Pain is no stranger to any of us. We have all stubbed a toe, or perhaps suffered an injury that takes us out of the game for a while. But what if that pain doesn’t go away? What if the pain lingers after the issue “should” have been resolved? Even though we are all familiar with the sensation of pain, the experience of it differs drastically from person to person… or from child to child.
The “Sticky Neural Loop” is a term coined by Lonnie Zeltzer, MD, Distinguished Research Professor of Pediatrics, Anesthesiology, Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Immediate Past-Director of the UCLA Pediatric Pain and Palliative Care Program, and Founder/President of the online nonprofit, Creative Healing for Youth in Pain (CHYP). This concept extends to many issues families face – chronic pain, anxiety, and depression, just to name a few. It is the understanding that certain brains (particularly smart brains) learn quickly and easily from pain, forming neural circuits that can be helpful in preventing further injuriesand some that can be unhelpful like reoccurring headaches.
Think about it this way: if your child is bright, creative, sensitive, observant – and maybe even perfectionistic – he or she is always aware of everything. This level of heightened awareness includes his or her internal environment, too. So, if a pain signal is firing (alerting the child that something is “off” or “wrong” in the body) as a protective mechanism, the brain may continue firing this message longer and/or more intensely than it needs to. It is a form of conditioning that causes your child’s nervous system to pay attention! That is where the sticky neural loop comes in.
Your child’s smart brain is trying to protect the body from further harm, but that messaging (both from the brain to the body and from the body to the brain) may get stuck and continue to fire when it may not need to. Maybe your son or daughter had a past injury that still hurts, even though the doctor says the injury has healed. Perhaps your child’s stomach continues to be bothersome, regardless of negative tests. You may wonder, if the pain is not best explained by an x-ray or other test, is it real? The answer is, undoubtably, yes.
Pain is always real. Additionally, the longer your child is in pain, the more his or her brain is conditioned to experience it (along with stress, tension, fear, sleep issues, and related feelings). It is important to point out here that all pain is processed in the brain – whether someone has chronic pain or not. This understanding of the mind/body connection does not negate your child’s pain, but rather provides a full perspective of all that goes into something as common as a reoccurring headache. Our brains are the tools that allow us to observe sensations, so of course it is involved in this mind/body conversation.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to chronic pain, which is both the beauty and the burden of it. Just as pain messages can get stuck in the “sticky neural loop” there are ways to change those messages – to “un-stick” that loop. Creative healing strategies, such as art, yoga, music, meditation, cooking, and walking the dog, can teach your brain to form new circuits. What it comes down to is what brings your child joy, peace, and fulfillment can help with his or her pain. Another bit of good news is that these strategies are shown to actually be more effective for children and teens due to their brains’ neuroplasticity.
This process varies from child to child and is up to them to explore in a safe, supportive environment. It can be thought of as rewiring the brain to think about new ways of directing positive messages to and from his or her brain. This strengthening of the mind/body connection can help decondition the pain signals and, over time, lead to improved life functioning.
Georgia Weston, MSW, the executive director of Creative Healing for Youth in Pain (CHYP, mychyp.org) is coming out with her third book on pediatric chronic pain: “The Smart Brain Pain Syndrome.”