What is really happening when we feel pain?
Sonia Lee PhD RCST BCST – Craniosacral Therapist
Until I trained as a Craniosacral Therapist, I thought that if there was pain then there must be tissue damage, that these two were inextricably linked. I also thought that the more pain there was, the more tissue damage there was. This understanding of pain is commonplace in our society.
The last few decades of research into pain have revolutionised our understanding of what is going on when we experience pain and have huge implications for the treatment of pain. And yet little of this has filtered into our general knowledge.
Firstly, we now understand that pain is really all in the head. Before you think I am saying you are making it up or putting it on, I mean that the organ producing the experience of pain is the brain, not the tissues that are damaged. And what we now understand is that there are many, many other factors that influence the way that the brain and spinal cord produce and interpret pain, and for how long that experience continues. Our brains have an amazing potential to modify the experience of pain.
We know intuitively that some people have a greater or lesser ‘pain threshold’. Researchers have discovered in recent years that the brain assesses not only the tissue damage but also combines this information with past experiences, memories, beliefs, feelings, stress levels and other measures of physiological wellbeing. These factors can increase or decrease the experience of pain.
Other mechanisms sensitise and enlarge areas of the brain and spinal cord, ensuring that an increasingly small stimulus produces an increasingly large pain experience in the future, literally ‘prolonging the agony’ as the brain is stuck on high alert long after the tissue damage has been repaired. Other mechanisms are at work that cause pain that is out of proportion with the disorder – for example people with mild arthritis can experience severe pain. And compensations by the body mean that whereas the pain might be ‘felt’ in one part of the body, the original tissue damage occurred somewhere else altogether. Our bodies adjust posture and create new strains in order to optimise function in a new compromised state.
One in five of us is experiencing chronic pain of one kind or another. And the ongoing experience of pain can be debilitating, fundamentally affecting quality of life experience and often limiting the ability to do the very things that make us feel better: visiting friends or going for a stroll along the river. Our closest relationships need to adjust to accommodate the different needs and capacities. The knowledge that much of the pain experienced can be put down to a neurological disfunction does nothing to reduce the pain and probably causes further irritation!
If the brain is the organ generating the experience then it makes sense to treat the malfunction in the brain’s central pain system. A variety of treatment methods, with varying degrees of evidence base, are popping up to treat the way in which the brain determines whether there is a problem. One solution is to remind the brain that the tissues aren’t damaged (or are damaged to a lesser extent) and these solutions are increasingly being recognised as helpful in reducing pain.
Craniosacral Therapy is a treatment modality that helps the brain to remember healthy sensations in the body, and can be very helpful for pain conditions where the source or reason for the pain is not clear. The therapy can trigger the brain to reorient to a different map of the body – one where the underlying vitality is felt and the pain more accurately reflects actual tissue damage, if present.
We gently enable clients to feel into the parts of the body that feel well, the underlying health. If it was a long time since these healthy sensations were felt, then orienting to images of a favourite beach or countryside scene, a loving pet, an uplifting piece of music can be a ‘way in’. The nervous system responds to these images, sounds and smells, and our physiology begins to change.
We offer a gentle holding, lightly placing our hands on the client’s body and listening to subtle rhythms and movement. These rhythms are known by Craniosacral Therapists and Osteopaths as fundamental to maintaining function and balance in the body and mind. The contact from the therapist’s hands acts as a mirror – reminding the body of the health that is always present, amidst the difficulty being experienced.
Treating the whole person is important and attending to diet and lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking or excess work are important in desensitising the nervous system. Finding a new rhythm and balance in life, where there is space for relaxation and fully taking in the present moment, time for friends and family and the little things that bring moments of joy; all of this can help us to come out of the ‘fight or flight’ nervous system reactions and back to a balanced function in the autonomic nervous system.
Craniosacral Therapy is safe and effective for all ages and even if in fragile health or acutely painful condition. If you want to know more, please phone me for a chat and brief free consultation, or book an appointment through the clinic reception.
Sonia Lee is giving a free talk “An Introduction to Craniosacral Therapy” on Friday 8th June at 6pm at the Arcturus Centre. All welcome. This will be an informal talk with opportunity to ask questions and find out if Craniosacral Therapy is for you. Please contact Sonia to let her know you are coming.
Sonia Lee PhD RCST BCST
01364 642 050 (evenings)
01803 86 82 82 (to book appointments)
Here are some other recent articles and short videos on pain:
New Zealand Listener: Yes, Pain really is all in your head
An accessible and fun TEDx talk by clinical neuroscientist Professor Lorimer Moseley – Why Things Hurt
Understanding pain in less than 5 minutes. New evidence based approaches to chronic pain management.