Managing Chronic Pain

January 2, 2023

A research team from the University of Heidelberg has just published results confirming what movement therapists have known for a long time. Chronic pain can be managed by engaging the mind body connection.

However, the medical establishment would rather sell you a way to treat disease rather than empower you to heal yourself. The modern scientific method functions very well when they are testing the effectiveness of a drug, an intervention or a procedure. Unfortunately it is hard to measure the results of manual therapy or self-care practice as there are many other factors that influence the outcome.

Let’s take a look at the results and then explore what that might mean for people who want to take responsibility for their own healing.

Primary sensory cortex somatosensory cortex
Motor & Sensory Regions Of The Cerebral Cortex

The research team used a non-invasive technique to stimulate the brain with electrodes placed on the head, around and over the area known as the M1 cortex. This is the primary motor cortex responsible for moving the body, it is situated next to the somatosensory cortex, which gives us feeling and sensation in our mental map of the body. Both of these cortices have a deeper emotional element.

For example when a child falls there is first the reaction to noticing the movement and the sudden pain of impact. Then comes the emotional shockwave of what has happened. Often a few seconds after the fall they begin to cry.

The emotional aspect of physical pain

Stimulation of the outer areas has proved to be effective in reducing pain. As the brain increases its awareness of the bodily extremities. The most interesting part of their discovery was that when the deeper emotional parts of the brain are stimulated the results are more effective.

That’s great if you don't mind wiring yourself up to a bunch of cables all day. But if you really want to deal with pain it takes a great commitment to stay the course, as you work through these uncomfortable sensations.

The various levels of neurons in the primary motor cortex

Over the years I have met a number of people that have healed themselves of chronic pain. There are of course limits to medication, when the drugs don’t work anymore the pain is called refractory pain. A doctor friend of mine told me another term which makes a lot of sense when there is no specific, identifiable reason behind the pain, “medically unexplainable symptoms”. Whatever the cause, now they are en route to designing an effective pain relief product.

Many commercial drugs are synthesized from organic substances. Nature herself is a healer. This procedure also exploits natural processes, it jumps on the back of our innate ability to heal ourselves.

Our ancestors moved around a lot. Hunter-gatherers followed the great migrations of the animals they ate as the seasons changed they moved. When we started farming all the tasks had to be done by hand. If you wanted to go somewhere you walked. Sure they must have been tired by the end of the day, but I suspect there was a lot less unexplainable pain.

We sit down all day. We lead stressful lives. These mental and emotional stresses are rarely expressed and processed in the body. The result is a lot of pent-up energy locked up and stored in the body.

Movement therapy can help to release this energy. Increasing the amount you move every day is also important. Keeping moving at the office desk, using the stairs or walking to work can help.

Fascinatingly you can yield the power of thought to activate the primary movement cortex. Vocalising silently in your mind words like thumb, hand, arm, foot, back will draw attention to those parts of your body and fire off the associated neurons. Action words like jump, run, stand up etc. also work to activate the mind body connection.

Activating the mind body connection through movement and harnessing the power of thought

On a deeper level, where many of us fail to reach, is an exploration of the innermost pain. By that I mean the emotions, the feelings of hurt and betrayal, self-doubt and self-judgment, guilt and shame or many more that may be lying under the surface. It take great courage to look within, to open up Pandora's box and let things out. It is easier to paper over the cracks, to blame others, bear a grudge, or just get on with life. To soldier on, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, it’s character building…

Our language is full of ways to avoid diving deep, to explore, to feel, to process and honestly express our innermost pain. There is an order to things, first comes the curiosity to ask ourselves questions to open up to feeling. When we feel ready we can begin to process all the accumulated emotional energy we feel as tension. And move onto expression not necessarily verbally - sometimes things begin to shift with a shudder or a shake or some kind of body movement that allows the energy to move on.

I often say: If you want to let go - you've gotta let it in.

We cannot live a one sided existence. Even though our natural tendency is to move towards pleasure and away from pain, it is entirely healthy to explore our shadows and allow ourselves to feel so called ¨negative emotion¨. In fact that is a term we can loose straight away and rename them difficult or uncomfortable emotions.

We have all sorts of feelings and sensations in our lives, this is what it is to be human. It is ok to be sad sometimes. It is ok to feel weak, tired and vulnerable. It is ok to feel angry and to express it in the moment. We are able to process the more difficult emotions when we allow ourselves to feel them. Otherwise they get locked up inside the body.

The good news is that we can with practice do the inner work.

Or get support from a therapist skilled in somatic experiencing and therapeutic coaching, who can help us get to those hard to reach places.

Deep healing can be profound and long lasting. Without the need for electrodes or technology, all you need is a bit of old fashioned self-exploration.

Self-knowledge through self-exploration

My thanks to micheile dot com and William Randles for the photos from Unsplash and to the Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014 for the diagram.

More info on the original research conducted by Zheng Gan et al. here

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