Can training the brain lead to less back pain?

Why people get chronic pain is unknown 

A common factor is that our bodies change as we age. Despite all our preferences and needs or wants, no one wants to have a chronic medical condition diagnosis whether it is cancer, heart disease, diabetes, neurological disease, or chronic pain. 

How resilient people are to accept these new conditions can influence how a person views his or her quality of life.

Don’t let chronic pain limit your personal goals.

By thinking of chronic pain as coming from an over-stimulated central nervous system, it may be possible to retrain areas of the brain that are over-stimulated by engaging in other activities that stimulate other parts of the brain. Scientists call this process neural plasticity. Some have experienced reduced pain by concentrating on a new hobby or learning a new language or activity. The common factor with all these approaches is that new or different parts of the brain become stimulated.

Using your brain can help you decrease back pain

Even simple cognitive or mental exercises can be helpful to decrease your pain. Did you know that if you believe something will cause pain, your brain becomes more sensitized to it? Pain-related fear may increase the susceptibility of your spinal cord to overreact and amplify normal signals. Some have even said they fear they will end up in a wheelchair because of their pain.

If you always rate your pain a 12 out of 10, or use terms like excruciating, severe, or debilitating, your brain quickly believes it. Psychologists call this catastrophization. Constant facial grimacing, limping, or groaning can stimulate the brain and spinal cord to amplify or expect these pain signals. Once these patterns have developed, it is even more difficult for the brain to reprogram them or override them.

How does training your brain work?

Psychologists have successfully taught people mental relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, and mindfulness exercises to alleviate and manage their chronic pain. Cancer patients can also use these techniques to improve their functioning and decrease their pain medication use, but it doesn’t mean their cancer will improve day to day.

Other studies indicate that exercise is an effective treatment for depression. Meditation, yoga, and stress management exercises can be helpful. Mindfulness practice or nonjudgmental analysis of your thoughts and beliefs to reshape these thoughts can be helpful in learning to deal with chronic pain.

These are techniques that allow your brain to wander, but when it happens to focus on the pain again, simply redirect your thoughts to something different in a nonjudgmental manner. These exercises are similar to training a puppy to sit, using repeated redirection and practice without assigning any negative judgments or mal-intent.

The sooner you learn how to recognize the elements that make up your pain, the sooner you can learn to manage each of those components. Make an effort to understand the sources of your stressors—then you can make new life choices that can decrease depression, anxiety, or stress and help eliminate misunderstandings or fears about your pain.

What parts of the brain deal with pain?

There are lots of different areas of the brain that are associated with a person’s pain experience. One part of the brain involved in pain control is called the amygdala. This area deep within the brain is also thought to control a person’s fear. This may explain why many people with chronic back pain have a large fear of physical activity causing injury or re-injury, and why pain can occur after actual damage or even perceived damage to an area of the body. Neuroscientists are doing studies to see if the amygdala’s fear response can be switched on and off.

Other deep areas of the brain that are involved with chronic pain are the hypothalamus and pituitary gland. These areas produce stress hormones that circulate throughout our bodies to allow us to respond instantaneously to threats.

Another way to think about stress and pain is that when you are under extreme stress, or have to deal with an immediate threat to your body and safety, your body becomes accustomed to living in a fight-or-flight response. Some researchers suspect that early childhood or previous trauma or stressors can lead to a long-lasting impact on our hypothalamus and pituitary gland’s ability to control production of stress hormones.

We don’t yet know how to “reset” these hormone levels using any medications that are currently available. We hope that by doing these cognitive-behavioral stress management exercises, you will be able to naturally decrease the levels of these hormones.

Your brain is your best asset

Another way to think about all of these issues is that your best asset in dealing with chronic pain is to use your brain’s computing powers. As with any computer, imagine you have several different windows open with each of them running complex programs that require you to constantly maintain your personal safety, manage your fears or anxieties, or deal with depression. Running all of these programs can make your computer inefficient and decrease the working memory that you have to deal with chronic pain, your overall happiness, or life satisfaction.

A better way to deal with all of these stressors is to understand that by minimizing the windows through taking the appropriately prescribed antidepressant or anti-anxiety medications, or engaging in talk therapy, you can free up your brain’s ability to deal with or learn how to deal with chronic pain.

Last reviewed: 
April 2018

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