Neurological 'Whys' of Pain

praticaltools wellness tips Aug 25, 2023

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions of pain, off-the-bat, is that it happens to the body, when actually it is an output of the brain,” MJ stated in a recent virtual class. MJ is a queer body movement specialist and returning Movement Genius instructor. You can also check out their amazing Top Surgery Recovery series on our website.

How Does Our Brain Register Pain?

 Safety is the brain’s number one priority. When internal and external inputs are signaling that something isn’t right, pain becomes an output from the brain. If you’ve ever touched a hot stove, you quickly realized that the heat hurts and can cause an injury. Internally, what’s happening is that a message travels from your hand to the brain. There, it registers the experience as a dangerous threat, and in response, the sensation of pain travels instantly from the brain back to the hand. Typically, this output of pain leads us to stop or eliminate whatever is causing it, which is why the brain uses pain as an effective way to protect us. Other outputs from the brain can include nausea, immobility, inflexibility, headaches, fatigue, and fatigue.

Interestingly, after an event that the brain perceives as threatening, memory comes into play and shapes how we feel pain in the future. If there is a past record of something being painful, the brain may become even more sensitive to the potential threat in an effort to help us avoid repeating the harm. While this can be a great reminder to avoid hot stoves, sometimes it can actually increase and perpetuate pain even when the threat isn’t present or that intense. For example, people living with chronic pain process messages of pain differently. Nerve cells may become so sensitive and “active” over time that they send signals to the brain that generate pain, even if what’s happening is just a soft touch on the skin. Nonetheless, the experience of pain is real and valid, and chronic pain in particular requires long-term attention and specific kinds of therapy.

How Does Movement Come Into Play?

So, how do we determine if the pain we feel is an “accurate” and “proportionate” response to a real threat or injury, or perhaps an overestimation of danger? After all, the brain may deem day-to-day tasks as threatening even when logic tells us that we are okay. One of the best ways to decrease the perception of threat in the brain is through movement. (And by movement, we do not purely mean intense exercise. Movement can include any shift in posture, position, or perspective, including a brief stretch between meetings or folding laundry before bed.)

 “Movement is a huge way to communicate accurate signals and accurate experiences of the body,” MJ tells us. Among several other benefits, movement can actually block pain receptors that are heading to the brain. Mechanoreceptors are what aid in movement whereas our nociceptors are our harm receptors. The Gate Control Theory of Pain explains that mechanoreceptors are thicker and faster than our harm receptors which means the movement signals can reach the brain before the harm can reach the brain. Therefore, movement can help diminish the amount of pain felt from a stimuli that activates nociceptors. But, it’s crucial to understand the specific movements that are most supportive and the proper ways to practice them. That’s where MJ comes in. 

What Kind of Movements Can We Use?

MJ shared many hand and spine movements that can be used to decrease pain. These movements work because the hands and spine take up so much brain space in the sensory and motor cortex. The first motion was simply opening and closing your hands, and wiggling your fingers in a way that feels good. They also demonstrated “piano fingers” which is where you close your fingers one at a time, starting with your pinky. A more difficult hand movement is “finger circles” where you individually circle each of your fingers. 

Spinal movement can also aid with pain since it’s often the pillar of the body. The more spinal control in multiple ranges and positions, the safer the brain feels. One movement is lateral shifting, where you move your torso side to side gently. Another spine movement is similar to the Cat Cow yoga pose. Gently round your spine and then hollow back out and repeat this movement. If any of the movements cause more pain, reduce the range of motion or change to a different motion that is manageable.

If you’d like to follow along with MJ, you can watch the recording of their live session on the neurological reasons behind pain. For current Movement Genius members, just sign into your account and check this video out in your “Live Class & Resources” category. Not a Movement Genius Member yet? Join here today!

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