How a physical therapist helped me through my lowest point: Part Three

This is the third part in a series about an amazing new approach to physical therapy for chronic pain patients, and how the role it played in my life.  To start from the beginning, check out Part One and Part Two.

The biggest difference between the type of physical therapy Tim was introducing me to, compared to traditional physical therapy, is that it focused on the nervous system.

In the traditional model of physical therapy, the physical therapist prescribes stretches and exercises for the patient in order to improve function in one part of his or her body. For example, if it’s your back that hurts, your PT will give you strengthening exercises to build up the muscles in your back and abs. If it’s your knee that hurts, he or she will give you exercises to strengthen the muscles around the knee. This is why, when most of us picture physical therapy, we imagine a patient grunting and sweating in a gym while the therapist looks on.

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Tim, however, was drawing from a different treatment model. In this model, the patient’s pain is coming not from an injury in one specific part of the body, but from an overactive nervous system. Rather than focus on the function of a particular muscle group or joint, treatment actually focuses in on the nervous system, and helping to calm down the patient’s overactive pain response.

The best way I can try to describe this is with graphs.  The first graph below shows the way most people imagine pain to work.  It also shows what most physical therapists are imagining when they prescribe stretches and exercises to improve a patient’s function:

acute pain graph

You can see how, as the intensity of the injury diminishes (represented by the black line) the intensity of the pain diminishes as well (represented by the red line).  This matches our experience of pain in most minor situations: getting a tooth drilled, pulling out a splinter.  When the stimulus goes away, the pain goes away.

However, in situations involving chronic pain (generally defined as a painful experience that lasts for at least two to three months) the pain response works differently.  Prolonged exposure to a painful stimulus actually produces changes in how a person’s nervous system works.  It’s as if it sets off a feedback loop in which pain signals continue to be produced independently of the level of injury.  For this reason, pain persists even after the initial injury has healed:

chronic pain graph 2

This graph is also a good representation of the state I was in when I first came into Tim’s office.  I had a very high level of pain, but it was not correlated with a high level of injury in my body.  This is why I hadn’t seen much improvement with any of my past physical therapists– my pain was coming from my nervous system, not from a specific injury in my body.

“If pain is the patient’s primary symptom, then pain relief should be the primary goal of treatment.”

I once read something along those lines in a blog comment section, and it really stuck with me.

Most physical therapy programs are designed to improve function of a certain part of the body.  But when your pain isn’t coming from a problem with a certain part of your body, you can stretch and strengthen until the cows come home.  It still won’t change your level of pain.

This is why none of the physical therapists I had seen before had been able to help me.  They were all stuck on the idea that I needed to strengthen my back; strengthen my abs; strengthen everything.  Of course, in some ways they were right.  I wasn’t in the greatest shape.

But what Tim was able to identify is that there was a common denominator behind all of the pain I was experiencing in different parts of my body.  Rather than looking at each one as unrelated, he recognized them as the symptoms of an overactive nervous system, or, as he taught me, body alarm system.

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The goal of Tim’s approach was basically to help the patient’s body “remember” what an accurate pain response is supposed to be.  There are a few ways to accomplish this, and I will be discussing them in upcoming posts.  But the general goal of these various techniques is to help the patient’s nervous system get back in touch with with the reality of what’s happening in his or her body.

This graph shows the general goal of treatment:

input to nervous systemThe blue arrows represent the input you want to give to your nervous system.  You’re basically saying to it, “Hey.  Hey you.  You are freaking out for no reason.  This is reality, and it’s over there.”

The role of the physical therapist is basically to help the patient’s nervous system realize it doesn’t need to be on high alert all the time, and to slowly help it calm down.  The idea is that as time goes on, the discrepancy between what the person’s nervous system feels and the actual level of dysfunction in his or her body will slowly shrink.

Now, to be honest, I’m not sure you will ever be able to fully reverse the process of central sensitization.  It’s probably possible, but it hasn’t happened yet for me.  That’s why I didn’t draw the red line going all the way back down to the bottom.  An overactive pain response will always probably be somewhat of a factor for me, but it is a million times better for me now than it used to be.  I’d much rather have the red line close to zero than soaring way up high, totally out of touch with my physical reality.

I’ll be continuing my discussion of this approach to physical therapy, including the specific techniques that Tim taught me, in Part Four.  Stay tuned!

  • Strength training equipment pic: colonnade
  • Balance training equipment pic: kbrookes

8 thoughts on “How a physical therapist helped me through my lowest point: Part Three

  1. I have just read your blog, when I came to the put Xs on the sheet, I realised this is me, for 10 years. Would love some advise…pls

  2. I am always researching “pain” and have never found anything like this. It’s absolutely holding my attention. On to part four!

    1. I know what you mean. I had also tried to research pain for several years on my own, without coming across any of this. This was when I was still in college, and had paid access to hundreds of academic journals. Nothing I found was ever as helpful as Neil Pearson’s approach. That’s why I’m doing my best to get the word out now!

  3. I just watched the Neil Pearson talks you linked to – they were great. It reminded of the stuff i did in Pain Management but had forgotten, kind of. Nervous system overactivation. What I need to is translate what i know into a regular committed routine, although i am doing more meditation that is used to. i liked his thing of asking yourslf ‘Is this really dangerous?’ and the emphasis on mindfulness. ill have to use that. Looking forward to part 4! xx

    1. Glad you liked the talks– Neil Pearson is amazing! And I agree… someday when/if I’m a physical therapist, I want to help patients design their own programs to actually implement this stuff into their own lives. Tim helped me a lot, but I only had so many visits with him due to insurance reasons. This is the kind of problem that can’t be fixed quickly. As a physical therapist, I might see if I can even host “group physical therapy” sessions where a bunch of chronic pain patients can get together and talk about this stuff…

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