Pain Neuroscience Part 2: Is Your Nervous System Hypersensitive?

A little bit about nerves…

There are 400 individual nerves (about 45 miles worth) in the human body that act as an alarm system. At all times there is a little bit of electricity traveling through each of them. Various factors including stress, movement and temperature can make this level of electricity go up or down.

Each nerve has a threshold. When a nerve gets excited enough to reach this threshold, a message will be sent to the brain for analysis and possible action. So let’s say you lift something way too heavy with horrible form. The alarm system will go off and you will react by dropping the box…maybe even hire someone else to do the moving. Once the message has been sent and you have responded, the nervous system should return to its normal resting state. However, in 1 out of 4 people, the alarm system gets activated and then rests just below the threshold rather than returning to its original resting state. This is an extra sensitive nerve.

Having extra sensitive nerves is quite common but not normal. It can significantly impede activity and function. When the nervous system is at its normal resting level, there is a lot of room for activity before reaching the threshold. For example, you can sit in a car for hours before your nerves send the signal to stop, get out of the car and stretch. Then they return to normal and you can drive for a few more hours before another signal would be sent.

Louw A. Why Do I Hurt? A Neuroscience Approach to Pain. Minneapolis: OPTP; 2013.

After hurting your back lifting, the nerves have become extra sensitive so now there is very little room for activity before the alarm system goes off. You find that you can only sit for 5 minutes before you need to get up. And this occurs even after the tissues in your back have healed from your original injury all because the nervous system hasn’t returned to its normal resting level. 

How do I know if my alarm system is extra sensitive?

If you look at your own story it will become clear. Perhaps all diagnostic tests have come back negative but you’re still in pain. Maybe doctors keep telling you everything looks fine but you still can’t do nearly the amount of activities you used to do without consequences. Parts of your body not originally involved may all of a sudden start hurting as well. Small activities, movements and even light touch have become painful. These are all signs that your nervous system is on high alert. If you have been prescribed anti-depressants or nerve inhibitors, your physician agrees!

Why do nerves stay sensitive in some people while in others they calm down?

Two people with the same injury can end up in entirely different situations. One may be fine a week later while the other suffers from chronic pain for the rest of their life. How come? The sensitivity of your nervous system depends on many factors going on in your life. These include but are not limited to failed treatments, family issues, levels of fear, concerns about your job and even being given different explanations of your pain. Someone who has job satisfaction, healthy relationships, good sleep, a balanced diet and a clear treatment plan given by passionate health care providers will have a better chance of being pain free when compared to an individual who is sleep deprived, stressed, jacked up on sugar and worried about their prognosis.

What calms nerves down?

The short answer: A LOT! The coolest part is that just by understanding the concept of nerve sensitivity, you are already on your way to decreasing it. Research shows that if people understand more about their pain, the alarm system immediately starts turning down its sensitivity. This makes complete sense don’t you think? The alarm system is kept on high alert for good reason when there are more questions and concerns than answers and reassurances. By understanding that your pain is likely due to sensitive nerves rather than damaged tissues, fear is reduced and in turn, nerves are calmed. Research also shows that oxygen and blood flow, through aerobic activity, can help calm the nervous system. This includes a brisk walk, swim, bike ride or pretty much anything that gets you breathing a little hard and sweating a little bit. So nothing too crazy! But the easiest strategy of them all is something we do all day long: breathing. Diaphragmatic excursion has been shown to calm the whole nervous system down. The only trick is learning how to breath the right way. Don’t know how to breath right? No worries, that’s what I’m here for. Stay tuned.

Want to see the research?

Adriaan Louw, Ina Diener, David S. Butler, and Emilio J. Puentedura. “The Effect of Neuroscience Education on Pain, Disability, Anxiety, and Stress in Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain.” Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation 92.12 (2011): 2041-056. Web. FULL TEXT

Kirsten R. Ambrose, and Yvonne M. Golightly. “Physical Exercise as Non-pharmacological Treatment of Chronic Pain: Why and When.” Best Practice & Research Clinical Rheumatology 29.1 (2015): 120-30. Web. FULL TEXT

Daniela Roditi and Michael E Robinson. “The Role of Psychological Interventions in the Management of Patients with Chronic Pain.” Psychology Research and Behavior Management 4 (2011): 41–49. Web. FULL TEXT

Click here for a full list of research articles on pain neuroscience

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