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, 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, 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!

Favorites, Inspiration, Interesting Articles, mindfulness

Amy Cuddy on Personal Power, Posture, & Body Language

Here is an amazing talk, given by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, on how the way we feel about ourselves can affect our physical experience of our bodies.   I first stumbled upon it a few years ago, and every time I watch it, I find it’s still relevant to my own life.

Dr. Cuddy’s main argument is that our sense of self directly influences both our body language and our internal biochemistry.   When we feel powerful, we tend to carry our bodies in a way that signals to others that we are in-control and confident.  We stand up tall; we make eye contact.

Conversely, when we don’t feel powerful– when instead, we are experiencing self-doubt– we try to shrink.  We hunch forward, cross our arms, and look down at the floor.

Dr. Cuddy explains that these non-verbal cues send powerful messages to others about how we are feeling, and can directly influence the judgements they make about us.

While that probably won’t come as much of a surprise to most of my readers, what’s really surprising is that, as Dr. Cuddy explains, our own body language can also have a direct affect on how we see ourselves.

Basically, when we hunch over, trying to make ourselves small, our brains recognizes that we are feeling powerless, and our internal chemical state then matches that feeling.  (To get into the nitty-gritty, this means that our brains release more of the stress hormone cortisol).

Conversely, when we take on what Dr. Cuddy refers to as a “power pose,” our brains (male and female) release more testosterone– the “power” hormone.

So, Dr. Cuddy explains, we can actually directly affect our brain chemistry with our own body language.   If we are feeling scared and powerless, we can give ourselves a confidence boost by taking on a power pose.  By assuming the body language of someone who is confident and strong, we send the signal to our brain that it should create an internal chemical state to match that body language.

Of course, it isn’t a magic bullet– nothing ever is– but I’ve tried this out myself, many times, and I do find that “power posing” can have an effect.

***

While Dr. Cuddy’s talk is aimed at a general audience, I find an additional layer of relevance within it to my own experience with chronic pain.

Many of the same physical cues we exhibit when we are feeling fearful are also a response to pain and illness.  When I am in pain, or feeling nauseous due to my digestive issues, what do I do?  I hunch over; I round my shoulders forward.  Every classic marker of bad posture becomes exaggerated when I don’t feel well.

Although for me the cycle of “powerless” body language starts as a response to not feeling well. I have to wonder if it becomes part of a self-perpetuating cycle.  I don’t feel well, so I hunch over, which in turn sends the signal to my brain that I’m not feeling great about myself or my abilities.  In general, I tend to feel pretty good about myself, and confident in my ability to accomplish things, but when I am in a lot of pain, that all (temporarily) goes out the window.

***

Since first discovering Dr. Cuddy’s talk, I pay way more attention to my posture.  Am I standing up straight, or am I hunching over?  And, if my posture isn’t great– am I in pain?  Or is something in this situation making me uncomfortable?

It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg– there are a lot of factors that can influence our experience of pain, and our posture; how we carry our bodies, what our alignment is like.

But paying attention to our own feelings of power vs. powerlessness can be one piece of the puzzle.   Even if our hunched-over, low-power poses are caused by physical factors such as muscle weakness/spending too much time slumped over our desks/being out of shape/being in pain, there’s no reason why paying attention to our own sense of power can’t contribute to our healing.

Now, when I’m in the locker room at the gym, I stop and check out my posture in the mirror before heading out to exercise.  Am I standing up tall, or and am I slumped?

And I just take a minute to check in with myself, and my goals.  Why am I here right now?  What are my goals; what is motivating me?

I find that just remembering to pause and re-center myself can make a big difference.  I might have a lot of issues going on with my back that I haven’t quite sorted out yet, but not having a sense of confidence doesn’t have to be one of them.

***

P.S. For my other absolute favorite TED talk– Kelly McGonigal on Stress and Chasing Meaning, click here!

Favorites, Interesting Articles, Pain Science

Neil Pearson: Blending Optimism and Scientific Evidence

One of the things I really admire about Neil Pearson’s approach to chronic pain treatment is his optimism about our ability to re-train our nervous systems, once they’ve become sensitized to pain.

Chronic pain is obviously not a cheerful topic. Those of us who’ve struggled with it know what it’s like to come home from the doctor’s office feeling totally hopeless (or worse, insulted).

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, are the people who promise things that are too good to be true. In the six years I struggled with chronic pain before discovering Neil Pearson’s work, I tried just about everything under the sun. Over time, I came to find that the more optimistic someone was about their ability to “cure” my pain for good, the less their treatments actually helped in the end.

Neil’s approach is totally different, because while he has a very optimistic view on our ability to change our pain, his work is very much grounded in science, thanks to his training as a physiotherapist.

(By the way: if you’re new to my blog and don’t know who Neil Pearson is, or why I’m writing about him, you should probably start here!).

Recently, I’ve been looking through some of Neil’s older, open-access materials, which are now available under the “Resources” section of my blog (thank you, Neil!). Although I’ve been familiar with Neil’s work for a while now, I hadn’t yet seen these. I found them really interesting, because they provide a window into the thought process behind his unique perspective.

In particular, his article on the “Optimistic Scientific Recovery Model,” laid out a few key points that I felt like I’d sometimes struggled to articulate to people, so I thought I’d share them with you now.

Basically, Neil’s work is about helping people find a way to get past the limits of what they, or their doctors, had thought their recovery from pain might be.

His work is not meant to take the place of other medical interventions. Instead, it’s geared toward patients who have fully pursued all of their treatment options, and are still in pain. In other words, it’s for the patients whose doctors say there’s nothing else that can be done.

Neil’s point is that something else can be done. And in my own personal experience, that something else can be life-changing.

It’s all based on the concept of neuroplasticity– the idea that, with enough practice, we can begin to change the way our nervous systems function.

***

There are many different aspects to how we can begin to try to change our nervous systems.  I’ve written about pain neurophysiology education before– the idea that when we learn more about how pain works, as well as what’s happening in our bodies overall, it can begin to diminish some of the emotional effect that that fear has on us.

However, as I read through Neil’s articles, I’m reminded that there are many other different angles to exploring chronic pain/neuroplasticity. For example, in the “Optimistic Scientific Recovery Model,” he also writes about the importance of mindfulness and body awareness; learning to relax our bodies instead of remaining tense, which only increases pain. It’s not just about exercises to increase strength; it’s about learning to move mindfully, in beneficial ways (something I know I personally could work on!).

He also talks about the idea that we can distract the nervous system from focusing pain by giving it other information to process. Things like breathing exercises, meditation, and visualizations can all help accomplishing this, as can rhythmic movements such as gum chewing. (I first wrote about this a few weeks ago, and it still blows my mind!  For more about the gum-chewing study, click here).

***

I really think that Neil’s approach has the potential to help a lot of people– which is, of course, why I’m always talking about it on this blog.

Since I started working on this blog a few years ago, I have met so many great, interesting people who have been suffering from pain for a long time, and are taking matters into their own hands by doing their own research.  Open-access articles like these can be a great jumping-off point.  Some of them are geared more towards other medical professionals than to patients, but hey: information is power.  I think there are a lot of great ideas contained within these articles, which is why I’m so happy to share them with you.

For more articles like this, check out:

Key messages of understanding pain

Pain management strategies

Understanding pain basics

and many others to be found under the Resource section of my blog!

And, of course, Neil’s website is www.lifeisnow.ca. He has updated it recently with a lot of really great new resources for both chronic pain patients and medical professionals– you should absolutely check it out!

Happy researching!

Creative Writing, Inspiration

One foot in the real world…

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And one foot pointing toward my dreams…

I haven’t been able to write as much as I’d like recently, because I’ve been busy focusing on my real-world exploits: specifically, earning money for grad school.

It’s hard to find the right balance. Follow your dreams and the money will come, they say. But when your dreams involve $70,000 in student loans, and three years with no income… blazing ahead with no thought of the financial risk is a little easier said than done.

For now, I just have to remind myself to slow down, and check in with the part of myself that knows exactly what my dreams are. The part that, despite whatever else is going on in my life, never truly loses sight of what I want to do.

After all, a lesson I’m learning is that it’s not just what you do as you go about your daily life– it’s also how you go about it.

***

A mistake I’ve made in the past is to cut myself off completely from my dreams, focusing only on the pragmatics of what I need to get done. At times, it’s seemed easier. Safer.

But I’m realizing that was not a sustainable way to live. When you try to numb yourself to pain and doubt, and rush through life distracted trying not to feel anything… you also miss out on the good.

There is a certain pain that comes from trying to suppress your dreams. If you block it out for long enough, it will grow until you can’t ignore it anymore.

My goal right now is to remain focused on what I need to do in order to achieve my goal, without letting myself get so mired in the details that I lose sight of my original purpose.

***

I’ve written a lot about helping people through chronic pain, and that’s a huge part of what I want to do as a PT. But ultimately, it’s about something bigger.

Really, it’s about providing a space for people to begin, wherever they are. To create a space where there is no judgment; where I believe my patients when they tell me how bad it really is, without giving them any reason to feel ashamed, or to censor themselves.

And then, using that as our starting place, we’ll work together to find answers. I know how hopeless things can seem at times, because I’ve been there myself.

Sometimes it can take years to find the right answer– or answers. Sometimes you don’t discover everything you need at once– you discover what you need in stages.

***

I want to create a space for people to be in touch with their bodies, in whatever way works for them. To show my patients that you don’t have to wait until you are completely “better,” by some objective measure, to begin to create a sense of peace in your body.

You can actually begin the process right away– before you do anything else, before you’ve spent weeks in PT exercising.  It can actually be the very first thing you begin to work on. Sometimes, you just need to have the right person to show you the way.

I know, because I’ve been lucky enough to find those right people in my own life. And I hope, someday, to give back what I’ve learned, and be that person for others.

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I’ve come so far since the days when I was a terrified teenager with compartment syndrome and an eating disorder.  I may not have gone back to running 40 miles a week, but on the inside, I am millions of miles away from where I was.

There is so much that has gone into changing my perspective, and I hope to share it all with you.  I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

Favorites, Inspiration, Interesting Articles, Pain Science

Neil Pearson on Building Hope and Recovery

I know I may have mentioned this once or twice before on my blog (or in like every post), but in case you missed it: Neil Pearson‘s work changed my life.

It all started when I met a physical therapist who had studied with Neil. This physical therapist opened my eyes to a relatively new approach to chronic pain treatment, called pain neurophysiology education. Ultimately, I was so inspired by what I learned that I began to consider physical therapy as a career.

I have written a lot on these experiences, and I always urge people to watch the three online lectures, given by Neil himself, that my physical therapist insisted I watch when I first began treatment with him.

For me, these lectures have always been a springboard– I come away wanting to know more.

Well, I was poking around on the Internet last night, and stumbled across this amazing webinar, Building Hope: The way through pain to self-management and recovery.  In this Neil Pearson discusses some new ideas and approaches to treatment that I hadn’t heard before.

The webinar itself is hosted by the Canadian Institute for the Relief of Pain and Disability, a really cool organization that’s worth checking out in its own right. They have a lot of great resources, and I love their compassionate, actively pro-patient stance. (Obviously, every organization tries to be “pro-patient,” but CIRPD really seems to get it right).

Here are some of the key points I’m taking away from this webinar:

1) Neuroplasticity means the nervous system can be changed, and if it can be changed one way (as in the case of chronic pain/central sensitization), it’s also possible to change it back.

2) Even just visualizing movement can help the nervous system inhibit its own pain signals. Research has established that exercise is a great way to stimulate your body’s own internal pain controls, but when the movement itself creates more pain, it can be counterproductive.

That is the beauty of just visualizing movement. As far as your brain is concerned, visualizing a movement is very, very similar to actually performing it.

As Neil explains at the 17:10 mark, visualization can actually help to stimulate the nervous system to inhibit pain. Over time, after you let your nervous system “practice” moving through visualization, you may find you have less pain when you actually go to move.

I think this is seriously SO cool. I can’t even find the words. It’s things like this that really inspire me to become a PT, and help people living with pain. (My takeaway: I want more information on this right now!!!).

3) You can help the nervous system block out pain signals by distracting it and giving it other information to process. You can use touch, or movement– even if it’s very very small movement.

4) Repetitive, rhythmic movements in particular can help to calm the nervous system by giving it something else to focus on other than pain. Rhythmic movements such as walking, breathing or even rhythmic gum chewing (what?!) have been shown to release more serotonin and help control pain.

***

I just honestly can’t even tell you how inspiring I find all this stuff.

I am fortunate that, right now, I am mostly able to move without significant pain. (Due to my SI joint concerns, I do have to be cautious).

But it’s nothing like the place I used to be in. I can remember a time in my own life when even thinking about moving was terrifying. I just felt truly stuck– like my body was a jail.

I can also think of people I’ve met– through blogging, reading stories, as well as the patients I’ve met while shadowing physical therapists– who are in equally as much pain, and seem to be trapped within their bodies.

These are people who, through no fault of their own, are in too much pain to move. It’s not that they’re lazy; it’s not that they’re depressed. It’s not that they don’t want to get better.

It’s just the way the deck was stacked; the way the cookie crumbled.

They are in too much pain; their injuries are too great; their nervous systems too sensitized. Perhaps they are obese; perhaps there are multiple health conditions going on.

Whatever the reason– it is so amazing to know that there is a way to begin to help them, without requiring them to move before they are ready.

I want to help those people. I want to be that physical therapist that comes in and helps the hard cases, the ones other medical professionals may have secretly labeled impossible. I want to sit with those people, and look them in the eye, and tell them that there is a way out of this.

***

I hope that you enjoy the video, and that you will also check out more from CIRPD and Neil Pearson. The webinar was also co-sponsored by the Canadian Pain Coalition and Pain BC— two additional groups with a lot to offer (why does Canada have all the cool organizations?). I could say more about how cool they are… but that will have to wait for another post.

I hope you are as inspired as I am! As always, don’t hesitate to let me know what you think!

Central Sensitization, Chronic Pain, Favorites, Pain Science

What is central sensitization?

Central sensitization: the back story to just about every story I tell on this blog. I’ve written the phrase a million times, but always in passing, always with a link to an article somewhere else. I think it’s high time the topic gets its own post.

Practice Makes Perfect

We’ve all heard the phrase “practice makes perfect,” right? When you want to get better at something, you practice. Want to learn how to play the piano? Practice. Want to learn how to ride a bike? Practice.

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Photo: t.spang

Our nervous systems are always changing and growing, in response to the things we do. Our brains form new connections all the time.

This is how we learn how to control our fingers, and move them more quickly and in more complicated patterns, when we practice the piano. It’s how we learn to balance when riding a bike. It becomes second nature.

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Photo: Alan Levine

Unfortunately, the same thing can happen when you give your nervous system enough changes to “practice” sending pain signals.

It sounds crazy, but basically, our nervous systems get better at sending these signals. It doesn’t happen automatically– you won’t develop central sensitization if you stub your toe, or get stung by a bee.

But it can happen if the pain goes on for long enough. For example, central sensitization can happen to someone who’s hurt their back, and has been in pain for a few months. The nervous system has been sending these pain signals over and over again, and now– just as if the person had been practicing the piano for a few months– the task has gotten easier.

Central sensitization can also occur in someone who has suffered a larger degree of trauma in a shorter time period. For example, it can happen to someone who’s had surgery– even if he or she was under anesthesia at the time.

This is because central sensitization involves nerves, your spinal cord, and the parts of your brain that process pain without conscious thought. They are still learning how to process all those pain signals, even if you are under anesthesia. (Of course, I’m not saying this will happen to everyone who has surgery. It is, however, a possibility).

In a nutshell, central sensitization means the central nervous system becomes more sensitive.

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Photo: Maryl Gonzalez

There are many different ways in which central sensitization can manifest itself– the symptoms are not always the same from person to person.

The differences have to do with the person’s individual genetic makeup, what the original illness or injury was, and other health issues the person may have. (And yes– the person’s beliefs and perspective on pain can have an impact on how they respond to central sensitization, but they do not cause it. More on this later– I have very strong feelings on the subject!).

Invisible Illness

Scientific research has shown that central sensitization tends to be present in patients suffering from many of the conditions people generally refer to when they talk about “invisible illness.” These conditions include fibromyalgia, chronic regional pain syndrome, migraine, temporal-mandibular joint disorder, chronic pelvic pain, and irritable bowel syndrome.

Sometimes central sensitization is the root of the problem: for example, researchers now generally believe it to be the cause of fibromyalgia (please, please don’t believe the other things you read!).

In other cases, central sensitization is one of several contributing factors (still playing an important role, however). This is more likely to be the case in conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, which can also be influenced by food intolerances/imbalances in gut bacteria, and temporal-mandibular joint disorder, which involves the physical pathology of the joint. In these cases, central sensitization perpetuates the problem and causes additional pain and discomfort, but is not necessarily the primary cause.

The Common Link

Because central sensitization is the common cause, it makes sense that so many patients with fibromyalgia also suffer from other “invisible illnesses.” For example, studies have shown that significant numbers of fibromyalgia sufferers also have irritable bowel syndrome.

I have so much more to say on this topic– more research to tell you about, the history of how it was discovered, as well as my own personal stories.

But…. as I have to keep reminding myself, I’m writing a blog, not a textbook… so all of that will have to come in future posts!

Citations:

I think it’s important to always post links to scientifically-valid articles when I talk about scientific/medical concepts.

Here is a great plain-English overview on central sensitization, written by Christina Lasich, M.D., for HealthCentral.net.

Next, an incredible overview of the science on central sensitization from Paul Ingraham of PainScience.com, which is an amazing website.

Ingraham’s article is actually a “jargon-to-English” summary of this important review of the scientific literature on central sensitization written by Clifford Woolf, the researcher who first discovered central sensitization back in 1983.

Finally, check out this equally important article from Muhammad Yunus, who has done vital work exploring the common links between central sensitization and the invisible illnesses (he calls them central sensitivity syndromes in this article).

I realize that the average reader might not be able to understand all of the scientific terms in these articles (I know I struggle), but I want you to know that legitimate and credible information is out there, and this is what it looks like.

A Note to My Readers:

I am always happy to answer any questions that you might have.  I think that all of this information is so important for us to be aware of as chronic pain sufferers!  It can really be life-changing, once you start to truly understand the roots of your condition.

I am always so curious to know what you think! Did you already know that central sensitization is believed to be the cause of fibromyalgia?  Does the common link between fibro and other invisible illnesses make sense to you? Let me know!