Brain Plasticity also called Neuroplasticity is the ability of your brain to reorganize neural (nerve) pathways in the brain. In simple terms, every time you learn how to do something, you are unconsciously memorizing the process of how it’s done and what the outcome will be. As you learn, your brain is making subtle changes to accommodate the new information and ability. Neuroplasticity is generally a good thing and allows us to survive. However, there can be negative consequences.
When a person suffers a head or neck injury as a result of a car crash, fall or other accident, the tissues around the spine are stretched and torn. This damage creates a weakness which allows the spine to break down and lock into a stressed position. One of the hips will be higher than the other in the standing position. One of the shoulders will be higher and the head will generally lean to one side. If this acute injury is not corrected a chronic pattern will develop. Just like shaping something made of plastic the nervous system begins to develop a fixed pattern. Think of this like a bad habit. If you do the same thing all the time your brain and your body begins to develop that pattern and the longer you have had that habit the harder it will be to break.
In the same way with these chronic spinal patterns…the longer it has been there the more difficult is will be to break the pattern.
What does chronic pain have to do with neuroplasticity?
As research techniques become more refined, researchers are able to study the human brain and its function in living people, rather than waiting for an autopsy. Up to now, researchers have been able to establish the existence of a network of pain-transmitting areas within the central nervous system (CNS). This was first demonstrated with animals and, more recently, by performing brain studies with humans.
Chronic pain is pain that has been present, either continually or off and on, for at least three to six months. Chronic pain is complex and often difficult to pinpoint and treat by the medical profession. Acute pain is a sudden pain that can usually be identified and treated, such as a toothache, stubbing your toe, or having surgery. Chronic pain is very common among North American adults. Data from 1999 demonstrated that about 50 million people seek help for chronic pain. Chronic pain affects people’s lives because it can cause other physical problems, affect the ability to work and enjoy life, and it can affect the social and economic status of people. Chronic pain causes lost productivity and increases health care costs.
Where neuroplasticity comes in is when acute pain develops into chronic pain. Your body reacts to acute pain as it warns you that something is wrong. Usually, once the acute pain has been dealt with, the pain goes away and becomes a distant memory. However, if the cause of the acute pain is not dealt with over the course of a few weeks, months, and sometimes even years, your brain’s “wiring” may reorganize itself and tell your body that the chronic pain should be there and will stay there. How this change occurs is different from person to person.
Chronic back pain, particularly of the lower back, is the most common complaint of pain in the developed world, even more than headaches and migraines. It’s estimated that 70 to 85 percent of people in developed countries have had, have, or will have chronic lower back pain at some point in their lifetime. The connection between back pain and brain function has interested researchers for quite a while. In 2004, A.V. Apkanian and colleagues analyzed 17 patients who complained of chronic back pain. After examining the patients’ brains, the researchers found that the patients had some brain atrophy (wasting away of tissue) in the brain.
“Other researchers, such as T. Schmidt-Wicke, agreed with Apkarian when that team studied 18 patients and matched them with controls, people without chronic back pain. The researchers found the same decrease in brain tissue among those patients who had pain, but not in the controls.”
Eight studies that looked at the shape and changes in brain tissue point to the issue that there is a connection between neuroplasticity and chronic pain. It appears that no matter what is causing the chronic pain, the same changes are taking place in the brain and in the same areas.
What is actually causing the brain cell shrinkage or loss? That’s the key issue.
New research relating to the blood flow to and from the brain may provide a connection. Phase contrast MRI of the veins and arteries from the brain to the body are showing that when a person has a misalignment of the upper neck (Atlas vertebrae) the blood flow from the brain is altered. Once the atlas is restored to it’s normal position the blood flow is normalized.
So if someone suffers an injury that causes a misalignment of the atlas at 25 and does not find the underlying structural problem for 10 years…the brain has not had normal blood flow for 10 years! That may result in the atrophy that the researchers are detecting. And why so frequently we see patients with Lower Back Pain or Sciatica respond so well to an upper neck adjustment with the NUCCA procedure.
If you are experiencing chronic pain an underlying Atlas Misalignment could be the reason. To have your brain stem and upper cervical spine evaluated for an undetected injury go to www.nuccawellness.com if you are not in the San Diego County area go to www.nucca.org