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Pain and the Brain Connection

Chronic pain is felt in the body; in the shoulders, neck, back, headaches, BUT the amazing thing is, chronic pain is almost always about the brain.

See, this funny thing happens to people that are in chronic pain. They feel the pain every single day. Sometimes movements make it worse, before it makes it better, but people stop at the first sign of movement because they think “Oh doing yoga made it so much worse, therefore yoga is bad, wrong, horrific, ... fill in your adjective here.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. If you experience more pain from movement, it could be because of several reasons: you pushed too hard, too quickly, you moved in a way that the muscle and connective tissue was not used to because you have held them in the same position for years for fear of pain, you moved, experienced pain, tensed up causing a shortening in the connective tissue which sent in more pain receptors to fire off causing increased pain awareness.

When you have lived with chronic pain, you hold yourself differently for fear of setting off more pain signals. When you limit your range of motion, the connective tissue shortens and tightens. In this state, a simple range of motion you could do three months ago now has become more limited. I use *Paul Grilley’s example of grandma with a broken wrist. For eight weeks grandma has her arm in a sling to immobilize her wrist while the bone mends. Older people need longer to regenerate osteoclasts (the process of healing bone) in order to mend the bone, hence the eight weeks of immobilization. Finally, the sling comes off, and guess what? The pain grandma feels now is in her shoulder. Why? Because the connective tissue has shrunk. I think of it as becoming brittle and dry due to lack of movement. Now we have an entire new issue. Getting movement in a joint that has atrophied from lack of movement. The first time you introduce any range of motion in that area it will hurt. BUT with continued, limited range of motion exercises, or therapeutic yoga, it will soften, lubricate and become useful again, without pain.

The funny thing that happens in the brain with people in chronic pain, is that the brain becomes way more sensitive to pain. Any pain. And builds up sensitivities that trigger the pain alarm sensing a threat before an actual threat has happened. The person feels this and freezes. Now, instead of the pain signal firing off at, let’s say 120 degrees of motion, it sets it of at 80 degrees of motion...just in case. The next time, it could be 60 degrees, thus limiting your range of motion over time.

The good news? This can be reversed. It takes time. Usually months. And you have to want to stop the pain and increase the ROM. Not everyone has that commitment or the fortitude to create that.

Next time: The Brain as an Emotion


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