Pain serves a purpose: it tells us when something in our body needs to be protected, so that we can prevent further damage, or while it heals. But what about chronic pain -- persistent or recurring pain that lasts for months even after the original injury has healed? In many cases these persisting pain signals can be seen as a faulty circuit in the nervous system, a mistake.
We used to have a very straightforward understanding of pain: the more tissue damage you have - the more pain you feel. But recent studies show that the same amount of tissue damage often does not mean the same level of pain. In other words, you can compare two people who have a very similar condition (like a bulging disk) showing up on their x-ray, and find that one person may have a lot of pain, while the other has no pain at all.
A recent research study analyzed multiple articles looking at x-rays of people who did not have any back pain. The study found that quite a few of those people had disc degeneration: from 37% in all 20-year-olds to 96% in all 80-year-olds, and almost as many had a bulging disc. However, all of this tissue damage was not causing any pain!
“Studies show that physical damage to our tissues often does not correspond to
the level of pain we experience.”
Studies like this show us that physical damage to our tissues often does not correspond to the level of pain we experience. Why does this happen? This is possible because pain is complex. Signals from tissue damage are only one aspect of a multidimensional response in our brain that creates pain.
Often, when acute pain is experienced for long periods of time, the brain becomes sensitized to pain and begins to produce more pain with less input. Becoming sensitized to pain means that the brain actually learns pain and becomes better at producing it by increasing the network of neurons that carry pain signals. Brain becomes more sensitive to signals of pain by linking different areas of the brain together, so less input is needed to produce more pain, and pain can also be triggered by different kinds of input.
"Becoming sensitized to pain means that the brain actually learns pain and
becomes better at producing it."
To understand this better you can think of how a familiar smell evokes a whole range of memories, emotions, and sensations. For example, if you used to bake holiday cookies with your family, just sensing that familiar smell will evoke detailed memories of that time and feelings associated with it. In a similar way, when you are about to perform an activity that might have at some point been painful, the memory of that pain activates the pain network in the brain, and produces pain, even though the activity now may be perfectly safe.
So how do we stop practicing pain? An important characteristic of our nervous system that can help our quest to become pain-free is called neuroplasticity. We used to think that the brain stops developing when the person reaches adulthood. Now we understand that the brain is constantly changing and evolving, no matter our age. This natural plasticity of the brain we can use to our advantage.
“We can begin to unlearn pain as we develop and strengthen the brain’s safety
The good news is that just like our brain learns pain through the faulty circuit of danger signals that it builds into a pain network, it can also begin to unlearn pain as we develop and strengthen the safety network. Just like with any skill, we get better at what we practice, and we can practice being pain-free through practicing safety.
This is where yoga comes in. It helps us unlearn pain by training our nervous system to feel safe and create new habits through practices such as calm breathing, safe movement connected with breath, and conscious relaxation and visualization techniques.
When we move with breath, safely and without pain, we are actually rewiring our brain and the nervous system, and making it less likely to be over-sensitive to pain. Physical postures, breathing and mindfulness help reduce tension in the muscles, increase flexibility, build strength, and mobilize the joints. But positive effects of yoga go beyond these physical factors to deeply influence our nervous system and the brain.
“Yoga is not primarily a physical practice, but really a wellness psychology.”
Yoga is not just (and not primarily) a physical practice, but really a practical wellness psychology. An aspect of yoga that is especially valuable in counteracting chronic pain is its focus on creating a deep internalized state of peace and safety. We can use our positive memories and associations to help develop this strong internal sense of safety. What helps each of us connect to this inner resource can be very personal, but with an increased bodily and sense awareness developed through yoga even something as simple as that familiar smell of holiday cookies, or a calming sound of the ocean waves, can be used to help us build a multi-sensory experience of safety. We can learn to use this sense of safety to create a “competing response” in our nervous system that reduces perception of pain.
With yoga, we can stop practicing pain and begin to practice feeling safe and secure. By engaging in physical and mental practices that yoga offers we can unlearn pain and instead learn to feel more at ease in our bodies and our minds.
Interested in learning how yoga therapy can help you get out of pain and feel better in your body and mind? Book a free 30 min consultation call with Asya.