top of page

HOW YOUR BRAIN LEARNS PAIN

NEUROPLASTICITY:

The ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience, or following injury.

Persistent Pain_Question

HOW NEUROPLASTICITY
WORKS

  • Neuroplasticity refers to our brain ability to learn new things. Our brains are highly complex and intelligent organs and are consistently absorbing new information and learning new things. 

  • Your brain is most neuroplastic during childhood and adolescence, so the old age adage of your brain is like a sponge when your young, is actually true. 

  • Think about your brain as this highly complex series of pathways that are consistently sending messages to each other. As your brain interprets new information based on your thoughts, feelings and the environment around you, these pathways light up and communicate with each other. 

  • Some of these pathways are well travelled pathways, the ones that experience things from the environment more often and more frequently. Every time we have similar thought processes or complete similar activities these pathways become more hard wired. They become stronger so that the brain finds it easier to compute this information when it is receives the same information again.

  • If we expose ourselves to new tasks, subjects or activities, our brain creates new pathways, the more frequently we try said activity, the stronger they become. In some cases this enables you to complete tasks autonomously, like driving, for example. 

  • However, if you start to stop using these pathways the strength of the signal between them becomes weaker. Which is why if you stop practising a sport or subject you either forget it or become less proficient at it.

  • This is one of the main reasons that it is important to keep your brain active as you get older, because neuroplasticity slows down. But the good news is we all have the ability to adapt and rewire these pathways in our brains. 

 

  • In the majority of cases this process is incredibly positive. It means we can learn new tasks and skills, it means we can study to become an astronaut or a doctor or what ever else takes your fancy!

  • When it comes to persistent pain it's not always that positive. 

Persistent Pain_Brain
Persistent Pain_Brain_Neuro

WHEN NEUROPLASTICITY
IS NOT SO POSITIVE

  • In the same way that your brain can learn a new skill or activity it can also learn pain. When we are in a potentially threatening situation a signal is sent from the stimulus, to the spinal cord and then off up to our brain.

 

  • At this point these pathways light up and start communicating with each other and they decide whether to produce a pain response or not, based on past experiences, what you've seen, heard or been told in the past.

  • The more this happens, the more these pathways light up and communicate with each other. As a result, more pathways are laid down and the more hard wired your brain becomes at anticipating pain. And it is this process we are referring to when we say that your brain can learn pain.

CENTRAL
SENSITIVITY/
HYPERSENSITIVITY

  • If a movement or activity has been painful for long enough more pain pathways are laid down in your brain and your nervous system. As a result your system starts to get better at anticipating pain

 

  • This manifests as your brain and your nervous system producing a pain response in situations where the level of threat to you is low or even when there is no threat at all. 

  • You may start to notice that movements or activities that were not painful previously start to become painful. Or even that you system produces pain at the thought of doing a certain movement. This increase in sensitivity may not just be linked to movement. You could also notice that your system is more sensitive to noise and sound too

  • In short, your system has become hypersensitive, over protective and pain is produced even when there is not harm or damage occurring to your tissues.

Persistent Pain_Sensitivity
Persistent Pain_Gym

HOW TO DESENSITISE YOUR SYSTEM

  • The good news is, although your brain can learn pain it can also unlearn pain too! This is because we have the ability to rewire and re-educate the pathways that have been laid down. 

  • Graded exposure works on the theory that if we slowly, gradually & progressively expose our system to certain movements or activities that we find uncomfortable, but we know are not causing harm or damage to our tissues, then over time this re-educates our brain that the level of threat is low when completing that particular activity. As a result, over time, the system produces a decreased pain response.

  • This is where exercise comes in! It may be a squat or sit to stand for knee pain or it could be bending for back pain but choosing a movement pattern that is currently painful, regressing it to a level that you feel comfortable with and slowly progressing that movement over time can help to desensitise the system, in turn, decreasing the pain you experience. 

 

  • This is often easier said than done and needs to be completed in a way and an environment that you feel safe and uncomfortable with. If you do require some help with this, be sure to contact a relevant health care professional.

USEFUL PERSISTENT PAIN VIDEO

bottom of page