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What Calvin Johnson's 2021 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Can Teach Us About Chronic Pain


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 pain."

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.