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Reflections on the IASP World Congress 2022 in Toronto

Sep 26, 2022

Last week I attended the International Association in the Study of Pain’s (IASP) world congress in Toronto, Canada.  Five days full from 8.15 am to 18.30 of pain science, pain care development, novel and re-exploration of existing pain therapeutics and therapies and, of course, the post-conference fun as we asked questions of the presented material and each others practice. Not to mention the beer….



So, as I sit here in seat 21A on my flight to Cancun, Mexico for my next adventure, I’m left with a warm feeling of being part of a huge family of pain researchers, clinicians and thinkers - all dedicated and passionate about understanding pain, improving pain care and creating an effective international cross-discipline network. 


There are many reasons to go to a scientific conference, but for me, the overwhelming feeling of relief is by far the most important. Why do I feel relieved? It’s a complex feeling and I will try my best to unpick it in a way that makes sense. 


As a physiotherapist, I feel myself in a crisis of professional identity and at times isolated from the research community. The basic science can feel so far removed from what I’m doing and seeing on the clinic floor and I rarely see my practice reflected in the TrP channels, or the NAV channels for that matter, so often discussed in the literature. Being at the World Congress shifted something for me. I felt a huge relief to see so many generous and passionate scientists working on intricate models of biology because it is so necessary. I felt held as a therapist by the scientific community in a way that I didn’t really expect. The work I do with people experiencing pain can feel impossibly complex and wins are few and far between, but to know that in the background of my practice, there are hundreds and thousands of people efficiently moving through and following the science to better understand the hundreds complex physiological processes and mechanisms  that are happening within all of our bodies felt like a safety net.


I have always loved the science, but for the first time ever, I felt like the science loved me a little a bit. I saw and felt the emotional investment and commitment to simply better understanding this thing we call pain so that we, clinicians, might be able to make better choices, develop more informed and effective approaches and nurture novel and interesting collaborations in the name of ethical and humane pain care.


There was a nice mixture of talks and I felt reassured and visible every time a speaker emphasised the limitations of their science, the complexity of the human experience and the biopsychosocialness of pain.  Of course, there is no such thing as perfect, I was sad to see such gap in representation from non-psychology allied health (Physios, Occupation Therapists, Social Workers, Osteopaths, Exercise and rehabilitation specialists - I’m looking at you) both int he audience and as speakers. But, I’m not colluding with the old-fashioned narrative that we aren’t invited, our perspective not considered, or perhaps the most damaging, that the presented work is not relevant to our field or practice.


This lack of representation is, in equal part, on us. We don’t go. We don’t stand up and ask questions. We don’t co-present alongside basic scientists as our our neuropsychology colleagues do. We seem to have opted for social media debates and twitter bullying. A much less appropriate field for discussing the complexity and suffering that comes with pain.


Time for change


If we are to be taken seriously as pain specialised consulting therapists, and I think we should be, we must answer this call to action and direct our energies into understanding how the basic science as well as the therapeutic science and philosophy applies to us and informs our decisions on the clinic floor. And if it doesn’t, then we need to start asking and encouraging scientists to look in our direction. Because what we do is a relevant and rich playground for the researchers to do what they do best - ask ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘what could make it better’.


So, I strongly recommend that clinicians consider attending this conference at least once.  Because knowing that you have a place in this family of people with a shared mission and vision in pain is incredibly empowering and grounding. The next conference will be in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. As this is my home town I am very excited to be there and share the best of Amsterdam with friends and colleagues. 


So I hope to see you there!


Laura x


Laura Rathbone is a Specialised Pain Consulting Therapist bringing together her knowledge of physiology, rehabilitation, psychotherapy and communication in her clinical offering for people experiencing complex and persistent pain.  She spends much of her time supporting clinicians to develop their knowledge and skills to develop their own practice and be able to support more people with complex pain. She is committed to holding a knowledge translation space with her Subscription writing regular in-depth papers, developing courses and inviting subscribers to join the live recordings of her two podcasts: The Speak Easy - a private podcast for subscribers and Philosophers Chatting with Clinicians - a public and free podcast for all people interested in pain.

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