The Human Body is Complex and Adaptable
The human body is not a simple structure, but rather a complex and adaptable network of overlapping systems. We must move from the myth of a simple biomechanical framework, or pathoanatomical model of trying to fix the structure, to understanding the complexity of a biopsychosocial framework and how all the systems within the body interact to experience all types of pain. The “no pain, no gain” mindset is being changed.
Increasingly, research shows that attributing the experience of pain solely to poor posture, minor leg length discrepancies, vertebral misalignment and other structural abnormalities is an oversimplification of a complex process (Green et al., 2018). Even in the case of degenerative changes in the knee, shoulder, and spine several landmark studies have shown that tissue tears revealed on imaging are a part of normal aging (Culvenor et al., 2019; Girish et al., 2011; Sihvonen et al., 2018). This disconnect between tissue damage seen on imaging and clinical presentation often creates confusion for both patients and clinicians. As a result, the medical community has moved on from a traditional biomechanical framework into a biopsychosocial framework.
The shift from a biomechanical framework to a biopsychosocial framework helps put into context the interconnected and multi-directional interaction between physiology, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, culture, and beliefs. Humans are complex and are composed of many overlapping systems, knowing how they interact is important for any therapist. The consensus is that structural abnormalities alone do not explain or necessarily predict pain. The reason people experience pain differently is in part is due to differences in genetics, depression, emotional stress, history of physical trauma and sensitization of the nervous system (Green et al., 2018).
Correlation Doesn’t Prove Causation
There is often a weak correlation between radiographic findings and symptoms – Several landmark studies have shown tissue tears revealed on imaging are a common finding in patients who are asymptomatic. This disconnect between tissue damage seen on clinical imaging and clinical presentation is part of normal aging and unassociated with pain. One study illustrates this concept well is a systematic review published in 2015, it provides important data demonstrating that degenerative changes can exist on a spinal magnetic resonance imaging and people can have no pain.
“Imaging findings of spine degeneration are present in high proportions of asymptomatic individuals, increasing with age. Many imaging-based degenerative features are likely part of normal aging and unassociated with pain. These imaging findings must be interpreted in the context of the patient’s clinical condition.” (Brinjikji et al., 2015).
Tame the Beast – It’s time to rethink persistent pain
The Placebo Response and The Therapeutic Encounter
The way a clinician presents themselves and their treatment has influence on therapeutic outcomes. The magnitude of a response may be influenced by mood, expectation, and conditioning, this is often referred to as the placebo response. The placebo effect isn’t a single phenomenon, it involves overlapping cortical, subcortical, and emotional responses. Any therapeutic encounter can trigger significant biological changes that ease symptoms.
The existence of placebo-induced effects does not negate treatment-induced results, patients feel better after a therapeutic encounter because of a complex physiological response to the treatment that includes but is not limited to placebo.
Learn more about the placebo response in this 5 min TED-Ed video.
Employing an Individualized Biopsychosocial Approach to Pain Management
Ascribing a patient’s pain solely to a tissue-driven pain problem is often an oversimplification of a complex process. This insight provides us with an opportunity to re-frame our clinical models. Over time the supportive theories behind techniques evolve or change completely. It is becoming increasing evident that a biomechanical model as a basis for treatment is outdated based on the latest research into pain science. A shift to a biopsychosocial model of massage therapy helps put into context the interconnected and multidirectional interaction between physiology, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, culture, and beliefs.
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