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!

 

 

What I really want you to know

I never know quite what to call the posts in which I share a video.

Every title I think of sounds either click-baity or boring.  Like for this one: “Mayo Clinic doctor explains central sensitization.”  “Awesome video on central sensitization,” etc. etc.

In this day and age… what do you call something that truly is a “must-watch?”  The term is so overused.

But I really, really want everyone to watch this.

***

Have you ever held something in for so long that, when someone finally validates the way you feel, you end up crying?

That was kind of how it was for me, with this.  This video was so great it actually made me cry.

I know a lot about central sensitization, but, honestly, most of that is from my own research.  (You can check out the articles and researchers I cite in my Resources section, particularly under “Scientific Articles”).

Of course, I’m grateful to have access to these articles, and of course, to the scientists who wrote them.  (Not to mention the education that allows me to understand them– big shout out to my neuroscience professor!).

But when it comes to understanding central sensitization as a scientific concept, there have been many times when I’ve felt pretty alone.

Maybe I shouldn’t feel this way, because, largely, I’ve found the answers I need– my life is so much better since I discovered pain neurophysiology education and the work of Neil Pearson (thank you again, Neil!).

But what I’m talking about is the emotional aftermath of what I went through in all the years before; all the time I spent feeling misunderstood.  All the conflicts and arguments with friends and family over the “weird” symptoms no one could understand… I have sometimes felt very, very alone in trying to articulate exactly what’s happened to me.

***

That’s a big part of why this video blew me out of the water.

Here, Dr. Christopher Sletten, who runs the Pain Rehabilitation Center at the Mayo Clinic in Florida, describes, in patient-friendly language, exactly how central sensitization can happen, and the myriad ways it can affect a person.

***

On my blog, I talk mainly about pain.  That’s been my main symptom, and in some ways it’s the clearest and easiest to write about.

But central sensitization can cause all sorts of bodily sensations to become amplified.

As Dr. Sletten explains, it can make lights seem brighter, and sounds seem louder.  It can make you dizzy.  It can cause digestive upset.

It can really affect all of the sensory input that is meant to help you protect your body and guide you through the world.

And this, of course, will make you look crazy to those who don’t understand.  It can even make you look crazy to yourself.

***

So I love, love, LOVED the part around the 7:20 mark where Dr. Sletten asks, “So how much of this is psychological?  NONE.”  Bam.

“The emotions are a symptom, not a cause.”  YES.

How I wish the people in my life had believed this, all the times I tried to explain it to them ten years ago.

I knew I wasn’t crazy; knew it wasn’t all “in my head.”  But I could never find the right words to convey my reality; to convince people who’d already made up their minds.

It doesn’t mean they didn’t care.  But there’s a difference between knowing you’re cared about, and feeling truly believed and understood.  There’s quite a big difference, actually, and it can hurt to never get that second part from the people you love.  To know they’re tolerating your “craziness,” instead of seeing you for who you really are.

***

I wasn’t really planning on writing such a personal post today.  I seriously LOVE the science behind this stuff, so I was planning to take some notes on important concepts and get more into the nitty-gritty.

But I guess this is the part of my story that I needed to tell today.  More of the nitty gritty will have to come later on.

***

The one sciencey thought I wanted to leave you with right now is that this video provides some great insight into how central sensitization can lead to what are called central sensitivity syndromes.

After all, it’s not just pain.  It’s never just any one thing.  It’s the fact that the sensory information that’s supposed to give your brain cues as to how to respond to your environment is coming in way too “loud.”

This can create all sorts of different symptoms and sensations in different people.  It can lead to chronic pain; some people call it fibromyalgia.  It can cause phantom limb pain; it can cause Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).

It can cause lead to diagnoses whose names imply more of a specific focus: chronic pelvic pain.  Temporo-mandibular joint disorder.  Irritable bowel syndrome; other digestive issues.

But they all fall under this umbrella term: central sensitivity syndromes.   Despite having seemingly very different symptoms on the surface, all of these conditions can share a common cause, at the level of the nervous system.

***

So that’s all for now.  I hope you get as much out of this video as I did.  (And if you do, I hope you spread it around– I seriously want everyone in the world to watch it!).

As always, if you have any thoughts or questions for me, you can leave a comment below or email me!

 

 

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!

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 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!

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.

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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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

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.

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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