Category Archives: Functional Pain Syndromes



VulvodyniaVulvodynia is a painful condition, often exquisitely so, located in the vulva, which is the skin surrounding the vagina. Usually unexplained, this troubling condition can arise seemingly from nowhere, interfere with intimate relations and hence attempts to conceive. Vulvodynia is also known as a functional pain syndrome–these are painful problems that lack a pathology of note that explains the extent of the pain and include irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, TMJ dysfunction, migraine and pelvic pain. Functional pain syndromes are often concurrent with hypermobility, anxiety and depression, a further common character trait being perfectionism and a tendency for the person to be hard on themselves thereby creating a cycle of chronic stress.

The pain of vulvodynia is often very localised and triggered by direct contact. Naturally this occurs during sex and touch, but sometimes sitting position can bring on the pain. As with any sensitisation, there is a primary location of pain but there can also be a secondary area surrounding that is due to central nervous system (and other systems) involvement. Suspected vulvodynia or other pains in the pelvis should be assessed and examined by a gynaecologist as a first step before beginning treatment, and by a consultant who knows and understands both the condition and the impact — Miss Deborah Boyle at 132 Harley Street.

With vulvodynia often being part of an overall picture of sensitivity, it means that there is a common biological adaptation that is upstream of the range of seemingly different conditions (the functional pain syndromes). As soon as the individual understands that pain is not an accurate indicator if tissue damage, but rather a reflection of the perceived threat and prioritisation by the body-person, there is a realisation that the pain can change. Pain can change because perceptions can change as we take on board new information and consequently think and act differently, creating new habits. The new habits set the conditions for on-going and sustained change that includes overcoming pain.

We have limited attention and hence can only be aware of certain amount of stimuli in any given moment. If pain is consuming much or all of your attention and consciousness, then this is all that is happening in that moment, with all other possible experiences being disregarded–it is a matter of prioritisation. When the perception of threat is reduced by a constructive thought or action, the pain moves out of our attention span and we become aware of other thoughts, feelings and experiences. How we respond to pain is unique and learned through our lifetime right up until that point; all those bumps and bruises as a child, how our parents reacted, more serious injuries or illnesses and the messages we received from doctors, teachers and other ‘big people’, then through adult life, moulding our beliefs about ourselves, the world, health and pain each time we feel it. The sum of all this activity, most of which we are unaware of, sets up how you respond to the next ache, pain or injury, blended of course with genetics. It seems that some people are genetically set up to be more inflammatory, meaning that responses to injury are potentially more vigorous and go on for longer. Understanding this means that the right messages and treatment can be given, thereby appropriately addressing the injury or pain. One of the big problems is that this does not happen, and the explanations are structural and based upon the body tissues. This ignores the fact that we have body systems that protect and these systems have sampling mechanisms in the tissues and organs but largely exist elsewhere–e.g./ nervous system, autonomic nervous system, endocrine system, sensorimotor system, immune system. We have to go upstream as well as improve the health and mobility of the local tissues.

Going upstream is vital in overcoming vulvodynia, and this is where the Pain Coach Programme works–this is my part of the treatment programme. You may also choose to work with a women’s health physiotherapist who will work more locally. So what is the Pain Coach Programme?

The Pain Coach Programme is a a blend of the latest neuroscience of pain with a strengths based coaching approach to success. Understanding your pain and that you have the biology and strengths to overcome your pain is a vital start point. You have been successful in the past using these strengths, and you can do so again by drawing on these characteristics and using them to develop your health in terms of how you think and act. Overcoming pain is all about resuming a meaningful life, engaging with activities and people as you want to, in a way that allows you to flourish. The Pain Coach Programme provides you with the knowledge and skills that you need to in effect become your own coach, moment to moment making clear decisions that take you towards your vision of how you want to live. This alongside treatment and specific training to develop normal movement and a healthy body-mind. The skills you learn also help you to fully engage in life, whether this be at home, at work or at play.

If you suffer vulvodynia or other painful problems, call us now to start your programme: 07518 445493

migraine by r. nial bradshaw (2012)

The problem of migraine

migraine by r. nial bradshaw (2012)

migraine by r. nial bradshaw (2012)

The problem of migraine is bigger than most people realise. In fact, the problem of chronic pain is bigger than most people realise, this being apparent as I purposely ask people I know and meet if they know what is the number one global health burden. It is chronic pain by the way, and migraine and headache sit in the top 10 along with back pain, neck pain and osteoarthritis. Depression is at number 2.

Migraine is sometimes referred to as a functional pain syndrome. Not everyone likes this term, myself included, yet it’s use does mean that we can consider migraine as one of a number of conditions that hurt and cause great suffering. These conditions have a common biology known as central sensitisation, meaning that the individual’s systems that protect are more likely to do so, resulting in persisting pain in many cases.

The other well known functional pain syndromes include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), temporomandibular disorder (or jaw pain, clicky jaw etc), pelvic pain, dysmennorhoea, vulvodynia, interstitial cystitis, chronic back pain and fibromyalgia. These are often co-morbid with anxiety, depression and hypermobility. As individuals, it is common to find perfectionist or obsessive traits that may be useful in certain arenas such as work, helping to achieve great success, yet in other areas of life cause problems. More women than men report these problems, although I am seeing increasing numbers of men who often describe groin pain as a starter but then we explore the history and discover one or more of the aforementioned list. A further frequent finding is difficulty conceiving, this primarily due to the body systems that protect being persistently fired up (by normal living and exposures as well as stressors), and whilst that person is in such a mode, having children is not on the body’s agenda whereas survival is.

As with most of the functional pains, the story highlights certain vulnerabilities that can increase the likelihood of persisting pain including genetics, epigenetics, early life stressors and prior infections/injuries. These factors sculpt the systems that protect as they learn how to respond as well as becoming increasingly vigilant. The combination therewith creates an individual who is more likely to respond to actual or potential threat with vigorous and prolonged action and behaviours. With anxiety in the mix, this person is then likely to over-worry, which in effect further raises the threat value and heighten the responses even more. And so it goes on.

Rarely are the conditions explained adequately to patients, and certainly knowledge of the link between the seemingly different problems has never been volunteered to me by a patient. Therein lies a problem that the individual is suffering one or more pains and other symptoms (e.g./ tiredness, poor concentration, disrupted sleep, lethargy, flu-like symptoms, brain fog), yet they have no understanding as to why, or how it comes on, or what they can and must do to change the situation and move forward. Explaining the condition(s), the links, what the patient needs to do and what we can do to help and support them over a period of time that we can estimate is a key start point.

Further to the common biology, we can observe in the clinic the posturing, movements, guarding, poor body sense, altered sensorimotor function and the overall manifestation of how that person is feeling through body language and the words they use. We can gather far more information about the person, the whole person, by talking to them, listening to them and their concerns. What is their lived experience? The structured interview does not allow for this conversation. Yes we need some specific questions, but creating an open environment gives the person a chance to talk, feel heard and validated. This sets the scene for specific training, techniques and strategies that need to be used throughout the day and the development of understanding, all of which are the knowledge and skill base that the patient needs to overcome their pain.

No matter how long you have had pain, it can and does change. We are designed to change, and this is happening all the time. We are on a continuum, and we can have a say in where we go. It is a challenge and requires dedication, motivation, resilience and practice, but with the right thinking, action and support, great things can be achieved. I am honoured to see this happen in the clinic every week as people overcome their pain and resume being who they think they should be.

If you are suffering or think that you could be suffering with functional pain syndromes, call me for a chat and we can decide what you need to do to start overcoming your pain: 07518 445493

Clinics in Harley Street, Chelsea and New Malden Diagnostic Centre


Girls, stress and pain

Stress and painI have seen a number of teenage girls over the past year who are affected by chronic pain. They are often referred because of recurring headaches or migraines but we discover that there is widespread sensitive at play. How does this happen? Why does it happen?

Headaches and migraines can be functional pains. When these pains are part of a picture of sensitivity, often accompanied by anxiety, there are often other problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, pelvic pain and jaw pain. Whilst these problems all appear to be different, they have a common biology. Typically I work with women aged between 30 and 55 who suffer these aches and pains, but increasingly this is an issue of the younger female. Having said that, when I explore the story of an adult, we often find reasons for sensitivity that begin in childhood. This priming sets the scene for later events.

As adults we face many challenges. We have body systems that are trigged by these challenges, especially if we think they are threatening to us. In particular the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is quite brilliant at preparing us to fight or run away, which is very useful…..if you are facing a wild animal. On a day to day basis, it is in fact useful for the ANS to kick in and create some feelings in the body that alert us to danger — the caveat being, nothing is dangerous until it is interpreted as so, and hence we need a construct of ‘danger’ and of the thing that is perceived to be dangerous. For example, a baby may not have the construct of a lion and hence sees this big, cuddly, moving….thingy…like my teddy (may not have a construct for any of these either!), and essentially detects no threat. As the baby detects no threat, he or she behaves in a way that may not threaten the lion and hence the lion may feel safe. Both feeling safe, they become friends. Perhaps — these things have happened apparently. Please do not try this at home, but hopefully you get the idea. Back to day to day….

London Fibromyalgia ClinicsIn the modern world we often feel anxious. This is the body warning us that something is threatening. In many cases that I see, there is a strong reaction to banal events and non-threatening cues. Or if the cue is worthy of attention, the response is well out of proportion — e.g. utter panic and defensive thinking-behaviours. To what do we respond most frequently? Definitely not lions. Muggers? Gunmen? Earthquakes? Tidal waves? These are all inherently dangerous situations, that we simply do not often face. Sadly some people do have such encounters but the majority of us do not. The answer is our own thinking. The thoughts that are evoked — seemingly appearing form nowhere at times — are not the actual problem but instead the interpretation of the thought (metacognotion; our thinking about our thinking). The meaning that we give to a thought, often automatically, will determine the body response as our thoughts are embodied. And just to complicate things further in relation to thinking, there’s a world of difference between the experiencing-self and the memory-self. The former refers to what is happening right now, the latter to what we remember, or think we remember. In terms of pain, if our memory of a painful event concludes with a high level of pain, this will flavour the memory-self and we will report as such. The story, which is a snapshot within our lives, and how it turns out has a huge impact upon the subsequent memory of what happened.

The adult within an environment that becomes threatening, the workplace for example, can become very responsive to different cues that once were innocuous. Now they pose a potential danger and each time that happens and we respond with protective thinking and behaviours, the relationship becomes stronger — conditioning. There is no reason any this cannot be the same for younger people who are consistently within an environment and context that begins to pose a threat; a demanding school environment with high expectations plus the child’s own expectations and perfectionist traits. Place this context within a changing period of life and minimal time for rest and there is the risk of burn out or development of problems that involve many body systems. We cannot, no matter what age we are, continue to work at a level that is all about survival.

I focus on girls and women because females outnumber the males coming to the clinic. Many are perfectionist, many are hypermobile, many are anxious, many are in pain and many are suffering. This is a situation that needs addressing worldwide, and starts with understanding what is happening, why it is happens and how it happens. Over the past 10 years this understanding has evolved enormously, providing tangible ways forward. This does not mean that we need to change perfectionism, but rather recognise it and use it wisely; this does not mean that anxiety is abnormal, but rather recognise it as a normal emotion that motivates learning and action; this does not mean that feeling pain is a problem to fear, but rather know it can change when we take the right action; and it does not mean that we will not suffer, but rather accept that part of living involves suffering that we can overcome and move on.

We have created an incredible, fast moving world. The body does not work at such a pace. It needs time to refresh and renew so that we can think with clarity and perform to a high level, achieve and be successful. We are humans. We are a whole-person with no division between body and mind; instead one thinking, feeling, sensing, creating, moving and living entity responding to the experience of the now and to memory of what we think happened. Gaining control over this with understanding and awareness provides a route forward to wellbeing, no matter where the start point.


If you are suffering with persisting pains — body pain, joint pain, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), headache, migraine, pelvic pain, jaw pain + feeling anxious, unwell, tired — call now and start moving forward 07518 445493 | Clinics in Harley Street, Chelsea and New Malden

London Fibromyalgia Clinics

London Fibromyalgia Clinics | London FMS Clinics

London Fibromyalgia ClinicsI think differently about fibromyalgia, functional pain syndromes and chronic pain. Believing that there is a need to challenge the way these problems are addressed, I created a specialist clinic that draws upon neuroscience, philosophy and other disciplines to create innovative and effective ways for individuals to move forward in their lives.

Fibromyalgia is known as a functional pain syndrome, sharing a common biology with other problems such as migraine, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), pelvic pain, musculoskeletal pain and painful bladder syndrome. This common biology is an adaptation in the central nervous system called central sensitisation with changes in the excitability of the nervous system alongside on-going responses of the immune system. The way that the body systems and the brain adapt and learn means that it has become persistently protective, igniting painful and other responses to a range of normal cues and situations. The sensitivity results in on-going pain and general sickness responses (e.g./ aches and pains, tiredness, fatigue, appetite changes, mood changes, anxiety, loss of concentration, brain fog, altered body sense); the latter just like a feeling of the flu.

Stress often plays a role. Stress is a response to a perceived threat, the meaning of which we give to the situation as an individual. The physiology that follows is designed to protect us from wild animals — either to run away or fight. Whilst this is useful when danger presents itself and in the short-term, if these responses continue, they impact upon the immune system, switch off the digestive system and reproductive system (neither eating or digesting a meal are useful in the face of danger; reproduction is not useful in the face of danger — resulting in a sensitive and/or sluggish gut, and fertility problems), prepare the motor system and mobilise energy in preparation for flight or fight.

London Fibromyalgia ClinicsIt is a combination of genetics and experience that results in the condition. Our genes are moulded by these experiences and to what we are exposed: stress, injury, pathology. Protection is triggered but not turned off, the responses continuing as if there is a problem, even when it is resolved. These on-going responses then create further changes, for example chronic inflammation, and a continued loop that maintains the condition. That is until the circumstances are changed and the conditions created to move out of the loop and onto a route of wellbeing.

Believing that pain can and does change via neuroplasticity, I create bespoke treatment and training programmes for individuals who visit the clinic from all over the UK. The programmes ensure that you fully understand the problems and comprehensively target the biological mechanisms addressing the physical, cognitive and emotional dimensions. I help you to develop the knowledge and skills that you need to move forward in your life with a range of proactive strategies, techniques and treatments grounded in neuroscience.

Call now to book your initial consultation: 07932 689081

Turned on?

Are you turned on?

Turned on?

Turned on?

At the risk of sounding ambiguous, many people are turned on. In particular, city dwellers and workers who are being hit with innumerable stimuli, bombarding the senses, triggering on-going responses by the brain, the mind and the body. Whether it be the noise of the traffic, the lights at night, the phantom vibrations of the phone, pollution or close-quarter travel on the train, outputs are being generated by the nervous system, the immune system and the endocrine system that are experienced as thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, some being pleasant, others not so.

Once a chronic state of arousal has been reached, the on-going energy demands can eventually result in burn-out or a gradual state of declining physical and mental health — the two being inextricably linked.

How does this manifest?

The all-too common conditions that we see include general body-wide muscular aches and pains, headaches and migraines, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety, indigestion, pelvic pain, fertility issues. The thread that ties these seemingly unrelated problems is stress. Stress however, is a physiological response to a situation that is perceived to be threatening. Two people can give entirely different meanings to a particular scenario, thereby having diverse experiences — it is all about an individual’s perception. Our perception is based upon beliefs about the world, sculpted over the years by exposure and influences.

stress-2The biological response to threat involves the autonomic nervous system and the motor system at least, preparing to either flee from the danger or confront the situation. An incredible set of responses, they evolved from the need to deal with wild animals. Fortunately this does not happen too often these days, but there are plenty of potential threats including the thoughts that pass through our mind. The brain does not differentiate between a thought and actually being present. The response is similar and usually thinking about something unpleasant that may happen will lead to feelings of anxiety — tingling in the tummy, tension, increased pain.

If these systems are persistently triggered by stress, there is less opportunity for smooth digestion, conception, healing and clarity. Being chronically turned on hence results in digestive issues, sensitivity of the bowel (bloating, pain etc), difficulty conceiving (thoughts of sex and conceiving are not going to be high on the brain’s agenda if there is a constant perception of danger) and pain that results from gradual changes in the tissues. In fact, every body system is impacted upon by the chemicals released during an on-going stress response. And not in a good way. Performance is affected, mood varies, sleep is disrupted, concentration is poor, catastrophising becomes rife and negative thinking about life predominates.

How do we turn off?

Specialist Pain Physio Clinics in London for pain, complex pain and injuryRelaxation or having the ability to switch off is often a skill that requires learning and practice. Going to the gym, having a cigarette or a coffee is not turning off. These are all stimulating a system that is already fraught. It is the calming, restorative, digestive and healing mechanisms that need to be fortified.

Promoting calm in a habitual way across the day is a potent way of re-programming the right responses for the right scenarios. Checking in on the body and thought processes, attending to the present moment rather than automatically drifting into the past or future, avoiding stimulation (e.g./ electronic screens, coffee, cigarettes, sugary foods and drink, certain reading material), mindful practice, breathing techniques and cultivating focused attention are all ways in which we can build our positive bank account in terms of energy and feeling good. Creating good habits. Exercise although stimulating, and certainly in a gym with bright lights and loud music, should form part of a routine for the overall healthy benefits. It is the best wonder drug that we know of and it is free.

Changing behaviours is difficult but it is achievable with the right programme that addresses both body and mind. Cultivating a routine around sleep, movement, diet, exercise, mindfulness, work and family will groove a healthy, resilient, positive and happy path forward. Turn off.

For more on our healthy programme and treatment for painful conditions, stress and anxiety, call us now on 07932 689081


Uncomfortably numb

Feeling numb can mean that the self has lost its physical presence, or in an emotional sense, feelings have become blunted. These are both different constructs of loss for which we are compelled to seek an answer, often causing great angst. To step out of the normal sense of self is profound, difficult to define and causes suffering, whereby one has lost his or her role.

Physical numbness, if we can say this, will usually be described in terms of a body region feeling different. Altered body sense is a common finding in persisting pain states and in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In extreme situations, an out of body experience can be described where the person views themselves from an outsider’s perspective, in the third person. Often though, one refers to numbness as an area with reduced or no sensation. This can be objective such as when a stimulus (eg/ a pin prick; a light brush) is applied to the body surface and the sensation is lacking; or subjective when an area is felt to be numb yet a stimulus can be felt normally.

Although numbness in the the body is not painful per se, it is often tarnished with an aversive element that is described as unpleasant. This seems to be a particular issue in the extremities; conditions that involve nerves such as Morton’s neuroma. The mismatch between what is physically present and can be seen yet not felt, is difficult to understand and compute until the construct is explained.

An explanation: the body is felt via its physical presence in space, interacting with the immediate environment, yet is ‘constructed’ by networks of neurons in the brain. These neurons or brain regions are integrated, working like superhighways in many cases, thereby enhancing certain experiences or responses. At any given moment, the feelings that we feel and the physical sensations that we experience are a set of responses that the brain judges to be meaningful and biologically useful. The precision with which we sense our physical self and move is determined by accurate brain (cortical) representations or maps of the body. These maps are genetically determined yet moulded with experience, for example the way the hand representation changes in a violinist. Similarly, when pain persists we know that the maps change and thereby contribute to the altered body sense that is frequently described. It is worth noting that patients can be reluctant to charge their altered body experiences for fear of disbelief when in fact they are a vital part of the picture.

Emotional numbness is consistent with physical numbness in the sense of a stunted experience, whereby the expected or normal feeling in response to a situation fails to emerge. Rather, something else happens thereby creating a mismatch between the expected feeling and that which occurs. This experience manifests as a negative and is not discriminatory, affecting a range of emotional responses. A sense of detachment from the world often accompanies the lack of feeling. One could argue that this is a form of protection against feelings of vulnerability where we can also use our physical body, our armour, to shield us from the threat. Of course the threat is down to our own perception of a situation, another example of a brain construct. A situation is a situation but we provide the meaning based upon our own belief system and respond accordingly, often automatically.

Cultivating a normal sense of self is, in my view, the primary aim of rehabilitation and this encompasses both the physical and emotional dimensions. Both are influenced by thoughts, the cognitive dimension, that emerge from our belief system that drives behaviours. Hence, a programme design must reflect the interaction as it presents in the individual, most of the clues residing in the patient’s narrative that we must attend to in great detail. Validating the story and creating meaning is the first step towards a normal sense of self, to be enhanced with specific sensorimotor training and cognitive techniques such as mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfulness per se.

Wider thinking and practice is desperately required in tackling the problem of persisting pain. One of many responses to threat, pain is part of the way in which we protect ourselves along with changes in movement and other drivers to create the conditions for recovery. Sadly, many people ignore or miss these cues in the early stages through being fed inaccurate information about pain and injury. Many common ailments that can become highly impacting and distressing such as irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, pelvic pain, widespread musculoskeletal pain, anxiety, fertility issues and low mood, gradually creep up on us as the sensitivity builds over a period of time; the slow-burners. An answer to these problems that are typically underpinned by central sensitisation and altered immune-endocrine functioning, is to create awareness and habits that do not continually provoke ‘fright or flight’ responses that essentially shut down many systems in readiness for the wild animal that is not present. Actually, the wild animal is the emotional brain that when untamed can and does create havoc through the body, affecting every system.

The ever-evolving science and consequent understanding now puts us in a great position to trigger change. Initially discussing numbness, I have purposely drifted toward a more comprehensive view looking down on the complexity of the problems that we are creating in modern existence, manifesting as common functional pains. As much as we are knowing more and more about these conditions, we are actually describing the workings of the different body systems in response to a perceived threat that may or may not exist. This is always multi-system: nervous, immune, endocrine etc. and all must be considered when we are thinking about a pain response. But let’s not just think about pain as this is one aspect of the problem, one part of the emergent experience for the individual — think movement, think language, think body language, think ‘how can we reduce the threat’ for this individual so as to change their experience of their body responses. It is at this point that we see a shift and it is possible in all of us. We are designed to change and grow and develop, so let’s create the conditions for that change physically, cognitively and emotionally.


Women and Pain Clinic @ 132 Harley Street

The Women and Pain clinic is dedicated to providing contemporary treatment, training and coaching for females who suffer persisting pain.

Common examples of on-going painful problems include:

  • pelvic pain: including pain from endometriosis, bladder problems, muscular spasm & guarding of the pelvis and abdominal area
  • back pain
  • joint pain (often multiple)
  • abdominal pain (irritable bowel syndrome or similar sensitivities)
  • migraine & headache
  • jaw pain & dysfunction
  • fibromyalgia

It is not uncommon for there to be several painful areas that are seemingly unrelated. However, with the advancing understanding of the neurobiology of pain, we know that there is a common thread that ties these problems together. This is termed central sensitisation and refers to adaptations within the nervous system that both amplify pain and reduce our natural ability to dampen sensitivity. The body areas that hurt can expand and involve a range of body systems, hence why the pain can manifest in different regions and organs. The pain is an expression of this underlying sensitivity that needs to be targeted at a nervous system-immune system-endocrine system level as well as addressing the health of the body tissues. We use a contemporary and neuroscience-based programme of treatment, training and coaching to tackle the problem of pain, focusing upon the inter-related dimensions of pain: physical-cognitive-emotional.

Working closely with leading gynaecologists and gastroenterologists in Harley Street, you will have a detailed assessment that includes diagnostics as indicated, a full explanation of the nature of the pain and symptoms (pain education) and a comprehensive treatment programme designed for you. 

How do we treat these problems?

A pathological or structural basis for pain only explains part of the problem or in some cases not at all. It is the adaptations within body systems that create the pain experience to which we respond in thought and action. Whilst acute pain serves a vital survival purpose, drawing our attention to a body region that needs protecting for healing, a persisting pain becomes increasingly about the neuroimmune system and endocrine system responses. Pain certainly emerges from the body yet there is an underpinning correlate of activity within a vast network of brain cells that actually drives the experience. This network monitors the activity in the body systems and responds according to need. The response can be protective when the brain perceives the body to be in potential danger and includes pain, changes in movement and a range of other actions. In the early stages of a condition this is useful and adaptive, however if these responses continue beyond a useful time they themselves must be targeted alongside body nourishing strategies.

How can we target these systems? In an integrated manner, these systems can be re-trained with a range of sensorimotor techniques, specific exercises designed to restore a normal sense of the body and movement, strategies to deal with stress and anxiety that both affect the body systems, techniques for the progression of day to day living (work, home, sports), and general activity and exercise with confidence. Interlaced with these strategies, pain education (reduce the threat by developing your understanding of pain and the body’s ability to change), mindfulness-based stress reduction, focused attention training, resilience, coping and motivational skills, are used to optimise outcomes that are based upon improving your quality of life, sense of wellness and performance.

For further information, to book an appointment or to refer a patient please call us on 07932 689081

Endometriosis & melatonin | Women and pain series

Women and pain | Part 1

‘As many as 50 million American women live with one or more neglected and poorly understood chronic pain conditions’ 

Generally I see more female patients than male. This observation supports the view that chronic pain is more prevalent in women than in men for some conditions – see the International Association for the Study of Pain fact sheet here. There are some ideas as to why this may be, including the role of the sex hormones and psychosocial factors such as emotion, coping strategies and roles in life. Additionally, experimental studies have shown that women have lower pain thresholds (this is a physiological reading) and tolerance to a range of pain stimuli when compared to men although this does not clarify that women actually feel more pain – see here. Pain is a subjective experience of course, and modulated by many factors.

A campaign for women’s pain | Chronic pain in women (2010) report

It is not uncommon for a female patient to tell me about her back pain and continue the narrative towards other body areas that hurt and cause problems. This may include pelvic pain, migraine, headache, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic knee pain, widespread sensitivity and gynaecological problems (including dysmenorrhoea, endometriosis and difficulty conceiving). These seemingly varied conditions are typically looked after by a range of medical and surgical disciplines: gynaecology, neurology, rheumatology, gastroenterology and orthopaedics. More recent science and thinking has started to join the dots on these problems, offering new insight into the underpinning mechanisms and more importantly approaches that can affect all the conditions in a positive way. This is certainly my thinking on this hugely significant matter.

Reconceptualising pain

Undoubtedly pain is complex. This is particularly the case when pain persists, disrupting and impacting upon life. Reconceptualising pain according to modern neuroscience is making a real difference to how we think and treat pain – see this video. Briefly, thinking of pain as an output from the brain as a result of a complex interaction of circumstance, biology, thought, emotion and memory begins to give an insight into the workings of the brain and body. Pain is individual, it is in the ‘now’ but so coloured by the past and what it may mean to the individual. The context or situation in which the pain arises is so very important. We talk about pain from the brain but of course we really feel it in our physical bodies, but the location is where the brain is projecting the sensation – see this video.

Neuroscience has shown us that the danger signals from the body tissues are significantly modulated by the brain before the end output is experienced. Factors that influence the messages include attention, expectation and the circustance in which the individual finds herself. We have powerful mechanisms that can both facilitate and inhibit the flow of these signals and these reside within the brain and brain stem. For this reason we must consider the person’s situation, their expectations, hopes, goals, past experiences and current difficulties, and how these can affect their current pain.

Stress & emotion

Any hugely emotive issue within someone’s life can impact enormously upon pain and sensitivity. This can be the stress of a situation including caring for a relative, losing someone close, work related issues and divorce. The problem of conception certainly features in a number of cases that I see, causing stress and turmoil for both partners but clearly in different ways. Fertility receives a great deal of attention in the media and there are a many clinics offering treatment and therapies, in effect raising awareness and attention levels towards the problem. The pain caused by difficulties having children can manifest physically through the stress that is created by the situation. Thoughts, feeling and emotions are nerve impulses in the brain like any other and will trigger physical responses including tension. Stress physiology affects all body systems, for example the gastrointestinal system (e.g./ irritable bowel), nervous system (e.g. headaches, back pain) and the immune system (e.g. repeated infections).


Lifestyle factors play a significant role in persisting pain. Modern technology and habits that we form easily may not be helpful when we have a sensitive nervous system. For example, sedentary work, the light from computer screens, pressures at work, limited exercise, poor diet, binge drinking and smoking to name but a few. All are toxic in some way as can be our own thinking about ourselves. When we have a thought, and we have thousands each day, and we pay attention, becoming absorbed in the process, the brain reacts as if we are actually in that situation. Consequently we have physical and emotional responses that can be repeated over and over when we dwell on the same thinking. This is rumination and is likely due to ‘hyper-connectivity’ between certain brain areas – see here. We can challenge this in several ways including by changing our thinking and using mindfulness, both of which will alter brain activity and dampen these responses. It does take practice but the benefits are attainable for everyone.

In summary, the underlying factors that must be addressed are individual and both physical and psychological. Pain is complex and personal, potentially affecting many different areas of life. How we live our lives, what we think and how we feel are all highly relevant in the problem of pain as borne out of sensible thinking and the neuroscience of pain. Understanding the pain, learning strategies to reduce the impact, receiving treatment that targets the underlying mechanisms, making healthy changes to lifestyle and developing good habits alongside the contemporary brain based therapies can make a huge difference and provide a route forwards.

For information on our ‘join the dots’ treatment programmes for chronic pain, contact us here or call 07932 689081



Central sensitisation is more common than you may think

Clifford Woolf recently said this about central sensitisation:

Nociceptor inputs can trigger a prolonged but reversible increase in the excitability and synaptic efficacy of neurons in central nociceptive pathways, the phenomenon of central sensitization. Central sensitization manifests as pain hypersensitivity, particularly dynamic tactile allodynia, secondary punctate or pressure hyperalgesia, aftersensations, and enhanced temporal summation. It can be readily and rapidly elicited in human volunteers by diverse experimental noxious conditioning stimuli to skin, muscles or viscera, and in addition to producing pain hypersensitivity, results in secondary changes in brain activity that can be detected by electrophysiological or imaging techniques. Studies in clinical cohorts reveal changes in pain sensitivity that have been interpreted as revealing an important contribution of central sensitization to the pain phenotype in patients with fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, musculoskeletal disorders with generalized pain hypersensitivity, headache, temporomandibular joint disorders, dental pain, neuropathic pain, visceral pain hypersensitivity disorders and post-surgical pain. The comorbidity of those pain hypersensitivity syndromes that present in the absence of inflammation or a neural lesion, their similar pattern of clinical presentation and response to centrally acting analgesics, may reflect a commonality of central sensitization to their pathophysiology. An important question that still needs to be determined is whether there are individuals with a higher inherited propensity for developing central sensitization than others, and if so, whether this conveys an increased risk in both developing conditions with pain hypersensitivity, and their chronification. Diagnostic criteria to establish the presence of central sensitization in patients will greatly assist the phenotyping of patients for choosing treatments that produce analgesia by normalizing hyperexcitable central neural activity. We have certainly come a long way since the first discovery of activity-dependent synaptic plasticity in the spinal cord and the revelation that it occurs and produces pain hypersensitivity in patients. Nevertheless, discovering the genetic and environmental contributors to and objective biomarkers of central sensitization will be highly beneficial, as will additional treatment options to prevent or reduce this prevalent and promiscuous form of pain plasticity.

And Latremolier

Central sensitization represents an enhancement in the function of neurons and circuits in nociceptive pathways caused by increases in membrane excitability and synaptic efficacy as well as to reduced inhibition and is a manifestation of the remarkable plasticity of the somatosensory nervous system in response to activity, inflammation, and neural injury. The net effect of central sensitization is to recruit previously subthreshold synaptic inputs to nociceptive neurons, generating an increased or augmented action potential output: a state of facilitation, potentiation, augmentation, or amplification. Central sensitization is responsible for many of the temporal, spatial, and threshold changes in pain sensibility in acute and chronic clinical pain settings and exemplifies the fundamental contribution of the central nervous system to the generation of pain hypersensitivity. Because central sensitization results from changes in the properties of neurons in the central nervous system, the pain is no longer coupled, as acute nociceptive pain is, to the presence, intensity, or duration of noxious peripheral stimuli. Instead, central sensitization produces pain hypersensitivity by changing the sensory response elicited by normal inputs, including those that usually evoke innocuous sensations. PERSPECTIVE: In this article, we review the major triggers that initiate and maintain central sensitization in healthy individuals in response to nociceptor input and in patients with inflammatory and neuropathic pain, emphasizing the fundamental contribution and multiple mechanisms of synaptic plasticity caused by changes in the density, nature, and properties of ionotropic and metabotropic glutamate receptors.

In essence we are talking about changes within the central nervous system that underpin the widespread, unpredictable and varied nature of persisting pain.

When I am listening to a patient, observing their movements and performing a ‘multi-system’ examination, I am in part looking for the pain mechanisms at play, including central sensitisation. Several of my questions are: ‘what is going on here to create this experience for the person in front of me?’, ‘why are the nervous and other systems responding in such a way?’ and ‘what is influencing the behaviour of those systems?’. I really need to know what it is that is prolonging this protection and is it really worthwhile for the individual.

Suspecting that there is a component of central sensitisation at play in many cases of chronic pain that I see, it is pleasing to see a group looking at this closely and finding evidence to support this thinking:

J Bone Joint Surg Br. 2011 Apr;93(4):498-502.

Evidence that central sensitisation is present in patients with shoulder impingement syndrome and influences the outcome after surgery.

Gwilym SE, Oag HC, Tracey I, Carr AJ.


Department of Orthopaedics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences, Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, Windmill Road, Headington, Oxford OX3 7LD, UK. [email protected]


Impingement syndrome in the shoulder has generally been considered to be a clinical condition of mechanical origin. However, anomalies exist between the pathology in the subacromial space and the degree of pain experienced. These may be explained by variations in the processing of nociceptive inputs between different patients. We investigated the evidence for augmented pain transmission (central sensitisation) in patients with impingement, and the relationship between pre-operative central sensitisation and the outcomes following arthroscopic subacromial decompression. We recruited 17 patients with unilateral impingement of the shoulder and 17 age- and gender-matched controls, all of whom underwent quantitative sensory testing to detect thresholds for mechanical stimuli, distinctions between sharp and blunt punctate stimuli, and heat pain. Additionally Oxford shoulder scores to assess pain and function, and PainDETECT questionnaires to identify ‘neuropathic’ and referred symptoms were completed. Patients completed these questionnaires pre-operatively and three months post-operatively. A significant proportion of patients awaiting subacromial decompression had referred pain radiating down the arm and had significant hyperalgesia to punctate stimulus of the skin compared with controls (unpaired t-test, p < 0.0001). These are felt to represent peripheral manifestations of augmented central pain processing (central sensitisation). The presence of either hyperalgesia or referred pain pre-operatively resulted in a significantly worse outcome from decompression three months after surgery (unpaired t-test, p = 0.04 and p = 0.005, respectively). These observations confirm the presence of central sensitisation in a proportion of patients with shoulder pain associated with impingement. Also, if patients had relatively high levels of central sensitisation pre-operatively, as indicated by higher levels of punctate hyperalgesia and/or referred pain, the outcome three months after subacromial decompression was significantly worse.


Treat the brain, treat the pain

Arthritis Rheum. 2009 Sep 15;61(9):1226-34.

Psychophysical and functional imaging evidence supporting the presence of central sensitization in a cohort of osteoarthritis patients.

Gwilym SE, Keltner JR, Warnaby CE, Carr AJ, Chizh B, Chessell I, Tracey I.


University of Oxford, Oxford, UK. [email protected]



The groin pain experienced by patients with hip osteoarthritis (OA) is often accompanied by areas of referred pain and changes in skin sensitivity. We aimed to identify the supraspinal influences that underlie these clinical manifestations that we consider indicative of possible central sensitization.


Twenty patients with hip OA awaiting joint replacement and displaying signs of referred pain were recruited into the study, together with age-matched controls. All subjects completed pain psychology questionnaires and underwent quantitative sensory testing (QST) in their area of referred pain. Twelve of 20 patients and their age- and sex-matched controls underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while the areas of referred pain were stimulated using cold stimuli (12 degrees C) and punctate stimuli (256 mN). The remaining 8 of 20 patients underwent punctate stimulation only.


Patients were found to have significantly lower threshold perception to punctate stimuli and were hyperalgesic to the noxious punctate stimulus in their areas of referred pain. Functional brain imaging illustrated significantly greater activation in the brainstem of OA patients in response to punctate stimulation of their referred pain areas compared with healthy controls, and the magnitude of this activation positively correlated with the extent of neuropathic-like elements to the patient’s pain, as indicated by the PainDETECT score.


Using psychophysical (QST) and brain imaging methods (functional MRI), we have identified increased activity with the periaqueductal grey matter associated with stimulation of the skin in referred pain areas of patients with hip OA. This offers a central target for analgesia aimed at improving the treatment of this largely peripheral disease.


Healthy tissues in 1-2-3

The simple fact is that our tissues need movement to be healthy. By tissues I am referring to muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, fascia and skin. This does not need to be extreme movement but it must be regular and purposeful. Even without pathology, pain or an injury it is vital that the tissues are moved consistently throughout the day. It is likely that if you are recovering from a pain state, this movement will need to be ‘little and often’ to follow the principle of ‘motion is lotion’. I love this phrase. It was coined by the NOI Group guys and I use it frequently. At the moment I a considering some other phrases with similar meanings. If anyone has any suggestions please do comment below.

There are many types of movement from simple stretching to walking and more structured exercise such as yoga.  For convenience I talk to patients about the ‘themes’ of the treatment programme. In relation to movement there are three themes 1-2-3: specific exercises to re-train normal movement and control of movement, general exercise and the self-care strategies to be used throughout the day.

The specific exercises could include re-learning to walk normally, to re-establish normal control of the ankle or to concurrently develop confidence such as in bending forwards in cases of back pain. Normal control of movement is a fundamental part of recovery. When the information from the tissues to the brain is accurate, there is a clear view on what is happening, menaing that the next movement is efficient and so on.

General exercise is important for our health in body and mind. As well as reducing risk of a number of diseases, our brains benefit hugely from regular exercise. We release chemicals such as serotonin that make us feel good, endorphins that ease pain and BDNF that works like a miracle grow for brain cells. Gradually increasing exercise levels is a part of the treatment programme for all of these reasons.

Move from your seat, or buy one of these!

Regularly punctuating static positions with movement nourishes the tissues and the brain’s representation of the body. The tissues will tighten and stiffen when they remain in one position for a long period of time, and more so when there is pathology or pain. Often there is already overactivity in the muscular system when we are in pain as part of the way the brain defends the body. This overactivity leads to muscle soreness that can be eased with consistent movement.

These three simple measure are behaviours. Behaviours are based on our belief system and therefore we need to understand why it is so important to move and re-establish normal control of movement as part of recovering from an injury or pain state. This includes tackling any issues around fear of movement and hypervigilance towards painful stimuli from the body. Our treatment programmes address these factors comprehensively, employing the biopsychosocial model of care and the latest neuroscience based knowledge of pain.

Email [email protected] for more information about our treatment programmes or to book an appointment.