Millions of Americans suffer with chronic pain disorders, including: vulvodynia, TMJ, myalgic encephalitis (chronic fatigue), irritable bowel, IC/BPS, fibromyalgia, endometriosis, chronic tension headache, chronic migraine and low back pain. When someone has two or more of these conditions, they are diagnosed with Chronic Overlapping Pain Conditions (COPC).
A More Sensitive, Altered Central Nervous System
The Chronic Pain Research Alliance has worked for more than decade to help us understand why these conditions often occur together. Their studies continue to implicate an altered, more sensitive central nervous system. Adults with chronic pain often have a history of trauma or injury in childhood that has triggered dysfunctional changes in peripheral nerves and/or the brain.
Brain studies in COPC patients have found that different regions of the brain are bigger and/ communicating differently than in those without chronic pelvic pain. For these patients (this author included), even minor irritants can provoke more intense pain. There is hope. Just as the brain and nerves can be damaged through trauma, they can also be improved and this is where Mind-Body medicine succeeds greatly. COPC patients require a program designed to calm their nervous system and restore good brain function. This is known as the neuroplastic response (i.e. neuroplasticity). At no point is anyone suggesting that chronic pain is a mental illness. Rather, we are referring to the physical health and function of the nervous system throughout the body.
The Goal of Therapy Is To Help The Brain Adapt & Manage Pain Better
The goal of therapy is to help the nerves and brain adapt and manage pain better. This can be done in remarkably simple ways. Regular exercise, healthy eating and quitting smoking create a foundation for good brain and nervous system health. Keeping the mind active, engaged and challenged is important. Yes, that means using your mind by reading, doing puzzles, learning new languages and so forth. Daily relaxation that keeps stress low is critical to “winding down” a more reactive nervous system. In contrast, the excessive consumption of caffeine can be overstimulating.
“Mindfulness” is one of the most effective ways to change the brain. The more calm and peace we teach our brain, the more we react to life stressors with that same sense of calm. Harvard Medical School has done multiple studies that show that Mind-Body Medicine that teaches patients meditation, yoga, cognitive skills and positivity result in less pain, fewer medical services and lower health care expenses. (Now and Zen: How mindfulness can change your brain and improve your health.)
Music can also help. It not only improves your mood it can also make beneficial structural and functional changes to the brain. Trained musicians have noticeably different development of key brain areas, such as the corpus callosum, cortex, cerebellum and gray matter. Turn on music that you gives you peace, joy and makes you dance!
COPC patients should not assume that their condition is incurable. In fact, the brain and nervous system are remarkably resilient. Patients who have had strokes can relearn how to perform basic tasks because their brain is capable of adapting. This is neuroplasticity at its best. Research into Mind-Body medicine and mindfulness show remarkable success which is why they are the cornerstone of most chronic pain management programs.
In the book, When it Hurts Down There: 15 Proven Techniques To Alleviate Pelvic Pain, Dr. Angie Stoehr explains that when pain is accompanied by high levels of anxiety, the brain will intensify that pain, likely out of concern that life may be in jeopardy. Thus, it’s important that patients consider all factors that are adding stress and anxiety to their daily lives. If anxiety is dominating your daily life, it’s time to take an anxiety management class to improve your skills. Luckily, pain that is accompanied by laughter is minimized by the brain. One of your daily priorities should be to laugh more, seek joy and do things every day that make you happy.
Learn more about the remarkable successes of neuroplasticity at positivepsychology.com.
Created by: Jill Osborne MA
Creation Date: Nov. 14, 2020