Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to modify its connections or re-wire itself. There’s a chapter in my PhD thesis, submitted in the mid 2000, which deals with this remarkable new discovery. The science spans many disciplines, including physics, biology, psychology and ethnology. My chapter talks about the importance of memory in memoir-writing. It also describes how memories can be changed or ‘distorted’ through processes in the brain.
The popular book, The Brain that Changes Itself became an international best seller. Others followed. People started talking about neuroplasticity and brain plasticity.
Now, almost twenty years later, understanding of brain plasticity is widespread. New applications exist. These include ways in which some people can rewire their brains to deal with chronic pain.
In my mid forties I experienced the first twinges of osteoarthritis. First in my fingers which hurt in the cold weather in Albany where I lived. One joint became stiff. It hurt when I used a pencil. I ignored it. But by the time I turned fifty-five, many more joints displayed signs of arthritis. I had too much life to live to give in to pain and chose not to go down the route of serial joint replacements.
During one of my many forays into self-help, I read Gordon Livingstone’s Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart. It’s a compilation of thirty ideas to encourage healthy, happy ageing. In the chapter, ‘The problems of the elderly are frequently serious but seldom interesting,’ he says the following.
‘What could be less interesting and more discouraging than a litany of aches, pains and bowel difficulties, delivered in the querulous tone of those who realise that what they are suffering from is beyond remedy and getting worse.‘
My choice not to talk about pain and arthritis served me well for years. The less I thought about them, the less discomfort I felt. During my time in Albany, I climbed mountains and hiked in rugged country.
In my late seventies and early eighties, osteoarthritis became one of the defining elements of my life. For variety and a change of pace, bursitis set in, in both hips and a shoulder. Walking, climbing steps, housework, sewing all became mammoth tasks. I hobbled. My posture changed. Pain went with me wherever I went and regularly woke me.
Too many joints to count, let alone replace! Where would anyone start?
Once a runner and hiker as well as an every-day walker, I began to swim regularly instead, for the relief of the buoyancy on my joints and for fun.
Brain plasticity and chronic pain
My granddaughter, Jane-Heloise, and I were drinking coffee between my swim at the gymnasium and her pump session.
‘I’ve been reading about a new app called Curable,’ she said. ‘Apparently it teaches you how to apply brain plasticity to chronic pain. You look as if it might help.’
With my imagination fired because of what I already knew about brain plasticity, I raced home and downloaded the app. The Curable app is easy to use and the work is divided into four sections. These include education, meditation, brain training and writing exercises. The short exercises take a no more than 20 minutes to complete.
There are Curable Groups, which I haven’t tried. There’s also a Facebook page where kind people interact, which I find helpful and supportive. I like that a professional worker moderates the page and adds knowledge to posts as needed.
A few months later, the pain of osteoarthritis hasn’t gone, but has become manageable. I can sew happily. Where a little while ago I needed to find a car or a lamppost hold to get up or down a curb, I can now walk up and down 130 steps without stopping. I use the handrail for balance, but can let go for a few steps at a time.
This stairs on the edge of Subiaco Common. Not the most beautiful stairway, but I’m saving that until I get to 150 steps.
Curable has set me up for the lifestyle I dreamed of. I’ll continue to use it.
There is much more to be said about the link between brain plasticity and chronic pain. meanwhile, here’s a link to the Curable app if you would like to try it.