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Brain and pain: an amazing story from the “World’s Strongest Man”

As I go about my work, I often find a lot of scepticism about the possibility of controlling pain. “Oh . . .you’re not telling me that a bit of deep breathing can get rid of THIS!” is a comment I hear all too often. Sometimes this is said out loud, even shouted in anger and frustration. But more often it is indicated silently, I know it is there is the eyes, the body language and the quiet sigh of despair from a client or patient . . . and my heart goes out to them as I step into action.

This is what I do.

The proof of the pudding in pain control

Often I go straight in with “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” approach. Simple approaches, such as progressive muscle relaxation and controlled breathing DO make a difference and getting a person in pain to practise these and then watching their face as the pain recedes is wonderful. (If you are unfamiliar with these techniques then take a look at my new book Sleeping with Pain which will teach you how to do them (insert link when book published)

But for some people this approach doesn’t work. If someone doesn’t believe these sorts of techniques will work, they will not focus enough to learn them properly and they will not put into place a regular routine. They will also go into a ‘search to fail’ mode, where they will be like a laser beam searching out the times these techniques haven’t worked and ignoring the times when they have succeeded is lessening their pain.

Human stories of conquering pain

So, when people have set themselves up to fail a different approach is needed.

Sometimes I go straight for the science. For many people a bit of background about how a nervous system actually works, how pain messages are translated in the brain can set them on a path of taking control.

And I am always on the lookout for good stories to illustrate the point. It’s even better if they come from a respected source. Here is an example. This article from the Scientific American stopped me in my tracks.


Dennis Rogers Ignoring Pain

Dennis Rogers - Strong Man

It is about a guy called Dennis Rogers who is frequently billed as the World’s Strongest Man. You know the sort of thing; he holds racing motorbikes apart with his bare hands. He even stopped two US air force jet planes from taking off.

He doesn’t know how he does it, but he is willing to let others research him to try to find out. The University of Houston did just that and found he has an abnormally high number of muscle fibres, but there is something even more startling going on as well.

Deciding to ignore pain

Dennis has let’s say an interesting attitude to pain. It is not that he doesn’t feel pain, he does . . . he actually has a fear of dentists! He feels pain, but has developed ways of ignoring it. He says: “If I know pain is coming, I have an idea what to expect and I can decide to ignore it.” And guess what? He rarely suffers serious injury.

I think the key thing here is control. He is frightened of the pain of the dentist because he has given up control, when he is holding back fighter jets he is supremely focussed and in control.

So, what can we learn here?

Pain is a signal to us that something is wrong, it tells us to avoid doing something. This is a very useful bit of our basic survival kit, but it is also a pretty blunt instrument. For most of us, most of the time pain stops us acting (doing things like exercise and general activity) way before we are in any real physical danger.

If we treat pain like an emotion, rather than as an objective outside reality we can turn things around. Like feelings of happiness and sadness the feeling of pain is malleable. Even where there is a known physical cause, most people will report the pain is not the same every day and at all times of the day. This is a useful and positive message, if pain is not always the same then there must be something going on inside us which is affecting it. If we can begin to understand and control that we are on our way to being able to reduce the pain.

This month’s honourable mention: The Pain Management Network of new South Wales

This is an excellent initiative supported by the New South Wales government in Australia. It is packed with information and is very accessible with lots of short videos on different subjects and aimed at different groups. I especially liked the sections aimed at young people.


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