So how does pain work ?
We all know what pain is; you stub your toe and a lightning flash of pain streaks up to your brain. But is there more to it than that ? Are there different types of pain, and how can hypnotherapy help ?
Every part of our body contains sensory neurons. If you stub your toe, the sensory neurons in that area send a message of pain up the spinal cord to the brain. The message says ‘I am experiencing a threat, damage has taken place; look after me’.
But there are different types of pain. If you stub your toe, you experience short, sharp or ‘acute’ pain. Once, however, the initial injury has been registered, and even long after it has resolved, you may still experience general, persistent or ‘chronic’ pain.
These two types of pain are transmitted along different types of nerve fibres. They are easy to remember because acute pain travels along ‘A’ fibres, and chronic pain travels along ‘C’ fibres.
The A fibres transmit messages faster, and so the brain always gives them priority. This has a number of consequences. First, if you sustain a new injury, the new, acute message whizzing along the A fibre will override the old chronic pain lumbering slowly along the C fibre. But a happier side-effect is that if you are experiencing chronic pain along a C fibre, you can distract your brain by the simple expedient of rubbing or massaging the affected area. This new sensation can actually block the C message from getting through to the brain.
But where it gets really interesting is the way in which the brain processes pain. A surprisingly high component of pain is, in fact, emotional. The brain remembers old pain, it may fear future pain, it may feel that it ‘ought’ to feel pain because someone else said it would be painful; there are lots of layers to the experience of pain.
If we pick apart how the brain processes the pain signal, first it arrives at the hypothalamus, that part of the brain that receives sensory inputs and then decides which other parts of the brain need to get involved.
The thalamus is linked up to the amygdala, which decides what emotional label should be attached to the experience. As usual, the amygdala engages the ‘fight or flight’ reaction which can include an increasing heart rate, sweating and fainting. And amongst other responses, the brain can actually send its own signal back down the C fibre to the site of the injury, just to be on the safe side
So you can now see that there is an awful lot going on in your response to pain, and quite a lot of this response – particularly in terms of chronic pain – is technically redundant. It serves no immediate or useful purpose.
But your amygdala is too primitive to realise that and, as is so often the case, it ‘pushes the panic button’, obsesses over the situation (a typical amygdala characteristic) and repeats the same old behaviour (another amygdala characteristic) even if you no longer need it.
And how can hypnotherapy help ?
As always, simply understanding how the brain has got ‘stuck in the groove’ can be enormously beneficial in taking the pressure off the situation, and beyond that, reducing your overall stress level gives the rational side of your brain a much-needed chance to redress the balance. The more stressed you are, the more you will operate out of the primitive side of the brain that generates these redundant responses. The less stressed you are, the greater your ability to operate out of the rational part of your brain, which can then get on terms with the amygdala and tell it that a lot of its activity is unnecessary.
Pain is pain and if there is a serious physical cause, hypnotherapy will not make it go away, but it can make it much easier to manage. But if - as is sometimes the case – the pain is actually a cocktail of memories, expectations and feedback loops in the brain, then hypnotherapy may be just what you need to reset the system.