Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Creative Writing, Inspiration, Nervous System, Pain Neurophysiology Education, Pain Science, Treatment Approaches

Learning about central sensitization: the power of naming, and the future of pain treatment

IMG_3204

Whew.

I have really enjoyed writing my more personal posts recently– I love to tell a good story, and to feel as though my past experiences have some meaning.  (And I’ve really appreciated all your kind words, comments, and shares!).

But also, wow– some of those posts were very emotional for me.  Right now I’m kind of feeling the need to come up for some air.

So let me back up for just for a minute, and talk about some of the things I’m optimistic about, in terms of the big picture in treating chronic pain.

The more we know about central sensitization and the way pain works:

It gives us the power to name things.  

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.  Sometimes, there is a healing power that comes just from being able to put a name to something; to receive a diagnosis, and know that you aren’t the only one.

As I explained in my last post, when I finally learned the term central sensitization, it helped me to feel validated, and so much less alone.

Sometimes healing can come not from completely “fixing” your condition, but from being able to make meaning out of it for yourself; constructing a coherent narrative that makes sense.

And of course, it’s much easier to make sense out of something when you actually know what it is.

Having an actual diagnosis can help us explain ourselves to others

At least, I assume it does.

As I have mentioned in past posts, the truth is that I have often struggled to articulate what’s happened to me in the people in my life.

Of course, it didn’t help that I didn’t really have an explanation that made sense for it myself, for most of the time, or that even now that I have an explanation, it’s a condition that’s still fairly unknown.

This is why I am doing my best to raise awareness and get the word out.

The more we, as a society, understand about pain, the more treatments we can develop.

There is just so much to say here.  The more I learn about pain, the more and more I realize I don’t know.  It’s really such a fascinating subject.  I try to talk about some of the highlights on my blog, just to give you a sense of how broad the subject really is.

But in a nutshell, our growing scientific understanding of pain can lead us to all sorts of new treatments, such as:

New pharmacological approaches: I’ve recently discovered Gracie Gean’s Youtube channel, and her story about receiving ketamine infusions to treat CRPS.  I totally recommend checking it out!

Brain imaging and biofeedback: I’ve written before about the work of Christopher deCharms and others at Stanford University, who use functional MRI to teach patients to mentally “turn the volume down” on their pain.

Pain neurophysiology education

And of course, once you understand that pain is one of your body’s protective responses– it’s actually there to keep you safe, not make you miserable– this can help you learn to work with it, not against it.

This is the premise of pain neurophysiology education, which I talk about in the “Calming Your Nervous System” section of my blog.

When I was in the midst of my struggle, I happened to find a physical therapist who had taken a PNE course with Neil Pearson, and that was the moment things really changed for me.

I learned to view my pain not as an automatic indicator that something was wrong or broken in my body, but as my body’s attempts to protect me.  And, each time something hurt, it was possible my body was overreacting, like a jumpy alarm system, or an overprotective friend.

This helped me to mentally take a step back when things began to hurt, and re-evaluate what I intellectually thought the pain was likely to mean.  And even just realizing that I had the ability to do this– that pain didn’t always have to mean something was wrong– helped me to begin to end the cycle I’d been caught in.

So, that’s all for now.

I’ve got a bunch of posts planned for the next few weeks that I’m really excited about.

I’ve also recorded a podcast interview with Matthew Villegas for The Capable Body Podcast about my experience with pain neurophysiology education.  Although I was afraid I sounded super awkward, Matt assures me the episode will be good!  It should be coming out sometime in September– I’ll be sure to let you know when it does.

Stay tuned!

 

 

Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Creative Writing, My Story

How I developed central sensitization, Part 4

I began to wonder if something about the compartment syndrome and the leg surgery could have changed something in my chemical makeup, weakening my body and depleting its healing response.

After all, pain was supposed to be my body’s way of telling me that I was injured.  Something was broken; something was wrong.

Time and time again, I’d go to see a doctor, and they wouldn’t be able to find anything wrong.  My elbow was fine; my wrists were fine.  One of my shoulder muscles had a knot the size of a pea, but according to the pain specialist I saw, it  “shouldn’t be causing this much pain.”

It was honestly so, so frustrating.  I really started to think there was something wrong with me that doctors just couldn’t find.  Something wrong in my tissues; maybe some kind of problem with inflammation.

***

My primary care doctor back home started to think there was something wrong with me psychologically; that maybe this was depression, or anxiety.

But her suggestions just didn’t resonate with me.  I’d been depressed before.  I knew what it felt like, and this wasn’t it.  As much physical pain as I was in, I was still in so much less pain, emotionally, than I’d been in as a teenager.

After all, I’d been through a time when it felt like daggers just to breathe; when I was so exhausted from trying to make it through the day that the walk from my parents’ driveway into the house seemed so far I might not make it, and I had to rest in my car.

I’d been through all that, and it hadn’t resulted in physical pain like this.  In fact, my body had been at its peak, running faster and faster.

Now I’d come out of all of that– the clouds had finally lifted, and for the first time, I felt like knew what I wanted out of life.  I was enjoying my classes, and the fact that I was meeting so many like-minded people.  I felt like we were all going to graduate and change the world together.  Finally knew what it felt like to be happy, when before it had been just a word.

How could depression be causing this debilitating pain now, when it never had before?   Apart from the pain itself, I was actually happy with my life now.  It didn’t make any sense.

To be continued in Part 5.

To start from the beginning of this series:

 

Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Creative Writing, My Story

How I developed central sensitization: Part 3

Okay, I still can’t believe I’m writing about this part of my story publicly.  But it seems like I’ve reached the point in my life where my need to say something is beginning to outweigh my fear.  So here we go:

***

I was 21.

I’d finally had leg surgery, which had successfully cured my compartment syndrome.  And now I’d just stopped needing to take painkillers for my back.  I’d completed three semesters of college, and I was excited to keep moving forward and try to live a normal life.

These posts have been pretty heavy so far, so I want to take a moment and actually reassure you that this was a really positive time in my life.  I loved my new school, and my new friends, and I loved what I was studying.  I was completely at home in the socially conscious, hippie atmosphere of Western MA–  I felt as though I was finally where I was meant to be.

But something had changed within my body.  Even though I no longer had a major injury, it seemed like every little thing I did could set off some kind of pain.

I’d open a heavy door, and my elbow would hurt afterwards, for days.

I’d do a lot of typing, and my wrists would burn so intensely that I’d start wondering if I had carpal tunnel.

I tried to get back into running, but the first time I reached a good speed, I developed a stabbing pain underneath my right shoulder blade and had to back off.

At the time, I’d had no idea this could have anything to do with the way my nervous system was functioning.  It just seemed like my body had changed; like it wasn’t able to heal from things anymore.

I actually started to wonder if there was something fundamentally wrong, deep in my tissues, and now I was somehow prone to getting injured really easily.  It seemed like every little thing I did created more pain.

***

I didn’t like this new body, and I wanted my old body back.

I remembered what it was like, before my surgery and this whole episode with “glass back syndrome”– before pain had encapsulated my whole body.

I’d had other injuries before, of course– shin splints, as well as a partial tear of my hip flexor tendon during my freshman year of high school.   But what had made these injuries different is the pain always stayed in one place, and when the injury had healed, I was strong.

Now my body was profoundly different.  I felt like it couldn’t withstand anything; couldn’t stand up to life.  Every little thing made me feel like something was broken, or that I was “injured.”

If I opened a door wrong, or carried something heavy, or went for a walk when it was super cold out— every little thing I did seemed to create a “micro-injury.”  I’d have pain, or pins and needles, or some other weird symptom, and feel like I couldn’t use that part of my body for days.

My once powerful body, that had carried me up hills, and down rocky slopes– the body that made half of the girls on my cross-country team hate me, because I was always #1– somehow, right as the rest of my life was starting to get back on track, it had turned to glass.

To be continued in Part 4.

To start from the beginning of this series:

Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Creative Writing, My Story

How I developed central sensitization: Part 2

Continued from Part 1

My doctor said I had what was called “glass back” syndrome.  Every muscle, from my neck to my lower back, was locked in spasm.  Even the smallest movement could set off a domino effect, each muscle triggering the next, until my entire back would feel like a blaze of pain.  I was so sensitive to movement, it’s as if I was made of glass.

The only time of day when things didn’t hurt was when I first woke up in the morning.  For those few seconds before I moved, I would feel okay.  Then, when I turned to roll out of bed, bam!  The blaze of pain would return.

I learned to keep my bottle of painkillers next to me when I slept.  That way, when I woke up, I didn’t have to reach very far for a pill.  I would gingerly edge my fingers along the mattress, grab the bottle and open it.

That would be it– the only motion I’d perform.  Reach over, take out a pill, put it in my mouth, swallow.  And then wait until I felt it set in; everything would become dull, and a little less horrible.  I was a little farther inside myself, but at least I was also farther away from the pain.

Tramadol, Tylenol, Advil, and a muscle relaxer.  And Bengay cream.  And heating pad at night.  These were all the things I needed to make it through– if you can call it that.

***

Part of what made it worse is that I was treating my back pain like it was a running injury.  That was the only type of injury I’d had before, and with all of those injuries, the important thing was to rest.

I later learned that with a back issue such as this (it wouldn’t be accurate to call it an injury) it’s actually really important to move, and strengthen the back muscles.  To an extent, you have to keep moving in spite of the pain, because if your muscles get weak, things only get worse.

But I was young, and I didn’t know.  In fact, I was tough; I was an athlete.  I’d never had “injuries” before that hadn’t been caused by a serious amount of force travelling through my body, my feet pounding into the pavement at sub-6-minute mile pace.

I was not at all familiar with this kind of pain– the kind of pain that kept spiraling beyond my grasp, beyond my wildest efforts to control it.  The kind of pain that seemed to be caused by almost nothing.

So, I thought, I needed to rest.  That’s what I’d done for all my previous injuries.  I didn’t want to strain anything, or break anything.  With this amount of pain, rest.

***

In the midst of this, I was due to start at the new school I had transferred to; a small liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts.  I contemplated not going, but ultimately I decided to take the plunge. I didn’t want to miss out on yet another experience.

Luckily, I could physically make it to class– the campus was walkable, and my legs had healed completely from the surgery.

But a lot of the time, I couldn’t concentrate.  I remember being in class knowing I was feeling the exact moment when my last dose of tramadol wore off, counting down the minutes until I could go back to my dorm room and take another.

And then, once I was safely back in my room, I’d briefly fall asleep.  Not from the tramadol (my body got used to it after a while) but from the sheer exhaustion of trying to stay awake through something so excruciating.  It was as though my conscious mind needed a break from experiencing this much pain, and sleep was the only way out.  So I’d fall asleep, and leave reality behind for a little while.

***

The way out, as I learned in physical therapy, was to get out of bed and keep moving as much as possible.  I started going for walks– long walks, which I might have once thought impossible before my leg surgery.  This, as my PT explained, helped to increase blood flow, flushing out some of the pain-producing chemicals in muscles, and also “acting like a giant heating pack from the inside,” helping the muscle to relax.

Additionally, I started doing specific exercises to strengthen my back muscles.

And you know what else?  I took my painkillers.

***

Contrary to what you might expect, my doctor at school totally understood what I was going through and encouraged me to actually take the full amount of tramadol she had prescribed (up to 6 pills a day), if it would help me move more.

From her, I had my first real experience with understanding pain science.  She explained that, with “glass back syndrome,” the pain sort of became its own cycle.  As the muscles would spasm and create pain, this would actually cause all of the other nearby muscles to tighten up as well, to protect the area.

The painkillers, it turned out, were actually helpful in reducing those pain signals telling the muscles to spasm.  When I took them, I was able to go for walks, and do my exercises, and get stronger.

(This experience is one reason why I will always believe in the power of prescription pain medication to help chronic pain patients.  Without it, I truly believe my recovery would have taken much longer).

***

Eventually, my back got stronger, and the all-encompassing muscle spasms finally stopped.  I found I no longer needed the tramadol, and I stopped that too.

However, though my “glass back syndrome” eventually subsided, the pain would never fully go away.

To be continued in Part 3!

Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Pain Science, Quotes, Resources

Christopher deCharms: A look inside the brain in real time

I’ve been writing about some heavy stuff recently, so I thought it would be a good time to share something that makes me feel really hopeful:

Christopher deCharms is a neuroscientist and entrepreneur who, along with other prominent researchers such as Dr. Sean Mackey, is paving the way towards using brain imaging to study and treat chronic pain.

deCharms founded a company, Omneuron, which has developed something called rtfMRI, or “real-time functional MRI.” 

In studies of chronic pain patients, this new technology allows researchers to see exactly which area’s of a patient’s brain are the most active, and how this activity can change from moment to moment, depending on what the patient is instructed to do.

We know that the brains and nervous systems of chronic pain sufferers function differently from people who aren’t in pain– now this technology allows us to see how.

deCharms explains,

There have (historically) been three ways to try to impact the brain: the therapist’s couch, pills and the knife. This is a fourth alternative that you are soon going to have.

We all know that as we form thoughts, they form deep channels in our minds and in our brains. Chronic pain is an example. If you burn yourself, you pull your hand away. But if you’re still in pain in six months’ or six years’ time, it’s because these circuits are producing pain that’s no longer helping you.

If we can look at the activation in the brain that’s producing the pain, we can form 3D models and watch in real time the brain process information, and then we can select the areas that produce the pain.

Just as there are parts of the brain which can produce the experience of pain, there are also parts of the brain which can “turn down the volume” on pain, so to speak.

There are a few mechanisms by which the brain can inhibit pain signals.  One powerful way is through the production of our own endogenous opiates– chemicals which our own brain produces to block pain.  (These chemicals are what opiate medications such as Percoset and Oxycontin are trying to mimic).

Omneuron is researching ways which patients can learn to “turn up the volume” on the parts of their brain which inhibit the sending of pain signals.

As deCharms explains in this additional interview:

There is a built-in dial in the brain, that, when you turn it up… pain goes away.  So we hope that when we can teach people to control these systems, to control this dial in the brain, they can make the brain go down.

He explains that many of his patients report feeling empowered simply by seeing images of the pain activity in their brains on the screen.  For so long, they had felt as though the people in their lives didn’t believe them about how much pain they were in, and there, on the screen, was proof.

***

I really find this topic to be so fascinating, not to mention inspiring.

If you’d like to know more, I actually have a whole section within my “Resources” page on how fMRI is being used to study and treat chronic pain.  (I have links to a bunch more articles, as well as some interesting talks by other prominent researchers).

Hope you’ll check it out!

Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Fibromyalgia, Nervous System, Pain Science

Central Sensitivity Syndromes

A really important concept for anyone struggling with chronic pain, fibromyalgia, or other chronic health conditions is the idea of “central sensitivity syndromes” (CSS for short).

The term refers to any kind of condition that can be caused by a change in the way the nervous system processes pain (a process known as central sensitization).

I have described central sensitization in more detail in other posts.  (Here, I will just say that sometimes, the nervous system can begin to function differently after physical injury or trauma.  Basically, the more chances our nervous system has to “practice” sending pain signals, the better it gets at it).

Central sensitization is why you can still have pain after an injury is healed.  Your tissues are no longer damaged, but your nervous system has not forgotten the “memory” of the pain.

So… how does this happen?  What kinds of injuries or traumas are necessary to cause it?  And what symptoms can it cause?

The answer to is: central sensitization can happen in many different ways, and sometimes the things that trigger it don’t have to be very “severe.”  And there can be a wide range of symptoms, in different parts of the body.   It can be different for each individual person, depending on genetic makeup, co-existing health conditions, psychology, and, of course, the event that triggered it.

This is why the term “central sensitivity syndromes” is so helpful– there are so many health conditions, which on the surface might seem very different, yet all have central sensitization as their root cause.

***

To my knowledge, the term was first coined by physician and researcher Muhummad Yunus, who, along with his colleagues, conducted an important 1981 study linking fibromyalgia to other health conditions caused by nervous system sensitization.

Since then. Dr. Yunus has contributed to a really impressive list of studies establishing central sensitization as the likely cause of a wide range of conditions, including:

  • fibromyalgia
  • irritable bowel syndrome
  • temporomandibular disorder (TMJ)
  • restless legs syndrome
  • chronic fatigue syndrome
  • complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS)
  • chronic pelvic pain
  • migraine

Central sensitization can create different types of symptoms, from one person to another, in different parts of the body.   This one common cause can have many different manifestations.

Additionally, as Dr. Yunus writes, central sensitization can occur when someone has another health condition which creates pain and stresses their nervous system.  Central sensitization can be a resulting secondary factor in conditions such as:

  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • systemic lupus
  • ankylosing spondylitis
  • osteoarthritis
  • diabetes mellitus
  • inflammatory bowel disease

Basically, anything that stresses your nervous system out and gives it a chance to practice sending those pain signals can cause it to become better at sending those pain signals.  So even if central sensitization isn’t the primary cause of your illness, over time it can become a secondary factor.

***

The good news, however, is that the effects of central sensitization don’t have to be permanent.  It can also get better.

That’s what my blog is all about– helping people find out about the ways I, personally, have managed to reduce the effect central sensitization has upon my life, as well as raising awareness about new avenues of research.

What helped me the most is an approach to physical therapy known as pain neurophysiology education.  However, there are other forms of treatment out there, including medications some people have found to be effective for the effects of central sensitization.

***

I’m going to write more on central sensitization and its treatment, as well as the work of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, in the future.

I hope this post was helpful for you, and that you stay tuned!

Chronic Pain, Creative Writing, eating disorders, Favorites, My Story, psychology

Fighting a health issue without judgement, for the first time

IMG_2141.JPG

They say one of the worst things a blogger can do is to begin all your posts with an explanation of why it’s been so long since your last post.

Normally I’m able to stop myself from doing this, but I’m going to let myself do it this time, since it’s actually relevant to what I want to say.

The reason I haven’t been on here in so long is I had a crazy past few months dealing with the most insane dust and mold allergies.

I had been living in a super old 1700’s farmhouse that had not been well-maintained.  A good friend had been living there for years and needed a roommate, and the rent was super low.  So I moved in with him, following my return from California.

I had never really had significant allergies before, beyond suffering from pollen one or two weeks out of the year.

But this winter, it came out of nowhere.  I thought I was sick at first, and had to take antibiotics for a sinus infection, but even once that was treated, some of my symptoms never went away.

Thankfully, my primary care physician referred me to an allergist (even though I was convinced I wasn’t the kind of person who had allergies) and sure enough, I tested positive for dust and mold allergies.

By then, things had gotten so bad that I could barely sleep– I was so congested it was hard to breathe.  I’d wake up feeling like I couldn’t get enough air.  My sleep schedule got all messed up, and I started relying on things like Benadryl and Nyquil, which of course left me exhausted the next day.  And during the day, dealing with my symptoms felt like a full-time job.

In the midst of all this, I realized I had to find a new place to live– a pretty intense and financially-involved decision to make when you know you’re not in your right mind.

Somehow it worked out.  It took another month, but I finally ended up moving, and am gradually doing better (my allergy doctor said it might take a few weeks).

I’m a little upset at how much time I lost on this problem– really, I wasn’t able to be productive for much of the winter, until things finally came to a head in March.

However, if I look back, I can see that some good came out of this, in a way.

This was really the first time I experienced a health issue and pursued treatment on it without stopping to judge myself, or the way I was handling it.

***

I mentioned in a previous post that, in the past few years, I came to realize that many of the same issues that contributed to my eating disorder were also affecting the way I handled my health issues.

Specifically, in an unconscious way, I was afraid to devote too much time or effort to “fixing” something with my body, because I was afraid it would trigger the same obsession that caused me to starve myself while running 40+ miles a week, until I eventually developed compartment syndrome.

With issues such as my chronic pain, and then my SI joint issues, I only tried to fix the problem to a certain extent.  I’d go see a specialist, I’d go to PT, I’d do my exercises.  But then I wanted to stop, be a normal girl, focus on other things.

I finally identified this pattern 5 years into my SI joint problem.  I realized, you know what, this problem has completely taken over my life anyway.  It doesn’t really make sense to try to “limit” the time I spend trying to fix it, because things are so limited for me right now anyway.

So I gave myself permission to do whatever it took, and started my SI joint blog as a way to keep track of the things I researched.  And it was during my research for this blog that I first came across another patient saying constant chiropractor adjustments made her worse.  That planted the seed in my mind, and I ultimately came to realize that the same was true for me as well.

With my allergy stuff… I got right to it.  I scheduled an allergy test, and when the first office of the sprawling medical practice couldn’t fit me in for over 6 weeks, I called around until I found an opening in 2 weeks.  I made all the lifestyle changes my doctor recommended, and then some.  And then I moved.

Of course, it was a little easier to proceed without judgement from others in the context of allergies.  After all, we don’t suspect people of “making up” allergies for some kind of gain. You can’t get workers comp for it, and there aren’t any super fun drugs.

But even so, I felt that the biggest difference this time around was in my mind.

I had it in my head that I was a “normal” person, experiencing a problem, and I did what it took to get better.  I didn’t waste time on “whys” or “what ifs.”  I didn’t ask if I deserved to get better, or worry about what the doctors might think of me.  I simply had a problem, and I did what it took to find a solution.

When I first started having chronic pain at nineteen, I thought I deserved it…  I’d starved and abused my body, even though I should have known better, and that the pain and the compartment syndrome and maybe even my SI joint problems were the price I had to pay.

Now, at age 32, I never felt that way about my allergies on any level… I just saw them as a crazy fluke of biology, a random stroke of unfortunate genetic luck that was completely not my fault.

So… it’s interesting to feel this way.

IMG_2148.JPG

Does anyone out there know what I mean?

Have you ever come to realize that your own negative beliefs and fears about yourself were affecting the way you pursued treatment?

Don’t let them.  Believe in yourself– believe that you are normal, and that answers are out there.  Because they are.

Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Favorites, Fibromyalgia, Nervous System, Pain Neurophysiology Education, Pain Science

How Clifford Woolf discovered central sensitization (and why you shouldn’t blame yourself for chronic pain)

You’ve probably noticed that my blog is all about central sensitization— the process through which the central nervous system can change over time and become more sensitive to pain.

Personally, I find learning about central sensitization to be empowering.  I spent years trying to find an answer for the pain and other symptoms I felt, only to be told by various medical professionals that my problems were in my head, the possible result of depression or anxiety.

I knew, deep down, that this just wasn’t true.  It’s not that I was unwilling to believe that mental health factors could play a role.  But it just didn’t resonate. I didn’t feel anxious or depressed.  I felt like I was in pain, and wanted it to stop.

That’s why, when I first heard the phrase central sensitization and looked up what it meant, I was so struck.  Because there was a way to explain why my nervous system was acting funny, and causing me to feel things other people didn’t feel, that wasn’t based on my mental health.

So.  How do we know about central sensitization?

A neuroscientist named Clifford Woolf discovered the process of central sensitization back in the early 1980’s.  In 1983, he published a well-known and often-cited letter to the respected scientific journal Nature outlining his theory, entitled “Evidence for a central component of post-injury pain hypersensitivity.”

Although the scientific community didn’t quite accept Woolf’s ideas right away, ultimately he ended up sparking a new wave of research, and his theory of central sensitization is generally accepted today (although much more work still needs to be done).

Basically Woolf ended up discovering central sensitization more or less by accident, in the process of researching something else.

(Now, I’m not a huge fan of animal research, so I don’t love what I’m about to describe to you.  But I am grateful for the results, so for the sake of understanding, here we go).

Woolf was studying the “withdrawal reflex” that caused the rats to jerk their paws away from a painful stimulus.  He tested them over and over again, over the course of a day, and he noticed that he started to get different results at the end of the day.

After a long day of testing, the same rats were much jumpier.  It became much easier to trigger their withdrawal reflex.  They would jerk their paws away even at things that shouldn’t have been painful, or wouldn’t have caused them to react that way at the start of the day.

Woolf realized he was seeing completely different behavior in the same rats, and under the exact same conditions.  Only one thing had changed: their nervous systems had been “practicing” the withdrawal reflex all day long, and were now responding to stimuli differently.  He hypothesized that somehow, the central nervous system had changed to become more responsive to pain, after exposure to repeated stress.

Woolf’s theory was pretty revolutionary at the time. Generally speaking, the scientific community believed the central nervous system always processed pain the exact same way, like a simple machine performing the same task over and over.  Woolf’s discovery turned all of that on its head, by suggesting that actually, the central nervous system can be changed and shaped by its experiences.

His ideas were not widely accepted right away, but his work, along with that of others such as Muhammad Yunus, has now formed the basis for a wide body of research on central sensitization and chronic pain that’s going on today.

***

We do still have a long way to go.  Much more research is needed, not to mention new treatments to be based on that research.

However, the reason I wanted to go into detail and describe the rat experiment for you guys is this:

If you have chronic pain/fibromyalgia, people are going to tell you it’s in your head.  Unfortunately, even sometimes people who have a passing understanding of central sensitization will imply tell you it’s in your head.  In my experience, people can understand the concept of the nervous system working differently in principle, yet still think it must somehow be related to mental health.

So this is what I want you to know: central sensitization happens in rats.

Your thoughts, beliefs, and fears about pain, and your mood– those can all play a role in your experience of central sensitization/chronic pain.

But those things don’t cause central sensitization, any more than they did in the rats in Clifford Woolf’s lab.

Remember that the next time you feel someone isn’t taking you seriously.  You can’t create your whole experience of pain by “overthinking” any more than a rat can overthink something.

In some ways, your nervous system is its own being.  There are aspects of your nervous system which have way more in common with a rat nervous system than with your conscious, human mind.  (I know, think about that!  That’s evolution for ya).

So if you have chronic pain, don’t blame yourself.  Don’t scold yourself for overthinking; don’t wonder if you’re crazy.  Your body is just doing what it was always going to do, in response to whatever stress/pain/injury you experienced.

There are ways to move forward– promising ways, which I talk about on this blog.

But to me, the first step is to stop blaming yourself.   You are okay.  You didn’t cause your own central sensitization, any more than the rats caused what Clifford Woolf observed in the lab.

Chronic Pain, Neil Pearson, Nervous System, Pain Science, Quotes

Neil Pearson on the benefits of acute stress

I recently discovered this super thought-provoking article article from Neil Pearson on the positive effects of acute stress on the body.

We normally think of stress in as the chronic, ongoing stress that continues for weeks on end, taking a toll on our body in the process.  However, there are ways in which acute stress– that is, stress that only occurs during a short period of time, and then comes to an end– can actually benefit our bodies.

Neil writes,

If you want to make a muscle stronger, use it more.  If you want to grow more tolerant of an irritating or bothersome sensation or experience, step up to it.  Face it.  In time, it will bother you less.

Try playing a string instrument for the first time, and feel the intense pain from pushing down strings with your fingertips.  Keep doing it and your body will adapt, even creating a callous as a protective response, just like woodworkers and carpenters have on their hands and dancers have on their feet.  In other words, when you stress your body, typically it responds by being better able to tolerate that stress next time.

We are built to survive.  If there’s anything I learned in my health and science classes, it’s that our bodies are built to adapt specifically in response to the stresses we experience. If we continually perform a certain movement, the muscles that perform that movement will become stronger and better suited to the task.

If we perform a new task repeatedly, we will get better at it, until it becomes second nature.  Our nervous systems will change, and our mental map of this task will become more developed.

Our bodies crave the kind of challenge that we can rise to.  As Neil says, “acute stress is adaptive. This makes sense. When we exercise – challenging our physical abilities – we are not just improving our bodies physically; we are also making changes in our nervous systems.”

So.  How can people with chronic pain and health issues use acute stress to our advantage?

Neil suggests that we harness our body’s ability to grow and change in ways that can benefit us.  By teaching our bodies to do new things, we can give our nervous systems something to process other than pain, and try to jump-start that healthy, adaptive response.

If pain has been preventing you from exercising, Neil suggests:

Create acute stress while limiting the chronic stress of a flare-up: Make a daily plan to try an activity (or part of an activity) you want to do, but do it while you do your very best to keep your breathing even, your body tension low (only use as much as you need for the activity), and your stress level as low as possible.

So basically: we stress our bodies– our nervous systems, in particular, but also our muscles– in new ways.  But we make sure we are in the right place, mentally and physiologically, while we do it, by proactively taking steps to keep our nervous systems from going into fight or flight mode.

There’s even more in Neil’s article.  He talks about some of the positive effects of stress and exercise on the brain– how chronic pain can dim these effects, but how the techniques he suggest might present a way around that.  Definitely check it out!

***

All this talk about the positive aspects of stress reminds me of health psychologist Kelly McGonigal’s excellent TED talk on “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”  I’ve posted about it on my blog before, because it’s just really so great.

In this talk, McGonigal explains more about how stress can actually be a healthy motivator, seeking us to reach out to others and form social supports, and also spurring us on to create meaning in our lives.  She also suggests that when we learn to view stress as a potentially positive factor, it can actually limit some of the negative effects we normally assume stress will have on us.

There’s so much more to say, but for now, I think I’ll let you check these two resources out!  Happy reading/Youtubing– let me know what you think!

 

Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Favorites, Pain Neurophysiology Education, Pain Science, physical therapy, Treatment Approaches

The core message of pain neurophysiology education

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 you have back pain, your PT will probably give you strengthening exercises to build up the muscles in your back and your core.  If you have a knee injury, she’ll  probably 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.

1581307106_989db3ce446837299662_8b965a2b01_z

Pain neurophysiology education, however, draws from a different treatment model.  This model is not based on the idea that the patient’s pain is coming an injury in one specific part of the body.  Instead, it targets the sensitized nervous system directly as a source of pain.

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 second graph is an accurate representation of the state I was in when I was first introduced to pain neurophysiology education by my physical therapist Tim.  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.

****

The goal of PNE is 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.

P.S. I adapted this post from Part 3 of my series on my own patient experience with pain neurophysiology education, entitled “How a physical therapist helped me through my lowest point.”  I’m experimenting with different ways to present information, to find out what works best for people.  Definitely check out that series if you’d like to know more!  I would love to hear any comments or questions you might have.

Photo Credits:

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