“Pain is your friend. It elbows you in the ribs and says “Hey, stop that! I love you!” – Mike Chapman, Breathe into Motion Yoga Studios
In the early days of yoga, I listened to Mike repeat this statement again and again, class after class. And it was all I could do to avoid rolling my eyes. At the time, I thought this concept only applied to clients with acute injuries – folks who’d had an accident at work, or on the sports field. I understood that kind of pain to be a friendly warning system, so that the body would avoid further injury and be given a chance to heal.
But for chronic pain sufferers like myself? Pain was the monkey on my back. I wanted to pile drive it into the floor, not give it a hug.
In the midst of the latest flare up, however, the monkey had morphed into King Kong. To confuse matters even more, he’d arrived even as I had begun to cut back my activities quite stringently in an attempt to lull the pain levels lower. What was going on?
Simply put: my brain was waking up to the extreme sensitization of my central nervous system. While the physical injuries were in the peripheral nerves in my hands and feet, the impact from years of bracing against non-stop alarms had trained my nervous system to remain in a heightened state of agitation. Thus, when the yoga had managed to dial down the signalling in my feet, my brain had only a moment’s respite before the clanging alarms from my hands and arms registered in full screech mode.
It was like the eye of Sauron, awakening to a new distraction in the realm of my body.
But my own little team of tricksters were on hand to disarm the pain and retrain my central nervous system.
My physiotherapist and massage therapist nudged me to investigate the latest in pain research- because they knew that even the act of learning about my pain would help me decrease it. The research by Professor Lorimer Mosley brought clarity to my dilemma. In an address to the Pain Revolution Symposium of April 2017, he made the following statements:
“We are amazingly adaptable, bioplastic learners. We learn very quickly. And the longer you have pain, the more that your nervous system and immune system learn to make pain. It happens outside of your brain, and it happens inside of your brain. And you don’t have any control over it. But it’s an adaptation of your nervous system and that’s a real challenge to health professionals, because it hurts in the tissues, but the problem is in the nervous system… and it’s exciting because we know we can retrain the system.”
Retraining my nervous system, which was stuck in overprotective mode, would take a very long time and a great deal of persistence. But what Mosely went on to say next blew me away: The key to recovery – to slowing the central sensitization process – was movement.
“Movement is king. Movement gradually suppresses the pain system (provided it is done gently, carefully, and without further producing pain). Movement helps you learn things. Movement helps you protect against other problems. Movement is the best way to recover – even imagining movement helps.”
Before my arrival at the studio, I would have interpreted this as vindication for the push through pain, or no pain/no gain approach which I used while working. Now, however, I recognized that Mosely was pointing out that the brain’s neuroplasticity could be harnessed against the perception of pain. With consistent, careful therapy that did not push one to a pain reflex, it was possible to teach the brain to reinterpret pain symptoms. Research has demonstrated over and over again that pain management via medication only kept chronic pain patients in a prolonged state of suffering. But teaching about the experience of pain, along with retraining the body to move in patterns that did not hurt? This is effective treatment.
He went on to describe the prescription against chronic pain in the following way:
“Rethink pain. Get a plan to re-engage. Get a good coach. Start your journey now. Recover.”
My body had finally revealed how fragile and super sensitive it had become. But somehow I had stumbled into this very prescription –
The new flare up accelerated my learning about pain, and was forcing me to rethink my life and my relationship with pain. And, as it turned out, a new plan was taking shape, because Mike, my coach, had another tool in the toolbox: yoga therapy. Moseley’s research was a perfect description of yoga therapy, which was the gentle retraining of my central nervous system, using the breath and movement patterns of yoga itself.
I thought I was stuck on the proverbial ledge, staring down a lifetime abyss of unremitting pain and unpredictable flare ups. Instead, I would be given what would become the perfect tool in leading me away from danger and into a new phase of recovery.
Both Mike and I would eventually be blown away by the results – but only after a good deal of patience and problem solving.
Here’s the full clip for those of you who want to learn more about the role the brain plays in the experience of chronic pain: