I was recently perusing through Ted Talks when I found an absolute gem. ‘Why Things Hurt’ by Lorimer Moseley has not only given me clarity around pain, it’s also inspired me to work harder to help my clients regain control over their struggles. You see, pain is designed to be a protector, but things can go sour extremely quickly. If you don’t have the right knowledge and perspective on the subject, there’s a strong chance you’ll be suffering far more than you have to.
Without further ado, let’s take a deep dive into this masterful piece of communication by Dr. Moselely. While pain is absolutely real, we’re likely letting it rule our lives more than necessary. If your journey is anything like mine, the more you discover about this infamous stimulus, the more freedom you’ll have in knowing that it isn’t everything. Your very mindset and perspective on pain can spur on improved health outcomes, so never stop learning about it!
Why Things Hurt
Lorimer begins by taking us on a walk in the woods. He mentions an experience when he stepped on something sharp, quickly snapped his foot up for a moment, and then continued walking without thinking anything of it. What had happened? Well, his brain told him that he had walked on a stick because naturally, he was in a familiar forest environment and a similar stimulus had hit him on that part of his gait cycle a few months back.
It wasn’t until a few moments later that he completely lost consciousness. That ‘stick’ turned out to be an eastern brown snake, the 2nd most venomous snake in the entire world.
Now, it seems logical that Lorimer would be in extreme agony if he was bitten by a poisonous snake…but why wasn’t he? You see, the brain is the master evaluator for determining the danger of each stimulus we come across. In this particular scenario, nothing seemed out of place for Lorimer. It was another walk in the woods with nothing but a poke at his left foot. This stimulus was sent up to the thalamus, and then the brain scanned its many parts for relevant information. After referring to the frontal lobe and posterior parietal cortex, all memories similar to this one had been non-threatening, so the brain assumed this one to be safe as well. “Ah, it must’ve just been a stick,” it said.
Pain is nothing more than an illusion, at least part of the time.
Six months later, Lorimer is back in the forest and he feels a similar stimulus. This time, he screams out in agony for minutes on end. It’s only when his mate comes over that things take an interesting turn. The body was touched by a stick this time around, but the brain wasn’t ready to take another risk. It’s saying, “Last time you almost died, so I’m going to give you so much pain that you can do nothing else but try and protect yourself”.
“Pain isn’t just about the tissues of one’s body.” — Dr. Moseley
A groundbreaking perspective shift for me was when I realized that pain is simply an output from the brain, not a direct message from the ‘damaged tissues’. 100% of the time, pain is orchestrated by the brain and nothing else. While there are times when this output is protecting you from real danger, there are also circumstances when the memories and emotions you’re dealing with blow the stimulus way out of proportion.
Here are two more examples to bring this point home…
In one experiment, a cold piece of metal was placed on various subject’s hands. While it was resting, the volunteers are exposed to either a red or blue light. What group felt more discomfort? The one that was seeing red light because it is more naturally associated with pain and discomfort. This had nothing to do with the tissues and everything to do with the orchestration of the brain.
In another experiment, university students were asked to put on a brain stimulator cap. As this was happening, an intensity knob that is visible to all patients was dialed up to higher and higher frequencies. It turns out that the whole machine was a sham, but that didn’t matter to the students. As the results rolled in, there was a clear link between increased levels of pain perception and higher ‘frequencies’.
What It All Means…
So now we know that the brain can play some pretty groovy tricks on our bodies, but why does it matter? Well first off, pain has the power to make your life miserable if it becomes chronic. Secondly, it costs countries billions upon billions of dollars, many of these costs being preventable. In Australia alone, pain-related visits cost the country more than cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes combined. While some of these expenses are warranted, there is a prevalent failure on the medical system that is essentially telling patients they’re more in pain than they actually are.
When we’re exposed to insensitive and/or uneducated language, imaging, diagnoses, and general healthcare, our brains tell us we’re in trouble. A light headache can become a migraine simply based on a scary-looking diagnosis image or a drug prescription that is far too heavy for a patient’s needs.
If we keep running the neurons that produce pain, they get better at producing pain. If we let this cycle continue, we need a smaller and smaller influence to feel this discomfort. Unfortunately, this illusion quickly turns into a disadvantage as our guards fight any stimuli that come our way, regardless if they warrant our attention or not. If this persists, our nervous system can lose its ability to be precise so the pain spreads and changes its quality, greatly disrupting our wellbeing.
So where do we go from here?
The most important step is to realize that pain is simply an illusion. It’s based on only 2 factors: memories and emotions. This realization shouldn’t undermine the situations when you are in real danger, but I hope it can give you clarity in the moments when you’re being fooled by the brain. In every second we’re at mercy to the brain’s perception of our lived experience. The best way to live pain-free is to remind yourself of this in your everyday walk of life.
You can begin to live a fuller life simply by changing your perspective on pain. It doesn’t have to be a big, insurmountable monster. At the end of the day, it’s just your brain’s interpretation of the world around you.
]Your brain wants desperately to protect you, but sometimes it’s too good at its job. While this isn’t about understating anyone’s struggles, I do hope it shifts your perspective on what’s really going on. More often than not, our pain is far worse than the tissue damage we experience because of the way we’ve been educated on the subject.
Fortunately, we can begin turning this ship around by remembering what pain is…and what it isn’t. Not that you know the brain’s trick, start being curious when certain stimuli come your way. Ask yourself, “Am I truly in danger…is this an accurate response to my current situation?”. If you pick up this habit, you must just surprise yourself with how much it can change your life.