Regular readers will know that I firmly believe in getting better when it comes to pain and persisting pain. This should be our aim with each person. This thinking also needs to underpin research, policy making and clinical decision making across the board.
Recently I was asked to speak at an event that considered the question ‘how do tendons get better’, and my area of focus was the brain and pain. More on this shortly, but it was a pertinent question because for some time I have been pondering why people do get better (from persistent pain), what does getting better actually mean and who gets better?
To answer these questions experientially, I thought through many cases that I have seen to identify the common features. Not especially scientific, but a start point. People getting better meant that they would report that they felt more like themselves. A common phrase that we use, ‘I don’t feel myself today’, tells the world that all is not well, and equally saying ‘I feel myself again’ reports that what is happening in my world is what I expect to happen; a match up in other words. And who are these people who get better from a persisting pain state in the face of messages from society that chronic pain is here to stay and needs to be managed or coped with?
In short, these are people who take on board the true messages about pain and what it really is based on our modern understanding. Not only do they listen and put in into perspective within their lives, but they use the new information as working knowledge to be applied consistently, challenging previous thinking to drive new actions that are congruent with being healthy. With this working knowldge, moment by moment they are able to make clear decisions and groove new habits, pointing themselves via their perceptions and actions towards their desired outcome, as defined by themselves at the outset.
Everyone has experienced success in one or more arenas of their life, whether at home, at school, in work or playing sport. This success is achieved by focusing upon the desired outcome and then taking every opportunity to get there, even if things go wrong along the way. Distracting (unhelpful) thoughts and unforseen events are dealt with as learning experiences, and soon enough the person is back on the path towards their vision of success. Take a moment to recall a success and note how you did it. What strengths did you use? How could you bring them into this arena? The people that use their strengths and focus on their vision consistently, get better.
The tendon debate resulted in agreement that people needed to understand their problem and pain as a foundation from which different strategies could be used. The strategies chosen for the individual must reflect their needs and desired outcomes. I was asked if brain and pain could explain why a tendon gets better, and I argued that we are more than a brain, and in fact the construct of self is made up of a number of facets: my physical presence, how I experience that presence, the story I tell myself about me, the sense of the environment in which I reside in this moment, my past (perhaps unreliably retold to me by me) and my anticipation to name but a few. It is the person who gets better and not the tendon or the back or anywhere else in the body, because we are that body as much as we are the mind (the mind does not just exist in the head or brain, instead we are our mind, often using our body to think — embodied cognition). We are necessarily all of these things together: body-brain-mind-environment.
The overaching aim must be that the person gets better as defined by themselves as only they know what it is like to be better. And when the person is better, they feel themselves again, which in terms of pain emerging from me (felt in a body area), it exists less and less in the thin slice of awareness that is consciouness — most we are unaware of; externally and internally (the biology in the dark). When we are better, we don’t think so much, if at all, about our body until we have an itch or have sat too long and become uncomfortable. Then we scratch or move and resume a state of non-body awareness, just focusing on what it is that we need to in that moment.