Pain Education Series – #1
My name is Zeborah Dazzle, PT, WWF and I am the new spokes zebra and a patient educator for
Good Health Physical Therapy. Today, I would like to talk about a topic familiar to all of us with
hypermobility or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome or any one of a number of other kinds of health problems.
Let’s talk about pain.
When I first went through PT school, the model of pain we were taught was something like a doorbell.
Some thing happens to the body, a stimulus, which sets off local nerves, like pressing the doorbell
button, and the wires carry the signal to the brain which registers pain. Ding-dong. ☹
Over the last twenty years though, science has come to recognize that pain is MUCH more complex than
this. Well, actually, not to contradict myself, pain can be as simple as the doorbell model but when it
continues, it becomes much more complex. Let me explain.
Imagine being in the kitchen barefoot (not hard for me since I am always bare hoofed). You drop a heavy
pot and it hits your foot. Ow! Your foot is bruised but not broken and it hurts. This fresh “acute” pain is
like the doorbell model. The pot hit your foot and pushed the button sending signals through the nerves
to the brain. And if your foot heals normally, the pain will fade as the healing happens and then go
away. But sometimes, even as healing happens, pain can continue. Why? Because the nervous system
has become sensitized. And then, the problem becomes more of a nervous system problem than a
bruised foot problem.
As you probably know, the nervous system is the control system for the body. Nerves big and small
reach almost every square centimeter of the body (I’m from South Africa – we think metric there). And
the nervous system is built for learning. So, when pain nerves keep firing over and over, such as if
someone hurts their foot over and over, or if the person has “connective tissue issues” as we like to say,
the nerves learn to be more sensitive. This can include the nerves in the foot, the nerves up the leg, the
spinal cord and especially the brain.
The brain is a learning organ. It is also where signals from the body are interpreted. For example, using a
different sense, your ears receive sound waves, and these are converted to nerve impulses by the
cochlea and then carried to the brain by the hearing (acoustic) nerves. Only in the brain though do the
nerve impulses get interpreted so that you can identify the laughter of a child or anger in someone’s
voice or your favorite song. Many parts of the brain get involved with this including areas that identify
sound, memory centers, areas that recognize speech and language and emotional centers. Pain works in
much this same way.
Pain is the brain’s estimate that the body is being harmed. And the brain does not always get the
estimate right. When the brain is estimating potential harm, it uses what it has already learned about
the world, and it calculates in past learning. So, if you have a history of being abused, or a history of
injuring the body area before, or you are stressed and on edge, the brains estimate is higher than what
is true to the tissues. We call this central sensitization.
I believe that most of us with hypermobility or EDS have brains which are to some degree sensitized. So,
we need to treat the nervous system in our recovery too. What the brain can learn though, it can re-
learn or unlearn. How do we help the brain? More in coming posts. Until next time – Cheers!, Zebbie.