Central Sensitization, Creative Writing, eating disorders, My Story

How I developed central sensitization: Part 1

Here’s a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time: the story of how I personally developed central sensitization.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’re probably aware that central sensitization occurs as the result of some sort of insult to the central nervous system.  Basically, if the body gets enough practice sending pain signals, it gets “better” at it– meaning you start experiencing pain more intensely, with less provocation.

So.  How did it happen to me?

As I’ve touched up in previous posts, my high school years were pretty rough.  Basically, a bunch of bad things happened in my life, too close together for me to know how to deal with.  When I look back on that time, it’s like my thoughts and emotions were tangled up in one big knot– a knot it would take me years to untie.

At the time, one of the ways I coped was with exercise.  I struggled with depression, and the endorphins I got from exercise were one of the only things that made me feel normal.  That one- or two- hour window each day after my workout was the only time I felt like the clouds lifted, and I could think clearly.

The other way I coped was by restricting my calories and keeping my body at an unhealthily low weight.  I’d perceived myself as being a little bit chubby at the time the bad things started to happen, and being skinny was part of the new me.  Paradoxically, with each ounce of flesh I was able to strip off from my bones, I felt I was adding a kind of layer of “protection” around me, ensuring that things couldn’t go back to the way they had been.

So, I was starving myself, and running an average of 40 miles a week.

***

I ran for my school’s cross-country and track teams, and before I go on, let me say that I loved running for its own sake.  And I was good at it.

But I took it too far.  For a while, my body’s natural ability allowed me to excel even as I got skinnier and skinnier.   I was hitting faster and faster times– winning medals, even– as more of my skeleton became visible.

Obviously, this was a recipe for disaster, and eventually I developed compartment syndrome in my lower legs.  It’s a condition that’s somewhat similar to carpal tunnel– basically, I had a lot of fluid being trapped inside of my lower legs.  I’ll write more about compartment syndrome later, but for now, let’s just say that it got worse and worse until I’d gone from almost being able to run a five-minute mile to barely being able to walk.

I suffered from compartment syndrome for the next two years before finally deciding to have surgery, and wow– I really wish I could take that decision back.  I wish I’d just had surgery sooner, because it really solved the problem almost immediately.

However, at the time, my orthopedist had suggested I try more conservative forms of treatment.  None of them really worked, but on some level, I was lost in my own inertia.

I had been trying, and trying, and trying for so long– forcing myself up at 5 am to work out, when I’d barely been able to sleep the night before because I was so hungry.  I was just done.

***

Those two years, from age 17-19, are somewhat of a blur.  I was still struggling with depression, although things improved dramatically after I graduated from high school.  I actually tried to work out in a pool but wasn’t really feeling it– ironic, because all these years later, the pool has become my second home.  But at the time, I was just too depressed to think or function clearly.

So I waited those two years, sometimes trying conservative treatment methods, sometimes going to physical therapy, sometimes working out in a pool.

The compartment syndrome was not so much excruciating as it was frustrating.  I knew where the limits were pretty clearly– how much I could push myself before the feeling of pressure built up in my lower legs, and my feet started tingling.

But it was still a constant buzz in the background, like an annoying mosquito buzzing around my ear for those two years.  I couldn’t forget about it– couldn’t even stand in line at the movies.  Whoever I went with had to stand in line while I waited on a bench.

***

I tried to go to college like all of my friends.  I actually went to a large Division I school, thinking somehow I’d get back into running.  But really, things were getting worse, and it was becoming harder and harder to walk.  There wasn’t adequate public transportation around campus, and I’d have to decide whether I wanted to walk to the library that day to get my books for class, or if I wanted to actually go to class.  My body couldn’t do both.

That’s when I realized this couldn’t go on, and decided to come home and have surgery.

***

The surgery itself was not very invasive at all.  The place where my orthopedist had to make a few incisions was very superficial (aka close to the surface) so he didn’t have to dig around too much.  I came home from the hospital that same day, and although I spent the following day completely knocked out with narcotic painkillers, by the second day I wasn’t even using my crutches (although I still had casts).

Everything seemed normal right after the surgery, although from what people have told me, surgery like that can be a big trauma to the body.

I didn’t notice anything right away– in fact, I was healing pretty well.  But, as I later learned, it’s possible that everything my nervous system had already been through– the constant bombardment from the compartment syndrome, as well as the surgery- would have a delayed effect.

***

As luck would have it, I had developed acid reflux right around then.  My doctor suggested I try sleeping propped up by pillows at night, so gravity could keep the acid down.

Big mistake.  I woke up after one night in absolute agony.  I had completely thrown my back out– the whole thing felt like one giant muscle spasm.

I had never had such a silly, simple little thing cause so much pain before.  The only injuries I’d had before had been serious running injuries, that came from pounding my legs into pavement 40 miles a week.  But this silly, little simple thing actually had me in excruciating pain.

And this– THIS.  After everything I’d been through, this is how my chronic pain problem started.

Looking back, I can see that it probably wasn’t just the issue of throwing my back out.  Instead, it was probably a combination of factors– everything my body had been through, coming together to create an overwhelming effect all at one time.  My nervous system had just had too much.

Of course, I didn’t know what it was at a time.  I had never heard of such a thing as central sensitization, and in fact, I wouldn’t– not for another six years.  I had a long road ahead of me.

To be continued in Part 2.

My Story, Women's Health

An Update on Life with One Ovary

One of the topics readers most frequently contact me about is the time I had to have emergency surgery to remove my right ovary.

In case you aren’t familiar with the story, I had had abdominal pain throughout most of my twenties.  Doctors had told me it was nothing to worry about– just digestive issues.

Well, in February 2013– just a few days before my 28th birthday– the pain in my right side, and nausea, became so severe that I went to the emergency room.

There, an ultrasound revealed that I was suffering from ovarian torsion— something had caused my right ovary to rotate, with the Fallopian tube wrapped around it in such a way that its blood supply was being cut off.

The doctors rushed me in to surgery in an attempt to reverse this process and restore blood flow, but it was too late.  The ovary had to be removed.

For months, after this– I’d say a year, really– I suffered from both physical and emotional fall out.  And actually, a lot of what I experienced me is what my readers say they also go through.

I decided it’s high time I give everyone an update on this situation, and I’m here to tell you that, three years later, everything is alright.

***

Physical Symptoms:

I was in pretty significant pain for about two weeks following my surgery.  I really relied on narcotic painkillers.  They masked the pain so well that I’d think I was better and didn’t need them anymore.  Then my last dose would wear off and I’d feel like my world was coming to an end.  Other people (mainly my parents) would have to remind me that I was due for another Percoset, and then I’d come back into my rational mind again.  (By the way, I am a FIRM believer in the usefulness of opioid medications.  This entire ordeal would have been much more emotionally scarring if I’d had to bear the brunt of this mind-warping pain without them) .

After about two weeks I was okay… until my next period.

This is pretty graphic, but I figure if you’re here, you’re interested.  I went back to my OB doc in agony again, like I’d just had the surgery yesterday.  He explained that basically, now that I was menstruating, blood was coming out of  the side my uterus and leaking into my abdomen, because now I had a gap where the Fallopian tube used to be.  Basically, it was a totally benign phenomenon– my body would just reabsorb it– it was just causing pain because there was fluid where fluid wasn’t supposed to be.

At the time, my doctor told me it would be like this every time I got my period, and suggested I take the birth control pill to lighten my periods and ease the pain.  I did this for a few months, but eventually as time wore on, things stopped being painful.  Now I believe that my body just hadn’t fully healed from the surgery.  It’s also possible, as one nurse practitioner suggested, that my nervous system had become sensitized to pain in that area (gee, that sounds familiar!).

What I do know, for sure, is that three years later, I am having normal periods without agonizing pain.  I sometimes do notice that during my period, I’m a little sore on the right side, but it’s something I am pretty much able to ignore.

Mood/Emotions/How Do I Feel?

I feel totally and completely normal.  What all of the doctors told me is true– when you lose one ovary, the other one completely takes over.  You don’t really need two.  (In fact, there’s a reason why we have two).

My left ovary is a magical little powerhouse and it has taken over completely, doing everything I need it to do.  I feel the same.

Blame/Doubt

It took me a really, really long time to work through some of the emotions that came from this.

I am still mad at the doctors who so easily brushed my concerns aside.  To be fair, they were gastroenterologists, not ob-gyns.  But still.  One of them literally even wrote a book on digestive disorders in women.  (I don’t hate her enough to name her here– in fact, she is still my doctor because I think she’s a good gastroenterologist).

But still, on this, she did brush me aside and tell me it was irritable bowel syndrome.  Seeing that I am a woman of child-bearing age, I wish she had thought to tell me to consult an OB-GYN.

I also still think that the gluten-free craze is just a fad, and that it has power to do just as much harm as it does good.  (This doctor’s advice to me, the last time I saw her before this happened, was to try switching to a gluten-free diet to see if I felt better).

But I’m no longer mad at myself.  I did the best I could with the information I had at the time.

I try not to judge myself for the way I handle things.  There have been times I’ve under-reacted, and there have been times I’ve overreacted.  Nobody is perfect.  We do what we can.  Pragmatism is my goal.

Fear of it happening again

And this. This is really the number one thing women write to me about– the fear that the same thing will happen to your good ovary.

I can’t promise you that nothing will, but I can tell you that so far, nothing has happened to mine.  It is just fine.

They told me what happened to me was about as rare as getting hit by a bus, or being struck by lightning.  The odds are like one in a million.  The odds of it happening again? Almost minuscule.

Still, there have been a number of times that I’ve freaked out and rushed into the doctor’s office for an emergency same-day ultrasound.  (When you’ve already been that one in a million, it doesn’t really make you feel like taking chances).  But my ovary has never been twisted.

I’ll tell you the truth, in the past three years, I think I’ve had six of these.  I know that’s a lot.  But I know that it won’t seem like a lot to any of the women who’ve emailed me.

The majority of the times, the doctors were able to decipher what had happened to cause me pain.  That I had ovulated, or was about to ovulate (normal ovulation causes the formation of a little cyst, which then releases the egg).

Some of these cysts, they said, wouldn’t be enough to cause pain in every woman, but for whatever reason, in me– probably now that I’m hyper-focused to that area– I notice it.

And there were a few times I was really scared, when it hurt a lot.  But I learned that, in some women, normal ovulation can be really painful– even more painful than what I was reporting.  So I would just have to trust in the ultrasound, when it showed my ovary just doing its same normal healthy thing.

So, that is where I’m at right now.

I still hope to have kids someday, and as far as I know, there is no real reason why I won’t be able to.

Now that I write this, I can’t believe how sane and calm I sound.

Believe me, it wasn’t always this way.  I was the same as those of you who end up sending me ten panicked emails (it’s okay, I say this affectionately).  Really, I was.   But I had no one to email.  And now, for me, things are okay.  And there is every reason to think that, eventually, they will be for you too.

My two previous posts on my surgery:

So… I lost an ovary

Beware the Red Herring (follow-up post)

Sacroiliac Joint, Women's Health

Powerful female hormones, injuries, and pain

Something I’ve really come to notice during my time with SI joint issues is the effect of my hormonal cycle on my ligaments.

I saw a female pain specialist once who put it very plainly:

I have extremely healthy women come into my office– women who are runners, women who are training for marathons– and sometimes it seems like, during their period, all they have to do is bend over and tie their shoe, and they can throw their back out.

Why does this happen?

Basically, one of the hormones a woman’s body releases in the days leading up to her period is a hormone called relaxin.

As the names suggests, relaxin acts as a chemical messenger that tells our muscles and ligaments to relax.  Its main effect during childbirth is to cause the joints of the pelvis to become looser, meaning there is more room for the baby to pass through.

However, relaxin is also released during our menstrual cycle, beginning around day 14, so our bodies are prepared in the event that we do become pregnant.

And with more relaxin circulating in our bodies, our muscles and especially our ligaments are going to be a little more slack, meaning there is more risk for injury.

This article from BBC News outlines a few studies that have shown women are more likely to experience injuries in the second half of their menstrual cycles, due to higher relaxin concentrations.

***

I have definitely noticed this going on in my own body.  For me, it begins 3-4 days before I get my period, right when I get my other PMS symptoms.  All of a sudden, I’ll feel my SI joints start to move around a lot, because my ligaments are not holding them in place as tightly.

There were times when I’d have to promise myself, in those days leading up to and during my period, that I wouldn’t judge my overall progress by the way things were at that moment in time.  (I’m sure my plummeting mood didn’t help with my gloomy outlook, either).

I’d really have to talk myself through, and say, I know things really seem that bad right now, but your joints ARE doing better.  Just wait a few days and see.

And then, sure thing, once my period had passed, things would go back to normal (or at least, back to baseline anyway).

***

Since my SI joints are doing better now, I don’t notice quite the same extreme fluctuations in my level of function.  I have more muscle strength to hold things in place, and my ligaments have had more of chance to heal after my original injury.

However, every month, I can still feel things become a little looser, and my SI joints seem to have a wider range of motion (and not in a good way).

I also notice my hormonal fluctuations impacting other joints in my body as well.  I particularly notice it in my knees and in the joints of my fingers.  (That sounds totally random, but interestingly enough, finger joints were one of the joints that doctors studied, according to that BBC News article).

***

So, for my female readers, this is something to be aware of.

If you are struggling with chronic pain, it might be worthwhile for you to track how your menstrual cycle impacts your pain.

I honestly was totally unaware of the connection, until that doctor suggested I start paying attention.

Once I knew, it did make things a little easier.  I learned not to freak out if things felt worse during a certain time of month, and instead knew to wait, and that it would probably pass (which it did every time).

**

For more, check out this really informative article from Lindsay Matthews at Breaking Muscle on Relaxin: Facts Female Athletes Need to Know.

The BBC News article

I also just started using the Clue period tracker app.  It seems pretty easy to use so far.

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

Christopher deCharms: A look inside the brain in real time

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

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

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

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

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

deCharms explains,

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

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

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

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

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

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

As deCharms explains in this additional interview:

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

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

***

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

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

Hope you’ll check it out!

My Story

Things you can ask me about

IMG_2316

Something you might not know is that I spend a lot of time answering emails from readers looking for advice on their own health issues.  I do my best to offer advice and get people pointed in the right direction.  It means a lot to me to feel as though my experience has served a purpose, and that some good can come out of what I’ve been through.

I’ve been meaning to write some more personal posts telling about my stories with various running injuries, compartment syndrome, etc.

However, in the meantime, I thought I would just offer this general list of health conditions I feel I can offer some advice on.

I want to be clear about the fact that I do not currently possess any medical certifications.  But I can offer you advice as a fellow chronic pain sufferer and as a friend.  (And my physical therapy prerequisites mean I have a better understanding of medical terminology than the average person).

Basically, what I can do is relay lessons from my own experience to help try to get you pointed in the right direction, and help you try to find the right people who do have the necessary certifications to help you.

Some of the conditions I’ve listed below are actually not things I’ve experienced personally– they are either topics I’ve become knowledgeable about through the course of my own research, or health conditions experienced by my own family members/friends.  (I enjoy helping people, so I tend to naturally fall into the role of “coach”).

So, with that being said, here is a general list, with links to my writing or further resources when relevant:

Chronic pain/central sensitization

Fibromyalgia (physical & mental symptoms)

Sacroiliac joint dysfunction

CRPS

Biomechanics (how to set up your life better to reduce pain)

Running injuries (muscle strains, shin splints, etc.)

Compartment syndrome

Chondromalacia patella

Ovarian cysts/ovarian torsion/abdominal surgery

Pelvic pain/pelvic floor disorders

Digestive problems (irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia-related, various tests you can ask your doctor for)

Aquatic therapy

***

Because I am not a medical professional, there is a limit to the extent I will be able to provide support.  I will let you know when there is a question I do not feel qualified to answer.  Really, my goal here is to help you determine your next step, and help you get moving on your way again.  And it means a lot to me to be able to do so.

You can email me at sunlightinwinter12@hotmail.com, or check out the rest of my contact info.

Hope to hear from you!

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

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

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

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

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

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

So.  How do we know about central sensitization?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Pearson, Nervous System, Pain Neurophysiology Education, Pain Science, physical therapy

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!

 

 

 

 

 

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

Neil Pearson on the benefits of acute stress

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

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

Neil writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The core message of pain neurophysiology education

In the traditional model of physical therapy, the physical therapist prescribes stretches and exercises for the patient in order to improve function in one part of his or her body.

For example, if you have back pain, your PT will probably give you strengthening exercises to build up the muscles in your back and your core.  If you have a knee injury, she’ll  probably give you exercises to strengthen the muscles around the knee.  This is why when most of us picture physical therapy, we imagine a patient grunting and sweating in a gym while the therapist looks on.

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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
Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Creative Writing, Pain Neurophysiology Education, Pain Science, physical therapy

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.