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Beliefs underlying pain-related fear and how they evolve: a qualitative investigation in people with chronic back pain and high pain-related fear
  1. Samantha Bunzli1,
  2. Anne Smith1,
  3. Robert Schütze2,
  4. Peter O'Sullivan1
  1. 1School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
  2. 2School of Psychology and Speech Pathology, Curtin University, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Samantha Bunzli; samantha.bunzli{at}


Objectives The fear-avoidance model describes how the belief that pain is a sign of damage leads to pain-related fear and avoidance. But other beliefs may also trigger the fear and avoidance responses described by the model. Experts have called for the next generation of fear avoidance research to explore what beliefs underlie pain-related fear and how they evolve. We have previously described damage beliefs and suffering/functional loss beliefs underlying high pain-related fear in a sample of individuals with chronic back pain. The aim of this study is to identify common and differential factors associated with the beliefs in this sample.

Design A qualitative study employing semistructured interviews.

Setting Musculoskeletal clinics in Western Australia.

Participants 36 individuals with chronic back pain and high scores on the Tampa Scale (mean 47/68).

Results The overarching theme was a pain experience that did not make sense to the participants. The experience of pain as unpredictable, uncontrollable and intense made it threatening. Attempting to make sense of the threatening pain, participants with damage beliefs drew on past personal experiences of pain, societal beliefs, and sought diagnostic certainty. Met with diagnostic uncertainty, or diagnoses of an underlying pathology that could not be fixed, they were left fearful of damage and confused about how to ‘fix’ it. Participants with suffering/functional loss beliefs drew on past personal experiences of pain and sought help from healthcare professionals to control their pain. Failed treatments and the repeated failure to achieve functional goals left them unable to make ‘sensible’ decisions of what to do about their pain.

Conclusions The findings raise the suggestion that sense-making processes may be implicated in the fear-avoidance model. Future research is needed to explore whether fear reduction may be enhanced by considering beliefs underlying fear and providing targeted intervention to help individuals make sense of their pain.


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