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Can you rewire your brain to reduce chronic pain? Yes, reported neuroscientists at the University of South Australia. They studied a kind of therapy called “graded motor imagery” or GMI.
Chronic pain can result from your brain’s failing to turn off pain signals that occur when you break a bone or experience other injuries, even long after the injury has healed. GMI uses visual images both to help you retrain your brain and also to turn off these pain signals, thereby reducing pain.
Imagine you’ve fractured your wrist and been treated, yet you’re still experiencing chronic pain. In one study, people with this problem were asked to complete three tasks. In the first, they had to identify as quickly as possible whether pictures they were viewing were of a right or left hand. In the next task, they were shown pictures of a hand in different positions, and had to imagine moving their own injured hand into those positions. In the third task, they were asked to use a “mirror box,” with their affected hand placed behind the mirror, out of sight, and their unaffected hand placed in front of the mirror. They were instructed to move their uninjured wrist into different positions while watching it in the mirror. As they moved their uninjured wrist, their eyes were seeing the mirror image – what looked like their injured wrist – doing the movements with no pain and little effort. The result: They tricked their brains into associating movement of the injured wrist with good feelings rather than pain. Participants were told to repeat the exercises for a few minutes every hour of the day. At the end of six weeks, these participants noticed a drop in pain and swelling, and about half of people who participated no longer had chronic pain.
“GMI changes the brain’s neurosignature,” says Robert Johnson, a GMI instructor and physical therapist in Chicago who specializes in chronic pain management. “If your brain has been running on one circuit for a long time – a circuit that tells you that it hurts when you move in certain ways – by doing these or other GMI exercises over and over you break that circuit and gradually begin to replace that message with one that says, ‘I’m okay. I can move without pain.’ The more you practice those exercises, the easier it becomes for your brain to run on that new circuit. I work with people who have fibromyalgia and complex regional pain syndrome who have said that even though they’re still taking medication and seeing their physicians, the GMI program has made a significant impact on dampening down their fears and allowing them to feel less threatened about movement.”
Currently, GMI is used more widely in Australia and Europe than in the United States, but, as courses become available and more studies reveal the potential benefits of this type of pain therapy, doctors and physical therapists in the U.S. are beginning to learn more about GMI. Stay tuned.