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Pathologizing: Our Words Matter

Pathologizing: Our Words Matter

As a physical therapist trained in the 1980’s, biomechanical explanations for pain and movement disorders were the norm.

As I drifted into a myofascial release manual therapy in the early 1990’s, the biomechanical model was reinforced and made more narrow through the beliefs that pain and movement dysfunction stem from issues of fascial tightness/restriction. All had evidence to support their views, as well as well-presented logical assumptions.

Myofascial suffered from testimonial-type of evidence, which seemed very compelling to a casual scientific observer (me), who was unwilling to question the sources of presented information.

Biomechanical still are well represented throughout the manual therapies, as evident by the daily squabbles regarding the importance, or lack of, with such issues as posture, weakness, and asymmetry when it comes to both pain as well as movement disorders.

This post is not intended to address these issues, but to briefly discuss the language we use when conversing with our patients/clients. 

The Power Of Our Words

Patients pay us to help them.

This help is most often accompanied by the thorough evaluation, after which we proclaim our findings on both what is wrong with them and what should be done to rectify the situation.

We may call this our assessment or diagnosis, depending on the scope of practice allowances and limitations of your profession. Patients expect it and we feel it necessary to give them what they want and deserve, but is it always in their best interest, especially when there is a lack of consensus on the validity of our assessment’s claims?

Biomechanical factors and judgement, such as poor posture being the cause of pain, are popular and logical assumptions which many of our patients believe and you may believe it to be true as well, but is it always true?

While at the computer, I leave my Facebook notifications turned on, which is probably one reason I am so easily distracted. As I was writing this post a notification came in that I will sanitize and post here:

I’m new to this group, but curious as to many issues a (named surgical procedure) could help with. My biggest issues are forward head posture – my (type of) therapist once told me it was the worst she had ever seen – neck/shoulder/upper back tension that my chiropractor gave up on treating because he didn’t understand why he couldn’t fix it, jaw clenching, anxiety, etc). Anyway, does anyone have a recommendation for a practitioner in (certain city)?”

The writer of this post was speaking from genuine self-concern and must have found some solace in her therapist’s statement about the severity of her forward head, but what does she now do with that?

If she is the worst case her health professional has ever seen, it would seem to me that makes it less likely that she can be helped. There is information easily available that casts doubt on the degree of forward head posture and neck pain, but that therapist has planted a seed in the patient’s brain that she is one of the worst out there, at least from her therapist’s perspective.

Do we really need to say things like this?

Below are some studies that were recently posted to a thread on one of the many groups there, all speaking to the effect of the power of our words. If you’ve never given this much thought, please read through some of the abstracts and papers.

Our words have power, and often the message conveyed negatively impacts outcomes.

Easy to Harm, Hard to Heal: Patient Views About the Back.

CONCLUSION: Negative assumptions about the back made by those with LBP may affect information processing during an episode of pain. This may result in an attentional bias toward information indicating that the spine is vulnerable, an injury is serious, or the outcome will be poor. Approaching consultations with this understanding may assist clinicians to have a positive influence on beliefs.

The enduring impact of what clinicians say to people with low back pain. (Full-text link)

CONCLUSIONS: Health care professionals have a considerable and enduring influence upon the attitudes and beliefs of people with low back pain. It is important that this opportunity is used to positively influence attitudes and beliefs.

Importance of psychological factors for the recovery from a first episode of acute non-specific neck pain – a longitudinal study. (Full-text link)

CONCLUSIONS: Psychological factors emerged from this study as relevant in the early phase of acute neck pain. Particularly persistent anxiety and depression at baseline might be risk factors for a transition to chronic pain that should be addressed in the early management of neck pain patients.

‘Talking a different language’: a qualitative study of chronic low back pain patients’ interpretation of the language used by student osteopaths. 

CONCLUSIONS: The language used by student osteopaths’ influences patient beliefs about LBP in a variety of ways. The current study furthers understanding of how language contributes to these beliefs, identifying ways through which communication can contribute to improved healthcare through enhancing patient engagement.

Words That Harm, Words That Heal. (Full-text link)

Both positive and negative beliefs are important in patients with spine pain: findings from the oioc registry.

CONCLUSIONS: Our study demonstrates that both negative and positive beliefs are associated with perceptions of disability, however, in this study only positive beliefs were associated with treatment outcome.

Do you have any studies to share regarding this topic? I’d love to have a look!

Education: State University at Buffalo, NY BS in Physical Therapy, 1985 State University at Buffalo, NY BA in Community Mental Health, 1984. Professional Experience: Foundations in Myofascial Release Seminars (Founder) 2006-Present, providing Myofascial Release education to physical therapists, athletic trainers, occupational therapists, speech/language pathologists, and massage therapists. See www.FoundationsinMFR for full information. Prior to 2006, Walt worked with other well-known teachers, presenting continuing education seminars across the USA.
Pain Relief Center, Rochester, NY 1998-Present. Providing Myofascial Release treatment as a physical therapist to a wide variety of diagnoses and age groups. Practice consists entirely of Myofascial Release treatment. www.MyofascialResource.com. Founder of national based website for therapists practicing Myofascial Release and related types of bodywork. Extensive research collection for scientific publications of and around the field of Myofascial Release, as well as a treatment resource for therapists and patients. www.FoundationsinMFR.com. Information on quality continuing education seminars in myofascial release, with small group trainings and a high degree of individualized one-on-one instruction at www.waltfritzseminars.com

Walt Fritz

Walt Fritz

Education: State University at Buffalo, NY BS in Physical Therapy, 1985 State University at Buffalo, NY BA in Community Mental Health, 1984. Professional Experience: Foundations in Myofascial Release Seminars (Founder) 2006-Present, providing Myofascial Release education to physical therapists, athletic trainers, occupational therapists, speech/language pathologists, and massage therapists. See www.FoundationsinMFR for full information. Prior to 2006, Walt worked with other well-known teachers, presenting continuing education seminars across the USA.
Pain Relief Center, Rochester, NY 1998-Present. Providing Myofascial Release treatment as a physical therapist to a wide variety of diagnoses and age groups. Practice consists entirely of Myofascial Release treatment. www.MyofascialResource.com. Founder of national based website for therapists practicing Myofascial Release and related types of bodywork. Extensive research collection for scientific publications of and around the field of Myofascial Release, as well as a treatment resource for therapists and patients. www.FoundationsinMFR.com. Information on quality continuing education seminars in myofascial release, with small group trainings and a high degree of individualized one-on-one instruction at www.waltfritzseminars.com
Walt Fritz

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