Pain in the Brain Pain Neuroscience

Pain in the Brain: Reimagining How We Think About Pain

By: Kimberly Sumner, Partner, Physical Therapist and Clinic Director

Kimberly Sumner 2020While not pleasant, pain is necessary to heal and protect the body, and how we interpret pain makes a difference in our quality of life and our ability to recover from injury.

When we better understand our pain and interpret it in a more productive way, we re-train our brain to cope with it better.

Evidence shows, when people better understand the biological and physiological processes involved in their pain experience, they change their beliefs regarding pain. In doing this, the brain makes new connections to interpret the pain as less fearful and intense, and encourages a faster, more successful recovery.

Pain In the Brain, Explained

Your brain and your spinal cord make up your central nervous system, a complex and amazing command center that functions 24/7 to keep your body safe and healthy. The central nervous system processes your experience and tells you whether to perceive pain or danger.

Central Nervous System WikimediaThe spinal cord has many nerve roots that branch out throughout the rest of your body and form the peripheral nervous system. The central and peripheral nervous systems are connected as one continuous group of tissues that act as busy highways. There is constant communication between the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. When a communication signal reaches the brain, the brain determines how much and what type of neurotransmitters to send back to communicate the appropriate reaction, either transmitting pain signals or blocking the pain.

For example: when you stub your toe, your peripheral nerves send messages up to the spinal cord and on to your brain. Your brain interprets the pain and communicates back specific neurotransmitters to tell you whether you’re facing a threat or if you will be OK. In a normal response the brain would recognize that the pain will only last for little while and that you can move on with your day.

Trauma Makes It Harder to Heal from Pain

Many factors influence the way our brain interprets pain and the activities that may cause pain. One in four people develop a heightened central nervous system following pain experiences. This means your brain is stuck in danger mode, resulting in an increased perception of pain and a longer recovery period.

Factors can include:

  • Injury occurring in a traumatic way
  • Stress in other areas of life
  • Unclear diagnosis or scary diagnosis
  • Receiving differing opinions from medical providers
  • Lack of sleep

These factors create pain memories that inform how your brain interprets the next pain experience.

Imagine a traumatic pain experience at work, such as:

  • A police officer strains a muscle restraining an aggressive individual
  • A firefighter injures her shoulder rescuing victims from a large fire
  • A warehouse worker is hit by a forklift and fractures an arm

These experiences can impact how long an individual experiences pain, even after their tissues heal. Their brains want to protect them and prevent them from additional injury, so it manufactures fear around returning to the same activities.

As healthcare professionals, we recognize the factors that may lead to a tougher recovery and work with injured individuals to retrain the brain and move out of danger mode.

Understanding The Brain/Body Connection Helps You Recover

Good news in all this pain talk: your brain is incredible! Your brain has a quality called neuroplasticity which means it is constantly changing and adapting, creating different neuropathic pathways, even if you don’t realize it. In our clinics we teach people about pain to help them change their brain chemistry and recover from injury.

Learning the neurobiology and neurophysiology of how your brain interprets pain can immediately calm your brain down and re-wire the neuropathways it utilizes to “check in” on injured body parts.

This knowledge can help you understand why you feel pain and create new memories for the brain to use when interpreting the danger or threat of a pain experience. Your brain can learn to recognize that pain does not necessarily mean danger and can help you on the road to recovery.

Our Commitment to Pain Education

We are committed to acting as a catalyst of change in the marketplace and advancing the knowledge of the profession, all while educating our patients. Beyond numerous pain neuroscience trainings for our staff, we have partnered with Adriaan Louw, PT, PhD, Director of Pain Science at Evidence in Motion to participate in, design and conduct research to advance the body of literature in this space.

Our partnership involves the design of a workers’ compensation study to educate industry leaders about the importance of treatment and education on pain in the workers’ comp space.

“In all my years of pain neuroscience study, I’ve never done research specially in workers’ compensation,” Louw shared. “Partnering with Kimberly Sumner and the rest of the ARC Physical Therapy+ team brings work comp expertise to our research and will serve as a tool for industry leaders across the profession.”

Learn More About Pain Neuroscience

Over the years we have shared our commitment to, and knowledge on, pain neuroscience. Check out these blog posts for additional reading:

Contact Us to Learn More

Contact us at 844-755-4272 or to learn more about the power of pain neuroscience education.

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