Why do I have pain and what can I do about it?
By Mara Towne, PT, DPT
September is National Pain Awareness Month so let’s take this opportunity to shed some light on pain.
What is the point of all this pain? Wouldn’t life be better if we never experienced it? Life would not be better. Life would be a lot shorter without pain. Pain is a protective response. It helps us to learn about things that have the potential to harm us and avoid them. You probably don’t want to hear that if you, like most of our patients, have been dealing with chronic pain for several years or longer. But, bear with me.
Our understanding of pain has changed greatly in recent years. For example, if you were walking and you stubbed your toe would it hurt? Most of us would say yes, because we have felt that sensation before. But what if stubbed your toe in the middle of the road and at that same time you noticed a truck was speeding towards you. Would you feel your toe? No! You would run as fast as you could to the other side of the road!
“Pain is a multiple system output activated by the brain based on a perceived threat.” Lorimer Mosley
We used to think that pain came from our tissues. You step on a nail, the receptors in your foot that sense pain are activated and then messages are sent to your spinal cord and brain to tell you that you have an injury. However, we realized that people were experiencing pain in the absence of injury. A classic example of this is phantom limb pain. Patients who have had amputations will continue to have pain in their foot even though the foot is no longer connected to their body. In this example, the old model does not make sense.
The tissues tell the brain, which is the control system of your body, that there is a threat in the area. Going back to the example of the stubbed toe, the threat of the truck hitting you is much higher than the threat of the toe throbbing. So, your brain turns down the signals from your toe and tells you to run! The brain decides what to do with the threat signals it gets.
It is good news that the brain is in control because we are also learning more and more about the brain. We know that the brain has the capacity to change. This is called neuroplasticity. We have the power to rewire our brains! To me, this is amazing! Check out this You Tube video to learn more https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELpfYCZa87g
Here are some ways that you can rewire your brain to decrease your pain levels.
1. Create a relaxation practice: I often ask my patients “what do you do for daily relaxation?” This is a good question to ask yourself too!
2. Work on daily diaphragmatic breathing which has been shown to decrease your nervous system sensitivity.
3. Find a mediation practice that you enjoy and can do consistently. This can be a walking meditation or an app. It depends what works for you.
4. Work on positive thoughts. A tool which has really helped me to focus on the positives is called The Five-Minute Journal. Everyday, or more realistically, 3-4 days a week 😊, I wake up and write down 3 things that I am thankful for, 3 ways to make today great and daily affirmations.
Check it out here: https://www.intelligentchange.com/products/the-five-minute-journal
We will continue to discuss pain and pain management in future blogs, so stay tuned! Questions or thoughts? Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org
International Spine and Pain Institute course: Therapeutic Neuroscience Education: Teaching Patients about Pain