Skip to main content

Pain and the Brain 5: Your Brain's Potential

· 3 min read

Part of the "Pain and the Brain" series

I was recently thinking about a wonderful evening I spent in London several years ago. I was attending the Royal Society of Public Health Award Dinner, and it was a fantastic night. It was so wonderful to see all the great work that different charities and organisations do to improve the health of the nation.

However, there was one enormous highlight for me: the children from Breathe Arts Magic Programme were performing magic tricks for us at our table. These children all suffer with a condition called hemiplegia - paralysis or weakness on one side of their body - which can severely impact their ability to perform everyday tasks. The Magic Programme essentially took their physical therapy programmes and integrated them into magic tricks, which the children then learned, practised and performed. After only 2 weeks, the children were much stronger and more able to carry out their daily activities.

This got me thinking about the amazing ability the nervous system has to rewire and adapt to even the most challenging of situations. When I was training to be a chiropractor, we learned about the amazing potential of mirror therapy in treating paralysis in stroke victims, and how it helped so many live a normal life after serious brain injury. There's an excellent TED talk about it by Vilayanur Ramachandran.

Your whole body is actually incredibly adaptable, and is constantly changing to best serve you in the situation you're in. This is why the more exercise you do, the stronger your muscles get, and the more you practice the piano, the better you get. But while this adaptation can be incredibly positive you can also adapt in a negative way.

Your body adapts to your lifestyle. So if you live a sedentary life, your body will seek to be more efficient by not maintaining unused muscle (and this includes your heart muscle). If you are constantly stressed, your body also adapts to this as we saw in the previous article What happens when I'm stressed? and this can impact things like your fertility and your resistance to disease. And in your nervous system, if you are negative and pessimistic, your body will take steps to make sure that you don't take risks - even ones that could be fantastic opportunities.

For people that are in pain, say low back pain, for a long time, adaptations will also occur. This is sometimes known as Fear Avoidance Behaviour (FAB) They may become afraid to move their back for fear of re-injury. They may stop doing a sport or activity that they previously loved. This may impact their overall fitness and, also, their social life. It may even become a downward spiral of pain, weakness, social isolation and depression.

But the fantastic news is that, just as your body adapted "downwards", it can adapt "upwards" again, as long as you put it in the right environment. Regular movement, gentle exercise, good diet and positive thinking can literally change the way your brain and body work. This reduces pain, improves your general health and ultimately "adds years to your life and life to your years"

See other posts in the "Pain and the Brain" series