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How To Manage Chronic Pain: A Simple Guide

It’s a strange feeling to have a chronic pain that is so hard to explain to other people. One thing I would like to stress: chronic and temporary pain are often the same thing. Many of us have suffered an injury, injury related pain, or illness that has been chronic for a long time. This often leads to the impression that it must always be a bad thing, a sign of weakness, or something akin to a disease, or something that should be managed. The opposite is true: chronic pain is, at its core, normal: it is a product of normal processes and normal functioning, not a disease or sickness.

Chronic pain has a stigma to it because it is hard to understand or to describe. There are a lot of different ways people are told to manage that feeling, however, and chronic pain is one of those areas of mental health that can be really tough to talk about. I’d love to share a method for managing chronic pain that I have found myself employing for quite some time, for all kinds of types of pain. It’s not something I’d recommend everyone adopt — in my experience, a simple talk with a colleague can be more effective in helping a person make sense of the feelings and issues that are bothering him/her. For some people, however, this method should be enough to help get the message out: if your chronic pain is so bad and persistent, there are easy steps that you can take to improve your situation without risking a lifetime of pain and misery.

Chronic Pain in the Context of the Brain

When examining the process used to experience chronic pain, it’s important not to overlook the brain. As is well known, there are many kinds of pain signals that reach the brain. There’s a range of ways for a particular pain signal to arrive to the brain, usually related to a nerve that receives a signal from the body itself. Each pain signal may have a unique sequence of neurons, or a combination of neurons that give rise to a characteristic pain sensation. When all those neurons are engaged in delivering the signal, one would expect any particular signal to be associated with a specific kind of pain.

The first type of pain signal that arrives to the brain is called nociceptive (pain/sensation) input. Nociceptive input is essentially the pain that has been experienced and is transmitted to the brain, for example a touch on an arm has been perceived as painful since our ancestors first learned the skill to do so in the wild. When we move an arm at rest, an nociceptive signal is not present — no nociceptive feedback is sent to the brain (unless the nerve or muscles are in a state of motion, of course). But in the case of pain, nociceptive input is not only present, there are often lots of different kinds of nociception present, most commonly sensory. Sensory input includes all the different sensory inputs that affect the body. Most generally, these are pain and sensory stimuli, but all types of pain, which are either nociceptive or not, are also sensory inputs. The main difference between nociceptive input and sensory input is that nociceptive input is being processed, and the result of that input is being presented to the brain for analysis and further processing. For example, nociceptive input comes to the brain in the form of a specific pain signal. The fact that this signal has a complex sequence of neurons (i.e., is a complex signal) makes it difficult to understand without further analysis by the brain. When that signal is interpreted by the brain, it creates a perception of a particular sensation, and this is then called ‘sensation.’ The same is true for any input to the brain that creates a sensation.

As you might imagine, there is a lot going on in the context of nociception: the brain deals with nociceptive input by using processing mechanisms, including sensory feedback — what the brain refers to as ‘theory of mind.’ To the brain, the feeling experienced at the site of pain is not a result of your own action and your own personal knowledge, rather it is an objective fact created by the brain as a result of the input it receives. In other words the same input that creates an unpleasant sensory input will also make a person feel sad and angry. So, when we experience a pain that is difficult to explain to other people, it’s often because we have received some kind of input that makes that pain a problem and something that we need to deal with.