How I developed central sensitization, Part 4

I began to wonder if something about the compartment syndrome and the leg surgery could have changed something in my chemical makeup, weakening my body and depleting its healing response.

After all, pain was supposed to be my body’s way of telling me that I was injured.  Something was broken; something was wrong.

Time and time again, I’d go to see a doctor, and they wouldn’t be able to find anything wrong.  My elbow was fine; my wrists were fine.  One of my shoulder muscles had a knot the size of a pea, but according to the pain specialist I saw, it  “shouldn’t be causing this much pain.”

It was honestly so, so frustrating.  I really started to think there was something wrong with me that doctors just couldn’t find.  Something wrong in my tissues; maybe some kind of problem with inflammation.

***

My primary care doctor back home started to think there was something wrong with me psychologically; that maybe this was depression, or anxiety.

But her suggestions just didn’t resonate with me.  I’d been depressed before.  I knew what it felt like, and this wasn’t it.  As much physical pain as I was in, I was still in so much less pain, emotionally, than I’d been in as a teenager.

After all, I’d been through a time when it felt like daggers just to breathe; when I was so exhausted from trying to make it through the day that the walk from my parents’ driveway into the house seemed so far I might not make it, and I had to rest in my car.

I’d been through all that, and it hadn’t resulted in physical pain like this.  In fact, my body had been at its peak, running faster and faster.

Now I’d come out of all of that– the clouds had finally lifted, and for the first time, I felt like knew what I wanted out of life.  I was enjoying my classes, and the fact that I was meeting so many like-minded people.  I felt like we were all going to graduate and change the world together.  Finally knew what it felt like to be happy, when before it had been just a word.

How could depression be causing this debilitating pain now, when it never had before?   Apart from the pain itself, I was actually happy with my life now.  It didn’t make any sense.

To be continued in Part 5.

To start from the beginning of this series:

 

Christopher deCharms: A look inside the brain in real time

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

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

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

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

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

deCharms explains,

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

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

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

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

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

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

As deCharms explains in this additional interview:

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

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

***

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

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

Hope you’ll check it out!

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!

 

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.

***

Of course– it’s equally important to keep working on your pain from the bottom up– from your body to the brain.   

If you have chronic pain, or have suffered from some type of injury, your muscles are probably tightened into protective spasms.  This, in turn, will make them weak, if it goes on for long enough.

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

***

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.

 

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!