Sunday, 21 February 2010

Reversing Chronic Pain

A review I wrote for the book‘Reversing Chronic Pain: A 10-Point All-Natural Plan for Lasting Relief’, by Maggie Phillips. It has been printed in the latest issue of Pain Concern's 'Pain Matters' magazine, and I thought I'd share it here.

The book is published by North Atlantic Books, and available from, or from

I’ve just read this book during a big pain flare-up, my first for a couple of years. I felt instinctively that I was going to like it, and it didn’t disappoint. This is a really comprehensive, structured presentation of contrasting and varied techniques for managing pain, and it gave me comfort, encouragement and hope.

It starts with the best and clearest explanation of the groundbreaking ‘gate’ theory of pain that I’ve ever come across. It was a relief, in my flared-up state, simply to feel that I understood more about what was happening to my nervous system, and why exactly pain is such a distressingly emotional experience. The gate theory suggests that there are points (‘gates’) along the spinal cord that let messages from the peripheral nerves through to the brain, where they are registered as pain. The messages arrive at three separate areas of the brain: the sensory cortex, which processes physical sensations, the limbic or emotional centre, and the ‘thinking’ frontal cortex. Hence the way that our experience of pain is influenced by our emotions and patterns of thinking.

The comforting aspect of this is that pain messages can be blocked, either through techniques that ‘close’ the gates to stop messages getting through, or by dealing with the messages that have already reached the brain. An example of the latter is any technique that boosts levels of pain-relieving endorphins, such as humour, exercise, or listening to music. An example of the former is massage or any pleasurable or neutral physical sensations; these travel along the nervous system up to seven times faster than pain messages, and thereby block some or all of the pain from reaching the brain – in effect, ‘closing the pain gates’.

Understanding this theory, for me, not only gave me encouragement and hope that I could reduce my pain through ‘natural’ means; it also made me aware that I have some control over my pain. Chronic pain, especially during flare-ups can be such an overwhelming experience, that we can feel as if we have no control over our bodies and our lives. Understanding brings the potential for more choices in how we respond to the pain. I’m very grateful to Maggie Phillips for explaining this so clearly, and for helping me to identify my own most effective ‘pain blockers’, which I am now starting to utilise much more regularly.

The theory of pain is just the start, however; the book explains far more than that. The coping techniques presented include breathing, visualisation, mindfulness meditation, exercise, ‘energy therapies’ and addressing past traumas and the emotional context of pain. It includes a great number of varied exercises and skills to practise; so many, that ideally I’d like to spend a week on each chapter, adopting the book as a kind of ten week course. I think I’ll do that before long, but Phillips does emphasise that the reader can choose to adopt the exercises they most relate to or find helpful, leaving the others to take on if and when they feel ready. My own favourites include a beautiful ‘lovingkindness’ mantra; finding a ‘safe place’ within my body; and some of the visualisations, some of which are very comforting, while others sounded quite bizarre until I actually tried them. The ‘brain’s pain relief centre’ one is even entertaining, like a mini-action movie in the body, where you can be director and actor at the same time!

There were parts of the book I felt resistant to or didn’t understand well. The spiritual element in the mindfulness chapter seemed unaware that many chronic pain sufferers might be atheists, but on the other hand it certainly wasn’t organised-religious either. And I could not relate to the chapter on energy therapies; for personal reasons, I have a strong emotional resistance to anything that includes phrases like ‘energy flow’. The chapters that most resonate with me are two near the end, which deal with the role of trauma and loss in chronic pain. As a recovering anxiety sufferer as well as someone with neuropathic pain, I’ve increasingly wondered if the two conditions are related, and lately feel as if a build-up of grief and tension from unresolved losses and traumas in my life has contributed to the physical and emotional difficulties I’ve had over the past few years. So far my thoughts are just beginning to touch on the issue, but with the help of Maggie Phillips’s book and the exercises and insights it contains, I think I’ll be exploring in far more depth and hopefully will gain a deeper understanding and acceptance of my pain. Will this lead to a reduction in pain and a more active and fulfilled life? I don’t know, but it seems there’s nothing to lose by trying.

In short, this is an admirable and very helpful book, at times a little too ‘Californian’ for my taste, but one which I know I’ll return to again and again to help me manage and understand my pain. I think most chronic pain sufferers will find at least some of the exercises beneficial, and for many it will be a breath of fresh air that brings the hope, comfort and support that those of us with pain so often, and so dearly, need.

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