If you have chronic pain, the answer is probably yes.
Central sensitization has been tied to a variety of chronic pain conditions including fibromyalgia, whiplash, shoulder pain, neuropathic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, non-cardiac chest pain, irritable bowel syndrome, temporomandibular disorders, complex regional pain syndrome, low back pain, osteoarthritis, pelvic pain, and headache.
What is it
Central sensitization, also called centralized pain, is a phenomenon of the nervous system associated with the development, maintenance, and amplification of chronic pain.
The official definition 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.”
Chronic pain is an abnormal response and doesn’t improve over time. It can happen long after an injury or illness heals. It can be due to a degenerative disease, like arthritis. It can be neurological. It can also have no known biological cause, as in the case of fibromyalgia and many common low back pain conditions.
Once it becomes chronic, pain loses its warning function and becomes its own disease/condition. It changes how the brain processes pain – misfiring nerve signals and continuing to tell the body it hurts. Just like an alarm that goes on and won’t turn off. An overreaction or amplification, of sorts. It gets stuck on high alert and the body learns the pain.
And it can happen in all chronic pain conditions, no matter the underlying cause. We may feel it when only lightly touched or bumped. The pain can move around to different areas of the body other than the spot of the original injury. It can even change the type of feeling we may have like achiness, stabbing, tingling, or burning, for example.
The good news is that central sensitization can be reversed by changing how we manage pain, think about pain, and react to pain.
Best treatment is a biopsychosocial approach, including pain education, exercise, cognitive behavioral therapy, sleep management, and dietary management. I got a heavy dose of all these at the Mayo Clinic Pain Rehabilitation Center.
One of the most recommended ways to manage pain is to change how much attention you give to it.
Paying attention to pain, amplifies the pain and increases the tendency for negative thinking.
Just like a kid screaming for candy at the store. If you always buy the child candy (in this case, pain) when they scream, they’ll continue to scream each time you take them to the store until they get candy.
Five ways to reduce your focus on chronic pain
Learn more - resources
Look at the photo below. What do you see?
Now change your focus. Do you see something different than before?
Just like this exercise, we can change our thoughts about pain and our reactions to it by changing how we look at it - by changing our focus.
Find more articles about changing how we think about pain.
Catastrophizing in an exaggerated negative response toward actual or anticipated pain.
Catastrophizing jumps to the worst‐case scenario. It quickly becomes gloom and doom, breeding more negativity. You become fearful of the pain. You worry about all the bad things that might happen because of the pain. You’re more likely to choose negative thinking over positive thinking. And you can feel helpless to manage the pain.
Catastrophizing has been linked to higher levels of perceived pain, interference with daily activities, increased healthcare utilization, disability, depression, and changes in social support networks.
This video helps explain catastrophizing and provides helpful tips to stop doing it.
Changing how you think about pain can change how you feel.
Negative thinking increases focus on the pain, reinforces it, and can actually make the pain feel worse. All while zapping needed energy supply.
Get replacement thought examples here
P.S. A BIG thank you to all the members of the Chronic Pain Champions Facebook support group who helped contribute to these examples!
Chronic Pain Champions is an information resource/blog/support group to help chronic pain patients, their families, and friends, as well as healthcare professionals. Learn more about this site and the author.
Chronic Pain Champions