Pain. So many people deal with pain on a daily basis. While pain itself is a normal sensation in our body, meant to protect us and help us survive, in some cases it can persist, changing and limiting our daily activities. That’s when it can become chronic- causing suffering and resulting in activity modification. That is not normal. This doesn’t happen with all pain, though. So why do some people bounce back from injury while others do not?
As it turns out, the answer may lie in the brain. The nervous system is a huge contributor to chronic pain and can be the true cause of conditions such as chronic low back pain, chronic neck pain, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue syndrome. As you might imagine, this is quite a complicated topic!
Pain is not an input. It’s an output.
Contrary to what you might think, pain is not an input—it isn’t caused by outside sources. Yes, there are nerve fibers in our bodies, which are meant to sense pain, but the BRAIN is where pain is actually created.
For example, if you stub your toe, nerve endings in your toe sends signals to the spinal cord and up to the brain. The brain then determines how it will interpret that information. The brain doesn’t just process the physical sensation from your toe, but also all the other stimuli it is receiving, including information like what you are hearing, seeing, and feeling (emotionally and physically). That information is then sent out to other parts of the brain, including the parts of the brain that process emotion, problem solving, memory, and the motor cortex, which allows you to react to the “danger” at the root of the pain and then protect yourself.
For many people, the toe hurts for a little while but then feels better, and the stimulation to the brain returns to normal. In some cases, however, such as major trauma or when the brain can’t identify the source of the “danger,” the brain continues the pain output. The parts of the brain that became stimulated don’t shut off and neural pathways that were associated with the injury trigger the pain output even though there is no longer any true physical danger. This can result in increased sensitivity to other sensations, impaired movement patterns, and difficulty returning to normal activities of daily life. Emotional changes may also result, including feeling anxious about movement, fearful of re-injury and even depression. All of this can cause a cycle of disuse, pain, and disability.
How can we break the cycle?
- Education – Understanding how pain works has shown to have major benefits in people with chronic pain. A great resource for patients/clients with pain is the book “Why do I Hurt?” by Adriaan Louw. Many of these suggestions are from this book.
- Sleep – Good restorative sleep is so important. Tips for promoting healthy sleep habits include limiting TV/screen time in evening hours, keeping a consistent sleep schedule, and exercising regularly.
- Walking – Walking is excellent for increasing circulation, increasing positive hormones, reducing stress, and reducing fatigue and muscle soreness.
- Slow and Steady – Often people return to their regular activities too quickly. Instead, slowly increasing activities to tolerance and allowing for progressive desensitization will be helpful.
At InsideOut, we believe that Movement Heals and we are committed to helping you have a positive movement experience. With our guidance and support we will work together with the whole body to break negative pain cycles. Stay tuned for our next blog post in which we will discuss more specifics on how to work with pain to break the chronic injury/re-injury cycle.