In my last post about understanding and relieving pain I left off talking about over-excited neurons (the messengers of the nervous system) and how they play a part in chronic pain.
Most of our lives the sensors in what Neil Pearson calls our “danger neurons” have a rather high threshold for pain. After an injury these neurons may continue to send danger signals well past the point that the injury is on its way to healing. Our pain threshold begins to go down, and even areas not directly affected by an injury can also become painful due to the brains inaccurate map of the body. This is how our nervous systems become hyper-sensitive. The brain and nervous system continue to send out danger signals that create pain and inflammation even when they are not necessary. Soon, even regular body motion unrelated to the injury may stimulate pain because of this hypersensitivity. This is the point that people often give up trying to move and retreat into passive acceptance of chronic pain. This state is often where people can become addicted to pain medications.
To compound the cycle of chronic pain, the neurons in the spinal cord are building more sensors that may also become habituated to sending out danger signals. As these sensors come on-line so-to-speak, they too begin to detect more danger chemicals like adrenalin and then send more danger signals to the brain which then leads to more pain.
What we see here is that the nervous system can learn to be hypersensitive. It’s akin to having a song stuck in your head from the time you awaken in the morning. Clients with chronic pain may also experience more pain at the mere thought of the circumstance that caused their injury in the first place. What pain researchers and practitioners like Pearson have discovered is that the nervous system can also learn to be less sensitive and turn down the danger signals and once again return the pain threshold to a more normal level. You have the power to re-educate your nervous system and live a life with less pain.
As I mentioned, the sensing detectors on our nerves replace themselves frequently, about every three to four days. The nervous system is constantly adapting and changing by renewing itself. This is our opportunity to begin reconditioning our nervous system and teaching it become less excited so we can reduce our pain.
Also, the pain relieving chemicals in our bodies’ are more powerful than the danger chemicals we produce. The good news is that we can train our nervous systems to release more of the pain killing chemicals, like endorphins. To do this we must convince our nervous systems that it is unnecessary for it to continue to send danger signals which result in more pain. Just as muscle cells change in response to exercise so nerve cells can learn to calm down and stop sending so many pain signals. Pearson and others have demonstrated in their work that neurons can change in response to how we move, how we stretch, to our thoughts, our emotions and our beliefs. All these actions are in our control. It may not be easy, but it is possible. It just takes consistent practice.
Every second our body is creating new nerve sensors. If we greet these new cells with calmness by diffusing stress, worry and other negative emotions these new sensors learn to be less reactive and excited. In the three to four days it takes to replace all of our nerve sensors we can begin to retrain our nervous systems to diminish the danger signals it sends out as a result of chronic pain. With regular practice we can ease our pain significantly.
Laughter, fun, gentle yoga and meditation are some ways for us to produce more endorphins. According to Pearson, one endorphin molecule can block as many as 50 danger signals. Apparently that’s much more powerful than morphine. Regular practice of these ways to produce endorphins means less pain. It may take a while, but using such methods can help us train ourselves to make permanent changes in our pain levels unlike the temporary relief provided by potentially addictive drugs.
Of course, this is a brief summary of what Neil Pearson taught us about pain relief in our yoga therapy training, but at least you now have an idea of how to approach pain with a solid strategy that help you live a more enjoyable, functional life.
Please check out Pearson’s website: www.lifeisnow.ca/ Neil has lots of great free content.
Also, please take a look at the work of Lorimer Moseley. He is one of the most prominent pain researchers in the world; and he gave a great T.E.D. talk, too.