Recent research is opening up new avenues of hope for people suffering from chronic pain. These studies have shown definitively that chronic back pain, repetitive strain juries, headaches, fibromyalgia and other forms of chronic pain are often not the result of structural issues (although they may have started out that way) but of brain-based physiologic processes that can be reversed. This is called “neuroplastic pain.”
Neuroplastic pain results from the brain being hijacked and misinterpreting safe messages and sensations from the body as is they were dangerous or threatening. Really, neuroplastic pain is like a false alarm constantly going off when the fire department has cleared the building and deemed it danger free.
This is not to say that the pain is “all in your head” or even imaginary. Brain imaging studies show that the pain is very real. It’s just that the brain has been sensitized to look for threat where there is none, and its neural pathways need to be retrained to reframe pain as just a “sensation,” or “discomfort.”
The definition of pain is sensation PLUS fear. We need to take fear out of the equation, in order to feel better. This is easier said than done. If you have the anxious brain trained to seek out danger, you’re going to tell yourself there’s a structural reason you’re having these sensations, even if the doctors have found nothing structural as the cause. You will find reasons that this cannot apply to you and convince yourself that your pain is different, and not capable of being helped.
Often doctors will give a big scary diagnosis to people who then take that and make it into a catastrophic end. Take “Degenerative Disc Disease” for instance. What is that? Potentially a normal sign of aging. Just as we develop wrinkles on our skin, we develop changes internally when we age, like thinner tissue between spinal discs. But someone with anxious brain could start to pay attention to any spine changes, deem them catastrophic, and start having back pain. Whereas, someone with a less anxious brain might ask their doctor for a few exercises, and look for ways to lessen inflammation in the body and forget about the diagnosis, feeling no pain at all.
What causes this anxious brain that can lead to chronic pain? Researchers at the Pain Psychology Center suggest that our brains may learn this behavior from events such as challenging childhood experiences, past negative health experiences, everyday adult stress, perfectionism, and major life events . When the nervous system is overwhelmed it can start sending signals to produce symptoms such as migraines, fibromyalgia, fatigue, back pain, IBS and other GI issues, lingering pain from old injuries, etc.
This might seem overwhelming, but the good news is that it can be lessened or overcome by working with a certified Pain Reprocessing Therapy provider like Heather Hruby. PRT teaches proven ways to overcome chronic pain experiences by educating about neuroplastic pain and how the brain can misinterpret safe signals as if they were dangerous, retraining the brain and nervous system to find more safety in the body and in the world and finding successes in overcoming chronic pain in small ways that add up to big changes overall.
If this post resonates with you and you want to see if I would be a good fit counselor to meet with you, please contact one of the therapists at New Leaf today.
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