Patient Information Resources

Alpine Physical Therapy
Three Locations
In North, South, and Downtown Missoula
Missoula, MT 59804
Ph: 406-251-2323
Fax: 406-251-2999

Child Orthopedics
Pain Management
Spine - Cervical
Spine - General
Spine - Lumbar
Spine - Thoracic

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I have a feeling I already know the answer to my question but I'm going to ask anyway. Two years ago, I was thrown from a horse and hurt my low back. I know they say you should always get right back on the horse but I was in the hospital for two weeks and then therapy for another six months. So I never did go back to my riding lessons. And I ended up with a pretty bad case of what they call fear-avoidance. Now I've had a bike accident and dinged up my neck. Is there such a thing as fear-avoidance for the neck? I want to avoid the fear-avoidance!

Fear of movement (also known as fear-avoidance behavior or FAB) is fairly common with chronic low back pain. Some people respond to pain with anxiety about their pain and fear about what it might do to them. They start to catastrophize the pain (build up negative thoughts in their minds about pain). Before you know it, they are no longer moving freely out of fear that certain movements and actions "might" cause pain. They stop moving and start avoiding activities they previously enjoyed freely. Over time they become deconditioned and even disabled. Studies show the same thing can happen with neck injuries. In a recent study, researchers from the George Institute for Global health in Sydney, Australia took a closer look at fear of movement as the possible mediating (indirect link or cause) between neck pain after whiplash injury and disability. They wanted to know: when neck pain from a whiplash injury occurs and becomes chronic is it the pain that causes disability in a direct chain of events? Or is there some other indirect factor or variable that links pain with disability? To find out, they took a group of patients (205) who had all been involved in a motor vehicle accident and had them each fill out four separate surveys. The questionnaires measured pain intensity, function, fear levels, and physical and mental health. These test measures were completed within four weeks of the accident and again three months after the accident and one final time six months after the accident. It is not possible to assume that neck pain after whiplash influences (fear-avoidance) behavior and leads to disability just because this relationship has been shown for low back pain. A separate analysis is necessary, which is why this study was done. After reviewing all the data and making comparisons, they found that fear of movement can explain about 20 to 40 per cent of pain-related disability. That means in 20 to 40 per cent of the patients, relieving pain did not reduce levels of disability. And for the remaining 60 per cent of the patients, there was either another factor responsible (besides fear of movement) or perhaps several factors present at the same time. These other factors could be things like the presence (and severity) of other physical problems, mental health issues, or social, economic, or cultural differences. Another conclusion from this study was the idea that there isn't a direct cause and effect between fear-avoidance behavior and disability. It looks more like there is a relationship of some type between pain, fear of movement, and disability but the word association is a better descriptor than cause. What are the clinical implications of these findings? Some, but not all, patients with whiplash associated disorders can be helped by therapy to reduce fear avoidance beliefs and behaviors. Knowing which patients might fall into this category will be the subject of future studies. Other studies are also needed to find out what other factors influence the pain-leading-to-disability phenomenon. The authors also suggest there is a need to examine the different tools used to measure catastrophizing, fear-avoidance beliefs, and fear of movement. It is possible that one of the many questionnaires in use could be more accurate and reliable than others when given to neck pain patients (compared with back pain patients). For now, we can say there is a relationship between pain and disability in patients with whiplash associated disorders, and that in a subset of these patients, fear of movement is the key factor at play.


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