The Science of Pain

Chronic Pain


Now recognized as its own disease, chronic pain is the experience of an overactive nervous system rather than just a symptom. Since it is a neurological condition that occurs primarily in the brain, but affects different parts of the body, the traditional medical model that most physicians use does not typically work for teenagers and young adults with chronic pain. Rather, modern science has shown that strengthening the mind/body connection plus social support (also known as the "biopsychosocial" model) are the tools needed to change chronic pain.

Common chronic pain conditions include fibromyalgia, recurring stomach aches, migraines, frequent headaches, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), arthritis, cancer pain, Crohn's disease, CRPS, post-injury persistent pain, and many more.

Acute Pain versus Chronic Pain

Pain is a symptom of an injury or illness – but chronic pain is something that occurs for millions of Americans. For example, acute pain occurs if a teen were to break an ankle playing sports. This same teen would get an x-ray that would identify the broken bone, the ankle would be put in a cast, and the teen would be told to stay off the leg to allow the bone to heal. Chronic pain occurs after this – after the bone has healed but the pain continues. Most doctors do not understand why the teen is still complaining of pain.

The cause of the pain has moved from the ankle to the neural circuits in the brain. New pain circuits have formed that keep the pain active and the origin is now called central pain. Research has shown that the most effective ways of changing these central pain circuits and reducing pain are not with medications, but with creative activities with the mind and body. We also know that support from understanding peers helps with the healing process.

Everyone’s pain is “in” their brain.

That doesn’t mean that it’s not real – the brain is the control center for everything we experience. So even if you were to stub your toe, your brain would be the thing that alerts you of the pain – not your toe itself. 

As living beings, we are always learning. Every experience we have creates neural connections. Neural circuits form like highways in the brain – each time you learn something a new highway is formed. This is also true for pain.

The "Sticky Neural Loop"

When a pain highway forms, it passes through other areas of the brain, too. That is why sometimes a pain highway can include things like emotions, beliefs, memories, and physical body control. These areas of the brain bring more traffic to the main pain highway. Pretty soon that pain highway gets stuck with traffic, and the longer it continues, the more new traffic comes (like anxiety, behavior changes, difficulty with sleep, schoolwork, concentration…)

It is easy for youth’s brains to “get stuck” in this neural traffic – or as CHYP likes to call it, the “Sticky Neural Loop.” That’s why CHYP offers “unsticking” strategies that use both the mind and the body to create “run off streets” for neural traffic to move to.