“I need a new brain.”
“A brain transplant would be nice.”
“Can I just cut off my head?”
“I hate my brain.”
Migraineurs have an acrimonious relationship with our own brains. We see our brains as the cause of our troubles, an enemy to be defeated (or destroyed). After all, we are told that it is within our brains that all the trouble starts. Neurotransmitters, cortical spreading depression, overactive pain receptors, hypersensitivity to stimuli…it all happens in the brain.
Did you know that our brains have a tremendous capacity for change? It’s called neuroplasticity. For centuries it was believed that once the brain sustains damage, it cannot be repaired. Discoveries in the past few decades have taught us that the brain has a great capacity to repair itself, reroute messages through alternate pathways, and restore healthy functioning. This is true even for serious brain injuries such as traumatic brain injury or stroke.
My youngest child is a good example. When he was 8 years old, he sustained a traumatic brain injury. The doctors classified it as a “mild, closed-head injury” yet there was still damage. 2 occipital skull fractures with a coup-contra-coup concussion are serious business. He had retrograde amnesia and is still unable to remember the moments just before the injury. He also lost all of the learning acquired in the first semester of 2nd grade. The diligent work of his teachers helped him finally catch up to his peers by 5th grade. Perhaps the scariest injury was one that didn’t show up for several weeks after his hospital discharge. He couldn’t identify colors correctly. Multiple vision tests ruled out color blindness or any problems with his eyes. A neuropsychiatric exam identified some deficits, but nothing that could explain the color identification problem. He mixed up blue and green, red and orange, etc. It was called Color Agnosia — a rare inability to correctly identify colors. We spent hours working with him to retrain his brain to correctly identify color. After almost a year, his brain finally learned how to correctly identify color once again.
All of the steps in his recovery are examples of neuroplasticity. His brain repaired or rewired itself. It’s been over 10 years since the accident that caused his TBI. The only problem left is that the trauma switched on the inherited genes for migraine. That is something we have not been able to reverse…yet.
I ran across an article that makes me think there is hope for migraine and other chronic pain conditions, too. In this article, Dr. Kachko (a naturopath) shares different ways to help retrain the brain after chronic pain sets in. He draws a distinction between acute pain (usually having a known cause) and chronic pain (where the problem has been corrected or no known cause can be found). He talks about ways to manage stress and use visualizations, guided imagery, and biofeedback to slowly change the brain over time.
I was impressed that he acknowledged these strategies don’t work quickly and may not be 100% effective. Still, I think his ideas have some merit when used as part of an overall treatment plan that includes preventive and acute medications, trigger avoidance, and other lifestyle changes.
What do you think? Is it possible to change the brain? Can we use our brain’s thinking ability to correct electrical pathways and neurotransmitter receptors?
Maybe it’s time to make peace with our “migraine brains” and start working together.
Source: Rewiring the chronic pain brain