Every so often I look at this inspirational comic picture book by Steve Haines, it’s called Pain is Strange.
The wisdom and knowledge in this research based comic book is absolutely fab, it explains how understanding pain, is often the key to relieving its effects. Here is a bit about it.
If we can get our heads around pain we stand a chance of relieving it. Pain is in our brains telling us that something is wrong and we need to do something about it. Pain talks straight to the nervous system, and involves our immune systems and chemicals in our bodies, and together they interact to create the experience of pain.
According to research we have a pattern, or a map, in the nervous system which links many systems into a conscious pain event. If any one element of this pattern is sparked off, then the whole pain event can be triggered. The elements consist of memory, family, trauma, senses, emotion, beliefs, culture, learning, movement, in fact everything that’s relevant to you.
The brain uses the body to create a warning signal, and changes in the brain always result in a change in physiology somewhere in the body.
Our perception of reality is created by neurons. How neurons interact is the beginning and end of everything. We have evolved to respond quickly to threat, but our brain can make mistakes. This is important as chronic pain is quite often a mistake, it’s a fault in the alarm systems.
In the twentieth century, management of pain was influenced by Descartes. Pain was thought of as something similar to hearing, as a fixed signal and measurable response.
The Descartes model led to an over-reliance on x-rays and MRI scans as a guide to pain, fortunately that is no longer the case. Modern pain science acknowledges that pain is complex, it involves the whole person in their world. Always.
Pain is so much more than signals of danger from the tissues. It is also about blocked emotions and belief systems.
The problem is that acute pain changes how your nervous and immune systems work. The changes amplify and become entrenched. This is called sensitisation.
Sensitisation means we turn up the volume on our alarm system, but we are very poor at turning the volume down.
So when our tissues are damaged and need to repair, it involves inflammation. Inflammation is an immune led process and is very powerful.
After tissue healing is complete there may be some loss of function, and you may need to learn to move differently, but there should be no need for pain.
Persistent pain, beyond the expected period for tissue healing, means the brain has forgotten to turn off the alarm system.
Danger signals from the alarm system quickly sensitise neurons to circulating stress hormones, inflammatory signals and danger neurotransmitters.
The new field of neuroplasticity has proved that the connections between neurons change according to the stimulus.
If we have lots of danger signals and we learn to amplify danger, our nervous system becomes sensitised.
However if we have lots of good news we get better at processing good news.
Neuroplasticity goes both ways. The science shows we can amplify pain, but more importantly, we can also unlearn pain.
So how can you change your pain experience and retrain your plastic nervous system.
Neuroplasticity can be your friend. You are unique and need to experiment to find out what works for you. There is no one answer that fits everyone.
Our brains work best when they are stimulated to do new things
Fixed habits limit our ability to grow and learn. So learn to move, think and feel in novel and interesting ways. Your brain will love it
Brains need to be reminded that we have a body, not just a mind. Getting in touch with your body can be challenging, so tune into your body and practice something like mindfulness.
It is useful to label any sensations, particularly if they are painful, by checking if it is hot or cold, moving or fixed, quick or slow, big or small?
Another good practice is, can you feel the shape and size of your body? Can you feel your feet on the floor. Are you aware of the weight of your body, your outline, your skin and the inside of your body
Is the left side the same size, shape, and weight as the right?
Place your awareness on the inside of your belly. Is it an empty space or does it feel warm and vibrant? Spend time finding words that exactly match the sensations you feel.
Can you explore these sensations with curiosity rather than fear?
The next tip is to find ways of moving without fear, to go under the radar of your alarm system
A good way of activating your brain is to visualise movement. Imagine a joyful movement (throwing a ball for a dog etc) and run it over and over in your brain.
Keep moving and trying new patterns of movement, your nerves will desensitise as your brain learns it is not the end of the world.
Each movement you make and experience as safe, will help retrain the nervous system.
Another good tip is to avoid using language that reinforces the pain, rather use new language that calms pain down.
An example of unhelpful language is ‘slipped discs’. Maybe use words like – a disc under pressure or something being squeezed, and then focus on reducing the pressure and how to unsqueeze.
Anything that de-threatens the sensations you are feeling, and supports new possibilities will help break the pain habit. Sell yourself more beautiful, elegant and accurate stories.
Your tissues are not the problem. Changing the habits of how you perceive them is a the solution.
Think of changing pain as learning to write with your opposite hand.
Chronic pain always involves a sensitised nervous system, and complex problems benefit from a multitude of creative responses.
Evidence shows, that how you move, think, and feel can be re-learnt. You can train your plastic brain to create more safety to switch off pain.