Is the chronic pain you are experiencing all in your head?
This is a common question for many people who experience chronic pain so let’s explore it a little bit in today’s post.
To begin, let’s first define chronic pain so we’re all on the same page.
Chronic pain is pain that has lasted for more than 3-6 months (time frame is varied depending on source, usually it’s closer to the 6 month mark).
This pain could have started after some type of injury or surgery 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.
To answer the original question, "Is chronic pain all in my head," we need to look at how the pain signal works.
Basically, this signal is created by our nerves sending a message to the brain that something is wrong and our brain then creates the pain response.
This is very useful because the pain signal is the way our body communicates with us.
For example, when we accidentally touch a really hot stove the pain we experience signals us to move our hand before we get a serious burn.
Another example is say you had appendicitis. The signal from your body would be the stomach pain you experience. If we didn’t have pain we wouldn’t know there was a problem which could lead to the appendix bursting which can cause a variety of other serious issues.
So pain is not a bad thing.
What can sometimes happen is the brain may continually send pain signals when there is no longer a “threat” to the body and this is something that can happen with chronic pain. The brain gets used to sending the pain signal that it is like “I’ll just keep sending it.” What can happen is the more often it sends the 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 low back. Sounds scary right? You might have back pain and your MRI says 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 have herniated discs when their back is looked at on a MRI and 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 is because we all perceive pain differently and we are all unique in how our body reacts 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 think the that they can’t.
So is chronic pain all in your head?
Well, all pain comes from the brain so technically when anyone experiences pain it is coming from their head.
I really do not like this phrase because I think it typically leads to negative emotions. Just because someone cannot visibly see something wrong with you does not 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 the brain keeps on sending the pain signal because it is what it’s used to. Everyone is different so the percentage of pain coming from this signal being continually sent is probably varied but I think if we don’t address this aspect of pain it is limiting 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 are stressed.
A common example is getting tight upper traps (a tight neck area) when stressed. Nothing happened to your neck but your stress caused you to tighten your muscles which can lead to pain.
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.
So 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 are not trying to ignore it). Maybe look at how you are feeling emotionally or what is currently happening in your day to see if you start to notice any patterns.
Now, I know this sounds like that is too easy and will never work. And I’ll be honest, it is probably going to take a lot of practice and I am not saying it is 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 and 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 am 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 am not trying to downplay anyone’s pain at all. If you experience chronic pain I really do feel for you. I am just trying to help educate you on the basics of how the brain works and maybe help you see things little bit differently. Sometimes looking at things from a different perspective can make such an amazing difference.
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