Neuroplastic Pain

Fascinating new studies have shown that chronic back pain, neck pain, fibromyalgia symptoms, repetitive strain injury, headaches, and other forms of chronic pain are often not the result of structural causes, but by learned neural pathways in the brain. We develop neuropathways for everything, when we learn to walk, to talk, to type. Anything we learn creates a pathway in the brain. Almost like a road. The more we practice the new skill, the roads become bigger, faster and soon become highways in our brain that are automatic.

And in this same way, the brain can learn and remember pain. Pain is a danger signal. Normally when we injure ourselves, the body sends signals to the brain informing us of tissue damage, and we feel pain. As we know sometimes despite the original injury has been healed, the body continues to feel pain. In essence the brain has made a mistake! Neuroplastic pain results from the brain misinterpreting safe messages from the body as if they were dangerous. In other words, neuroplastic pain is a false alarm. This is known as neuroplastic pain.

Though the pain can be addressed psychologically, this does not imply that the pain is imaginary. In fact, brain imaging studies have demonstrated that the pain is quite real (Derbyshire, Whalley, Stenger, & Oakley, 2004). Recent research has shown that pain is often the result of learned neural pathways in the brain. And just as pain can be learned, it can also be unlearned (Hasmhi et al., 2013).

There are many researchers looking into neuroplastic pain and psychological interventions to help pain. This month we will be posting videos and podcasts to help reader learn more about the work being done to learn more and support those struggling with chronic pain.


Derbyshire, S.W., Whalley, M.G., Stenger, V.A., Oakley, D.A. (2004). Cerebral activation during hypnotically induced and imagined pain. Neuroimage 23(1), 392-401.

Hashmi, J.A., Baliki, M.N., Huang, L., Baria, A.T., Torbey, S., Hermann, K.M., Schnitzer, T.J. and Apkarian, A.V. (2013). Shape shifting pain: chronification of back pain shifts brain representation from nociceptive to emotional circuits. Brain136(9), 2751-2768.

Written by:

Emma Waddington

Clinical Psychologist

Ph.D Psychology, M.Sc. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, M.Sc. Research Methods in Psychology, B.Sc. Psychology (Hons.)