Why tendons get better or not… was the question posed. Six of us were lined up to look at potential answers, the areas including isometrics, movement, injections, brain and pain. I was asked to consider brain and pain. Here are my thoughts.
To feel, to think, we need a brain but we are not just a brain. We are of course much, much more. We are a whole person and hence the brain is not the answer to the question why tendons get better, or worse. My main clinical focus is upon those that have not got better, looking at why (the back story, the primers and vulnerabilities) and then what thinking and action is needed now to change course. So most people I see are those who have got worse and in fact, we need to know as much about getting better as we do getting worse. Both are complex but then I argue, we have a greater opportunity to intervene.
The emphasis in my 10-minute talk, a format that is increasingly popular, was upon the fact that it is the person who gets better and not the tendon. What is getting better? What does this mean? I asked myself this question some time ago and followed up with asking ‘who gets better?’ for a talk at a CRPS conference. It has to be the person because it is the person who is conscious and ‘rating’ themselves as being better. The tendon cannot do this — a tendon does not know if it is better or not. Semantics you may think, but important I would say on the basis that we ‘treat’ a person.
A sense of being better results in a person being able to fully engage in their lives as they wish — meaningful living. However, much of our day to day existence is unremarkable, punctuated by situations we remember unreliably. However, we tell ourselves a story about ourselves over and over, with the ‘self’ as the main part in the film. It is strongly argued that the ‘self’ is an illusion: ask yourself where your ‘self’ exists? When you have finished pondering on that small questions, consider again getting better — ‘I’ must rate myself as getting better, meaning that I am able to focus on the task at hand and not be regularly drawn to unpleasant sensations in the space where my tendon (and other tissues) lie or be thinking about the implications of the pain — I can’t do this or I can’t do that etc. So, I concluded that the person gets better when they judge it so and hence the person being more than a brain, but certainly needs a brain, then we have to think wider.
On brain, I also briefly cleared up the seeming confusion between talking about the brain and central sensitisation. Because I argue that we need to address the person (a brain, a body, a context, an environment — unified) to address pain, and that this includes the brain, this does not mean we are saying it is central sensitisation. Without a thought that I have a tendon pain, there is no tendon pain, and hence we must address the top down processing (e.g. thoughts that are underpinned by beliefs, because of what we have been told or learned) because they impact upon the prediction as to what the sensory information means in this moment; the brain’s best guess, which is what you and I are feeling right now. Changing this prediction by minimising the prediction error by taking action is most likely how we are going about getting better.
In terms of pain, this is usually the driver that takes the person to seek help. The pain is stopping the person performing and motivating or compelling action because it hurts. The pain itself is flavoured by thoughts, sensations, thoughts about sensations as a unified experience involving many body systems that have a role in protecting us. Pain is about protection yet is part of the way we protect ourselves with other adaptations including changes in sense of self via altered body sense, altered movement, altered thinking and perception of the environment. With these adaptations occurring over and over, adapting to adaptations and onward, we need a programme that matches pain as a lived experience. What do I think and do now in this moment? The person needs to become their own coach to think and act in a way that takes them towards their vision of getting better, over and over. This means creating new habits, and that is the training programme aspect.
There is much more that can be said on this area, which has many common features with other persistent pain states. We can summarise by agreeing, as we did on the night, that there is no single answer but instead we must draw upon different areas of science and philosophy to ask the right questions and create the wisest programme that addresses pain as the unified experience that it is — physical, cognitive and emotional — but in that person with their story.