The doctor who *almost* helped me (How I developed central sensitization, Part 6)

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Okay, so here’s the story of the time I thought I’d found the right person to help me, which of course, made it all the more disappointing when it didn’t turn out to be the case.

In telling my story, I’m choosing to gloss over every little ache and pain I had; every time I thought I had some kind of injury, but no one could actually find anything wrong.  It’s not really necessary to the story, and I don’t want you to get bogged down in negativity.  The point, again, is that I did eventually find answers.

But here’s the story of the first time I thought I’d found them.

***

It was 2006; my first time seeing a physiatrist.  Physiatrists are doctors who specialize in non-surgical options to treat musculoskeletal pain– so, basically, they do everything else.  Their approach is generally thought to be more holistic.  They can provide options such as lidocaine and cortisone injections, but they also look at the patient as a whole person and can recommend lifestyle changes as well.  It’s a pretty cool specialty.

And I was pretty much seeing the best one.  I loved Dr. V. the first time I saw her.  She’d won all kinds of awards for going above and beyond to help her patients.  And she was just so… nice.  She provided me with so much hope.

Dr. V. reassured me that there was no reason, as a healthy person in my early 20’s, I shouldn’t be able to do all of the things I wanted to do.

She recommended a bunch of promising options, including trigger point injections, as well as medical acupuncture, which she actually performed herself.

And she was the first person to really explain to me that my brain was magnifying the sensations of pain I felt, “like a computer.”  My brain was “zooming in” and making what should be a small problem, or no problem at all, look like a big problem.

For a time, I really thought Dr. V. was going to be the one to finally “fix” me, to finally reverse this impossible pattern I’d been dealing with for so long.  I felt like she really got me.

***

Dr. V. seemed to understand that, from time to time, I would come in with pain in a new part of my body, and would need someone to tell me whether, in fact, I had an injury or whether it was just pain.

There were so many times. I felt safe; I felt believed.  I just needed a place to go where someone could tell me whether or not I had an injury or not.  I didn’t always need to be referred to physical therapy, or start some new treatment.  Sometimes, the pain would just diminish once someone actually told me it was safe to ignore it.  (Which, as I later learned, makes 100% sense once you learn about how the nervous system works).

The only thing is, Dr. V. did want to refer me elsewhere: to therapy.  She seemed to understand that my brain was distorting my perception of pain, but she kept coming back to the idea that it had a psychological or emotional cause (which, I would later learn, is not a prerequisite for central sensitization).

She offered me the names of a few different therapists she had come into contact with over the years.  I would go and see them, but nothing ever really “clicked.”  Because we were looking for something that wasn’t there– my pain wasn’t being caused by my emotions.

***

What I really needed, again, was for someone to help me understand my physical pain.  As I’ve explained in my Calming Your Nervous System section of this blog, when you have the kind of chronic pain I had (and still have, to an extent) it’s like your body’s pain protection system has gone into overdrive.  It’s trying to protect you, but it’s stuck in the “on” position all the time.

Luckily, the nervous system is complex, and although there are multiple components involved in keeping this process going, there are other aspects of the nervous system which can be used to turn the system “off.”

One way to do that is to understand, rationally, that your body isn’t actually in danger; that you aren’t actually injured.  This is actually the pain principle behind Pain Neurophysiology Education, the approach to chronic pain treatment that finally helped me.

Of course, I didn’t know any of this at the time, but I sort of stumbled upon this principle myself.  A new part of my body would hurt (or an old one would start hurting again) and it would feel real.  It would feel like something was wrong; something was injured or on the verge of breaking.

That’s why it helped me, to go in and see Dr. V.  To be examined by an actual doctor and be told nothing was wrong.  It helped my nervous system feel “safe” again.  Usually, I’d start feeling better within a day or so after my appointment, before I even got to physical therapy or whatever next treatment she’d recommended.  Because she’d already given my nervous system permission to relax and stop hyper-focusing on that part of my bod.  The pain would be able to fade into the background.

And I was okay with this pattern.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was better than anything I’d found yet.  We hadn’t actually been able to break this cycle of mysterious pain that roamed throughout my body, but at least, with Dr. V. I’d been able to find a way to stop it from taking over my entire life when it started to get bad.

***

But here’s the thing.  I was okay with the holding pattern, but Dr. V. was not.  Because I wasn’t actually getting “better” in a linear fashion that she could write in her notes.  And because she could never actually find anything wrong with me.

There was one day I was 10 minutes late for an hour long appointment.  I’d had to take the Red Line to Mass General, where I saw her, and everything about that morning commute had just been a disaster.

And from the moment she walked into the room, everything had changed.  Her face seemed cold, like there was less color in it than usual.

And she told me she didn’t have time to see me that day.  That I’d been taking time away from her other patients; other patients who actually had horrible diseases and disfigurements and reasons to be in pain.

She said she’d tried to help me, but I hadn’t successfully utilized any of the options she’d given me.  And that if I wasn’t going to be responsible about trying to fix my issues, she wasn’t going to have time for me in the future.

And that was that.  I started to cry and attempted to explain myself, but it didn’t matter.  Her mind was made up.

She said she didn’t have time to stay and talk to me if I’d already missed 15 minutes of our 30 minute appointment.   Her secretary, who I’d sort of become friends, with overheard the whole thing and took my side, poking her head into the room and gently reminding Dr. V. that my appointment was actually supposed to be an hour.

But it didn’t matter; Dr. V. was so angry at that point that no new information was going to make a difference.  It wasn’t really about the time; it was about getting rid of me.

She didn’t outright tell me never to come back and see her again, but by walking out of the room after 5 minutes, she’d made her message pretty clear.

So I never did.

***

Now that I know so much more about central sensitization, I can see that Dr. V. was wrong on multiple levels.  This is why I like to remind people that central sensitization was actually discovered in rats.  It has to do with brain function and neurons and neurotransmitters, not thoughts and feelings.

Somehow, it was like Dr. V. had vaguely heard of central sensitization somewhere, but hadn’t really gotten the full gist.  A lot of people are like that, actually.  They accept that the nervous system can process pain abnormally, but still think it must have to do with emotions.

And I never actually heard the term from her.  I only learned it once I requested a copy of all of my visit notes and saw it there, in my list of diagnoses.  It was #1: central sensitization.

That whole time– she could have just told me the name for it.  I didn’t even know there was one.  I could have learned about it myself– I could have Googled it.  It was discovered in 1983.  There was more information out there than I was given.

But no.  Central sensitization was just there in two small words, right under a lot of passive-aggressively worded comments about exactly how much of my appointment time I’d missed that last time.

***

It’s sad and it’s really shocking.  I do believe that Dr. V. is a good person who just didn’t have enough information, and who got frustrated.

But it shouldn’t be my job, to get “fired” as a patient and request my own office visit notes, only to finally learn there’s a scientific name for what I was going through that she’d never even bothered to tell me.

I could have looked it up myself and learned about it, instead of going on countless wild goose chases to psychotherapy and the terribly disappointing pain clinic she once sent me to.

***

But at least I have answers now, and you know what?  I think I’m sort of proud of myself for getting as far as I did, on my own.  After all, it basically means I’m a genius, since I was able to stumble upon the main principle of pain neurophysiology education all on my own (right?).

***

As you may know, what really did work for me eventually was to meet a physical therapist who had studied PNE with Neil Pearson.  This physical therapist taught me how to understand my nervous system, and to work with it, instead of against it, and to learn ways to get my body to turn the “volume” of the pain back down.

This is why I feel so, so strongly about PNE, and why I was originally inspired to become a physical therapist.

In a way, Dr. V. is part of my inspiration as well– I see how important it is for healthcare practitioners to actually understand the specifics of how chronic pain works.  It’s not enough to just be an empathetic person, because apparently empathy can be replaced by frustration over time, if a patient isn’t getting better.

If you want to know more about PNE, you can check out the Calming Your Nervous System section of my blog, and also definitely check out the work of Neil Pearson!

Hope this was helpful!

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

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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!

 

 

Shedding light on central sensitization

Hi everyone!  Hope you’re all having a great summer.

I just wanted to let you know that I recently added a new section to my blog, to focus on central sensitization.

When I began this blog in late 2012, I started out writing about the topics of chronic pain and fibromyalgia, terms which most of my readers are more familiar with.

However, over time, it became more and more important to me to focus on some of the scientific research that’s been shedding light on the nervous system phenomena behind chronic, persistent pain.

Central sensitization has had a huge impact on my own life, one that’s stretched far beyond the initial injuries that caused me to develop it in the first place.  (Basically, central sensitization occurs as a response to some sort of trauma to the body, leaving the person with a heightened sensitivity to pain long after any physical injuries have healed).

I’ve recently begun to tell the story of “How I developed central sensitization.”  It’s a series posts about how, after years of abusing my body as a high school athlete with an eating disorder, I finally stretched my nervous system to the breaking point.

I’ve also written a series on my experience with pain neurophysiology education, an approach to physical therapy that taught me to better manage my condition.

These stories are incredibly personal to me, yet I really believe that central sensitization is an under-recognized problem, and I’m determined to raise awareness.  It took me years of suffering before I even knew the name of my condition (or was able to get help treating it), and it shouldn’t have to be that way.

So on my blog, I’ll be telling stories from my own personal experience, well as highlighting some of the articles, research and researchers that I find inspiring and noteworthy.

I’ll still be writing about chronic pain and fibromyalgia, recognizing that there are many factors that contribute to each patient’s experience with these conditions.

Ultimately, I believe that the more we know as patients, the better we can advocate for ourselves.  That is why I believe so strongly in raising awareness of this issue, both in terms of the scientific discoveries being made, as well as sharing the impact it’s had on my own life.

Here are some of the posts I’ve written on central sensitization so far:

What is central sensitization?

The nervous system and chronic pain

How I developed central sensitization: Part 1

How I developed central sensitization: Part 2

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

Central Sensitivity Syndromes

Todd Hargrove: Seven Things You Should Know About about Pain Science

Let’s give this a whirl: explaining a scientific article in plain English

All of these, of course, are listed on my new “Central Sensitization” page.

Other great links:

Central sensitization in chronic pain (from Paul Ingraham at PainScience.com)

Dr. Sean Mackey: An Update on Fibromyalgia (really interesting talk from a Stanford researcher on the role of central sensitization in fibromyalgia).

and a lot more within my “Resources” section (if you haven’t swung by in a while, I’ve been adding a lot to it).

***

I hope the things I write and link to are helpful to you.  As always, you’re welcome to contact me with any comments or questions.   (You can comment below or send me an email!).  Happy reading!

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.

A successful experiment with acute stress

In my last post I outlined some ideas from Neil Pearson on how to stress our bodies in positive ways, in the hopes of re-shaping the way we process pain.

I continued my experiment at the gym last night, and I think I stumbled upon the beginnings of what something like that would feel like.

Normally, when I go to the gym, I’m pretty much there to use the pool.  It’s the one form of exercise I never have to “pay for” in any way afterwards, in terms of pain or stressing out my SI joints.  I usually just do my warm-up and cool-down in the pool as well.

So usually, I don’t hang around–  I’m just in and out.  I head straight for the pool and then make an immediate beeline to shower and leave because, well, I’m freezing.  It’s fun, but it’s also kind of rushed.  Some days I feel like kind of a robot.

With the lessons from Neil Pearson’s post in mind, I decided to switch things up a little bit.

***

Last night, instead of heading straight to the pool, I first stopped by one of the empty dance studios. I had it all to myself– a big room with a smooth, polished wooden floor and one wall that was all one big mirror.

I had my headphones on, listening to a playlist of music I really liked.  And I picked up one of the yoga balls, and just started dribbling it back and forth, to the beat of the music, like it was a basketball.

Now, if you think about this in terms of exercise, it’s not particularly hard.  It doesn’t require a ton of strength, and I wouldn’t technically call it cardio.

But, if you think about it in terms of the nervous system, it actually was a bit challenging.

I don’t play basketball.  I don’t think I’ve tried to dribble a ball in years.  It’s awkward to try to dribble a giant yoga ball… but it’s kind of fun.

However, it does require quite a bit of coordination, especially as some of the songs on my playlist had pretty different beats from each other.  With each new song, I had to completely switch up my rhythm.

I ended up getting really into it, dribbling and jamming out to my tunes for about 45 minutes.  And I think I managed to reach exactly the kind of state of “acute stress” Neil was describing in his post.

It was a difficult new activity for me, but it was fun.  It was challenging, but in a controlled way.  I felt as though I was pushing the limits of my nervous system, in terms of coordinating movement patterns that were unfamiliar to me, while at the same time limiting the overall stress to my system.  (In fact, I think I probably was reducing my overall stress at that point– it was the end of a good day, I had all the time in the world, and I really love my music).

I think this is the kind of activity that, when performed regularly, could have a positive impact on reshaping the way the nervous system regulates pain signals.  It’s “distracting,” in a healthy and fun way.

Obviously these would be topics for further research, but I think two additional components of what I did, which add to its helpfulness, are

  1. That I found the activity enjoyable, and
  2. That I was listening to music, which on its own can also reduce our perception of pain

This is what I find so fascinating about Neil’s approach to chronic pain treatment— an activity can be therapeutic not just because it makes us stronger, or increases our endurance, but because of its impact on the nervous system.

It’s okay to treat pain and the nervous system as your top priority, not just as a side effect or the means to an end of another exercise program.

***

I find the concept of treating nervous system directly to be so fascinating, and I hope you do too!  If you want to know more, I would definitely suggest checking out more of Neil Pearson’s work.  And, as always, let me know if you have any questions or comments!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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

There is reason to hope.

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I saw a comment on Twitter today which really broke my heart, so I wanted to write this and make it clear:

If you are experiencing pain hypersensitivity (through central sensitization), there is every reason to hope.

If your nervous system has changed one way, it is possible to change it back.

It won’t be easy, and the way forward won’t always be obvious.  But you can do it.

If you are experiencing central sensitization (as the result of an injury, a trauma, or other extreme physical or emotional experience) you have become more sensitive to pain than you used to be.  Your body is using pain as a way to protect you, but it is treating you like you are made of glass.  It is trying to protect you from everything.

Scientists are still researching the myriad of ways in which this happens.  So far, they have identified multiple different mechanisms within the nervous system which can cause this extreme response to pain.

However, the good news is that we don’t need to know everything, yet, about how this process occurs to start treating it.  (Although our treatments will only get better in the future, with more knowledge).

But you can start, right now, by learning what your body is capable of, and identifying the things your nervous system is warning you about that aren’t actually dangerous.

***

For me, it took a really smart and capable physical therapist who had studied with Neil Pearson.   I expect that you will need a guide as well– someone who you trust, who can walk you through and help identify the ways it is safe for you to try to push through the pain.

Your best bet will be a physical therapist who has advanced knowledge of recent pain science.  (A PT with this knowledge might not easy to find, at first, but luckily it’s becoming easier and easier.  If you email me at sunlightinwinter12@hotmail.com, I can help you get started).

What you need is someone you trust, who you will believe when they tell you your body is capable of more.

Someone who is able to think flexibly and come up with more than one way to do an exercise, if you tell them the first way they gave you doesn’t seem to work.

Someone who will understand that it’s not only about what they learned about the body in school…  it’s also about you, your nervous system, and your experience as a patient.  Your nervous system has to be convinced that your body is safe, before it’s going to stop making things hurt.

Changing your beliefs about pain can have a direct impact on the pain you ultimately experience.  When you truly learn and understand that your body is giving you pain in order to protect you, it stops being so threatening.  This is known as changing your pain from the top down— from the brain to the body.

***

Of course– it’s equally important to keep working on your pain from the bottom up– from your body to the brain.   

If you have chronic pain, or have suffered from some type of injury, your muscles are probably tightened into protective spasms.  This, in turn, will make them weak, if it goes on for long enough.

So you have to work on the pain from both angles.  You need to calm your nervous system down, and help it understand that not everything is dangerous.  But you also need to give your body what it needs, and do everything that you can to help it function optimally.

***

Doing both of these things is a balancing act.  Getting back in to shape is not about pushing through the pain.  It is not a “no pain, no gain” mentality.

Instead, it is about being mindful.  Being careful.  (And again, ideally, having a trusted coach by your side).

To respect your nervous system, and to accept your body where it is currently at.  Not trying to do too much, too soon, but instead starting where you can.  If you can only walk for 5 minutes, walk for 5 minutes.  If you need to ice your injured knee before you work out, ice your injured knee.

It’s about bringing all of these different things together, and figuring out what works for you.

 

Todd Hargrove: Seven Things You Should Know About about Pain Science

As I’ve mentioned recently, two things make me really happy, which I plan to focus on more in my blogging in 2017:

  1. Great explanations of pain and the nervous system
  2. Amazing writing and creative use of language

Well, this fantastic article on pain science by Todd Hargrove at Better Movement has both, so of course it had to be my next post.

This is one of those moments where I would just blatantly copy and post the whole article if I could, because it’s that good.  However, in the interest of avoiding copyright infringement, I’m not going to do that, and will instead highlight some of the quotes that really resonated with me.

Basically, the term “pain science” reflects an understanding of the concept that pain is more complicated than our body relaying us a simple message about something being wrong.

That brings us to our first quote:

Pain is defined as an unpleasant subjective experience whose purpose is to motivate you to do something, usually to protect body parts that the brain thinks (rightly or wrongly) are damaged. If you feel pain, it means that your brain thinks the body is under threat, and that something has to be done about it.

The key phrase here is “rightly or wrongly.”  Your brain will cause you to feel pain if it thinks some part of you is in danger.  And the brain is not always right about this– it’s not that simple.

Pain is created by the brain, not passively perceived by the brain as a preformed sensation that arrives from the body.

When a body part is damaged, nerve endings are triggered and send warning signals to the brain. But no pain is felt until the brain interprets this information and decides that pain would be helpful in some way – for example to encourage protective behaviors to minimize further damage and allow time for healing.

Pain is not a simple game of “telephone,” where your nerves send a direct message to your brain about what’s happening in your body.  Pain is something your brain chooses to have you experience, in order to motivate you to do something about it.

This is why there have been documented cases of people who were experiencing extreme injuries or states of physical trauma, yet felt no pain.  When I took my neuroscience course, my professor told us that this phenomenon was reported somewhat widely during World War I, where were soldiers who lost entire limbs in battle and yet felt no pain.  This is because, at the deepest level, their brains understood that they were now going home to safety, away from the battlefield.  In the grand scheme of things, the injury could actually be saving their lives.  That is why their brains did not need to make it more painful– they were already heading home to safety.

Pain is like learning

I have discussed central sensitization before– the unfortunate truth that the more chances the nervous system gets to “practice” sending pain signals, the better it becomes at doing it.

Well, here is another way of explaining things that I absolutely loved:

One unfortunate aspect of pain physiology is that the longer pain goes on, the easier it becomes to feel the pain.  This is a consequence of a very basic neural process called long-term potentiation, which basically means that the more times the brain uses a certain neural pathway, the easier it becomes to activate that pathway again.

It’s like carving a groove through the snow while skiing down a mountain – the more times the same path is traveled the easier it is to fall into that same groove.  This is the same process by which we learn habits or develop skills.  In the context of pain, it means that the more times we feel a certain pain, the less stimulus is required to trigger the pain.

I love this metaphor about carving a groove through the snow.  The more times you go over the same thought pattern in the brain, the more firmly you establish it.  This is true for learning a new skill, and it’s true for sending pain signals.

And again, it’s important to remember– this sensitization does initially serve a purpose:

Most of the time an injury will increase the level of sensitization, presumably so that the brain can more easily protect an area that is now known to be damaged. When an area becomes sensitized, we can expect that pain will be felt sooner and more strongly (so that we do not reinjure it).

There are many complicated mechanisms by which the level of sensitivity is increased or decreased…For our purposes, the key point is that the CNS is constantly adjusting the level of volume on the pain signals depending on a variety of factors. For whatever reason, it appears that in many individuals with chronic pain, the volume has simply been turned up too loud and left on for too long.

Basically, our bodies cause us to become extra sensitive to pain following an injury so that we rest the area.  (After all, as my neuroscience professor liked to ask, if you were a cave person with a broken foot, what good would it do you to go out and try to do battle with a saber-toothed tiger?  You’d get eaten.  Better to rest).

However, the problem with central sensitization is that, sometimes, our bodies don’t know how or when to stop– “the volume has simply been turned up too loud and left on for too long.”

The good thing about pain science is, of course, that it provides us with some really interesting entry points to try to break in to these complex pain problems and develop ways to treat them.  (I don’t know why I’m saying “us.”  I’m not part of the “us” yet.   But I so want to be).

So… not to worry.  Just because your nervous system has become sensitized and ended up one way, that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to change it back.  (And that, my friends, is the main reason for my blog).

Further Reading

If you’d like to read more about pain science, well… I have so many things I think you should read!  But here is what is probably a more manageable list:

Anything and everything by Neil Pearson

Lorimer Moseley & Body in Mind

The nervous system and chronic pain

Understanding pain as your body’s alarm system

Understanding pain as an overprotective friend

What is pain neurophysiology education?

My new and updated “Resources” section!  I have been working on polishing it up recently, so you may find a few cool new things in there that weren’t there the last time you looked.

That’s all for now– please let me know if you have any questions!   Happy reading!

What is pain neurophysiology education?

In a nutshell, pain neurophysiology education is the type of treatment for chronic pain that changed my life and inspired me to become a physical therapist.

I’ve mentioned it in passing on this blog, but I decided it’s high time I give the topic its own post.

***

In my series “How a physical therapist helped me through my lowest point,” you can read the story of how my life had ground to a halt because of chronic pain, until I finally met Tim, a physical therapist who had studied with Neil Pearson.

Tim treated my pain in an entirely different manner than all the physical therapists and doctors I’d seen previously.

He explained to me that after all my body had been through– running 45 miles a week, only to develop compartment syndrome and barely be able to stand, to live like that for two years, and then to undergo surgery– my nervous system had gotten confused.

All the pain doctors hadn’t been able to explain– it wasn’t because I was crazy.

In fact, the reason I was feeling all this pain was because my body was trying to protect me.

My nervous system had decided the world was a dangerous place.  It was tired of me taking chances– it didn’t want to have to deal with another injury.  So it was making everything hurt.  It was making me feel as though I were made of glass.

But I wasn’t made of glass, Tim assured me.  My body was strong; it was capable.  And this attempt on the part of my nervous system to protect me had over-served its purpose.

Tim explained that the surgery I’d had for compartment syndrome had been successful, and despite how much my legs might hurt at times, I wasn’t going to be able to bring it back just by walking down the street.

***

The pain neurophysiology approach worked when nothing else had, because it gave me a real explanation for the pain that actually made sense.

Before that, all the physical therapists I’d seen (and I’d seen a lot) had taken one of two approaches:

A) You have some underlying soft tissue problem or scar tissue or whatnot that we have to fix with a special treatment, or

B) I can’t really find anything wrong with you, so the pain must be in your head and you should probably see a psychologist.

Neither of these approaches ever made a difference for me.  The “special treatments” for the hidden, subtle issues in approach A never fixed anything or reduced my pain (except temporarily, because I felt like I was doing something).  And approach B never fixed anything, because ultimately these problems were not reflective of my overall mental health.

Instead, I learned, my pain was the result of a specific phenomenon that occurs within the nervous system: central sensitization.  Basically, the underlying principle here is that the more practice the nervous system gets at sending signals, the better it will get at sending those signals.  And that is true of pain signals, along with everything else.

***

Tim didn’t really use the words “pain neurophysiology education” while I was seeing him for treatment.  Instead, I first found this phrase while I was looking through Neil Pearson‘s website, as Tim had urged me to do.

From there, I discovered the names of other physical therapists and researchers who had contributed to developing pain neurophysiology education, or PNE as I’ll be referring to it in the future.

Names such as David Butler of the Neuro Orthopedic Institute, and Lorimer Moseley of the research group Body in Mind.

From there I have discovered so many interesting resources, and articles, and interesting people doing work on the subject.

***

For 2017, I’m trying to get back to my roots on this blog.  I started blogging to educate people on the science of chronic pain, and I really enjoy doing that.  So I’m planning to start channeling more energy towards that again.

So I’m going to start fleshing out this section of the blog again.  I’ll be providing a lot more explanations, linking to great resources, and also quoting excerpts from articles that I think explain things really well.

And I’ll be telling my own story, when it comes to my struggle to understand my body, and learning to deal with central sensitization.

***

For now, I want to leave you with two posts I wrote on some of the main concepts I learned through my experience with PNE:

Understanding pain as your body’s alarm system

Understanding pain as an overprotective friend

These posts tie in a couple of anecdotes from Neil Pearson and Lorimer Moseley that I found particularly helpful.  (Let me say, once again, that I am so, so grateful for their work!).

***

I hope you find this post, and the related articles I linked to, to be helpful!  I’m really excited about the things I plan to write about in the future, and I hope you stay tuned!

Nervous System Basics

nerves-346928_1280

As I’ve said time and time again, I really feel that people living with chronic pain/fibromyalgia can benefit immensely from learning about how the body works. Even the feeling that you are just beginning to understand the complex processes making up your experience of pain can help give you a sense of control over things.

And reading about the new research that is being done on pain, even if you don’t completely understand every word, can sometimes give you a reason to remain hopeful at times when you’re feeling stuck.

With that in mind, I’m going to back way up and publish a post I’ve been meaning to write for a very long time.  Here I’ll outline a few key terms and concepts about how the nervous system works. Hopefully it will be helpful to anyone who is interested in learning more about pain.

So let’s get started.

The nervous system can be divided into two main branches.

Photo courtesy of the Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site. http://cnx.org/content/col11496/1.6/, Jun 19, 2013.

Photo courtesy of the Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site. http://cnx.org/content/col11496/1.6/, Jun 19, 2013.

The central nervous system consists of the brain and spinal cord, and is shown in pink in the diagram above.

The peripheral nervous system consists of all the nerves in the body, and is shown in yellow.

The brain is the command center for your body, and it is where your experience of pain is processed. It is where you think consciously, but it also controls many unconscious functions, such as breathing, your sense of balance, and the ability to orient your body in space.

The spinal cord is the relay system for messages between the brain and the peripheral nerves. (It can also play a role in affecting how strong your ultimate experience of pain is, but we’ll talk more about that later).

The peripheral nerves have two main jobs:

Sensory: Sensory nerves send signals to the central nervous system about what you are feeling physically. When you stub your toe or get a papercut, it’s sensory nerves that send that signal up your spinal cord to your brain.

Motor: This is (to me) a kind of funny scientific word. It really just means “movement.” The motor nerves of the peripheral nervous system are what tell your muscles to move, as well as tell your organs to perform specific functions.

Pain

When people talk about how pain works, they are generally talking about the relationship between the sensory nerves, the spinal cord, and the brain. The sensory nerves send signals up to the brain about any damage that may have occurred, and the brain decides how to interpret those signals.

But Pain is a Two-Way Street

Historically, people considered this pain pathway to be a very consistent, cut-and-dry system that always worked the same way every time. If a person was in a lot of pain, they had to have a lot of physical damage/injury. If they weren’t in very much pain, they must not have a very serious physical problem.

However, scientific advances in the past few decades have shown that pain is actually much more complicated than that. It turns out that the severity of a person’s pain does not always reflect accurately the amount of physical injury they have experienced.

You can have soldiers in battle who do not even realize they’ve been shot– their peripheral nerves are sending very strong messages of “damage” up to their brains, but their brains tune those signals out because they need to focus on survival.

Conversely, you can have people with chronic pain, who– due to a number of potential factors—can experience excruciating pain in response to a very minor injury, or in fact no injury at all.

Central Sensitization

At the risk of boring my long-time readers, let me define one of my most favorite terms again.  Central sensitization is the process responsible for this last phenomenon, where people can develop an increased sensitivity to pain.

The term refers to a series of changes that can take place in the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) which can ultimately make a person much more sensitive to pain.  In some cases, central sensitization can become a self-perpetuating phenomenon, in which a person continues to feel pain long after their initial injury has healed.

Central sensitization is such a fascinating topic.  There is still much research to be done on it, but so far it is believed to play a role in such seemingly-diverse conditions as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, temporomandibular disorder, and many others.

One Last Thing

When I first started trying to understand the amazing, interesting new research that’s being done in pain, I kept hitting this one term that mystified me.  The dorsal horn.  What the heck is a dorsal horn?  I was so confused by this for a long time, and it really held me back from understanding a lot of articles.

Turns out, the term dorsal horn refers to an area in the back of the spinal cord.  The back of the spinal cord is where the sensory nerves meet with the spinal cord, so their messages can continue on up to the brain.  It’s pretty simple actually– the sensory nerves connect with the back of the spinal cord, and motor nerves connect in the front.  So when people talk about the dorsal horn, they are  talking about where sensory information is entering the spinal cord and then being relayed on up to the brain.

For more info

If you want a really great overview of the divisions of the nervous system, I highly recommend this video.

Conclusion

I really hope you’ve enjoyed this post!  As you can see, it’s written in a very different tone, and for a very different target audience, than my previous post.  I’m still in the process of figuring out what type of post works best on this blog.  I really want to be able to write about advanced scientific concepts for every day people, and I’ll probably be trying to figure out the best way to do that for a while. Your thoughts/comments/suggestions are always welcome, so please let me know if you have any! Thanks!

Part Two: click here if you’d like to keep reading!

Top photo courtesy of Geralt