My dogs can’t speak but they know the meaning of many words. Some words mean ‘pleasure is coming’, words like dinner, breakfast, sausage, woods, walks, dog shop, training, swimming. They don’t like it when I say, naughty or bad dog or “I’ve got to work now”. When I took the photo of Etoile earlier this year she was waiting for me to take them out, quite bored, but patient, at least that’s what I imagine, but I have no idea what’s going on inside her head.
Words have even more amazing effect on humans, we communicate using thousands of words. So, scientists have a lot more interest in studying the impact of words on the human brain than on my dog’s brain. One way to study effect of words on the brain of people with chronic pain is by MRI scanning.
Studies using MRI scanning have revealed several important results. Very importantly, that in some people there is an increase of activity during the processing of pain-related words in several regions of the brain including parts of brain areas that also become activated when exposed to painful stimuli. So, the area that becomes active in response to let’s say a pin prick may become active in response to a pain related word.
Studies compared MRI scans of people with Chronic Back Pain (pain which has been there a long time) to those of people termed a healthy control (people without pain problems).
People with chronic pain show more activation to pain-related words in brain structures commonly activated while processing painful events and while processing words with strong associations to pain. Thus, processing of verbal pain-related information is emphasized and particularly meaningful for chronic pain sufferers.
The results indicate a significant and systematic interplay between word and pain processing that is enhanced during chronic pain states.
If you are a person who experiences chronic pain, you might have experienced this same effect if you talked to someone about their pain. Maybe a friend or relative is having a bad time with pain. As you chat about how they are feeling, as you hear them say words you strongly associate with pain, you begin to use pain associated words yourself you start to feel pain & discomfort.
Imagine how it would be if everyone around someone with chronic pain was talking about pain and discomfort and aches and pain. Then the doctor walked in and asked how they were feeling, asked them to talk about their pain. Probably they are going to report they feel much more pain
These science research projects provide us with good evidence to support that if you are someone with ongoing persistent pain, then sitting having conversations filled with pain related words is not a good idea. Indeed, it’s a very bad idea because science shows you could start to feel pain just due to the words
Plus, let’s put this into the context of an average pain clinic. First, think about the name of the clinic. It’s the PAIN clinic, so everyone who goes has PAIN and what you are there to learn about is PAIN. There will be leaflets about PAIN and posters about PAIN and people talking about PAIN management. If you forgot about PAIN before you went you will be reminded about it as soon as you arrive.
Many years ago, the organisation now known as Back Care was called the Back Pain Association, until they realized that they were running a charity simply for back pain, not prevention or support or health. So, they changed it.
Before we close can I suggest that just for fun, you try playing this game
Next time you chat to a friend:
- Watch out for words that you associate with pain
- Listen in to your conversations
- If you start to find yourself using an ache or pain word then find another word to use
- Better still, change the subject, take your mind off your painful words and move it onto another topic.
Let me know how you get along