Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Fibromyalgia, Inspiration, Pain Science, Resources

Dr. Sean Mackey on a potential reason for chronic pain

Hi everyone!

Here’s an amazing lecture from Dr. Sean Mackey of Stanford University on the various potential causes of fibromyalgia.

On my blog, I tend to focus on the factor that I know has played the largest role most directly in my own life– central sensitization.  The idea that central nervous system can become more sensitive to pain, as a result of physical pain or trauma that a person experiences.

Central sensitization (CS) has played a huge role in my own life, and I’ve come to feel that for me personally, it’s the best way to try to understand my nervous system.  That’s why I’ve written more about CS than I have about fibromyalgia specifically (although, as Dr. Mackey explains, there are other potential causes for fibro that we need more research on as well).

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I felt like including this lecture for you today because it ties a lot of different things together for me conceptually whenever I’m try to decide where I’m going with this blog.  (It was one of the very first things I linked to in my “Resources” section back in 2013, and I’m still so glad I found it!).

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One of the points I most appreciate in this talk is when, around the 18:00 mark, Dr. Mackey talks about an evolutionary benefit for our nervous systems learning to become more sensitive to pain.

Usually, when we think about chronic pain/central sensitization, we think of it as some horrible defect of the nervous system.  And yeah, I mean, it kind of is.  Something is definitely not working there the way it was intended.

However, pain is ultimately a mechanism that’s there to keep us safe, and it’s brought me a lot of peace and comfort to remember that.

Dr. Mackey points out that, back in our cave people days, it actually made a lot of sense for our nervous systems to freak out after an injury.  After all, we weren’t living in safe and comfortable houses and getting up to go sit in an office all day.  Instead, we were out there, walking great distances, running, hunting, fighting.

He says:

Pain serves as a survival message for us… Back in the cave people days, when we were out fighting the woolly mammoth and the saber-toothed tiger, when we got injured, it was in our best interest to go sit in a cave and let Nature take its course and heal up that injured limb… Because if you went out and fought them when you were injured, you got eaten, and you didn’t get to pass your genes along.

So it actually made a lot of evolutionary sense for a cave person’s nervous system to freak out after an injury and slow the person down, forcing him or her to rest.   The people who ignored their injuries and went back out there too soon didn’t always make it back to the cave afterwards.

Maybe our nervous systems “learn” to become more sensitive to pain, not because it’s some weird fluke or accident, but because that’s exactly what they were designed to do.  In another place and time, maybe this exact phenomenon is what would have kept us safe.

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In general, this is how I’ve learned to think of pain, and it’s a perspective that many of the resources I share on my blog are all coming from.

After all, it’s the basis of pain neurophysiology education– to help a chronic pain patient learn to see her nervous system as an overactive alarm system, or an overprotective friend.  Pain is not an enemy; ultimately, it’s a protector.  And once you learn to work with your nervous system, instead of against it, the effects can be really powerful.

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I really loved this lecture, and also enjoy following Dr. Mackey’s work in general.   He’s involved in some ground-breaking research at Stanford that uses something called fMRI to take real-time pictures of the brain, and exactly that it’s doing when it experiences chronic pain.

You can read more on this in my “Studying Chronic Pain Through Brain Imaging” section– it’s really fascinating!

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I also wanted to include something positive for you guys, after last week’s post about a doctor who totally blew me off.  I have certainly encountered my struggles in trying to get treatment, but ultimately, the thing to remember is that there are answers out there, and we are not crazy!

Our bodies are trying to protect us– they are just trying a little too hard!

Hope this was helpful, and that you’re all having a great week!

 

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