Is My Chronic Pain All In My Head?
Is the chronic pain you’re experiencing really ‘all in your head’? This is a common question for many people who experience chronic pain so let’s explore this further in today’s post!
What is chronic pain?
To begin, let’s first define chronic pain so that we’re all on the same page.
Chronic pain is pain that has lasted for more than 3-6 months (the time frame is varied depending on your source, usually it’s closer to the 6 month mark).
This pain could have started after some type of injury or it could have an unknown cause or origin.
Pain is our body’s way of telling us we need to pay attention to something so it isn’t something that should be ignored. In this post, I’m talking to the people who have been checked by a medical doctor to ensure nothing serious is going on that would require medical attention.
The Pain Signal
In order to answer the question of this post, “is my chronic pain all in my head,” we need to look at how the pain signal works.
Basically, the pain signal is created by our nerves and it’s purpose is to send a message to the brain when something is wrong. Once the brain receives this signal, it then creates the pain response.
This is very useful because the pain signal is an important way that our body communicates with us and our mind.
This signal is here to protect us from serious harm.
For example, if you accidentally touch a really hot stove, the pain you’d experience signals you to move your hand before you get a serious burn.
Another example is say you had appendicitis. The signal from your body would be the stomach pain you experience. If you didn’t have pain, you wouldn’t know there was a problem, which could lead to the appendix bursting… which could then lead to a variety of other serious issues.
So pain is not always a bad thing.
What can sometimes happen is the brain may continually send pain signals when there’s no longer a “threat” to the body. This type of signaling is something that can happen with chronic pain. The brain gets so used to sending the pain signal that it decides that it’ll just keep sending it.
And with this what can happen is that the more often the brain sends a pain signal, the better and more efficient it gets at sending it.
We all experience pain differently.
Humans are complex beings and we all experience pain differently. Our past experiences with pain can have an impact on how we currently feel pain and on how our brain deals with pain.
The example I like to use is looking at people who have a herniated disc in their lower back. Sounds scary right? You might have back pain and your MRI shows that you have a mild herniated disc and you think, oh man that’s it, I’ll have back pain for life. But that’s not necessarily true. There are plenty of instances where people without back pain have an MRI and the MRI shows that they have herniated discs in their back. Some of these people state that they have NEVER had back pain.
So how can you have two people with the same MRI and one has severe back pain and the other has no pain at all? It’s because we all perceive pain differently and we are all unique in how our bodies react to an “injury”.
(This is just an example and not to downplay the pain and issues a serious herniated disc can cause. But it is something I have frequently seen in my clinical experience.)
Also side note, herniated discs can heal. Just wanted to let you know because I think many people assume that they can’t.
So....is chronic pain all in my head?
Well, all pain comes from the brain so technically when anyone experiences pain, it’s coming from their ‘head’.
I really don’t like this phrase because I think it typically leads to negative emotions. Just because someone cannot visibly see something wrong with you doesn’t mean that the pain isn’t there.
In my opinion, chronic pain comes from a combination of something going on physically (maybe muscle tightness or muscle imbalances etc) as well as from the brain continuously sending a pain signal because it’s what it’s used to.
Everyone is different so the percentage of pain coming from the pain signal being continually sent is probably varied but I think if we don’t address this aspect of pain that it limits the healing process.
Another things to consider is how your emotions have an impact on your pain.
The pain signal can also interact with the emotional areas of your brain.
Many people report that their pain is worse when they’re feeling stressed.
This would mean that nothing changed physically and they didn’t do anything physical (like go for a long walk) that made their pain worse. They experienced an emotion/state of mind that impacted their pain level.
This is why stress management is so important. Stress management will look different for everyone so it’s important to find what helps you. Does sitting for a meditation help? Does spending time out in nature help? Does taking a long relaxing bath help? Explore what works best for you.
Here’s an example of how stress can impact the physical body. Imagine how for you, or maybe someone you know, experiences tight upper traps (the muscles on top of the shoulders) when they get stressed out. Nothing happened to the neck or shoulders, but stress caused them to tighten their muscles which can lead to pain.
This just shows you how connected we are throughout our entire being; mind, body, emotions, energy, it’s pretty amazing!
We often think about the negatives in terms of things like the mind body connection (as in the example I just shared), but this connection can be used for positives and for healing as well! This is what makes these connections so spectacular.
When we are calm, relaxing type brain waves are experienced.
When we are stressed, a certain type of brain wave occurs which when continued for a prolonged period can lead to feelings of anxiety.
If we can retrain our brain to be calm when we experience pain, we can start to break up this cycle of constantly sending pain signals.
When you experience pain (that you have experienced before and know what it is) instead of getting stressed or angry or whatever negative emotion you normally experience, try to take a different approach. Calmly accept the pain and notice it (we’re not trying to ignore it). Maybe look at how you are feeling emotionally or what’s currently happening in your day to see if you start to notice any patterns.
Now, I know this sounds like it’s too easy and will never work. And I’ll be honest, it’s probably going to take a lot of practice and I’m not saying it’s the only approach you should take, but you may be surprised to see the effect it can have over time.
When your pain comes on and you get upset or angry, that just triggers the brain to keep sending that pain signal. If you try to approach it with a calmer mindset, your brain will be confused thinking, “Wait, normally I’m all stressed and then I create more pain, what is this?” Overtime it will help “break-up” this pattern that the brain has established.
There are many other things we can do to retrain the brain but this is something easy you can try to take into your daily life.
With this post, I’m not trying to downplay anyone’s pain at all. If you experience chronic pain, I feel for you and understand how challenging it can be; I’m just trying to help educate you on the basics of how the brain works to help you see things a little bit differently.
Sometimes looking at things from a different perspective can make such an amazing difference.