It is extremely critical for you to understand how powerfully your neurological system can embed pathways into the nervous system. In a sense, your nervous system can learn specific pathways. The nervous system does this in the same way one learns anything—by repetition.
Repetition is how chronic pain develops. With repetition, your pain pathways can become some of the most embedded pathways in your brain. The number of pain impulses to your brain are much more numerous than those in the brain of an athlete or musician learning a new skill.
An extreme example of memorized pathways is the problem of phantom limb pain. When patients require an amputation for diabetes or peripheral vascular disease, the body part is deprived of blood and oxygen and the response is often extreme pain. A heart attack is a classic example of the heart muscle not being supplied with enough oxygen to keep it alive. In phantom limb pain, we can identify the source of the pain–the body recognizes that there isn’t any blood being supplied to the missing limb, so it triggers a pain response. Now let us look at the example of RSD of an arm.
Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy
RSD stands for “reflex sympathetic dystrophy.” The sympathetic nervous system is a separate nervous system from the main nerves in your body. It causes blood vessels to expand or constrict, increases your heart rate, opens or closes the pathways to your lungs, influences the skin by causing sweating or clamminess, and more.
For reasons that are unclear, a person can have a major or minor trauma to an arm that will set off an extraordinarily painful process where the whole arm becomes extremely painful and it DOES NOT STOP. You do not get used to it and it is considered one of the worst pain syndromes that exist. The arm will usually become cold and discolored and intermittently swell. Even the slightest touch can cause agony. Unfortunately, in the face of clear manifestations of the problem, these patients often are labeled by their doctors as having psychological issues–the “pain must be in their head.” In addition to experiencing extreme agony, they are not believed. Talk about frustrating.
Normal arms amputated
In 1995, a paper was published that reported on a series of 28 patients who underwent an amputation of their arm for relief of their pain. Guess how many achieved relief of their arm pain? Two. The anatomy of these amputated arms was NORMAL. There was not a lack of blood supply. There was no soft tissue damage from any trauma. They just experienced an unexplained imbalance of their sympathetic nervous system.
Please think about this report for a while. This is the way the nervous system works. It is how we learn everything. With repetition, the brain lays down a substance called myelin that cements these circuits into your brain. The repetition of chronic pain impulse is stronger than almost any other learned behavior. These are not imaginary sensations. They are strong deeply etched-in pathways. Chronic pain pathways are like telephone cables compared to the small bare wire of a normal pain pathway.
Having a normal functional arm amputated is an act of desperation. The nervous system must be taken into account with or without surgical intervention.
I talk about this in the Video: Memorizing the Circuits: Phantom Pain.