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 triggered the withdrawal reflex 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 stressors.

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 this, any more than the rats.

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, 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!

***

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

A little bit more about how pain neurophysiology education works

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

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

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Pain neurophysiology education, however, draws from a different treatment model.  This model is not based on the idea that the patient’s pain is coming an injury in one specific part of the body.  Instead, it targets the sensitized nervous system directly as a source of pain.

The best way I can try to describe this is with graphs.  The first graph below shows the way most people imagine pain to work.  It also shows what most physical therapists are imagining when they prescribe stretches and exercises to improve a patient’s function:

acute pain graph

You can see how, as the intensity of the injury diminishes (represented by the black line) the intensity of the pain diminishes as well (represented by the red line).  This matches our experience of pain in most minor situations: getting a tooth drilled, pulling out a splinter.  When the stimulus goes away, the pain goes away.

However, in situations involving chronic pain (generally defined as a painful experience that lasts for at least two to three months) the pain response works differently.  Prolonged exposure to a painful stimulus actually produces changes in how a person’s nervous system works.  It’s as if it sets off a feedback loop in which pain signals continue to be produced independently of the level of injury.  For this reason, pain persists even after the initial injury has healed:

chronic pain graph 2

This second graph is an accurate representation of the state I was in when I was first introduced to pain neurophysiology education by my physical therapist Tim.  I had a very high level of pain, but it was not correlated with a high level of injury in my body.  This is why I hadn’t seen much improvement with any of my past physical therapists– my pain was coming from my nervous system, not from a specific injury in my body.

“If pain is the patient’s primary symptom, then pain relief should be the primary goal of treatment.”

I once read something along those lines in a blog comment section, and it really stuck with me.

Most physical therapy programs are designed to improve function of a certain part of the body.  But when your pain isn’t coming from a problem with a certain part of your body, you can stretch and strengthen until the cows come home.  It still won’t change your level of pain.

This is why none of the physical therapists I had seen before had been able to help me.  They were all stuck on the idea that I needed to strengthen my back; strengthen my abs; strengthen everything.  Of course, in some ways they were right.  I wasn’t in the greatest shape.

But what Tim was able to identify is that there was a common denominator behind all of the pain I was experiencing in different parts of my body.  Rather than looking at each one as unrelated, he recognized them as the symptoms of an overactive nervous system, or, as he taught me, body alarm system.

****

The goal of PNE is basically to help the patient’s body “remember” what an accurate pain response is supposed to be.  There are a few ways to accomplish this, and I will be discussing them in upcoming posts.  But the general goal of these various techniques is to help the patient’s nervous system get back in touch with with the reality of what’s happening in his or her body.

This graph shows the general goal of treatment:

input to nervous systemThe blue arrows represent the input you want to give to your nervous system.  You’re basically saying to it, “Hey.  Hey you.  You are freaking out for no reason.  This is reality, and it’s over there.”

The role of the physical therapist is basically to help the patient’s nervous system realize it doesn’t need to be on high alert all the time, and to slowly help it calm down.  The idea is that as time goes on, the discrepancy between what the person’s nervous system feels and the actual level of dysfunction in his or her body will slowly shrink.

Now, to be honest, I’m not sure you will ever be able to fully reverse the process of central sensitization.  It’s probably possible, but it hasn’t happened yet for me.  That’s why I didn’t draw the red line going all the way back down to the bottom.  An overactive pain response will always probably be somewhat of a factor for me, but it is a million times better for me now than it used to be.  I’d much rather have the red line close to zero than soaring way up high, totally out of touch with my physical reality.

P.S. I adapted this post from Part 3 of my series on my own patient experience with pain neurophysiology education, entitled “How a physical therapist helped me through my lowest point.”  I’m experimenting with different ways to present information, to find out what works best for people.  Definitely check out that series if you’d like to know more!  I would love to hear any comments or questions you might have.

Photo Credits:

  • Strength training equipment pic: colonnade
  • Balance training equipment pic: kbrookes
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.

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.

But then, 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.

If you are weak, you are going to have pain and be at risk for additional injuries.  (This is why I went on to develop so many additional problems after I first suffered from compartment syndrome as a teenager, because I had ended up so out of shape).

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

I touched upon this once in an earlier post, and I have to say, I think I phrased it really nicely:

“There is a middle way, where you learn to respect your body’s pain without automatically assuming you are injured.  This means you respect the pain and don’t try to push through it, but you also know not to freak out because you recognize that your nervous system sometimes gives you false alarms.  It’s about being okay with the possibility that maybe you strained something and need to take it easy, while knowing that you probably didn’t.”

This is the balance you eventually need to find, and having a trusted coach by your side who can help you understand what’s going on in your body can make all the difference.

This is the physical therapist I hope someday to be.  The person who understands and can walk you through, even when the path ahead seems scary.  I have been there myself and I know what it’s like.

I also know what it’s like to regain trust in your body.  To go from feeling as though you are made of glass, to knowing what you are capable of– while also knowing your body has limits, and learning to honor them.

This is the balance you need to find.  It won’t be easy, but it is possible.

Central Sensitization, Nervous System, Pain Science, Quotes, Scientific Articles

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

Tonight, I’m going to try out a type of post I’ve been wanting to write for a while: taking a scientific journal article on central sensitization, and translating it into plain English for my readers.

I got the idea from Paul Ingraham of PainScience.com.  He has a fantastic “jargon-to-English” article on central sensitization on his site (a translation of a paper by renowned pain researcher Clifford Woolf), which I really love.

There is no reason why you, as a patient and chronic pain sufferer, should not be able to know a little bit about the scientific research being done on your condition.  You are going to need to be able to advocate for yourself, stand up for yourself, and remember there is a legitimate explanation for your pain, even if other people don’t always see it that way.  Knowing there is research to back you up helps.

Ever since I first learned of the term “central sensitization” back in 2011, I found so much comfort in reading these articles.  Even if I didn’t understand every word, just knowing there were people out there who would believe me about my pain, if I met them, provided me with the sense that I wasn’t alone.

These changes to our nervous systems are real, even if some of the people in our lives don’t always understand.

***

So anyway.  The article that I want to take a stab at tonight is “Central Sensitization: A Generator of Pain Hypersensitivity by Central Neural Plasticity” by Alban Latremoliere and Clifford J. Woolf.  (In the interest of keeping things manageable, I am just going to outline the abstract, which is basically a summary of the article).

The article discusses central sensitization, which is the name of the process through which our nervous systems learn to become more sensitive to pain.

Let’s look at it in bits and pieces:

“Central sensitization represents an enhancement in the function of neurons and circuits in nociceptive pathways caused by increases in membrane excitability and synaptic efficacy as well as to reduced inhibition…”

This basically means that the parts of the nervous system responsible for sending pain signals become more active than they were before.

“Increases in membrane excitability” means that it will take less stimulation for nerves to send a pain signal.

An increase in “synaptic efficacy” means that the nerve is going to learn to be more efficient with the neurotransmitters that it has.  So, even though the nervous system still has the same chemicals floating around in it, it is going to learn to start sending stronger and stronger pain signals with those same chemicals.

Reduced inhibition.   Your body has many intricate systems of checks and balances within it.  It is how our bodies maintain control over our internal environment.

One way our body maintains control is by “inhibiting” some of the signals our nervous system sends.  This serves a really practical purpose– we do not need to be bombarded with reminders that our socks are a little bit itchy at all times.  Your nervous system chooses to block out certain signals when they are not useful, or in emergency situations (which is why people can feel no pain when they are in shock).

But in the case of central sensitization, our body’s ability to “block out” or “turn the volume down” on pain signals is reduced, meaning we ultimately experience more pain.

“Central sensitization is responsible for many of the temporal, spatial, and threshold changes in pain sensibility…”.

There are several ways in which these changes to our nervous systems manifest themselves.

We may find that, when something happens that we find painful, we end up experiencing it as painful in a larger part of our body than we might have otherwise.

I’ve really found this to be true with back pain.  When my back pain was at its absolute worst (before I discovered pain neurophysiology education) one tight muscle or muscle knot could make my entire back hurt.

“Because central sensitization results from changes in the properties of neurons in the central nervous system, the pain is no longer coupled, as acute nociceptive pain is, to the presence, intensity, or duration of noxious peripheral stimuli.”

This means that, in a sensitized nervous system, pain is no longer an accurate measure of the presence of an injury, or the degree to which our tissues may have been damaged by an injury.  The central nervous system is now doing its own thing, and you can’t really go by the pain to know what’s wrong.

“Instead, central sensitization produces pain hypersensitivity by changing the sensory response elicited by normal inputs, including those that usually evoke innocuous sensations.”

This means that we now start to feel pain in response to things that are not harmful, and which would have felt painful to us before.

To give you an example, I once knew someone who also suffered from chronic pain, and she said there were days she simply could not bear the feeling of clothing against her skin.  Just the feeling of a lightweight sweater against the skin of her chest made it burn and throb.

This person wasn’t crazy.  She knew her clothes weren’t “hurting” her.  But her nervous system was reacting as though those clothes were somehow damaging her skin.  There was a disconnect between her rational mind, which knew it was only clothing, and the parts of her nervous system which were contributing to her pain hypersensitivity.

(So… lest I end the post on a gloomy note, not to worry.  That’s where pain neurophysiology education comes in, to try to fix this disconnect).

***

Phew.  Okay.  That was not quite as easy as I thought it would be, all the times I thought about writing this post.  But hopefully you made it through!

Everything I write on this subject is meant to be a trial, of sorts.  I’m experimenting with what types of stories and explanations make the most sense, because I really have it in my heart of hearts to develop a set of educational materials on these nervous system changes.

So I want to see what works– what makes sense, what resonates.  (And what doesn’t).

I suffered for so long, thinking I was crazy, when the whole time there were answers out there.  And there was no good reason for it, except that most people (including many medical professionals) still do not know anything about central sensitization.

So I, and my blog, and my future potential physical therapy practice, are hopefully going to be doing something about that.

Please let me know if you have any questions, or any feedback on what sorts of things would be helpful in the future!  I do take requests!

Central Sensitization, Pain Neurophysiology Education, Pain Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

That brings us to our first quote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pain is like learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further Reading

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

Anything and everything by Neil Pearson

Lorimer Moseley & Body in Mind

The nervous system and chronic pain

Understanding pain as your body’s alarm system

Understanding pain as an overprotective friend

What is pain neurophysiology education?

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

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

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

What is pain neurophysiology education?

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

Understanding pain as your body’s alarm system

Understanding pain as an overprotective friend

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

***

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

Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Nervous System, Pain Science, Resources

The best TED talk ever: Elliot Krane on the Mystery of Chronic pain

Tonight I’m throwing it back to this amazing 2011 lecture on chronic pain given by Dr. Elliot Krane of Stanford University.

I found his talk around the time I was first starting this blog, back in 2012, and it really inspired me to try to tell my own story with complex pain problems.

Dr. Krane is a pediatrician and an anesthesiologist.  He specializes in treating children with chronic pain disorders at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University.

In this talk, Dr. Krane outlines the case of a young girl who developed CRPS following a wrist sprain, and was successfully treated at his hospital.

He has some really great quotes and soundbites about chronic pain– things I want to remember, and things I think will be useful in trying to explain the multi-layered nature of pain to people who don’t quite get it (yet).

So here, I’m just going to take a few notes so I (and you, if you’re interested) can come back and remember some key points really quickly:

***

Most of the time, we think of pain as a symptom of a disease– the result of an infection or a tumor, an inflammation or an operation.  But about 10% of the time, after a patient recovers from one of those events, the pain persists for months or even years.  In those cases, pain can become its own disease.

Chronic pain is “a positive feedback loop…. It’s almost as if somebody came into your home and rewired yours walls so that the next time you turned on the light switch, the toilet flushed three doors down, or your dishwasher went on, or your computer monitor turned off.  It sounds crazy, but that’s what happens with chronic pain.”

Glial cells (a particular type of cell found in the nervous system) were once thought to be unimportant.  When I learned about them in my PT prerequisite classes, we thought of them as the supportive “glue” that provides a safe environment for neurons, the more interesting cells that were actually responsible for sending messages.

But, Dr. Krane explains, it turns out that glial cells can play a vital role in the “modulation, amplification and, in the case of pain, the distortion of sensory experiences.”  Once glial cells are triggered by chronic pain, they become overactive and help initiate that the positive feedback loop he mentioned.

Some other quotes:

“The nervous system has plasticity.  It changes, and it morphs in response to stimuli.”

On treatment:

“We treat these patients in a rather crude fashion at this point in time. ”

Dr. Krane describes the treatment protocol for CRPS patients at his center:

  • symptom modifying drugs (painkillers) “which are frankly, not very effective for this type of pain”
  • “We take nerves that are noisy and active that should be quiet, and we put them to sleep with local anesthetics.”
  • “Most importantly… we use a rigorous and often uncomfortable process of physical therapy and occupational therapy to retrain the nervous system to respond normally to the activities and sensory experiences that are part of everyday life.

The future is actually even brighter:

“…the future holds the promise that new drugs will be developed that are not symptom-modifying drugs that simply mask the problem, as we have now, but that will be disease-modifying drugs, that will actually go right to the root of the problem and attack those glial cells….that spill over and cause this central nervous system wind-up…”

***

It’s really interesting for me to look back on this talk, now, and see how my perspective has changed since I first watched it in 2011.  Back then, the point about glial cells largely went over my head (probably because I wasn’t invested at all in knowing what they were).

Now that I’ve taken anatomy & physiology as well as an undergraduate neuroscience course, I can actually see how groundbreaking this really is, to identify glial cells as a potential source of the problem.

It’s as though you’re looking at a telephone pole, and you realize that the wooden pole itself was sending signals, instead of just being there to hold up the electrical wires.  (If that metaphor makes sense).

Anyway, I really hope Dr. Krane is right, that we can begin to develop drugs that will target this mechanism for chronic pain.

Hope you enjoyed this talk!

eating disorders, Nutrition

Out with the old: Saying goodbye to 90’s nutrition advice

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In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions and goals, I thought I’d share this really great article I found recently on nutrition “myths.”  

Fitness Magazine interviewed registered dietitians on how their perspectives on healthy eating have changed over time.  These RD’s talk about some of the conventional wisdom regarding nutrition coming out of recent decades, how it influenced them, and how a lot of it turned out to be wrong.

***

As a teenager struggling with body image issues in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, I encountered much of these same nutrition trends myself from magazines and books, as well as from the nutritionist I saw for help with my eating disorder.

I remember– I was terrified of fat.  When I went out to eat, I insisted that I found mayonnaise and salad dressing “gross,” because I had read that cutting those things out was the best way to cut calories.

Each day, I only ate a certain number of calories at set times, and carefully adjusting the amount depending on the number of calories I had burned through exercise.  My treat at the end of the day would be some kind of “low-fat” dessert or “snack pack” of cookies.  Most of the food I ate was low fat– Healthy Choice ham for my sandwich at lunch, with low fat cheese.  Lean Cuisines for dinner.

It is so strange, now, to realize that so many of the “rules” I based my life around were, in fact, actually all wrong.

One of the quotes I related to the most in the article came from Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., owner of Nutrition Starring You.  She says:

“When I became a dietitian in the mid 1990s, we were in the middle of the fat-free craze. Bagels, fat-free frozen yogurt, and Snackwell cookies were all the rage. Our hospital diet materials recommended limiting nuts because of their fat content and limiting shellfish because of their cholesterol. Now, we know much more about the health benefits of fats derived from nuts and seeds, and we’ve also learned that high-sugar, fat-free foods are not nutritious choices. Unfortunately, people have long memories and to this day, so many of my patients are afraid to eat shrimp if they have elevated cholesterol. It’s exciting to work in a field with ever-evolving research.”

Yes– it absolutely was a fat-free craze.  Fat-free dressing, fat-free cheese.  Sometimes I’d even come across bread that was labeled fat free.  I always thought I was doing something great for myself when I reached for that label, not understanding that my body actually needed fat in order to function.  

I also really related to this quote from Emily Cope, M.S., R.D.N., Owner & Consulting Dietitian at Emily Kyle Nutrition:

“When I was in college, I remember being obsessed with those ‘100-calorie packs’ of cookies and crackers. I thought they were a great option—less than 100 calories for all of those tiny wafers!! Little did I know those calories were being replaced with chemicals and unnatural ingredients. These days, now that I am older and wiser, I am less concerned with calories and more concerned with the quality of my food—whole fruit and nuts are my current go-to snacks!”

Yes.  Unfortunately, that was so me as well.  I felt comfortable with pre-packaged, processed foods because they were marketed for weight-loss, and it was easy to know how many calories were in them.

***

These days, I have come so far in terms of my outlook to food that sometimes I almost forget that I ever had a problem.  (After all, I’ve had to deal with so much else with my body over the intervening years!).

I will talk more about how I overcame my eating and body image issues in future posts.  But for now, let me say that these days I think I live and eat pretty holistically.  I don’t get caught up on the idea of depriving myself of something if I really want it; I don’t count calories.  

And the funny thing is, now that I allow myself to eat whatever I want, I find that most of the time, I generally tend to crave pretty healthy choices.  Now that I’m actually well-nourished, I find myself more in touch with how my body responds to different foods, and I tend to gravitate towards the foods that make me feel best.

I’m sharing this with you for a few reasons:  

A) There’s some really good advice contained in this article, and

B) It serves as a reminder to me– and maybe to you– that things can get better.  Even if you have a problem that goes on for years; if you feel trapped and you truly seem stuck, things can change when you don’t expect it.

I truly hope this post was helpful to you.  Happy New Year!