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How Pain Works Part 1. All pain comes from your Brain

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Over the last 5-10 years we have learned A LOT about pain and how it works, but a lot of this is completely foreign to most people, so we’ve decided to produce a series of articles to help people actually understand their pain and what is going on… Firstly because KNOWLEDGE IS POWER! And secondly because understanding why you feel how you feel is empowering and dethreatening (as they say – just knowing is half the battle)

This is part one of a 5-part series on learning how pain works!

ALL PAIN COMES FROM YOUR BRAIN

Now intuitively we all understand that pain comes from receptors in our body. We have nerve endings all over our body that pick-up pain signals and signal to our brain that we are in pain, right?

Sorry but that’s actually wrong!

All pain (and all sensory experience for that matter) comes from our brain. Our body is providing millions of sensory input signal to our brain at all times, but our brain computes everything and then works out what to experience.

Then the OUTPUT from our brain is what we experience.

This makes sense when we compare what we may know about our other senses.

Our ears don’t hear sound. There are receptors in our ears that are sensitive to vibration of air particles, and when it picks up vibration of air particles those receptors then turn that into electrical information that is transmitted to our brain. Our brain then interprets that electrical signal and works out what we are hearing. What we hear is an output of our brain computing the signals.

Now we don’t hear everything the same. If you’re doing something else you might not hear at all, even though the vibrations coming into the ear are the same. So just having the receptors stimulated doesn’t mean we actually hear. It’s what the brain chooses to do with the input it receives that determines what we actually experience.

The same as our eyes don’t see – our brain sees from the information provided by our eyes. Our eyes bring in light and focus it on the parts of the back of our eyes. Light hitting those parts of the eye then stimulates electrical signals to the brain. (If you’ve read into this before you know that the brain actually receives the information upside down). Your brain has to interpret this information to then give you an experience of what you are actually seeing. If you’ve ever seen an optical illusion, noticed a blind spot or realise you can’t actually see your nose (even though it’s always in your field of view) you can understand that your brain interpreting the information it has available to it is what allows us to see.

(I bet you all just looked at your nose right now)

The same happens with pain as an input. Your brain is provided input from all over your body and it decides what you feel based on its own priorities (which we’ll cover in the coming articles).

So because of this, we know that pain isn’t just fixed or static, and more pain doesn’t necessarily mean more damage. It also means you can have a lot of pain with very little damage at all (have you ever seen someone scared of needles scream in pain before the needle even touched them??)

Knowing that pain is an output of your brain means that we can understand how we experience pain, and then help us to control our experience of pain.

Coming up in part 2, we’ll learn about pain as a warning system, rather than pain being an indicator of damage.

 

Julian Bowen

Julian is the Director and Principal Physiotherapist at EMC Physiotherapy.  He has spent  over a decade working exclusively in private physiotherapy practice, and estimates he would have performed over 40,000 individual treatments in that time. He has worked with everyone from Paralympians, elite athletes, WAFL Footballers, the Defence Forces and weekend warriors; to thousands of everyday people with all manner of issues.  He is passionate about injury prevention and has a special interest in the treatment of headaches, shoulder issues, hypermobility management and exercise rehabilitation for the prevention and treatment of injuries.