The human brain has remained a wonder and fascination of mine for as long
as I can remember. As a sports neurologist, I am passionate about helping
patients of all abilities – athletic, academic, and vocational –
tap into and harness the brain's incredible power to aid them in performing
at peak levels. Because my field of medicine also addresses the needs
of patients experiencing
chronic pain, I am honored to help those trapped in vicious pain cycles that may have
been plaguing them for years.
As a board-certified neurological and
pain management expert, I can say with humility that these fields of study continue to
evolve. Scientific and medical communities don't yet fully know everything
we would like to about the brain –- how it works, how to “train”
it to perform better at anything, and how it contributes to the experience
of pain. The human condition often invites the introduction of myths and
half-truths when there are gaps in knowledge. So today, I am addressing
five commonly held myths about the brain and how it contributes to the
experience of pain in the hopes that you might come away with a more scientific
understanding of what we know about this complex organ.
Myth #1: The brain is a fixed, hard-wired, and closed-off box.
While it is true that certain parts of the brain are designed and organized
to govern specific processes within the body, it is an incredibly "flexible"
organ. Neuroplasticity, a term that became more widely used over the last
several decades, tells us that the brain allows "the ability of the
nervous system to change its activity in response to intrinsic or extrinsic
stimuli by reorganizing its structure, functions, or connections."
In standard terms, this means the brain can adapt to its environment.
This phenomenon is evident in the brain's healing after injury and
its ability to compensate for perceived losses in other senses. In people
who are blind, for example, the brain often heightens the other senses,
such as hearing, to compensate.
Myth #2: Only 10% of the human brain's capacity is used at any given time.
Biology dictates that nature developed the human brain for several specific
purposes for people to thrive. The idea that most of this highly complex
organ lies dormant at any given time is simply false. However, depending
on the task at hand, certain sections of the brain may only partially
engage in use at certain times throughout the day. But that doesn't
mean the brain isn't "on" and ready for whatever comes next.
This is why injury to even the most minor portions of brain tissue can
profoundly affect several critical human functions like speech, movement,
Myth #3: Brain health and function naturally decline after a certain age.
Though it is common for specific cognitive skills to decline with age,
memory loss is not a "normal" part of aging. It should be evaluated
if it tips beyond the everyday forgetfulness that anyone can experience.
In addition, there are specific brain functions that improve as a person
ages. Vocabulary and emotional regulation, for example, are two essential
human functions regulated by the brain that get better as we get older. And
training the brain can combat decline.
Myth #4: The more pain you're in, the more rest you need.
Absolutely not! Of course, specific injuries require rest as they heal.
But for those in chronic pain (especially if its origin is unknown),
regular exercise can be some of the best medicine available. I know that can be a hard
pill to swallow for people who feel like they can't even get out of
bed, but a marathon is not required here. Walking up and down the street,
increasing the time and pace as your body permits, can have incredible
effects on mood and has also been studied to reduce the experience of
pain in long-time sufferers.
Myth #5: Dwelling on and suffering through pain won't worsen it.
Long-term pain is a prison. It robs people of otherwise active, healthy
living and gives way to despair, depression, and hopelessness. No one
should need to "deal with" pain as if it is a roommate you can't
evict. The most heroic thing a person in chronic pain can do is seek help.
If you're someone who doesn't want to medicate to control the pain,
I've got great news for you. More than ever in the field of pain medicine,
there is an array of treatment options available to you that don't
involve surgery or medication and can help provide the lasting relief
from pain that every human deserves.
BONUS Myth: Tissue damage sends pain signals to the brain.
Tissue damage sometimes results in signals (sent through specialized nerves
called nociceptors) traveling to the brain. But they aren’t pain
signals. The brain may or may not produce a pain response or pain experience
depending on whether or not it interprets the signals as dangerous or
threatening to your health and survival. Sometimes, the brain misinterprets
signals as “danger” or “threat” and produces a
pain response/experience when no tissue damage is present, or after tissue
damage has healed. This is common with chronic pain. We’re learning
that an extremely important and effective treatment is to reframe those
signals. By focusing on changing beliefs about those sensations (“they
are safe and don’t represent tissue damage”), the brain will
stop producing pain. What a relief!