Neuroscience focuses upon the brain. Neuroscience has shown us that the brain is involved with pain. Consequently the brain has been blamed for pain, the unpleasant motivator that is designed to grab our attention and enforce action that protects us from a threat, actual or potential.
Recent thinking that sensibly gathers paradigms from both neuroscience and philosophy challenges us to re-consider the brain-based explanation for pain, even if we are bringing other body systems into the frame. Mick Thacker argues that pain must come from the whole person, not a part of that person. Whilst I have always subscribed to a holistic view, considering all the dimensions of a pain experience (physical, cognitive, emotional), I have been guilty of the journeying on the brain train. As ever though, our knowledge and ways of thinking and using the knowledge evolve and now pain must be thought of as a holistic expression of the whole person.
My left buttock has been hurting for the last three days, so this has provided me with an opportunity to explore this pain and what it means for my ‘self’. It is of course me that is in pain, a localised feeling in the buttock, but nonetheless it is me, myself and I. The pain invades my attention, thoughts, decisions and plans that all involve me and my interaction with the immediate environment in this particular context. Yes this involves my brain, but my brain is me. One organ or one thought does not define me, yet I need both to sense myself.
Listening to a patient describe their pain is to listen to them describing themselves. What I hear and observe in people with persisting pain such as fibromyalgia, is a story of suffering. Suffering is a loss of the sense of self, and that is a whole, not a part. Pain is a feature but so is loneliness, avoidance, fear, anxiety and isolation. So are we just trying to change pain as this is the most frequent request made by patients? In my view, we are seeking to create the conditions for change in a direction that reduces suffering, this of course including the easing of symptoms. We can only achieve this by working with the whole person and not a part.
Although there is much talk about the pain during a session, what is often verbalised and demonstrated is a change in sense of self. We do not feel the same as before, and certainly as pain persists, this sense alters further. Yes we can identify mechanisms that underpin such change such as adaptations in the brain maps, however it is still the entire person who has the experience. Only by keeping this in mind will we be in the right track with treatment, training and mentoring patients to guide them forward. It must be their whole person that is proactively involved in this journey, cultivating a sense of self that fits with expectation and the vision of how things should be.
Specialist Pain Physio Clinics, London — empathetic treatment, training & mentoring for chronic pain