10 Nov Pain, explained.
Clarity Massage Therapist Courtney Bignell has been neck-deep in her Physiotherapy degree this year, as she wraps up towards the end of the year, she takes some time to tell us all about what she has learned about the science of pain:
I want to take a minute to tell you about what I’ve learned about pain this year. Pain is a very complex phenomenon. Most people’s understanding of pain is that it is caused by injury, that when the tissues of the body are damaged then pain is the resulting experience. And that is true, but only up to a point. But did you know that pain doesn’t necessarily = tissue damage! In fact, you can have tissue damage without pain, and pain without tissue damage. Think of the person with arthritic changes to their joints, who never even knew they had these changes until they had an MRI or x-ray for a completely un-related reason. Or think of the person who has immense pain in their knees, but gets a scan that reveals nothing substantial to cause pain. How is this explained? Is it all in their head? Well yes and no.
Contrary to popular belief, pain isn’t an experience wholly of the body, but it is actually an output of the brain. And it isn’t a bad thing! Pain is your brain’s way of telling you that “hey, something is going on here! I need you to notice this so you don’t damage this area further!” What is interesting is that we now know, through the many studies into pain science, that the brain takes in many inputs before deciding that an output of pain is a necessary experience. Yes, it takes input from the tissues of the body via the nervous system, but, it also takes information from the environment you’re in (the place/time/space ie the context of the situation) and, interestingly, it also takes information from itself: from all the past experiences you’ve accumulated over a lifetime of events; all of the memories, emotions, beliefs and even culture that makes up you as a person.
Here’s a few interesting tidbits that can show how complex this process of a pain experience can be:
Did you know: your brain remembers old injuries; that time you hurt your back which was SO bad that you couldn’t walk for two days, or that time you pulled your hamstring after attempting some amazingly awesome (probably dodgy) kick of a footy 5 years ago while slightly inebriated on the beach. Your brain remembers these moments EVEN after your tissues have completely healed. One way it does this is by up-regulating your nervous system to actually be MORE sensitive, so as to protect that area from further potential damage. So every time you kick a footy, or put your back out for no good reason, you get a flare up of a pain experience, which may, or more likely, may not be a direct result of actual tissue damage.
Did you know: even your emotions can inform your pain experience. Stress and anxiety are some of the biggest influences of pain. Long-term levels of stress hormones such as cortisol have a big impact on bodily processes. They can both make your nervous system more sensitive (an over sensitized nervous system means more danger signals sent to your brain = more pain!) and also causes changes, which can lead to a lowered immune system.
So, if you are a chronic pain sufferer what can you do about it? Some of the most recent research suggests that we need to retrain your brain and your nervous system. To do this we need to convince this duo that actually, guys be cool, this isn’t dangerous anymore!!! This can be done a number of ways: getting on top of your stress, strengthening your immune system by eating well, meditating, taking up exercise and activities that make you feel good and doing it in a way that is gradual and sustainable which doesn’t cause you flare ups.
This whole pain-shebang is a complicated thing, and if you’re interested to know more then I suggest checking out this guy: Lorimer Moseley. He’s kinda the guru-daddy of pain science, he also happens to be hilarious and an amazing story teller. Check him out on YouTube (type in his name and ‘pain’ and you’ll get a tonne of hits) he explains all this way better than I can. He also has written a super-interesting book called: Explain Pain. Well worth a read!
To book in for some hands-on time with Courtney (and to ask her more about the science of pain!) click here.