Our Brain and Pain, Part II: Neuroplasticity
The feeling of pain is at first seemingly a simple concept to grasp, but after examining it, it becomes more complex. In the most simple terms, pain comes from signals from our brain. When the brain perceives the body to be in danger, for example, it sends “warning signals” to the vulnerable area of the body. This biological system is both effective and can save our lives. We may be familiar with the example of touching a hot stove. When touching a stove that’s hot enough to burn us, we receive pain signals from the brain seemingly immediately, and before we even think about it, we’re pulling our hand away from the stove, or the object that’s putting us in danger. Further, our brain remembers what it was that gave us pain, so when we come across the same scenario, we won’t put our body in danger anymore.
Pain and the Brain
However, when one experiences chronic pain – be it psychic or physical, or both – the issue of pain becomes more complicated. According to the website painHEALTH, when we experience persistent or constant pain, our signaling apparatus in our bodies go into a hyper-sensitive overdrive. People with chronic pain often experience pain in situations that people without this condition do not. Everyday actions, like sitting, standing, or possessing skin so sensitive the feeling of cloth against it can be painful.
Our brain, then, becomes a powerful instrument, and that by no means suggests that certain occurrences of pain are merely “mental” or illusory. The sensation is in fact very real, and something that can cause the person experiencing it not only constant discomfort, but accompanying feelings such as depression, irritability, isolation, and hopelessness. Therefore, when we speak of neuroplasticity, we are dealing with an issue of real importance to those who have overactive brain-nerve signals. Neuroplasticity is both a condition that can cause such over-activeness, but, fortunately, may also be the key to relieving the condition. But what is neuroplasticity and how is it connected to pain?
According to the Journal Neural Plasticity, “In the late 1960s, the term ‘neuroplasticity’ was introduced for morphological changes in neurons of adult brains.” What was discovered was that neurons change or “morph” based on a number of internal and external responses. One of these responses was stress. With repeated stress, the neurons, as well as the length and shape of certain parts of the brain, are “morphologically regressed.”
At first, this was thought to be an irreversible process, reminiscent of the old adage, “you can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” However, studies showed that this kind of morphology, or “plasticity” worked both ways. In other words, there was evidence to suggest that once the stress, say, was removed, the reaction of the brain could, in fact, change again.
What Does This Mean For Those With Chronic Pain?
For those dealing with chronic pain, or chronic depression, or any number of repeated stimuli, there is evidence that, due to neuroplasticity, it can alter the structure of the brain. However, now that neuroscientists know that this change, in fact, can be altered, there is a possibility to replace – to relieve – those stressors the neurons of the brain experiences, and thus, the brain may alter back in kind. It’s this that gives those with chronic pain, self-destructive habits, depression, anxiety, or other chronic conditions, hope.
Though chronic pain and habit are different, they’re similar in the sense that they’re repetitive, happening over and over again. The task, then, is to see if there’s a way to change this repetition, so that what the brain has constantly experienced, and altered to, may possibly spring back. This is easier said than done, of course, and it must also be said here that this post is not suggesting that those with chronic pain can either “will” it away, or that it may change. Neuroplasticity is something still being explored. If anything, neuroplasticity, and any study of neuroscience, keeps revealing how intricate and powerful the brain is, and how much more there is to learn about the brain.
It would be a mistake to think of the brain as separate from the body. Not only is it not separate: it’s inextricable from it.
(Much information and material are available on Neuroplasticity. Though a comprehensive list here is not possible, a simple search online for reputable sources can get you going.)
- ‘Pain Management’, painHealth, 2015, accessed April 4, 2016, http://painhealth.csse.uwa.edu.au/neuroplasticity.html.
- ‘Neural Plasticity — an Open Access Journal’, accessed April 4, 2016, http://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/.