Opening the Medicine Cabinet in Your Brain
We come into this world equipped with our own medicine cabinet in our brains. Our brains and our guts produce amazing feel-good hormones as well as pain-reducing and inflammation fighting substances including opioids, oxytocin, endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, morphine, and endocannabinoids. These products are no small features and all the synthetic pain medications on the market are designed to replicate their effect. In fact, the morphine that we produce in our bodies is far more potent than the synthetic morphine we may receive in the hospital. The euphoric and unstoppable feeling of the "runner's high" was once attributed to the endorphins and opioids that are released during exercise but now the spotlight shines on endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids get a lot of press for being one of the mechanisms by which we decrease our own pain and increase feelings of well-being. Taking it a step further, the richness and diversity of the microbiome in our gut dictates the extent to which endocannabinoids and serotonin are actually released.
Oh my goodness, it's another example of how no system in our body is an island!
Pain is a complex topic. It involves signals to our spinal cord that may or may not travel to our brain. When they do go to our brain, they reach emotional areas of our brain pretty early before being received by the other areas of our brain. Pain is not perceived by a clean slate; it takes processing by our brain to make sense of the information, which involves our hopes, attitudes, beliefs, fears, anxieties, past experiences, amount of social or home support, and whatever else is going on. Let's be clear, pain can be helpful and it is there to keep us safe. Sometimes, it can be a gentle whisper to say, "This activity is too much, too soon, with perhaps not the greatest strategy of movement right now." But sometimes it sticks around longer than necessary, even after the tissue is healed or the stimulus has been removed. That is when it is labeled chronic pain. Sometimes this is due to movement strategies continuing to be funky and needing an update, some coaching, and some hands-on treatment. Other times, this is also because the neural pathway for the pain signal is a path well worn and easily fired over and over again.
Now that we know our amazing brains and bodies have our own pharmacy, how can we use this to our advantage? What is going to help release these wonderful tools? In a nutshell, taking in the good (socializing, time in nature, mindfulness, doing things that bring you joy, etc), eating whole foods, and aerobic exercise of at least 10 minutes at a heart rate of 120-125 bpm. Isn't that the advise for most things? I'll be darned... What's going to limit these helpful substances from being produced inside of us? Fear, depression, anxiety, you get the picture.
There are many researchers in Australia that are studying pain science. I was lucky enough to see one of them, Lorimer Mosely, speak at Shenandoah University a couple of years back. His colleague, David Butler, made an awesome short lecture about this very topic. Watch it here. But remember this! In the research they have found that solely learning about pain isn't enough to see improvements in symptoms. The best results yield from pain education AND exercise. Private lessons, coaching, or any kind of movement therapist (including PT's, duh!) is a great place to start to get feedback on how to move in ways that feel good.
There is so much potential inside of each and every one of us. Our brains and bodies are incredible and I think one of the most miraculous systems ever created. All we need is support, encouragement, knowledge, self-advocacy, and action.
Resources used for this article:
Pain science resources for you:
Books by Cheryl Wardlaw, PT who is one of my favorite mentors