Been told your chronic pain is all in your mind? It might actually be true, according to G. Lorimer Moseley, professor of clinical neurosciences at University of South Australia and Neuroscience Research Australia, and head of the Body in Mind research team.
During the American Pain Society's Annual Scientific Meeting last week, Moseley told the audience that the brain normally stores maps of the body that help it analyze physical sensations and prevent physical harm.
In a normal person the brain's map of the body can help it figure out where there might be danger -- a hand against a hot surface, for instance -- and what it should do in response -- like moving the hand.
For someone with chronic pain, the brain's cortical map may not be accurate anymore. That means that the brain might still be sending up pain and danger flags even when the person isn't in danger.
This is most obvious in people with phantom limb pain. After an amputation, the limb in question doesn't actually exist anymore, but a lot of people still feel pain where that limb would be. Moseley's theory is that it's the brain's (now inaccurate) cortical map that's responsible for the pain.
Moseley's theory goes one step beyond a cool theory for chronic pain: He theorizes that since the brain is able to form a disrupted cortical map of the body through brain plasticity, it can also be trained to correct its cortical map to stop feeling pain through the same brain plasticity.
"We want to gradually train the brain to stop trying to protect body tissue that doesn't need protecting," said Moseley.
According to Science Daily, a method that might work, called graded motor imagery, involves using images to help the brain rewire itself to stop feeling pain. Initial results have been promising.
"Our work shows that the complex neural connections in the brain not only are associated with chronic pain, they can be reconnected or manipulated through therapy that alters brain perceptions and produce pain relief," said Moseley.
Tough to find a graded motor imagery expert near you? Try these 8 other ways to beat chronic pain.