MIND OVER MATTER: Can you control how much pain you feel?

Growing up I used to get the occasional migraine maybe once or twice a month and I hated taking medication to try to relieve the pain. Knowing this, my mom would have me lay in bed, tell me to believe that I do not feel any pain, focus on my breathing, and in my head repeat mind over matter and within 10-15 minutes of deep breaths and meditation my migraine would be gone. No more pain, all because I believed I didn't feel any pain. A couple of days ago I went to my first session of Butts and Guts at White building. Butts and guts is an intense 45 minute workout that focuses on toning the glutes, thighs, and lower abdomen and as expected the next morning I was sore. I could barely sit on the toilet. I then remembered that when I get a migraine I usually meditate and tell myself I don't feel any pain and that works like a charm so I thought why not do the same but this time focus on the pain on my thighs, quads, and glutes. Like I thought it would, believing I was in no pain and meditating on that thought for a few minutes helped relieve but not completely rid the pain I was feeling. So I guess my question is...is pain a construct of the mind? 


In order to know if pain is truly a construct of the mind one must be able to define what it actually is. So, according to the International Association for the Study of Pain, pain is "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage"(1). Therefore pain is a perception similar to hearing and sight determined by the cerebral cortex. The skin has several types of specialized peripheral nerve cells, called nociceptors, which sense stimuli and send their messages to the central nervous system (2).   French philosopher RenĂ© Descartes described nociceptors as nerves that send a clear message to the brain about the problem. The intensity of the message is directly proportionate to the severity of the injury. The brain interprets that message at face value, if the message says, there's some bad damage here, we believe it. This was the old way of thinking and recent discoveries and research on pain have revealed that this model, that any message sent to the brain by a certain kind of nerve will always cause pain and that these are "pain messages," is according to neuroscientist, Patrick Wall, worse than an oversimplification.(3) Having defined what pain is it is vital to understand that pain is not just a message from injured tissues but rather a complex experience that is thoroughly tuned by your brain. There is no pain without the brain. The way pain really works is the nociceptors don't detect pain but rather detect some kind of stimulus in the tissue then the brain decides what to make of it, and what to do about it.


Since the brain decides what to do about the stimulus in the tissue does this mean we can think the brain-built pain away? According to Dr. Moseley, who has a Ted Talk about pain (insert link), he states "Pain really is in the mind, but not in the way you think." Sadly, pain neurology can't be manipulated by simply believing that there is no pain.  The brain controls how we experience potentially threatening stimuli, but we don't control our brains. Our brain modifies pain experience based on a number of other things that are completely out of your control, or rather difficult to control. We may not control our brains but we can alter our physiology with deep vigorous breathing, which is what got rid of my migraines. Seeing as pain is a construct of the mind it seems plausible that you can over time train yourself or use coping mechanism to help ease your pain. In a small study done with 20 men and 20 women it was found that the females were able to reduce their pain by smelling roses and almonds. Considering this was a small study these results may have been due to chance but nonetheless for these women seemed to help reduce pain.(4)

Here is a link to an article about the strongest man on earth and he too believes that you can control how much pain you feel. Do you think it is possible for people to control the amount of pain they are in?


3. The relationship of perceived pain to afferent nerve impulses, by Patrick Wall and McMahon SB, pp254-255


Ouch, though I didn't have serious cases of migraines like you did I do remember my mother holding my hand whenever I was going to get a shot or when i scraped my leg while playing and she was disinfecting it. Its interesting because she would tell me the same things, think that it doesn't hurt, and it won't hurt. The definition of pain is also very interesting in that its both physical and mental. I feel that if you mentally can tell yourself that no pain is there, then no pain will be there. To answer your question, yes, i believe that pain is just your body being weak.

How the brain controls pain

It makes complete sense that altering our physiology can manipulate the pain we feel (or don't feel, for that matter), but the idea that we can simply "will away" feeling pain is ridiculous. You can resist succumbing to pain, but it will still be there. If your arm is cut off, it's going to hurt regardless of what you tell yourself. Pain is the body's alert to you that something wrong is happening with your body, there's no way for you to shut that off unless you fix what's wrong (or it fixes itself, I suppose).

This blog was very interesting to me. I have noticed that, compared to many of my friends, I have a rather high tolerance for pain. For example, when I was in third grade I broke my wrist, and hardly felt anything. Putting pressure on my wrist (for the first day, before I knew it was broken) was nothing more than a slight annoyance, feeling similar to pushing on a bad black-and-blue mark. I often wondered how this was possible, and when I began reading this blog I thought, "oh! I have good control of my own pain levels! Good for me!" While I don't think that I was consciously breathing in a certain way to regulate the pain, it got me wondering what causes a difference in pain thresholds amongst different people. This article is what I found, which stated that mind over matter IS actually effective. I'm not discrediting your source, but find it interesting (although not surprising) that there is such contradicting information on the internet.

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