Updated: Sep 15, 2020
The nervous system coordinates your mind and body, and adapts and responds to everyday stimuli. This complex system in our body helps us survive, grow, adapt, and function. It is an extremely “plastic” system, meaning that it can readily transform and change when external change happens. This is called “neuroplasticity”.
Whether we are aware or not, neuroplasticity helps us in our day to day lives. Think about when you are driving home, and suddenly you are in your driveway. This sense of autopilot is actually your nervous system adapting to your every day life to make things easier and less stressful. But what happens when we apply this to our health?
When experiencing acute pain (knocking your elbow on the counter, stubbing your toe), the brain sends out alarm signals that warn us about what’s happening to our body. This alarm is really helpful and is designed to aid us in healing. But for people with persistent pain, our nervous system tends to go into overdrive and become super touchy — this kind of neuroplasticity is called “central sensitization“, or “winding up”. This trigger also causes the immune system to become involved.
This domino affect is important. When you have a super sensitive nervous system that regularly winds up, it causes the body to release more immune cells and intensify the number of connections and signals buzzing around in the brain and spinal cord. When this “volume” is turned up, it can cause you to feel pain during activities that done normally cause pain, and even cause pain without moving at all.
This doesn’t mean that your nervous system is broken. Persistent pain is basically just a “glitch” in the nervous system, that causes the danger signals in the body to fire at rapid pace, 24/7. But the good news is that pain management can use neuroplasticity to help re-program the way the nervous system responds to pain. The goal is to reduce central sensitization, decrease pain, and help in normal movements and daily activity.
It all comes back to mindfulness. Dr. Wielgosz is a psychiatry fellow at University of California, Santa Barbara, and has done research into neuroplasticity and chronic pain. He states that, “The same brain circuits which shape our emotions also shape the experience of pain, and in chronic pain syndromes, we know that there are shifts in the connectivity of emotion-related circuts, which come to play a heightened role in pain experience. Practices which train the mind have the potential to counteract these shifts, reducing the sensitization and distress associated with pain.”
Some good reading material on neuroplasticity includes:
Joe Dispenza: You Are The Placebo
The Brain that Changes Itself: Norman Doidge
The Brain’s Way of Healing: Norman Doidge