Pain and Your Brain
Listen, if you just accept it as a fait accompli, it will continue As Is. So stop whining and start learning.
If you want it to change. Change it.
And, no, this is not a positive thinking lesson. Barf.
Pain is not a humdinger that happens to you. It happens from you.
Pain is not the phenomenon you think it is… or to put it another way: Yes, pain IS very much what you think it is.
So, here are your lessons. Four basic things you’ll ever want to know about pain…and how to be ahead of it. Pain is a tool, my friends. Use it.
You have a body. You have the Right To Know.
What is Pain? The Quickest Lesson in Nerve Cells and Pain…EVER…
Your skin, muscles, bones and guts have all kinds of nerve cells. Some nerve cells have nerve-endings specialized to respond only if there are stimuli strong enough to damage the tissue.
Wow! That’s an important sentence. (And, yes, that’s code for There-May-Be-a-Quiz-Later!)
aaaaaaaand…if you don’t know what each word in that sentence means, look it up. Or…wait…okay, I’ll tell you. (If you already know the meaning of each word, skip this little vocabulary digression while I quickly cover three terms.)
1. Skin, muscles, bones and guts = your body parts.
2. Nerve cells = cells that are in your body parts and communicate to your brain; they kind of look like webs; a bunch of them together is called ‘a nerve’.
3. Stimuli = actions upon your nerve cells that cause them to take notice.
(You have many different types of nerve cells. Only some of them have the distinct job of reporting tissue damage to your brain.)
The little nerve cells that are there to identify danger do not report insignificant information. They exist for one purpose: To tell your brain your body is at risk of harm. Their job is to report damage of some part of your body, and, really, to prevent further damage of said part. Let’s put it this way: They are there to report when they do not feel safe, ergo they provide data that lets you know you may not be safe. Of course, that may be an exaggeration. In their own little corner of the body, as far as they can tell, it might seem like it is the end of the world. But, in the bigger picture, it might just be that you stubbed your toe.
They only report information if the stimuli is…strong enough to cause damage to your tissues.
Once those nerve endings experience damage, they become more sensitive. More damage = more sensitivity. That makes sense, doesn’t it?
Damage experienced once = one level of sensitivity.
Damage experienced twice = a higher level of sensitivity.
Damage experienced again = an even higher level of sensitivity.
Damage experienced aaagain…WTF? Are you kidding me? AGAIN?? = AN EVEN HIGHER LEVEL OF SENSITIVITY.
You get the idea.
For you science-geek wordlovers, those endings are called nociceptors. That’s fancy latin for ‘damage-reporting’.
Okay. Next Lesson! Bring it on.
What is Pain? The Easiest Lesson on the Physiology of Pain…EVER.
Damaged tissues release chemicals the same way an upset digestive system releases gas, breaks wind, cuts the cheese. Stinko.
And just like your nose – after someone lets the silent-but-deadly one rip – picks up the stench of the poorly digested bratwurst from last night, your nerve cells pick up evidence of damaged tissues. Of course they react! Don’t you scream and cover your nose when someone’s innards blow out the harsh stink of putrified rotting cabbage that threatens to asphyxiate you? That’s how your nerve cells react if there is damaged tissue nearby.
So, you think I am saying damaged cells fart? Okay, fine. It’s a metaphor. If it works, then it’s done its job. Yes, your damaged cells fart.
If your nerve cells are repeatedly exposed to such noxious fart-like subtances, they get more sensitive; they might even get damaged. Poor little damaged nerve cells send lots of extra information to the brain. It’s like they go crazy and just continue to scream, even when there is no current or active damage.
Science-Geek Wordlover Alert: Prostaglandins. That’s the farty-chemical released by damaged cells.
See, I told you this lesson would be easy.
A Pause for Bad News…Good News…and Annoying News.
Bad News: Nociceptors, themselves, can become damaged. When that is the case, they report damage of the local environment plus their own pitiful, troubled state. Yes. If they, themselves, are damaged, they report pain-message after pain-message after pain-message after pain-message to the brain. They can’t help it! Once they are damaged, they cannot tell the difference between an unsafe and a safe environment…what is old information and what is new information. In science, we believe that is the basis for the experience of chronic pain. The nerves constantly tap out messages like D.A.N.G.E.R. H.E.L.P. S.O.S. S.Y.S.T.E.M. A.L.E.R.T. O.U.C.H.
Good News: You have millions of types of nerve endings in your body. Not all of them report damage. In fact, you have nerve cells that have nothing to do with harm; that are not pain instigators; that are not disturbed by toxic fumes. Yay! You have tons of nerve cells that are cheery, comfortable and report feeling safe and secure. They send the all-good! messages.
Annoying News: Over time, without proper attention and effort to take care of your nerve cells, most of your nerve endings get dull and less sensitive. It’s a bummer: A lot of those deteriorating nerve cells happen to be the cheery, all-good-in-our-world reporting type.(That sucks, doesn’t it?*)
What is Pain? The Most Understandable Lesson in Nerve Function and Pain…EVER.
What next? Once your nerve cell senses trouble…then what?
The nerve cell passes its message of tissue damage – as fast as possible – to the body’s main information super-highway. You’ve got it: Your spinal cord.
It turns out the U.S. Highway system is not the only place with tollbooths. You have them in your spinal cord, too.
Certain messages get through. Others don’t. It’s like the cargo of the nerve gets inspected; then it’s either allowed through or rejected.
Messages that scream Damage! typically get high priority and are allowed through the toll rather easily (…kind of like an ambulance might zoom right past the tollbooth). Understandable. But, why, oh why, are the cheery, all-good-in-our-world messages held up or turned away? I’ll tell you why. They are not as relevant to saving your life as the damage-messages are.
Cheer up. You still need your all-good-in-our-world messages. They serve a purpose. Those all-good! messages are necessary, too.
There is an exception to the rule that damage-messages get through the tolls first. There is a time when the all-good! messages get to go through as fast as any danger-message.
You know how when you bump your head, you automatically reach up and rub it? And, funnily enough, you don’t hit it again. No. You are gentle with that bump…that is, after your expletive has finished its echo.
When you rub the-exact-spot-where-the-damage-was-done…you start to flood signals to the all-good reporting nerve cells (not the damage-reporting ones; they can only report damage…duh). To continue with our farty-chemical metaphor, gently rubbing the area of your boo-boo is like spraying air-freshener to overpower flatus.
Science-Geek Wordlover Alert: Endorphins. That’s the air-freshener-chemical released by cheery, all-good-in-our world cells.
If lots of all-good! messages arrive at the spinal-cord-tollbooth at the same time as some danger-damaged-tissue messages arrive, guess what happens? The tollbooth operator lets the all-good messages through first, because there are so many! I guess we could call that giving in to peer pressure.
A Pause for GREAT NEWS!
This is GREAT!! Endorphins aren’t created just when you rub your boo-boo. No. Endorphins are also created when you exercise, get an adjustment or a massage, eat specific foods or imagine something wonderful.
Honey, if you want to impact your experience of pain, you are the only one who can alter the traffic on your spinal-cord super-highway; one way to do it is to increase your endorphins.
It really is true. Some people just don’t sense much pain because their bodies are saturated with endorphins: The all-good! messages simply outnumber the damage-messages.
What is Pain? The Simplest Lesson in Brain Science and Pain…EVER.
Just like the United States is one country with many states, your brain is one 3.5 pound organ with many sections.
Damage-messages that do get past the tollbooth go to the emotional section of your brain. That’s where the experience of pain occurs…or doesn’t. Pain occurs in the brain. Until a message gets there – and is deciphered – it’s just a message.
The emotional section of your brain is a very busy place. Very. It’s the midtown Manhattan of nerve activity.
Science-Geek Wordlover Alert: Limbic System. That’s the main emotional section of your brain.
Research demonstrates all kinds of evidence that emotional brain activity influences how nerve messages are deciphered, and how pain is experienced. It’s a fact. Human emotions either increase or decrease pain.
The mere expectation of pain produces a pain experience.
Yes! Thinking about it makes pain worse.
Pain-related anxiety accentuates the pain experience.
Yes! Worrying about it makes pain worse.
Dread….the fear that something will be painful…makes a person less able to ignore pain-related information.
Yes! Stressing out over it makes pain worse!
‘Pain’ as we know it is largely a result of which emotions are connected to it. Some research reports the thinking, worrying and stressing-out about it causes 40% of the response produced by ‘real’ pain in the pain receptors in the brain. What? Nearly half of the pain sensation you feel is all in your head?
Then, how much pain is ‘real’ pain? How painful is ‘real’ pain…the kind that happens without the emotions jacking it up? Good Question.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
You don’t have to philosophize. You just have to know: Not all pain-inducing stimuli causes pain.
Haven’t you noticed that one child who bumps her head cries and the other doesn’t, even if both kids seem to have hit their heads equally as hard? The variation in the response has something to do with how the pain messages get to the brain…and how attention is drawn to the experience…not how hard the head bounces off the wall or whether there is bruise or a hot bump.
It’s a constant head-trip having a brain. There is a lot going on up there. You want to be choosey about what to let in.
So, why not keep damage-signals stuck at the tollbooth…you know…just never let them get up there? Don’t you want to keep pain signals out of The Vault?
Haven’t you had enough pain for one lifetime? Do you really say to yourself, ‘Oh, I just can’t wait for the next time it hurts!’??
No, Silly. Of course not.
So, here’s your new Strategy For Life: Increase Your Endorphins. In simple terms, it means go out for a walk, move your body, get some kind of bodywork that frees up your joints and muscles, eat your fresh foods, take your fish oil omega-3s and discipline yourself to experience something with the fresh perspective of a child.
Focus. The Olympiad of The Mind.
When some of those pain messages do get up to your emotional brain, it gets a whole lot more challenging. When that is the case, you have a heap of work to accomplish. You have to:
stop thinking about it (i.e. focus on something else)
stop worrying about it (i.e. focus on something else);
and, finally, stop fearing it (i.e. focus on something else).
We might call that level of mind control The Ability to Focus, or, maybe, Self-Hypnosis.
Focus is challenging when there is no pain.
Have you ever tried to focus your mind on something…anything…for 10 seconds? …when you are in perfectly good pain-free form? It’s tough. The human mind is a squirrel hunting for info-nuts. If you can hold your mind focused for 10 seconds, then you are above average. The typical human attention span is 8 seconds. EIGHT. SECONDS.
It’s easier to train your body for the Olympic decathlon than to train your mind to focus.
I am serious about this.
The moment you suffer great pain is not the best time to start your mind-control training. Focus is the graduate-level mind-control work that is difficult for highly trained monks, sadhus and saints. This is no joke. The ability to get your mind to focus is up there with achieving Samadhi, Satori, Rapture, Buddhahood…Enlightenment.
So, yeah, try not to get yourself backed into the corner of working to focus on not-having-pain if you haven’t ever been able to keep your mind steady and concentrated on one simple, elective thing for more than 10 seconds…way back when you felt good. Uh, No. You’ll just end up having pain and being pissed at your incompetence. At the exact. same. time. THAT, my friend, is adding insult to injury.
Stick with the plan. Strategy for Life: Increase Your Endorphins. Do it now. Remember, you have lots of fussy damage-reporting cells standing at attention ready to race up the on-ramp to your superhighway spinal cord. It’s either them or the all-good! messages.
You are in charge.
Next Strategy. This is award-winning. Oh, so cunning. While your endorphins are lifting your spirits, enroll yourself in a meditation class, and learn the basics of controlling your mind.
*But you did notice that I said without proper attention and effort to take care…Bien Sur, there is self-care for your nerves. Click Here to get started. If you clicked and nothing is there, it is because the site is under construction. Not because I don’t care.
Wondering if breathing in too much air polluted could kill you? I wondered that, too. I didn’t search too much, but I did like this blog post from way back when. Who knew?