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Mind Over Pain: Retraining The Brain To Lessen Chronic Pain


Individuals experiencing chronic pain may find relief in retraining their perception of it, according to a study led by Hayley Leake, 2021 “Australian Survivor” champion. (Sasun Bughdaryan/Unsplash)

By Martin M Barillas

Learning about pain and how to deal with it is the focus of a new study that applies a biopsychosocial model to coping with chronic pain by reframing the reaction to pain without the stress or fear of causing re-injury and further pain.

Research by Hayley Leake, the 2021 champion of the “Australian Survivor” reality TV series, shows that patients can apply the following three concepts while coping with pain: Pain does not mean that my body is damaged; Thoughts, emotions and experiences affect pain; and I can retrain my overprotective pain system.

“Chronic pain is experienced by one in five Australians, and when pain persists, it can disrupt every aspect of life — including school or work, social and family connections and physical and mental health,” said Leake, a doctoral student at the University of South Australia. She said that pain is the brain’s “protective output” in response to threat. “Threat may take many forms, not just what’s happening in your body, but also your thoughts, emotions and context.”

Leake recalled that during an appearance on “Survivor,” she stood on narrow, wooden pegs for nearly five and a half hours. To manage the resulting pain, she repeated to herself, “My feet are strong; my body is safe; this is not dangerous.” Her research gave her an understanding of the pain mechanism and how resilient human beings are. She also believed it reduced her pain during her feat on “Australian Survivor.”

Hayley Leak, 2021 Brains over Brawn champion of “Australian Survivor,” stood on wooden pegs for more than five hours to demonstrate resistance to pain. (Nigel Wright)

The Australian athlete and researcher used a mixed-methods approach to educate 97 study participants in pain science. Her study, published in The Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain, claims her methods helped patients recover from chronic pain by learning that it does not mean that their bodies are injured. The study found that emotion and stress can worsen the perception of pain, but this perception can be reframed as overprotection that can be reduced.

Leake said it is a misconception that pain reflects tissue damage and hopes pain sufferers can cope by “reframing knowledge of pain.”

Teenagers report feeling uncertain and anxious about their diagnosis of chronic pain; they want a further explanation beyond just a label. It is important we help them make sense of their pain,” Leake said.

Chronic pain can create feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, which can be combated by a better understanding of the link between pain and stress. (Klara Kulikova/Unsplash)

If teens learn that pain does not indicate damage to tissue, she said, they may not fear re-injury, thus “helping them move and start to recover sooner.” By understanding how stress can affect pain, Leake said, teens can address how these are intertwined.

Leake’s study identified several objectives in teaching how to understand pain. Her method instills the belief that pain is a protector, the pain system can become overprotective, pain is a brain output and not an accurate marker of tissue state, there are many potential contributors to anyone’s pain, we are all bioplastic (adaptable to change) and pain education is treatment.

“Reframing perceptions of pain is key,” Leake said. “Instilling hope that change is possible can make all the difference to a young person struggling with chronic pain.”

Edited by Siân Speakman and Kristen Butler

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