Three Ways Your Brain Communicates Pain and What You Can Do About It

Understanding different types of pain and what they can mean for you.

Three Types of Pain

We’re all familiar with pain in one way or another, whether it’s the stabbing sensation of a stubbed toe, the acute pain of a broken bone, or the relentless throb of a migraine. But did you know there are three types of pain? Read on to find the one that most relates to your current pain profile:

  1. Nociceptive – when nerve endings sense damage to tissues in your body. This type of pain can be anything from bee stings to nausea, or a repetitive strain injury to a sprained ankle.
  2. Neuropathic – this relates to damage to the nervous system itself either from disease, injury or irritation (i.e., pinching), hitting your funny bone, multiple sclerosis, chemotherapy, stroke, infection, diabetes, or an autoimmune disorder.
  3. Neuroplastic – this type of pain arises from neurological dysfunction vs. damage and affects how your brain processes pain and occurs with a history of nociceptive or neuropathic pain. If you have non-specific chronic low-back pain, unexplained headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and osteo arthritis you’ll likely have neuroplastic pain.

Pain as a Construct of the Brain

According to Lorimer Mosley, a clinical neuroscientist at the University of South Australia who’s been studying pain for the last 30 years, pain is an illusion and a construct of the brain 100% of the time. Please feel free to read that again! Pain is a 100% construct of the brain. Pain is not just about the tissues in the body, pain is the result of output from the brain. Let me explain:

The rule of thumb is that nociceptive and neuropathic pain, if all goes well, will subside over a few days or months. However, neuroplastic pain is a different story.

Pain is a protector; it tells us when we’ve been injured. This works well initially in that you can act to remedy and heal an injury. However, your brain/body also learns pain. If you keep running the brain cells that produce pain, they become better at producing pain. They become more and more sensitive, requiring smaller and smaller activations to produce pain signals.

The Anxious Over-Protective Brain

With neuroplastic pain, the brain is trying to protect you from something that no longer needs protecting. It becomes like an anxious over-protective parent. And the pain is very real. If you’ve ever experienced pain spreading to other parts of your body over days/weeks/months you’re not imagining it. Neural networks lose their capacity to be specific and precise, and so the pain spreads and changes its quality over time. This is a common experience for people with fibromyalgia.

How does this happen? There are several influences relating to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For example, if you keep reminding yourself that it’s not okay to go for a walk (behavior) because your back may go out and “that’s going to really hurt” (thought), you may end up feeling anxious (feeling) about missing out on exercise.

Not exercising (behavior) then feeds into a continuous downward spiral that exacerbates neuroplastic pain. That more you focus on what you can’t do or how much pain you have, you run into getting more of what you focus on, a specialty of the brain!

How Somatics Can Help

How does this relate to Somatics? Most people find their way to somatics after months, years, or decades of pain in their body i.e., neuroplastic pain. Through a combination of focused awareness, relaxation, and motor control movements aimed at releasing muscle tension (vs. emphasizing or avoiding pain) the brain begins to dismantle the neuroplastic pain pathways and creates new neural networks that pave the way to less pain, more flexibility, and greater ease in movement.

In the final analysis, most pain is not structural but our brain’s faulty response to danger. While warning you of danger is the appropriate role of pain, when the danger has passed but your brain continues to overreact with prolonged pain, you end up being stuck in an out-of-date feedback loop.

The good news is that your brain is neuro and bioplastic, meaning it can change, grow, and evolve in response to life experiences including pain. Each time you practice Somatics you’re literally changing how your brain interprets body sensations shifting from a fixed pain pattern into one of expanded awareness and relaxation. 

Regular practice engages neuroplasticity with repeated firing of new neurons that replace the old out-of-date ones and neurons that fire together wire together. This is how your brain reorganizes your body and lifts you out of the downward spiral of pain into an upward spiral of ease and wellbeing.

Categories: : brain, pain, somatics