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Pacing – Activity management concepts (a longer than usual post)

Posted Aug 03 2014 9:51pm

In the literature recently there’s been a flurry of activity around pacing as a concept. When I first wrote about pacing I couldn’t find very much that had been published, and I ended up writing something that made sense to me at the time. Today I hope to add to that by summarising a few of these recent papers, and discussing some findings from my PhD research.

Pacing isn’t well-defined. In one of a few recent papers on pacing, Nielson, Jensen, Karsdorp, & Vlaeyen (2013) suggest that pacing should be defined as “…the regulation of activity level and/or rate in the service of an adaptive goal or goals” (p. 465).  Gill & Brown (2009) point out that because pacing is poorly defined, and despite the term being used widely and most especially in the mid 20th century (and related to the “3 P’s” of planning, positioning and pacing used for rheumatoid arthritis), there are a diverse range of articles mentioning pacing, but no consensus as to what it might include.

Jamieson-Lega, Berry and Brown (2013) scanned the literature and sought feedback from stakeholders from a range of disciplines, and developed a concept map for the term. Concept mapping involves identifying the use of the concept in the literature, defining the attributes of the concept and developing a model case (a “pure” example), and both borderline and contrary cases (incorporating none or only some of the concepts). Antecedent and consequent outcomes associated with the concept of pacing were also defined, and empirical referents, or phenomena that show how the concept has occurred.

Key criteria for pacing, drawn from the literature by Jamieson-Lega, Berry & Brown (2013) show that pacing has five consistent attributes:

  1. Action – pacing involves intentional behaviour
  2. Time – pacing occurs over time and involves attending to time
  3. Balance – weighting activity and rest in accordance with intended outcomes
  4. Learning – pacing needs to be learned, it requires an effort
  5. Self-management – the process of using pacing involves independently integrating the practice once the skill has been developed.

The definition proposed by this group is therefore slightly different from Neilson and colleagues:

“Pacing is an active self-management strategy whereby individuals develop self-efficacy through learning to balance time spent on activity and rest for the purpose of achieving increased function” (p. 209).

Janieson-Lega, Berry and Brown (2013) suggest that there are prerequisites for the need to develop pacing.  These involve activity disruption secondary to pain, imbalance between activity and rest, patient’s lack of pain self-management knowledge and having pain. When an individual successfully uses pacing, the expected outcomes are pain management, self-direction and improved self-efficacy, avoidance of pain exacerbation, balanced activity/rest, increased functional ability, and increased knowledge and skills in activity planning and prioritising (p. 210).

Therefore, if a person with chronic pain isn’t able to engage in what they want to do, finds it difficult to have sufficient rest or activity, lacks self-management knowledge and has pain, they could expect that pacing would enable them to manage their pain more effectively, become self-directed and more confident, minimise flare-ups, have a balance between activity and rest, be able to do more, and know more about what is important and how to achieve what is valued.

Despite the problems with defining pacing, and consequently having no real measure of pacing, there have been several studies examining the relationship between pacing and other important variables. The first study I saw of pacing was McCracken and Samuel’s 2007 paper looking at the relationship between avoidance, pacing and other activity patterns.  Surprisingly, these authors found that pacing was associated with both activity avoidance and disability. From this study, the authors suggested that avoidance activity may resemble healthy coping (and from this I deduced that pacing is considered “healthy”).

Murphy, Smith & Alexander (2008) conducted a small pilot study of activity pacing in women with lower limb osteoarthritis. This study used actigraphy to monitor movements, and correlated this data with self-reported pain and fatigue. This study found that “high pacers” had more severe, escalating symptoms, and activity pacing was related to lower physical activity. Karsdorp & Vlaeyen (2009) found that activity avoidance but not activity pacing was associated with disability, and challenged the notion that pacing as an intervention is essential in pain management.  van Huet, Innes, & Whiteford (2009) on the other hand, found that “graduates” from a pain  management programme continued to use pacing strategies years after completing a programme, but made no comments as to the effect on outcomes although they did comment that “the application of pacing tended to be individualised, with the use of self-selected time increments and novel strategies providing structure to limit over-activity” (p. 2036).

Andrews, Strong & Meredith (2012) completed a systematic review of activity pacing in relation to avoidance, endurance and functioning.  This study found that pacing was linked to better psychological functioning but more pain and disability, but couldn’t comment on the direction of this relationship.

People with chronic pain indicate that they use pacing in studies within the qualitative literature. The problem is that these describes rarely include definitions of pacing.  van Huet, Innes and Whiteford’s study from 2009 provides quotes from graduates of pain management programmes who describe pacing as “doing things in bursts of 20 minutes and half an hour, then changing what I’m doing, then go back”; “you don’t have to do the whole lawn at once”.

From my study of people who cope well with pain, participants were selective about their use of pacing. Many of them indicated that pacing was not used when they had an important goal to achieve, while using “chunking” or breaking activities into smaller units was used from time to time – what was interesting is that pain intensity wasn’t used as an indicator for when to stop. Patients I’ve worked with in the past have described using pain intensity or fatigue as the indicator – they always stopped before their pain or fatigue “got out of hand”.

My take in pacing as it currently stands is that there is a great deal of confusion on the matter. My personal opinion, and from both the literature and my own experience with my fibromyalgia, is that pacing can be useful in several ways – but can also be unhelpful.

Here’s how I think it can be useful:

  • When beginning to work towards an increased activity level – by setting a baseline level of activity, then titrating this level up by time or “chunk” increments rather than using pain or fatigue as a guide
  • When individuals are finding it hard to maintain activity levels over a day/week/month, pacing using time or quota as the guide can help extend activity levels over a longer period
  • When people are not sure of their symptoms and find it difficult to know what triggers an exacerbation, usually during the “making sense of pain” phase of adjusting to chronic pain
  • When engaging in routine activities that don’t need to be carried out all at once, such as mowing the lawn, doing the laundry, vacuuming the house. Things that need to be done, but might be carried out over a longer period of time than a single session. I used this approach to write my PhD using Pomodoro Technique .  I also use it when doing housework.

When might it be unhelpful?

  • When individuals continue to use pain as a guide to stopping activity, and “stop before it flares up”
  • When individuals monitor their pain intensity and seek to avoid fluctuations in pain
  • When working to a quota doesn’t help them reach goals and isn’t used to reduce distress, disability and isn’t progressed. A good example of this is the “5 minute break” I saw instituted in a data entry workplace. It was a computerised system that stopped the keyboard for five minutes with no over-ride. The “5 minute break” was obligatory for everyone every 45 minutes, there was no rationale for using it, it interrupted flow, and people HATED it. I’ve seen similar things used when people are returning to work – “work for 15 minutes then stop for 5″, maintained for weeks without being reviewed and without establishing effect.

Having arrived at a reasonable definition, I think it’s time to see how people use pacing in daily life, within the context of the ebb and flow of normal activities. I’d like to see an ecological momentary assessment approach to see what triggers use of pacing, how well do people return to their activities, how long is a break, and whether there is an impact on both disability and distress.


Andrews, Nicole E., Strong, Jenny, & Meredith, Pamela J. (2012). Activity Pacing, Avoidance, Endurance, and Associations With Patient Functioning in Chronic Pain: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 93(11), 2109-2121.e2107.

Gill, Joanna R., & Brown, Cary A. (2009). A structured review of the evidence for pacing as a chronic pain intervention. European Journal of Pain, 13(2), 214-216. doi: 10.1016/j.ejpain.2008.03.011

Jamieson-Lega, K., Berry, R., & Brown, C. A. (2013). Pacing: a concept analysis of the chronic pain intervention. Pain Research and Management, 18(4), 207-213.

McCracken, Lance, & Samuel, Victoria. (2007). The role of avoidance, pacing, and other activity patterns in chronic pain. Pain, 130(1), 119 – 125.

Murphy, S. L., Smith, D. M., & Alexander, N. B. (2008). Measuring activity pacing in women with lower-extremity osteoarthritis: a pilot study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62(3), 329-334.

Nielson, Warren R. PhD, Jensen, Mark P. PhD, Karsdorp, Petra A. PhD, & Vlaeyen, Johannes W. S. PhD. (2013). Activity Pacing in Chronic Pain: Concepts, Evidence, and Future Directions. Clinical Journal of Pain, 29(5), 461-468.

van Huet, Helen, Innes, Ev, & Whiteford, Gail. (2009). Living and doing with chronic pain: Narratives of pain program participants. Disability and Rehabilitation: An International, Multidisciplinary Journal, 31(24), 2031-2040. doi: 10.3109/09638280902887784

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