Pain Neurotags: how the nervous system protects us from injury

Hello everyone!

In this post, I wanted to follow up on a super fascinating concept that my new PT, David, and I talked about in my first appointment.

It’s the concept of a neurotag.   Basically, a “neurotag” refers to your brain’s coding language for a certain type of memory or experience.

As I explained in my last post, I saw David because I was really interested in hearing his opinion on what happened to me last May, when I ended up in the emergency room with symptoms of nerve damage following a chiropractic adjustment.

Luckily, I’m fine now!  But I never really got a comprehensive explanation for what happened, so I sought out David because of his training in Orthopedic Manual Therapy, which allowed him to better understand what my chiropractor may have done during the appointment.

As I explained previously, David thought it was unlikely to impossible that the adjustment could have actually compressed a nerve root (which had been the hospital PT’s hypothesis).

Instead, he thought it could have caused some sort of local musculoskeletal injury, sending a flood of inflammation to the area and strongly irritating the nerves that were right there.

However, there’s a second aspect to this injury, which explains some of the symptoms I experienced after.

Basically, this experience represented a physical and psychological trauma to my body.  

I almost feel a little guilty using the word “trauma.”  After all, terrible things happen to people every day… does that word really describe what happened to me?

But if we step back and look at this in objective, biological terms… yes.  This was a trauma.  My body experienced an injury extremely close to my spinal cord/Central Nervous System… that’s something it does not want to mess around with.  An injury to the spinal cord means potential paralysis (or worse).

And, psychologically speaking, again… my brain and nervous system really didn’t know, in that moment in time, if I was paralyzed or not.

This is a big deal, in scientific terms.  Like really, as a human organism, there are not many threats to survival greater than a spinal cord injury (ah, I’m getting stressed out just writing this!).

So… once this happened, my nervous system decided to do everything in its power to make sure nothing like this ever happened again.

This is something I discuss on Sunlight in Winter quite a lot:

Pain is not here to tell us what’s happening in our bodies.  Pain is here to protect us, and make sure we don’t do anything to cause an injury.  

Neil Pearson and other pain scientists call pain the pain alarm system.  There are other symptoms that the nervous system can produce in addition to pain– such as muscle weakness, numbness, etc.  Sometimes we can feel these sensations without anything actually being “wrong” in our body.  It’s because our nervous system thinks we might be in danger, and is trying to do whatever it can to get us to STOP.

I explained to David how, once I got out of the hospital, my symptoms seemed to come and go, and would sometimes come on rapidly with very little warning.  I also mentioned the crazy shaking I experienced in both legs immediately following the adjustment, as well as the extreme weakness in my left leg.

Based on his experience in Orthopedic Manual Therapy, David did not think all of these symptoms were likely to be a direct result of the adjustment.  But it’s really his knowledge of advanced pain science that allowed him to give me a full explanation.

He said that, although no one could really know for sure what happened, he believed a lot of these symptoms I experienced were actually my nervous system trying to protect me.

It sensed whatever that musculoskeletal injury was next to my spinal cord and, as I would say in real life, freaked the fuck out.  (Sorry if you don’t like swearing!  This is how I process difficult experiences!!!).

So it created the leg shaking, and even some of the weakness, as a way of telling me to get the hell away from whatever it was that I was doing, that caused that initial cascade of inflammation.

David is, of course, still saying that my experience was real.

He was not, by any means, trying to imply that it was all in my head.

Instead he was actually validating my experiences, by saying that my nervous system was doing exactly what it should.  If anything, he was the one urging me to take my own experience more seriously… that it really was a trauma to the body, and to me as a person, and it’s okay to call it that.

Since then, he’s urged me to pay attention to certain experiences, thoughts, or movement patterns that seem to bring my symptoms back.

This is an example of a pain neurotag at work.

When my body had that chiropractic adjustment, my spine was in a certain position (David showed me how my spine would be extended a certain way, when I was lying face down on the chiropractor’s table).

David thought it was likely that, at moments when my spine was in a similar position, it might sort of cue my nervous system to remember that experience, and freak out.

I told him about a few times my symptoms had seemed to come back without warning.  We figured out that, each time, it had to do with the fact that I was parked on an incline, and had to sort of turn my body while I was also at an angle to the ground (if this makes sense).

He showed me, using a model of the skeleton, how performing that motion was likely to remind my nervous system of the exact same position and movement pattern it had been in during the chiropractic adjustment.  (Slight extension, with a rotation).

And he was totally right.

This was an example of a physical neurotag.  Even though I wasn’t consciously thinking of the injury, the unconscious, automatic parts of my nervous system were still on guard.  When they felt my spine go into that same position they said “Oh, no!” and caused a bunch of my symptoms to come back– pain and weakness– in order to prevent a reoccurence of what they remembered as an injury.

Psychological neurotags

David explained that certain situations that reminded me, mentally, of that chiropractic visit were also likely to trigger the same symptoms.  Like, for example, if I were to go and lie down on a chiropractor’s table right now, I would probably start having the same symptoms before he even adjusted me.  Because all of a sudden my nervous system would think “wait a minute… this is what almost got us paralyzed last time!”

And I totally believe David on this.  I’m not interested in receiving chiropractic adjustments anyway, but… I know for a fact that this is exactly what would happen.

I have noticed that the symptoms do start to come back if I think about the experience a lot, and start to get anxious.  

However, what I loved about David’s outlook (and this is pain science, for you) is that he didn’t perceive my problem as “anxiety.”

Instead, he said, my nervous system was doing exactly what it was supposed to– reacting to both physical cues as well as mental/intellectual ones.  Anything– ANYTHING– to prevent me from repeating that same initial experience.

This is why I LOVE pain science so much.

I’ve written a bit more about pain science over on Sunlight in Winter.  (I was originally going to put this post there, but I wanted to keep it in the same place as all my other spinal hypermobility posts).

But… I hope you’ll consider heading over there and reading more.  Because I just love this stuff.  It’s honestly changed my life.

As some of you know, I suffered with symptoms of chronic pain/fibromyalgia for YEARS with no explanation.  Before discovering pain science, I used to really believe the people who said it was all in my head.

Now I know that’s the complete wrong way to look at it.  There’s nothing “wrong” with me– in fact, my nervous system is doing its job, protecting me!

So here are a few more posts you may want to see:

These are some examples of the really innovative ways pain scientists explain pain:

Pain Neurotags:

Further Resources:

Facebook Discussion Group:

As you may know, I’ve just created a brand new Sacroiliac Joint Saga Discussion Group!  I hope all of you feel comfortable leaving comments on my blog– your thoughts are always welcome!

However as an additional resource, I’ve created this Discussion Group where you can share ideas and ask for recommendations. This way you can meet each other and maybe find people in your own geographic region, or maybe just people in a similar situation.



One thought on “Pain Neurotags: how the nervous system protects us from injury

  1. Gail Purcell says:

    Thanks for the great information. It does explain a lot. I have one problem with the statement that pain is only about what might happen. If I put my hand in a fire, or walk into a door, or cut myself with a knife, or there is fluid inside my body, pushing on the nerves, the pain I am feeling is because of injury to the body or the nerves being stimulated directly.

    I love all the information you have so freely researched for all of us and the professionalism. I would appreciate it if you would avoid profanity in this environment.


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