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When Pain Is Not What You Think It Is

Updated: Nov 29, 2021

Most of us prefer not to be in pain. It's one of the first things we generally complain about. As soon as we start to hurt, we analyze the pain to see if something is injured, we wonder if we are ill and have a sore throat, or even think back to figure out what caused our headache. And it’s no wonder. It’s hard to be in pain and be productive, relax, or have fun. It makes us irritable and tired. We just want it to stop so we can get on with our lives. We also want to figure out the physical trigger so it won’t happen again.

Therapist working on stretching woman's neck.

My guess is that all of us feel some sort of pain every week. A headache, an overworked muscle, menstrual cramps, a minor burn, or even a stubbed toe is pain that runs its course and moves on. It’s easy to identify what happened and we just deal with it until it goes away.

For many, though, pain is an everyday presence. A constant threat that is tipped off by the smallest trigger. This kind of pain can irrevocably change your life as those who suffer adjust their habits, activities, or even jobs to deal with the daily discomfort. Some have lived with it for months or even years. Chronic long term pain is often associated with depression because of how it alters your life and curbs your activities. It can also be mentally exhausting as you try (not always successfully) to figure out what is causing it.

People who have chronic pain often spend a lot of time going to doctors looking for the cause and cure for their problem. These can be really hard to find. When doctors go looking for a structural problem in the body to explain chronic pain, they often do find something. These structural problems can give an explanation for the pain, but surgeries or corrective actions often do not stop it. So despite having a diagnosis, a cure is not always medically possible.

Why is chronic pain so hard to diagnose and treat? It seems like once you find the source of the pain it should be easy to fix the problem, right? Psychotherapist and author Alan Gordon notes that most of us walk around with structural problems such as disc problems in our backs, strains, tears, etc. but not everyone has pain associated with them. Why do some people get chronic pain from these types of structural problems while others have none? There must be something additional going on. Here's the catch to all this. A physical problem isn’t always the source of the pain.

Another confounding issue is that pain associated with a known injury can last long after the injury itself has healed. This is particularly true of people who have suffered some sort of trauma along with physical injury. For pain such as fibromyalgia, those with history of trauma are more likely to be diagnosed with that label. On their informational page about chronic pain the Cleveland Clinic writes, “This type of pain can continue even after the injury or illness that caused it has healed or gone away. Pain signals remain active in the nervous system for weeks, months or years. Some people suffer chronic pain even when there is no past injury or apparent body damage( So even after the body has healed the pain can persist. There are even times when there doesn’t appear to be an original injury to create the pain! How maddening is that? What else is going on?

There doesn’t seem to be any sense to it. What can anyone do about pain that doesn’t have any physical source?

Quite a lot, actually. The key is to start looking at the source of the problem differently.

Alan Gordan is the founder of the Pain Psychology Center in Los Angeles and he sees the source of pain very differently than most medical practitioners. He’s worked with thousands of patients diagnosing chronic pain and providing solutions. One thing he has found is that patients with long term pain also have significant changes in their brains as well. Chronic pain is associated with 44 regions of the brain that are not activated by acute (short term) pain. So your brain may send pain signals to let you know something is injured but at some point, this pain can be passed to other areas of the brain that maintain the pain long term even when the physical problem has been healed. So doctors looking for the cause of chronic pain in the body are actually looking in the wrong place. The brain could be the source of the problem.

The Way Out: Healing Chronic Pain by Alan Gordon

As noted by the Cleveland Clinic above, sometimes chronic pain starts without any significant injury. The brain starts sending pain messages in response to a stimulus that doesn’t reside in the physical body. Alan Gordan tells a story in his book The Way Out about an accident he was in where his car was hit but he didn’t have any actual physical injuries. Despite this fact, he had significant pain for several hours until he was able to let go of the fear of the accident. Then his body was able to slowly release the pain and return to normal. He calls this type of pain response a “mistake” where the brain sends signals thinking it is injured, but then realizes it isn’t. What he suggests is that for some, this mistaken pain signal can get “stuck on” and create chronic pain.

So let’s pause here and talk a little bit about all this from an energetic perspective. I’ve been doing energy work with pain for a few years now and one thing I have noticed is that there is always a reason for pain. Pain is not a mistake. Your body is too smart for that. In my blog post Your Body is Trying to Tell You Something, I talk about how your body has a very sophisticated communication system that we usually don’t know how to interpret. Every single thing you feel is a message telling you about what is going on internally. So I don’t believe that your body or brain makes “mistakes” in sending you years of pain without a purpose.

Another thing I have learned from energy work is that emotional, mental, and spiritual energy in your body can cause pain just as easily as physical problems. Alan Gordon comes close to seeing this, but doesn’t quite jump in and admit it. He noticed that as his fear abated after the accident, his pain went away. He talks about fear quite a bit in his book as the emotion that ramps up the pain, but never quite makes the connection that the fear itself can be the energy that keeps the pain from clearing. After an accident there are many emotions coursing through your body. If one or more gets stuck, your body will try to let you know that the block is there through signals such as pain. Until you can calm down and release the emotion(s), the body cannot release the pain. In Alan Gordon’s story, his pain wasn’t a mistake, he just didn’t realize that his emotions were causing his physical pain.

Other types of energy can also create blocks in the body and cause pain. The energy causing pain in your body might not even be yours. Energy can be passed down through families with younger generations carrying the energetic baggage of older generations. There are stories of people with bizarre symptoms (such as chronic pain) that seem to come out of nowhere whose origin may come from an older family member. That generational energy is passed on until someone in the family is able to release and heal it. I know it sounds totally wacky, but there are some talented professionals working with generational energy who have some incredible stories to tell. You can read more about this phenomenon in my blog post Inheriting Family Trauma where I talk about Mark Wolynn and his book It Didn’t Start With You. For now, I’ll just say that sometimes the doctors can’t find physical, mechanical problems because they don’t exist in your own body. They exist only in your energy body and their origin may be from someone else.

Confusing? Yes. Enlightening? It was for me.

Plastic model of a neuron and inside of a brain.

So let’s get back to Alan Gordon. At the Pain Psychology Center he works with patients who have what he dubs “neuroplastic pain.” This kind of pain exists primarily in the nervous system (neurons) and that is malleable (plastic). It is pain that can be trained away because it exists primarily in the brain. Remember earlier when we talked about how chronic pain moves to those 44 areas of the brain that don’t handle acute pain? Alan Gordon has found that through training, people with chronic pain can calm those areas of the brain which essentially stops the brain from firing pain signals. Over time he can train the brain to release all or most of the pain, which is what his book is all about. He actually shows you how to do this yourself. If you’ve lived with chronic pain, definitely go check it out. It’s easy to read and gives you great strategies to retrain your brain. It also tells the story of several patients who found relief from their chronic pain using his methods.

How do you know you have neuroplastic pain? He gives you several examples in the book, but there are a few key factors he looks for to see if the pain is mechanical (arising from an actual injury to the body) or neuroplastic. Are there any exceptions to the pain? Are there times you can remember not having pain for some reason? Is the pain mirrored on both sides of your body? (Mechanical pain usually doesn’t have a mirror opposite but only exists in one place.) Does the pain get worse when you are under stress or upset? Did the pain start out of nowhere, particularly during a stressful period of life? All these answers can be clues as to whether the pain is neuroplastic. I would add that these questions are similar to ones I use to determine if the pain could be the result of an energy block rather than a physical issue.

So once you determine that the pain is likely neuroplastic, then Alan Gordon gives you strategies to use to retrain your brain to believe it is safe and release the pain signals. The primary retraining tool he uses is called somatic tracking. In somatic tracking you gently feel and accept the pain without judgement while also telling your mind that it is safe. I was very excited when I read this because this is essentially an energy practice! I’ve tried somatic tracking just as he describes it, and have definitely felt an energy release from it. Also, he talks a lot about strategies to deal with the pain-fear cycle which, as I mentioned earlier, can actually release emotional energy that might be keeping the pain from healing.

I’ve been using energy work with pain for a while so it was exciting to see a psychotherapist working on the same ideas using scientific tools I don’t have access to. I felt like he confirmed a lot of what I have been seeing in my practice while also giving me some additional pointers to look for. I am constantly amazed at how psychology and psychotherapy essentially work with energy without ever acknowledging it.

However, I want to add that this isn’t the only way to deal with chronic pain. Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) is a proven practice that often works very well for chronic pain sufferers. There are thousands of stories of people who have released pain stuck behind mental, emotional, or spiritual blocks that can be resolved with EFT. I talk a lot more about it here: Energy Work For Pain. It’s usually the first place I start when dealing with pain.

I’ve also found that Reiki is an excellent way to deal with chronic pain. Most people I know who have dealt with pain for a long time (myself included) have many layers of emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, and sometimes generational energy all backed up behind the original problem. It often takes some time to identify and release all that. I’m finding that Reiki can release energy blocks and the associated neurological associations (what Alan Gordon calls neuroplastic pain) at the same time. I’ve been working with my own pain in this way and am finding that by directly releasing the neurological associations, my pain abates much more quickly. To be honest, I think a combination of EFT, Reiki, and some of Alan Gordon’s somatic tracking may be the perfect combination to work through all the energetic layers of chronic pain to release the energy and bring complete healing.

To bring this all together, psychology and energy work go hand-in-hand to bring relief to many issues such as chronic pain. I always enjoy reading about new techniques to tackle major problems such as this. It was exciting to me to find a psychotherapist doing work on releasing pain that doesn’t have an associated physical origin. The important takeaway from all this is that there is hope to heal chronic pain. Whether you use one of these techniques or a combination, there is no reason to assume you will never heal the pain.

The most recent National Health Interview Study found that one in five people in the U.S. experience chronic pain (ScienceDaily). That’s a lot of people walking around with daily discomfort and all its associated emotional and physical problems. It’s way too many people dealing with pain that has a good chance of being resolved if you use effective treatments to deal with the (often) non-physical problems. If you or someone you know deals with chronic pain, start with the resources above to learn more about the possibilities for healing. Any of the options I’ve talked about here are less invasive than surgery, cheaper than taking medications, and work faster than going through a battery of medical tests. Even if you think it is quackery, give it a try. You don’t have anything to lose and you have a lot to gain.

If you’d like to work with me or just ask me questions about what to try first, contact me through my website. I work remotely, so we can connect no matter where you live. There are other EFT and Reiki professionals who may be closer to you if you want to work with someone in person. Just ask them about their experience working with chronic pain and see if they have some understanding about where it comes from and how to work through the layers to heal it. A full understanding of the function and origin of pain is not necessary, but is certainly helpful if you want to heal.

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