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Massage Today
February, 2013, Vol. 13, Issue 02

Fear Avoidance and the Issue of Chronic Pain

By Nicole Nelson

According to the American Pain Foundation, an estimated 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain each year. Let's take a closer look at those suffering with chronic non-specific pain (CNSP) and explore how fear may be partly responsible.

Specifically, this discussion will attempt to shed some light on how fear might perpetuate the pain experience without the presence of any musculoskeletal problem. Although the pain these clients feel is very real, it is distinct from those suffering from biophysical causes of pain, such as infections, tumors, osteoporosis, spondyloarthropathies and stepping on a nail.

Current understanding of pain neuroscience suggests that pain is a multi-dimensional experience that involves sensory, emotional and cognitive components.3,13,18,21,26-28,32 Likewise, the way the brain interprets and processes these components can vary pain intensity. It seems pain may involve more than structural problems, making our job as massage therapists a bit more intricate than addressing leg length discrepancies or elevated shoulders. A review of more than 900 studies involving back and neck pain concluded that psychological factors play a significant role, not only in chronic pain, but also in the etiology of acute pain — particularly in the process of transition to chronicity.13

The Fear Avoidance (FA) model, originally presented in the early 80's, is a psychological model that accounts for why certain clients may make the leap from acute to chronic pain. FA suggests that it is overly fearful individuals that wind up suffering with chronic pain, to the degree that they avoid seemingly benign movement patterns so as to protect themselves from further pain.23 The model theorizes that there are essentially two pathways an individual can take after suffering from an incident of acute pain. The first and more functional pathway suggests the individual perceives the pain as a non-threatening experience, daily activities are likely continued with a reasonable level of protection and a functional recovery ensues. The other path involves catastrophizing, where the individual perceives the injury as very threatening and develops a "worst case" outlook.4,7,21

According to the model, the nociceptive system becomes persistently active which leads to an extension of pain beyond the time frame of normal tissue healing. The worry associated with doing more harm leads to an avoidance of activity which can eventually cause further de-conditioning, and in severe cases, depression and isolation.30,32 In essence, these clients have lost confidence in their body's ability to withstand a physical challenge to the area they associate with their pain. Multiple studies have set out to examine the relationship between pain-related fear and it's potential to increase pain perception and delay recovery.2,3,12,32

The researchers have found some traits among those that exhibit fear avoidance:

  • A sense of helplessness about an injury.
  • A belief that a poor outcome is likely (i.e."I might loose my job over this" or "I will never feel good again.")
  • A belief that movement will cause serious injury.
  • The client demonstrates a passive role throughout the treatment process and becomes overly reliant on massage for relief. (i.e."You fix me.")
  • Grimacing, muscular guarding and/or altered breathing patterns in anticipation of movement.

So, how do we apply this knowledge to an actual client? By recognizing those with fear beliefs and behaviors, we can tailor our suggestions and therapy accordingly. Above all else you must help fearful clients understand that they are not helpless victims of pain, rather they are active managers of pain and do have a great amount of control.26,31 Generally speaking, this includes exposure to current biopsychosocial pain theory, getting them to move better, more often, as well as including positive lifestyle changes such as improving nutrition, reducing stress and optimizing posture. The list below includes a few specific ideas collected from the literature that will help shape your treatments to those exhibiting FA and experiencing CNSP. This list is hardly exhaustive, but should serve as a jump off point for you to study and explore treatment ideas which will complement traditional massage methods.

Therapeutic Ideas

First, seek out the right practitioner. After bouncing around from practitioner to practitioner looking for answers, your FA/CNSP client is probably feeling extremely anxious about the source of their suffering and is starved for an explanation. If this is the case, help them seek out pain specialists that utilize a comprehensive treatment approach which incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This network of professionals will help your client realize that their pain is not necessarily a tissue problem, but one that is perpetuated by an interaction of physiological and psychosocial factors.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) attempts to alter FA behaviors, emotions and beliefs.22,31 This is commonly done through teaching the impact that thoughts and emotions have in maintaining pain as well as teaching stress management techniques, problem solving, goal setting and activity pacing. CBT can be performed in a group setting to reduce costs and allow the therapist to share successful cases of alternative thought and behavioral patterns from other group members.

Second, try to encourage meditation and mindfulness. It is believed that catastrophizing accounts for 7% to 31% of the variance in pain severity.26 Improving the client's mindfulness has been shown to be an effective approach to pain management, likely by interrupting the thoughts of a doomed outcome.6,16,17,27 Mindfulness has been defined as, "awareness that emerges by way of paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment." Proponents of practicing mindfulness exercises, such as mediation, theorize that a mindful state is mutually exclusive of one that is busy catastrophizing, which involves interpretation, conceptual processing and judgment.27,28 Simply put, when one is mindful, one cannot have a doom and gloom outlook.

The third concept to keep in mind is that hurt does not mean harm so encourage them to move. One must consider that well intended medical professionals that are unfamiliar with psycho-social and behavioral perpetrators of pain, may have actually exacerbated your client's fears about movement and exercise (i.e. "let your husband carry your purse, it's too heavy for you" or "be extremely careful when getting up.") Naturally, flare ups as a result of too much activity is a legitimate concern for many with chronic pain; however, exercise has repeatedly been shown to be an effective pain management strategy.1,5,10,14,25,29,33 It is worth mentioning that these clients will feel discomfort when increasing their levels of activity, particularly when they have been leading sedentary lives. That said, a graded exercise plan is indicated and should be encouraged as the client will eventually adapt to increased levels of activity. I generally advocate clients begin this process by consulting with an individual with clinical exercise experience. If they are apprehensive about this idea, suggest they perform something they enjoy doing, perhaps walking (de-conditioned clients might do best by walking in a pool.) Recommend they walk 3 to 4 days per week for a length of time and speed that is challenging but not exhausting. Propose they add five additional minutes to their walk each week.

It is widely accepted that chronic pain sufferers exhibit deficits in proprioception.19 It has been observed that chronic back pain patients no longer consider their back as being a part of them and do not feel that the back can be controlled automatically.18 Lorimar Moseley's research has shown that sufferers of chronic low back pain have been found to have difficulty delineating the outline of their back when asked to complete a drawing of "how it feels."12 It is also possible that the varied alterations in trunk muscle recruitment patterns evident in CNSP patients may be a manifestation of a disturbance in body perception.8 Moseley and the NOI group have also shown that people in pain often lose the ability to identify left or right images of their painful body part(s).

This research suggests that the brain has an altered image of itself. One way to help your client gain a more accurate picture of their own body is by performing right/left rolling patterns, similar to how a baby begins the movement experience. Rolling, is not only a movement strategy that is believed to improve proprioception, mobility and core function, but it is a great assessment tool to see where you should direct your soft tissue work.9 As your clients perform these movements, keep an eye out for any lack of symmetry between rolling from right to left and left to right.

There are four basic rolling patterns.

  1. Supine to prone-upper body. Instruct your client to lie on their back, legs straight and slightly abducted, arms reaching long over head, arms slightly abducted. Without any help from the legs, have them roll onto their belly. Have them roll from right to left as well as left to right. When they first perform this, do not cue them in anyway, let them attempt to "figure out" how to get from their back to their belly; this will give you valuable information as to how they move and where they have restrictions. For subsequent rolls, offer these cues to help promote their movement efficiency: If they are rolling from their right to left, initiate the roll by looking to the left, lead with the eyes and head; lift the right arm; look into the left shoulder and roll over like a rag doll; and when rolling from a supine position, left to right, initiate by looking right and lifting left arm.

  2. Prone to supine-upper body. Once again the challenge for the client is to come up with a movement strategy to get them from their belly to their backs. Their first run through, they are on their own while you observe their approach of rolling both right to left and left to right. Have the client lie on their belly, legs straight, arms extended overhead. Ask them to roll over without any use of the legs. Take note of any movement challenges and/or asymmetries. After the first attempts of rolling prone to supine, offer these cues: if rolling right to left, lift the right arm and look up and over the opposite shoulder and roll. If rolling left to right, the opposite applies.

  3. Supine to prone-lower body. First time through, ask your client to lie on their back, legs straight and slightly abducted, arms extended overhead, slightly abducted. Instruct them to roll onto their belly using only the lower body. Observe any movement snags or asymmetries. Subsequently, if rolling from right to left, flex the right hip, cross the right leg over the left and roll. Cue the opposite when rolling left to right.

  4. Prone to supine-lower body. First attempt, have the client lie on their belly, legs straight and slightly abducted, arms extended overhead and slightly abducted. Have them roll over onto their backs using only the lower body; once again you should take note of any movement asymmetries or difficulties. Subsequently, if rolling from right to left cue them to flex the right knee, lift the foot toward the ceiling, cross the right leg over the left and roll. These rolling patterns should be practiced by the client as homework once or twice a day, performing each of the four patterns (eight total patterns, if you count rolling right and left) three to four times.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

It is well documented that those suffering with chronic pain also have poor breathing patterns.11,19,24 It stands to reason that better breathing habits will yield a more functional core by improving diaphragmatic motor control and will also help in relaxing the client, thereby making it a very useful strategy in FA/CNSP cases. Learning to evaluate and correct poor breathing habits is an extremely important skill. I highly suggest Leon Chaitow's book, Multidisciplinary Approaches to Breathing Patterns Disorders, for further information.

Progressive muscle relaxation

PMR is an excellent way to reveal to the client that they are holding unnecessary tension within their muscles. Have your client either seated or lying on the massage table. After beginning with several deep breaths, instruct your client to alternately tense, hold, and then relax groups of muscles in his or her body. Direct your client's attention to the sensations of tightness felt while contracting and tensing the muscles. Your client's awareness should be dialed into the sensations of warmth, heaviness and relaxation in their body, as they review each muscle group individually, spending some additional time on problem areas. Instruct your client to perform this technique at home two to three times per day or at moments when they are feeling stressed or are about to perform an activity that they associate with pain.

The pain experience can be more complicated than just a physical problem. FA can perpetuate pain, limit activity, lead to further de-conditioning and ultimately lead to depression and isolation. Although great bodywork will be hugely beneficial to your FA/CNSP clients, a comprehensive treatment approach involving CBT might be necessary. Likewise, this specific set of clients must realize that they are not passive in this process. Meditation, better breathing habits and exercise are all terrific ways your clients can regain a sense of control over their pain.


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Nicole Nelson a licensed massage therapist in Jacksonville, Fla. She has a masters degree in Health Science from the University of North Florida and is a certified Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist through ACE.


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