Is Pain Just In Your Head?

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All of us have had experience with pain at some point in our lives, whether we had an injury, experienced a bad fall or suffer with occasional back spasms. For many of us, we feel immediate pain following the incident, but it begins to lessen as healing takes over before finally disappearing completely as we return to normal (usually somewhere between 3-6 months). While we feel frustrated when injury happens, we know it will pass soon. But what about when it doesn’t? This is the reality of many people with chronic pain.

What is pain?

Pain is a protective mechanism, a sort of public service announcement from your brain about a credible threat. If we did not experience pain, we could be potentially exposed to dangerous physical situations for damaging lengths of time. In the case of the pain of a burn, the message is simple: “Fire is super-duper dangerous! Don’t mess with it!” But does the message really need to be as loud as it is? Does it have to last for days, weeks, months or even years? Any type of pain, acute or chronic, is perceived in the nervous system. The pain sensation begins when the brain “decides” that the pain sensations are actually needed.

Therefore, tissue damage does not necessarily equal pain. A strained hamstring or sprained ligament does not create the pain you feel, the nervous system does. If the nervous system feels “safe” and decides pain is not needed, you might be carrying injuries without even knowing about them.

How can the nervous system get it so wrong?

Often times, patients with chronic pain conditions will perceive the simple touch of a feather on their skin to be excruciatingly painful. These same patients tend to be on high dosages of pain medications or steroids just to get through their day. The nervous system has a tremendous amount of plasticity (also known as “neuroplasticity”), which means it is constantly restructuring and adapting to experiences.

Which brings us to the important concept of nociception, which is defined as “the neural processes of encoding and processing noxious stimuli.” It is the afferent activity produced in the peripheral and central nervous system by stimuli that have the potential to damage tissue. This activity is initiated by nociceptors, (also called pain receptors), that can detect mechanical, thermal or chemical changes above a set threshold. Nociceptors are specific nerves which relay danger signals to the spinal cord and brain. Once the message reaches the skull, it is ultimately up to the brain to produce the output (a “what am I going to do with this “danger”? message”).

Many treatments focus on damaged tissue, such as physical therapy, acupuncture or chiropractic adjustments. They are all very valuable in terms of treating tissues & joints – but may not change the actual perception of pain in the brain. Therefore, we need to change the paradigm and begin to shift our focus towards taking care of our superbly sensitized nervous system instead of the only local tissue damage (that may or may not be there).

Come back on Friday to learn how to calm your nervous system and break the cycle of chronic pain!


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Dagmar Khan

Dagmar Khan is the 1st Integrated Yoga Tune Up® teacher in Europe and leading mobility expert in whole Ireland; with over 15 years of experience in Yoga, Pilates, Stress Management and Fitness. She is sought-after core-expert who specializes in helping people overcome physical roadblocks and rehabilitate from serious injuries, such as spinal problems, hip replacements, osteoporosis and arthritis. Dagmar has worked with 1000’s of people and has created successful Yoga Tune Up® programs for athletic clubs, colleges, and university lecturers in sport and medical doctors. Dagmar is the creator of INJURY FREE RUNNING program for the Solas Run For Life, a contributing fitness expert to Beat 102 103 & Waterford Today, and her work has been featured on Dublin City FM, WLR FM, Munster Express and Waterford News & Star. For more information visit

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This feels like the subject of the modern day times.
So many suffer from chrinic pain, and we NEED more information on how to go beyond just medicating or treating locally.
Thank you for the new way of looking at this.

Dani Ibarra

So many people are addicted to their pain. Changing perspective can have an extremely positive affect on sensation and help to change the physical sensations in the body. The mind is so powerful in this way. thank you for the insight

Susannah Nelson

Dagmar, thank you for highlighting the ways in changing our perceptions as to what is needed in helping people feel more empowered in dealing with their “pains” , thought a more embodied approach and not just hands on body work. but by education & helping people change their habitual responses. Dr Lorimer Mosley is a pioneer in this field and he has some great resources in helping people deal with chronic pain, I’m sure you are aware of him .


Thank you for sharing this article about pain and the nervous system, it was explained in depth enough that I could understand. We need to take care of our nervous system so we can be still to hear and feel what the body is saying! Savasana and meditation are so vital!!

Sue Paterson

It was a tremendous revelation to learn about how our nervous system can provide incorrect pain signals (over or under-appropriate) to the area of injury. This really emphasizes how we need to take a more integrated approach to our bodies, since we or our students may be getting the wrong messages from our bodies. This is just another reminder that we need to build a team of talented bodyworkers and thoughtful, creative medical professionals to help us in our journeys to help others work towards being healthy and happy. Thanks for taking us to the next level, in understanding that… Read more »

Mary Eileen

What a great way to get people to address their pain without immediately running for some medication. The body wants to be healthy and balanced. Great article.


I had a great pleasure to participate in a workshop of Julian Baker on chronic pain and methods of eliminating it though working with facia. Basolutely ground breaking and I recomend his works for reading.

Kim Cordova

This friday business (again) aside, this is really interesting. The link between neuro signal, psychology and physiological symptom/trigger are like a Borges labyrinth of interconnectedness. a blog is probably too short to offer treatment options, so in this case I guess its just good to know.


Angie, I would encourage you to check out the work of Lois Layene at the Restorative Breathing Institute. Her work with restoring nervous system is groundbreaking.


I really like how this article emphasizes getting the root of the issue and how targeting the sensory system as a whole, instead of one specific aspect, will help to provide holistic healing.

Aaron Goodnow

I find it interesting the thought process around such an analytic approach to the concept of pain and dealing with chronic pain. I have been extremely lucky in my lifetime so far (knock on wood) to have not had any chronic ailments that have left me in a repeating cycle of pain. I would be interested to understand at a deeper level the psychological affects of dealing with this type of ailment and how relief will have lasting affect on the psyche as well as the body.

Veronica Dinehart

Thank you for this enlightening blog regarding chronic pain. It’s a relevant topic in today’s world where pain medication is overused and misused thus preventing our nervous system from communicating properly and clearly.

Jared Cohen

Where is that fine line between the coveted “listen to your body” and potentially too much listening. I have often thought about how all the soft tissue ball rolling work we do is like a strict paleo elimination diet in which our bodies build a new normal that maybe limits some amount of resiliency. What I mean is how easily it is for us daily yogatuneup ball rollers to detect stiffness in contrast to how non ball rollers are filled with blind spots. By ball rolling daily, have I invoked a heightened state of sensitivity that distracts from other doings?… Read more »


I am always fascinated by the way there seems to be an almost involuntary response to protection around old injuries while teaching students who have seemingly been healed from a prior injury. To see these ingrained movement patterns that may, over time, create imbalance in the structural system has always caused a conumdrum for me. Thank you for bringing attention to a more full picture approach for treatment. I would love to read further on this topic if you have any book/study recommendations.