I felt inspired to write this blog after re-watching a 2011 TED Talk by Lorimer Moseley on the topic of pain. I have seen this episode multiple times and it always makes me laugh. He knows how to tell a good story that merges science with comedy. He actually makes learning (about pain) fun!
Lorimer Moseley is a professor of clinical neurosciences and foundation chair of physiotherapy at the University of South Australia. He has over 30 years of experience studying people in chronic pain. He has published more than 300 scientific articles, written several books, and traveled around the world teaching physical therapists about this topic. So you can say he knows a thing or two about pain.
Now try to imagine me telling you this story in an Australian accent. Moseley was walking in the bush (AKA the woods) and he suddenly felt a sensation on the outer side of his left leg. It was enough to cause him to briefly pause his gait. But then he just continued on his journey. It kind of felt like a twig hit his leg, so he didn’t think much of it at the time.
In the Ted Talk, Moseley goes on to explain the science behind that brief moment. When he felt the sensation, it triggered nerve receptors which instantly sent a signal up his leg, his spinal cord, and into his brain. It was like, “You've just been touched on the outside of your left leg, mate!”
At the same time, this sensation also triggered slow moving receptors (nociceptors). As the signal travels up, it tells neurons in the spinal cord to determine if the sensation was (or wasn't) dangerous enough to be passed along to the brain. The signal is then sent to the Thalamus which basically receives all sensations from the body (except smells) and processes the information before sending it to the cerebral cortex. The cerebral cortex is a higher level of processing in the brain which handles things like memory, emotions, reasoning and thoughts.
Keep in mind this all happened in a split second. During that brief moment, the sensation was interpreted by his spinal cord and brain to be similar to a sensation he had experienced many times before, probably while playing in the bush as a kid. In other words, the reaction was based upon previous events and experiences. And since it wasn't deemed a dangerous threat, he continued along with his hike.
The last thing Moseley remembered was washing himself in the river. Then he blacked out and woke up in the hospital. Apparently he was bitten by a poisonous eastern brown snake!
The snake bite felt similar to a twig hitting his leg. So it did not trigger a painful response from the brain. It’s sort of like what happened to Forrest Gump when he got shot in the buttocks but was able to rescue Bubba, lieutenant Dan and other members of his troop. He was so consumed with helping his friends that he didn’t even feel the pain until everyone was carried off to safety.
Moseley goes on to exclaim that months later he was hiking in the bush again and felt a similar sensation on the outer side of his left leg! The same biological event occurred. But this time he immediately dropped to the ground in agony. The previous emotional experience stayed with him, and his brain responded by sending a painful signal, just in case it was another snake bite.
Fortunately it was just a twig this time. But his brain did not want to take any chances. So even though there was no tissue damage from the tree branch, it still triggered a painful response because of his past experience.
The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that association with, actual or potential tissue damage.” The key words here are: emotional experience. Pain is a very dynamic process based on multidimensional experiences produced by multiple influences like past memories, fear, anxiety and even how a sensation is interpreted. All of these factors can influence the severity of the sensation if it is deemed a threat to the body.
Moseley believes that controlling chronic pain begins with understanding pain science. He doesn’t necessarily offer solutions to chronic pain. Rather, he teaches us how pain manifests itself in the body.
If you understand the pain process, it can help you deal with your symptoms. After all, we all know now that pain can be exacerbated by our emotions. So next time you get hurt, try to understand that the way you think is going to be the way you feel.
Suffering from pain? Please contact me at Activcore Princeton to help you overcome it and get back to living life again.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.