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In Part I of this series, I discussed the limitations that exist with our current beliefs and theories we hold when it comes to dealing with pain. For most of us, this involves having theories rooted in a mechanistic worldview believing that our bodies are like a machine and can be fixed with certain interventions. To understand some of the content in this next part, it’s important you read the first part to process through some of the complex nuances discussed.

Throughout this post, my intent isn’t to give you a new philosophy you need to learn, and it isn’t to suggest which interventions are the best; it’s simply to challenge some of your root beliefs and provide a new worldview that is able to adequately explain with enough scope, depth, and precision why certain interventions work for some people in the right context. By doing so, my hope is that we can move our profession forward through a new worldview that isn’t often discussed or taught in the medical field.

When investigating research surrounding pain, many of the interventions we use have demonstrated some effectiveness, but not necessarily for the same reasons we are led to believe. It wasn’t until the early to mid-2000s when researchers began to challenge some interventions that we idolized with sham-placebo controls. This began to unravel questions as participants seemed to improve equally as well with the intervention compared to the control. Why did people do so well with an intervention that was fake? Surely, if our theory was encapsulated in a mechanistic worldview, it would make no sense; the participant didn’t get the thing that changed the mechanics of the issue, yet they still got better?! This must mean there has to be more to the story. Besides the several thousand differing physiological interactions and processes occurring, there has to be some CONTEXT involved that interacted with the human receiving the intervention.

To work with pain more efficiently, we don’t necessarily need to add any more tools to our toolbox, we just need a better framework that is rooted in a philosophical worldview that can adequately explain with enough scope and precision all the complexity that is involved. Having a mechanistic worldview to explain pain might have been what was needed when Descartes first discussed his theory of mind-body dualism, but now that we are in the 21st century, it’s time to move on to a better worldview that accepts and helps us understand the importance of context involved with every unique situation. This worldview is known as Contextualism, and by embracing the scientific philosophy of pragmatism, the framework we want to implement is called a process-based framework.

Shifting from a mechanistic worldview to contextualism acknowledges the importance of context in every situation. For people with pain, this includes all the unique individual biologic, psychologic, and sociological factors influencing one’s experience. Even though the Biopsychosocial Model (BPS) was proposed in the late 1960s, we still have not had a chance to fully understand its scope because we have forced it into a mechanistic box. However, when you start to view the BPS Model within the worldview of contextualism then the idea of application becomes a little clearer. We can’t just use the model to help explain all the mechanisms involved within each realm. Instead, we must show enough flexibility and willingness to shift our philosophical perspective based on the context that is involved with each realm. This entails having the ability to quickly and efficiently shift between different perspectives based on the CONTEXT involved in one’s unique case.

To help explain this practically, let us think about someone with low back pain. When you take on a contextualistic worldview, your thinking becomes more dispersive allowing you the opportunity think about the back pain mechanistically to rule out any serious red flags, and then can easily transition into a different perspective recognizing all the different dynamic and interacting processes that are involved. Without that ability to zoom in and out in an efficient manner, you either miss the boat completely on red flag issues and risk the ability to help someone receive a necessary life-saving intervention, or you become stuck trying to find a single cause for something that has many different synthetic processes constantly interacting and interconnecting to formulate one’s pain experience.

Failure to become aware of all the differing, complex networks involved often results in a loss of coherence for both the clinician and the patient. This happens often as their beliefs suggest one thing, your words say another, and the intervention you describe doesn’t align with either of them. They may be hearing that their pain is multifactorial, yet you both are in search of the one single cause. (To learn more about coherence within a clinical setting, be sure to read our prior blogs here, here, here, and here.)

So how does viewing pain from a contextualistic worldview change what we are doing in the clinic? Many people have the belief that with a new framework comes a ton of new interventions. That isn’t necessarily the case for this. As mentioned in the very beginning of the first blog of this series, when we think about interventions for pain, it’s better we challenge the thought process behind them rather than the intervention itself.

Let’s take core stabilization for example. Many people have their patients with low back pain perform core stabilization interventions. This idea is often formed from the mechanistic belief and theory that the back is unstable and needs to be fixed or stabilized. The belief becomes stronger when patients who perform these interventions report improvements in their pain experience, which we know happens quite often. Since patients are improving, it must mean that their backs were unstable, right? This all sounds appropriate, however, when you investigate the research and find that people with low back pain are often more tense and guarded around their low back, why would stabilizing an already tense muscle make much of a difference? If people with low back pain show less mobility and coordination then other healthy controls, that doesn’t sound like the back is unstable to me. But why then do some people get better with core stabilization interventions?  There has to be context associated with their unique history, beliefs, expectations, etc, and by performing low graded movements mixed in with increased awareness into the low back is just what someone may need to gain the confidence that they were indeed going to improve over time. It’s hard to truly explain the exact reasons which is why it’s much easier to say it depends on the context and several other thousand interacting, dynamic processes concomitantly occurring for that individual!

Okay, so now that we may have a better rationale for explaining why someone with low back pain benefits with core stabilization, with thousands of interventions already existing, how do we know which one will be the best? This is the path we will take in Part III of this series where we dive deeper into the concepts related to process-based thinking and clinical-decision making.

When it comes to the science of pain, I would say that I remain agnostic about many of the interventions employed in rehab. Social media often displays a dichotomous view where people are either for or against certain interventions, however, when I post content, I only challenge the thought processes we have behind those interventions rather than the intervention itself.

Many researchers and publications have been saying for years that the context and complexity involved with what we call the human experience is far too ambiguous to be able to predict with high precision that we know the solution to one’s problem. This definitely creates uncertainty.

To become comfortable with uncertainty means embracing the fact that you will never be fully capable of comprehending the totality of evidence that has been compiling over the past millennia. This feat is so far outside of our current scope of knowledge that we can’t even begin to imagine the type of information we don’t know we don’t know.

In turn, there appears to be this pervasive nature of individuals opting for reductionist models and lines of thinking to help make sense of their thoughts. To find comfort with our reasoning, we then cling to others who share similar views seeking confirmation that our theories are most certainly true.

Problems exist in this mode of knowledge because when it comes to complexity, it’s hard to reconcile what is actually true. Circling back to the interventions we perform, one thing that seems to be ubiquitous is that most people get somewhat better or will regress back to their average over time. What is difficult to understand and is why some people are able to improve far more significantly than others despite similar courses of treatment.

Again, we can theorize all we want, but for there to be any validation to the theories we create, it must have adequate scope, depth, and precision remaining consistent over time. For example, if we use the theory that the body is like a machine, this is based on a mechanistic worldview. For this to be true, we will have to see a linear progression of tissue degeneration with more active people showing significantly more degeneration. However, that doesn’t appear to be the case. As our knowledge improves and we find that active people have better looking joints than their sedentary counterparts, it pokes holes in the original theory, and one cannot adequately explain why that may occur. This becomes an incoherent way of thinking as the theory says one thing, yet what is observed appears to be different.

Since medicine has been derived from a mechanistic worldview stemming from Descartes theories of dualism, most theories formulated today hold similar mechanistic perspectives. This draws us back to the belief that our bodies are like a machine creating the idiom commonly referred to as ‘wear and tear’. Mechanistically speaking, it makes no sense to describe our bodies like a machine that will only break down when there is solid evidence of one’s ability to adapt based on the context surrounding their unique history. Without context, it’s hard to understand whether someone’s tissues will degenerate to the point they become problematic.

As research continually evolves, pain science enthusiasts have recognized the many flaws in these theories, so they decided to create new ones. Although this sounds good in theory (pun intended), the new theories that are replacing the old theories are still viewed in a mechanistic worldview. Instead of thinking of our bodies like a machine, we moved into the neurocentric idealism that our brains are the machines that can be controlled. Replacing one reductionist model based on a mechanistic perspective with another reductionist model based on another mechanistic perspective is like the definition of insanity. We keep doing the same things repeatedly thinking we are going to get different results. Our failure to become aware of and understand where our beliefs are rooted only hurt the forward progression of where medicine needs to transition.

So where do we go from here? Existing models have been proposed over the past few decades calling for such change, but many people become lost in translation with how they interpret those models. Opinion pieces and different perspectives continue to get published criticizing the nature of how we interpret these models with suggestions to move forward towards newer philosophies that give clinicians a different model to understand the complexities of dealing with pain. But we don’t need another model. We don’t even need another philosophy to show us a better way to understand and explain pain.

What we need is to take a HUGE step backwards. So far back that we explore what worldview we are living in and where our beliefs are rooted. As mentioned earlier, medicine was founded within a mechanistic worldview believing the body was a machine. We have made some progress in the 21st century recognizing and acknowledging the limitations that exist with mind-body dualistic perspectives, yet we replaced all these old theories with the neurocentric belief that the brain is a machine that can control everything. We didn’t actually change our root worldview, we just shifted from one perspective to another with a very similar reductionist thought process.

Now before I go on criticizing the mechanistic worldview, I would be remiss to acknowledge all the benefits that have occurred because of it. It was because of this worldview and its associated beliefs that the field of medicine now has the capabilities to prescribe certain pharmaceuticals and perform surgeries that are lifesaving. If you are a surgeon removing a cancerous tumor from the spinal cord or a physician prescribing the appropriate life-altering medication, you may not care as much about the context involved in the situation and instead do what is necessary to fix the mechanistic problem the individual is dealing with. But that doesn’t mean this worldview applies to everything in medicine. When it comes to pain, it is time we recognize that we can’t live in a mechanistic worldview and adequately treat it.

Stay tuned for Part II where we discuss the importance of shifting worldviews to better understand and apply interventions associated with pain.