Central Sensitization & Pain That Gets Worse

by Chelsea Henry

Pain can modify the way the nervous system works, making the body more sensitive to less stimulation, in a process called Central Sensitization. This happens mostly through changes in the brain and spinal cord, and means that little things hurt worse than they should, and that it takes longer for the pain to fade. We found this wonderful article, Central Sensitization in Chronic Pain by Paul Ingraham, which is a jargon-to-English translation of rock star pain researcher Clifford Woolf’s published paper.

As explained in the article, it is hard to know when a person is feeling more pain than they should, because we do not yet have a test we can run to show how much pain someone is feeling. That means that we only have our own experiences to go by, and without a defined “normal”, it is easy to not know that we are in more pain than we should be.

Central Sensitization is very well-documented and easy to create in lab settings. It also shows up so often as a complication of painful problems that some researchers think it might be a common denominator. It could be what puts the “chronic” in chronic pain.

Though we know that Central Sensitization exists, we do not yet know why it happens to some people and not others, and we do not have a good way to diagnose it. It could be a part of any case of chronic pain, but it is not clear how to separate the pain that comes from a problem in the tissue from the pain that comes from Central Sensitization.

When a person has Central Sensitization, it basically means they have a hyper-active warning system and the body is no longer giving useful, sensible pain signals. On a fundamental level, pain is about your brain’s assessment of safety: unsafe things hurt. Therefore we can treat Central Sensitization by being kind to our central nervous system. We can decrease stress and increase a feeling of safety and ease. Yoga, yoga therapy, massage, meditation, and mindfulness can all help create the felt experience of wellness the body needs in order to start turning off the alarms. Feeling safe and good, and having therapeutic experiences that are pleasant, easy, and reassuring, can go a long way in calming the nervous system and bringing the body back out of excessive pain.