There are many sayings used in this profession. Some are good for patient education, some are good to help us remember things, and some are just a bit of fun. However, some are also misguided, misused, and misinterpreted. One of the most misguided phrases I hear being misused by many healthcare providers is “creating a window of opportunity” and I am going to try and explain why I think these windows need to be closed more often than opened.
The phrase ‘creating a window of opportunity’ is often used by physio’s to explain and justify why they ‘do’ things to a patient. Ask any physio why they are ‘doing’ something to patient, be that manual therapy, electrotherapy, sticking a needle into, or some tape onto a patient and most will tell you they are ‘opening a window of opportunity’ that allows a patient to move more comfortably, more often. Well that is only if they don’t tell you some other crap about releasing or realigning something.
What’s wrong with that?
Many see no issue with this, but I do. I see it as an easy, convenient, and weak excuse that allows physios to continue to use many low value shitty interventions that have been found to be ineffective, and do little to enhance or gain any significant improvements in the long term, and are just NOT needed to improve outcomes (ref, ref, ref, ref).
To put it bluntly, the window of opportunity is more for the therapists benefit rather than the patients.
Now before you go all nuts in the comments section (again) let me be clear that I am NOT saying you can never use these shitty modalities, nor am I trying to belittle our profession, or undermine its purpose, or target anyone or anything in particular blah blah blah.
Rather I am just trying to highlight how we are quick to defend the ‘stuff’ we do with terms like ‘creating a window of opportunity‘ than actually face reality, and the evidence that shows the effects of these interventions and the windows they create are generally very small to non exisitent, and usually do not help in the grand scheme of things.
We need to start facing the facts and ask ourselves some difficult and awkward questions. For example are we using terms like ‘creating windows of opportunity’ as the easier option rather than admitting what we currently do doesn’t work? If we as a profession are to stand any chance of survival in modern healthcare we need to prove our worth but also admit when we don’t help and cut out the low value ineffective treatments. Have no doubt that there is a very real risk of the physiotherapy profession being relegated to the realms of ‘alternative medicine’ with the mystic healers, quacks, and other nut jobs with their energy crystals and hot stone crap unless we pull our fingers out of our ears, and our heads out of our asses and stop making excuses like we ‘create windows of opportunity’.
We also need to consider the other side of this window of opportunity. Lets consider that these small, unreliable, temporary windows of opportunity could also be creating more problems than they solve. Let’s consider that we are too busy focusing on short term solutions, to consider long term issues. Lets consider that these windows are a part of the reason why chronic musculoskeletal conditions are on the rise when many other healthcare conditions are on the decline (ref).
In my opinion a major reason for the growing chronic pain epidemic in our society is due to our constant and relentless desire to reduce it, remove it, or avoid all things that hurt. Just like modern society is becoming more antibiotic resistant due to our over consumption and over use of them, we are also becoming more pain intolerant due to our incessant desire to remove it. Pain at times is inevitable. Pain at times is essential. Pain at times is necessary, and we simply can not nor should we always look to remove or avoid it.
Most patients we see with pain simply need reassurance that nothing serious is wrong, that it will ease in time, and that they need to keep going. They don’t need pain killers, they don’t need any surgery, and they don’t need windows of opportunity creating. This is however isn’t the best business model, hence the reluctance for many to stop using it.
I ask you to consider what is wrong with asking some of our patients with pain to simply ‘grin and bear it’ for a while? What is wrong in advising some of our patients to continue to do something that hurts? Why do we always feel the need to try and find ways to reduce pain before they do an activity, exercise or task? Why do we assume that getting a patient to do something that hurts will make things worse, when we know it can actually do the opposite? (ref, ref, ref, ref)
Now before you all go and jump onto the logical fallacy band wagon that I know many of you like too, I am NOT saying we need to ask EVERYONE with pain to ALWAYS do things that hurt, so please take your false dichotomies for a long hard and painful running jump.
A crazy idea
Many will argue that there is nothing wrong with short term pain reduction using modalities as benign and low risk as manual therapy, electrotherapy, needles, or tape, especially in a world of over medicalisation and surgery.
I believe that we as therapists are no different to our surgical or medical colleagues, and need to be scrutinised under the same microscope. We are very quick to chastise our surgical and medical colleagues of over treating, but we are JUST AS guilty of over treating, it’s only the tools and side effects that are different. Surgeons have their scalpels, doctors have their drugs, we have our needles and machines that go bing.
But here’s a crazy idea, how about we don’t always try to create windows of opportunity with tape, manual therapy, or machines that go bing. How about we don’t give our patients the impression that pain has to be reduced or removed before they do something. How about we don’t reinforce the belief that pain is harmful or detrimental. How about we don’t pander too our patients, wrapping them up in cotton wool and giving them the impression that they are delicate, fragile, or frail.
How about instead we start behaving like we aren’t scared of pain. How about we start acting like we don’t think we are going to break or harm our patients by asking them to do something that hurts them a bit, for a little while. How about we as therapists start showing patients that although pain is unpleasant, it ISN’T harmful, it CAN’T be avoided all the time, and sometimes it NEEDS to be confronted and endured to move forward.
Sounds a bit harsh and cruel doesn’t it! Well it’s not! It’s evidence based practice!
Craske’s paper on maximising exposure therapy here talks about just this, it discusses how we should be challenging some of our patients expectations more, without providing them with safety cues or windows of opportunity to create long lasting behavioural change. If you haven’t read this paper I strongly suggest you do, its a bit hard going in places and a whopping 14 pages long, but you wont regret it, it will challenge your practice and show how maximising exposure therapy can be extremely therapeutic and positive. If you want an easier option then go and listen to my fellow PT Podcast Network colleagues Cory and Sandy over on the Pain Science and Sensibility podcast who discuss it at length here.
Not so benign
Also many of the interventions used to create these so called windows of opportunity are not as harmless or benign as many think they are. Putting aside the real risks of adverse events from techniques such as spinal manipulation (refs) needle therapy’s (refs), or even cupping therapy (see picture below), there are the other not so obvious harmful effects of these ‘creating a window of opportunity‘ interventions. Things such as ‘creating a window of dependancy‘ and ‘creating a loss of self efficacy‘.
A clear adverse event after cupping therapy: source unknown
I personally have seen and heard over the years far too many patients telling me of the thousands upon thousands of pounds they have spent on all of these ‘window creating’ treatments, and still be no better off, with no better quality of life, with no better function, and no improvement towards their long term goals. Instead most have big holes in their bank balances, negative beliefs that they need these treatments for the rest of their lives, and a loss of hope of ever seeing anything change.
Even when I hear well meaning, evidence based therapists being fully explicit in explaining that these ‘window of opportunity‘ techniques are only to be used short periods, patients still get dependant on them. I have had patients of mine sheepishly admit that they have gone and seen other therapists to get a manipulation or session of dry needling whilst I am trying to ‘wean’ them off. It actually feels like at times like I am dealing with addicts, and these are intelligent, rationale, and reasonable people. This is also when I tend to hear therapists say ‘if I dont give it to them, someone else will‘ excuse. This is complete bull shit! When did two wrongs ever make a right.
Now I do realise that not everyone has a dependant personality or losses their self efficacy at the drop of a hat after a few sessions of manipulation, dry needling, or taping. Some patients do just want their pain taken down a notch or two, for a little while. This is when therapists come at me and say what the hell is wrong with ‘creating a window of opportunity‘ here then Meaks?
Well first of all, who says you can’t create this window without ‘doing’ something to a patient. Think top down before bottom up. Advice and education on its own as a pain reducing intervention and can be just as if not more effective as anyting else we do to patients. As the late great Louis Gifford used to say…
Effective reassurance is a bloody good pain killer
The other issue is that all these window creating treatments steal time from consultations in which we could be doing something more effective, and they all are highly unpredictable and highly unreliable, with neither the therapist, nor the patient having any idea of how much, or how long the effects will last for due to a host of variables and confounders.
This unreliability and variability leads to uncertainty and eventually mistrust for patients. I have seen this when I used to do spinal manipulations, dry needling, taping etc. I have seen patients get complete pain relief one session, to actually having more pain after the exact same treatment the following session, and before the ‘experts’ tell you that this is simply due to a lack of experience and skill, this is a another pile of utter bull shit as well.
So this is why I have emptied my tool box of these shitty techniques completely. I am not a fan of doing things to my patients that I have little to no control over, and even if I did, as I have already mentioned these effects are always short lasting, generally not needed, and take up too much of the time during consultations, time which I could be doing something far more productive with patients like maximising exposure or just getting them moving more.
So in summary, I hope I have demonstrated how we need to stop constantly looking to create small, unreliable, windows of opportunity to reduce or remove pain. I also hope I have highlighted that we don’t always need to reduce or remove pain BEFORE asking someone to do something, and that it may occur AFTER. I also hope I have shown the negative aspects of creating these so called windows of opportunity, and how they can promote fragility and fear.
So ask yourself, are you as a therapist too focused on making people feel nice in the short term to get them better in the long run.
Finally, I hope you will look at these windows of opportunity differently, and realise they do very little, except let in a bad draft, so please do me a favour and close that god damn window.
As always, thanks for reading