Yoga Poses for The Pain Brain

It is in the brain that everything takes place. . . .

It is in the brain that the poppy is red, that the apple is odorous, that the skylark sings.

Oscar Wilde

Chronic pain often begins as acute pain, the “regular” pain we all experience when we stub a toe, cut a finger, or suffer some other injury. Acute pain is a symptom of an underlying injury or disease. It’s also a warning—the body’s way of telling you that something has gone wrong.

For example, if a thorn pricks your finger while you’re trimming roses, your body creates a pain signal, an urgent, unpleasant sensation that gets you to pull your hand back and inspect it for damage. As soon as your skin is pricked, nerves in the finger send messages to the brain, informing it that an injury has occurred. The body responds to the danger immediately, generating platelets to plug the breach in the bleeding capillary, sending white blood cells to deal with any bacteria that have entered the body through the break in the skin, and so on. What began as a sharp pain quickly fades to a mild pain, which disappears as the physical injury is resolved. The pain has served its purpose and vanishes.

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Acute pain can also be a symptom of disease. Chest pain, for example, can signal the presence of heart disease, while pain in the abdomen may warn that the appendix is inflamed.

Unfortunately, in too many cases, acute pain doesn’t cease when it should, but continues long after the original injury has been repaired, becoming chronic pain. Chronic pain can linger for months, years, even decades, and become an all-encompassing state of mind. While acute pain can be seen as a fleeting symptom, it helps to view chronic pain as a disease in and of itself, like diabetes and hypertension. Chronic pain—that burning, shooting, sharp, throbbing, aching, electrical, “ice pick driving straight thought my body” kind of pain—can affect every part of your life. It can take many forms—muscle pain, nerve pain, joint pain—and carry diagnoses like fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, or sciatica. But its presence always feels cruel and unfair, because it is always there.

Pain Is Always Real

Until quite recently, pain was viewed primarily as a symptom of tissue damage or an underlying disease. And when the pain continued after the damage had been resolved, or when no physical reason for it could be identified, those who were hurting were viewed with suspicion by doctors, insurance companies, family members, and friends, for they couldn’t understand why. And the longer the pain lasted, the more eyebrows were raised. Sadly, those with chronic pain were often labeled hypochondriacs, malingerers milking the disability system, or just plain kooks.

I remember well in my early days of private practice when I would meet doctors in the hospital and the first thing they asked me was, “How do you know when the pain is real?” This always left me scratching my head while trying to figure out how to say, diplomatically, “Pain is always real for the person who is hurting, you numb nut.”

Fortunately, such attitudes toward pain began to shift in the latter part of the 20th century, as new technology and research advanced our understanding of what happens in the brain when the body is hurting or injured. These advances made it clear that chronic pain is an experience based on phenomenon created within the brain. What makes chronic pain such a vexing disease is that it influences everything that goes on in the brain. This means that the anxiety, depression, fear, forgetfulness, lack of motivation, and other problems that accompany chronic pain are also very real.

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