Pain Sensitization – When Your Pain Goes Up to 11

I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ – the 80s mockumentary that chronicles the rise and fall of a rock band trying to make it. But there is one classic scene where the lead guitarist is showing the filmmaker their new amp.

He says: “You see this amp? It’s very special. Most amps only go up to 10. But ours goes up to 11.”

Now while there’s some humour in this (you can make as many numbers as you like on a dial) there is another comparison I could make.

For people with pain sensitisation, their pain dial goes up to 11 (or even 12,13 14 or 15.)

When people’s pain system is sensitised it can even affect things like site and hearing. For example, sometimes in my waiting room I see people wearing their dark glasses indoors.

When I ask them why they say – “Everything seems too bright. And too loud as well.”

So if you have pain sensitization, and your pain goes up to 11+ the most important question is – how can you turn it down?

The answer to this is multifaceted. If there was a simple one-step way to do this – then it wouldn’t be chronic pain and you would have sorted it out months or years ago.

However, there are things that can make a huge difference in turning the pain dial down. Some techniques will work very well for some people and others work better for others.

I’m going to share one technique which is deceptively simple, but for some people it transforms their life.

It’s this: you need to create a separation between the pain you feel – and the emotion that comes with it.

Chronic Pain is Felt in a Different Part of the Brain

Using fMRI scans, researcher were able to see which parts of the brain were active when people with chronic pain felt their pain. What they found was very interesting. People with chronic pain used a different part of their brain to feel pain.

In the researcher’s own words: “[Brain activity] has moved away from sensory representation areas in general to more areas that relate to emotion” in patients with chronic pain.

But although the brain signatures of pain became more emotional in nature, the way people described their pain remained constant.

This suggests that as pain becomes chronic, it becomes very strongly tied in with your emotions. So a very powerful mind-body practice to start unlinking this connection is to change your emotional reaction to your pain.

I know when I had chronic back pain, every time my back hurt, my thoughts would circle in a spiral of despair. I would think things like ‘it’s never going to get better,’ ‘I’ll never be able to do the things I love,’ and ‘I hate my life.’ And with these thoughts came strong negative emotions.

If I had been hooked up to a fMRI machine, I’m sure it would have shown areas of my brain lighting up that are normally used for emotion. But now – research is showing these same areas are being co-opted to process chronic pain messages. So every time these I felt these strong negative emotions along with the pain, I was reinforcing the pain cycle.

Changing the Way You React = Retraining Your Pain System

As I was getting rid of my back pain I would practice seeing the pain as a false message from my pain system. I would intentionally shift my attention away from the pain onto whatever activity I was doing when I felt the pain. Other people I’ve coached have seen the message as a fake spam message, and practiced deleting it, or used visualization to turn their pain down.

This isn’t easy. And there’s a reason I’ve spent all this time up until now explaining why chronic pain is different. Unless you’ve truly bought into this model, unless you’re willing to accept your pain may not equal physical damage – you won’t have the conviction to make this work for you.

It’s only when people are truly ready to challenge their pain that they’re able to do the work of retraining their pain system.

When you think and feel in a different way in the face of pain, you are training your brain and your pain system to use a different pathway. You’re interrupting the pattern of emotion and pain which has been repeating and repeating.

So that’s what I’d recommend as a first step to shift your pain dial down from 11 and back to normal settings. There are several other simple strategies you can adopt to bring calm and control into your daily life – and turn down your pain. I’ve made a short series which outlines exactly what these are. You can get it for free here.