Pain on the Brain

I’ve got pain on the brain due to a recent removal of my wisdom teeth. Being of diminutive size, the surgeons had to pry my jaw open beyond its usual capacity, resulting in a patchwork of bruises and strained tendons that would surely have onlookers calling the Domestic Abuse hotline.

Hardly being able to see the removal sites myself, I wondered how the surgeon could possibly get his hands in there or even see what he was doing. A friend mentioned reading an article that anyone can do the splits when unconscious because the brain controls muscle movement, and if the brain is asleep, it can’t tell you what you can and can’t do. That stiffness or twinge you feel when you’re awake and pushing your muscles or ligaments ‘too far’ is the brain sensing possible danger of injury. It tells you that you’re in pain and you stop the movement. (I think this might be the article she read.)

This means, theoretically, that under anaesthesia, your jaw could be dislocated and tendons stretched to maximum capacity, leaving plenty of room for the surgeons’ bulky paws and you none the wiser.

So, pain is all in your head. Huh.

Being stuck in bed and acutely aware of the massive swelling and associated agony, I did some research on the science of pain. And it’s true – pain really is all in your head. When your nerves sense danger because of some external stimulus, they send a message to your brain which then tells you that the stimulus hurts. You begin to feel sore in the location of the stimulus. But there is no pain there. It’s in your head.

This is helpful when you need to protect yourself from ongoing injury, such as when you accidentally touch a hot stove and quickly pull your hand away, because your brain tells you it burns. Or perhaps you’ve injured a ligament and it needs time to repair, so your brain tells you it aches when you try to use it.

The problem comes in when you’ve healed and you continue to feel pain. Take chronic back pain, for example. The majority of healing takes place in the first three months after the injury, and most injuries are fully healed in six months. Yet, back injuries seem to continue to cause problems for years afterwards. How many times have you heard someone tell you they have a ‘bad back’ or a ‘slipped disc’ that has been troubling them for years? But did you know that scientists have begun to think that ‘disc bulges’[1] are actually a normal part of aging as they have discovered that 50% of 40-year-olds without back pain have a disc bulge!

Where is the pain coming from then? The key is to look at what was going on in your head during the time of the injury and recovery period. Was your situation particularly stressful or upsetting? Were you experiencing depression or anxiety? Are you experiencing those things now, while you’re feeling the chronic pain? Did the amount of pain prevent you from moving in a certain way, causing you to avoid that movement altogether? Think about what was happening at the time that could have taught your brain that it needed to be especially protective of you.

Then, look at ways to retrain your brain. You’ve heard it all before, so let’s keep it short: good nutrition, no smoking, and regular exercise. That’s right, you need to MOVE – teach your brain that you CAN do it without further injury. Start small and slowly increase your range of motion. It takes time and patience but be persistent and you will get there. 

Also, take care of your mental and emotional health. If there is an underlying trauma associated with the injury, you may need the help of a qualified therapist to work through it. A trauma doesn’t have to be something huge like a car accident or mugging; it can be anything that upset you enough for your brain to switch on the sirens and go into protect mode. This could be as small as a slip in the shower that gave you a shock, or even an argument with a close friend close to the time of the injury.

Here are a few videos and other links that explain the brain-pain connection and how to manage pain:

How does your brain respond to pain? – Karen D. Davis

Understanding Pain in less than 5 minutes, and what to do about it!

Pain Science – Mobilize!

Tame the Beast – Understanding Pain


You can conquer that chronic pain – just retrain your brain!


[1] Bear in mind that the precise definitions of the terms ‘slipped disc’, ‘bulging disc’, ‘herniated disc’, etc. are not agreed upon by healthcare professionals and are therefore used interchangeably for similar conditions. See:

Pain on the Brain
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