In the Journal of Neuroscience, November, 2004, researchers at Northwestern University, concluded that sufferers of chronic back pain had brains that aged
20 times that of normal healthy folks.
They went further and reported that the brains of those with chronic back pain
had as much as 11% brain shrinkage. It is gray matter that is lost, which is responsible for information processing (I.Q), and memory.
The leading researcher, A. Vania Apkanian, said the average healthy person loses
0.5% of gray matter annually, but having sciatica, chronic back pain, produces
10 to 20 years of normal aging. The longer one suffers from chronic back pain (years), larger the brain loss. Yes, really.
The reason for brain shrinkage appears to be the almost permanent state of a
negative mood and attitude, and the stress associated with it. Apkanian believes
brain shrinkage (loss of gray matter), is a result of nerve cells in a constant state
of activity – they are overworked to the extreme.
He concludes, that the longer the back pain persists, the greater its irreversibility
because the brain structures and functions – change permanently.
What is New?
In 2006, Dr. Sean Mackey, Stanford University, reported a different approach
in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Dealing with chronic back pain, his research indicates that patients looking at their own live brain scans can learn to control pain activation.
There are two brain systems involved in pain – pain perception and pain modulation.
Wait – there is no single pain center, but 5-10 areas that transmit pain feedback.
Here is the killer conclusion of Dr. Mackey, top-gun at Stanford Medical School:
Pain modulation (change, alteration), is triggered by BELIEF. A placebo (sugar pill
or an injection of plain water), can shut down the pain, while a nocibo (belief in harm), will augment the pain, when your brain is convinced you are being hurt.
The brain releases its endogenous (originating from within), endorphins (pleasure hormones), an opiate-like substance.
The reason a placebo works is the brain releases a chemical that attaches to our Mu Opioid Receptors. Get this – fake opiates cause the brain to produce its own real
ones in response. It is the bandwagon effect.
Does Believing in Change Cause Change in Reality?
The answer is yes, with practice, as the mind unites with the body.
It appears to be a brain thing called the power of suggestion. The same one used
in hypnosis and auto-suggestion, where you convince yourself.
A physician telling a group of patients in an experiment, that the pain they were
feeling would positively be relieved by their (placebo) medication, resulted in 99%
effectiveness. We believe in the authority and his/her expertise. It sounds weird, but
our belief – changes our state-of-mind, which in turn alters our body receptors.
Hold it! Thinking about pain produces physical changes in our – pain, no-pain – perception. It is visible on the fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imagery),
and is not a schizophrenic episode.
They have zeroed -in on the area that produces human awareness of our mind-numbing pain – it is called – rostral Anterior Cingulate Cotex (rACC). We can
see it in action, in living color, on the fMRI, and see it modulated by our Prefrontal
Cortex, the brain area that makes decisions.
The scientists do not claim they know why cognitive effort can reduce the activation of the rACC, it just does. Thinking too deeply about the why, delivers us to the
realm of Huh? We are rational creatures – motivated by emotion, let us not go any
You have heard that our genes make us hard-wired, we come to life preprogrammed to a substantial degree.
Another reality is that our brain is Soft-Wired, (plastic), so that we can learn.
When we learn it is followed by structural and functional changes in our brain.
Practice, according to the experts, can reduce pain an average of 64%, no mean trick.
One more once – what you believe and expect, creates your reality. It does not alter
the world, only your world. Another thing – we do not know a whit about the source
of consciousness. It is not neurons firing, but depends on our neurons that are wired
together, to fire together.
It is intuitive that having a positive attitude is better than holding a belief that you
will fail. We are at the next threshold of reason – what you actively believe, mentally
visualize and expect – come to pass in your brain, and perhaps in your motivations
Professor William James, 1890, at Harvard, created the Law of As-If. Whatever your mind consistently thinks and feels drives your brain to discover and bring to pass. If you Act, Think, Feel and Believe AS-IF you have already obtain the goal
you are chasing – it is a direction to both hemispheres of your brain – to attract it.
The latest research states that folks with chronic back pain have annual brain shrinkage of an extra 1.3%. That is far too much. We have over 100 billion brain cells, so it is not an immediate ticket to Alzheimers, but it does you no good.
Here is the core of it – meditation, hypnosis, distractions, mental visualizations, and
placebos – all offer a method to train the brain to obey our prefrontal cortex – our active consciousness. It works for me personally, to reduce pain, and enhance healing.
It is your assignment to check it out. The Indian charkas are real, seven subtle areas of energy that can be manipulated by acupressure and acupuncture to help you heal
faster, and reduce pain. My personal favorite is daily chanting – Uh-(as in Accountant, OO (as in Book), and Mng as in Mee-ing – (Uh-OO-Mng) for 20 minutes twice a day. Google Mudras (hand gestures), too
Now I know that you are far too busy to find a total of forty minutes daily to maintain your health, reduce if not eliminate pain, and actively live to age 90.
H. Bernard Wechsler