Hands-on treatment for pain should form part of the therapy programme for painful conditions including chronic or persisting pain. A line of thought exists that the hands-off approach for chronic pain is best yet there are some clear ways that clinicians can use their hands with great effect. It is also expected when a person goes to see a physiotherapist that they will receive manual treatments as a way to feel better, and indeed people often do feel better when such therapies are used wisely.
There is no certainty as to why hands-on treatment works but it is safe to assume that touch has an effect that is likely to be underpinned by a change in the interpretation of sensory input from the body. Modern concepts of brain function suggest that what we experience is the brain’s best guess about what the sensory information in that moment means, based on prior experience. This based upon probability that the sensory information infers something, i.e. something pleasant and hence the touch feels good, comforting, soothing etc., or something unpleasant and therefore the touch can feel painful or uncomfortable.
Touch is deemed important for healthy development and is certainly an act that is used commonly to communicate. In the same way then, touch can be used to communicate in the therapeutic setting as well as create an opportunity to change pain and sensitivity. We are changing constantly with each moment being fresh and new — in fact, this is one of only a few definites in life, is that we change. We are designed to change and hence the feeling we are feeling now is only temporary. The sense of ourselves, ‘me’, is something that we feel is constant yet it changes as time passes and we gather new experiences, learning and developing.
It is worth pointing out that the mention of brain does not mean that we are only a brain. I am a whole person made of my body, brain, mind and environment, none of which is any more important as it is the sum that makes me and who I feel I am at any given moment. The false division of mind and body certainly does not hold up. My mind is not in my head or my brain, I ma my mind, which is why when I think I use my body and my brain together as ‘me’ within a particular context (environment) in a particular moment (that has just passed). This may seem like play with words, yet it is fundamental to successfully addressing pain because this understanding gives both hope and a practical way forward as we use this knowledge to create a programme of treatment, training and movement to overcome pain so that it does not dominate but instead has its place as a survival mechanism. Briefly, pain is a motivator to take action on the basis that I am predicting the need for protection against a perceived threat. More threat, more protection, more pain — not more pain = more damage as was traditionally thought. Hence, the reduction of threat is our aim.
Now back to touch: how we can use it and how it plays a role in reducing pain. Preparing the recipient of the hands-on treatment is important, priming them with an explanation and positive expectations. This can be done by simply describing why it is useful, saying that it is usually a pleasant experience to ease symptoms whilst dropping in calming, soothing words into the conversation. Addressing concerns, especially if they have had a painful treatment beforehand, is also part of the preamble, in essence ploughing the field before sewing the seeds. Then the contact begins.
The clinician can do a few things to prepare him or herself so that the first contact is felt to be compassionate and soothing from the outset. This is of course the aim — to be soothing and to create calm, changing the way that the recipient’s brain is predicting what the sensory information means, i.e. it means safety. And safety in turn means less, or no need for protection, and no protection = no pain.
Prepare clean, warm hands
Take a breath or two and let muscles relax on the out-breath (we are not always aware of how much tension we are holding, especially if we have been using manual therapy often through the day)
Let go of any distracting thoughts and be entirely focused on the touch and responses of the person; again, the out-breath is good for focusing on the present moment
On starting the hands-on part of the session, having prepared the recipient and being present oneself, the first touch allows the therapist to note how guarded and protective the person is in respect of the body. The image of pushing a cork in a barrel of water is a useful visualisation of how to ease into, and respond to the person. It is worth considering that it is the person experiencing the touch and not the body part itself. It is the person who is conscious and gives meaning to the touch, and hence it is the person to keep in mind as you lay hands on. The treatment then becomes a dance or an art form as the hands and the body form an alliance that aims to transform sensory signals into the experience of relief; soothing, calming and peaceful. This would be the same whether the technique more soft tissue (the many forms of massage) or mobilising a joint.
Prepare the person
Apply the treatment
Conclude the treatment, making it obvious with the hands before uttering a few soothing words (consider tone, volume etc) that allows the person to realise the completion
Give a few moments for orientation and shift of state before inviting them to sit up or change position
Of course, hands-on forms only part of the programme with the other facets addressing the different dimensions of pain in an integrated manner: addressing the whole person. However, a key point made here is that in order to be as effective as we can, recognising our role as individual clinicians with our own characteristics and style, we must pay attention to the person, ourselves and the context in equal measure.