Unfortunately, until recently, people suffering from pain that was not clearly diagnosed would sometimes be treated as if that pain was imaginary. The pain is in their heads; it is psychosomatic; the patient doesn’t have the internal fortitude; any of these platitudes was used as an excuse for poor understanding of the physiology surrounding pain.
We now understand that pain is both highly subjective because of its ties to personal history and our emotions, we understand that the intrinsic biology of pain is as unique as a person’s fingerprints. The understanding that pain is indeed be in our heads, our brains to be precise, creates an opportunity for discussion and enlightenment to acknowledge how unique our pain is and how we can individualize therapy to patients.
The brain is akin to a computer
Just as computers process information, we know that our brain is the nerve center that informs the body that it is in pain, how severe that pain is and how we should respond to the pain. Using computers as a metaphor, we input data on a keyboard that is transmitted to a central processing unit when the computing occurs.
Likewise in our body, we receive an input from a sensory nerve and then another nerve brings the sensation along the spinal cord to the areas of the brain that registers the sensation telling us, “Ow! That hurts!” These pathways create a memory to remind us not to perform that act again because it caused an unpleasant sensory event. We now know that the brain has the ability to create new neural pathways for unpleasant and maladaptive events. In essence, we can train our brains! The ability to retrain out brain can be used to treat conditions related to pain as well, thinks like depression, anxiety, PTSD and even sleep disorders.
Retraining the brain
The ability to retrain the brain has created, for the first time, a new tool in the arsenal of pain relief – one that truly is efficacious, non-pharmacologic, low-risk and is long-lasting. The use of behavioral health guided virtual reality technology has created a platform that is achieves these goals. In a virtual reality experience, the brain is fully engaged in an immersive reality that is pleasant, exciting, and interesting.
The ability to immerse and redirect our cognitive direction leads to an almost immediate decrease in the sensation of pain and other untoward symptoms. Just as a teenager forgets about their hunger or fatigue while playing video games, patients begin to forget about their depression, their anxiety, or their pain as they experience a guided virtual environment. As the brain begins to experience these events with chronicity it then begins to form new neural pathways around maladaptive signs that are less distressing and more normative as the brain pursues homeostasis.
The outcomes are real
People using this approach report a 70 percent improvement in pain relief. Many are able to stop taking potentially addictive pain medications, or to significantly cut down on their medication dose. Freed from the side effects of these drugs, they are able to be present, and to engage in life again.
So perhaps the fact that pain is in our head is truly a good thing? Instead of taking pills to dull the pain, injections to numb the pain or surgery to remove the pain we can focus on the process of pain itself and allow the brain to redirect and course correct…with a little virtual guidance, of course!
For more information on these exciting new developments, visit www.harvardmedtech.com.