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It's all in your head.


Pony standing on child's foot

Just recently I've had several new clients coming to me with long term pain. Some have medical diagnoses - arthritis, chronic fatigue, spinal degeneration - and some don't; but all of them are suffering and the NHS hasn't got anything to offer them. I'm able to help a lot of these people with Bowen therapy, but that might not be the only option. Because the pain might be in your head not your body, and fear might be stopping you getting better.


So are you saying I'm imagining being in pain?


No. No. You're feeling the pain, so it's real. When I say it's all in your head, I mean that your brain is where pain sensations are generated, not your body. If you e.g. sprain your ankle, your ankle sends signals to your brain that says 'something has gone wrong here'. Your brain interprets that as pain, which prompts you to decide to leave off doing whatever you were doing until the pain stops - thus the damage gets better.


But you can have pain without injury, and injury without pain. So what's going on?


Because your brain is generating the pain signal, it's possible for it to do it by mistake. This is a real thing; it's called neuroplastic pain. There are over 40 different areas of your brain involved in pain and if one of them gets carried away or misinterprets a signal, you can end up with pain for 'no reason' - in other words, pain that isn't caused by a signal from the body reporting some kind of damage. For example there was a case in the States of a man who ended up with a 6-inch nail right through his boot. Unsurprisingly he was in agony. However when they got him to hospital and removed the boot they found that the nail had actually passed between his toes and he wasn't injured at all. He just thought he was. You may have noticed this in small children who fall down, get back up again and don't start crying until they look down and see the blood.


So it's possible to persuade yourself you're in pain, either intentionally or otherwise. If you have backache and your doctor tells you that you have a ruptured disc, you'll obviously expect your pain to continue. The thing is, your disc might have been ruptured before your back started to hurt. There are studies that suggest over 65% of people without back pain have some kind of spinal injury or disfunction.

Equally it's possible to persuade yourself that you're not in pain. That's how placebo works, and it really does. When new medicines are tested to see if they work, the criteria they're measured against is not 'makes the patient better' but 'makes the patient better than placebo does'. Usually most of the people in a double-blind test feel better to some extent, even though only half of them are getting the actual drug. What this means is that if your pain is neuroplastic, your brain can be reprogrammed to stop feeling it. You can read more on this in 'The Way Out' by Alan Gordon.


Nobody likes being in pain - or do they?


A fellow Bowen therapist said to me the other day 'Nobody wants to be in pain'. Logically we'd assume that's true. But is it?


Since I became a therapist I've had loads of people tell me about their 'dreadful' back, shoulder, knee or other pain but as soon as I suggest they have a treatment, their response is 'Oh, it's not that bad. I can put up with it.' But just a minute ago you were telling me it's dreadful. What happened?


Only a few days before that remark I'd been reading about a hypnotherapist in America who had a client with persistent chronic pain and no associated medical problem that could be found. When the therapist asked her what she would get from not being in pain, she had a huge list of benefits. But under hypnosis, she was asked what she got from being in pain and said she was afraid that if she was well, her grown-up son would stop visiting her. That fear was enough to resist every kind of treatment, traditional or otherwise, from improving her pain. Armed with this new information she talked to her son who assured her that he would still visit regularly, and she almost immediately started to feel better.


I believe that people have to want to change, whether it's their hairstyle or their lifestyle. Change is scary and you know, it might not go well. Even if the change is for the better on the surface, such as not being in pain any more, there might be something underneath that the person values even more than that.


So if you have chronic pain, whether or not you have a diagnosis to go with it, it might be possible to train yourself out of it. You don't have to believe you can, just that it's possible that you might. But first of all you need to be really honest with yourself and identify what it is that you're getting from it. Your brain is hugely powerful, but you need to make sure it's working with you and not against you. If you need help with that, give me a shout.


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Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If you would like to contact her in confidence you can reach her at hands@magichandsbowen.co.uk or via her website at www.magichandscalmminds.com.


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