The idea behind using the brain’s ongoing neuroplasticity is that we can influence the connections between neurones by doing and thinking differently. Great idea, and definitely one we can use. There have been many discussions about how much we can influence plasticity – or not (this post refers to education and neuroplasticity, this to an old discussion about Norman Doidge’s book – and some of the points that have been omitted). Whatever the real situation, there’s no doubt that our brains do continue developing, forming and reforming connections between synapses and generally responding to our world and the interactions we have with our world via our bodies.
Pain researchers have been particularly enraptured by the idea that the brain can develop new connections, driven it seems by a greater understanding that our experience of pain is an integration of information from the body, modulated at every step of the way by both ascending and descending influences, right until that information is processed by various parts of our brain and, in combination with past experience, expectations, beliefs, predictions for the future, current goals and priorities and in our sociocultural context, produces what we know as pain. Long, long sentence – but you know what I mean!
So, the reasoning seems to go, if pain is an output of our nociceptive system and produced via all these interactions, then neuroplasticity should mean painful experiences can be reversed using the same principles. And yes! Lo and behold! In some cases this happens – vis all the research produced by Moseley and crew in Adelaide, and promoted by the NOI group, and others.
While Lorimer’s group has produced probably the most consistent body of work in relation to therapy based on neuroplasticity, with NOI promoting many of these approaches, it’s not the only group to do so. Today I’m taking a look at Michael Moskowitz and Marla Golden’ book Neuroplastic Transformation: Your brain on pain, and the accompanying website.
I’ve been asked to take a look at this by a follower, and it’s been an interesting and fun project to work on.
The book is a spiral bound, colour printed A4 sized book with large print (yay!) and gorgeous illustrations of brain sections and neurones and other beautiful diagrams relevant to understanding the brain. The principles underpinning the book are that if we can understand a bit more about the brain, we can harness the functions so we can train our brain to be a little more settled and out of pain. The three neuroplastic rules are: What is fired is wired; What you don’t use you lose; When you make them you break them; when you break them you make them. The premise is that it’s possible to reverse the changes that occur when a person is experiencing persistent pain – “treathment that uses the basic principles of neuroplasticity to change the brain pathways back to normal function and anatomy”. The authors discuss using thoughts, images, sensations, memories, soothing emotions, movements and beliefs to modify the experience.
The process of treatment involves four phases: Rescue, Adjustment, Functionality and Transformation, or RAFT. Rescue involves generating hope that pain can be changed by providing information about neuroplasticity, and developing a partnership between clinician and person living with pain. Adjustment involves “stabilising” the pain disorder – using a multi-modal approach including medications, injections, and psychosocial treatments to increase activities while reducing pain – emphasising that adjusting to the pain disorder is not the end goal. Functionality involves the person, every time he or she experiences pain, challenging the experience with non-painful stimuli. In other words, every time the person becomes aware of his or her pain, they need to use thoughts, beliefs, images, sensations, movements and emotions to “reverse the neuroplastic processes that cause persistent pain”. Finally, Transformation involves using the experience of overcoming pain to establish new ways to give pleasure.
What I like about this approach is that it is explained and illustrated very well, using up-to-date information and illustrations. It strongly supports self-management or the person being as much part of the treatment as any clinician. That’s good – because, as any of us who have ever tried to change a habit know very well, change is hard! And that’s probably one of the three main concerns I have about employing this approach as a core pain treatment.
- Reversing or altering cortical pathways is truly difficult – and it’s perhaps not possible to completely reverse, especially if the problem has been present for a long time. Here’s why: can anyone remember learning to ride a bike? Remember all that falling off, the wobbling, the stopping and starting, the weaving all over the place? How many hours did it take to learn to do that successfully, smoothly and to the point where you were safe to ride in traffic? Now, for some of you, it will have been YEARS since you jumped on a bike. Do you forget how to ride? No. You might wobble a bit, but you don’t actually forget. Similarly, in phobic states, pathways associated with avoiding the feared stimulus remain “wired together” even when new pathways associated with approaching the stimulus are developed. What this means is that it’s possible for a spider phobic to remain somewhat jumpy around a spider even after treatment has reduced the screaming heebie-jeebies. When we think about pain and the myriad associations between the experience, context, interoception (internal body feeling-sense), memories, emotions, language, treatment visits, investigations – there are so many connections that become wired together as a result of experiencing persistent pain that to completely reverse it is an almighty monumental challenge requiring hours or dedicated practice.
- While the principles of a neuroplastic approach are well-known, there are some differences in the approach depicted in this book that I’m not aware of being tested formally in pain research. For example, while it’s nice to have a pleasant smell or memory brought to mind, I’m not aware of studies showing that doing this changes memory for pain (or pain intensity). I may well be wrong about this and I’d love someone even more geeky than me to bring some studies to my attention.
- My third reservation relates to the well-established research showing that persistent pain is not easily changed, and meanwhile, in the pursuit of pain reduction, many people lose out on good things in life. While people are sitting in waiting rooms, spending time with therapists, monitoring and checking on pain intensity, it becomes very difficult to carry on with valued actions. There are many ways to make space to have your pain and live as well. This doesn’t mean you need to give up hope of pain reduction, but it does mean the focus moves from this as a life focus and on to the things that make life of any kind worthwhile. Maybe the two approaches can go hand in hand, but to my mind the very intensive nature of the approach within this book means that attention must be shifted away from valued actions and towards doing the things that this book argues will reverse pain.
Overall I like the approach within this book – I like that it’s person-centred, positive, uses underlying principles and encourages the person to be actively involved in his or her treatment. There’s no way you can be a passive recipient with this approach! I would love to see some more in-depth study of the effects of this treatment, even in a series of single-subject experiments. I think it could be very helpful, but I’m a little concerned at the focus on pain reduction as the primary goal, and the time and energy this approach demands.