Updated: Apr 7, 2019
People think the body receives a pain stimulus, that fires receptors, and sends a signal up a pathway to your brain, but actually there are no “pain signals” sent to the brain, nor “pain pathways” from the body to the brain. There aren’t even “pain receptors” in the body to begin with. Pain doesn’t exist in the body.
It’s like how hunger has nothing to do with how much nutrients is in your body. You could be full to brim with food, but if they bring out a cheesecake you are hungry again. It's not a measure of what’s going on within your body. PAIN works similarly. The brain only receives “danger” signals from the body that it filters through past experience, current environment, and several other factors to decide whether or not it should send PAIN down to the body.
So how is your brain interpreting these danger signals? Fearfully? Courageously? Anxiously? Calmly? Angrily? Desperately? Rationally? Resentfully? Know that PAIN is only the mind responding to INTERPRETED DANGER SIGNALS and not necessarily tissue injury. Also know when you need a medical professional to assist with how to manage pain.
Warning System (Flare Up)
The brain is supposed to take those DANGER SIGNALS and send PAIN down to the body in order to get us to stop whatever we are doing to avoid getting hurt. In Healthy Brains, PAIN should come on close to but before tissue injury occurs. If the brain turns on PAIN after the injury threshold then it’s too late and the injury already happened. If the brain turns on PAIN too soon then everything hurts and PAIN can keep you from doing even the most simple things. This pain threshold can move based on past experience and current perceptions.
In an Unhealthy Brain State there is a 3rd threshold: FLARE UP. This FLARE UP sends the whole nervous system into shock and debilitates a person. FLARE UPS are painful, emotionally taxing, and energetically draining, but if you understand how to control it you can get yourself out of it quickly. Even better, if you know how to avoid a FLARE UP then you never have to worry about it at all. “So how does one control their flare ups and/or pain threshold?”
Your Tolerance Gauge and What Effects It.
As people we can only tolerate so much in life. Everything that happens to us throughout our day has an effect on us. Some of these affect us in a positive way by bringing us closer to a healthy mind or decreasing danger signals from the body. These factors we can call YUPS.
Other factors affect us in a negative way: They increase stress and anxiety, they improperly load tissues in our body increasing danger signals, or further feed poor habits we have picked up through the years. These we call NOPES.
It is important for people in pain to understand the YUPS and NOPES in their own life. Is a certain activity helping or harming? How do I feel after I do it? How much do I need to do before it becomes helpful/harmful? Once you’ve gotten a hold of your YUPS and NOPES, you need to figure out what you can ditch and what is necessary. Not all NOPES can be avoided (sitting at work) and not all YUPS are constantly accessible (floor space for a relieving stretch). So work on the NOPES you can drop and the YUPS you need to practice more.
This will then balance your state of mind, improve your pain threshold level, and increase your quality of life. “But it’s hurt for so long, how can things change now?"
Smudging and Neuroplasticity
As previously mentioned the brain is ever adaptable. It will move and shake according to what the environment and personal perception dictates to it. This is a concept commonly known as Neuroplasticity. There is another term though. Much less known. It’s called Bioplasticity. This is the concept that even the body can be adapted to external and internal factors. These 2 concepts play a powerful role in our ability to learn, think, and adapt year after year to this ever changing world. When it comes to pain we have a certain part of our brain that controls sensation: The Somatosensory Cortex. This part of the brain has specific areas dedicated to sensation for every part of our body. Certain parts like our lips, palms, and genitals have a large portion dedicated to them because they are VERY important to our survival.
Other areas like our shoulders and knees don’t have a very large area dedicated to them because they aren’t as necessary in the sensation department. Now here comes PAIN to take advantage of neuroplasticity and start increasing dedicated areas for your “bum knee” or “bad shoulder”. Imagine having a hit in the knee as bad as a hit to the groin. No tissue damage will happen, but that definitely would be some traumatic pain.
Traumatic enough to get you to stop using that knee, start protecting it, and end many activities that were once so enjoyable. But if the brain can change in one way, then it can change right back. Teaching your brain proper responses to stimulus and filling your life with YUPS can force your brain to change back into its healthy state. This can desensitize painful areas, restore pain thresholds, and eliminate flare ups completely. It takes time, dedicated effort, and most importantly HELP to accomplish this but it is ABSOLUTELY POSSIBLE. Feeling empowered yet??
The Brain's Drug Cabinet
Pills have been shown to decrease pain symptoms in certain cases. Many people across the globe have benefited from the short term use of these drugs. Heck, even I used them to get a good night sleep after surgery. The overall effectiveness of these drugs cannot outway the disastrous dangers that may arise, especially over long term use. The difficulties associated with addiction have destroyed countless lives, throughout the world, over the last few decades. Experts will agree that even short term use should be avoided if possible.
For this reason, pain pills can never be associated with YUPS. We have talked about the power of the brain. The adaptability and the resilience of the brain. It has been developing for millions of years and has solved problems that modern science has not even begun to fathom. It has it’s own pharmacy wedged deep in itself. Powerful drugs like seratonin, endorphins, and other substances mimic the effect of morphine by stopping danger messages from reaching your brain. All the YUPS we have been adding up have been increasing the brains ability to produce these wonder drugs. And the NOPES take that ability away. It is all already within you. The power to grow, adapt, persevere, and resolve have all been built into who you are.
I hope you have been able to glimpse into the potential within you to access the power of your brain and body. Pain is not a cage that has been placed onto you by genetics, bad luck, or even past choices. It is an ever growing and adaptable system based on your capability to take responsibility for those factors that can help or hinder your current state of MIND. Find the help you need to move forward past a life defined by pain.
To further your journey out of pain contact me through email, text, phone call, or over social media. Let's take those steps needed to keep you training with confidence and moving with pride.
Dr. Leo Valenzuela PT, DPT
Los Leones Physical Therapy