You may feel like the pain you experience is all in your head, and that’s technically true. Your brain is responsible for your pain – where you experience it, how long it lasts and how severe it is. Is it possible to rewire your brain to help with pain?

Read on to find out more about what neuroplasticity is, how it works and six steps that may help you rewire your brain to help with pain.

What is neuroplasticity?

Your brain is made up of a lot of things, including cells called neurons. Neurons are the basic cells that make up your nerves and are considered information messengers. They use signals to transmit information between different areas of the brain, and between the brain and the nerves in the rest of your body. The second part of the word, plasticity, refers to your brain’s ability to change.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of your brain and nerve cells to reorganize and adapt due to different types of experiences – both good and bad. These experiences can change how your brain interprets things and the way your brain and nerve cells communicate with each other.

How does neuroplasticity work?

Your brain can change and adapt over time in several ways, including:

  • When new synapses are created – A synapse is space between two neurons, and they connect neurons in your brain to nerves in the rest of your body. Synapses can form, strengthen or weaken for many reasons but play a big role in the learning and memory function of your brain.
  • Neurogenesis – This is the process where new neurons are formed in the brain. It’s an important process in a developing embryo, and it continues to occur in certain parts of the brain throughout your life. Neurogenesis can occur when you sleep, exercise, learn new skills, change your diet and many other ways.
  • Axonal sprouting – Axons are threads connected to neurons. Axonal sprouting is the early growth of axons, which help form neurons and help injured neurons recover. Axonal sprouting can happen after an injury or a stroke.

Two types of neuroplasticity

Structural plasticity

Your brain can change its physical structure due to learning new things, having new experiences and making new memories, among others. Your brain changes the most during your early years as you mature, and it continues changing as you age.

Functional plasticity

This is your brain’s ability to move functions to different parts of the brain when your brain is damaged. For example, if you have a head injury resulting in cognitive impairment that affects your speech, the unaffected parts of your brain can adapt and take over to perform that function.

Functional plasticity can also reassign part of your brain that would usually process a certain sense, such as sight, to process a different sense. An example of this would be reassigning it to touch, allowing people who have lost their sight to read Braille.

6 ways to manage pain with neuroplasticity

There are several types of pain, including acute and chronic. Acute pain is short-term pain caused by something specific, like an injury or a surgery, and usually goes away on its own. Chronic pain may be caused by an injury or illness, but it can occur without having a specific cause. Chronic pain can be continuous such as arthritis, or it can be intermittent like frequent migraines.

For less severe pain like a headache, over-the-counter pain relievers generally resolve the pain. But for more chronic and severe pain, doctors may prescribe stronger pain relievers. The top two reasons people see a doctor for this type of pain in the United States are joint and back problems. In the past, doctors more commonly prescribed opioids above other methods of pain management. But doctors are prescribing them less to help reduce the misuse of opioids and because of research that shows opioids can make pain worse.

Both prescription drugs and over-the-counter pain medication can be useful for a short time but can be harmful and dangerous to your body if used long term. This is where neuroplasticity and taking steps to rewire your brain to deal with pain can help.

Take charge of your physical and mental health

Your body’s natural response to pain is to limit movement, so you may not think increasing your physical activity will ease your pain. But moderate physical activity may help more than you think. Research shows that movement and activity may help to improve the severity of your pain, as well as improve your physical function.

It's recommended that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week, and it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Breaking a workout into smaller increments of 30 minutes is still effective. It also doesn’t have to happen in a gym. There are a lot of different exercises, from cardio to strength training, that are simple to start and continue to do to improve your physical and mental health.

Pain can contribute to and worsen depression, anxiety, sleeplessness and more, causing your mental and cognitive health to take a hit. Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of cognitive decline as you age, improve your memory and improve cognitive flexibility – your brain’s ability to think about multiple things simultaneously. Exercise reduces depression and anxiety, improving not only your brain health but also your quality of life. It can also help prevent neuron loss in the part of the brain that’s involved in memory.

Talking to a mental health professional to work through the stress in your life that contributes to your pain could be a useful step. They can help you think differently about your pain, and work through anxiety and depression. Learning to mentally cope with your pain can allow you to live a fuller life.

Change your habits

Habits are actions and routines that are automatic and often done unconsciously. When you satisfy a habit, good or bad, your brain releases dopamine, which is a hormone that makes you feel good. Without realizing it, you may be engaging in habits that make your pain worse, including:

  • Smoking – Smoking damages your arteries and can lead to chronic back problems.
  • Living a sedentary lifestyle for long periods of time or lacking physical activity in your daily life can lead to weight gain and underdeveloped muscles, which can cause a strain on your body.
  • Stress – This can be a big contributing factor to forming habits that increase pain. It can also increase your body’s adrenaline, which can raise your blood pressure, heart rate and production of cortisol, a stress hormone, leading to increased risk of heart problems.

Habits can be difficult to stop or change, but it’s not impossible. Learning your triggers, or what causes you to repeat your habit, is helpful so you can start to make changes and train your brain to break the habit.

Focus on positive emotions

Pain is almost always associated with negativity, and negative emotions can change your brain – decreasing your body’s threshold for pain. If you experience pain, it can be difficult to lead your everyday life. And it may be difficult to focus on and experience positive emotions and thoughts.

Something that can help is practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is awareness and being fully present in the moment without judgment, and it can help change your relationship with pain. Focusing on your mind and body may help you manage stress and focus on positive emotions, like joy and happiness. Some examples of mindfulness include guided meditation, journaling, breathing exercises or yoga.

Negative thoughts are completely normal when it comes to dealing with pain. If you don’t feel you’re cared for or that you have people who support you, it’s easy to let the negative overwhelm the positive. It’s important to have a circle of family and friends that can offer you positive social support that can help you manage your pain and lower your risk of depression and anxiety.

Set attainable goals to give you purpose

When you experience pain, you may limit your daily activities, work and social life. So, it's important to set SMART goals. SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, reasonable and timely – and SMART goals are useful for tracking progress over time.

For example, maybe a goal of yours is incorporating more physical activity into your life. You may make a goal to go for a 20-minute walk, three times a week. That covers specific and measurable. Evaluate your current health status and limitations. Maybe you feel you’re not quite ready for 20 minutes, so you adjust your goal – 15 minutes may be more attainable and reasonable for you. Timely in this case means the amount of time you may take to achieve your goals.

Be patient with yourself. Change doesn’t happen overnight and you may have setbacks, but don’t forget to track your progress as well as your pain.

Create a clean and safe environment

Environmental factors play a big part in pain management. Control what you can when it comes to lifestyle risks. Clean, uncluttered and organized home spaces are important to minimize the risk of illness and injury that may worsen existing pain. Try to keep your home smoke free and establish a safe daily routine.

It's also helpful to recognize that safety outside the home is important, too. Keep your office clean, organized and uncluttered, drive safely and within the speed limit, and avoid extreme workouts and sports that may put you at risk.

Benefits of neuroplasticity

With neuroplasticity, there are many benefits to your overall health and well-being. It can help you learn new things, be more thoughtful with your daily activities, recover more quickly from traumatic brain injuries, and increase memory and brain volume.

When it comes to pain, there’s no one procedure or medication that’s a cure-all. HealthPartners provides a holistic approach that’s been proven to reduce and control pain. Each of our four pain clinics offers a variety of services to address the multiple causes of pain. Services include:

  • Medical care to treat underlying physical conditions that cause pain
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Behavioral health support
  • Relaxation training
  • Medication management

Our first pain clinic opened in 2015 to serve patients who had been taking opioids but still had pain. More than 1,100 of the patients we’ve seen since then report that their pain levels are lower by 50%, and they’ve been able to stop taking opioids.

If you’re in pain and you need help managing it, reach out to your primary care doctor for a referral to visit one of our four pain management locations: