spine may be involved. If it is out of the scope of your practice to assess the spine, then make sure you know the red flags and history that would warrant a referral to an outside practitioner. The human body is so interconnected and we should never work in isolation!


Childress MA, Becker BA. Nonoperative Management of Cervical Radiculopathy. American Family Physician. 2016;93(9):746-754

Clark, Charles R. The Cervical Spine. Fourth ed. 2005. Web.

Hashmi SZ, Marra A, Jenis LG, Patel AA. Current Concepts: Central Cord Syndrome. Clinical Spine Surgery. 2018;31(10):407-412
Hutting N, Scholten-Peeters GGM, Vijverman V, Keesenberg MDM, Verhagen AP. Diagnostic accuracy of upper cervical spine instability tests: a systematic review. Physical Therapy. 2013;93(12):1686-1695

Schroeder GD, Vaccaro AR. Cervical Spine Injuries in the Athlete. Instructional Course Lectures. 2017;66:391-402.

Neuroscience And Skilled Patient-Communication Are Essential When Dealing With Patients Suffering From Complex Pain Conditions


Patients with complex pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia, are now recognized as living with a chronic disease, according to the WHO (Nicholas M, 2019). While this is a huge step in terms of social recognition of the existence of pain in the absence of pathology, there’s still no cure or superior treatments available. Yet, it has become increasingly clear that self-management is essential and that patient education plays a pivotal role in self-management.

”Pain education, or PNE, has shown us a way forward in self-management of chronic pain. The next step is to embrace the narrative as a therapeutic intervention”

For more than 15 years patients have been educated to understand their pain as a result of hypersensitivity and/or reduced inhibition in the nervous system. However, in the same period only a minority of universities, colleges etc. world-wide meet the international recommendations for professional education on pain and neuroscience*. Consequently, many – even newly educated – healthcare professionals rely on their knowledge about anatomy and biomechanics to understand pain in the musculoskeletal system, despite obvious flaws in this theory (Palsson TS et al. 2019).

”Theories based on anatomy and biomechanics are inherently in conflict with a scientifically informed understanding of pain!”

As a skeptic, I’m comfortable with the concept of all theories being flawed (or ‘wrong’) and at the same time necessary for the clinician to make sense of the information (data) we get from our patients. Without theories, we would not be able to form a structure and make sense of experiences the patient shares. For the purpose of this blog, I choose to define a theory as any explanation that guide clinicians in their work (e.g. ‘hypersensitivity of the nervous system’ or ‘central sensitization’). Many theories are based on basic science (e.g. anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry) while others are not. My academic and research training has focussed on basic science, so this is where I will take my starting point, although I openly admit that my clinical aim is always to improve the disabilities and symptoms of the patient – not the underlying (theoretical) mechanism.

Neuroscience is to pain what biomechanics is to movement – not sufficient but essential and complex.

Traditionally, it was assumed that pain [insert your favourite body region] was related to structures in the anatomy, and brilliant thinkers such as Shirley Sarhman, Paul Hodges and Mark Laslett/Tom Petersen have provided (overlapping) theories that try to explain how ‘impaired’ biomechanics or anatomy can lead to painful experiences (Karayannis N et al. 2012).

Furthermore, these theories postulate a linear relationship between impairment-correction and pain-reduction, in other words; when impairments are corrected, the patient experiences pain relief. To many people (patients and professionals alike) this leads to the unfortunate and incorrect conclusion that if the patient experiences pain relief, then the theory must be correct. The unfortunate bit of this conclusion is that both parties tend to stick to such theories even when they are unlikely to help, and the theory is incorrect in assuming that if pain relief is observed after applying the theory, then they are causally related. In more scientific terms this has been called a correlation. A well-known example of this misunderstanding that degeneration of the spine could explain pain, while more recent evidence clearly shows this is not the case (see e.g. Brinjikji W et al. 2015) and a counter-recommendation that imaging should not be performed unless serious pathology is expected (Lin I et al. 2019).

However, the theories – flawed as they are – have provided many patients with both a novel understanding of their body and how it was related to pain relief. What has become increasingly clear over the last decades is that theories based on biomechanics or anatomy anywhere in the body cannot explain how movement causes pain, rather a neuroscience approach is necessary (Brumagne S et al. 2019).

The simplest version of the problem with anatomy/biomechanics as a model for pain seems to be that the link between consciousness and anatomy/biomechanics remains unexplored. The neuroscience approach, on the other hand, which tries to link the experience of pain to the transmission of signals from the body – including the brain – via neurons and non-neuronal cells, is a very well developed science, and even though our understanding of what consciousness is, remains theoretical, consensus is that signals in the body are the most likely measurable link between the objective (measurable), 3rdperson perspective and the experience, or 1stperson perspective, of pain.

“Neurobiology is not a core skill in most educations, but anatomy and biomechanics still is. This could be the reason for oversimplification of pain theories.”

The most famous neuroscience-based theory of how signals in the body relate to pain is arguably the Gate Control theory of Pain by Pat Wall and Ron Melzack, but there is a plethora of theories concerned with specific cell types (e.g. glia), neurobiological mechanisms (e.g. central sensitization), brain activity (e.g. Default Mode Network) and philosophy/cognitive neuroscience (e.g. predictive coding). Such theories are based on ‘sound, basic science’ and can be conceptualized as scaffolding systems on which clinicians can help patients understand their signs and symptoms, including pain, fear, behaviour, etc. Neither theory should be considered universal or ‘best’ for all patients, rather, a skilled clinician should understand the science behind and – perhaps most importantly – the boundaries of each theory.

How To Choose A Theory?

First of all, the theory must provide a good fit with the history of the patient. Luckily, most theories are adaptable and some even contain categories, which are open to interpretation and/or unable to be falsified clinically. E.g the theories of ‘overuse’ (biomechanics) and ‘central sensitization syndrome’ (neuroscience) are both based on clinical reasoning and could easily be applied to the same patient. They could even guide the patient to the same behaviour/action, albeit with different explanations:

SyndromeTheoryTherapeutic InterventionReference
OveruseSpecific tissues are over-loaded (damaged) and pain is the response to an inflammatory responsegraded exposure, education on [chosen theory]Physical stress theory: Mueller MJ and Maluf KS, 2002
Central Sensitization SyndromeThe nervous system is overactive and the patient needs to calm it downgraded exposure, education on [chosen theory]Nijs J et al. 2016

To make things even more complicated, Artus and colleagues found that studies on the treatment effect in patients with non-specific low-back pain plateaus after 6-12 weeks in most people, indicating that neither of the existing treatments is superior nor specific.

So, when no one theory seems to explain everything, how do you choose? According to Sackett et al. (1996), we need to infer to best practice based on best available:

  •  basic and clinical science
  •  theory
  •  patient-information.

However, since this is no guarantee for success it is insufficient to hope for improvement. Rather good, clinical practice implies the use of structured, patient-specific / functional and preferably validated, measurement tools to objectify when you’re wrong. In other words, once you have decided on an appropriate theory you should be able to predict a time-restricted and patient-specific outcome (i.e. a prognosis). These should be constructed in agreement with the beliefs, expectations, and priorities of the patient, and be specific and valid enough that improvements in your measurements reflect an improvement from the patient’s perspective. Since no causation can be established, relevant and consistent improvements can be considered sufficient to continue along with the same plan.

Unlike in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes or in matters of life-and-death, there is no binary (guilty/innocent or yes/no) answers when dealing with humans suffering from complex, non-specific pain. Thus, as clinicians, we must choose wisely and continuously monitor if the theory and accompanying interventions are benefitting the patient in ways that are meaningful to them.

Consequently, discarding a management plan based on the best available evidence can be the right choice if it leads to no change (or worsening). For obvious reasons, this necessitates a close and trustful collaboration between the patient and the practitioner.

How To Update Your Knowledge Of Science Without Becoming An Academic

As a clinician, you need clinical skills, such as communication skills, critical thinking/clinical reasoning and the ability to spot serious pathology. Ideally, you would also have to spend a few hundred hours studying aspects of neuroscience and philosophy. But chances are, the only basic science you’ve ever spend this long learning is anatomy and biomechanics. Consequently, it is very likely that you are strongly biased towards thinking that when it hurts during movement, movement is a likely cause or trigger of the pain. In other words, since most educations do not provide the knowledge necessary for complex reasoning based on neuroscience most clinicians still use anatomy and biomechanics to explain pain.

But answer this; how – if not via the neurons – should movement hurt?

To my knowledge, there is not a single theory that explains how movement generates consciousness and therefore also pain. The bias in my thinking is that I perceive pain as something we experience and not causally related to signaling in any part of our nervous system (rather they are correlated, and in the case of acute pain, this correlation is so strong that we perceive them as unified).

Coming back to the topic of this section; how to upgrade your knowledge without doing a university-based, post-graduate program? For most clinicians, the solution is weekend courses, in which they get in-depth knowledge about contemporary concepts of how to manage pain. Comparing these to international standards (e.g. IASP or EFIC curricula) clearly shows that there’s a bias towards some areas (e.g. patient education) and neglect of others (e.g. special groups, basic science and xxx). However, free information is available online and online educational initiatives are currently being developed by EFIC and IASP. I hope that, within the next few years, all aspects of the curricula will be covered and freely available. Furthermore, clinical exams – such as the EDPP – are already available to clinicians from all over the globe, providing a ‘peer-reviewed’ certification of the clinical skills.

If you prefer the lecture/classroom teaching style to online learning, or you just don’t want to wait, you can use the curricula most relevant for you to structure your own ‘port-folio’. I recommend looking for courses where the instructors themselves have qualifications within pain science (e.g. MSc’s in Pain or EDPx exams).


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Lin I, Wiles L, Waller R, et al. What does best practice care for musculoskeletal pain look like? Eleven consistent recommendations from high-quality clinical practice guidelines: systematic review. BJSM. March 2019. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2018-099878.

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Recommendations by IASP and EFIC can be found here: