Neuroplasticity as a tool for dealing with chronic pain
Updated: Nov 30, 2021
As a general rule, I try to avoid specific diagnoses with my patients. I created Revive Spine and Sport because I feel that patients deserve treatment based on functional limitations caused by their pain, not band-aids. The best outcomes can only be achieved when the patient understands the reason they are feeling pain and have the tools to overcome this on their own.
Pain is one of the most subjective experiences a person can have. No one will experience it exactly like the next person. While two people may be presented with the same stimuli, one may experience a tickle while the other experiences a stabbing pain. Why is this? The simple answer is that all pain comes from the brain. That means your pain isn’t real, right? Not even close; it means the exact opposite. Anyone that tells you differently doesn’t understand the physiology involved.
Don’t get me wrong; pain can be very confusing, and sometimes it does not present like the textbooks say it should. Your body is a sophisticated machine designed to keep you healthy and safe. The presence of pain indicates that your brain believes that there is a risk of harm to the tissue involved. In many cases, the brain panics unnecessarily, but our safety depends on this at times. Think, better safe than sorry.
So, why do so many people have pain that they cannot get rid of, such as chronic pain, fibromyalgia, failed back syndrome, etc.? As you’re probably aware, there are no simple answers in life, especially not when considering how complex the human nervous system is!
Your body has nerves that carry signals from the tissues, to the spine, and then the brain. Their job is to alert the brain of any activity occurring and, in the case of painful stimuli, alert the brain of “danger”. If the brain determines that the sensation it is receiving is a threat, it will respond by creating more receptors in the area to increase the sensitivity to that stimuli. This ensures you experience heightened awareness and motivates you to adjust variables to avoid the same triggers.
Although pain feels physical, our mental state has a significant effect on our perception of pain. In the instance of anxiety, either caused by the pain itself or by our fast-paced life your body responds by becoming more alert to the stimuli received. This heightened awareness often leads to more anxiety/depression/stress. Well, it is a genuine and very debilitating phenomenon for many people!
The good news is that these receptors are very short-lived and are constantly being replaced. So if you can arm yourself with knowledge about your pain, pain management tools, and a solid support system, you can re-write the course of your life. This is the beauty of neuroplasticity
The biggest challenge is knowing how to set up your tools and support network, especially when you feel either isolated or overwhelmed with the plethora of information out there.
Pain is often fear invoking because we assume that there must be something wrong in distress; the tissue is in trouble! One way to debunk this thought process is to consider phantom limb pain. This pain is 100% real and is also 100% from the brain. Your brain acts like one big map of your body. There are designated areas that are responsible for interpreting sensations at each part of your body.
When someone loses a limb, the brain may continue to process information from the previously responsible nerves. There is no further danger of limb damage in that region, yet the pain is genuine. This kind of misfiring can occur throughout the body and in no way reflects potential tissue harm.
Our nervous system is very complex, with billions of neurons making billions of connections. We would all love perfection, but it is not the reality of the situation. There are billions of potential locations for things to go wrong. It isn’t hard to imagine that it can be challenging to determine where the pain originates in many cases.
This is why diagnoses like chronic pain and fibromyalgia have become so prevalent. Healthcare workers tag many patients with these diagnoses as a default when they do not think the patient’s reports line up with a more distinct diagnosis.
A lack of continued education on this complex topic creates the perfect storm to perpetuate the situation. The worst part about it is that the patient is the one left suffering when solutions often have not been explored.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple fix for this problem. You must take a multi-faceted approach, do your research, ask providers questions, and do not settle with vague answers. If you do not advocate for yourself, no one else will.
Tools that can put you in charge include practicing appropriate body mechanics. Doing so allows your brain to learn how to move without fear and compensation. Techniques such as meditation and prayer are also beneficial when dealing with the anxiety associated with chronic pain. Having a skilled practitioner that you trust and are trained in this area can expedite the process and eliminate much of the guesswork on your end. The key to this last point is that you need to honestly believe that they listen to you, care about you, and understand your goals.