Dr. Susie Gronski


The Brain On Pain

Does sadness start in your eyes? Can you find love in your heart or lust in your genitals? Does anger reside in your fist? Does pain really come from your private parts? The answer to all these is no.

Pain is like anger, love, or happiness. It’s a conscious experience constructed by your brain, not your body parts. That goes for pelvic pain and your privates.

Don’t get me wrong, the sensors in your body allow you to experience the world and relay important information to your brain. However, they don’t have the final say. Lemme explain.

Photo by  jesse orrico  on  Unsplash

If you have pain right now, you’re not alone. About 20% of humans are experiencing pain that’s lasted longer than 3 months.[1] And like most people who have persistent pain, it hurts because your brain thinks you need to be protected.

Pain is formally defined as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.”[2]

We all experience pain. It’s a normal part of life and nothing to be afraid of. In fact, pain is one of our protectors, like many other systems that protect us including the immune, nervous, endocrine, motor, and cognitive systems. Importantly, all of these systems work together and influence each other when it comes to making us take action, like quickly moving out of the way to dodge an oncoming bus.

Pain is a necessary part of life for survival. Sounds like an oxymoron, I know. But because all these systems work together and influence each other, we have to understand all the other aspects that contribute to our pain experience like the psychological and sociological aspects that we encounter on a moment-to-moment basis. If we don’t look at the wider context of pain, it’s like trying to understand a cake by just looking at the flour and the eggs.

To figure out what’s going on in your own experience of pain, you need to look at the whole self (your emotions, beliefs, diet, relationships, environment, muscles, joints, who you see, where you go, what you’ve been told, etc).

Not only that, but just as chocolate cake and carrot cake use different ingredients, so too does pain differ from person to person. When unlearning persistent pain, it’s key to switch the components around and utilize their strengths.

Decades of research show that pain is produced 100% in our brains, meaning sometimes the pain we experience isn’t always because of our tissues. Like I said earlier, the body’s ability to produce and block pain is dependent on many factors. For example, have you ever had a bruise and not known where it came from or how you got it? I know I have. In this case, you had actual tissue damage but didn’t experience pain. If you can experience tissue injury without pain, you can also experience pain without tissue injury. 

Pain depends on context, 100% of the time. So if you were out having a good time with friends, chances are your brain was too occupied having fun instead of worrying about that table you bumped into.

If that isn’t convincing enough, let me share my story with you.

I remember a time when I was a kid and was playing basketball with my cousins. It was intense! In the last moments of the game, every point counted. My little brother thought it would be funny to ride his bike around us to be annoying, but what none of us knew was that his bike had a very sharp piece of metal sticking out from the sprocket. I was the lucky one to find this out. The basketball rolled under his bike. I quickly did a one-two to grab the ball and got right back into the game. I don’t know how much time passed before someone suddenly noticed and screamed, “Your leg is bleeding.” I looked down at my lower leg to see blood and muscle gushing out. Immediately, I fell to the ground in agony.

Interesting, right? Why didn’t I notice it before? Well, had I noticed it right away, it could’ve cost us the game so my brain defaulted to carrying on despite the fact that my leg was split open.

Your brain is the ultimate boss. It’s constantly processing information from trillions of cells across your entire brain and from the rest of your body. If there’s ever a reason that your brain detects more danger than safety, violà... you might feel pain.

But remember, your body uses a lot of protective mechanisms and most happen outside of your conscious awareness.

Our bodies have amazing abilities to learn, adapt and change over time. This could work for us or against us. And persistent pelvic pain is definitely an experience that no one wants to live with forever.

So, how can we start to unlearn pain?

Well, let’s start by shifting your experience from a negative adaptation to a more positive one.

As an example, let’s take a Kung Fu Master in training who’s been told that by rubbing his shins with glass bottles he’ll be a stronger and better kicker. He’s got a solid reason to endure something so uncomfortable. In the beginning of his training, the sensors in his legs do send danger messages to the brain, but after repeatedly rubbing his shins, the messages get weaker. Eventually, they stop at the spinal cord and don’t even make it to the brain. These messages are not relevant anymore and hold no meaning. Thus, the Kung Fu Master feels no pain in his legs, making him a better and stronger kicker.

This kind of positive adaptation can be applied to ‘unlearning’ pain, including pelvic pain. With the right approach and training, the messages coming from your private parts will eventually diminish, become more manageable and even go away. 

Photo by  sydney Rae  on  Unsplash

Photo by sydney Rae on Unsplash

How you think and react to your experience of pain will make all the difference to your feelings and recovery. You don’t have to figure this out on your own. Let’s chat to get your customized roadmap to recovery plan.

[1] Moseley, L., & Butler, D. (2017). Explain Pain Supercharged. South Australia: Noigroup Publications.

[2] Merskey, H., & Bogduk, N. (Eds). (1994). Part III: Pain Terms, A Current List with Definitions and Notes on Usage (pp. 209-214). Seattle, Washington: IASP Press.