It is estimated that over 50 million adults in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain. That’s over 20% of the adult population and a lot of pain (1). According to the CDC, “Chronic pain, one of the most common reasons adults seek medical care, has been linked to restrictions in mobility and daily activities, dependence on opioids, anxiety, and depression, and poor perceived health or reduced quality of life” (2). Though these statistics are alarming there may be evidence showing that it doesn’t have to be this way. Neuroplastic pain, or the idea that the nervous system may send unnecessary pain signals to the brain, provides an alternative (3).
Imagine you’re walking along and you trip. Your weight propels you forward and at the last moment your foot slams to the ground, sparing your body from falling. Your brain processes a momentary wave of relief until you’re flooded with pain. You realize that spill-saving foot found its security on a nail that had been protruding from the ground and is now embedded deep in your shoe. You’re rushed to the hospital, panting in agony. When the doctors remove your shoe the nail is discovered between your toes, not having broken your skin at all.
This scenario may seem outlandish, but an almost identical case was reported in the British Medical Journal when a construction worker accidentally jumped onto a nail (4). This situation is a perfect explanation of how pain functions. Pain is there to signal danger; it’s there to help us stay safe. But sometimes danger signals fire when there is no real damage. The pain this construction worker experienced was real, but the tissue and muscle damage wasn’t.
This is what can happen with chronic pain: the pain is real, but the threat may not be. This perceived threat can lead to an overactive nervous system and this can be brought up by a variety of experiences. Researchers at the Pain Psychology Center suggest that our brains may learn this behavior from events such as challenging childhood experiences, past negative health experiences, everyday adult stress, perfectionism, and major life events (5). When the nervous system is overwhelmed it can start sending signals to produce symptoms such as migraines, fibromyalgia, fatigue, back pain, IBS and other GI issues, lingering pain from old injuries, etc. (5).
Though it can seem daunting to know the pain may come from overactivity in the brain, it can also be quite a relief. Because of neuroplasticity, our brains can be reprogrammed to avoid overdrive when it comes to pain signals. As LCSW Alan Gordon says, there may be a “way out” of chronic pain.
If you or yours are struggling with chronic pain you know that it can impact every aspect of life. Pain reprocessing therapy can help you to train your brain to not send those unnecessary pain signals using five main components, “1) education about the brain origins and reversibility of pain, 2) gathering and reinforcing personalized evidence for the brain origins and reversibility of pain, 3) attending to and appraising pain sensations through a lens of safety, 4) addressing other emotional threats, and 5) gravitating to positive feelings and sensations” (7).