Chronic pain is identified by its ongoing nature; it continues beyond the course of natural healing of an injury or disease process. While the pain from many physical injuries or conditions runs a temporary course, chronic pain continues for months and sometimes years, persisting and impacting everyday functioning. It does not always have a precipitating incident but may be the result of a pervasive condition such as arthritis or an infection in some part of the body.
Chronic pain is very different from acute pain. Acute pain describes what is felt when the nervous system sends a message to a part of the body that is either injured or in some discomfort. This is an adaptive mechanism that alerts individuals to potential or actual harm and assists them to take care of themselves. Chronic pain may be a result of damage to some part of the body but also may exist without any physical evidence of injury. Some of the most common types of chronic pain include back pain, arthritic pain, headaches or pain resulting from cancer. Pain may also occur when there is no physical explanation for the onset of the discomfort.
Although chronic pain is a physical experience, the condition is understood as having both physical and psychological components. The consequences of chronic pain are not insignificant – people may be so aware of the pain that their everyday functioning is impeded and this may lead to lost hours at work, lower energy levels, diminished capacity to focus and remember things, difficulty doing basic tasks, irregular sleep patterns and problems in relationships. People who live with chronic pain also tend to have a higher risk of developing anxiety or depression.
The brain’s perception of pain
Pain usually accompanies an injury. Once the tissue or bone has healed however, the pain usually disappears but sometimes this does not happen. The longer that any pain continues, the more likely it is that the person will respond and attend to the pain. Intuitively it seems that the opposite should take place and that the body should become desensitised, given that this is what happens when other kinds of sensory stimulation are constantly experienced. The reality is that the body has very little to do with how pain is experienced. That responsibility belongs to the mind.
The perception of the severity of pain reflects the brain’s tolerance for pain rather than whether or not the body is healing. This tolerance level is referred to as the pain threshold. For some people who are in constant discomfort, the pain will appear to become worse – not because of anything happening in the body but because the brain’s tolerance has decreased. In other words, the person’s sensitivity to pain has increased. Where one type of pain would have first been experienced as mild, the brain may perceive the same level of pain as severe as the pain threshold decreases. This happens because some people who live with chronic pain begin to pay greater attention to the sensation of pain. This heightened awareness and constant attention is what lowers the brain’s pain threshold and is represented by certain brainwave patterns.
Treatment of chronic pain
Chronic pain can be treated or managed with a range of different modalities. Medication is frequently prescribed but the possible side effects can sometimes outweigh the benefits of pain-reducing drugs. Research is currently being conducted into alternative therapies such as acupuncture and herbal medicine as possible aids in pain management. Placebos have also been found to have some effect in alleviating pain which supports the theory that pain is to some degree controlled by the brain.
Chronic pain can have a profound impact on a person’s overall wellbeing, their relationships, their work and physical activities. Where the pain has lead to limitations in various areas of life, counselling can assist with the grieving process as individuals come to terms with their illness, injury or pain and start to adjust their own expectations about what they might be able to achieve in various life areas. Counselling in pain management strategies such as mindfulness, relaxation training and cognitive techniques is also effective in assisting people to recover a sense of control over their pain and to manage their lifestyle more effectively. Listen And Learn Centre’s psychologists provide face-to-face counselling to individuals seeking support and strategies to help come to terms with and manage their pain. For more information about our counselling services, click on our counselling page.
Other modalities focus on the pain threshold itself and training individuals to decrease their own sensitivity to pain. For example, mindfulness meditation training has been found to significantly reduce subjective experience of pain by training the mind to pay less attention to painful sensations. Listen And Learn Centre provides assistance for pain management through Neurofeedback training. This form of therapy uses technology to train the mind in using attention to lower pain sensitivity thresholds.
For more information about how neurofeedback works, go to our neurofeedback and biofeedback pages.
How Neurofeedback training can assist people with chronic pain?
Chronic pain can fall into one of two categories: either the injury has completely healed or the source of the pain remains unhealed. EEG biofeedback aims to recalibrate the brain to perceive pain at its highest threshold which, for a person with an unhealed injury, will not completely eliminate the discomfort. It will, however, ensure that the brain analyses the pain accurately, without perceiving it to be worse than it really is.
Some people with chronic pain who have benefited from Neurofeedback training report improved concentration, greater mental clarity, control over mood changes and, most importantly, an ability to respond to the onset of pain and reduce it through changing their thought processes. After an appropriate training period these mental adjustments no longer require a visual indication of success such as in the EEG biofeedback games; the process of making these changes will have become unconscious and can be employed more automatically.
Neurofeedback brainwave training can succeed in raising the brain’s threshold for pain and may even restore it to a normal level, thus lowering the perception of pain experienced. If there is continuing injury, Neurofeedback can help the brain adjust its pain threshold and return it to a normal level. While it may be impossible to entirely eliminate chronic pain, the brain can be taught to manage it more effectively which enables people with the condition to move beyond their discomfort.
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