I knew the brain can change itself. It used to be thought, according to accepted opinion, that after about age 20 our brain cells gradually died off. No chance of late flowering genius! When neuroplasticity was discovered, with enormous benefit to stroke patients, it was almost impossible to get the research published.
What I didn’t know was that my brain not only rewires with chronic pain, but according to Norman Doidge’s latest book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, I can change it back again.
How pain works in the brain: We don’t actually feel pain at the injury site. Rather, messages are sent via the spinal cord to the brain for assessment. It decides how serious the damage is, ramping up your pain accordingly. If it thinks you are not taking action, it is more persistent – got to get your attention!
Chronic pain in the brain: “What fires together, wires together.” So the more persistent your pain, the stronger become the neural connections and the more easily they fire. Doidge described the vicious circle: “each time he [Michael Moskowitz – see below] had an attack of pain, his plastic brain got more sensitive to it, making it worse, setting him up for a new, still worse attack next time….It was a case of plasticity gone wild.”
Soon the pain demands more neural real estate, taking over nearby areas normally used to process images, thoughts, movement and emotion. Which is why when my pain is really bad, my vision is blurry and I can’t think clearly, particularly making decisions. I simply can’t process the information. It’s also why I am snappy and burst into tears. Normally, we use 5% of our brains to process pain; when it’s chronic this can increase to 25%.
Doidge led me to Dr. Michael Moskowitz, who had an accident which left him with disabling pain, most days scaling 8 out of 10. A doctor certified in both psychiatry and pain control, he determined to abort the chronic pain cycle and worked out a program for himself. Today, he is pain free, runs a pain clinic teaching his methods and has developed a workbook, see below.
What I did: while waiting for Dr. Moskowitz’ workbook to arrive, I worked out a self-help neuroplasticity routine, based on info from Doidge’s book. When pain sets in, I:
- Immediately try and occupy the brain areas that my pain will want to hijack: look around, expanding my range of vision; pick out details; move consciously and flex my hands; think actively by arguing points, taking an interest. Above all, don’t let my brain blur with pain.
- Reassure my brain, telling it “This is good walking (or sitting)”. I found pictures of a healthy spine, standing and sitting, which I visualize.
- See the inflamed pain area in my brain shrinkng. I also found pictures of a brain in normal and in chronic pain, so I can imprint the normal one.
It is hard work, but almost immediately I felt easier and found I was doing more. It is worth working with and when the workbook arrives, I will devour it and add to my repertoire.
The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge, MD.
The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph frm the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge, MD.
TED Talks: The Brain that Changes Itself – link
The Brain and Neuroplasticity – link
Neuroplastic Transformation: Your Brain on Pain by Michael Moskowitz, MD and Marla D. Golden, DO. A practical workbook for training your brain away from chronic pain.
Videos accompanying the workbook and explaining neuroplasticity – link