The Weird Case of the Hammer and the Chronic Pain Sufferer




  • New research reveals why a chronic pain sufferer will feel the pain of a hammer blow long after a regular sufferer.
  • Why rubbing the sort part of your body makes it worse (but only for some people!)
  • Is your brain wiring responsible for your pain?

I got some nice emails after last week’s People’s Doctor (In Pain? You’re Not Alone).

I talked about how an estimated 28 million people in this country are suffering from pain that has lasted over three months… and for many people will NEVER go way.

It’s known as chronic pain and you may well suffer it in some form or other.

If so I completely sympathise – if you’ve been a long term reader, you’ll know I’ve experienced (and moaned about) pelvic pain and back pain from sitting for too long at a computer, writing stuff like this.

It’s something I have to deal as a professional writer and medical researcher.

But what about you? Have you worked out what the root cause of your pain might be?

If not, here’s something to consider…

Why your brain might be wired the wrong way

Last week I talked about how pain was sometimes “in your mind” in the sense that it’s linked to depression, low mood and bad events happening in your life.

Well there’s another reason that it could all be “in your head”, but for a very different reason.

I had a look into some recent research and found something that indicates that our response is partly down to the way neurochemicals in our brains behave.

I’ll explain it with an analogy.

Let’s say you’re doing a spot of DIY. Perhaps putting up a shelf or hanging a picture (that’s pretty much as far as my DIY goes, to be honest).



You slam a hammer onto your thumb.

“Owwwww” you yell, leaping about like a goat on a bed of coals.

Instinctively, you will then rub your thumb to try and ease the pain.

Now I always thought that was something we stupid humans did as a psychological response without a physical benefit.

But strange as it may sound, this really works.

Rubbing the affected part of the body sends signals to your spinal column that tell the brain to ease its response to that pain.


New studies research that the opposite happens if you’re a chronic pain sufferer.

The hammer hitting your thumb will hurt, just the same as the non-chronic pain sufferer… but when you rub your thumb, the chemical signals to the brain don’t work in the same way to stop the pain… in fact they make it worse.

It’s as if the chronic pain sufferer has been re-wired.

Before you think I’ve lost it, this is the conclusion of recent research published in the Spring in Pain, the online journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain.

In March this year Dr. Ted Price, a professor in the School of Behavioural and Brain Sciences in Dallas, announced that he’d found a new ‘neurological mechanism’ that contributes to pain reduction.

What happens is this…

When we feel pain, a series of biochemical reactions in your body send a message to your brain to inhibit that pain. A chemical called GABA is

released by nerve cells in your brain, that then eases the severity of the feeling.

However when people experience chronic pain over a long time, GABA loses its plasticity and power. It doesn’t really work in the same way. Worse, it goes into reverse and does the opposite of what it should.

And here’s where he explains about the hammer.

“When you hit your hand with a hammer, almost everybody has the same reflex reaction — that is, to rub your finger which, in turn, helps to reduce pain. The reason that works is because it increases GABAergic inhibition in the spinal cord…

However, people who have chronic pain — if they do the same thing — find that rubbing it actually makes the pain worse. That’s because the GABAergic system loses its efficacy and, in fact, can become excitatory.”

Now, this discover won’t create a wonder drug or invent a cure-all… but it could change how we view and treat chronic pain.

At least we’re getting close to an answer. And it shows how chronic pain can cause more chronic pain.

What’s more, just because a pain is in your head, it doesn’t mean it’s imaginary and doesn’t exist. We experience the outside world through a combination of chemical and electrical impulses, and when they get cross-wired or deteriorate, simple pain problems can become excruciating.

This is why the drugs don’t always work when it comes to stopping pain, and why some doctors should take a more holistic approach.

This is where meditation, yoga, Pilates, acupuncture, stress management, counselling and many other complementary or non-medical therapies can help.

I’m going to talk more about these in the next few weeks and months, as some of these have definitely helped me.

But look – if you suffer from joint pain or pain in the feet, ankles, knees, legs or back PLEASE look out for an email from me on Saturday with a piece of practical advice you absolutely have to try, just to see if it works for you.

I’ll show you how something you put in your shoes could solve your pain problems.

Until then, stay healthy and as pain-free as possible!


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