Survivor was an enormous challenge. Living for 48 days in the Australian Outback, sleeping in the dirt, eating a handful of rice a day, competing in challenges, and manoeuvring around 23 castaways to win the title of Sole Survivor. Ultimately, Survivor is a test of resilience. I was able to draw on my experiences working as a physiotherapist with people living with chronic pain; to draw on the resilience I observed when someone with pain learns to adapt, to make sense of pain, to try and test solutions, and to hold onto hope.
In the clinic, we often ask people with pain to re-frame what pain means. Survivor game me a chance to apply those pain science principles. Many of the challenges were designed to be painful, like the one where we stood on narrow pegs for 5 ½ hours. I approached those challenges with the mindset of trying to reduce threat. Pain is often assumed to be an indicator of tissue damage; but, modern pain science tells us that pain is protection in response to threat. Threat may take many forms; not just what was happening in the body, but also thoughts, emotions, and context. So, I tried to de-threaten the challenge in my mind, by repeating to myself: “my feet are strong, by body is safe, this is not dangerous”. I suspect this mindset helped me win the all-important final challenge.
There are many parallels between Survivor and pain research. An important model of pain is the biopsychosocial model, whereby pain is influenced by biological, psychological, and social inputs. The game of Survivor is similar – it is won by outplaying socially, outwitting psychologically, and outlasting physically. It was only by focusing on all three of those pillars, that I was able to become the Sole Survivor. Similarly, by focusing pain therapies on the three aspects of the biopsychosocial model, hopefully we can improve the lives of people living with chronic pain.
There are several ways to approach the challenges posed by chronic pain. One critical step is co-creating a policy framework with government, which has led to the development and endorsement of the National Strategic Action Plan for Pain Management. Another step is the research on the ground. I work among a community of researchers looking to innovate, improve, and provide better access to pain therapies. This includes researchers at Neuroscience Research Australia trialling treatments for chronic low back pain, and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome; as well as researchers at the Body in Mind research group the University of South Australia who, in part, focus on implementation.
Implementation involves taking pain therapies to the people who need them most. Having grown up in rural Australia, I know that accessing care for pain can be challenging. In 2019 I travelled with Pain Revolution to Tasmania, for their rural outreach tour. This year, for the month of October, I have joined Pain Revolution’s Go The Distance Campaign to raise awareness and funds for people living with chronic pain in rural and regional Australia. My hope is that campaigns like these can help address issues of discrimination, misunderstanding and stigmatisation in the community, to reduce the sometimes-severe impact on those living with pain, their families and carers.
Painaustralia's Newest Pain Champion,
Australian Survivor 2021 Winner, Hayley Leake