The mind/body connection in chronic pain

Chronic pain debilitates around 28 million adults in the UK alone, yet there is apparently no cure. Perhaps this is because we have been searching for the wrong type of answer, in the wrong place.

Perhaps the answer lies in understanding that the mind and body, rather than being separate, are intrinsically connected. Many people are aware that stress can induce physical symptoms such as headaches, but fewer understand that severe pain can be caused by psychological factors.  Symptoms may be real, but they can also be mysterious – moving around and varying in intensity.

Chronic pain is different from acute pain, which is a helpful process that occurs when there is an injury or illness and gradually decreases and dissipates once healing is complete. Persistent, or chronic, pain may not originate from an injury, can continue once healing is complete. The driving force behind it is the brain , but that doesn’t mean it’s “all in the mind”. Chronic pain is associated with physical changes in the brain at the cortical level which cause the nervous system to go into overdrive generate intense pain from previously normal sensations.  Studies suggest that some individuals learn to filter emotions and actions “through the lens of pain”.  Emotional difficulties can cause changes to the brain which result in increased pain and those physical effects then influence the emotions. Recognising this intrinsic mind/body connection, if pain tells us when there is something wrong physically, it can tell us when there is something wrong mentally too. 

Pain is complex. It can be a sign of ongoing injury or undiagnosed disease and it’s important to seek medical advice, but where there isn’t an underlying structural problem, it might be that the answer lies in emotional healing.