As I mentioned in my last post, physical therapist, Neal Pearson compares pain interpretation by the nervous system to vision and thirst. Understanding how the pain response works is critical to decreasing chronic pain.

Though the brain has a very accurate map of our largest organ, the skin, it does not no its way around the body as well as we might imagine. Pain on our hands or face is accurately identified by the brain. Internal mechanisms to manage our body may not always reflect what is really happening like it does on our skin.

We’ve all drunk or eaten something cold and gotten a brain freeze headache. This is a good example of the brain misinterpreting signals from the palate that we are ingesting something dangerous. We may perceive pain in our foreheads but there is nothing threatening to this area of the body. This is an example of referred pain that gives an experience of pain but not an accurate fact about what is actually happening in the body.

Pearson also compares pain to vision. The instructive visual he illustrates on page 25 of Understand Pain, Live Well Again shows a cube with a dot in the lower right hand corner. At first sight the cube looks one way, but by gazing persistently another interpretation of the cube and dot pops into view. Your nervous system perceived it one way, but then the perspective changed suddenly to present an entirely different view. This is a clue that we can also learn to perceive pain signals differently with awareness and practice.

Pain is also like thirst. When we are thirsty we drink, our thirst is satisfied and the brain stops telling you to drink even though your body has not sufficiently absorbed the liquid to increase the low blood volume level that prompted you to drink in the first place. As soon as your thirst is slaked the brain stops paying attention because you’ve taken the proper corrective action even though your body won’t benefit for another 15 minutes.

Another example of how the brain misinterprets pain is a headache. One of the leading causes of an achy head is dehydration. Seldom do we think of drinking a glass of water when we have a headache. The brain tell us something is wrong, but not necessarily what to do about it.

Now that we have a clearer understanding of the brain and how it doesn’t always give us accurate information about pain, how can we use this to deal with chronic pain?

In my next post I will discuss how neurons (the pain messengers) can get over excited. Over excited neurons lower our pain threshold and begin to send unnecessary pain signals that lead to chronic pain.