Neural Sensitization: Learning to Hurt (and how to unlearn)

You’ve probably noticed that if you watch a scary or exciting movie, you’re a little amped up for the next few hours, ready for bad guys to jump out of the shadows.  If you find a spider on your towel in the morning, every piece of fluff will startle you for the rest of the day.  If you’re tense about something, little sounds that you might not even notice normally, like someone humming in the background, can become excruciatingly aggravating.  These are all examples of how our nervous system adapts to our experiences, and filters new experiences based on the past.  We may be aware of this phenomenon on the large scale, but it also happens on the small scale — an individual nerve can become primed to experience pain in much the same way that we become primed to laugh at a comedy show. This process is one important mechanism in the experience of chronic pain.

There are many ways that the chemical and physical structure of our nerves changes in response to stimulation.  Generally, these are the mechanisms of learning.  When you’ve done something many times, your reaction time is quicker because your nervous system is ready to initiate a familiar chain of events.  Similarly, you may find that you immediately recognize familiar, important sounds such as your child’s cry even if the sound is very faint.  “Sensitization” is the general process in which a repeated stimulus creates an amplified response over time.  In our bodies, a nerve that is repeatedly registering pain can become amplified so that it takes less and less of a trigger to create a greater and greater experience of pain.  The nerve can even adapt so that any stimulus, even a light touch, will activate a pain signal.  Sensitization can also occur at the level of the central nervous system, so that larger areas of the nervous system or even the whole body can become hyper-sensitive to stimulus, as well as hyper-reactive.  If you’ve become sensitized to pain, this means that you’ll experience more pain, and that you’re body’s tendency to tense up in reaction to pain will also be increased — potentially leading to even more discomfort and dysfunction.

While being hyper-alert might be useful if you really were in the zombie apocalypse, it’s not so much so on the drive home from the movie theater.  Similarly, our body’s ability to learn from experience is amazing and essential, but knowing how the process works can help us be more attentive to what we may be teaching ourselves.  Breaking a cycle of chronic pain can be very difficult, and no, it isn’t all in your head.  Many doctors are using and studying drugs and nerve blocks that can halt sensitization.  But as a yoga teacher and bodyworker, I am always seeking to know what we can do consciously to support ourselves, and how much awareness we might gain, even on a cellular level.  Our thoughts and behaviors are products of our nervous system on a macro level; by observing these we can gain more insight into how that system operates.  Being attentive to our automatic reactions can allow us to reinforce neural pathways that are calming and give more accurate readings.  Here are a couple of examples:

  • Calming your nervous system can relieve pain.
    This works on many levels.  On the level of your more conscious mind, you may be overthinking.  For example, if you have had serious back pain in the past, any twinge or different sensation might make you nervous that you’ll have to go through that pain again.  You may find yourself behaving as if you were in pain, even if you actually aren’t.  And you may find that it is difficult for you to consciously know what you are feeling — does it hurt or not?  While there’s definitely a place for appropriate caution, make sure you’re not simply getting caught up in fear.  On the micro level, both stress and repeated irritation can cause neural sensitization.  If you are able to soothe yourself and your nervous system through slowing your breath, bringing your body into a supported position, and relaxing muscle tension in your jaw, shoulders and hands, you may find that the experience of pain actually diminishes.  Likewise, aggravated nerves will register pain with any and every movement.  Staying in a pain-free range for a while can calm your nerves so that the pain they register is more appropriate to the true injury.


  • Your nervous system is adapting itself to do whatever it is doing better.  So notice what it’s doing, and do more of what you want more of.  If you are running on continuous stress, whether that’s high pressure, not enough sleep, or worry, then stress may start to feel normal.  At the chemical and cellular level, though, it’s still stress, and your body needs de-stress time, too.  Interventions like restorative yoga, meditation, or true down-time can reset your nervous system so that it is able to ramp down as well as up.  Living with ongoing pain or inflammation is the same.  Even if you consciously are willing to ignore the pain, your body is still registering it and reacting.  It becomes more and more habitual every time.  Getting out of pain, if you can, will keep your neurological and physical options open for the future.  And if you’re not able to totally stop the pain, try to keep your “sensory diet” balanced by including positive and pleasurable sensations, and doing your best to take note of these even alongside painful ones.


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