Pain Neuroscience Part 1: Is Your Brain Contributing to Your Pain?

Pain neuroscience education can be a sensitive topic. The big underlying message of it all is that our brains determine whether or not we feel pain. This statement pretty much takes everything we thought we knew and throws it out the window. For years I have treated musculoskeletal tissues under the notion that they were responsible for causing pain but maybe this isn’t always true. Pain neuroscience theorizes that the experience of pain is not caused by the injured tissue but rather by how our brain interprets messages sent from the nervous system. Mind. Blown. And yes, pun intended.

Where this topic can become a little offensive is how this new information is perceived. I am by no means saying that people make up their pain and I don’t think pain is all in people’s heads. Pain is real, no matter where it is coming from. Pain neuroscience is not discrediting people’s experience of pain BUT it does provide an explanation for why pain sometimes doesn’t go away even after the original cause has been resolved.

Let’s Start With a Little Story About Me…

I want to start with a personal story so that no one feels alone with the idea that your brain might be playing more of a role in your pain than your muscles or bones. It will also explain why I have become so interested in the topic.

I have chronic pain. 

It’s hard for me to admit to that. Its like going to a marriage counselor and finding out they have been divorced 10 times. But I think its time for me to look at my pain in a different light. It allows me to relate to all of my patients and for that, I believe I am a better physical therapist. So lets just agree that no one will ask me about my pain during their treatment time. Agreed? Cool. 

For many years I was at a plateau and I had tried EVERYTHING. Or so I thought. On many occasions I viewed myself as a failure in that I couldn’t fix my own pain. But then I went to a lecture on neuroscience and my entire perspective changed. Could my brain be the reason that I couldn’t change my pain? I started being more aware of my flare ups as they related to my emotional state. It soon became obvious that fatigue and stress definitely made my pain worse. My entire approach to my pain needed to change. Things like sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation and even trauma counseling became my focus and my home exercise program. Today, I am by no means pain free but each time I have a flare up, I can always come up with an explanation for why I am in pain. This alone helps the flare up be shorter in duration and less intense (I will support this with research in a later post).

I am not sure how many parts there will be to this series, nor do I know how long it will take me to completely cover the topic, but here is a little preview of whats to come: how does the brain contribute to pain, how pain neuroscience education can actually decrease pain, other ways of managing pain when the brain is contributing, and lots of research articles to support all of it. If you have any questions along the way, feel free to contact me here.

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