PAIN AND THE BRAIN – HOW WE CAN TRAIN OURSELVES TO CONTROL PAIN!
“Whatever I do, I must not bend over quickly – it will give me back pain!”
Do you think like that?
You should NOT allow yourself to do so! …..It is one thing to bend as we might show you, particularly if you have had repeated back pain but quite another to be anxious that you will hurt your back every time you do bend over. If you DO worry in that way, it is likely to be because the PAIN is in the BRAIN!!
But what does that mean?
Think for a minute about TASTE….. it is a similar sensation to pain – you think you taste with your tongue but it is much more complicated than that!
When mice taste something bitter their mouth actually puckers, much like our lips do. Research found recently that they could make the lips of mice pucker in that way by simply stimulating a part of the brain involved in the perception of bitterness, without putting their lips anywhere near something bitter.
They were also able to prevent the lips from puckering up by activating the ‘sweet’ part of the brain of the mouse when they were exposed to something bitter.
It is possible that in a similar way, if we stimulate our brain by thinking something is going to be painful, we actually do feel pain just by imagining that something we are about to do is GOING to make us feel pain. However, in the same way that stimulating the ‘sweet’ part of the brain stops the mice reacting to the bitter taste, we can train ourselves to bring other sensory input into action that will stop us from perceiving pain because we THINK we should.
Back to taste – why is taste like pain perception?
The sensory information that contributes to a sense of taste does not just come from the tongue. The nose delivers a lot of information about what we are eating. The appearance of food matters as well – not just in making us want to take a bite, but in determining how that bite actually tastes.
Taste is therefore a great example of what is an integration of input from lots of different sensory inputs for example sight, hearing and touch. What we see affects what we hear, what we hear affects what we taste, and what we touch affects what we see.
Think about the smell and sound of steak cooking – if the last time we ate a steak was when we were on the beach with the sun shining and surrounded by friends – the sound of the sizzling steak can conjour up those feelings again and add to the flavour of the next steak.
Think too about the effect of someone telling us that a food that we are enjoying may be bad … it starts to taste less tasty than it did – we can convince ourselves that they are right – it doesn’t taste right – even though it did before we were told that. Perceptions playing a big part again in what we taste.
This reminds me of an experiment that was done using so called ‘wine experts’ when red colouring was added to white wine and those experts found it difficult to tell the difference between red and white – so much for their expertise! These people rely on the label, the expectation of the taste, the colour of the wine – all of whom provide those different sensory inputs I described above and altered perception of what we are tasting.
Pain is the same….. we can CHANGE the perception of pain so we feel LESS by tapping into those other sensory inputs, which could be sight, sound, touch, thought, emotion or memory.
If we taste something for example a prawn and we believe that we were sick in the past after eating a prawn, we might retain an aversion to prawns if we believe that it was the prawn that made us sick. This is like the Pavlov’s Dog association – it is a perception that gives an immediate sensory reaction. It is possible to change this view however, by graded exposure – you smell the prawn; you eat a bit; then a whole one, each time waiting for a response – if nothing happens then you can gradually find you are perfectly able to eat prawns – it was just that you were sick for another reason!
In the same way, it is possible that you can form associations between pain and movement as well. Like the first sentence – if you believe you bent over and THAT caused your back pain then you may believe that every time you bend over from then on, you will experience back pain …. which is just NOT true…. that pain your felt was from many factors and the bending was just the last straw.
BUT if you receive treatment and we explain to you why you have the pain and we treat you and also look at how you work, play sport, do day to day activities and then advise exercises and different ways of doing things so you won’t necessarily get pain next time, by graded exposure, you gradually develop coping skills that change your view of what will happen to you next time you do what you did that you THINK caused your pain. You start to feel confident that you can bend without pain … just like eating those prawns!
Think again about taste – those brussel sprouts you ate as a child and hated – experiments have shown that if you add sugar to brussel sprouts for a while, children aquire a taste for them.
If you have a back pain and you visit a Chiropractor and we suggest exercise – you do the exercises while we treat you and the problem goes away. If you associate the pain going away with the exercise routine and you continue to do the exercise routine, your brain can then develop the idea that ‘Everything will be OK if I keep doing those exercises’ and that can help reduce anxiety about the pain coming back in a acquired way just like the sugar on the sprouts. Our brains will cover something unpleasant with good thoughts. Maybe just the THOUGHT of the benefit you are going to get from doing the exercises is as beneficial as doing them?!!
Why were we given taste?
Our sense of taste evolved to motivate healthy eating behaviours. When our ancestors roamed the African savannah, foods with salt, sugar and fat were usually healthy to eat. So we perceive foods with these qualities as being delicious, and we want to eat them to this day.
Fast food manufacturers know a lot about how taste affects food consumption, so they pump salt, sugar and fat into almost everything. So we eat too much.
Feeling pain is essential – but like food – in moderation and appropriately.
In a similar way, pain has an evolutionary purpose. Pain evolved to motivate behaviours that protect against perceived threats to the physical integrity of the body. We understand that we need to limit the amount of fatty and sugary foods we consume to a reasonable level for our bodies to be able to cope as excess is NOT good for us and similarly we need to understand that we must not OVER REACT to pain. It is another example of a little of something being good for us and essential – as pain IS … but if we allow our perceptions to become distorted – and start to really believe something like ‘Every time we bend over we are going to get back pain’ then again it is not in our best interests.
We must remember that perception isn’t reality, and that the best way to protect the body depends on environmental and social context. The variables that can modify pain are within our brains and we can control them and thus we can modify pain by using perceptions in a good way and avoiding anxiety.