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PNE Review II: Mentally “Buffing” Chronic Pain Patients

POSTED ON IN Latest News BY Chris Centeno

PNE pain neuroscience review

I’ve blogged before about a new and disturbing trend in physical therapy called pain neuroscience education, or PNE. While I’ve tried to just ignore the daily and copious bovine excrement blowing up my Twitter feed regarding PNE, it’s hard to ignore where all of this came from and is headed. You see, if you have chronic pain, PNE is coming to a PT’s office near you and even invading the local universities like Viking marauders hijacking common sense in favor of demagoguery. Meaning, even though there’s a valid reason why you hurt and a way to diagnose and treat it, you’re about to be told it’s all in your head or at least all in your nerves. Let me explain.

Chronic Pain Exists Because Physicians Are Largely Awful at Diagnosing What’s Wrong with the Musculoskeletal System

PNE (aka therapeutic neuroscience education, or TNE) is a reboot of chronic pain programs from the ’80s and ’90s. This is pretty funny because most younger PTs believe this to be some sort of new ancient wisdom handed down from on high; whereas, it’s really a recycled failed idea. Where it differs is that PNE recognizes that pain signals are real. Where it’s identical is that the solution to chronic pain is to convince patients to ignore their pain. Also where it’s the same is this idea that chronic pain is some enigma wrapped in a riddle, hence the need to talk patients out of disability.

So is chronic pain real? Absolutely. Why can’t it be effectively diagnosed and treated by most physicians? Because they have absolutely no training that would allow that to happen.

How did we get to a place where the average physician, regardless of whether in private practice or in a university medical school, is not expert in the area of chronic pain diagnosis? First, many medical subspecialties originate in internal medicine. The basic concept here is that medications should be used to treat everything. Understanding how the muscles, nerves, and joints work doesn’t fit well into that mind-set; in fact, it’s often diametrically opposed to it. Second, we have subspecialists tied to surgery. While there is more biomechanical understanding in that group, the focus isn’t on the diagnosis of complex chronic pain conditions or dysfunction of the normal biomechanics, but on how surgery X might help problem Y. Since most chronic pain patients get worse and not better with surgery, groups like orthopedic surgeons view these patients as one big puzzle. Is any specialty more inclined to understand chronic pain? Interventional spine is about as close as you can get, but the basic tenet of that group causes more problems for these patients. Let me explain.

The single unifying theory behind interventional spine is the “pain generator.” This means that some single injection into the spine to numb a specific part will provide robust relief. However, while a few patients with chronic spinal pain will be able to be diagnosed this way, most will not. Why? They have multiple areas that hurt, and blocking the pain from any one of them will give them less than robust relief. Hence, these patients often fall into the “I don’t have a diagnosis” category in interventional spine.

How do I know this is a real problem? Just talk to any chronic pain patient and listen to their story about being shuffled from one medical specialist to another and getting a ubiquitous blank stare. Many of these patients who have responded to nothing, we and other physicians are often able to help by realizing how the biomechanics work and by understanding that the multiple areas that hurt all need to be treated at once.

So what happens when a chronic pain patient without a diagnosis meets a physical therapist trained in PNE? Since the physicians who have much more training than the physical therapist can’t diagnose what’s wrong, the likelihood that the average physical therapist will is even smaller. In addition, the physical therapists that might be able to diagnose and treat these patients are all super specialists who are few and far between and less likely to buy into the ideas behind PNE. Hence, the likelihood of finding a therapist who can help is infinitesimal.

Therefore, we have the setting for a perfect storm that supports PNE—patients who are hard to diagnose meeting armies of medical specialists and physical therapists who aren’t trained to diagnose them. Throw in that many of these patients don’t have a common imaging study with a “smoking gun” finding and it’s not hard to see why they get marginalized. It’s not hard to see why physical therapists who practice PNE are so convinced that the patient’s pain is based on the idea of being injured or having a spine that’s deteriorating rather than a real physical problem that needs a physical treatment.

Buff ‘Em Up!

If you really want to see how we physicians are trained to think, read Samuel Shem’s House of God. It was the first time the public was introduced to the inner mind and slang of physicians in a big city training hospital.

Some quotes will tell you all you need to know:


“But GOMERS are not just dear old people,” said Fats. “Gomers are human beings who have lost what goes into being human beings. They want to die, and we will not let them. We’re cruel to the GOMERS, by saving them, and they’re cruel to us, by fighting tooth and nail against our trying to save them. They hurt us, we hurt them.”

GOMER stands for “Get Out of My ER.” These are older people with incurable diseases who end up in the ER because they’re indigent or because their families are concerned about their declining health. They can either be “Turfed” or “Buffed.” Turfing means to send them to another specialty, not because you think they can really be helped by that specialist but because in a game of “hot potato,” your job is to get rid of the GOMER. Another option if he or she can’t be turfed is “Buffing.” Here, you get labs, which always look awful, and then give patients what they need to make the labs look better, and then get the patients out the door. The patient will feel a bit better, but you know it won’t last.

At the end of the day, PNE is just a form of “buffing.” The physical therapist doesn’t understand the disease state that’s causing the chronic pain. However, you can mentally buff chronic pain patients by trying to make them believe that their pain is not as bad as they think it is and that they really don’t have a disease, but rather just hyperactive nerves. While it’s all a big fiction, much like buffing in the House of God, patients will report feeling better. It’s this last part that’s the most disturbing about PNE.

You see, PNE has been tried before. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, it was called a comprehensive, multidisciplinary chronic pain program. Back then, the concepts were the same, save for the recognition that chronic pain patients had abnormal nerve activity (central sensitization). Patients would enter these obnoxiously expensive and resource-intensive 2–3 week programs where they would be mentally “buffed.” Most would figure out, pretty quick, that this personal hell would all be over once they reported that their perception of their pain wasn’t real and that the coping strategies they learned were helping their pain and improving their function. Hence, the chronic pain programs all reported amazing results. However, they became a bit of a joke in the medical community because after spending tens of thousands of dollars on these programs, these patients all still had pain, and all were still disabled. They maybe had a few more strategies on how to cope with their pain, but that was all they got out of the program.

Fast-forward a few decades, and physical therapists in their 20s, 30s, and 40s don’t remember these programs as they were gone or in decline by the time they began their careers. Hence, PNE looks like a new and fresh idea in how to approach these patients. In addition, the little research done so far on PNE looks amazing as the buffing effect in medicine is quite real. However, all of these same patients who see a PNE therapist who will report amazing effects will be right back in somebody’s ER or office once their pain flares, no closer to a successful diagnosis and treatment.

The upshot? I’ll leave you with a paper I wrote many years ago. My dog had a limp that would go away when I gave her a treat. I reviewed the pain inhibition pathways from the brain to the spinal cord that allowed my dog to suppress the pain from her hip arthritis to meet a biologic imperative: food. Hence, PNE patients are no different. They, too, can activate pain-suppression pathways to reduce their pain, but after being mentally “buffed” in this way, don’t expect any real long-term progress! PNE is simply a medical magic trick that was discredited long ago and has its roots in the ERs of the 1960s and ’70s and the chronic pain programs of the ’80s and ’90s. Just remember, after her treat, my dog’s limp would always return!




    Debra says

    As a chronic pain patient due to generalized ostearthritis I have been to neurosurgeons for c-spine fusions, orthopedist for hip and lumbar pain ,, rhumetatologist for stem cell transplants(2) and a anesthologists for nerve ablation in my knee! Want to know something, I can predict when it is going to rain based on my pain level. It never ends regardless how much physical therapy I have, how much acupuncture or how much Percocet, I still hurt. Some days It takes me almost a half of an hour to get from bed in the morning down 12 steps to the kitchen to feed my dogs. Wish those folks in white who think up all these programs could have my pain for just one day.


    Lee-Anne Marshall says

    Dear Chris,
    Thank you dearly for this blog.
    Ironically, I am a 56 yr old physical therapist in chronic pain with degenerative arthritis in both hips and spine. I'm not your classic "chronic pain type client" as I am slim, fit, and (otherwise) super-healthy. I gave up ballroom dancing for cycling, and squash for weight training. I struggle to continue working two days a week.
    I have had one hip replaced, and a stem cell treatment in June this year in the Regenexx Oceanside clinic for the other hip. I haven't noticed any improvement in the stem cell hip yet, but have not given up hope.
    I am totally sick to death of my physical therapy colleagues, some of them considered specialists in their field of orthopaedics, telling me that I need to think about my pain differently, not to focus on it and to understand that the pain is not an accurate reflection of joint trauma (rather a repetitive firing of nerves out of habit). I'm informed that I need to manage my pain, and not let it manage me! They need to walk in my shoes for just one day!
    So, thank you again!


    Caolán Maher says

    Dear Dr Centeno. Thank you so much for the post , I'm glad you've cleared up such a hazy topic.
    I live with chronic pain and Many physical therapists Ive encountered try to tell me my pain is in my head. It was 'nothing to worry' about They said . I was just 'sensitive' and my body was simply ' over reacting' Others told me there was nothing physically wrong with me , because "they " couldn't find anything.

    Its amazing how people will question the very real and harsh reality you live in and try to pass it off as a mental condition. I understand, it's easier for them to say since they're not the ones who have to live with the pain and disability . They can just pass you off instead of studying and attempting to understand the complex bio mechanical system .

    Thanks for all the content . Soon, I will be receiving the regenexx treatment in Belgium. I look forward to it.

    Caolán - physio student


    Chris Centeno says


    Understanding boimechanics and an understanding of pain will make you a great physio - so happy that you will be receiving treatment!


    Lorraine says

    Bravo on calling out the bovine excrement!


    Daniel says

    Think most physical therapists would never tell patients it is in their head! What generalisations this article makes. Nor do we offer a 'cure'. We are just trying to help people manage their pain. We are all trying to help. Would have thought stem cell therapy costs a lot more than physical therapy. Here in the UK most people would not be able to afford it. Perhaps working together and coming up with collaborative solutions would help patients better than writing obnoxious articles. It is a very complex area.


    Chris Centeno says

    Daniel, PNE seeks to oversimplify the concept of pain generation, which harms more patients than it helps. I know PNE fanatics don't tell patient's it's all in their head, instead they claim it's all in their nerves, which is really the same thing, restated. Hence, rather than trying to get to an often complex diagnosis in chronic pain patients, PNE seeks to make the complex simple. That makes for great courses that sell well to PTs, but not for good medicine.


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    About the Author

    Chris Centeno

    Christopher J. Centeno, M.D. is an international expert and specialist in regenerative medicine and the clinical use of mesenchymal stem cells in orthopedics. He is board certified in physical medicine as well as rehabilitation and in pain management through The American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.…

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