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Childbirth fear is associated with lower labor pain tolerance and worse postpartum adjustment.1,2 In addition, psychological distress during pregnancy is associated with adverse consequences in offspring, including detrimental birth outcomes, long-term defects in cognitive development, behavioral problems during childhood and high levels of stress-related hormones.3 These negative consequences of fear and stress during pregnancy have inspired both interest and research into the role of mindfulness training during pregnancy to reduce fear and stress and improve outcomes.

In a randomized controlled trial, first-time mothers in the late 3rd trimester of pregnancy were randomized to attend either a 2.5-day mindfulness-based childbirth preparation course offered as a weekend workshop or a standard childbirth preparation course with no mind-body focus.4 Participants completed self-report assessments pre-intervention, post-intervention, and post-birth, and medical record data were collected. Compared to standard childbirth education, those in the mindfulness-based workshop showed greater childbirth self-efficacy and mindful body awareness, reduced pain catastrophizing and lower post-course depression symptoms that were maintained through postpartum follow-up. Participants in the mindfulness workshop also demonstrated a trend toward a lower rate of opioid analgesia use in labor.

In a qualitative study, researchers conducted in-depth interviews at four to six months postpartum with ten mothers at increased risk of perinatal stress, anxiety and depression and six fathers who had participated in a Mindfulness Based Childbirth and Parenting Program (MBCP).5 The MBCP program integrates mindfulness training into childbirth education. Participants meet for eight 2 hour and 15 minute weekly sessions and a reunion after babies are born. Specific mindfulness practices introduced include body scan, mindful movement, sitting meditation and walking meditation. Also, methods to integrate mindfulness into pain management, parenting and activities of daily living are introduced. Participants are asked to practice at home for 30 min per day in between sessions supported by audio guided instructions and informative texts.

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Most clinicians will agree that stress can amplify a patient’s pain and slow recovery. Mindfulness training provides patients with the ability to self-regulate their stress reaction and has been shown to reduce pain and depression and improve quality of life in patients with chronic pain conditions.1 The growing popularity of meditation training to manage stress has led to an increased interest in the physiological mechanisms by which meditation influences the body’s stress reaction. A systematic review and meta-analysis examined the results of randomized controlled trials that compared the impact meditation interventions to active control groups on stress measures. 2 Forty-five studies were included. Meditation practices examined were focused attention, open monitoring and mantra repetition. Outcome measures studied were cortisol, blood pressure, heart rate, lipid and peripheral cytokine expression. Studies had diverse participants including healthy adults, undergraduate students, army soldiers, veterans, cancer survivors, and individuals with chronic pain conditions, cardiovascular disease, depression and hypertension.

When all meditation forms were analyzed together, meditation reduced blood cortisol, C-reactive protein, resting and ambulatory blood pressure, heart rate, triglycerides and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. The effect of meditation on:

  • Cortisol and resting heart rate was considered to be high level of evidence.
  • C-reactive protein, blood pressure, triglycerides and tumor necrosis factor-alpha was considered to be moderate level of evidence.

Analyzed individually:

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Does cognitive self-regulation influence the pain experience by modulating representations of nociceptive stimuli in the brain or does it regulate reported pain via neural pathways distinct from the one that mediates nociceptive processing? Woo and colleagues devised an experiment to answer this question.1 They invited thirty-three healthy participants to undergo fMRI while receiving thermal stimulation trial runs that involved 6 levels of temperatures. Trial runs included “passive experience” where participants passively received and rated heat stimuli, and “regulation” runs, where participants were asked to cognitively increase or decrease pain intensity.

Instructions for increasing pain intensity included statements such as “Try to focus on how unpleasant the pain is. Pay attention to the burning, stinging and shooting sensation.” Instructions for decreasing pain intensity included statements such as “Focus on the part of the sensation that is pleasantly warm. Imagine your skin is very cool and how good the stimulation feels as it warms you up.” The effects of both manipulations on two brain systems previously identified in the literature were examined. One brain system was the “neurological pain signature” (NPS), a distributed pattern of fMRI activity shown to specifically track pain intensity induced by noxious inputs. The second system was the pathway connecting the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) with the nucleus accumbens (NAc), shown to play a role in both reappraisal and modulation of pain. In humans, the vmPFC tracks spontaneous pain when it has become chronic and potentially dissociated from nociception.2,3 In patients with sub-acute back pain, the vmPFC-NAc connectivity has been shown to predict subsequent transition to chronic back pain.4 In addition, the vmPCF is hypothesized to play a role in the construction of self-representations, assigning personal value to self-related contents and, ultimately, influencing choices and decisions.5

Woo and colleagues found that both heat intensity and self-regulation strongly influenced reported pain, however they did so by two differing pathways. The NPS mediated only the effects of nociceptive input. The self-regulation effects on pain were mediated by the NAc-vmPFC pathway, which was unresponsive to the intensity of nociceptive input. The NAc-vmPFC pathway responded to both “increase” and “decrease” self-regulation conditions. Based on these results, study authors suggest that pain is influenced by both noxious input and cognitive self-regulation, however they are modulated by two distinct brain mechanisms. While the NPS encodes brain activity closely tied to primary nociceptive processing, the NAc-vmPFC pathway encodes information about evaluative aspects of pain in context. This research is limited in that the distinction between pain intensity and pain unpleasantness was not included and the subjects were otherwise healthy. Further research is warranted on the effects of this cognitive self-regulation model on brain pathways in patients with chronic pain conditions.

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As so many of our patients are shallow breathers, I found this research on the effects of mindful attention to the breath (MATB) on prefrontal cortical and amygdala activity especially informative and relevant to patient care. Twenty-six healthy volunteers with no prior meditation experience were introduced to MATB by an experienced meditation teacher and instructed to practice a 20-minute audio guided MATB meditation daily for 2 weeks.1 At the end of the 2-week training period, subjects underwent fMRI scanning while viewing distressing emotional images with MATB and with passive viewing (PV). Participants were shown aversive pictures or no pictures and were instructed to “Please focus your attention on your breath as you were instructed in the training” or “Please watch the picture without changing anything about your feelings.” Subjects indicated their current affect on a 7 point scale ranging from -3 (very negative) to +3 (very positive).

Breathing frequency significantly decreased during MATB compared to PV. Researchers controlled for this by including breathing frequency as a covariate in further behavioral and brain data analysis.

Analysis of affective ratings showed that participants felt significantly less negative affect when viewing distressing visual stimuli during MATB than PV. During negative visual stimuli, MATB significantly decreased bilateral amygdala activation compared to PV. Also, right amygdala activation decrease specifically correlated with successful emotional regulation. That is, those participants with greater reductions in right amygdala activation reported greater reductions in aversive emotions during the MATB. In addition, emotion-related functional connectivity increased between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala during the viewing of negative images and MATB.

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For many of our patients, chronic pain is a chronic stress. Unfortunately, the resulting ongoing physiological stress reaction can have neurotoxic influences in key brain regions, including the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, and drive maladaptive neuroplastic changes that may further fuel a chronic pain condition.1 For example, chronic stress generates extensive dendritic spine loss in the prefrontal cortex, hyperactivity in the amygdala, and neurogenesis suppression in the hippocampus.2,3,4 In parallel, patients with chronic pain have been shown to exhibit reduced gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, increased neuronal excitability in the amygdala and reduced hippocampal neurogenesis.5,6,7

These three brain areas have been identified to play an important role in fear learning and memory.8 Modulated by stress hormones and stress-induced neuroplastic changes, stress may:
(a) enhance the memory of the initial pain experience at pain onset
(b) promote the later persistence of the pain memory
(c) impair the memory extinction process and the ability to establish a new memory trace.9

In other words, an ongoing stress reaction, triggered by distressing cognitions and emotions in response to pain or other life circumstances, could reinforce and strengthen the memory of pain. The experience of pain could be generated not by nociceptive activity, but by a well-established memory of pain and inability of the brain to create new associations. Leading researchers in the cortical dynamics of pain at Northwestern University suggest this learning process and persistence of pain memory could be a major influencing mechanism driving chronic pain.9,10

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Coaching Patients to Engage in Positive Activities to Improve Outcomes

Substantial attention has been given to the impact of negative emotional states on persistent pain conditions. The adverse effects of anger, fear, anxiety and depression on pain are well-documented. Complementing this emphasis on negative emotions, Hanssen and colleagues suggest that interventions aimed at cultivating positive emotional states may have a role to play in pain reduction and/or improved well-being in patients, despite pain. They suggest positive affect may promote adaptive function and buffer the adversities of a chronic pain condition.

Hanssen and colleagues propose positive psychology interventions could contribute to improved pain, mood and behavioral measures through various mechanisms. These include the modulation of spinal and supraspinal nociceptive pathways, buffering the stress reaction and reducing stress-induced hyperalgesia, broadening attention, decreasing negative pain-related cognitions, diminishing rigid behavioral responses and promoting behavioral flexibility.

In a feasibility trial, 96 patients were randomized to a computer-based positive activity intervention or control condition. The intervention required participants perform at least one positive activity for at least 15 minutes at least 1 day/week for 8 weeks. The positive activity included such tasks as performing good deeds for others, counting blessings, taking delight in life’s momentary wonders and pleasures, writing about best possible future selves, exercising or devoting time to pursuing a meaningful goal. The control group was instructed to be attentive to their surroundings and write about events or activities for at least 15 minutes at least 1 day/week for 8 weeks. Those in the positive activity intervention demonstrated significant improvements in pain intensity, pain interference, pain control, life satisfaction, and depression, and at program completion and 2-month follow-up. Based on these promising results, authors suggest that a full trial of the intervention is warranted.

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As brain research in pain processing suggests, pain engages overlapping cortical networks responsible for nociception, cognition, emotion, stress and memory, a treatment model targeting nociceptive mechanisms alone can be inadequate to address the complexities of a patient’s pain experience.1 To help physical therapists understand and more effectively address multiple factors influencing a patient’s pain, the APTA, Orthopaedic Section and Pain Management Special Interest Group have brought together 10 physical therapists and a physician from around the country to present an informative and dynamic 2-day pre-conference course, Keep Calm and Treat Pain, Feb 21 and 22 at CSM 2018 in New Orleans. Presentation topics include the Science of Pain, Pain Education, Pain Psychology, Motivational Interviewing and Sleep and Pain. In addition, I will present An Introduction to Mindful Awareness Training and Its Role in Pain Treatment, and my colleague at Herman and Wallace, Megan Pribyl, PT, MSPT, will present Pain and Nutrition: Building Resilience Through Nourishment.

As we are in the midst of the opioid crisis, this programming could not come at a better time. In this regard, I am especially excited to share information on how mindfulness training has been shown to help patients who are reducing opioid medications to increase positive affect, decrease pain interference and reduce opioid craving.2, 3 I will also describe how mindful awareness training helps address a patient’s fears and fear avoidant behavior and will guide mindfulness exercises.4, 5

I am honored to be a part of this pioneering program that combines didactic presentations with experiential exercises and lab practice to offer participants the latest science of pain and practical skills to more successfully treat pain. In addition, I am presenting an Educational Session sponsored by the Federal Section on the topic Mindful Awareness Training for Veterans with Comorbid Pain and PTSD based on my research experience at the Puget Sound VA in Seattle. I hope to see you at CSM!

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Mindful eating requires slowing down and paying attention to the present moment experience of eating. Rather than mindlessly put food into your mouth and not really taste what you’re eating, you deliberately notice the appearance, smell, texture and taste of the food and pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Eating mindfully can interrupt habitual eating behaviors and promote greater self-regulation of food choices.1 Warren and colleagues conclude mindful eating has the potential to help address maladaptive eating behaviors and the difficulties many face with controlling food intake.2

Although mindful breathing, body scan and movement are the core skills I teach patients with persistent pain, I introduce mindful eating as another strategy to cultivate present moment awareness. Patients can have surprising shifts in their relationship to food and frequently comment, “If I ate more mindfully, I would enjoy my food more and eat less!”

Lucie Khadduri, PT, DPT, PRPC clinician and Adjunct Professor at the University of Puget Sound School of Physical Therapy, took my course last spring and describes her patient’s experience with mindful eating:

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Faculty member Carolyn McManus, PT, MS, MA is the instructor of Mindfulness Based Pain Treatment, a course which enables practitioners to learn about the impacts of cognitive and emotional state on pain. Herman & Wallace was very lucky to have her join the faculty in 2014, and she has written in to share more about her reasons for doing so. Join her in the Bay Area this May 14-15!

I am inspired to teach for Herman and Wallace because I need more colleagues to help meet the continual demand for my skills and treatment approach. I teach patients mindfulness, body awareness and strategies to self-regulate the nervous system. Patients need to learn how to pay attention to the body in a therapeutic manner, release muscle tension, reduce the stress reaction and adopt an attitude that promotes healing and well-being. With the ability to rest the mind in the present moment, listen to the body with mindful awareness and take control of reactions to stress and pain, patients can reduce pain, make greater progress with exercise programs and improve activity levels. There is a huge demand for this treatment approach. I always have a full schedule and an insanely long wait list. More therapists who can offer mindfulness-based pain treatment are needed.

I also want to get the word out that there is a lot we can do to prevent chronic pain

I also want to get the word out that there is a lot we can do to prevent chronic pain. Research suggests that a reduction in pain inhibitory mechanisms contribute to persistent pain. These mechanisms can be influenced by stress and cognitive and emotional modulation. Working with patients in pain for over 30 years, I have developed a clear and simple way to explain the role of cognitive and emotional factors in pain perception. I find that once patients truly understand how their reactions can amplify or inhibit nociceptive pathways, they are empowered to take an active role in a holistic treatment approach. We can improve the chances of recovery for patients at risk of chronic pain by identifying them early early on and providing them with education and mindfulness-based strategies to self-regulate the nervous system. Patients can be offered specific skills to reduce the stress reaction, fear, catastrophic thinking and the negative attitudes that amplify and prolong pain.

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The following comes to us from Carolyn McManus, PT, MS, MA, our resident expert in the power of mindfulness and it's applications to rehabilitation. Carolyn was recently featured in a video from the Journal of the American Medical Association for her contributions to a newly published research article. Join Carolyn at her course, Mindfulness Based Pain Treatment: A Biopsychosocial Approach to the Treatment of Chronic Pain on May 14th and 15th in California's Bay Area!

Neuroimaging studies show that cortical and sub-cortical brain regions associated with cognitive and emotional processing connect directly with descending pain modulating circuits arising in the brainstem. As diminished nociceptive inhibition by descending pain modulation is a likely contributing factor to the persistence of pain, these cortical and sub-cortical connections to relevant brainstem regions provide a means by which maladaptive cognitive and emotional processing can contribute to the persistence of pain1. It is possible that strategies to help patients self-regulate cognitions and emotions could promote pain reduction through restoring the balance between excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms of the descending pain modulatory system.

To be mindful is to rest the mind in the present moment with stability and acceptance and without additional cognitive or emotional elaboration. Mindful body awareness is a central component. Training in mindful awareness has been shown to improve attention regulation, emotional processing and body awareness and contribute to reduced pain intensity, catastrophizing, depression and anxiety2,3,4,5. Training in mindfulness has also been shown to modulate brain activity in areas associated with body awareness and pain processing6,7. It is possible that the adaptive modulation of cortical and sub-cortical areas engaged with mindful cognitive, emotional and physical self-regulation could contribute to reducing pain through improving the balance between excitatory and inhibitory mechanisms of the descending pain modulatory system.

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Upcoming Continuing Education Courses

Yoga for Pelvic Pain - Remote Course

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Replacement Remote Course

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Wallingford, CT Satellite Course

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Ivy Rehab Physical Therapy

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Charlotte, NC Satellite Course (SOLD OUT)

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Ivy Rehab Physical Therapy

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Virginia Beach, VA Satellite Course

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Southeastern Physical Therapy

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Salt Lake City, UT Satellite Course

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Hand and Orthopedic Physical Therapy Specialists

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Chamblee, GA Satellite Course

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Revelle Physical Therapy Atlanta

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Baldwin, WI Satellite Course

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Western Wisconsin Health

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Smyrna, TN Satellite Course

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Benchmark Physical Therapy - Smyrna, TN

Trauma Awareness for the Pelvic Therapist - Remote Course

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Replacement Remote Course

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Las Vegas, NV Satellite Course (SOLD OUT)

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Action Therapeutics LLC

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Greenville, SC Satellite Course

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: His Therapy

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Willingboro, NJ Satellite Course

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Kinesis Rehabilitation

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Self-Hosted

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Self-Hosted Course

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Saint Peters, MO Satellite Course (Canceled)

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Excel Spine & Sports Rehab

Pelvic Floor Level 2B - Chicago, IL Satellite Course

Sep 25, 2021 - Sep 26, 2021
Location: Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center

Mobilization of Visceral Fascia 2: The Reproductive System - Medford, OR Satellite Location

Oct 1, 2021 - Oct 3, 2021
Location: Asante Rogue Valley Medical Center

Oncology of the Pelvic Floor Level 2A - Remote Course

Oct 2, 2021 - Oct 3, 2021
Location: Replacement Remote Course

Pregnancy Rehabilitation - Remote Course (SOLD OUT)

Oct 2, 2021 - Oct 3, 2021
Location: Replacement Remote Course

Pelvic Floor Level 2A - Marietta, GA Satellite Location (SOLD OUT)

Oct 9, 2021 - Oct 10, 2021
Location: Southern Pelvic Health

Pelvic Floor Level 2A - Self-Hosted

Oct 9, 2021 - Oct 10, 2021
Location: Self-Hosted Course

Pelvic Floor Level 2A - Livonia, MI Satellite Location (SOLD OUT)

Oct 9, 2021 - Oct 10, 2021
Location: Mendelson Kornblum Physical Therapy

Pelvic Floor Level 1 - Torrance, CA Satellite Location (SOLD OUT)

Oct 9, 2021 - Oct 10, 2021
Location: Women's Advantage Inc

Pelvic Floor Level 2A - Smyrna, TN Satellite Location (SOLD OUT)

Oct 9, 2021 - Oct 10, 2021
Location: Benchmark Physical Therapy - Smyrna, TN

Pelvic Floor Level 2A - Columbia, MO Satellite Location (SOLD OUT)

Oct 9, 2021 - Oct 10, 2021
Location: Mizzou Therapy Services

Pelvic Floor Level 1 - Little Rock, AR Satellite Course

Oct 9, 2021 - Oct 10, 2021
Location: Core Pelvic Physical Therapy