Pain – is it all in the brain?
In a recent book, well-renowned neuroscientist and writer Martin Ingvar and medicine journalist Lotta Eldh, dive deeper into the latest research findings related to the topic of pain. Interestingly, scientists seem to have started to pay more attention to the importance of exercising the brain’s inherent defense mechanisms against pain, particularly in the case of chronic pain. The authors even go as far as saying that strong pain killers, such as opiates, can be counter productive since they will knock out the brain’s natural response of pain relief, and thus inhibit the brain’s learning pattern for its own pain treatment.
Some of the examples discussed of alternative pain relief treatments are; exercise, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and mindfulness. When we exercise the brain releases endorphines which can work as to ease the pain that we sense, either directly from our work-out or from before. ACT is a type of cognitive behavioural therapy that is all about accepting the presence of the pain and learning how to control the feelings that it provokes in order to handle it better, and mindfulness, that is related, also focuses on how to handle everything present while relaxing into the pain. As Ingvar and Eldh point out, pain is something very subjective, and as a matter of fact research has shown that the limbic system (that controls our feelings, memory and behaviours) plays an important role in how we experience pain.
Thus Ingvar and Eldh explain that a good combination of a physical training program together with psychological training can be just as effective in the long run as a traditional medication treatment, when dealing with pain. The authors however ask for patience, since the ‘re-programming’ of the brain’s acquired pain responses can take time. But as they put it, if you just confront your pain and hang in there you get rewarded when you finally get out at the other end of the tunnel.
The authors also dedicate a specific chapter to people not susceptible to psychological treatment, such as patients with dementia or that have suffered a stroke resulting in speech disorders. On many occassions such patients have trouble communicating what they feel, which is why care-givers need to pay extra attention to behaviours that can represent the expression of pain. This e.g. includes banging of one’s hand at the table, scraping with the foot, restless wandering back and forth or cries for mum.
Personally, I’m once again fascinated by what exercise (and psychological will) can do for your body and well-being and will try to keep this in mind next time somebody’s pushing me into that tough exercise or stretch at the gym.
Unfortunately the book is not available in English, but if you’re interested in the topic, you can surely find something interesting to read here.
Source article (unfortunately only available in Swedish): http://www.svd.se/nyheter/idagsidan/hjarnan-basta-verktyget-mot-varken_6938933.svd