By Samantha Parker
When we are injured, nerve cells fire warning signals from your injured area—say, your knee—to the brain. “Help! We’re hurt!” Those signals travel along routes known as neuropathways. They’re like lines of communication between your body and the brain, and they’re constantly sending information back and forth.
Neuropathways that have been gone over and over again, like when your injury happened, have been traveled so often with the dimmer switch flipped to high beams. These pathways are like tire ruts in a dirt road. When you drive a truck down the same dirt road two to five times a day, the ruts in the dirt become deeper.
The neuropathways that were created to warn the brain when your injury happened have been traveled way more than two to five times a day. The dimmer switch was flipped to the high beams (hypersensitive) setting numerous times from the injury site to the brain, and due to the frequency of their travel, they are now deeply engrained. They now act like a default for the brain. The brain is used to receiving information from this pathway and figures that since it has been used so frequently in the last couple of months, it should probably keep paying attention to it. Especially since this pathway was established to protect you and keep you from creating further harm.
An example of a neuropathway less traveled would be when you hit your funny bone. Whacking your funny bone probably doesn’t happen often, so the alarm system isn’t sounding frequently from this area. And because this does not happen often your brain is not going to pay it much attention once the pain decreases and you no longer hurt. The rut is not deep because you only drive down that road once or twice a year.
Your Brain Remembers Pain
Let’s just say that your injury was a knee injury that put you on this path of chronic pain. Think of a typical day running errands. Your brain is having to pay attention to you driving, and what the other cars are doing on the road.
Then it’s focusing on you getting out of the car to run into the store to get the dry cleaning, and then back in the car, the kids are talking in the back seat, the phone is going off with a shit-ton of texts about don’t forget the cupcakes, and you realize you need to get gas so you can go back and get the cupcakes and then take them to where they’ve got to be in the first place.
You park at the pump, get out of the car, you step slightly wrong on your leg while getting out of the car and, “Ouch! My knee!” You start to think, oh crap. It hurts. When in reality it doesn’t really hurt. You’re just uncomfortable. Your brain defaulted to “pain” because that is how strong that neuropathway was and how your brain is remembering the injury when it first happened, and the brain is not really paying attention to your pain because it’s trying to remember where you left the damn cupcakes in the first place.
Retraining the Brain
Your body is a magnificent, amazing, complex, efficient machine. We have protective mechanisms, the memories of how the injury took place as well as muscle spindles in our muscles that protect the body from going too far too soon to keep it safe. When we first get injured, our injured site sends off screaming warning signals o the brain saying, “Don’t keep moving like that. You’ll cause permanent damage if you do. We need to seek medical care right away.” We need this so we do not continue to cause damage to that area.
However, after the acute injury has healed the neuropathway is strong and well-worn and is basically stuck in the “ER bright” position on the dimmer switch. When in reality when you got out of that car, your injured site was at the “sexy mood lighting” setting on the dimmer switch. But your brain was busy multitasking so it just “assumed” the injured site was in the “ER bright” position.
If you are still doing and living in the same holding pattern (and I like to say holding pattern as this covers a lot of ground … meaning your physical activity, how you hold yourself on a daily basis, your eating habits, your sleeping habits … they all work together) you are not changing the neuropathway. You are still on the same strong chronic pain neuropathway when you need to be getting off that road and taking another.
But it’s hard to get off a road you frequently travel and instead travel one that is unfamiliar. Especially if that road could potentially be seen as causing you more pain through movement and yoga. Just the thought of moving and trying to touch your toes gives you twinges of pain.
Hell, when you see those women stick their leg up behind their heads you feel pain. No way in hell you want to experience that! So, you limit your movements and you limit your activities. And I have to tell you, that’s one of the worst things you can do for yourself.
It simply means that in order to break our bad habits we need to create healthier, happier habits. We can do this by changing our behavior which leads to new neuropathways. Neuropathways are the “train tracks” of our thought patterns and how we do things. When we live our lives, we continue to go down these pathways that feel comfortable and safe to us. We stay in these lanes because this is what we know. Going “outside the box” and down a dark alley can be scary. And as humans we like comfort—mental, physical and emotional. So we stay where we know what is going on and what is coming. Even if it’s bad. The more we repeat these actions, behaviors and thoughts, the stronger become—which makes breaking them even harder!
So then the question becomes, how we can change these neuropathways? There are many ways. We can change them by our thoughts, soothing our emotions, images, sensations, beliefs and movement. Yoga addresses all of these.
Getting out of the Brain’s Pain Rut
When we make a conscious effort to change a pattern or behavior, we then make a new neuropathway. We are not able to switch to this other neuropathway right away—that would be like a train jumping the track trying to get to the other track to change our direction.
As we slowly start to switch the strength of which this pathway is traveled, like a train track being re-routed, we may miss pulling the switch to change the direction of the tracks the first time. But as we come back around the next time, we’ll be more aware we need to flip the switch. The more we travel this new neuropathway—the train track—it becomes more familiar to us through repetition, and we end up getting the timing down to just the right time to switch the train track and make a smooth transition.
Becoming aware of how we are moving our bodies and when we are moving out bodies requires us to be mindful of what it is doing. It requires practice to get the timing of when to flip the track switch. Practicing yoga, we can do this.
In yoga we are able to soothe our emotions through the breath and through movement. The deep diaphragmatic breathing that we learn helps to stimulate the vagus nerve which helps to override our sympathetic nervous system—our fight or flight response—and essentially calm us down on many levels.
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt from Yoga for Chronic Pain … WTF?, available in paperback at the Feeling Groovy Wellness boutique.
Samantha Parker is a Certified Yoga Therapist who has taught more than 6,000 hours of yoga on three continents. For four years she was the Chief Yoga Therapist for the Department of Defense, working with hundreds of working with U.S. Special Forces, military and veterans suffering from polytrauma. She speaks, trains and develops programs to address kinesiophobia and advises leading government officials on the newest functional movement practices. Follow her on Instagram @samanthaparker_nms.