Your Brain is Playing Tricks on You (Part 2): Pain

Ok, before we dive into this post, I wanted to say I am SO sorry for taking so long to get this “Part 2” out there. I was at the American Physical Therapy Association’s Combined Sections Meeting in Anaheim, CA for a week, got home and put a contract down on a new house (YAY!!), and things have just been crazy crazy! So, please accept my apology, and I hope you enjoy this post! Stay tuned for some CSM-y posts in the future!  Thanks for reading!! ~ Jessica 

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“Perhaps it’s time to recognize that the division between mind and body may be no more than a pedagogic device for instructing medical students– and not a useful construct for understanding human health, disease and behavior.”  V.S. Ramachadran, Phantoms in the Brain

Last post, we discussed how the brain can be tricked by both optical illusions and magic tricks. If you haven’t read it yet, you really need to…because it basically sets the stage for our post this week.

So, how does pain play into all of this? 

Well, pain is an output of the brain, much like vision. Meaning, your brain is receiving sensory information from your body (including your mechanosensation, vision, proprioception, hearing, vestibular/balance input, etc), integrating it with your prior knowledge, experiences, emotions and beliefs, and then creating an output. (ie. “This hurts, you better do something about it!” Or, “You just stubbed your toe you baby…you’ll be just fine!” Or, “Oh my gosh! Your back is never going to get better! It’s probably something super serious and dangerous!”).  Just like your brain can sometimes mess with you in relation to your visual input, the same thing can happen with pain. Let’s look at a few examples.

The Phantom Limb

This example ends up being one that is discussed frequently…in fact, much of the current research on pain was inspired by people experiencing phantom limb pain. If you haven’t heard of phantom limb pain before, basically, this is when a person will feel pain in a limb that has been amputated. Crazy, right? We know that clearly the limb itself if not a source of pain, but rather, the brain is still perceiving threat from the area. This can happen for several reasons. One of the main reasons this can occur is that, although the limb itself is gone, the brain will often still have a representation of that limb.

Homunculus

Now, this representation is changeable over time, however, smudging can occur leading to referred sensations from one area to another. This can trick the body into thinking there is a problem with the non-existent hand. Now, normally, you could look down, see your hand, feel it, and that would then confirm for your brain that the hand it actually fine…however, in cases of phantom limb pain, the limb is not there, so reducing the treat becomes much more tricky. The cool thing is, amazing scientists have developed ways to retrain this using things like mirror therapy (Check out this video from David Butler!) and other innovative treatment approaches. So, obviously, I am wayyyy simplifying this phantom limb phenomenon for this blog, and there are other known contributors to phantom limb pain as well, so I really do recommend you read more. Check out this article from Body in Mind which goes into much more detail.

When Perceived Threat and Harm Level Don’t Quite Match

Have you ever had a little splinter that just hurt so much? That you couldn’t get out of your head until is was gone? That’s a little bit of harm…but somehow the brain is perceiving a big problem. Or, have you ever heard a story about a person walking into the ER talking normally with a knife sticking out of their arm? That’s a lot of harm…but somehow the brain is able to perceive a small threat (which is super helpful in that moment so that the person can get to the ER!).

My favorite example of this is Lorimer Moseley’s story of a snake bite in the brush in Australia. Check it out. He’s hilarious and awesome.

Basically, he tells the story of being bitten by a poisonous snake while walking through thick brush in Australia. When the bite occurs, he doesn’t even realize it because his brain at that moment received the bite information and processed it, with the conclusion of “It’s just a stick. There are tons of sticks around here, nothing to worry about.” He doesn’t realize it’s a snake bite until he passes out a while later. Fast forward to a later time, walking through the brush again, feels the same poke and immediately falls down in excruciating pain…only to realize, it was just a stick. Fascinating right? In that second scenario, his brain had the memory of the first snake bite and the trauma from that, thus, the poke felt much more dangerous and threatening than the first time, and he felt a much greater amount of pain.

So, what does this mean for you? 

Basically, just like our brain can be fooled through visual illusions and magicians, we can also be fooled by pain. This is not meant to imply that pain is in your head…but rather, pain can play tricks on you. And what you feel is a problem in your tissues may not actually be a problem there…but rather could be simply the interpretation of your brain based on the information it is receiving in the moment. Pain, just like vision and hearing, is complex. And treating it thus requires a complex and integrative approach.

Wanna learn more? Check out these awesome articles/videos:

Have a wonderful Monday!

~Jessica

 

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2 responses to “Your Brain is Playing Tricks on You (Part 2): Pain

  1. Neuroplasticity- grooves, or neural pathways that get built, and get stuck. Doesn’t seem fair! Luckily, there are some wonderful clinicians who are caring and innovative, helping us to figure out ways to retrain the brain. It’s tough, but I have heard, doable. The Mayo Clinic does an immersion clinic where it teaches patients to outsmart the pain. I don’t think I could do 6 weeks away from family, but you have given me great ideas for other ways to work on tricking my brain to forget the pain. Thanks Jessica!

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