As a doctor who regularly works with patients struggling with pain, I've found even with similar injuries, people can experience different levels of pain intensity that fluctuate day to day. Sharing these fundamental truths about pain that I've come to understand through my studies and practice can help you understand pain. Ultimately, I want to give you the tools to train your brain and change your experience of pain.
1. The physical body feels emotions.
One 40-something male who'd strained a back muscle throwing a softball with his kid came to visit me. Keep in mind your spine is naturally strong; a sore muscle from playing catch does not cause persistent pain. Regardless, my patient complained about frequent excruciating pain. I noticed he seemed tense and stressed out. He admitted he wasn't sleeping well or exercising regularly. Unfortunately, his wife discounted his pain, telling him he exaggerated how badly he suffered.
A few months later, I saw a female patient around the same age with a very similar injury. She walked into my office calm and focused, which no doubt stemmed from combining an Eastern perspective about pain and suffering with daily yoga and meditation.
Both patients suffered similar injuries, yet one could manage that pain while for the other it became debilitating. What they proved is that thoughts, beliefs, and life perspectives can all affect pain's intensity and even how quickly the body can heal.
2. Pain is an output from the brain, not an input from the body.
Thoughts and beliefs particularly shape pain when it becomes chronic. Tissue typically requires a few weeks to fully heal, yet the way your brain processes pain can make it much worse and prolong that healing. Pain is an output of the brain, not an input from the body. Your brain creates pain, and you are in control of your thoughts and brain. Therefore, in a sense, you have the ability to control pain.
Your brain creates pain based on many factors, including your thoughts and beliefs. If you've ever suffered pain, you've probably noticed certain people or your environment (ever have pain increase on a rainy day?) can affect that pain. Maybe you feel exhausted from looking for new treatments or are afraid of certain events that could trigger your pain. Those and other thoughts create physical repercussions. Maybe you struggle to maintain flexibility of the affected area. You might even notice that your pain extends from, say, your forearm to your shoulder.
Your brain's decision to create pain becomes based on numerous factors, including:
- Sensory: danger signals and input from muscles, joints, and other tissues
- Belief and cognitions: context, past experience with pain, anxiety, and meaning
- Emotions: both negative and positive
- Lifestyle: diet, sleep, stress, movement, work-life balance, purpose, passion, and spirituality
More specifically, a neurotag—a group of brain cells that work together to create a certain output—creates pain. Among the things that influence neurotags include:
- What you've been taught about pain
- Cultural influences about pain
- Your beliefs about pain
- Emotions like anger, guilt, or fear
- Body sensations like sights, smells, touch, and noise
3. Changing your thought patterns can change your healing experience.
Now that you understand neurotags, you can see why my two patients reacted differently to an injury. Whereas my male client struggled with negative emotions and had thoughts like "I'm much too old to be acting like a kid throwing a ball around," my female client had a positive, calm, can-do mindset that actually allowed her body to heal more efficiently.
Cultural influences, upbringing, beliefs, as well as lifestyle factors like being in shape and eating well all contribute to your brain's perception about pain. The good news is that you can start to control your pain by changing your thoughts.