The Human Blueprint: Your Body Has a Built-In Map for Healing

by Alan Gonzalez-Cota, MD

Traditionally, pain has been treated with narcotic medications such as opioids, but contemporary medicine proves that this is not only unnecessary but it can also be harmful.  Your body has a built-in blueprint for pain relief that contemporary pain specialists are able to read and use to build individual, narcotic-free treatment plans. 

PAIN PERCEPTION AND THE HUMAN BRAIN

Pain protects our bodies from injury: in healthy bodies, pain stops us from leaving fingers on hot frying pans and send us to the dentist when we experience a tooth ache.  These are great examples of temporary, short bursts of pain, and it’s easy to see how pain protects us and helps to keep us healthy.  We seek immediate relief (remove finger from hot pan, have tooth pulled), and the pain disappears.

By contrast, consider those who suffer from chronic lower back pain from an injury.  When you experience prolonged pain that can’t be relieved immediately, your body tells your brain over and over that there is pain in your lower back.  For several weeks.  When this happens, even after you have healed, your nervous system can get stuck in the mode of expecting the pain signals.

Why does this happen?

According to the Gate Control Theory, pain signals that originate from damaged tissue encounter some “neurological gates” when they reach the spinal cord, and these gates open or close, depending on whether or not they decide the pain signals should be sent to the brain. When the body repairs tissue damage, then the “neurological gates” close and the painful signals don’t reach the brain. Once a patient develops chronic pain, even after the damaged tissue has healed, the gates do not close and strange painful sensations persist.

How do we use this knowledge to decrease pain?

With the Gate Control theory in mind, a contemporary approach focuses on interrupting the pain signals and closing the gates.  Here are few methods we use to close the gates:

Physical Therapy (PT): treats damaged muscles and tendons, which will send painful signals to the brain. Massage therapy soothes the mind as well by relaxing the body. Muscle strengthening resolves pain from joints and ligaments by making weak muscles more normal. Being reasonably fit will alleviate many potential painful disease like cancer and diabetes. Being fit also induces pleasure to continue fighting pain by increasing endorphins (pleasure brain chemicals).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): a type of psychotherapy that empowers patients by helping them understand the thoughts and feelings that close the “neurological gates.” Biofeedback uses medical monitors for training on stress management during pain exacerbation. Effortless meditation is another form of CBT.

Nerve Blocks: by interrupting the signals for brief periods (hours or days) there is a change for such gates to normalize and close.

Neuromodulation: by using electrical signals from the outside of the spinal cord or brain to enhance neurological pathways that close such doors, a patient experiences drastic relief. Therapies like spinal cord stimulation (SCS) or Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) are the most effective for pain from severe nerve damage.