Chronic Pain Is Rooted In Fear

fear painChronic pain is rooted in fear.

Chronic pain is defined as pain persisting more than 3-6 months, this is the time it typically takes for injured tissue to heal.

However, both acute and chronic pain have a tenuous association with injury (tissue damage).

People can exhibit the signs and symptoms of chronic pain earlier than 3 months.

This is influenced by factors associated with developing chronic pain, including, but not limited to, a history of anxiety and/or depression, low education level, lower income and age.

In general, most treatment of chronic pain is unsuccessful.

This is related to poor expectations of patients (after many failures, who can blame them) (1), and treatments that are overly focused on the biomedical (tissue) factors of pain, that often don’t match up with patients’ goals (2).

There have been promising results achieved by combining physical therapies with cognitive based therapies to treat chronic pain. (3)

Why Do We Experience Pain?

Professor of neuroscience and world leading expert on pain, Lorimer Moseley, has previously described pain as:

…a conscious correlate of the implicit perception that tissue is in danger

For most, the perception of danger evokes feelings of fear, heightened sensory awareness and decreased cognition.

When we assess danger, there are two main forms:

  1. Actual danger – situations where our life or safety is at risk.
  2. Perceived danger – situations where we perceive our life or safety to be at risk, but it really isn’t.

Both actual and perceived danger activate the same neuro-networks in the brain and the same physiological responses in the body. (4)

Our perceptions of danger are shaped by numerous factors, including:

  • Our age
  • Our gender
  • Our social
  • Our cultural upbringing
  • Our experiences
  • Our current capabilities.

If pain is related to a perception of danger, and our perception is shaped by all those factors, it is fair to say that pain is shaped by those factors too.

Pain science has moved forward, and beyond simply being a perception of danger, pain is beginning to be defined as a “need to protect”. (5)

The perception of danger, or threat, is in part based on predictive processing. (6)

Predictive processing is what our brains do to make sense of the world we experience and take shortcuts to achieving a conclusion.

An optical illusion based on predictive processing.

An optical illusion based on predictive processing.

Because of predictive processing, and other neural processes, we tend to not see an objective reality, but rather a subjective reality.

This is especially true when it comes to pain.

When we are experiencing pain, our brain makes predictions about whether something is going to be “dangerous”, and produces pain preemptively, in order to protect us.

Pain is not the only time that our brains use predictive processing.

Take a look at the brick wall, and see if you can spot what is not quite right.

The Neurobiology of Pain

The big problem with pain, is that pain is perception that we perceive as a sensation.

It tricks us into thinking that it is coming from our body, when in actual fact, pain is always produced by the brain and localised to the body. (7)

It is complex, and emergent, not linear.

So just because you feel a certain way after doing something, or not doing something, does not mean that your actions, or lack thereof, caused that feeling.

In the diagram below, I’ve simplified the neurobiology of pain with injury (remember, pain can occur without injury, and injury without pain as well).

neurobiology-of-pain-injury

Injury here is used loosely to describe the inciting physical event that damages the body tissue – it could be physical trauma, it could be an immune response from an infection or an auto-immune condition, like rheumatoid arthritis.

This leads to nociception – “danger” signals that convey a change to the status of the cellular environment.

That could mean a change to the mechanical load, a change to the chemical environment or a change to the temperature (the three primary types of nociceptors).

Inflammation is an immune response, and we know the brain and nervous system has a large role to play in the immune response (these days, doctors are calling it the neuro-endocrine-immune system). (8, 9)

Inflammation can lead to increased nociception, and if nociception increases, then this is a mechanism for increased inflammation. (10)

This can lead to peripheral sensitisation – where the sensory nerves in the affected body region become more sensitive due to physiological changes that take place.

All of this takes place locally, but we do not experience pain as a result of this just yet.

The Brain Modulates Everything

Modulation is a process whereby signals (nociception) reaching either the brain or spinal cord are amplified or inhibited. (11, 12)

Modulation can be affected by our thoughts – conscious or unconscious.

Here is where it gets interesting: we often think that our thoughts are ours, but there is compelling evidence that this may not be the case, and that our culture and environment shapes our thoughts, feelings and actions more than many of us would care to admit. (13, 14)

“You can do what you decide to do — but you cannot decide what you will decide to do.”
― Sam HarrisFree Will

Using this line of thought – when it comes to pain, our ideas and understanding, especially at an unconscious level are already implanted by the culture we live in.

Currently our culture around pain is:

  • Pain is bad.
  • Pain is caused by damage, or degeneration (the dreaded “wear and tear”) or misalignment.
  • “I’m just getting old.”
  • Pain needs to be “fixed” – and can be done so by the right practitioner.
  • We need to find the cause of pain, and this can be done by physical assessment and diagnostic tests (MRIs, X-rays etc).
  • The weather causes pain to flare up.

If you live in Australia, or any other Western nation with a similar culture, all of these memes, plus many others, have been implanted into your thoughts.

You don’t even question them most of the time, because you don’t know you have them, until you experience pain.

Our thoughts shape our emotions, our emotions shape our actions and our actions reinforce both.

This is especially evident when we experience pain.

Changing The Unchangeable?

We discussed earlier that pain is a protective response, which is based on the perception of threat.

There is a greater evidence of danger to ourselves, than there is of safety for ourselves. (15)

Going back to the premise of this post: chronic pain is rooted in fear.

Fear changes our perceptions.

Fear makes us think or feel that we are in danger moreso than we actually are.

Fear makes us want to find safety.

But if fear is influenced by a host of factors, many that we don’t know, and most that are unconscious, can we change it, and as a result, change pain?

I say yes.

Cognitive Based Therapy

CBT

When we can identify our fears around pain, then we take away some, if not all of its power.

Yes, pain will still hurt, that’s the nature of pain, but our suffering is different.

We stop catostrophising.

We stop worrying.

We start focusing on what we can do.

We start focusing on who we are.

The challenge of identifying and treating unconscious fears is obvious.

Fortunately, over the years, psychologists have developed many ways to explore our unconscious.

One of which, is cognitive behavioural therapy.

Cognitive based therapy is based on the premise that each thought is related to a certain emotion and behaviour, and vice versa.

By exploring each aspect around our beliefs and understanding of pain, we can change what we think, feel and do, to decrease our pain and suffering and eventually, change our unconscious thoughts.

Cognitive behavioural therapy is not only effective for treating pain, but also something that can be performed by suitably trained manual and physical therapists*.

A Way Into The Neuromatrix

The most up to date, and most widely accepted model of pain, is the neuromatrix model, proposed by Melzack and Wall (pictured).neuromatrix

What you can see in this diagram, is that there are multiple inputs (on the left) to the “body-self neuromatrix” (the representation of ourselves, within our brain) from both the body and brain, which influence what our body does, how it feels and how it functions (outputs, on the right)

These include:

  • Cognitive related brain areas
  • Sensory signalling systems
  • Emotion related brain areas.

But, that’s not all, each of these inputs can affect each other, as can each output.

Everything affects everything when it comes to pain.

What any good clinician is trying to do when treating someone in pain, is provide enough context for the outputs of the neuromatrix to change.

We do this by influencing the inputs in a way that promotes increased descending inhibition (as discussed earlier).

In addition to CBT, we can use other interventions like touch (manual therapy from intelligent, responsive hands) and movement.

Basically, we are trying to tell your brain that it’s okay, things are safe and you don’t have to be on edge.

When your brain is no longer in “fear mode”, it can resume normal modulation duties and you start to feel better.

Conclusions

Most chronic pain occurs in post surgical patients. (16)

There is an obvious physical trauma that takes place.

Many others develop chronic pain conditions after intense and/or prolonged psychological and/or emotional distress.

Something occurs to shift the brain into “fear mode”, in which it wants to do nothing more than protect itself (and you), which it does by producing pain.

We know that pain is complex and multi-factorial, but too often we think we are the exception.

It can feel like we just need to “release” that tight muscle or “crack” that stiff joint.

It can feel like there is “wear and tear” or “damage”.

But at least 40% of people with widespread arthritis don’t experience pain.

Amputees with no limbs do experience pain, in the absent limb!

You have to be fully engaged in the process, and willing to confront a lot of home truths about what you think, feel and believe if you want to treat your chronic pain successfully.

Even when you do that, sometimes you’ll still be in pain.

But, if you don’t, you’ll definitely still be in pain.

 

 

Nick Efthimiou Osteopath

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 

 



 

 

 

*If your condition was too complex for the therapist alone, we would refer you to a psychologist. In Australia, there is a mental health plan, under which your GP can refer you for up to 10 consultations with a psychologist, partly subsidised by medicare.

References

(1) Expectations and chronic pain outcomes

(2) Patient goals and measuring treatment outcomes

(3) Cognitive functional therapy for low back pain 

(4) Activation of threat-reward neural networks

(5) What is pain?

(6) Predictive processing simplified

(7) Pain

(8) Nervous and immune system interactions

(9) Structure and function of nervous system lymphatic vessels

(10) Mechanisms of inflammatory pain

(11) Descending control of pain

(12) Continuous descending modulation revealed by FRMI

(13) Free Will

(14) Myth of free will

(15) DIM-SIMS

(16) Chronic pain and surgery

How To Manage Pain Flare Ups

Nature Helps Calm Stress

Pain flare ups are a common occurrence with both acute injury or chronic pain. Knowing how to manage them well can be the difference between being able to maintain a high quality of life or not.

Pain flare ups, simply put, are a normal part of being a human in pain. Sometimes, they are related to something you have or haven’t done, but many times, there is no discernable cause for a pain flare up.

Most pain flare ups are short term – be it a few days or weeks – which can, at the time, seem like they will never end, leading you to pursue options for relief that are ineffective, costly and possibly even dangerous.

Instead, with this article, I hope to show you some strategies you can use immediately, or store away for reference in the (unfortunate) event of a pain flare up.

Why do pain flare ups occur?

Biological systems are non-linear, complex systems. Whilst it is easy to think of recovery as a straight line from injury to repair, in reality, things are a lot more up and down. (2)

In fact, I wrote about this in the last newsletter (you can subscribe at the end of this post, so you won’t miss any future issues).

This fact alone means pain flare ups are an expected, yet unpredictable phenomenon, but beyond saying that flare ups are inevitable, there are more issues at play.

Sensitisation

Sensitisation is the increased sensitivity of the nervous system to stimuli, whether it is at a peripheral level (nerve endings throughout the body), a spinal level or in the brain itself (3).

Because of this process, what was once a pain free task can become painful over time.

Biologically this is designed to protect us from further harming an injured area, which works well in acute injuries, but with chronic conditions, where pain and tissue damage become poorly correlated, it’s not so useful.

Lowered tissue tolerance

Whilst similar to sensitisation, lowered tissue tolerance occurs when you do not use/load body tissues appropriately over time and they decondition.

Whereas sensitisation is purely neurological, tissue tolerance is related to structural changes as well as a heightened sensitivity. The two often go hand in hand.

An easy way to understand this is with the example of muscle wasting caused by immobilisation. There is a reduced tolerance for load, and exceeding this can cause pain.

With both acute injuries and chronic pain, often the loading on the affected area is decreased, either consciously or unconciously, which leads to decreased tolerance of the tissues to loading.

Expectation

Often people with pain, whether acute or chronic, expect certain things to hurt them.

I was wearing heels all day yesterday because I had a wedding, so I knew I’d be sore today.

What’s interesting about expectation, is that is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you think something will hurt, it probably will, thus confirming your thoughts.

That’s not to downplay the involvement of the activity in question, but there are studies that show simply priming  (3) someone with “old” words and thoughts causes them to walk more slowly, without even realising it.

With this in mind, if you are expecting the worst, then chances are you’ll get it. (4, 5, 6)

What to do about pain flare ups

Every strategy to manage pain needs to be individualised to the individual – no one thing works for everyone, nor does anything work the same from person to person.

Acceptance

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is becoming more and more popular in treating/managing pain, because it is so effective (7).

What is so powerful about ACT, is that accepting flare ups will happen, and that you will be in pain, takes away their biggest weapon – frustration and disappointment.

In ACT, thoughts and feelings are not considered to be “helpful” or “unhelpful”. This is important during pain flare ups, because pain can cause us to think negatively, painting situations into worse than they are within our minds.

In essence, ACT is a form of mindfulness.

This is probably the most challenging thing to master, but when you do, the results are profound, both in the context of pain, but also in the greater context of your life.

Modify your activities

Whilst in the long term, avoidance strategies aren’t very successful, because they simply reduce what you are capable of, in the short term, as a management strategy, modifying or even ceasing activities that hurt is a viable option.

Ideally, you will continue as best you can, with what you want/have to do, but it is completely reasonable to put things off.

This makes intuitive sense: if you have low back pain and it hurts to bend, then you will likely avoid bending when it hurts.

However, as mentioned, simply avoiding bending forever is not a solution, and actually makes things worse.

A better approach is to see if you can modify how you bend, and how much you are bending in the short term, whilst working to restore the ability to bend freely in the long term, using a graded approach.

Use pain relieving techniques that work for you

When in pain, it’s natural to want to get rid of it as soon as possible, no matter the cost.

Unfortunately, there is no one medication/therapy/product that can effectively eliminate pain in everybody, all the time.

So, instead of chasing a magic bullet that drains all your time, money and energy, it makes sense to stick with proven strategies.

Once you have found your “recipe” for relieving pain, you can seek to optimise it, with less conventional methods, if they are safe.

Things you can try, which do have effectiveness to varying degrees are:

Focus on what you can do

It’s really hard to stay positive during pain, the whole point of pain, from a biological perspective, is to over-ride our consciousness to take alternative/evasive action from our current situation.

This means a stress response, and a stress response, physiologically, is designed for action, black/white thinking.

What this can do, is cause you to focus on negative thoughts and emotions, setting of a vicious cycle making things worse over time.

If you focus on what you can do – with both a macro and micro perspective – then you completely shift the way you are living.

After all, if you can’t control whether you experience a pain flare up, wouldn’t you at least want to control your thoughts and activities?

BONUS TIP: Spend time in nature to calm stress

Just as I was editing this, I realised it was hard to find pictures of “pain flare ups”, so instead I went for a calming picture of nature, because spending time in nature is quite beneficial for a multitude of reasons, but simply put, time in nature calms our bodies and our minds, which is a massive key for anyone in pain.

Conclusions

Pain flare ups are a massive challenge for patients and practitioners alike, for many reasons.

As with most things, there is no quick fix, but you can definitely improve your experience of pain flare ups in the short term, whilst in the long term, a tailored pain management strategy can help reduce or even eliminate them.

 

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 



 

References

(1) Complex systems theory

(2) Neurobiology of pain

(3) Priming

(4) How expectations shape pain

(5) The subjective experience of pain

(6) Expectation of pain enhances response to non-painful stimuli

(7) ACT

A Simple Mind Hack To Reduce Pain

Neurons

Neurons

Pain is the conscious correlate of perceived threat. – Lorimer Moseley, Professor of Clinical Neurosciences and Chair in Physiotherapy, Uni SA

Pain is only pain if we are consciously aware of it, if you aren’t aware of pain, you don’t have pain!

Knowing this, if we can shift our awareness away from pain, we can reduce it.

In medical terminology, this is described as distraction therapy.

Distraction therapy is an effective pain management strategy, and it’s something you’re likely to be familiar with.

If you’ve ever spent any time with children, you’ll have seen them hurt themselves. Sometimes, after a minor fall/scratch/scrape children make a bigger fuss than warranted (tears and tantrums), mostly for attention. Many clever parents use simple distraction techniques to take a child’s mind off the pain they are experiencing. It usually works a treat.

This is distraction therapy.

How Does It Work

There are 2 inter-related but separate mechanisms that are at play.

The first, and probably the coolest, is that distraction therapy leads to the secretion of pain relieving opoids by the brain (1).

These opioids, termed endogenous, as opposed to exogenous opioids that you consume (codeine, oxycodone etc) act within the central nervous system to reduce pain.

The second involves competition for attention between an important sensation and consciously directed focus (2).

This is because the conscious mind can only focus on one thing at a time.

Sure, we can rapidly alternate our attention between two or more things, but at any given moment our attention can only be on one thing.

And going back to the opening quote, “pain is the conscious correlate of perceived threat”, if our consciousness is focused elsewhere, then it cannot focus on pain.

How Do You Use It?

The great thing about this, just like with children, you can use this to help reduce your pain.

It’s important to understand that distraction therapy is not magical. It is simply a pain management technique that is free, easy to implement and accessible to all.

Distraction therapy can work with pain of all different causes, but you can’t ignore the underlying issue:

  • If your pain is caused by a medical condition, see a doctor!
  • If you are suffering pain due to injury, the injury must heal first before the pain goes away.
  • Likewise if you have pain related to movement issues, they must be resolved.
  • Finally, please understand, that persistent or chronic pain is considered a disease in its own right, it’s also not considered to be curable, instead, focus on finding effective management strategies.

 

So how do you do it? The beauty of distraction therapy is that there is no one way.

The most important thing is to use an activity that is interesting and meaningful to you. One that is comfortable and immersive.

You can’t think to yourself “I’m doing to distract myself from the pain by doing this” while you are doing it, because that means your attention is on your pain and not on the activity.

Doing this causes you to engage in a state of flow, and given that your brain will want to remain in this state, it will secrete opioids to modulate your pain.

That’s a win-win. You get to do something that is important to you and reduce your pain at the same time!

There is no limit to how long this will work for, it depends on how strong your concentration is.

Intention and Distraction: The Next Level?

Whilst the research on distraction therapy focuses on the immediacy of performing a task and the subsequent physiological response, here at Integrative Osteopathy we have used similar principles to help patients throughout their entire day.

This is not, strictly speaking, distraction therapy, but the principles are similar – namely that the conscious mind can only give attention to one thing at a time.

Not only does this technique help with pain management, but it can improve your mood and even your life.

The technique is called setting your intention.

It simply involves a short period of quiet contemplation in which you focus your attention on your intention.

What is your intention? It is another way of describing your focus.

If you look back through time, pretty much all cultures had periods of quiet contemplation built into their lives.

Whether it was prayer, meditation or spiritual rituals, these practices allowed people to process events that had happened and the associated thoughts and emotions, and find a place of comfort, if not clarity.

It is part of the reason mindfulness/meditation is gaining such traction in recent years – our attention is being attacked from every direction, distracting us – mindfulness helps with finding clarity again.

To add in quiet contemplation to your life, it need not be complex. In fact, it’s better if it’s not.

How To Set Your Intention

Setting your intention starts with quiet contemplation. A great time to implement it is in the morning, as it sets you up for the day ahead.

Pick something you habitually do, like taking a shower or brushing your teeth, and immediately before/after, close your eyes, slow your breathing and spend a few minutes alone with your thoughts and feelings.

Focus on the one thing, above all else, that you want for the day. This is your intention.

 

Your intention needs to be framed in a positive way. Your brain doesn’t recognise negative words. To illustrate, make sure you don’t think of dancing elephants while you’re reading this sentence.

Once you have the elephants out of your mind, get back to setting an intention.

This focus will govern all your actions for the day, both consciously and unconsciously.

After you have set your intention, you can create an intention card (3). Write your intention down on the front of small card, in one word. Then, on the back of that card, write out a prompt question.

Usually, you would frame it like this:

A. Statement of the intention
B. A question prompting the action which leads to the intention

Here’s an example:

Imagine someone who always feels stiff.

They might set their statement of intention as this: Fluid movement.

Then their question might read: what do I have to do to experience more fluid movement?

Instead of thinking about how stiff they feel, this question prompts somebody to get up and move, to stretch, to avoid prolonged positions and a whole heap of other things, all from a positive outlook. In essence, it’s distracting them from the problem whilst prompting a solution.

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 

References

(1) Attention Modulates Spinal Cord Response To Pain – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212003934

(2) How Does Distraction Therapy Work – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15745617

(3) Intention Cards – http://www.authenticeducation.com.au/intention-cards/