The San Diego Pain Summit resumed its first in-person conference since 2020 on Feb. 26 and 27, 2022 with a line-up of new and old voices that tackles the difficult (and often uncomfortable) topics that few manual therapy and medical conferences address.
Dr. Ochenna Ossai, who is a “sex-positive” pelvic health physical therapist at UT Health Austin. She kicked off with a keynote on inclusivity in healthcare leadership and the costs of lacking such inclusivity;
Dr. Melanie Noel, a psychologist from the University of Calgary, returned to end the first day of the Pain Summit with handling diagnostic uncertainty in healthcare—in other words, when clinicians have a hard time saying, “I don’t know” to patients and their family;
Dr. Tasha Stanton, a pain researcher at the University of South Australia. She concluded the Pain Summit with a shift in the narrative of osteoarthritis from a biomedical view to a holistic one, including how clinicians communicate and their word usage with their chronic pain patients.
“I invited Dr. Ossai because, after watching her panel presentation from the in-person 2020 SDPS, and I realized what an amazing speaker she is!” Rajam Roose said, who is the founder and mastermind behind the San Diego Pain Summit. “Dr. Noel was invited because she and her team do a wide range of research. She is also a dynamic speaker and has lots to share! Dr. Stanton was supposed to come out for the 2020 October conference that was planned for the East Coast. But the pandemic hit, so I also wanted her to be able to present in person this year.”
In her keynote, Ossai wanted to bring some degree of awareness of each person’s identity and the advantages or disadvantages that their identity affords.
“With that lack of fundamental understanding and exploration, you have people going into the workforce creating macro/microaggressions without full awareness of their impact,” Ossai said.
For example, different people of various ethnicities and race experience different consequences of their actions or inactions, whether it’s in the workplace or going about their day.
“You have the easy misconception that everyone goes by the same rulebook as you do,” Ossai said. “ When you go through life with that color-blindedness, it’s kinda like a loaded gun that explodes in professional spaces and healthcare. We’re a racially traumatized workforce. You have people who are working at half-capacity or quarter capacity. It zaps potential and our environment to [produce] the full goodness that we can all bring to the table—especially when our contributions are differentially measured, [which] depends on the identity and habit and your humanity and validity are questioned.”
The 2022 Pain Summit did not host workshops like it normally did in previous years, but there was an outdoor dinner buffet that also served as a networking event among pain-summit “veterans” and newcomers. Only 73 people attended the conference in person—about one-fourth of the pre-pandemic numbers—and 78 attended virtually.
Noel was kind of surprised that she was invited to speak at the Pain Summit again, but what attracted her to return is how the event shaped the way she and her research colleagues set up and conduct research.
“That doesn’t happen at all conferences,” Noel said. “I think it’s something about the people. Even though I’m typically the only psychologist there, I feel totally included and embraced. There’s this curiosity and quirkiness, a magical energy. I’ve never experienced that in any conference.”
The lived experiences of people in chronic pain aren’t the only ones that make the San Diego Pain Summit “unique” and “powerful” from most other pain and manual therapy conferences, Noel said. It was the themes of “equity, diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism” that stood out—topics that few other health conferences address.
“She’s ahead of her time,” Noel said.
Roose is careful when choosing a speaker at the Pain Summit. The standards are based on physical therapy and occupational therapy because these professions have a “wider referral in-network range” than other manual therapy professions.
“I have hosted speakers and instructors representing scientists, psychologists, movement specialists, occupational therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, pain advocates, and even a physician,” she said. “What makes the San Diego Pain Summit a multidisciplinary conference is that anyone from any professional background is welcome to attend.”
Dr. Daria Oller, who is a consulting physical therapist and an athletic trainer at Pro-Activity in Lebanon, NJ, shares a unique story of her experiences with long COVID and how clinicians can identify its symptoms and communicate with their patients with long COVID. As a first-time speaker at the summit, her experience was “overwhelming positive.”
“As a speaker, I was shown so much support and encouragement. As an attendee, I enjoyed being challenged to consider my own biases and comfort level,” she said. “I particularly enjoyed the art session, providing us guidance and space to try something we typically may not. The diversity of speakers sets a strong example for others to follow.”
Like many attending clinicians, one of the biggest takeaways for Oller is how she communicates with her patients, including words and paying attention to different cultural backgrounds and identities.
“We want to provided information and messages in a manner that can best be heard and understood and that best respect people for who they are,” Oller said. “For my own presentations, I hadn’t previously considering adding time for small group discussions with question prompts. Due to the positive experience I had, learning from other attendees’ perspectives and thinking of topics/scenarios in a way I had not on my own, I will add this.”
First-timer Dr. Steven Osovsky, who is a physical therapist at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., said that the diversity and intimacy of the summit allow him to have a better understanding of people in chronic pain.
“I want to focus on getting to know the person in front of me and ensuring that I give them the platform to voice any questions and concerns at any time point during their care,” he said. “Along those lines, I learned some powerful questions to ask that could provide so much useful information.”
Erin Singer, who is also a first-timer and a registered massage therapist in Calgary, Alberta, connected with many colleagues at the Pain Summit whom she had only virtual interactions with. “There is a really positive, fun vibe at the summit that can’t be replicated [online],” she said. “It really does feel like a family reunion.”
One of her takeaways is the emphasis on “person-centered care,” presented by physiotherapist David Poulter. “Truly having the person/patient at the center of every decision and being a team with them,” Singer said.” We need to always improve ourselves and our skills so we can better help our patients.
Roose and many former attendees anticipate the 2023 San Diego Pain Summit to reach pre-pandemic levels, including having pre-conference workshops and larger gatherings. What brings people back to such conferences is not just the content, but the community that emerged since 2015.
“The importance of community, a community of people who are safe for you and understanding. I was very happy to be around such badass humans—particularly badass women. I was very happy about that,” Ossai said.
“I feel very fortunate to be included in this community,” Noel said. “And that’s what it is. It’s not a conference; it’s a community.”
More photos available at San Diego Pain Summit 2022 album on Flickr.
Further reading: Previous coverages of the San Diego Pain Summit and other manual therapy events.
A native of San Diego for nearly 40 years, Nick Ng is an editor of Massage & Fitness Magazine, an online publication for manual therapists and the public who want to explore the science behind touch, pain, and exercise, and how to apply that in their hands-on practice or daily lives.
An alumni from San Diego State University with a B.A. in Graphic Communications, Nick also completed his massage therapy training at International Professional School of Bodywork in San Diego in 2014.
When he is not writing or reading, you would likely find him weightlifting at the gym, salsa dancing, or exploring new areas to walk and eat around Southern California.