Above is an amusing, but serious, TED talk from a pain scientist on the growing understanding of how pain works in the body.  We are learning so much about how the brain works thanks to functional MRIs that show which areas of the brain light up to different stimuli.  The same area of the brain reacts to physical or emotional pain: to the body it is the same.  All pain is real but it only exists in the brain.  The original theory of pain was it is caused by tissue damage.  Put your hand in the fire and it will hurt:  yes it will, but it will hurt even quicker once your brain has learnt that fire is dangerous.  

There was a famous case, recently, of a British construction worker who stepped on a large nail so that it passed all the way through the sole of his boot and out the top.  He was taken to hospital in extreme pain and given high dose pain relief and taken to theatre.  When they cut off his boot they found the nail had passed between his toes: he was totally unharmed.  He wasn’t an anxious person or attention seeking – his brain believed what his eyes saw. A nail had passed through his foot, so his brain gave him pain so he didn’t move.  Contrast that with stories we have all heard about a farmer who has a serious injury in a field far from help.  He has to walk to get help and so later reports he felt no pain at the time.  His brain decided pain wouldn’t help him in that moment; he needed to walk.  The pain came later when he needed to heal and rest.  Our brain learns from experience and decides when to have pain.  Another true story is of a Vietnam US soldier who was injured and air lifted out in a helicopter.  He recovered and was pain free for 20 years until he heard a helicopter.  On hearing the helicopter he collapsed in agony.  There was nothing wrong with him but his brain had learnt to connect the sound of a helicopter with danger.  

Culturally pain can be catching, back pain is very common in the western world but not in other parts of the world.  This is because pain is a danger signal – could be danger you are injured, having a heart attack or could be there are redundancies at work and you fear you will be next.  Your body perceives redundancy as dangerous you may not be able to pay the bills, if you don’t have food or shelter you may die.  We inhabit a body with a lot of primitive instincts and it views the world very simply – where are the threats and when it perceives one it acts.  Just as a baby cries when something is wrong our body sends signals.  We need to learn its language and listen. That signal may be anger, fear or pain etc.  That is where cultural conditioning can come in; we live in a society where anger is not welcome, fear is a sign of weakness, but pain is acceptable and attracts support.   Adverse childhood events are a big predictor of pain in adulthood.  Research shows the more adverse events in childhood the greater is our risk of chronic pain.  As children we rely on our caregivers to feed us and keep us safe.  If those care-givers are not reliable we learn to people please and put our needs last.  We can take those patterns into adulthood and not pay attention to our own needs and suppress our emotions; those suppressed emotions can be expressed by the body as pain.  

Because historically medicine/science hasn’t understood pain and our body’s primitive responses well, medicine has been guilty of telling people they have medically unexplained symptoms and even that they are invested in being ill or malingering.  It has left people feeling justifiably angry, feeling not heard and abandoned.  

I have been pursuing post graduate training in chronic pain and stress illness management.  Learning about up to date pain science and skills to connect with our bodies, hear what it is telling us and thereby calm down pain pathways and symptomatic patterns.  This isn’t a switch from the disempowerment of unexplained pain to its all your fault.  It’s a message there is always hope.  You can learn to help yourself and there are always others who can help you along the way.  The body has a remarkable ability to heal itself when it is given the right support, we should have more confidence in it not less.  As an osteopath I am well placed to work with people in this way.  Osteopaths already take long case histories to look for where in your history your current problem may of originated.  This work is adding an extra layer of looking more in-depth.  When I have completed the training I will be able to offer this in a more structured way.  I will be in a better position to access whether we are dealing with a structural issue or a stress induced condition (or a mixture of both) and guide treatment accordingly.  

The list of stress-related conditions is growing.  Conditions that we now know are strongly influenced by past or present stress include: Chronic pain, headaches/migraine, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and some long covid.  I have already started using this approach with some of my patients.  I have seen patients arrive with a distrust/fear of their own body and the pain and sensations it has given them.  Osteopathic treatment has helped them change that relationship, the touch and experience of treatment has helped them reconnect with their body.  They have learnt that pain doesn’t automatically mean there is something to fear going on in their body and that knowledge means that they start to get less pain. 

The first step is education about how pain works.  Subsequent steps are identifying current stressors and triggers and developing a more positive relationship with your body to understand that it is trying to help you: then you can listen to it without fear and let it help you live your life to the fullest.  

It is always important to get new pain or symptoms checked by an appropriate medical professional.  

If you want to learn more please get in contact.  

“The mind ill at ease, the body suffers also” Ovid