Here’s a concept I find fascinating: some of us have wet brains and some dry. These terms don’t apply to the whole brain, but to the specific parts that reduce pain. As mentioned in last week’s blog about pain, when we are suffering long term pain, our sensitivity to pain goes up. It takes less to set it all off. I also wrote about how, should we sprain an ankle whilst crossing a road, if a zooming car suddenly appears, our brain will enable us to sprint to the relative safety of the pavement, rather than have us hop to it, since our survival now depends upon our speed. The brain decides what is more important, paying attention to the ankle or avoiding the speedy car. And to enable maximum speed, one of the things it does is send extraordinarily strong painkillers to deaden the ankle pain. These ‘happy chemicals’ have a calming effect on the alarm system.
The book Why do I hurt? by Adriaan Louw describes it so:
a wet brain – a brain that is juicy – full of good, healthy medicine and able to release them to help you when you are in pain. We now know that people with persistent pain have ‘dry brains’ where the healthy medicine has dried up, making them more sensitive to protect.
The grammar is a bit odd; I assume they mean to protect ourselves from more pain. When we are in pain, we do less: its our attempt to not aggravate our pain. As far as the brain is concerned, its prime goal is our survival, so if the brain is worrying about persistent pain and not making it worse, we become more sensitive to pain – which means the brain dries up the production of its pain reducing chemicals. Unfortunately, the less we do, the more we hurt absolutely everywhere else. Lack of movement kills.
Fortunately we do have some control here: exercise helps improve blood flow and oxygen, both of which have a calming effect on the nerves and exercise also produces endorphins – one of the happy chemicals. Not for nothing to people get addicted to exercise! Legal drugs!!
OK, lets come back to reality. Neither the book nor I suggest taking up martial arts, marathon running or Olympic lifting to reduce pain. Amusing thought – but these activities will lead to an ever drier brain until it resembles the above garcinia gummu-guttas, such will be our pain. Nevertheless, engaging in movement will help. It can start with walking. It can start with walking for a few minutes only. If we go about it sensibly, building it up and getting good solid advice or help from someone like me who knows a thing or two about exercise AND suffers chronic pain, then exercise becomes an ally. Not only will it reduce pain, it is also the best depression buster. Ever. Yup, better even than chocolate.
Funny how our best drugs are produced by ourselves in our own body. And not by GSK.
So to counteract the brain drying up the pain reducing, stress busting chemicals it holds in reserve for when danger calls, doing some exercise, of whatever sort – it just has to be a bit uncomfortable – plus understanding that the brain is at panic stations when even our maiden aunt flaps her arms – will help moisten it and get those free drugs flowing again.