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Your Brain on Pain

Did you know that your brain interprets everything going on in your body 30 times a second throughout your lifetime? The intricate inner workings of the brain can help us perceive, react, memorize, and move based on messages from the outside world. This is why we want to discuss your brain on pain.

Although pain is a direct result of some physical cause — whether that be linked to tissue injuries, functional impairment, or inflammation — the intricate system of how this stimulus is processed in our brain has led to the belief that our brain plays a huge role in how we feel pain, and for how long.

The question is… is pain all in our minds?

Throughout this article, we will uncover how the brain interprets pain. We will discuss the implications of persistent pain. And also the role of neuroplastic exercises to help reduce symptoms of persistent or chronic pain. 

Follow along to learn more!

How the Brain Interprets Pain

To better understand the role of pain processing, let’s begin with a common example we have all experienced.

Imagine you’re running around your house tidying up when suddenly *thud* you stub your toe on the corner of the dining room table. At this exact moment when your toe makes contact with the table, your pain receptors (also known as nociceptors) become activated to send a nerve impulse towards the spinal cord, up along the brainstem, and into the brain. 

When the pain signal arrives in the brain, it’s redirected out to the different areas of the brain that help us interpret and understand the pain. For example, if you’ve ever cried or experienced a strong emotional reaction to pain, this is because some of the processing is happening in the limbic system — the emotional part of the brain.

The Role of Neuroplasticity

Through experience, our brains are capable of changing effortlessly and automatically in a process known as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the process of training or rewiring our brains every time we learn a new skill. We repeat it, practice it, improve it, and master it. Over time, this forms pathways in the brain which helps improve the functioning of the brain.

The same process also applies to how we perceive pain from injuries, disease, traumatic experiences, and even stress.

Persistent Pain and the Brain

Our brain does many wonderful things to protect us from harm and keep us alive! Things like sensing and responding to pain!

When you have acute pain, such as the example of stubbing your toe, the brain sets off an alarm that signifies danger and responds to any damage in the body. The brain responds by trying to reduce the pain. Perhaps the intensity of that initial reaction quickly diminishes to something duller.

But what happens if the signal doesn’t stop?

If the brain is constantly sending pain signals, this repetition forms a pathway and can actually change the anatomy of the brain. If we cannot turn off this signaling loop, neuroplasticity works against us by creating persistent pain.

Our Bodies Change in Response to Persistent Pain

Persistent pain is something that is hard to avoid thinking about. When we experience chronic discomfort day in and day out, it becomes the center of our attention. The more stressed or concerned we become about it, the more it dominates our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

Over time, persistent pain can take a toll on our mood, emotions, reactions, and relationships. As a result, pain can create feelings of isolation, anxiety, helplessness, and disconnection from the outside world.

So what can we do about it?

Neuroplasticity to the Rescue

Remember how neuroplasticity helped the brain learn to recognize and respond to pain?

Well, it just so happens that it can also be used to reverse the process and change the brain pathways back to normal — turning that pain signal off.

There are a range of neuroplastic exercises involving the repetition of new patterns of thoughts and behaviours that help “weaken” the pain pathway. Over time, the learning and practicing of new skills can change our brain’s relationship with pain altogether.

Here are 3 exercises that you can practice to retrain your brain:

1.    Improve your stress management skills

Stress can significantly worsen symptoms of chronic pain. Learning techniques to help you manage your stress response and reduce focus on pain can help you gain control over your physical symptoms.

Examples of effective stress management techniques include journaling, connecting with others, making time for self-care, and maintaining a healthy life balance of work, relationships, and extracurricular hobbies or activities.

2.    Move your body

Exercise, movement, and physical activity are excellent ways to reduce pain sensitivity. Research has found that engaging in regular physical activity helps release endorphins. These are our body’s natural opiates, and lowers inflammation to help reduce pain.

3.    Try something new

Performing a new activity or practicing a new skill such as photography, climbing, or cooking can engage the activity of new, non-painful neural connections in the brain.

When we try something new, the parts of our brains linked to learning and memory become active. As a result of performing a new skill, no matter how good or bad we do it, it triggers the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurochemical involved in mood, motivation, and pleasure.

Emotions and Pain

According to the Arthritis Foundation, the overlap between pain and emotions plays a significant role in our experience with pain. For example, people who are more prone to expressing negative emotions tend to make their chronic pain symptoms even worse.

Fortunately, the opposite is true as well!

Positive emotions are shown to help minimize the experience of pain by breaking the pattern of “pain rumination”. Thus triggering the release of feel-good endorphins. With practice, a positive mindset can help make your symptoms of chronic pain considerably more tolerable.

The Bottom Line of Your Brain on Pain

When it comes to persistent pain, improving your function and quality of life requires learning and practice to retrain your mind and body on how to interpret and respond to pain.

If you are experiencing persistent pain, let us help you harness the power of your brain to provide moments of freedom from emotional and physical pain.

If you’re interested in learning more, get started today by booking a free consultation here. We look forward to hearing from you.

Written by Julie Stevenson BSW, MSW, RSW

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