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5 Brain and Pain Myths - Debunked


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, and emotion.

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!