Pain is the alarm system in the body. So called acute pain is essential to our survival. We need to know that we have injured ourselves so that we can be properly warned and instantly make moves to protect ourselves. Signals from the injured area travel through our nervous system to our brain and trigger the alarms to go off. This happens instantaneously but it's not as simple as it sounds.
When signals from all the senses and from all parts of the body travel toward the brain they are influenced along the way at various levels of the nervous system before being processed and interpreted. For instance, we will feel a twist of our ankle in different ways under different circumstances because the "pain" signal travels to parts of the brain where previous experiences, memory, and knowledge about our bodies are stored. Think of it this way: If you trip on a curb and sprain your ankle will you feel pain? Yes. But if you sprain your ankle and you have a big bus coming at you will you feel pain? Probably not. Not until you've moved out of the way of the bus and are safe again.
Recollections of all our senses including sights, sounds, touch, smells, and tastes are stored indefinitely in many locations in our nervous system and ultimately all of our ongoing experiences are therefore processed and interpreted by a vibrant and constantly changing network of connected combinations called "neurotags" that together form the overall concept known as the "neuromatrix". The neuromatrix can be conceptualized by functional MRI images. We can see all the different parts of the brain that light up in different colors and locations when there are signals and triggers being set off both from inside the body and from the outside environment. The nervous system is constantly checking in with the neuromatrix to decide how to react in any given situation, almost always to protect us.
So, this neuromatrix of ours allows us to give variable meanings to pain and suffering - commonly determined by the accumulation of our past experiences (those that we remember and those that we do not remember) as well as our acquired beliefs, thoughts we focus on throughout the day, our emotional state, and our overall understanding and perception of the situation. Think again of spraining your ankle when you have a big bus coming toward you. You won't feel the pain of your ankle until you are out of the way of the bus. This is the neuromatrix at work. It perceives what is going on around us and determines what is more "dangerous" in the present moment.
It is important to keep in mind that our brain's perception is not always accurate and not always in our control. How do these concepts help us understand chronic pain in the context of pelvic pain? To be continued...
Stephanie Yeager: Passionate about spreading the word of hope and healing for those like her, influencing a paradigm shift in the medical community toward greater understanding of chronic pelvic pain disorders, and prevention initiatives that may protect young women before onset can occur.