Chronic pain affects millions of people worldwide, and costs North America billions of dollars annually. It causes significant challenges to people’s quality of life; in worst case scenarios, it can be deadly (overdoses from opioids have become almost epidemic in recent years). Pain can be a very difficult entity to treat, because it is a complex and multi-faceted phenomenon. It is not just a physical process, but also a neuro-psycho-emotional problem. It can be influenced by socioeconomic status, geography, lifestyle, weather, stress, and diet, to name just a few factors.
In recent years, clinical neuroscientists have been investigating how our thoughts and perceptions influence how we feel and deal with pain. One common theme has emerged from this research: ALL PAIN IS IN OUR BRAIN. It is very important to clarify the meaning of this statement, because when it is communicated improperly to patients by health care professionals, it leaves patients with the impression that we think their pain is “all in their head”. It makes them feel as though we don’t take their pain seriously, or that they should be able to just “think their pain away”. This is definitely not true!
Let’s talk basic physiology. Our body is covered with nerve receptors, which collect information about our bodies and the world around us. The nerves themselves don’t interpret this information; they simply gather it and transmit it to the nerves in the spinal cord, which then carry it to the brain. The brain itself is the command centre which processes all of this information, and organizes a response. There are literally hundreds of thousands of messages sent up to the brain in any given day; for example, messages about heat, cold, pressure, touch, light, sound, and pain. If the brain paid attention to every single message that was sent, it would be impossible for us to live any type of meaningful existence; we would be bombarded and distracted by messages that really are not that vital to our function. It is the brain’s job to decide which messages to pay attention to, and which to ignore; and it is the brain which tells us when something is painful, and when it is not.
For example, when we step on a sharp rock, it is not our foot that creates the pain; it is our brain. When we accidentally touch a hot stove, it is not our finger that tells us we have burned ourselves; it is our brain. In this way, ALL pain originates in our brain; this is very different than saying “the pain is all in your head”.
That said, researchers have proven that our thoughts and perceptions do have the ability to influence how we feel pain. When we anticipate that an experience will be painful, our heart rate and blood pressure elevate, the stress hormone cortisol increases in our body, and our muscles become tense and contracted; as a result, these bodily changes actually CAUSE pain to occur, even if the situation would not have been painful in the first place. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So what does all this mean for the individual who is suffering from chronic pain? First, take some time to educate yourself about the basic mechanisms of how pain actually works; the more information you have, the better able you will be to seek and find resources that can help you manage or resolve the pain. At the end of this blog, I provide links to some excellent videos on YouTube by pain professionals to help you learn more.
Second, be aware that–just as pain itself is multi-faceted–there are many different ways to help manage chronic pain. Sometimes it takes a bit of experimenting to see what works for you. Here are just some examples: physiotherapy; acunpuncture/Traditional Chinese Medicine; chiropractic; naturopathy; aquatic therapy; dietary change; exercise; mindfulness/meditation; cognitive behavioural therapy; occupational therapy; osteopathy; and massage therapy, to name a few. Although drug therapy is another way to combat chronic pain, it carries the risk of potentially dangerous side effects, and I would argue that it should never be the sole method of dealing with the complex issue of chronic pain.
Lastly, it is important to seek the help of a healthcare professional, to perform a comprehensive examination and to work together with you to create a plan to optimize your health and wellbeing.
LINKS TO RESOURCES ON CHRONIC PAIN:
- Lorimer Moseley: Why Things Hurt https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwd-wLdIHjs
- APTEI: The Pain Truth and Nothing But, Video # 1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GPjv97unQu0
- APTEI: The Pain Truth and Nothing But, Video # 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2GI4gTiuX_s
- APTEI: The Pain Truth and Nothing But, Video # 3 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MK9TBM2-7AM