Rewire Your Brain For Better Pain Management

Chronic pain can sometimes be managed by changing your brain’s perception of the pain.

Seniors doing tai chi to relax.

The practice of tai chi is one way you can train your brain to relax. By relieving stress, this activity reduces pain.

© FatCamera / Getty Images Plus

Sometimes, in chronic pain, the pain-signaling neurons become hyperexcited and continue to fire despite the absence of the cause of injury. For example, with the herpes-zoster infection (shingles), the rash disappears, leaving no evidence of the virus in the bloodstream, but the damaged nerves continue to fire, causing continuous debilitating pain called post-herpetic neuralgia.

With neuroplasticity, the brain may be rewired to reverse the process that contributes to this chronic pain. Graded motor imagery—visual images—is being used to change the brain’s perception of pain after prolonged pain stimuli. The approach shows promising results in cases of complex regional-pain syndrome, phantom-limb, and chronic back pain.

Change Your Mindset

Think of pain as your body’s alarm system. Sometimes it’s vital for survival, signaling danger. Other times, the alarm keeps sounding after the danger has long passed. Understanding why you have pain may decrease your anxiety and your pain. Education establishes a foundation for managing chronic discomfort. Train your brain to relax by using techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, and tai chi. By relieving stress, these activities reduce pain.

Be Positive and Realistic

People who anticipate the worst-case scenario have lower levels of pain tolerance than those with a more positive outlook. Pain is like an unwanted house guest. It will stay for as long as you allow it. In other words, dwelling on your discomfort makes it worse.

Decreasing the expectation of pain can reduce both the pain-related brain activity and the perception of pain intensity. People who accept the existence of chronic pain are more likely to have increased emotional, social, and physical function.

Acknowledge pain as a challenge and do something to manage it effectively.

Fear Makes It Worse

Anticipating pain can be as bad as experiencing it. Your brain expects pain, which disables your body’s ability to regulate discomfort.

Feeling sorry for yourself just worsens things, throwing the gate wide open and transmitting all pain signals to the brain. A positive state of mind—combined with education about the nature of pain and the use of distraction and stress management techniques—helps close the gate, thereby decreasing the intensity of pain signals.

Anticipation and fear of pain may affect your expectations from pain medications or other treatments. Multiple studies have shown that, for some people, placebos are as effective in reducing pain as a prescription medication.

Optimistic Relief

Change your negative attitude toward pain and you’ll notice positive results. Most pain-sufferers feel better once they are satisfied that their pain has been thoroughly evaluated and any disabling medical conditions ruled out.

Moving toward a positive attitude is especially important to avoid secondary problems, such as depression. Chronic pain can affect some people so severely that they need assistance to learn alternative coping mechanisms.

A 2017 study published in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine found that self-hypnosis/self-care and psychoeducation/physical therapy were associated with greater control and lower disability related to chronic pain.

Pain sensitivity can differ significantly among individuals. Some people can function well when they perceive their pain to be high, while others are unable to do anything, despite having a relatively low pain sensation. The experience of pain can even vary within the same individual.

Brain Scans Can Show Pain

Brain scans can allow researchers to see pain in the brain, measure its intensity, and determine whether a drug is relieving discomfort. The brain’s gray matter contains nerve cells and processes information. People with less gray matter record higher pain-intensity ratings than individuals with more gray matter.

Researchers found evidence that those who practice yoga have more gray matter than those who don’t, and that people with depression have reduced gray matter. The mind-body relationship is real.

Attitude is Hereditary

Attitudes and behavior regarding acute and chronic pain may be passed down from generation to generation. That means if your family members dwell on their pain, so might you. According to a November 2015 study in the journal PAIN, children of one or both parents who have chronic pain are more likely to suffer from it at some point.

To learn more about chronic pain, purchase Managing Your Pain from University Health News.

As a service to our readers, University Health News offers a vast archive of free digital content. Please note the date published or last update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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Shandley McMurray

Shandley McMurray has written several of Belvoir’s special health reports on topics including stress & anxiety, coronary artery disease, healthy eyes and pain management. Shandley also has authored numerous articles … Read More

View all posts by Shandley McMurray

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