If you have chronic pain, the answer is probably yes.
As acute pain becomes chronic, it’s often less about structural damage and more about an over-sensitized nervous system maintained by maladaptive neuroplastic changes over time – putting your nervous system in a state of high reactivity.
Central sensitization is associated with the development, maintenance, and amplification of chronic pain. It changes how the brain processes pain – misfiring nerve signals and continuing to tell the body it hurts.
The official definition of central sensitization by the International Association for the Study of Pain is, “Increased responsiveness of nociceptive neurons in the central nervous system to their normal or subthreshold afferent input.”
In other words, you become more sensitive to pain and other sensory stimuli – causing more pain more often.
You may feel it when only lightly touched or bumped. You may feel it in different areas of the body other than the spot of the original injury. You may also have different types of feelings like achiness, stabbing, tingling, or burning, for example.
Features of central sensitization have been identified in nearly all chronic pain conditions, no matter the underlying cause.
Some of the conditions it has been tied to include fibromyalgia, whiplash, headaches, shoulder pain, osteoarthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, non-cardiac chest pain, irritable bowel syndrome, TMJ, neuropathic pain, complex regional pain syndrome, spinal back pain, pelvic pain, inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, and post-cancer pain.
The good news is we can change our nervous system. Central sensitization can be reversed by doing things that promote positive neuroplasticity like changing how we think about pain, react to pain, and manage pain.
The best treatment is a biopsychosocial approach, including pain education, physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, pain acceptance, sleep management, and pharmaceutical management. I got a heavy dose of all these at the Mayo Clinic Pain Rehabilitation Center.
Tom Bowen is a chronic pain patient who turned into an advocate, educator, and collaborator.
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