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 Your Mindset Impacts Your Pain

Mind

Most people think pain is a physical problem, because we feel it in our body.

Whilst this is not wrong, it is not completely right either.

This is because all pain has 3 components:

  1. “Bio” (biological – aka what is going on in the body)
  2. “Psycho” (psychological – what’s going on in the mind)
  3. “Social” (what’s going on in our environment)

You might be thinking, that doesn’t apply to me, “I strained my back shifting the couch, there’s nothing going on in my head or around me”.

That might be so, but, even if we strain out back moving furniture (an obvious physical cause to pain), by the time we experience pain, our brains have done a magnificent job of filtering the sensory information from our body via all our existing biases and preconceptions (“psycho” and “social”).

This simply means, if you’ve heard your grandfather complain about how getting old sucks because his back hurts, and if you’ve heard people talk about “wear and tear” or anything else about back pain, you brain, cool as it is, will consider this when deciding whether to produce pain that you feel “in your back”.

The fancy name to describe this, is a neurotag.

I like to think of it as a filing system in our brains.

When you see, hear, or read something about low back pain for instance, it goes in your “file” titled “low back pain”.

It doesn’t stop there. Neurotags, I mean, the filing cabinet in our brain, also cross reference.

So when your grandfather complains about being old and having low back pain, your brain files “low back pain” into the “old” file, and “old” into the “low back pain file”.

So, when you strain your back, causing the sensory nerves to start firing rapidly and bombard the spinal cord with messages of danger, your brain is pulling up all these files:

  • Danger is coming from the body
  • The danger seems to be around the low back
  • Low back pain
  • Old
  • Wear and tear
  • Can’t move
  • Never be the same

Or whatever else is stored in there. As you can imagine, over time, this could get pretty full.

All this means that even a “simple” low back strain is not so simple.

Some people are at a high risk of developing chronic pain, even from a relatively benign back strain. All because of the psycho-social factors involved. This is why it is important to always address all factors involved in your pain. After all, all chronic pain was acute at some stage. 

When it comes to treating pain, your mindset matters.

In general, there are two types mindsets that we can possess.  One can lead to a better recovery, while the other can actually impair your recovery.

The Two Types of Mindset

When it comes to our mindset, we either have a fixed mindset, or a growth mindset.

This concept was first described by a psychologist, Carol Dweck, who once had a teacher who arranged the seating order of the class by IQ. Whilst Dweck was actually in the number one position, she felt enormous pressure to maintain that position, whilst those lower in the order became resigned to their fate.

This teacher inspired Carol to conduct her own research, which lead her to conclude:

People with fixed mindsets believe that they were born with all the intelligence and talent they will ever have, and that this cannot change.

People with growth mindsets, as you might guess, believe that their abilities can expand and improve over time.

The vast majority of people who have had success in life, especially those who have had to overcome adversity, display characteristics of a growth mindset.

How Your Mindset Affects Pain

If you search for articles on “fixed vs growth mindset”, most of the results will be about personal development and business, but this concept can also apply to pain.

The easiest way to demonstrate this is with an example.

Let’s imagine two completely fictitious people, Danny and Danielle.

Danny

Danny, 30, is a rising star in the corporate world. He works his ass off every day to improve at his job – networking, learning persuasion and sales techniques, studying his field so he is on top of his game. He goes to the gym 5 times per week and ensures he eats well most of the time so he looks and feels good. On top of this, Danny has a daily ritual of visualising his success.

One day Danny starts to experience neck and shoulder pain. The onset wasn’t caused by anything in particular, but he did recall training extra hard that month.

Not wanting the pain to interrupt his life more than necessary, Danny seeks the help of an osteopath named Nick.

His osteopath formulates a treatment plan designed to get him back to full training in 4 weeks. In the mean time, Danny reads some articles Nick sent him and does some extra research on the topic from some trusted health sites he frequents.

At 4 weeks, Danny is not only pain free, but he has learnt about injury management and knows how to improve his gym workouts so that the issue doesn’t recur. In essence, he has come back stronger than ever.

Danielle

Now, let’s have a look at Danielle, 35, who is a public servant. Danielle enjoys her life – she works from Monday to Friday and enjoys exploring galleries and cafes on the weekends with her partner. At work she does what she has to do, but no more, thinking “if I’m not paid to do it, it’s not my responsibility”. Danielle feels like her life is pretty good, but she has one eye on retirement.

One day at work, Danielle starts experiencing neck and shoulder pain, and she recalls her mother having something similar due to her work as a seamstress and thinks to herself that it “must be genetic”. After talking to a colleague whose partner, Danny, had a similar problem and was able to resolve it after consulting an osteopath, she books an appointment with the same osteopath.

When she arrives for her consult, they discuss a treatment plan and get started. After a few days, there has been no change and Danielle loses motivation to do her home based exercises. She continues treatment for a few more weeks, as she enjoys the way manual therapy feels, but she is disengaged. After 6 weeks there is no change, and she is convinced her original thoughts were correct, and that her pain is “genetic” and “there is nothing she can do”.

Your Mindset Affects Your Behaviour

It should be obvious who has the growth mindset, and who has the fixed mindset, and as you can see, your mindset permeates every aspect of your life, including pain.

Having a growth mindset meant that Danny saw his pain as something that could be changed, if he changed what he was doing and improved (his knowledge, his body etc).

Having a fixed mindset limited Danielle’s recovery, as she saw her pain as her destiny (genetic), and thus was not inclined to try and change or help herself.

While pain is never simple, there are so many unseen factors, we can control much of our reaction to pain and what we do in the future. If you have the belief that you can grow and improve throughout your life, that it is likely this will extend to your beliefs around pain.

Can You Change Your Mindset?

This is the trickiest question to answer. People with a growth mindset will believe so, but people with a fixed mindset may not.

The science is unequivocal – our brains are plastic and can continue to change as long as we are alive.

As we change our thoughts and behaviours, our brain structure changes too.

If you want to change your mindset (wanting to change is key), then the best way is via actions.

You see, our brains are funny.

When we sit idle and think, especially about the future, our brains can get very creative. This can be a positive if you start thinking about where you want to be in 5 years and what you have to do to get there, but not so much if all this thinking does is keep you idling in place for another 1/2/5/oh-shit-where-did-my-life-go years.

It’s even worse if you start getting into negative thought spirals.

However, if we take action, any action, then our brains can’t get carried away. And, if we are smart, and start small, then we achieve a little success, we build confidence and momentum. Repeat this process long enough and you become a different person.

This, in essence, is mindfulness, but let’s call it something else – let’s call it momentum. Create momentum by starting small and before you know it, you have changed.

Really, My Back Hurts, How Does This Help Me?

In essence, it all boils down to this: are you resigned to having pain or looking for someone else to solve your problem (fixed mindset), or, are you willing to adapt, change and do what it takes to help yourself?

Some conditions are very easy to recover from, others very hard. What doesn’t change though, is that if you have no doubt in your mind you will improve, no matter what it takes, then you probably will*.

 

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) Wikipedia – Carol Dweck: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_Dweck

(2) Stanford News Service – Fixed versus growth intelligencehttp://news.stanford.edu/pr/2007/pr-dweck-020707.html

(3) NY Times – If You’re Open To Growth, You Tend To Grow: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/06/business/06unbox.html

(4) Brain Plasticity and Behaviour – https://www.psychologicalscience.org/journals/cd/12_1/Kolb.cfm

 

*Please don’t take this the wrong way if you suffer from chronic pain. This isn’t meant to belittle your pain or say you are not trying. The recovery rate for chronic pain is quite low, but many people learn to live fulfilling lives and manage their pain quite well. In part this comes from re-shaping their thoughts, emotions and behaviours around pain. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is quite helpful in this regard.

Pain Science Made Simple

Scary Unkown

When the primary complaint is pain, treatment of pain should be primary. – Barrett Dorko, P.T.

At Integrative Osteopathy, one of my core practices is to empower people through education, so they feel better both in the short term, and the long term as a result of resilience and independence.

A hugely important part of this process is pain and neuroscience education.

Whilst this may sound daunting and perhaps even irrelevant to you, research shows that neuroscience (including pain science) education has a positive effect on pain, disability, physical performance as well as anxiety and stress.

In addition, not learning about pain early on can lead to the rise of chronic pain conditions later, by not alleviating the fear that is often associated with pain (consciously or unconsciously)

Considering how effective this intervention is, and the fact that pain is the number one reason people consult an osteopath in Australia, it’s a no brainer to ensure a thorough teaching about pain precedes any other treatment.

What is pain?

Any teaching about pain must start with exactly what pain is, and currently, the definition put forward by the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) is:

Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.

Now that seems straight forward enough, but let’s look at it a little deeper.

What exactly does this mean though?

Pain is more than just a physical phenomenon

Most people associate pain with injury and damage, and whilst this is often a component of pain, pain is much more than damage.

This is why the word potential is used, it implies something else is at play – we don’t need tissue damage to occur in order to feel pain.

Pain is an alarm, not a damage meter. This can be one of the hardest things to grasp when first learning about pain, and will be explored in more depth later in this post.

Pain is an emotional experience

If you have ever experienced pain, you will likely recall not being yourself, you may have been “short” with people, or become more introverted, or demonstrated any number of changes to your normal demeanour.

That’s the emotional part.

Every person’s pain is unique

We commonly use words like sharp, dull, throbbing, aching, burning, stabbing and shooting to describe pain.

This helps communicate each pain experience in a more “universal” manner, allowing clinicians and patients alike to identify certain attributes of pain, potentially helping with diagnosis or coping.

However, what this doesn’t allow for is the uniqueness of pain.

The use of the word experience in the above definition, suggests the individual nature of pain.

We all feel differently and what we feel depends on many factors – our genetics, our current situation in life and our cultural upbringing are just a few of the contributing factors to how we experience pain.

Pain is an output of the brain

Understanding the broadness of pain and the fact that pain is not reflective of tissue damage, the next step is to grasp the concept that pain is an output of the brain, rather than an input to the brain.

To understand what this means, let’s use a simple analogy.

On a computer, we can use a mouse or keyboard to provide an input. This input is then processed, and then, depending on the program in operation, and output is displayed.

Currently, I’m typing in a word processor, which means when I hit the “w” key, w appears on the screen. However, if I were playing a game, that “w” key might move my character in a certain direction.

Same input, different output.

When it comes to pain, we experience it when our brain decides, unconsciously, that the sum of information it is processing is “dangerous” and we realise this danger consciously – the feeling of pain.

Regarding the inputs to the brain, there are 3 main sources (in no particular order):

  1. Cognitive (thoughts)
  2. Affective (emotions)
  3. Physical (messages from the nerves)

What’s interesting, is that only one of the three inputs is regarding the status of the body.

If the sum of all this information is perceived as “dangerous”, then we experience pain, changes to movement and posture, a heightened stress response etc.

So really, pain is a broader part of the nervous’s systems operations to keep us safe. Though sometimes it goes wrong, for the most part, it’s a pretty good system. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here today.

Nociception and pain

We are really diving deep into this pain stuff now, but this is quite an important part of the pain experience.

Nociception is simply the reporting from the peripheral nerves to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) on the status of the tissues.

There are 3 main kinds of nociceptors:

  1. Thermal (reporting on heat/cold)
  2. Chemical (reporting on chemical irritation, like inflammation)
  3. Mechanical (reporting on tension and compression)

There is always some nociception occuring, that is so our brain knows what’s happening with our body. However, this doesn’t necessarily turn into pain.

When nociception reaches a certain threshold, then the nerves fire faster, which can alert the brain to something happening. It doesn’t mean there is damage – but only that there is more stimulation of those nociceptors.

This only becomes pain, if, when combined with the other inputs mentioned above, your brain decides the information means “danger”.

Acute versus chronic pain

Acute pain is a completely normal response to dangerous stimuli. It usually follows some form of tissue irritation, which may or may not include damage to the tissues.

This is the pain we experience when we bump into something, strain a muscle or cut ourselves. It serves a protective purpose – alerting us to the incident and getting us to change our behaviour accordingly, so we do no further harm. It usually subsides when healing has taken place – often before (think of a cut, it doesn’t hurt all the time, only in the beginning).

For some people, pain does not resolve after the acute phase, and it becomes chronic pain, which is a problem in and of itself.

Chronic pain occurs due to changes in the nervous system, which make it more sensitive.

Whilst too deep a topic to cover in a short section, the most important thing to grasp about chronic pain is that the longer it has been present, the less correlation there is with tissue damage, and the more sensitive the nervous system has become.

Chronic pain is manageable, but it needs a very different approach to acute pain.

Conclusions

Pain can be thought of as an alarm bell. A highly sensitive alarm bell that often rings for no reason and sometimes keeps ringing despite people cutting of its power supply.

Understanding the complexity underpinning the pain experience is an important step to resolving or managing pain, and one that pays long term dividends.

This post can only touch on the basics of pain, but it is enough to give you an overview of the main components.

 

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

Burke, S.R., et al, A profile of osteopathic practice in Australia 2010-11: a cross sectional survey, BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2013, 14:227 [http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2474/14/227]

Louw, A., et al,  The effect of neuroscience education on pain, disability, anxiety and stress in chronic musculoskeletal pain, Arch Physical Med Rehabilil, 2011 Dec;92(12):2041-56 [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22133255]

Melzack, R. and Katz, J. (2013), Pain. WIREs Cogn Sci, 4: 1–15. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1201