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What is Neuroplastic Pain?

Girl Hiking in Mountains

Pain is a danger signal. Pain, when working as it should, is a helpful indicator of injury to the body.   But when pain becomes chronic and there is no underlying tissue damage, it's no longer doing it's job. We call this neuroplastic pain.


Our brains can keep pain turned on when there are factors like anxiety, stressful life events, fear of an underlying injury or disease, perfectionism, shame, grief, or repressed emotions amplifying that danger signal. This is often a totally unconscious process that we often don't even recognize. 

The good news...

is that just as our brains can "learn" to get stuck in a chronic pain state, it can also be unlearned. This is where mind-body methods like Pain Reprocessing therapy can help our brains learn a new response. After consistent practice with these tools, eventually our brains learn a new default state that doesn't involve sending unnecessary pain signals. 

How does pain really work?

The brain sends and receives chemical and electrical signals throughout the body. Different signals control different processes, and your brain interprets each. Some make you feel tired, for example, while others make you feel pain.(1)

Normally, pain is experienced when the body senses damage and sends a signal up to the brain. The brain then sends the sensation of pain to the part of the body where there is a perceived injury.

In the case of chronic pain, the brain can send pain or other signals to the body in the absence of any true bodily damage. You can think of it as a false alarm. 

All pain is created by the brain, regardless of it is due to tissue damage or learned neural pathways.


Why do our brain's create chronic pain?

Our brains create chronic pain because it thinks it is protecting us when it isn't.


The problem is, our brains evolved with the main goal of keeping us alive. It is far more concerned with keeping us safe than comfortable. Because of this, our brains can start to operate in an overprotective mode and send pain signals when there is no true damage. This is especially true when past experiences or current life stresses are keeping our threat system on high alert. 

But I have a diagnosis from a doctor of IBS, Fibromyalgia, TMJ disorder, Herniated disk... so this must be something "real" right?

First, all pain is real. Because all pain is created by the brain. Studies have shown that pain without a physical cause activates the same brain areas as physically caused pain (2). The difference with neuroplastic pain is that there is no true tissue damage so the pain comes from our brains being overprotective and wiring in an unhelpful way. 

Second, a diagnosis does not necessarily mean there is anything physically wrong in the body. Many diagnoses are just descriptions of reported symptoms or processes that have no known cause. These types of conditions are known to cooccur with anxiety and depression and are worsened by stress, which points towards the brain playing a major role.


Also, doctors are trained to look for and treat physical causes. But even visual abnormalities in the body can be "normal abnormalities" that don't cause pain in the majority of people who have them. For example, studies show that 64% of people with no back pain have herniations and degeneration. (3) 

To see if pain coaching can help you...        

1) John's Hopkins 

2) 4. Derbyshire SW, Whalley MG, Stenger VA, Oakley DA. (2004). Cerebral activation during hypnotically induced and imagined pain. Neuroimage 23(1), 392-401.

3) Disc Degeneration in Lumbar Spine of Asymptomatic Young Adults: A Descriptive Cross-Sectional Study

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