David Butler - The Rollercoaster of Professional Life

This article is adapted with permission from NOIJAM.COM - Originally publushed 22 November 2016. Today in 2020 this reflection is still as relevant as ever. David joined us on 2 May 2020 in Le Pub Home Brew - and it was mind blowing. Another wave - a massive wave on Self Regulated Learning has emerged. David is still on the paintopic and even more convinced then ever. Follow this space to see some bits of the presentation and questions that came along.



I wrote the first version of this over 3 years ago and I still get contacted by health professionals who want to discuss their similar rollercoaster journeys. Here’s an update on my ever-evolving roller coaster.


The first wave

When I emerged proudly with my degree in the late 70s, all packed with Maitland style manual therapy, I was convinced I could fix all and sundry and I often opened a clinical conversation with “what can I fix today?” (I feel ill saying it now!) Anyway, it all worked well for a few years but then I noticed that “it” was not delivering the goods so well. Unbelievably some patients dared not get better. Things were feeling professionally grim, career changes were pondered, but then, proud and erect, fresh from New Zealand, Robin McKenzie rode into town, maybe even on a white horse!


The second wave

Wow – this was it! How silly was I to miss the disc and the novel notion of actually getting people to treat themselves and to give your thumbs a good rest. People started getting better again, my practice was full of lumbar rolls, the “Treat your Own” books and models of discs and I was on a roll too. This McKenzie approach worked wonders for a few years, but then the outcomes began to taper off, some patients wouldn’t improve, some wanted the old fashioned hands on that I had almost given away and a now familiar professional grimness emerged again. What next?


The third wave

I heard about a year-long Maitland post graduate course in South Australia and I reasoned that there must be more to it than I’d first thought, so I signed up for the year. I made it through a bit wounded, but the old “I can fix anything” returned and I went into the outer suburbs of Adelaide to ply my trade, wriggling and cracking joints and doing the new teasing nerves stuff. People got better and complex problems seemed to dissolve. But would you believe it – it happened again – the clinical outcomes tailed off with what I now recognise as centrally sensitised states, overuse syndrome and complex regional pain syndrome. I pondered a career change. Perhaps professional surfing?


The fourth wave

By now (late 80s, early 90s) I was becoming a bit older and wiser and trying to think more deeply about things – so I thought –“stuff the others – I’ll try and work it out myself”. And so I went off on the “neural tension” bandwagon – the idea of the physical health of the nervous system and mobilising nerves. I did some reading, had a few thoughts, stood on the shoulders of a few others and even wrote a couple of books. This was it I thought! Life will be easy from now on as we wriggled and glided and teased nerves from head to toe. Patients flocked in … but the old diminishing outcomes emerged again, even for something I had helped to invent. Grim days – coffee was coming into fashion I pondered becoming a barista and investigated what it would take to become a marriage celebrant.


The fifth mini-wave

I was getting very wary now – the early work of Vladamir Janda was being updated and researched, particularly at the University of Queensland and once obscure bits of anatomy such as transversus abdominis, obturator internus and short neck flexors were now the new targets and the “with it” practitioners had ultrasound machine to view muscles. I went to the courses and gave it a go but my heart wasn’t in it. Waves can be exhausting, and the outcomes were eluding me again, just like my transversus abdominis. I tried the taping stuff too, but like a focus on a single muscle, it just didn’t make enough sense.

I drifted off into the world of pain and neuroscience and am still happily here. No magic, just a lot of hard work using neuroscience to fuel educational and imagery therapy and the good parts of the historic waves I’ve ridden. I thought I may have reached nirvana with the brain, but now I realise that neurones are only 10% of the brain and as the rest is immune cells, so there is long way to go.

I am still on this fifth mini-wave – trying to keep up with the world of brain plasticity, neuroimmunological balances and recent research and concepts of DAMPS (danger associated molecular patterns) and BAMPS (behaviour associated molecular patterns) and even CAMPS (cognitive associate molecular patterns) among others, all identified by Toll Like Receptors which can ratchet up their behaviour and keep enhances immune responses bubbling. It’s infectious science.  But …


Uh oh – a sixth mini-wave beckons

I never thought this would happen, but I peering back at the tissues where I started all those years ago. The brain is so trendy that the scientific and some of the clinical world seemed to forget the rest of the body. I have been trimming my nails in anticipation of a return to the flesh! Not giving up the neuroimmunology of course but things like how can we dance with the different receptors in tissues, deal with the immunocompetence of the meninges, or indeed most tissues, and the simple and undervalued licence to touch is sacrosanct – even if just touching a hand while sharing knowledge. I notice and try and understand the trend towards predictive processing and Bayesian thinking, and find it fascinating but I am a wary old bugger. After all – all the talk was about phenomenology a year or so back but it seems to have gone out of favour. Are some of our colleagues onto their next mini waves

Three thoughts


1. I look around now at the course advertisements in the back of the journals and it seems the new roller coaster is still driven by dry needling, loading joints and lifting weights, someone called Pilates, and now mindfulness has become trendy – even yoga is on the up. No doubt some people are flying with it, and good on them, but not me – I am too war weary to get on the roller coaster again but I am sure there is something in it like there is in everything and if your professional paradigms are wide enough and trending towards biopsychosocial then there is a rational place for everything. The waves are not a loss if you can absorb them.


2. What bugs me is that it took so long to realise that it was I myself who was probably the main variable in outcomes – not the techniques. I am not saying that massaging patients with a wet salmon will help. However the interactional power needs better analysis and understanding and as Pat Wall would say “in the end, if the majority of the outcomes are based on placebo, do not fear, but work out what it was in the placebo which gave the outcome”.


3. But what saddens me is that I now see a rapid and enforced rollercoaster in young therapists just out of college – youngsters with that precious, must be captured mindset of wanting to change the world. Yet increasingly employment is all about the dollar, the speed, the getting patients back and thus treatment processes inevitably based on singular biomedial paradigms. There is no time to work out for themselves what this professional rollercoaster of life is all about. We all need to work it out ourselves in some way. If not – we face professional burnout. I am looking forward to wave 7 soon!

David Butler















The full version of this hilarious part of Le Pub Home brew is here



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