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Pain and the Brain

As we know, Acupuncture is highly effective in treating pain, including headaches, back pain, knee pain, and arthritis. At a basic level, the treatment boosts the body’s natural healing abilities and can stimulate the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. Beyond that, I target muscles and nerve bundles to affect change in the signaling coming from the brain, interrupting the pain and restoring proper function to the body. After this targeted work, the resting portion of the treatment brings the body into a parasympathetic state where the muscles relax into their new pattern, cortisol is lowered and my patients get up feeling looser, refreshed (sometimes a little too relaxed for NYC) and with diminished pain.

I love this for my patients (and for myself) but the needles are not the only catalyst for change in your body. If you’ve seen me you might have been given some things to do at home, either take herbs, or certain breathing techniques, Qi gong movements etc. I was thrilled then when one of my patients told me that he was exploring something called Pain Reprocessing Therapy. After a lot of reading and research, I decided to get certified in this technique to add another powerful tool to the toolbox available to all of you: your brains!

The Benefits of Pain Reprocessing Therapy

Pain Reprocessing Therapy, is a relatively new form of psychotherapy that aims to reprocess traumatic memories and change the way our brain processes pain signals. Since pain is not just a physical sensation but a highly evolved alarm system that is essential for our well being, this therapy was developed to give people the tools to actually change their brains and stop pain. Pain originates in our brain, not just one part of it but several areas in the brain. This is an important point which I will come back to in a bit. This alarm system is designed to warn us of danger. For instance, you’re taking a nice run through the park, step on something the wrong way and break your ankle. Your nerves around the ankle register the damage-- you felt your foot step incorrectly over an object, perhaps you saw and registered the object, you felt your ankle turn the wrong way and that info is sent to your brain which then sends pain to that area so that you know that you have to stop and get help for your injury. Continuing to run would cause further damage. Pain serves an important function in our bodies. But I’m going to step away from the therapeutic concepts for a moment to share some interesting brain stories.

Remember a moment ago when I talked about there being many parts of the brain involved in pain signaling? We use all our senses to take in information and assess danger. Not only our physical senses- pressure, temperature etc, but also visual, aural and aromatic. Lest I bore you too much, I’m going to share two incredible examples that I’ve read in the journal pieces on this topic. I call it...

A Tale of Two Nails

Both these tales take place on construction sites. (best avoided if you’re not a professional!) In the first story, a worker on a building site was standing on a short platform a couple of feet off the ground and hopped down and unfortunately, right onto a nail. This nail came through his work boot from the sole right through to the top where he could see it sticking out. He yowled in incredible pain and was immediately brought by his colleagues to the emergency room. He was given pain medication and the doctors proceeded to cut open the boot. The first thing they noticed was that there was absolutely no blood. Then they cut away the entire boot to find that the nail had slipped between his toes and did not pierce his foot at all. There was absolutely no damage to his foot, not even a scratch between the toes. However, taking in all available information, his brain processed that damage must have been done and this man needed to be warned of danger! If he didn’t get it attended to, further damage might have occurred. Hence, the pain he felt was very real, even in the absence of actual damage.

The next story is about a construction worker who was using a nail gun that misfired. He felt something bounce off his cheek and then saw the nail fly across the room into a beam across the way. He felt fine and concluded that was a close call. A whole week later, he went to the dentist because his tooth was sore, only to have the dentist find a nail (there were two in that misfire!) embedded in his jaw. He had no pain after the incident because his brain SAW a nail fly across the room and he concluded that nothing damaged him. Hence, the brain didn’t see a need to send any warning signal and no pain occurred.

These stories are powerful examples which illustrate how pain works and the concept of neuroplasticity. Defined as the ability of the brain to form and reorganizesynaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury, neuroplasticity not only is a piece in the puzzle explaining how acupuncture works, but is also the key to how we all have more control over our bodies and symptoms than we realize. Our brains warn of real dangers, but sometimes, our warning system becomes too good at what it does. Sometimes pain signals persist after an injury has healed, or sometimes OTHER stressors in our lives make us feel a sense of danger and our brains mistakenly set a warning signal in motion in response to this. It is those situations – when there is no structural or physiological reason for a symptom, that PRT exercises (and even better with acupuncture) are the key to resolving them.

Pain Reprocessing Therapy uses a combination of mindfulness techniques, cognitive-behavioral therapy concepts, and other thought exercises to help individuals reduce the intensity of their pain and recover from neuroplastic symptoms. These not only include pain, but digestive distress, anxiety, insomnia, migraines, chronic fatigue and more.

Combining Acupuncture with Pain Reprocessing Therapy can provide remarkable results for individuals suffering from chronic symptoms. Both therapies aim to help the body and mind work together to reduce pain and enhance overall well-being.

By using acupuncture to regulate the nerve signals in the body, and pain reprocessing therapy to address emotional and psychological factors that contribute to pain, individuals can experience long-term pain relief.

To be clear, I am not a psychotherapist, nor do I have to be. We will not be talking about things you would speak with a therapist about. Further, before starting this work, we will have assessed any structural or physiological sources of symptoms because often there is a reason for your brain to warn you of something. Rather we’ll just be exploring your experiences with your symptoms, building a case for neuroplasticity and talking through techniques that you can do on your own to change the messages your brain is sending to your body.

Whether you have a chronic symptom or not, understanding the ways our brains signal our bodies is extremely helpful in our general well being. Since studying this technique, I’ve noticed correlations between periods of fatigue and stress levels, that seasonal allergies act up on more stressful days and all sorts of ways that my brain reacts in response to emotional stimuli. It’s a fascinating process and I can’t wait to share it with you all!


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