Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Is pain all in our heads?

Is pain really all in our heads? According to neuroscientist David Linden of Johns Hopkins University, this seems to be the case. In instances where we experience pain, for example a cut on our index finger, we believe that the pain is emanating from the index finger. Contrary to this belief, it is actually coming from the brain. This is due to our own perception of pain being moulded by the circuits in our brain that are consistently receiving inputs from our sensory nerves. Linden exemplifies this further in his book Touch , and explains that our brains can amplify our experience of pain by means of its intensity and characteristics, such as the burning or aching sensations we may feel due to injury or illness. Another aspect of individual experiences of pain is the emotions we correlate with certain situations, as the brain decides the emotion we associate with each instance in which pain is experienced. For example, pain can be minimised once positive emotions - such as feelings of safety and calm - are emitted, therefore reducing the emotional component of pain.

The concept of pain being 'all in our heads' is further illustrated by the complexity of the phenomenon referred to as phantom limb pain, a phenomenon that has been extensively researched by individuals such as neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran. Phantom limb pain is a sensation felt in a missing limb, by individuals born without a certain limb, or those whom have underdone amputation during the course of their lives. Sensations experienced in the missing limb can range from a mild tingling or itch to severe aching and burning pain. A number of theories have been explored that may explain this extraordinary sensation, ranging from theories of maladaptive plasticity, to limb position memories formed post-amputation.  In 2013, Nadia Bolognini carried out an experiment that explored motor and parietal cortex stimulation as a means of relieving phantom limb pain. It was found that this form of treatment provided short-term alleviation from pain (up to 90 minutes). Another form of therapy utilised in the treatment of phantom limb pain is 'the mirror box' which was developed by Ramachandran, where the patient places a mirror box in the position of the missing limb, creating the illusion of a limb being present. The mirror provides artificial visual feedback from the missing limb and the patient can engage in movement and soothing exercises in order to alleviate pain.

However, we must take into account that pain is case sensitive and each individual can experience a vast range of sensations and intensities caused by injury and illness. Having said pain is case sensitive, it is also human condition for us to have the common desire to flee, resist, or move away from pain, which in turn can have adverse effects in amplifying the intense sensation we feel, thus inducing and associating negative emotions such as anger or frustration with instances of pain. So, the next time you are become with the unfortunate event of experiencing pain, be aware and mindful of the emotions you are associating with the pain - as it could just be 'all in your head'.

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