Learn about the brain's role in chronic pain, the causes and symptoms of neuroplastic pain, and how to retrain the brain to resolve symptoms.
Pain Is a Danger Signal
When talking about the brain's role in chronic pain, this does not equate to the belief that a person with chronic pain is making up their pain experience. For example, I had chronic pain for four years in my back, neck, and hips, and although I had MRI results and doctors instructing me to have back surgery and take painkillers, the mind-body approach was the one treatment that gave me long-lasting, 100% pain relief. My pain was genuine and not "just in my head." However, taking the psychological approach to fix my pain was the best treatment I ever had.
The fact is, all pain is created in the brain. Pain is a danger signal. A threatening signal from your peripheral nervous system alerts your brain that your well-being may be in danger. Based on how the brain perceives this danger signal, it will determine if your well-being is threatened, like burning your hand on a hot stove, and will continue to perpetuate pain until damage to the area is healed.
A non-threatening danger signal would be a scenario like: a person honking their car horn nearby, then realizing it's just your friendly neighbor honking excitedly to get your attention and say hello. In this case, your brain may have initially identified the sensation as dangerous. But after getting more information, you realized you were safe and downregulated your nervous system with a sigh of relief, releasing the tension from your muscles.
Determining Safe Versus Unsafe Signals
The brain's job is to determine signals as safe or harmful. However, when the pain becomes chronic, the brain's position in identifying threats becomes more complicated. When fear, negative thinking, and perceived suffering are involved in the threat versus non-threat determination, the brain's conclusion becomes cloudy and confused. As a biopsychosocial disorder, the onset and experience of chronic pain are influenced by scenarios, belief systems, and personality traits.
Factors like depression, anxiety, unresolved childhood trauma, type A personality, and more affect a person's likelihood to cope with or dwell on symptoms. Unfortunately, when the brain has extended exposure to emotional pain, negative thinking, and fear-avoidance behaviors, the brain will become more sensitive, hyper-vigilant, and hard-wired to predict pain.
When the brain becomes overly sensitive to sensations, neutral sensations become dangerous, pain perception is heightened, the nervous system goes into survival mode, and neuroplastic pain is formed. Unfortunately, more pain and suffering occur because the brain relies on the emotional responses to the sensations, which are inherently determined by the person's belief systems, automatic behavioral patterns, and expectations around pain.
Emotions, Behaviors, and Pain
According to an article published in the National Library of Medicine, the brain's pain center works as a team with the emotional center (the amygdala) and memory center (the hippocampus), to determine pain perception and intensity. Once the brain calculates the emotional response, past experience, and belief systems in regards to a sensation, it will determine the pain intensity and how threatening the sensation may be to our well-being.
In the case of emotions and pain, here's how the two play on each other. Suppose a person is susceptible to or experiences depression, an overload of daily negative thinking, or anxiety. In that case, they are prone to dwell on negative experiences more so than someone who is not. The nervous system is most likely dysregulated, stuck in survival mode, and anxious about any risk to the mind and body's well-being. The brain eventually becomes sensitive to all sensations when a person experiences an overload of unresolved, negative emotions and thinking. And when an excess of stress, fear, anxiety, and lack of resolution occurs, symptoms become more substantial and longer-lasting. For some, a dysregulated nervous system will cause symptoms like IBS, back pain, and migraines. This negative feedback loop can be depression, anxiety, or insomnia for others.
The brain's memory center lies right beside the pain centers as well. The brain uses past experiences, family belief systems, and more to determine how big or small a danger signal may be. For example, suppose a person has a family member with chronic back pain and becomes debilitated by it. In that case, they are likely to perceive back pain as more inhibiting than that of a person influenced by a family member who can proactively manage emotions, mental well-being, and physical flare-ups.
On the other hand, if a person with chronic pain consistently responds to the sensations as overwhelming and fearful, the brain will learn to be hyper-vigilant towards any movement, feeling, or possible trigger that may cause increased pain. Even if the action does not cause pain, the anticipation of pain can trick the brain into identifying the neutral signal as dangerous and causing pain. For \ example, in Alan Gordon's book "The Way Out," he speaks about a construction worker who stepped on a nail that went straight through his boot. The worker cried and screamed from the immense pain he felt in his foot, but when he got to the hospital and they cut off his boot, they found that the nail went through the space of his toes, and he was uninjured. The perception and expectation cause real, excruciating pain.
Using the Brain to Reverse Chronic Pain
As mentioned earlier, pain is a danger signal. Our belief systems, attitude, and behaviors around pain predict our ability to suffer, recover, or experience pain. By changing your beliefs and behaviors around pain, you can regain safety and control over your pain experience. Furthermore, by teaching the brain to become unbothered and less hyper-vigilant towards neutral danger signals and soothing the nervous system, you can decrease pain and reverse neuroplastic pain for good.
Ways you can teach your brain to unlearn pain are:
challenging fear-avoidance behaviors
reclaiming safety in your mind by challenging negative thinking
self-love meditation for patience in your healing journey
breath work to down-regulate the nervous system
For those ready to move forward in their healing journey and have come to a level of acceptance of past trauma and repressed emotions, the methods above are offered through pain coaching at Body Amor Wellness. And for those needing help addressing past childhood adversities before beginning the mind-body approach, a psychotherapist specializing in neuroplastic pain is highly recommended. And for those that prefer to work on their own, the best way to begin resolving your pain problem would be to inform yourself about TMS, mind-body syndrome, and neuroplastic pain. You can learn more about neuroscience and the mind-body method through
Is My Pain Neuroplastic?
So how do you know if your pain is neuroplastic? First, suppose your pain levels increase with anxiety or stress levels, decrease when you are distracted or happy, mirror on the opposite side, or change from one area of the body to another. In that case, chances are that your pain is neuroplastic. If you have a history of unresolved trauma, repressed emotions, type A or legalist personality, OCD, anxiety, or depression, your pain is likely neuroplastic or at least partially. And if the onset of your pain has no explanation, happened during a stressful period in your life, after a series of minor unresolved stressors, and even persisted long after an injury has been suggested to be healed, your pain Ould be neuroplastic. Bu two, be sure to speak with your physician and an expert on tension myositis syndrome (TMS) or neuroplastic pain.
What To Do Next
To learn more about chronic pain coaching and to see if the mind-body approach is a good fit for you and your healing journey, click here to schedule a free 45-minute consultation with me, coach Amari Dior.