Pain is a curious thing. It is more of an experience than anything else, an experience that takes place in the brain as a result of signals received from other parts of the body. The most curious thing about managing chronic pain is that it seems to be related to a person's mindset. At least that's the thinking of a pain management doctor recently interviewed by Runner's World.
Dr. Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen, M.D. is a pain expert, author, and member of England's Royal College of Anesthetists. His extensive experience in pain management has helped him understand the relationship between pain and a person's mindset.
Pain management doctors the world over recognize pain as a warning sign. It can be a warning sign of physical danger, mental danger, emotional danger, or any combination thereof. There doesn't necessarily have to be a physical manifestation of the pain, either. In fact, pain medicine doctors have a term for pain that cannot be connected to a known physical malady. They call it non-specific pain.
Given that pain is a warning sign, how the brain interprets that warning sign can influence the pain experience itself. Dr. Lalkhen offers a simplified explanation in the example of a car alarm. A car alarm going off in the middle of the night is a warning that something is going on with the car itself. But we all know from personal experience that people react to car alarms differently.
Some people immediately panic and assume the worst. They rush to call the police before investigating the issue. On the other end of the spectrum are people who have learned to ignore car alarms no matter when they are heard or how loud they are.
Just as people react differently to car alarms, they also react differently to pain signals. This influences the pain experience. People who react one way might feel more intense pain while those who react another way are not bothered by it as much.
A person's mindset can affect the pain experience in terms of what we call pain tolerance. A certain mindset can mean a higher tolerance for pain. But there is another factor in play: stress. Pain at any level induces some amount of stress in the person who experiences it. How that person reacts to the stress further impacts the pain experience.
This particular issue is one that chronic pain sufferers are intimately familiar with. A typical chronic pain patient has good and bad days. Helping them get through the bad days is one of the main things we focus on at pain clinics. That aside, pain-related stress can be significantly greater on the bad days.
Research has shown that stress can increase a person's perception of pain. So under certain conditions, pain and stress can work together to create a cycle that only worsens the experience of pain over time. Pain causes stress; the stress increases pain perception; and a greater pain perception creates more stress. It becomes a vicious cycle that can be difficult to break.
It would appear as though a person's mindset can affect the pain experience. Still, do not misunderstand the point here. None of this is to say that chronic pain is all in your head. It's not. Pain is a very real experience that can be caused by an endless number of things. The only point being made here is that working on changing one's mindset could help some patients manage chronic pain more effectively.