No? Nor did I until I attended a talk last week on Pain by Julian Baker, Head of the College of Bowen Studies and a Functional Anatomist.  Not only that, but science (and common sense) has proved that pain isn’t actually a good indicator of damage. So how and why do we feel pain, and what does this all mean for complementary therapy treatments like Bowen and Reflexology? 

The pain we experience is actually created after the brain has translated a series of sensory signals, inputs if you like.  Let’s take a paper cut as an example – I can already see you wincing. We see the piece of paper next to our skin, we feel the change in texture as the paper edge slides across our skin, we see the blood, our brain takes those sensory inputs and then outputs a pain signal. Contrast this against getting ready for a shower after an afternoon clearing the garden, noticing dried blood on our leg and realising we must have scratched ourselves.  It’s only when we see the blood that our brain might alert us to the damage with a stinging session, a stinging session we did not feel at the time the damage occurred.

Sometimes the pain signals we receive are a signal that there is damage in that area, but this is not always the case. If you think about it right now, can you feel your little finger? Your shoulder? Your tummy?  Yes – you have a really good sense of them and ‘how’ they feel. But now try and think about your liver. Can you feel where it is in your body, can you feel it’s movement as it filters blood and secretes bile? No.  So if there is something wrong with your liver, how is the body going to make you feel it if you can’t feel it?  Simple. It will send the pain signal to somewhere you can feel it – often to your abdomen or your right shoulder.  This is called ‘referred pain’. Another example is the impact of long-term stress. Where do you feel it – often as acute or chronic pain in one or more areas of the body.

Back pain is a great example of how sometimes the pain signals we receive are not an indicator of actual damage.  How many times have you heard people mention their back pain in the same breath as they mention their bulging disc?  Scientific research has demonstrated time and time again that there is no direct or reliable correlation between bulging discs and back pain.  In one study [1], and there have been many, 100 people who had never had any back pain were given an MRI. Of those 50 had a bulging disc, yet they had no pain and 20 of those were severe cases.  So why do people who have bulging discs attribute the cause of their back pain to their bulging disc? Because we have, over the years, incorporated into our belief system that a bulging disc means that we will experience pain; and when we believe it, when we adjust our behaviour and our thought patterns to expect it, our brain responds to those signals and delivers exactly what we are asking for.

This doesn’t mean to say that pain is only in our head.  Far from it. The pain that each of us feels, whether physical or emotional, is very real and very personal.  All it does mean is that we have to be careful in how we translate pain when it comes to treating someone ‘in pain’.  As therapists we view pain as a symptom, a signal that something is not quite right somewhere in the body, so we treat the whole body in order to get to the root cause of that symptom – not just the symptom itself. Underpinning this is our belief that we are not attempting to diagnose or cure, but to provide the body with the right signals and the right space to enable it to work out what is going on and make the necessary changes for itself:

“Given the right place, the right time, the right conditions, your body begins to talk, to work out what is going on, and to have an opportunity to make a change.”

[Julian Baker, Head of the College of Bowen Studies]

This is why I believe that complementary therapies like Bowen are often so successful in supporting those in pain where conventional treatment pathways haven’t always been able to.  We work on creating the right place, the right time and the right conditions; a safe environment where people are able to vocalise their pain as well as receiving a gentle treatment. Allowing the body to feel safe and relaxed, providing the space for it to work out what is going on and make the necessary changes itself.  In the case of Bowen pauses are even incorporated into the treatment for precisely this reason.

Of course there is no hard scientific evidence for any of this.  But given that we know the body is able to heal a paper cut, a bruise, to fuse broken bones together, surely it is biologically plausible to assume that it can do a lot more than that? That given the space to realise that there is no actual damage to a frozen shoulder, there is then no reason to protect it so it can reduce the inflammation that’s causing the stiffness and pain?  That given the space to work out for itself what isn’t working properly in the body it might be able to put it right? And just like that healed bruise, those fused bones, surely it follows that the changes the body chooses to make can take place not only quickly, but can be long-term, or even permanent? 

It’s an intriguing thought and one that I suspect will eventually be proven.  But, in the meantime if you would like more information about how a complementary therapy treatment like Bowen might be able to provide your body with the right conditions it needs to support your health and well-being, then why not get in touch with your local Bowen Therapist? You can check out therapists in East Anglia on the Therapists page, or got to either the College of Bowen Studies or the Bowen Therapy Professional Association to find a practitioner near you.


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