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How to Think Your Way Out of Pain

Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh. "The Favorite Game” Leonard Cohen

I have lots of scars, they tell stories of childhood fights and falls; of teenage cooking experiments; of two slightly difficult births. My scars are testament to the healing power within my own body. I have also had broken bones and sprains. Though you can’t see ligaments re-weaving their fibres or a bone knitting, through experience of past healing we have lived this regeneration of tissues and cells. While we are healing our body protects us by triggering its danger detectors. We feel this alarm system as pain but it is more than this. Angina is a chest pain that also triggers the growth of new arteries. This shows us that pain protects and helps us repair at the same time. Pain turns itself off when it is no longer needed. Think of the last time you cut yourself, it stopped hurting after a day or two even though it wasn’t fully healed.

Lorimer Mosely and David Butler are neuroscientists who study, teach and write about the psychosocial nature of pain. They help people recover with “nuggets” of positive information to guide their thought processes as they heal. Imagine going into a doctors surgery and having them say to you “well done you old self healer, you should take pride in your body’s healing response, this swelling shows me that your body has the resources to heal itself.”

If your doctor does say this to you then they have read The Clinician’s Handbook of Explain Pain Supercharged and you are in very good hands. This blog post is a list of the ten Explain Pain concepts (of seventy one) that I use most often when working with people who are recovering from injury:

Context is everything

The brain tells us when it is in danger and then decides when to produce pain. If you have a sore tooth and you’re at the dentist you probably feel more pain than if you’re recovering from a bad bruise while sitting at the movies. When you feel safe, happy and relaxed your pain experience lessens.

Positive words only

This is the concept that thoughts and beliefs are nerve impulses too. When you hurt your knee this sends a danger message to the brain. Negative thoughts also send danger messages to the brain. Our thoughts are physical and our words matter.


or in Mosely and Butler’s words: fingernails grow faster on holidays. This points out that when we are under stress things get put on hold, this includes our healing.

Take some hug drug

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide and analgesic that calms, de-stresses, reduces cortisol, makes you happier and eases pain. To get oxytocin you need to cuddle, sing, dance, look at a photo of a loved one, watch a romantic movie or spend time with (pleasant) animals.

Get out of the house

Mosely and Butler use the ship metaphor - a ship is safe in harbour but that’s not what ships are for. This is to remind you not to withdraw from society or life. Test the waters, nudge your boundaries and have graded exposure to the world out there.

Crutches are temporary

A brace or splint is the first step to mobilisation. Orthotics give you support and they rest the injured area but you don’t need them for a long time. Early activity and decreased reliance is best for healing.

Knowledge is analgesic