It's so easy to give advice but so hard to take your own. Well that's what I found out the last few weeks anyway. I injured my shoulder months ago but never went to the doctors till only recently. I told myself it was because I was being sensible - covid and all that. But really I just didn't want to stop. Pushing through is my thing you see and I can be very proud of my grit to get things done in times of trouble. Finally restrictions being lifted left me no option but to face my pain and drag myself off to my GP. She told me off in the nicest possible way but basically she wondered at how I could have stuck the pain for so long with not even a pain killer. In no uncertain terms she told me I was speeding along to what she called a 'frozen' shoulder and if I didn't start looking after this I could end up having surgery.
So cutting a very long story short involving a MRI machine and a physiotherapist here's what I learned;
This means it was long term. First there's acute which is the pain that tells you you have tissue damage and get me healed. Chronic is when the acute pain signals aren't being dealt which in turn triggers an over extended defence reaction from your nervous system. This essentially means you start to protect the affected body area in my case my left shoulder by overcompensating with the other shoulder. Physically you can see me holding the damaged arm and shoulder into my body.
But what happens in the brain is even more important to understand. Brain imaging shows that the 'pain' areas in the brain fire up for both acute and chronic BUT with chronic they fire up with more intensity - you feel a lot more intense pain! So basically what I had been doing by pushing through was practicing really well being in pain so that was simply reflected in my brain. What you focus on gets strengthened in your neural networks. By living with my pain rather than doing something to help myself I was resisting it constantly flare after flare.
Well in my case Psychologist help thyself! Physiotherapy is marvellous and very necessary but if you don't address the nervous system you are going to resist the effort needed to practice while not with your therapist. I teach the science behind visualisation but I seemed to have forgotten all this. As soon as I started to research chronic pain the lightbulb moment happened when I came across the work of Dr. Michael Moskowitz while reading Norman Doidge's marvellous book “The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity.” Moskowitz specialises in pain treatment and his work centres around the ability of the brain to change - neuroplasticity.
The key factor, Moskowitz found, however, had to do with the “use it or lose it” phenomenon and a process called “competitive plasticity”. Competitive plasticity recognizes that the same areas of the brain can engage in many different functions. Nowhere in the brain is this better demonstrated than with pain. Pain is such a basic and important sensation that the areas of the brain that process pain signals overlap with other areas of the brain which govern movement, emotions, vision and even thoughts. It’s not surprising, then, that strong pain signals can interfere with very basic processes as the brain devotes more and more attention and energy to assessing, thinking about and worrying about it.As pain-processing areas expand in the brain, we lose our full ability to problem-solve, regulate emotions, resolve conflicts, relate to others, distinguish other sensations from pain, effectively plan… Every time the pain worsens it feels like it is here to stay… Moskowitz
We need to look at chronic pain as a 'learned response' and so one that can be unlearned. This is where visualisation comes in and the science behind it is fascinating. In really really simple terms we can say our super powerful super fast subconscious brain (90% of your brain's real estate) does not make a distinction between what we are thinking about with our conscious brain networks and what we are actually experiencing out there in the real world. So when you are visualising something in your mind's eye the vast majority of your brain is experiencing it as seeing it in reality.
What worked for me was choosing to visualise the pain areas in the brain lighting up when I feel the pain strike and then dial down the light till it goes out. Like anything it takes a bit of practice but after about a few hours of practicing it really worked. Choose whatever image works for you and don't take my work for it try it out now. I get such a kick out of it now I almost look forward to a bit of pain in my should to get the chance to control my brain.
If this sparked an interest & you would like to find out a bit more about how you can build your resilience and perform at your best, then…I'd love to hear from you!