Monthly Archives: January 2016

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Pirates and Pain Maps

Move over Johnny Depp and your pirates of the Caribbean.  Move over Matt Damon, the self-proclaimed space pirate in The Martian.  There is a new pirate in town–Me!

The treasure I wish to seize goes beyond an actual treasure chest buried on a sandy beach or freshly grown potatoes on a foreign planet.  I, Krysia Marie, wish to reclaim my cortical real estate.  In other words, I wish to reclaim my brain for processes that go beyond the reinforcement of chronic pain.

We live in a spectacular time of brain-based research, in which neuroscientists, psychiatrists, pain specialists, psychologists, etc, are learning that the brain can actually “change its own structure and functioning in response to activity and mental experience” (preface); this is called “neuroplasticity” and is described extensively through a variety of case studies in Dr. Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain’s Way of Healing.

On planet Earth, we all experience acute pain, at one time of another.  You may stub a toe, have a tooth ache or break an arm.  Within seconds, minutes, days or less than approximately 6 months, acute pain will heal.  Dr. Moskowitz , pain specialist & psychiatrist, describes chronic pain brilliantly:  “The body’s alarm system is stuck in the “on” position, because the person has been unable to remedy the cause of an acute pain, and the central nervous system has become damaged” (pg 10).  For me, despite the quick intervention of a medical team that was composed of my family doctor, psychologist, physiotherapist, and occupational therapist, the trauma and pain of my 2011 accident was not easily remedied.

Now here’s how the strange, brain-based pirate-show works:  Did you know that the brain “steals” more resources from other areas as more and more neurons are taken over for pain processing?  This creates an ever-expanding pain map in the brain.  Think of it this way: At the beginning of pain, there may be a few neurons in the brain firing; it is like a solo or duet of pain processing.  As days turn to months turn to years of chronic pain, more and more neurons fire together;  it becomes a massive choir of pain processing! Crazy!

Yet there is hope in the form of neuroplasticity.  In the chapter, “Physician Hurt, Then Heal Thyself”,  pain specialist, Dr. Moskowitz, becomes the patient after having an accident that cracks his femur.  Through his own healing journey, he discovers that chronic pain can be eventually unlearned using the the following process of relentless visualization:

  1. Visualize the brain in chronic pain and imagine the the neurons firing.
  2. Now imagine the pain map of firing neurons shrinking until it looks like a pain-free brain.
  3. Be relentless. Be motivated. Set the intention to change the brain, not to get rid of pain. See pain as an opportunity, yes opportunity, to repair its faulty alarm system. Again, be relentless with the visualizations.

You see, in spite of the chronic pain and the trauma of the accident, I continue to be motivated and relentless in my quest for health and vitality.  Harnessing the mind is truly a powerful resource. Seeing myself as a pirate changing my pain map and then reclaiming my brain, one neuron at a time, seems quite a logical next-step for me.  I’ll keep you informed of my progress.

Redefinition #7:

Just for the moment, I breathe in and out, in and out

And know…

That in spite of the pain, it is safe for my brain to visualize health, wellness and vitality, one neuron at a time.

Photo credits: Thank you to Nora Serna for her “breathe” feature picture and Lisa Sharpe for the header.