Is There a Connection Between Pain and the Brain?

This woman's story suggests there is. Plus, learn how to better manage central sensitization with these pain prevention tips.

central sensitizationPhoto Credit: Shutterstock

Barbara Stowe has been in pain for more than 40 years.

The 61-year-old used to be a professional dancer, but pain in her upper back started to affect her craft. Scans taken in her 20s revealed a missing chip in a vertebrae in her lower spine, but that was the only vague explanation for her upper back problem. At 28, she developed Hodgkin’s disease and had eight months of chemotherapy.

That treatment seemed to affect her lungs, and breathing deeply made her cough. “Dance had always been my joy,” she recalls. “Now, I can barely get through a class.” Stowe, who lives in Pender Island, BC, stopped dancing professionally and worked as a choreographer. Later, she became a professional writer.

To keep moving, she tried Israeli folk dancing, yoga and swimming. Each one, in turn, became too painful, and she kept dropping activities. In her 50s, when Stowe developed terrible pain in her tailbone that affected her ability to sit, she got a referral to a pain clinic. They gave her painkillers – not opioids – offered steroid injections and did physiotherapy. It helped, but just a little. She would feel pain-free during her physio treatments and for a short time afterward, but then the pain would return.

New pains kept arising, including painful periods and aches along her ribs.

She was diagnosed with fibroids, and she had a hysterectomy. With pain in so many places and a poor response to treatment, her physiotherapist at the pain clinic suggested that she may have fibromyalgia. (Learn how you can improve this rare health condition.)

Then, Stowe heard about a BC-based physiotherapist named Neil Pearson who was an expert on central sensitization. In 2011, she sought his help, and he had a few treatments. They involved him listening to her (she tried not to cry, but she did) and explaining how the mind and emotions affect pain. He taught her deep-breathing techniques and a series of gentle yoga poses, as well as how to do a body scan.

Over the next few years, Stowe’s relationship with pain changed.

She got moving, very gradually, and now regularly does tai chi. She learned to breathe deeply, take regular breaks and move mindfully. Most importantly, she began tapping her emotions on a deeper level and became less judgmental of her own imperfections.

Today, Stowe still experiences pain: She rates it as high as six on the pain scale, but it often spans from zero to four. “Now, I know how to manage the pain by not attaching to it,” she says. “I find that I’m in pain, but I move through my days in bliss.”

Suffer from central sensitization? Here are four tips to help better manage this condition.

Tip #1: One of the best ways to keep your body healthy is to regularly complete full-body exercises that engage several different joints and muscles. Try gentle yoga. (Find out which type of yoga best suits you.)

Tip #2: If you have repetitive movement patterns, such as sitting in an office for long periods of time or moving heavy boxes from shelves frequently, you would benefit from regular breaks. Taking a 10-minute walk at regular intervals and doing gentle stretching can help reduce your pain in the long run.

Tip #3: A healthy and balanced diet is an essential part of treating and preventing pain. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals from as many food groups as possible to support the health of your muscles, bones and joints.

Tip #4: Your body heals itself while you’re sleeping, but night is often the worst time for pain sufferers, so individuals often experience a catch-22. Sleep deprivation can worsen pain, so it’s important to try to get a regular amount of sleep every night. If you’re experiencing back pain, try to sleep facing upward with your legs fully extended, as this can relieve pain in that area. For more help with your sleep issues, check out 12 innocent habits that are completely ruining your sleep quality.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada