It Hurts So Much! Is There Hope?
My Experience With Pain
The single biggest reason patients come to see a chiropractor is because something hurts. I am a chiropractor in Chilliwack, British Columbia and I deal with a lot of people who are experiencing pain. Let me share my experience with pain.
I am a chiropractor with undergraduate training in neuroscience. In addition to extensive chiropractic training, have attended several chronic pain clinical courses through Pain BC, and learned from some of the leading neuro clinicians in their fields such as concussion and neurodynamics.
Although I am qualified and trained to talk about such a difficult topic, I also have a personal experience with pain. I am a chronic pain sufferer, I have experienced ongoing persistent pain just like many of my patients have.
Pain is a Brain Process
If I were to tell you that pain is all in your head, what would you say? You might feel defensive: 'it is not in my head, it is my finger, or my back, or my foot, and it has hurt for years.'
You might feel like you're not being listened to, or that health providers are just being lazy or ignorant, and just can't find the problem. You might have already had several MRIs, CTs, x-rays, ultrasounds, many blood tests, etc.
You are not unique in your pain being all in your head. Everyone's pain is all in their head. Pain is an experience that happens in all the gray matter between your ears. Pain is a BRAIN process.
Here is another situation, have you ever heard of phantom limb pain? Someone who has had a finger amputated, for example, may still experience pain in a finger that doesn't exist. How is that possible? What is happening there? It is possible to have trauma and damage to our body (nociception) and have no pain, and it is possible to have pain in the absence of any nociception. It is not possible to cause trauma to a finger that doesn't exist anymore.
Vision Is All in the Brain Too
So if pain isn't the same as nociception, what is it? How is it that we see things? Is the process of experiencing vision just the simple event of light hitting your eyes? Well, some people can have fully functioning eyes with light hitting the correct structures, and they still can't see. You can have information coming into your brain from the receptors that are designed to relieve that light and still not have vision (visualize someone who is having a stroke and loses sight). Now is the opposite possible? Can you see without light hitting your eyes? Do you see stuff in your dreams? How is that possible? Vision is happening when my eyes are closed. Because the experience of vision is NOT an eye thing. It is a brain thing. Your brain takes in information from the world around you, interprets that information, and results in the experience of vision.
Pain is 100% a brain experience for 100% of people experiencing pain.
Let me say that again.
100% of pain ever experienced by anyone is all in their head.
Your Pain Is Real
I am not telling you that your pain isn't real. Your pain IS real. I too have experienced pain and I know how devastating it can be to miss important activities in the lives of those I care about because I am hurting and just don't have it in me that day to deal with the pain.
But how does this knowledge help us? Does knowing pain is in our brain make the pain lessen? Does it help me get that pain number that everyone is so interested in below a 7/10? Well, it might.
Now don't take this as an opportunity to skip seeking medical help when you are bleeding because some crazy chiropractor online said the pain is all in your head. The red stuff is supposed to stay inside our bodies. Acute pain is a good motivator to show us that we have a problem with the system that we should probably look into. The good news is that our bodies heal on their own most of the time without a whole lot of intervention from us. A cut magically closes up and everything gets back to normal. But what happens if the pain from a cut that is long since healed never goes away? What happens when that pain has been going on for years, or even decades?
Your Brain Learns Pain
This type of pain is called chronic pain. It is different. For example, during the healing process of whiplash, our brain will learn that we shouldn't move our head quickly because it will hurt. Just like any other experience that happens frequently, we eventually learn that quick motions of the head hurt our neck and that we shouldn't use that motion. After 6 months of not turning our head quickly, our neck has probably healed, and the ligaments and muscles that were damaged in the car accident have likely repaired and returned to normal. In normal cases, your brain will realize this change, and let you turn your head quickly again, pain-free.
If we practice the piano every day for 6 months, we will have changed our brain, and we will have learned something. But in most cases, if we stop practicing the piano, then eventually we might forget how to play it. But some people's brains are different.
If you had the experience of learning that turning your head too fast causes pain, and you are unlucky enough to have a brain that doesn't forget that turning your head causes pain (even after the nociception stopped), then your brain has learned the pain and you can't turn it off.
The Backward Bike Experiment
A neuroscientist tried to see if he could get his brain to forget something, on purpose. He took on the mother of all learned behaviors. Riding a bike. He wanted to see if he could make himself forget how to ride a bike.
He set about modifying his bike, and added a gear that made the handlebars work in the opposite direction; what would normally make the steering go left now made it go right. After over 100 days of practicing 5 minutes per day, he was finally able to ride it down the driveway. He then discovered something else. He could no longer ride a regular bike. He had successfully re-written the bike riding pathways in his brain to new pathways.
What can we take from this? He proved that it is possible to do something on purpose that changes brain pathways. This means it is theoretically possible to unlearn the pain pathways that have formed in our brain.
There is hope.
About the author
Author Dr. Spencer Devenney is a Chilliwack Chiropractor, who graduated in 2009 from the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College (CMCC) He has a clinical interest in all things mechanical. His motto is: "if it hurts to move it bring it to your chiropractor first."