Anyone who suffers from it can attest that overcoming chronic pain often
takes nothing short of a heroic effort. I was encouraged recently to see
the subject of pain be reintroduced to the national spotlight during the
2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony for former Detroit
Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Throughout his nine years in the NFL,
Mr. Johnson revealed that he experienced constant pain dating back to
a spine injury during his rookie year in the league. Ultimately, this
injury led to his (surprising at the time because no one knew how much
pain he was in) retirement from the league in his prime at just 30 years
old. His silent suffering is both a testament to chronic pain sufferers'
tenacity and the kinds of dynamics that may be associated with revealing
just how debilitating their pain conditions might be.
As Mr. Johnson stated in his Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, "the
pain never left." To carry on, he says he would "take whatever
I could just to manage the pain to be able to play." As a sports
neurologist and pain medicine specialist, I know this story too well and
hear it far too often. And I must say, it was incredibly selfless and
courageous of Mr. Johnson, as he accepted such a distinct honor, to use
his voice and the opportunity to speak directly to chronic pain sufferers
all over the world. "I want you to know that I see you, that you
matter, and fight and do your best to make it through. Never give in to
The advice to mentally not "give in" to pain is good, especially
from someone like Calvin Johnson, who has personal experience with it.
However, "not giving in to the pain" can be a challenging thing
to do for many people, especially those who are experiencing chronic pain
that has lasted decades.
In specializing in the treatment of people in chronic pain, I work diligently
to educate my patients and the public that all pain is in the brain. The
experience of pain, no matter where on the body it's felt, is very
real for the person experiencing it. Many chronic pain sufferers are familiar
with people telling them they "look" fine and are often recipients
of the unwelcome suggestion that the pain they're experiencing is
"all in their heads." Yes, I am of the impression that it is
all in their head, but I mean that quite literally. Contrary to popular
belief, pain is not an electrical signal transmitted to the brain from
an area of bodily injury or damage. Rather, pain is the emotional
experience that is associated with the signal. In and of itself, the signal doesn't
become pain until it's processed and experienced in the brain as unpleasant
in some emotional context. Addressing the emotional context is critical.
That's why soldiers can rescue others despite personal injury, and
football players can "play through" injuries, only to later
find out the nature and severity is such that it's unbelievable they
were able to carry on at all. Pain is in the brain. And the brain can
turn up or turn down the electrical signals to modulate its intensity.
As one can imagine, treating chronic pain can be tricky. Although most
people think of pain as a sensation, it is actually an experience. Understanding
that distinction is critical to helping people in chronic pain find the
relief they deserve. And while many believe medication is the only way
to minimize pain, in my practice, medication is genuinely only one part
of a therapeutic approach I might employ to help someone mitigate their
pain episodes. From specific medication therapy to neuromodulation to
movement-based therapies and targeted alternative treatments that don't
involve any medication and even more options, the field of Pain Medicine
has never been as diverse as it is today.
As a sports neurologist, former football player, and most importantly a
father, I am proud of Calvin Johnson for using his NFL retirement years
and considerable influence to spotlight and continue this incredibly important
dialogue about chronic pain. By addressing and eliminating the stigma
for people who are suffering, we can continue to take meaningful steps
toward effectively treating what truly ails them.