When you find that something you love, like dancing, can be reworked to stimulate natural pain relief, it makes sense – based on recent scientific discoveries about which parts of the brain carry, amplify, and suppress chronic pain. We know that when neural pathways have been activated repeatedly, nerve signals travel quickly and easily over the synaptic connections that make up the pain pattern, like a train over a well-used track.
New brain research shows that while acute pain appears in areas of the brain that are connected to tissue damage, chronic pain lives in other areas of the brain – the prefrontal cortex and limbic system, which the brain uses for memories, especially emotional ones.
So in some cases, especially when the pain from damage has not been treated effectively, or perhaps (we don’t know this yet) when the emotional components of the pain have not been treated effectively, the pain lives on long past the time when the body tissues have healed. The pain lives as facilitated neuronal pathways in the brain – though the sensation is still experienced in the body.
Specialists have long tried to relieve chronic pain suffering through…
- pharmaceutical medications (which all have their limits and adverse effects)
- physical interventions – physical therapy, acupuncture, bodywork
- neurological interventions – nerve blocks, stimulators, etc.
All of these methods can help. They are best implemented through a mutli-disciplinary approach involving the patient in rigorous physical, mental, and emotional activity. Because at the core of the healing process, the chronic pain patient needs to expand her/his life and activities – facilitating new, healthy pathways in the brain, rather than reinforcing the pain pathways.
To this end, it is likely that through reframing and refocusing the relationship to one’s pain, the Dancing with Pain® methodology activates the nervous system in new ways that alter, suppress, or potentially even replace the “stuck” pain pathways.
If the new, healthy neurological pathways are activated frequently enough, the pain pathways become deactivated. If sustained over a long enough period of time, the old pain pathways become slower and less likely to activate, then eventually disappear.
Of course, this approach is very easy to talk about but challenging to implement. The process takes a long time, and every setback can feel both frustrating and discouraging. What’s more, since pain and depression pathways are often tightly intertwined in the brain, every setback may also trigger depression – making it that much more difficult to pull oneself out from the physical, emotional, and spiritual rut of chronic phase pain.
If the pain patient can learn to take this cycle less “personally” – spending less time in self-blame and discouragement, and getting back to her/his new, preferred activities as soon as possible – the extinction of the pain pathway will happen most efficiently.
Pain, however, has a way of demanding attention. In addition, there is a gravitational pull involved in repeatedly describing pain in interminable and repetitive detail. Pain psychologists discerned this phenomena years before brain research became available.
Accordingly, they advised that patients not to focus pain behaviors and descriptions, and that practitioners not ask patients how their pain is doing, etc, but rather focus on new behaviors and on living a happy life with or in spite of the pain. While this approach could seem unsympathetic or even cruel, it turns out that neurologically, it is probably the wisest orientation.
As scientific advances enable us to determine which parts of the brain are activated by what types of mental, visual, and physical activity, people will better understand which behaviors suppress the pain pathways and which stimulate the pathways.
Meanwhile, the Dancing with Pain® methodology is utilizing a feedback system that is far more sophisticated than even the finest MRI, because it encourages people to tune into their bodies – a challenging task for those in pain, who are generally trying to focus elsewhere.
The discovery that you can imagine pain as energy, mentally “distill” it, then send it back to the pain source as healing energy, demonstrates that you are hooking into the neurological networks that can bring relief or even recovery from pain.
The general medical opinion is that chronic pain doesn’t resolve. I don’t think we know enough about it yet, however, to say that we won’t be able to completely resolve it in the future – perhaps even the near future – with courageous and creative explorers offering us possibilities like the Dancing with Pain® methodology.
In my work, I have found it takes courage to focus on healing pain – to explore the edges of personal empowerment and responsibility, without falling into the traps of self-blame, judgment, and despair. Patience is essential, because there are so many advances and retreats – precious gains that disappear again into painful losses. Perseverance is essential, because the methods we discover may sometimes work and other times not.
The reason for this inconsistency may be the phenomenon of state-dependent memory, which I may address in a later post. In any case, an attitude of curiosity, determination, and focused intention is of course tremendously helpful. To this end, there are numerous guided imagery approaches that not only can bring immediate pain relief but also can encourage personal exploration of how to heal this pain over the long haul.
Today researchers are studying individuals who are exploring pain from the inside-out. I hope that the hard-earned lessons of Dancing with Pain® will become easier and more consistently effective for everyone, as we understand them from both experiential and experimental perspectives.
Dr. Rossman is a medical doctor and board-certified acupuncturist who has worked to help people in chronic pain for nearly 40 years. He is Director of the Collaborative Medicine Center in Greenbrae, California; is a Clinical Faculty Member of the University of California San Francisco Medical School; and is a leading international teacher of Mind/Body Medicine for patients and professionals alike. Check out his award-winning books and guided imagery CDs for self-healing.