Nothing is more frustrating than pain that comes back again when really you know you have to be healed by now. Yet so many of us find that ever since we hurt that foot or shoulder or back we now have a “bad” back. We are sure It’s never going to be the same or it flares up when I’m tired stressed and can’t afford to stop.
When we get injured the tissues heal in about 6 weeks, each body is different but repair is pretty quick and efficient. That’s the muscles and skin and tendons etc. the physical nerves and bone might take a little longer. But the nervous system can keep on singing that pain song for a long time. Like the insipid radio jingle from years gone by it pops up again when you’d least expect it.
I found the analogy of a pain song so useful. I read it in my new favorite book Explain Pain (by David Butler and Lorimer Moseley). If the brain is an orchestra it can make an innumerable number of sounds. The art is combining those sounds to make recognizable music. The more a song gets played the more accessible it is, it becomes a tune we know so very well that we can’t seem to get away from it.
The brain is using input from the body and from itself and forming neuro-sequences, the sounds of the orchestra. Input from the body that sends injury messages will usually make the brain come up with a pain song.
If your broken bone has long mended and it isn’t hurt tissues making your brain play the pain song, what is? Thoughts, beliefs, memories, movements, sensations, all the pieces of information (or sounds from your orchestra) coming together in a specific sequence. Bang! There is that tune again. When you know the song really well, you don’t need the sheet music, the first line gets you singing. Or if you’re really good at it, the opening two notes are enough.
Neuroscience calls this phenomena associative networks or neurotags, when just one piece leads you to the whole. That is how the brain can get so much work done so fast. The assembling of memories or movements or pain comes together by relying on past patterns. Little bits of sensation, emotion, thought, or movement that become linked by activating each other.
As you know, your pain song was loud when you hurt yourself so you would stop and get safe. If you didn’t stop and take care of yourself more instruments joined the song building the volume and complexity. But you probably aren’t in the same danger now, yet your brain has learned to associate the thought, movement, sensation, memory, temperature, or your Aunt Hilda with danger. The associative networks are connecting because your brain isn’t going to take any chances this time.
Learning this pain song took a lot of practice, over and over, sometimes loud, sometimes just a single clarinet quietly playing that familiar tune. To keep us safe our brains pay way more attention to danger or potential danger or even it kinda looks like some danger we once knew. And it all happens below consciousness so you can keep doing the grocery shopping, or following the conversation at work or whatever needs your attention. If you brain is convinced there is a real problem it will create pain without cluttering your conscious mind with the details. You can get that song in your head and you don’t even know how it started.
So one of the ways to unlearn the pain song is to mess with the notes. Find a not painful song that starts with the same sound, can you just sustain that one sound without pain? Even for a few seconds? It might be a small but fluid movement. It might be starting a movement and stopping before the pain kicks in. Say you have a shoulder that is prone to pain when you move it in a certain way. Can you think, fully visualize moving it, without triggering pain? Good! that’s a start. How about a shoulder shrug? Too painful? Do it on the healthy side and just visualize doing it on the injured side. It might as big as a shoulder roll. Or you do it lying on the floor or while whistling, finding a way to add novelty so the brain thinks this pattern is different. You want to break up the associative network; find lots of new ways to experience this movement pain free. I understand it takes a while to build a new repertoire of pain free movement before too long you will find yourself singing a new song.
Notice, enjoy, revel in pain free moments, engage full awareness of your body, feel into every cell, and try to memorize what it is like. Can you link this pain free moment to something? Create a memory, a new associative network. Find yourself singing a new song. Learning from danger is easy but learning from pleasure can pack as much power. If you’re a person who is in pain a lot of the time, you might try hold your breath and not notice when you’re pain free, you’d hate to jinx it. But paying attention to moments that are pain free, finding pleasure in them builds associate networks too. Begin to associate feeling the sensations and being in your body with pleasure. I have found that things that used to trigger pain I can now do without bursting forth with the pain song. I’d love to hear about your experiences as well.