How To Use Movement and Brain Hacks For Chronic Pain Treatment Like I Did
In my early 20's I went through many skirmishes with pain. I was being overpowered, beaten and desperately needed an effective chronic pain treatment.
There was a period where every morning I woke up with hot, inflamed pain in my leg. I would roll over gingerly and press my foot lightly on the floor. It would send a surge of pain coursing through my body. So I would back off and then try again. After a 10-15 minute process of gradually exposing my feet to more and more weight I was able to actually stand on them. From here it would take a few hours of warming up before I could do more than just shuffle around the house.
What a sad and depressing way to start each day. A reminder that I couldn't participate in life like I used to. I felt so much grief at the loss of life I was experiencing. I would also worry incessantly that it was never going to get better, or worse, that it might degrade further.
Fast forward through years of trial and error, plus a decent chunk of training, all the way to the present moment. Two important things have changed...
Firstly, I do not experience chronic pain anymore. Every now and again I'll get some pain come up if I'm tired or upset or there's some stress in my life. But I'm quickly able to deal with it before it becomes a significant problem.
Secondly, I have learned some powerful tools and crucial idea's for chronic pain treatment. These tools and ideas are all contained within the realm of body, mind and movement. I would like to share these with you today.
If you're in chronic pain (no matter where it's located or what type it is) then there's some important understandings you need to know in order to deal with it effectively.
My history of chronic pain
I was always a very active person. I started rugby league when I was 5 years old and transitioned into martial arts and yoga in my teens. I've done a lot of strength training and also lead a fairly outdoorsy lifestyle most of my life.
I reached a point in my early 20's where pain started to become an issue for me. I had a flare-up which brought on a lot of inflammation in my right leg and ankle. It completely interfered with my ability to walk. Being someone who was intensely curious and practical, I tried to "fix it" myself. I assumed that I was experiencing the same "arthritis" that my father and uncle both had. Theirs had both come on quickly as young men too.
This is where I discovered that gluten and dairy were contributing to the pain in my body. I stopped eating that stuff and the pain disappeared. It was like a switch that turned off the pain and made me feel INCREDIBLE. It also turned me into one of those weird dietary evangelists for a few years there! (Cringe)
However, time passed and pain started to creep back into my life.
I remember wandering around the university library completely amazed by all of the incredible books in there. (It should have been a hint to me at the time that I wasn't interested in any of the engineering books, rather the ones with topics regarding health, holistic thinking, personal development, emotions etc.) I eventually found a book on self-applied myofascial trigger point therapy.
So I opened the book, found my particular pain pattern I was experiencing and self-treated the pain with massage. It worked immediately and I was hooked. I continued exploring through the book and soon discovered that I had pretty much every single trigger point in that book to some degree. In simple terms, I had knot's all over my body which were either actively causing pain, or ready to at a moments notice.
I wondered if this was normal... I suspected it wasn't. I had a hunch it had something to do with modern lifestyles. These human bodies, which had not long been thrust into schools, factories, chairs, flat surfaces... unnatural movement conditions, weren't coping with it. I didn't realise at the time but the way I was training was contributing to my pain...
I also dreamed of having a body completely free from pain. I was used to always having some kind of pain in my body. Whether it was bruising from sparring, sore muscles from training or just mysterious unrecognizable pain.
A few years later I experienced another flare up of pain and swelling. This time, it was BAD. It took me out of action completely. Even moving my knee the slightest bit to re-arrange myself on the couch would send sharp stabbing pains all through my leg. Eventually I worked my way up to walking in crutches but it was a looooonnnnggg time before I was on my feet again properly.
To make a long story short, my recovery from that started with me discovering The Feldenkrais Method ®. I immediately got huge relief from the chronic pain in my leg. I was so intrigued and blown away by this discovery that I decided to complete the 4 year professional training.
I started training in The Feldenkrais Method ®
During my training I completed hundreds of guided lessons through specific (and unusual) movements. I also received a number of one-on-one lessons which involved someone physically moving my body for me. Each of these was helping my nervous system break old movement patterns and replace them with more updated versions.
These lessons had varying effects. Like...
- Feeling taller.
- Breathing easier.
- Sensing my walking as symmetrical again.
- Walking up and down stairs without pain in my knee
- Experiencing the "springiness" of my feet.
These are what I would term the subtle changes.
Occasionally I would experience profound shifts in my state of being. It was like standing up and walking around in someone else's body. It felt incredibly strange, but it was far more comfortable than my previous body! In these instances, pain that had been long-standing could completely disappear in one lesson and never come back.
I saw many of my colleagues work through long-standing chronic pain too. It seemed miraculous watching the changes happen in front of my eyes!
During the training I learned some key ideas about pain...
Pain Comes From Your Brain Not Your Body
Pain is a signal that your brain creates as a way of protecting you. If it perceives there is something dangerous, then it creates pain as a way of altering your behaviour so that you avoid the danger. For example, if I injure my knee then my brain creates pain to convince me that it's a bad idea to go running on it. This gives my knee time to heal.
In addition, pain is not an accurate measure of the health of your tissues. You can have pain without damage and damage without pain. Heck, you can even have pain in limbs that have been amputated (phantom limb pain). For me this was such a relief to learn because I was worried that I had caused myself irreversible damage by being in pain for so long. Turns out, my brain was just protecting me a lot...
There are many different things that affect the pain signals your brain creates. Environment, social connections, stress levels, sleep, images you use to describe your pain (ie: "I've got broken glass in my joints") and many more. These all affect the level of perceived danger and hence the level of pain signals created.
Your brain LEARNS chronic pain
When you're in pain for a long time it becomes a habit. Your brain literally learns to create that signal easily because it has had a lot of practice. The longer it goes on, the easier it gets to create the pain.
You can UNLEARN chronic pain and movement is crucial to do so
When you stop moving for fear of pain, you're sending a strong message that "Yup, moving isn't safe". In order to get back into moving properly without pain it's important to errrr, move.
What we need is a way to bring the movements (which are currently considered unsafe) back into your life. To do that, we need to create an environment and way of practicing that temporarily brings the danger levels WAY down until you can move without the pain signals firing. Once you've experienced moving without pain again, you can come back into your normal life where the danger signals are at their regular levels. Since you've already shown your brain that the previously "dangerous" movement isn't actually dangerous, it removes the pain signal.
This safe environment and way of practicing are exactly what The Feldenkrais method ® offers. Those feldenkrais lessons I spoke about previously use many ingenious strategies to help bring down the level of danger and get you back into moving again. Here are a few of the strategies...
- Lying down and removing ourselves from the gravitational field. This removes the danger of falling.
- Stay within a comfortable range of movement and avoid moving into pain. This is practicing moving without pain.
- Use your imagination if you can't even move at all without pain. It is just as effective as actual moving.
- Support your body with towels, pillows, pads etc. Use whatever you can to get out of pain.
- Reversing the normal relationships of joint movement. (see the article below on neck pain)
This stuff that I'm talking about has been around since the 1940's. But it is only now that science is catching up and confirming some of these idea's. For me though, I didn't need to wait for the science, I was convinced by the results.
This is exactly what my training was missing in the beginning. I was doing lots of big movements involving strength, power and danger. But I wasn't making space for the movements that heal and build safety.
Articles to help you more with your chronic pain
The articles below can help you to get a handle on your chronic pain. There's a combination of information and practical experiential stuff there...
If you would like extra help in retraining you pain patterns there are several ways I could help you with that. I run workshops, classes and also do 1:1 work with people. Just contact me if you're interested.
Hopefully you can see how important these understandings are when it comes to chronic pain treatment. Knowing that pain originates in your brain, that you can unlearn it, and safe movement (ie: feldenkrais) is a way to do that is hugely important.