Pain is it optional?
Many people live with pain on a daily basis. These same people are often living in various degrees of discomfort. So what if anything can be done about it?
It can be surprising to some to learn that pain is in fact completely personal to you. How you experience pain is unlike how everybody else experiences pain, which itself is unique to every individual, it is a subjective experience.
To endeavour to make this clearer, what this means is two people suffering identical injuries can both report different levels of pain and ability to cope with that pain.
This is more pronounced than many people realise, you may know somebody who seems to have a very high threshold for pain and similarly you may also know somebody with a low threshold for pain too. They are in a biological sense getting the same signals from the nerves in their body going to different areas of the brain like the prefrontal cortex and your anterior cingulate cortex. This then gives an interpretation of those signals. For instance, two people stub their toe. Assuming both in good health and have no nerve damage, both get messages from insulated nerve fibres, where it goes to the hypothalamus, which acts kind of like a relay station whereas aforementioned it is directed to the cortex for processing. As all this is happening the brain sends a signal to the spinal cord which can amplify or dampen the message.
As well as this going on the brains limbic system which is responsible for emotion also decides how important and significant these pain signals are. For example, many people injure themselves during sporting activities and some are not aware of these injuries till after the sporting event has stopped or during a recess in the action. Their body still produced the same biological responses, but their brain at the limbic system looked at those injuries and signals and decided it didn’t need immediate attention and the pain was suppressed. This pain then is felt when their body decides it either needs immediate attention or they are now in a position to deal with the injury.
So how can therapy help? Well, there are mixtures of therapeutic approaches that can help. For instance, there is the homeostatic approach where trained therapists use acupressure techniques developed over thousands of years in Chinese medicine combined with modern western understanding of neuroscience, this allows the body to self-heal and stimulate the body to release neurochemicals responses to reduce or even eliminate the pain.
Another way therapy can help is with hypnosis, studies have shown that hypnotherapy can help clients activate specific areas of their brain to varying responses. One example would be decreasing activity in the anterior cingulate cortex which can decrease discomfort and by targeting different areas of the cortex pain can be reduced or even removed altogether. There are many examples of this from people using hypnosis to have pain free tattoos to people who have had hypnodontics, dental procedures using only hypnosis for pain relief. Although funding for further research is scarce the sheer volume in the many thousands of people who have benefitted in using hypnosis for pain management, relief and removal, even the NHS accepts that hypnosis has a place in pain management.
As aforementioned due to lack of funding, this hasn’t had significant empirical testing, but the sheer volume of successful cases gives all but the most deeply cynical an appreciation of the power hypnosis could have for helping people in pain.
To give you some other examples of how hypnosis can help is in phantom limb pain and things like migraines. In both cases there is no nociceptor activity, one because the brain does not contain any, it just interprets signals from them and the other because obviously, a limb that is not really there can’t be sending any physical responses. These are thought to be psychosomatic responses.
In the case of a migraine, this is linked to an overreaction or stronger than needed signal from nociceptors as well as the brain then giving a double whammy and giving an increased response to this signal. Hypnosis can help bring these responses back down to normal levels, eliminating migraines. With false limbs, this is believed that the brain has a blueprint of the body, on an emotional sense it doesn’t understand as we do on the cognitive level that the limb is no longer there. Instead it notices that it is no longer receiving signals from that area of the body and sends out the alarm, essentially telling cognitively that you have pain in that limb and it needs attention, of course, because pain is really experienced cognitively in the brain not in a limb, to the person it feels like there is pain in a limb that is no longer there. Again hypnosis can help by updating this brain blueprint, essentially teaching the brain its new physical dimensions.
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