Fear Avoidance and Illness Beliefs in Post-Traumatic Neck Pain

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Study Design.

A descriptive overview of the relevant literature and the introduction of a new psychological model.


The fear-avoidance (FA) model and the potential importance of illness beliefs in post-traumatic neck pain are discussed. The causal beliefs-anxiety model is introduced as an adaptation of the FA model, emphasizing the critical role of illness beliefs.

Summary of Background Data.

Although the FA model is most thoroughly used to investigate chronic low back pain, it seems also highly relevant as a starting point for other chronic pain conditions like whiplash. Kinesophobia and pain catastrophizing form critical components of the FA model. It has been shown that breaking the FA cycle by affecting the critical components of the model may be an effective method to prevent the development of chronicity.


By using the FA model as a starting point, we present the causal beliefs-anxiety model and argue how this might help explain chronic whiplash symptoms and might provide clues for preventive interventions.


On experiencing muscular neck pain, catastrophizing may give rise to dysfunctional illness beliefs regarding the cause of this pain. The illness identity and other beliefs feed symptom expectation and attribution, as well as expectations regarding the course of muscular neck pain. These negative expectations can contribute to a less favorable outcome or may even cause symptoms. Therefore, it seems important to integrate the alleged role of illness beliefs in an adapted FA model, the “causal beliefs-anxiety model.”


In clinical practice, it seems important to have insight into the patient's illness beliefs about the cause of the experienced symptoms. Health care professionals should be aware of the possible detrimental influence of dysfunctional illness beliefs. In the early stage, adequate explanation and information about the probable course may be sufficient to prevent the generation of dysfunctional illness beliefs thereby preventing the development of a chronic course. At the population level, educational campaigns that inform people about probable causes and realistic expectations regarding post-traumatic neck pain could provide an effective strategy for preventing chronic whiplash symptoms.

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