Mind Your Language

When it comes to aches and pains, words matter. The words and phrases that are used to explain someone’s pain and disability are important, because they affect how we deal with the problem. The process of describing a particular problem or ailment isn’t as straightforward as you may think. There is usually no shortage of opinions and information, from family and friends, and of course from the internet. Very often this information is incomplete or contradictory.

A visit to a Medical Professional should help to clarify things, but this doesn’t always happen. This is because some of the language that Clinicians have traditionally used to explain pain and disability has been shown to be unhelpful and in some situations harmful. A common example is when someone has back or joint pain that has been around for some time. They may have been sent for an X-ray or a scan and then the findings of these investigations have been explained to them using a combination of everyday words and medical terminology. Commonly used phrases are “wear and tear”, “degenerative joint disease” or “crumbling joints”. The spine seems to have more than it’s fair share of scary and unhelpful words such as “slipped disc”, “bulging disc”, “trapped nerve”, and “joints out of place”. There may well be some changes evident on X-ray or scans, but contemporary medical science tells us that most of these are entirely normal and relate to the natural aging process rather than to damage or disease. In addition, we now know that the best way of managing most joint, back and neck conditions is to exercise and to use the affected areas. This is where the words we use really matter. If scary words and phrases are used like “degeneration” or “worn out joints”, then it is most likely that exercise and joint use will be the last thing that patient’s think is a sensible idea. This scenario plays out every day in clinics up and down the country and is a key feature of Jack’s story. At the age of 17, Jack was suffering from back pain. He was told that he “had the back of a 70 year old”. These words stuck with Jack and a few years later he was on the brink of having back surgery. You can see a video of Jack’s story on the “Resources” page of our web site. This story features the work of Professor Peter O’Sullivan. His approach to treating persistent pain problems has been called Cognitive Functional Therapy. We have been using this approach for several years now and have found it to be the most effective way of dealing with many longstanding and persistent joint and muscle related pain conditions. A key feature of Cognitive Functional Therapy is clear and concise communication that steers clear from unhelpful and potentially worrying jargon, and replaces it with meaningful, positive information