Flippin' Pain was Flippin' Fun
Normally, I spend September disseminating research findings at scientific conferences, but this year was slightly different. Instead of talking about our research from a podium, I did it whilst pedalling a bicycle around Lincolnshire as part of the Flippin’ Pain Community Cycle Tour.
In my previous blog ‘Pedalling in the Flippin’ Pain Peloton’, I described a public health campaign that aims to raise awareness about our modern scientific understanding of persistent pain to help people experience a better quality of life. As part of the campaign, I was invited to join the Flippin’ Pain Peloton comprising of 20 pain experts tasked with cycling 250 miles over five days in Lincolnshire. Lincolnshire was chosen because persistent pain affects about 40% of people in the region, and the county is rated in the top ten areas of the UK with high levels of opioid prescriptions for pain.
So, on Monday 13 September the Flippin’ Pain Peloton rolled out of Stamford for a week-long cycle extravaganza. There was a wide range of cycling abilities, from novices to racers and a diverse mix of riders including university professors, physicians, physiotherapists, chiropractors, occupational therapists and people living with persistent pain. Our ethos was to ride as fast as the slowest rider, keeping the peloton compact at all times. As you can imagine, the tour was not without incident!
Many of us started the tour with a modicum of anxiety; pedalling with 20 riders can be unnerving, especially as we had never ridden as a group before. However, pre-ride anxiety was quickly replaced by incessant yapping about pain and its management. The cycle tour was spearheaded by our impossible-to-miss ‘Brain Bus’, an interactive laboratory containing a wealth of mind-blowing illusions to challenge beliefs about how our bodily sensations are created. Each day finished with the delivery of a public seminar, workshops and quizzes. These not only helped to bond the group but also provided as rich a source of knowledge than the most intense of scientific conferences.
Day two was memorable. Torrential rain persisted for the entire day and survival became a priority. At lunchtime, we took refuge in Boston’s riverside 14th-century Gothic church where we tried to fuel-up and warm-up before returning into the eye of the storm. In many ways cycling in the UK weather is all about resilience – much like living with persistent pain.
In the afternoon, my longstanding friend, Professor Cormac Ryan from Teesside University, ‘slid out’ on a level crossing, ‘flippin’ me down’ in the process. Oh, how we laughed as we lay in a crumpled heap soaked to the skin until we realised that we were lying on a main line railway track, which quickly brought us both rapidly to our feet! Fortunately, there was no damage to our bikes, although our pride took a bit of a dent. Once the laughter from our peloton riders subsided, we dusted ourselves down and were soon back riding toward Skegness. Professor Ryan was scheduled to deliver the evening public seminar, hosted by the Mayor of Skegness, but the lasting memory of the day was the appearance of the Jolly Fisherman, the Skegness town mascot.
Day three weather was perfect. Warm blue skies encouraged a sedate ‘chatty’ pace until one of our riders experienced a malfunctioning brake and began careering downhill with a ‘runaway bike’. The rider finally came to a halt in a grass verge – and importantly, at least in the world of cycling, there was no damage to the bike. Fortunately, that was the last of the ‘‘flippin’ riders’ and the remainder of the tour was without incident.
Day four was memorable for our ceremonial arrival in Castle Square, Lincoln, under the spires of Lincoln Cathedral - visually stunning for the attending media. And day five was memorable for the realisation that we all managed to complete the 250 mile tour.
Flippin’ our Campaign Message
By the end of the tour, we had revised some of our key campaign messages:
- Persistent pain is common and can affect anyone became Potholes are common and can ‘take down’ anyone.
- Hurt does not always mean harm became Crashing into other riders does not always mean harm.
- Everything matters when it comes to pain became Everything matters when it comes to level crossings.
Flippin’ our Approach to Community Outreach
Cycling is a fantastic way to undertake community outreach work. The spectacle of a peloton in team kit meandering through the streets is a sure way of raising awareness of pedestrians and motorists about a cause. And a peloton is a great metaphor for persistent pain. To be successful in managing persistent pain, you need to pace your effort, seek help from others and have the resilience to keep going when things don’t go the way you expect.
Public engagement events have been some of the most memorable experiences of my career at Leeds Beckett University, including the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, TechFest India and the 120 mile cycle ride from Leeds to Newcastle. They challenge my ability to communicate the science of pain to the lay person and alter my perspectives about the lived experience of pain. Importantly, however, they have created lifelong memories, and are Flippin' Fun!
Mark is Director of the Centre for Pain Research and leads a vibrant team of researchers. He has published over 200 research articles and book chapters and supervises PhD students. Mark teaches across all levels of our taught course provision.