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 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:
- Understanding pain as your body’s alarm system
- Understanding pain as an overprotective friend
- Treating chronic pain as a two-way street
As well as:
- Neil Pearson’s amazing online lectures I’m always trying to get people to watch
- Lorimer Moseley‘s talks are also really great
That’s all for now!
Any questions, leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!