Too much of a good thing: when people don’t really *get* pain science

I wanted to share a really important post with you all this morning, from the author of Chronically Undiagnosed.

She’s a therapist who is dealing with chronic illness.  Recently, she wrote about her experience attending a chronic pain support group that incorporated some of the theories of modern pain science… but did so very badly.

As someone who fervently believes in what pain science has to offer — it’s what originally inspired me to become a physical therapist– I have often felt many of her same frustrations, when people try to stretch pain science beyond the limits of its intended applications, or when they lump in their own personal beliefs about pain which have nothing to do with the actual scientific literature on the subject.

Reading her post, it sounds as though the social worker leading the class did have a basic understanding of pain science.

(By modern pain science, I mean the school of thought that says that pain is a function of our brains that’s meant to protect us, and as a protective mechanism, it doesn’t always work perfectly, or give us an accurate way to gauge what’s actually happening in our bodies. People can experience devastating injuries and feel no pain, or they can experience excruciating pain from injuries that are technically “minor.”  Pain scientists believe this knowledge can help us develop new treatment approaches, once we begin to tap into the fact that pain is here to protect us.  Some of the original proponents of this approach include David Butler and Lorimer Moseley).

It sounds as though Chronically Undiagnosed’s group leader did present some of these anecdotes, to prove that pain can be subjective.  But she did so in a way that was alienating to the group participants.

Chronically Undiagnosed writes:

“The instructors have cited reports of individuals who have either been injured and experienced no pain, or individuals who thought they were injured (but were not) and experienced extreme pain. One example was of a roofer who landed on a 6-inch nail that went through his steel toed boot who presented in the E.R with reports of excruciating pain. He was medicated for pain and the boot removed where it was discovered that the nail had gone through his shoe but between his toes, resulting in zero tissue damage. Additionally pictures of MRI’s were shown where a person had visible spine damage but no pain.

As someone with an advanced degree who has studied and taught research and statistics, I find fault with their examples. In a scientifically based research study, extreme results such as these are considered “outliers” and are not considered statistically significant. And as someone who has both counseled patients with chronic pain and experienced it daily for over 5 years, I find their assumptions to be not only scientifically incorrect but harmful to people experiencing chronic pain.

And now here come the people touting “modern pain science” as a breakthrough in treating pain. If pain is simply a perception created by the brain, then if we change our brains the pain should go away. When I expressed my concerns to the leader of the group she suggested that leading medical institutions in our country (such as Stanford, where I received “injections” that helped me) are “behind” in understanding pain.”

Reading about her experience made me really frustrated and sad, because I had a totally opposite experience when first presented with this information.

However, when I first came across it (under the guidance of my physical therapist Tim, and through watching physiotherapist Neil Pearson‘s lectures) I understood these stories– which ARE statistical outliers– to simply be examples illustrating how pain works.

They are extreme examples, but they demonstrate the fact that pain does not always provide an accurate indication of what is wrong in our bodies.  These stories are meant to educate, not to give people the impression that they ought to be able to magically “turn off” the pain in their brains tomorrow.

Following this, it sounds as though the social worker leading the group made another key mistake, one that I absolutely can’t stand:

She lumped her own personal beliefs about pain in with the theories of modern pain science, without making any distinction in between the two.

I’ve personally seen this before.  The first doctor who ever told me I had a heightened sensitivity to pain never actually told me about any of the neuroscience research behind this phenomenon (central sensitization).  Instead, she told me I was probably suffering from some form of psychological trauma, and that the only way for me to get better was through psychotherapy.

Years later, when I had finally discovered pain neurophysiology education, I found that the people actually researching modern pain science never talked about childhood trauma (or any other kind of psychological trauma).  They didn’t need to– the theory of pain as an imperfect protective mechanism was enough to explain so many of the things that could sometimes go wrong with it.

That’s not to say that no one, ever, experiences physical pain as a result of emotional trauma.  That’s not what I’m trying to say either.  But it’s wrong to be leading a group where you’re presenting people with the theories of modern pain science, and lump in your own personal beliefs about pain without making a distinction.

She did actually lump in other grains of truth.

Some of the other information Chronically Undiagnosed’s social worker presented is, technically, legitimate.

It is true that MRI’s are not always the best predictors of who will actually experience back pain.  There’s a great book, Back Sense, that talks about this.

In a nutshell, if you were to take 100 people off the street and take an MRI of everyone’s spine, you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell, just by looking at the MRI’s, who was actually experiencing back pain.

We all experience some degeneration to our spines over time, but sometimes this degeneration can be symptom-less.

However, this information should never be used to tell a group of chronic pain patients they shouldn’t be experiencing any pain!

All of these bits of knowledge, which can be helpful– whether it’s pain science, or Back Sense– are meant to be one piece of the puzzle!

And they are meant to help illuminate aspects of patients’ experience.  They are meant to educate.  

They are not meant to blame people, or make them feel responsible for experiencing pain they shouldn’t be feeling!

I see this far too often in the field of pain science.

As a (hopeful) future physical therapist, I’ve followed a number of physical therapists, writers, and researchers on various social media platforms, hoping to learn more about how the field of pain science is evolving.

Unfortunately, I’ve had to go back and actually “unfollow” a bunch of people, because I see the same thing over and over again.  People will get annoyed and actually downright snarky about patients and fellow medical professionals trying to treat certain conditions which are the subject of controversy– the sort of “gray areas.”

One of these areas, in particular, is the sacroiliac joint.  There are a lot of physical therapists out there who don’t believe sacroiliac joint dysfunction is a real thing.

So I’ll sign on to Twitter, and find that someone I respected and followed to learn more about pain science is tweeting out some kind of derogatory commentary about how “the sacroiliac joint doesn’t really move” and what a “sham” it is that people are trying to treat it.

I suppose the evidence for sacroiliac joint dysfunction is really a topic for another post, however to me it’s just another example of people trying to take pain science too far.

Ultimately, I believe these physical therapists’ anger stems from a good place.  From their perspective, they’re probably tired of seeing other medical professionals “waste” patients’ time by treating them for musculoskeletal causes of pain, when they should be focusing on the nervous system.

But really, there are two sides of the same coin.

Yes, pain originates in our brains.  And our brains can shut pain off, in emergency situations.  

But that doesn’t mean patients’ pain isn’t valid.  That doesn’t mean that, once you put them in a 3-hour class where they hear about extreme examples of people not experiencing pain, they should automatically be able to “turn off” their own pain.

No approach will work if you don’t listen to people.  No approach will work if you aren’t kind.  That’s really the bottom line.

Pain science should be used to educate– not to deny the other potential reasons someone could be experiencing pain.

Just as MRI’s aren’t always accurate indicators of who will have back pain, it doesn’t mean that someone in excruciating pain shouldn’t have an MRI.

All of these things represent aspects of the truth, but no one piece should ever be a substitute for looking at the whole picture.

P.S. Please don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to learn about pain science from people who actually do get it!  

For more, you can check out my Resources section.

I also highly recommend Todd Hargrove’s article Seven Things You Should Know About Pain Science.

 

The story of my wrist, and the pot of boiling water (Finally, my own pain science metaphor!).

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Using metaphors to explain how pain works

One of the original reasons I started this blog was to get the word out about the various pain scientists and educators whose work has touched my life (including, but not limited to, Neil Pearson and Lorimer Moseley).

From them, I’ve learned that pain isn’t here to make us suffer (although it seems like it sometimes).  Ultimately, it’s here to keep us safe.

It’s a protective mechanism, and sometimes it can try a little too hard to keep us safe.  A sensitive nervous system is like an overactive alarm system, or an overprotective friend.

It can “zoom in” or “turn up the volume” on pain signals it thinks you need to pay more attention to.   This is what I call the “up” dial.

Your body can also turn down the volume on pain.

There may come a time when your nervous system decides it’s more important to “turn down the volume” on pain– or even block out pain signals completely.

Normally, this “down dial” isn’t something we are able to access consciously.  It’s something our body can do automatically, in times of great danger, if those pain signals are distracting us from getting out of a dangerous situation.

Neil Pearson, for example, tells the story of a patient he once treated who had been hit by a drunk driver on the way to work.  He woke up upside down in his burning car, and realized he had lost an arm in the accident.

The man managed to extricate himself from the car, collect his missing arm, and walk back up to the side of the highway all without feeling any pain.  This is because, in that moment, his body knew that feeling pain would take away from his chances of survival– the most important thing was his getting to safety.  Once he was safely in an ambulance in his way to the hospital, then the pain set in.

Your body has the ability to adjust the level of pain you perceive.

This is a survival mechanism that normally kicks in under emergency circumstances.

However, it is something we can also learn to do consciously with practice, using various techniques to tell our body to “turn down the volume” on pain.  That is the focus of pain neurophysiology education, the approach to pain management that changed my life.

My own metaphor

The really good news about this approach is that you don’t actually have to be a neuroscientist, or even have a huge scientific background, to learn how to do it.

Somehow, once you start to switch over from viewing pain as an enemy to a friend or a guardian, it can start to make an immediate difference in how you perceive it.

That’s why I’ve been so determined to spread the word about some of the metaphors that have helped me.  However, I’ve felt a bit limited in doing this, since I’m also interested in not plagiarizing other’s work.

So today at long last, I got my own metaphor. 

It’s not particularly wild or dramatic.  In fact, it’s pretty subtle (and also makes me not sound terribly coordinated).  However, I think it does a great job of explaining in a down-to-earth way exactly how the nervous system can choose to turn pain signals out, if it benefits your survival to do so.

It’s a small thing, really.  (And actually, it illustrates to you how absent-minded I can be at times, but that’s another matter!).

I was cooking dinner, boiling some ravioli.  They looked about done, and I was starving.  So, without really thinking, I lifted the pot off of the burner with one hand, and started taking it over to the sink to drain.

Halfway to the sink, I realized the pot was much heavier than I’d anticipated.  I realized I hadn’t really been paying attention, and it had been a mistake to pick it up.   Now I felt like my wrist was about to give out, and I was already halfway to the sink.

I quickly thought through my options.  I wanted to put it down instantly, but there wasn’t a clear space on the counter.  I wanted to put another hand up to steady the pot, but the handle was too small and I would have needed a potholder.

My wrist was really starting to hurt, and for a second I considered just dropping the pot altogether.

But no.  I had a vision of scalding water splashing everywhere, including on me, burning my skin.

And just like that– that very second– all the pain in my wrist disappeared.  Nope, my body said.  We are NOT dropping a pot of boiling water on ourselves today.  

My nervous system made an executive decision, in that instant, to block all the pain out.  Ultimately, the prospect of spilling boiling water all over myself was more of a threat to my survival than the pain in my wrist.

I was able to get the pot of water all the way over to the sink without incident.  About 30 seconds after I put it down, that’s when the pain came back.

Like Neil Pearson’s patient making it safely into an ambulance, my nervous system had blocked the pain out just long enough for me to safely put the pot of water down.  Once that was over, the pain came back, to remind me that indeed, I had put my wrist through something strenuous.

It’s been a few hours and my wrist is just a little bit sore.  I know it will go away– it wasn’t a permanent injury or anything.  I just strained it a little bit by trying to carry something it wasn’t strong enough for.  (This is a good reminder that I need to pay more attention in the kitchen, even if I am spaced out and hungry!).

But I wanted to share this with you because I think it provides a good example of how pain isn’t always a clear-cut indicator of what, exactly, is going on in our body. 

Instead, it represents our body’s “safety monitoring system,” warning us about potential threats to our survival, and making sure we choose the course of action that’s most likely to keep us safe.

Of course, if you have chronic pain day in and day out, it can be hard to see pain as a protective mechanism. 

I said it was a protective mechanism– I never said it always perfectly.

Sometimes in the case of chronic pain, the “up” dial can get stuck on.

That’s why, again, it is so important to know that your pain also has a “down” dial, and that, with practice, you can learn to access it.

I hope you found this post helpful!

For more on the metaphors which can help you understand pain, I recommend you check out my posts:

As well as:

That’s all for now!  

Any questions, leave a comment below or email me at sunlightinwinter12@gmail.com!

Pain is like Memory: Dr. Jay Joshi on Central Sensitization

Okay.  I’ve really been looking forward to publishing this post.

Here, we’re revisiting the same great talk by pain physician Dr. Jay Joshi.  In my last post, I outlined what Dr. Joshi says are the four main categories of pain.

Central sensitization is the type that is, unfortunately, the least understood.  And it’s also the type that’s had the biggest impact on my life to date.

What is it?

Central sensitization is a process through which the central nervous system learns to become more sensitive to, or amplify, pain signals.

I struggled with it for years and thought I was crazy, because I had pain that came and went throughout my own body that most of the doctors and physical therapists I saw couldn’t explain.

Central sensitization is a form of memory.

Generally, we think of central sensitization as a sort of a disorder, because of course, it causes so much pain and suffering.

However, as I’ve touched upon in previous posts, central sensitization actually has its roots in some of the same neural mechanisms that allow us to learn new things and store memories.  We “learn” from pain just as we learn from anything else, and our nervous systems can be changed by it.

As Dr. Joshi says:

“Central sensitization is what happens when the brain is exposed to certain experiences or certain memories.  It’s life… it’s being a human.

When you have a certain memory that forms it, becomes part of who you are… it becomes part of your experience.  And your behavior changes as a result of that.

This is not something that happens randomly…  This is something that happens to the neurophysiology of your brain.  It forms memories.  Those circuits get hardwired on your little ‘hard drive’ that’s known as a brain.  The same thing that happens with pain, when you have a chronic pain stimulus.”

The process of central sensitization is not separate from our brain’s other functions– rather, it belongs to them.

I found this happened to me so often, over the years, before I even knew what central sensitization was.

I’d have a painful experience– the first one was when I threw my back out at age 21— and it was like my nervous system was determined not to let me forget about it afterwards.

According to Dr. Joshi, this is exactly how central sensitization occurs, after a painful or traumatic event:

“You have a painful experience, and usually one of the first things that happens is your brain says ‘hey don’t do that again.'”

It’s trying to protect you from doing the same thing that might have caused you to become injured in the first place.

But what happens when that signal doesn’t stop? 

In cases like mine, this process can go on indefinitely.  Your brain keeps trying to protect you, telling you not to repeat certain activities, long past what’s actually necessary or conducive to your well-being.

This is called the wind-up phenomenon— when the brain’s protective mode stays on, and never gets the signal to turn “off” like it should.  Instead, it just keeps repeating the message of “don’t do that again”– even if it’s something that, technically, should be safe for you to do.

Once this process, the pain can sort of build on itself, like a snowball effect.  And you can remain in pain, long after the original injury that might have set all this off as healed.

Does all chronic pain cause central sensitization?

Dr. Joshi explains that chronic pain is likely to lead to some degree of central sensitization.  (This is significantly higher than other estimates I’ve heard, such as Dr. Elliot Krane’s figure of 10%).

However, I think Dr. Joshi’s explanation makes a lot of sense.  After all, when you experience chronic pain, you’re basically bombarding your nervous system with opportunities to practice sending pain signals.  Why wouldn’t it get better at doing so, the same way you can get better at playing the piano or riding a bike?

Central sensitization is still a part of my life.

I don’t expect to ever be able to totally reverse the process that first began, for me, at age 21.

However, I was able to make a lot of positive changes and gain back a lot of control over my body through pain neurophysiology education, which I write about a lot on this blog.  (Basically, it involves teaching your nervous system what it’s like to feel safe again, so that it can turn the “volume” back down on the pain).

There’s a lot more to say!

Dr. Joshi has some great thoughts on how to improve the medical profession’s understanding of central sensitization, as well as ketamine infusions– a potentially powerful treatment for patients with central sensitization.

I’ll be sharing more on this coming up– hope you liked this post!

The Four Categories of Pain– Dr. Jay Joshi

Hi everyone!

I’ve just discovered this awesome talk on central sensitization by pain management physician Dr. Jay Joshi.  It’s totally packed with information I want to share with you all– such as why it’s so hard to get help for central sensitization, and how ketamine infusion treatments can help.  There’s so much here, though, that I thought I’d break it down into bite-sized information for you.

So, to start out, let’s look at what Dr. Joshi says are the four main types of pain.  (For the purposes of this blog post, I’m actually jumping ahead to the 8:50 mark– later, we’ll come back to the beginning).  

The four types:

  1. Nociceptive
  2. Neuropathic
  3. Inflammatory
  4. Central Sensitization

1. Nociceptive pain: pain that results from actual tissue damage, or potential tissue damage (like if you’re starting to bend a joint past its normal range of motion).  It is “the common discomfort we have all experienced as a result of injury — a paper cut, a broken bone, or appendicitis, among other things.

More on nociceptive pain and its subtypes

2. Neuropathic pain: involves physical damage to the nerves or the central nervous system itself.  It can also occur when the person has a tumor that’s pressing upon a nerve.

3. Inflammatory Pain: Pain produced by the chemicals our body releases as part of the inflammatory or healing process.  On a small scale, think of how a bruise swells up and is painful to the touch.  This is because our body is sending special cells and chemical messengers to that part of our body in order to heal it– and also to make it painful, so that we know to protect the area.  This is inflammatory pain, and it can also happen on a much larger scale with more serious injuries.

4. Central Sensitization: And here we are– the type of pain that’s most affected my life.  It has to do with the concept of neuroplasticity: that the central nervous system (the brain and spinal cord) can change in response to the things it experiences.

When your body experiences a painful event or an injury, it learns from that experience, the same way it learns from anything.  Practice makes perfect– when your brain gets enough practice at sending pain signals, it gets better at it gets better at it.  In a way, this is for your protection– you learn and become more sensitive to performing the same kinds of actions or motions that may have caused this injury in the first place.

However, as a protective mechanism, central sensitization can sort of backfire.  Eventually, we can reach a point where our nervous systems are trying to protect us too much, when we’re not really at risk of injury anymore.

So these are the four main types.

Unfortunately for those of us suffering from central sensitization, it’s the type of pain that doctors and other medical professionals know the least about.

As Dr. Joshi explains, “there are physicians who claim to be pain physicians… who are anesthesiologists… who don’t even understand it.  And they’re teaching at major programs.  It’s scary.”

Central sensitization is as real a type of pain as any of the other three.  And, as Dr. Joshi says, if you’re going to be able to adequately treat pain as a doctor, you better be aware of all four categories.

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Dr. Joshi also has some really great analogies which help to explain the phenomenon of central sensitization further.  I’ll be elaborating on some of those in my next post.

I hope this was helpful!

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Also: you may have noticed that I’ve been playing around with my blog’s format.  I’ve honestly never truly been happy with the appearance of my blog, because I find my options are so limited with premade WordPress themes.  I’m beginning to experiment a little (and even spend a little bit extra!) to try to get things right.  If you have any thoughts or suggestions how improve the appearance of my blog, please let me know!

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Sean Mackey on a potential reason for chronic pain

Hi everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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