In the last article, we talked about the fascinating topic of neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to change its wiring on the fly. This is one of the ideas the Coaching The Body methodology is built on.
But in order to apply the principle of neuroplasticity to the treatment of chronic and severe pain, you have to first readjust your understanding of where the pain came from to begin with.
That's why this week, we're talking about a related (but equally important) idea—nociception.
Most of us grow up believing that pain is a direct and determinate result of disease or injury. If you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurts.
It's almost like the injury is what produces the pain.
This idea has been around for a very long time. In the 1600's, Descartes proposed that we each have pain sensors, which send pain signals mechanically through 'tubes,' causing a pain response once those signals hit the brain.
We now understand that the human body is much more sophisticated than that, and modern neuroscience has developed quite a different understanding of pain.
Unfortunately, most medical practitioners haven't caught up with these insights, and are basically still in the 1600's with fusty old Descartes.
(By the way, if you haven't seen my How To Treat Pain webinar, I discuss these topics in a lot more detail, with illustrations to help. Check it out here.)
Pain Is Not From The Outside In
Here's the thing...
We don't actually have pain sensors.
We have what are called nociceptors, which is a fancy word for "danger sensors." And when your body is in potential danger, nothing stops you in your tracks quicker than a shooting, intense pain.
(Chronic pain is a little different, though. We'll talk about that in a minute.)
In other words, pain is just one of any number of possible phenomena generated by your brain, in response to input from your danger signals / nociceptors.
In the words of my friend Dr. David Hanscom, pain is an output, not an input.
Pain is a sensation that is produced by the central nervous system, not by the tissues where actual damage may have occurred.
In the case of your now-throbbing thumb, some of your tissues get smashed, and your immune system generates a lot of nociceptive chemicals, which sends a flood of danger signals to the brain.
Your brain, in turn, will most likely* give you a vivid experience of pain in response.
Why? Because you need to stop building that flowerbed, and do something about your busted thumb, ASAP! 🙂
*I say "most likely," because if the injury is severe enough, your brain might decide that it's a better idea not to produce a lot of pain, but to put your system into shock instead. It's all about what makes the most sense for survival.
What About Chronic Pain?
Chronic pain is where this all seems to get more complicated...
But that's only because chronic pain is less straightforward than "I hit my thumb, therefore it hurts."
Chronic pain means that, even after some time has passed, you might still have pain, even if the original tissue damage has healed.
But even in these situations—which can be some of the most frustrating pain complaints for both patients AND practitioners—pain is STILL a response generated by the central nervous system (CNS).
That's because after a while, your CNS begins to up-regulate, rewiring itself to become WAY more sensitive (heyyy, neuroplasticity!).
Once that happens, even very benign signals lead to an experience of pain. It no longer has anything to do with tissue damage. Your brain is just freaking out, because there's no "off" switch.
Pain researcher Dr. Lorimer Moseley, whose excellent TED talk is linked below, says, "Soft tissue damage is neither necessary nor sufficient for the experience of pain."
Another way to say that is, it's much easier for this whole process to START, than it is to STOP.
In the chronic stage, pain is very difficult to manage, because there's no longer an obvious "cause."
Which is also, by the way, why so many practitioners are stymied when it comes to treating chronic pain.
We have to teach the system to turn down the sensitivity again—to down-regulate.
In a clinical context, we have to show the body it can move without pain. The CNS is skittish about these things; it needs proof.
Why Coaching The Body™ is Different
While down-regulating the central nervous system is a key element of the CTB method, there's another wrinkle in this situation—one that other researchers have pretty much ignored.
It also happens to be a hidden source of nociception that perpetuates chronic pain.
And that's what we're going to talk about next time...
In the meantime, check out our in-person workshops, many of which don't require any prerequisite studies. We cover topics like this one, and also provide some amazing hands on learning.
Until then, I highly recommend Dr. Moseley's very entertaining TED talk, below.
You'll learn some cool neuroscience, and hear one of my favorite stories about how pain works. 🤗
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