brain vandalism

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By Nick Hannah, PT

I need to begin this blog by emphasizing a very important fact about your body: YOUR JOINTS ARE INHERENTLY STRONG AND STABLE! In the absence of rare circumstances like severe traumas (i.e. joint dislocations) and certain genetic disorders that can physically make your joints ‘loosey-goosey,’ the joints making up your body simply won’t go out of place from day-to-day activities.

However, there are times you could swear they really WERE out of place. Joints and body parts can feel shifted, “off,” “out-of-sorts,” wonky—sometimes as if they were no longer a part of you. These kinds of perceptions are NORMAL and many feel this way. Weird right? So how can it be that your joints FEEL out of place when in reality they’re rock solid? Let’s find out. Nick Hannah 2

Within your brain different cell groups build a DETAILED map of your body—a helpful analogy is to think of this body map in the brain like a detailed painting (every nook, cranny and unique aspect of your body is represented and accounted for). This means that certain brain areas control the movements and feelings of certain body parts. It’s more complicated than this but that’s the gist of it.Nick Hannah 3

When we have pain in a certain body area (i.e. a hip), our body painting changes—that once crisp, clear image of the hip in the brain gets smudged. The actual brain tissue changes: we call this neuroplasticity. If the pain persists long enough, the brain’s representation of the hip gets even more distorted—the smudging grows and spreads to surrounding body parts of your painting (your once beautiful work of art is under ruin).Nick Hannah 4

With time, this brain ‘vandalism’ alters how you perceive and control movement of the hip & surrounding body parts. THIS is why you feel weird, out of place, and ‘off.’ It also accounts for why pain spreads, and it can happen to any body part.Nick Hannah 5

Side note: these changes aren’t unique to pain. Ask any seasonal golfer what their VERY first swing feels like after many ‘golf-less’ months in the winter—it feels weird! More smudging at work here.

So how do you improve your ‘brain vandalism’?

  • First, find yourself a good physiotherapist (or another health professional—I’m biased of course). Education is paramount here: you must understand that the strategies adopted early on and meant to protect you—like fear avoidance, limiting painful movement, rest etc.—are now creating maladaptive changes in the brain and actually making things worse.
  • Second, slowly but surely re-expose the painful body part to the normal movements and activities it once performed. This is called graded exposure—and the starting point for everyone will be different. In this way you start to re-trace what was smudged, and begin the process of re-painting the body part as represented in the brain.

Stop thinking you’re out of place. You might FEEL like it, but now you know why.

As always. Don’t sit still. Make moves.

Nick HannahBlog post written by Nick Hannah, PT.  Nick is the winner of the Blog Post Competition I challenged my Instagram followers with this July.  You can find Nick on Instagram @hannahmoves.