Dr Zoe Williams on Retraining Your Brain to Reduce Pain

Guest post by

Dr Zoe Williams

Dr Zoe Williams MBBS, DRCOG, MRCGP is a practicing NHS GP and media medic. Currently one of the resident GP’s on ITV’s popular daytime show This Morning in addition to presenting for the BBC’s ‘The One Show’, ‘Horizon’ and ‘Trust Me I’m a Doctor’.

Author views are not our own.

Dr Zoe Williams on Retraining Your Brain to Reduce Pain

Guest post by

Dr Zoe Williams

Dr Zoe Williams MBBS, DRCOG, MRCGP is a practicing NHS GP and media medic. Currently one of the resident GP’s on ITV’s popular daytime show This Morning in addition to presenting for the BBC’s ‘The One Show’, ‘Horizon’ and ‘Trust Me I’m a Doctor’.

Author views are not our own.

Pain is a universal human experience, and we now know that pain is 100% of the time produced by the brain, this includes all pain no matter how it feels, sharp, dull, strong or mild and no matter how long you've had it.

You might have had it for a few weeks or months. This is called acute pain and is common with tissue damage, say from a back injury or ankle sprain and generally you'll be encouraged to stay active and gradually get back to doing all your normal things including work. Or you might have had it for three months or more and this pain is generally called persistent or chronic because in this type of pain tissue damage is not the main issue.

chronic pain

What's less clear though is when you're told you have chronic pain, knowing what's best to do about it.

In some countries chronic pain is a really big problem. Having a brain that keeps on producing pain even after the body tissues are restored and out of danger is no fun. Some people say it still feels like they must have something wrong, but that's just it once anything dangerous is ruled out health professionals can explain that most things in the body are healed as well as they can be by three to six months. So ongoing pain being produced by the brain is less about structural changes in the body and more about the sensitivity of the nervous system, in other words, it's more complex. So to try and figure out what's going on you need to retrain the brain and nervous system. To do this it's helpful to look at all the things that affect the nervous system and may be contributing to your individual pain experience.

What can help is to look at persistent pain from a broad perspective and by using a structured approach and a plan it's less likely that anything important will be missed.

Let's start with the medical side. Firstly, taking medication can help but only to a limited extent, it is the more active approaches that are necessary to retrain the brain, so using medications to get going is okay and then mostly they can be tapered and ceased. Some people also think surgery might be the answer but when it comes to a complex problem like chronic pain surgery may not be helpful so if you're thinking of surgery it's best to get a second opinion and remember to consider all the things.

Next it is helpful to consider how your thoughts and emotions are affecting your nervous system. Pain really impacts on people's lives and this can have a big effect on your mood and stress levels. All those thoughts and beliefs are brain impulses too, but you can learn ways to reduce stress and wind down the nervous system. This helps with emotional well-being and can reduce pain as well.

The third area to consider is the role of diet and lifestyle. Now it turns out that our modern lifestyle might not be so good for us in fact what we eat and how we live may really be contributing to a sensitized nervous system. Looking at things like smoking, nutrition, alcohol and activity levels and seeing if there are any issues is a good beginning and these things can go on your plan. There's often enormous value in exploring the deeper meaning of pain and the surrounding personal story by stepping back and looking at all the things that were happening around the time the pain developed many people with pain can make useful links between a worrying period of life and a worsening pain picture. For many recognizing deeper emotions can be part of the healing process.

Last but by no means least is physical activity and function from the brain's perspective. Getting moving at comfortable levels without fear and where the brain does not protect by pain is best and you'll gradually restore your body's tissues. So to sum up pain, it comes from the brain and it can be retrained and when looked at from a whole personal broad perspective gives you a lot of opportunities to begin so get a helping hand if you need it set a goal and begin.

For more information on pain and ways to help relieve it, visit here

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