Can we REALLY change our biology to change pain?

By Jill Fancher, PhD

Simply: Yes! We really can change our own biology in the pursuit of reducing chronic pain. 

It is amazing how much we use our bodies every day, experience our bodies’ sensations every day, and yet often know so little about how to have control over the biology of our bodies.

I am assuming that many of you reading this post have some healthy skepticism about this concept of control over our biology. So, let’s start with a basic premise. The brain and body are activated the same way whether we are imagining doing something or are actually doing something. Take for example, the study of eye dilation in response to light. We all know that our pupils get smaller when exposed to light, and dilate to the dark, right? What if they could constrict just by imagining light even if we were in a dark room? A study by Laeng and Sulutvedt recently published in the journal Psychological Science (2014) demonstrating this exact effect shows imagining dark or light scenarios change eye dilation similarly to being in a dark or light environment.

This demonstration of eye changes in response to imagination is evidence that our bodies respond to our thoughts. These thoughts could be imagining movement without pain or imagining a body part healing. Or the thoughts could be more specific to body systems that are involved in pain processing. This is precisely what the latest research is showing us. That when we know what we want to change, then we can change it.

This growing base of research is examining how and why our brains and bodies can change to reduce pain or at least change how bad it makes us feel.

Here are just a few examples of different types of biological change that can take place.

FUNCTION CHANGES

  • We can change the parts of our brain that pain activates. Using this functional change reduces the panic, dread, and bothersomeness of the pain (Lutz et al., 2013).
  • Muscles can be retrained to reduce persistent guarding around the sites of pain.A lengthy scientific literature exists comparing, contrasting, and commenting on various techniques and their relative effectiveness. There is little doubt of the ability to develop this control and general agreement that it doesn’t come naturally. Thus, developing this functional change often requires training to learn to reduce the activation of chronically tense muscles.

 

STRUCTURE CHANGES

  • Some techniques have even been shown to change the size of specific brain areas (e.g., left hippocampus, left posterior cingulate cortex, parieto-temporal junction, and cerebellum; Hozel and colleagues, 2011).
    • These brain areas are associated with how we “interact” with our pain and experience the sensation and agony of the pain.
  • Some skills have been shown to enhance the temperature of select body parts which is attributed to the diameter of blood vessel dilation during practice (Keefe, Surwit, & Pilon, 1980).
    • This is important for increasing blood flow to painful areas, enhancing nutrient exchange, releasing muscle tension, and flushing inflammation.

CHEMICAL CHANGES

  • We can activate anti-inflammatory systems in our bodies (cholinergic chemical systems) that reduce inflammatory chemicals (C-Reactive Protein; Nolan et al., 2012).
  • We can activate endogenous opioids (natural pain killers in our bodies). This line of research has now been repeated within labs and replicated across labs showing that we can, indeed, change the functioning of parts of our brain so that it activates a system in our own bodies’ releasing endogenous opioids through different mental techniques (see the work of Irene Tracey and Katja Weich).

The hard evidence is there. We CAN help reduce pain by changing our biology. The Mastering Pain Method training has been developed specifically to help you find the right techniques to change your own biology and your pain. There may or may not be a cure for our specific condition, but there is hope for turning the volume down on the intensity of the pain and agony associated with the pain. Having some control over these can impact all aspects of our lives from our sleep and our daily functioning, to our relationships with loved ones.

The bottom line is really about each of us finding strategies that work uniquely for us.  This frees us to move forward and live well despite the pain.