Pain is a horrible, even terrifying word, by association. Scientists are finding ways to show that the way we think produces consciousness – our experience. So, your pain may not be my sense of pain, yet it’s very real to the sufferer. Prof. Lorimer Moseley, at the University of South Australia, gave a recent lecture on this subject available on Youtube, “Pain. Is it all just in your mind?”. My guest today, Eric Nelson, writes about his radio call-in: “KQED Call-in Yields Insights into Pain“. His post also appears on PaloAltoPatch and BayCitizen. Thanks, Eric!
According to Dr. Sean Mackey, understanding the link between mind and body can make a world of difference, particularly when it comes to dealing with pain. He should know. After all, he’s the head of Stanford University’s Division of Pain Management and spends a lot of time researching and thinking about these kinds of things.
Not too long ago I got so immersed in what this guy was discovering that I ended up writing a post about it for this web site. And then, just the other day, I found myself talking to him on the phone.
Well, not exactly. Truth be told, he was the guest on KQED’s “Forum” program and I just happened to call in with a question. For those who didn’t catch the show, I thought I’d share a transcript of my question and his response.
ME [Eric]: Hi there. Just a couple of points that were brought up earlier – obviously this idea that pain could very well be in one’s head and also the idea that pain is genetic. And the comments reminded me of something that Dr. Herb Benson, in one of the studies that he did recently, that pointed out that actually that one’s thought – specifically meditation and, related to that, prayer – could actually impact the makeup of one’s genes. And I’d just like to get the guest’s comments on this idea that thought impacts your genes and, by association, pain.
MICHAEL KRASNY (host): Sean Mackey?
DR. SEAN MACKEY: Yeah. Two things. One is, we spend a lot of time educating patients on this concept that fundamentally pain is an experience in the brain. And we have to be careful with that because the last thing I want to do is for people to think that I’m invalidating what they’re experiencing because people are so used to being told, “Oh, it’s all in your head.” And that’s not the message. The message is, that pain is a brain phenomenon; that pain doesn’t actually exist in our finger and in our back. Those are just crazy, mixed-up electrochemical signals. It’s not until it hits the brain that it becomes the experience of pain. And to the second point, yes, there is growing awareness and data that supports that there is a direct connection between mind and body and that our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions can shape gene expression and shape the substances that are produced. And Melanie touched upon that earlier with this idea of us, you know, pro-inflammatory cytokines, these stress substances that change when we have these very dark thoughts. A lot of that is mediated through changes in gene expression.
MICHAEL KRASNY: The fact is, you know, anybody who has experienced even a modicum of depression knows that that kind of pain can be far more difficult to contend with than, in many instances, physical pain, chronic and acute pain.
DR. SEAN MACKEY: And we’re learning that the same brain systems that become abnormal in depression overlap with those that cause us to experience and change pain.
Pretty interesting stuff.