Pain: It's the Brain's Thing
Last issue of Fixnews, we started to talk about pain with reference to shark bites and war injuries. This was illustrating the point that pain does not always match the extent of body damage or injury. And that at the end of the day, the body's damage at the tissues is only one part of the 'pain puzzle' for the brain to weigh up. Pain that we feel is therefore not proportionate to tissue, muscle or joint injury. Yet when we still experience pain, how can this be so if the tissues are not necessarily causing the pain. The answer is that there are many other pieces of the 'pain puzzle' in your brain pathways, and we will explore these further today.
Let's discover our brains: Brain physiology 101!
Your brain has about ten billion tiny nerve cells called neurones. Each neurone is like an octopus with many tentacles, which can connect with other neurones. The brain wires itself by creating these connections between neurons (called synapses). There are an almost infinite number of possible connections between neurones in your brain. The number is so large, it's said to be more than the number of all the particles in the universe!
The tentacles on the neurones wriggle around a bit to make contact, and once that happens they pump out a few chemicals, which trigger the adjoining neurone. The more connections, the more you can do with your brain. For example, a skill like riding a bike requires lots of connections, perhaps several trillion. Once a neurone makes contact with another one, the connection will hold if the link is used repeatedly. Think of it as like a river – the more water that flows through the river, the deeper the gorge in the rocks. This in turn makes it easier for more water to flow through the same channel. This is involved with practicing a skill or movement over and over. The more you practice, the more entrenched the connection and nerve pathway will be.
This mass of connections relating to an activity is called a Neurotag. Your bike riding Neurotag will use neurones from many different parts of your brain; for example neurones related to vision, balance, coordination, and even emotions and bike-riding memories such as how it felt the first time you rode, or perhaps when you saw the Tour de France. It's like a bike-riding 'movie' that plays in your brain every time you ride, or think about riding a bike. These connections will often involve many parts of the brain. There is not just one 'bike-riding' centre in the brain. If we were to scan your brain as you rode your bike, we would see many many areas of the brain alight, indicating connections that are firing or igniting for that skill.
We all have millions of these little 'movies', and just like bike riding, your pain has a Neurotag. It can be ignited when you think of your pain, when you move in ways your brain finds threatening – even if you watch someone else do that movement you think might hurt! Areas of the brain that ignite may include your memory centres, your sensory centres, your movement centres, centres that house your beliefs and values, your ethnicity, your values about exercise or activity, centres that control mood.
Can you see how with all of these pieces of the 'pain puzzle', every single person's experience of pain is unique? Even for the one individual, the pain experience may be unique from one time of their life to another.
The messages from the nerves from your tissues, muscles and joints are only one piece of the pain experience. Yes, this information will still ignite the brain in one small area, but the brain will ignite all other areas that make up YOUR unique pain 'movie' to let you know that you are in pain. Even after your joint or muscle strain has healed (6-12 weeks) and the nerve messages from this have reduced, your ongoing pain can be still be a problem as your pain 'movie' continues to play. Your pain 'movie' can ignite from any one of these areas, so you feel the pain as usual. Remember the brain has entrenched these nerve connections from the early days of your injury, but now you must unravel this Neurotag to feel less or no pain at all.
So, what does all of this mean when it comes to trying to reduce or control your pain? If we can unravel this entrenched pain 'movie' or Neurotag, you will feel less pain. We can rewire the brain.
How? Again each person will be different, but improving your body's strength and posture, bettering movement patterns and habits, distraction techniques, nerve gliding exercises, pacing up activity gradually, happy hormones, laughing, listening to music, singing and psychology can all help.
Remember, pain is a 'brain movie' that can be rewired to feel less pain.