It has been said that we are currently in the midst of a chronic pain epidemic. Thankfully, it has also been said that “This is a spectacular time for the neuroscience of pain.” Studying pain circuitry with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), neuroscientists are proving that “Higher level brain centres associated with mood, memory, and long-term planning can block pain or enhance it, drive recovery or make pain chronic.”
I have suffered with physical pain for more than forty years and at some point, it became chronic. Although I was “diagnosed” with Fibromyalgia and Irritable Bowel Syndrome at age 19, I received no treatment plan or medical support. What I did receive was evidence that there was something “wrong” with my body. My diagnosis also reinforced the narrative that my body was weak and fragile and constantly betraying me. Unfortunately, my chronic pain proved that I was “damaged” and in need of “fixing” almost daily. Sadly, it also fueled an anxious and hypervigilant lifestyle that has impeded and limited much of my life.
Medicine has proven to be a field devoted to treating people with acute and diagnosable issues. When it comes to patients with chronic, “undiagnosable” issues, the system can sometimes feel broken. I mean no disrespect when I say this, for I could not be more grateful to science and to medicine for their ongoing contributions to health, wellness, and human survival, especially now during this global pandemic. That being said, there is still much to be learned about pain and chronic illness.
I Feel Your Frustration
If you are a chronic pain sufferer like me, you’ve most likely had a slew of medical tests and repeated bloodwork taken. You’ve probably tried almost every kind of physical therapy, alternative and spiritual therapies included. The hope was to uncover any structural issues that may be lurking and find some or any relief. Most likely you’ve given up on ever understanding your “incurable” ailments and living a “normal” life. You’ve put many of your dreams on a backburner and have slipped in and out of acceptance.
To this I say, first and foremost, I acknowledge your pain and suffering and feel your frustration. I hear you and understand your challenges. I too would like to acknowledge your courage and heroism, for getting up each day and trying all over again. I commend you as well for finding your silver linings and embracing the life lessons you’ve learned along the way.
One of the most transformative lessons I have learned is to keep my mind open and curious and NEVER to give up, or at least not for too long. Somehow, I always found a way to get myself “back up” again—to seek out new trainings and find ways to heal and remain hopeful. And I READ—A LOT!
A Personal Appeal
And so, this month I am highly recommending a new book by Alan Gordon entitled The Way Out to all medical professionals, therapists, coaches, and especially to people suffering with chronic pain. It is a revolutionary book that offers a new understanding of pain and a new intervention that is currently the most effective treatment for chronic pain.
The Way Out is not “just another book about pain.” It really does offer a way out. We chronic sufferers have waited a long time for a book such as this to be written. Allow me to share the piece that has changed my world.
Before offering the intervention, it’s important to briefly explain pain. Pain is a danger signal that is generated by the brain and can be likened to a fire alarm. Its sole purpose is to warn us and let us know there’s a problem. It’s like a conversation between the brain and the body.
But our brains are not perfect. Sometimes they misinterpret signals from the body. In fact, sometimes they even “freak out” and become overly dramatic. In such cases, the body is fine and there is no structural damage or “real” danger. But the overreactive brain makes an unfortunate mistake: it misinterprets normal and safe messages from the body as if they were dangerous and misfires a pain signal generating what Gordon calls “neuroplastic pain.” As Gordon explains, “neuroplastic pain is a false alarm.”
And if this misunderstanding between the brain and the body happens for too long, the pain switch can get stuck in the “on” position, making it chronic.
Pain Reprocessing Therapy
According to Gordon, who is also the Director of the Pain Psychology Center in Los Angeles, Pain Reprocessing Therapy (PRT), which he has developed and uses, is the most effective and current treatment for chronic pain. It retrains your brain to interpret signals from your body properly, which rewires your brain and deactivates your pain. What is key is that this therapy targets the brain—NOT the body. Because if your brain can give you pain, it can also take it away!
The most powerful technique of PRT is “somatic tracking,” which is all about exploring your pain “through a lens of safety.” The process can be broken down into three components:
- Mindfulness – Observing your pain without fear and exploring the sensations by describing them and labeling the feelings.
- Safety reappraisal – Sending messages of safety to your brain such as, “This pain is not dangerous. There is nothing to fear. It’s just a misunderstanding between my brain and my body. This pain is safe.”
- Positive affect induction – Getting playful with your pain and observing your physical sensations with lightness and curiosity.
Remove all Danger Warnings
Every part of somatic tracking is to reduce feelings of danger and foster feelings of safety. The intention is to “expose” the pain as a mistake and correct the misunderstanding between your brain and body so they can communicate accurately. The short-term goal is to pay attention to the pain without fear and therefore change your brain’s relationship with it. The long-term goal is for you to become pain-free.
Although I have been building a new relationship with my pain for years now, befriending my pain and nervous system has been fraught with inconsistency. Let’s say I’ve been unreliable—sometimes believing and sometimes not. This can be exhausting and filled with disillusionment, stalling the healing process.
This book has allowed me to build a more loyal and trusting relationship with my brain, my body, and my pain. I feel much more aligned because I have a new and greater understanding with a bigger picture perspective. For this reason, disparate trainings, tools, and practices that I have learned over the years now seem to be merging and directing my healing with greater forward momentum.
A Paradigm Shift
According to Gordon, “This could be the early stages of a paradigm shift around chronic pain, in the way that it is treated and understood.”
I didn’t start out as a believer. When I began reading the book, I was skeptical. Like many, I was uncertain about how deeply mind-body interventions can affect the course of chronic pain. But I gave it a chance and read each page with curiosity and an open mind. By the end, I believed with full conviction. The research speaks for itself.
Since I have started applying the principles and interventions outlined in this book, I have already noticed it working! This can be a way out for you and your loved ones as well. If you believe enough to start reading this book, I trust that it will also help you take your healing to new heights.