Chronic Pain and the Brain

If you experience chronic pain, understanding it can help you to manage the pain and aid your recovery, so in this post I am going to explain how pain is associated with more than just biological factors, such physical damage, disease or abnormalities, but also by psychological and socio-economic factors. I will also talk about the brain's role in pain and our sensitivity to it.

The Biopsychosocial Model of Pain

It was George L Engel who first postulated in the 1970s that human health was affected by an interplay of biology, psychology and socio-economics, which is known as the biopsychosocial model. This is in keeping with traditional holistic practices, which work on the body and the mind. This post is about chronic pain, so I will focus on the biopsychosocial influences on that here:


The biomedical model of pain sees biological factors as the root cause of pain, whereas the biopsychosocial model sees them as just one aspect of the pain experience. Examples of biological effects on pain are soft tissue damage (sprains and strains), joint problems (dislocations, osteoarthritis), diseases (rheumatoid arthritis) and herniated discs.



Emotions play a key role in the pain experience, with negative emotions such as fear, anger, distress and depression increasing the level of pain experienced. We can be prone to thinking the worst when we are in pain (‘This going to affect my ability to work’, ‘It is going to feel like this forever’ etc), which is not helpful to recovery. This is known as catastrophising.



The most vulnerable and deprived in society are the most prone to chronic pain for various reasons, including: a lack of control over their circumstances, a lack of financial resources to deal with the cause of the problem and higher than average levels of stress. 

The biopsychosocial model helps to explain why a significant number of people who have a bulging disc, a rotator cuff tear in their shoulder or a meniscal tear in the knee experience no pain or discomfort, whereas others with no identifiable physical damage to their body can experience debilitating pain.



Pain and the Brain

We have sensory receptors in our tissues, which are known as nociceptors, that send a warning signal to the brain if they detect a potentially harmful stimulant, such as pressure, injury, heat or cold. It is just a warning shot, not pain itself. It is the central nervous system that decides what to do with the message. It can decide to ignore quite severe damage or to react to a harmless sensation. For example, one experiment found that participants with irritable bowel syndrome felt pain when air was fed into their intestines whereas those without the condition experienced only mild discomfort (akin to trapped wind): same physical effect on the tissues, different pain response from the central nervous system.




It is normal for injured tissue to be hypersensitive to pain in order to protect it from further damage. This is known as peripheral sensitivity. Most injuries heal within six weeks and peripheral sensitivity subsides. What can then happen is that the central nervous system distorts signals coming from the previously injured area causing significant pain to persist for months or years, which is known as central sensitisation. The pain experienced in chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, osteoarthritis, headaches and low back pain are believed to be due to central sensitisation. The central nervous system has got so used to sending the pain signal that it has worn a well-trodden path of pain and is stuck in the rut.


This does not mean that such pain is just in your head. It is a very real experience. It is telling you something about your life, and the good news is that there is action that you can take to gain control over the pain. That usually entails working on the four pillars of health: relaxation, sleep, nutrition and exercise (I plan to talk more about these in my next post). Cognitive behavioural therapy and psychotherapy can also be helpful in some cases of chronic pain.


Massage and reflexology promote relaxation of body and mind, so can be beneficial in the management of chronic pain. Tai chi and qigong can also help through gentle exercise and the meditative nature of the practices. The Articles & Research page of my website includes links to research on all this. 

Do get in touch if you would like to book an appointment or join a class. And if you would like to find out more about chronic pain, I can recommend Elliot Krane’s TED Talk ‘The Mystery of Chronic pain’.

How to Avoid the Winter Blues

How do you feel about winter? Do you love it or loathe it? How you experience winter can depend on your attitude towards it. The further North you go, the higher the incidence of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – except that is in the far North in Arctic Norway and Iceland. So why is that? How do they manage to buck the trend? The answer it seems may be in the mind.


In these exceptional and extreme places, inhabitants embrace winter. They accept it and what it brings, and they work with nature, whether it is accepting that they don’t feel like going out after dark or socializing, but prefer to be cosy by the fire at home reading or watching TV, or whether it is going out for a run or a ski after work despite the dark. Playgrounds and ski runs are lit in the evening for those who feel like venturing out. After the clocks changed here, I saw a mother out cycling with her young child, which struck me as both unusual and fun. Both were warmly wrapped up and visible with lights, so why not? When I had dogs, I used to love going out for a walk with them at night in the winter, and would come home with a stiff neck from gazing up at the stars and the moon.


When it is really cold, I just crave warmth, and I clearly remember the bliss of walking into a heated greenhouse on an icy day. It is no coincidence that saunas are so popular in the far North. Winter is definitely the time of year that I most feel like going to a spa, whether as a gift from someone else or as a treat to myself, just to be enveloped in warmth.


Another way of embracing winter that I discovered last year is swimming outdoors – if you can’t beat the cold, join it! I am literally immersed in the season, feeling the water get colder as the winter progresses and then warmer again as spring arrives. You don’t have to go to that extreme to connect to the season; getting outdoors in any way will do that for you. It is at least as important in the winter to get outdoors daily as it is in the summer (preferably in the morning) to keep your internal clock on track. For more about that, see my blog post from last year ‘Why You Feel like Hibernating in Winter’. I can also highly recommend Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s interview with Linda Geddes on the ‘Feel better Live More’ podcast about light exposure.


In traditional Chinese Medicine, winter is a time for rest and stillness, in tune with the dormant plants and hibernating animals. I always want to get up later and go to bed earlier over the winter, so I do. I shift my routine gradually with the shortening day length so as not to shock my internal clock and it seems to work.


So the moral of the story is to appreciate what winter has to offer: frosty mornings and wintry skies, cosiness and sleep, mulled wine and mincepies, snowy walks and so much more.


Kinesiology (pronounced kin-easy-ology) is a bio-feedback method of health care that looks at all aspects of your body – structure, biochemical, emotions and energy.


The History

It was developed by Dr. George Goodheart in 1964 when he discovered links between a muscle response, meridian energy (from Chinese medicine) and related organs.


Many of kinesiology treatment sessions today also combine lymphatic massage to specific points (Chapman’s neuro-lymphatic points) and holding other points (Bennet’s neurovascular points).


Over the years further research identified that some nutrients and foods support various systems while others affected the circuits in a negative way. These are individual to the way our body’s work and our own mix of microbes.


Emotional associations and structural distortions can also contribute to imbalance and these too were also identified and corrected.


The Method

Within the realms of kinesiology there are some differences in approach. However, in all types the main tool used is the muscle response test (MRT), which has now been scientifically proven to indicate a positive or negative reaction. 

One or a range of muscles is used to indicate where stress is held in the body, assess how best to release that stress and allow the body to heal.

Some methods of kinesiology use a range of test vials and non-invasive techniques (mentioned above) along side the MRT to further gather information and find best the solution to create the most improvement to your health and well-being.


Examples of what can be checked with Kinesiology include:

  • Foods and chemicals in foods (showing medicine foods for YOUR body and those that cause sensitivities)
  • Nutrients (that work with you to correct a deficiency, or to find out why a nutrient is being used excessively)
  • Parts of the body (checking the efficient working of hormonal glands, organs and key areas of the digestive system)
  • Emotions (where and why they are being held somewhere in a body)
  • Structural problems (that stop the overall flow and smooth working of the body and its functions).

Muscle response testing allows us to listen to the whole of your body. To detect what and which areas are stressed out and then what type of intervention it needs to help it to correct or cope with those functional imbalances.

The kinesiology toolbox is full of techniques to address health problems on all levels whether that is structural/physical, biochemical, emotional, energetic or a combination of these. Your body is constantly working hard to maintain the best health it can and so kinesiology allows your body to choose what it really needs to heal. Create the right environment for your cells and they will thrive and for this we need to know and change what is creating the wrong environment.

Systematic Kinesiology is a system as individual and unique as you and can be used to treat people who have been diagnosed with a disease and receiving conventional medicine as part of an overall health plan. Kinesiology does not diagnose disease, it supports and balances the whole person to enhance health and well-being

The treatment involves lying fully-clothed on a therapy couch going through a series of muscle tests, addressing issues as and when necessary.  

The number of treatments necessary depends on the problems. Some are easy and quick to see results while others are more layered and have been around longer and may take longer to treat. 

Regular checks keep the body balanced in a truly preventative way allowing you to cope with what life throws at you.


Supporting Sustainability

Since setting up my business, I have tried to make it as environmentally friendly as possible, which is a work in progress as new products and practices are developed. With all the recent media attention around Extinction Rebellion and environmental issues in general, I thought it was worth reviewing what I am doing and sharing it with you here. And of course green is the predominant colour of May!


I have been looking at how I can cut down on the amount of printing that I do and so have revised the forms that I use to halve the number of pages for the initial consultation and annual review, which is probably as client friendly as it is environmentally friendly!

In the treatment rooms that I use, I try to save energy by turning off heating, lighting and fans when I don’t need them. I usually only put the washing machine on when I have a full load, and I dry towels on the line outside instead of in the tumble drier when the weather permits. I use an ecoegg for the laundry to avoid pollution and to minimize waste. 


The massage chair that I use for onsite massage and events I obtained second-hand from a colleague who no longer had need of it. And old towels I give away to be used as dog towels or bedding.


If I can’t reduce or reuse something, I recycle it if possible, for example oil containers.


The oils that I use for treatments are all from Naturally Thinking, a British company whose “close relationship with growers allows us to ensure that the way ingredients are grown respects both the environment and workers involved.”

For reflexology treatments I use the Essence Systemology Reflexology Balm, which is an unscented blend of seven natural, organic butters and plant extracts developed by one of my massage tutors Yvonne Lockhart. The spatulas that I use to dispense it are wooden and biodegradable.

I have been using an organic Neal’s Yard spray as a foot cleanser for treatments, but I am about to try out a new product from Rawganic recommended by the Association of Reflexologists.

When I come to replace my stock of paper and fabric towels I will look into the eco-friendly and ethical options available at that time.

I am vegan, so none of the products that I use are tested on animals and none contain animal products.


I am always looking for ways to minimize the impact of my business on the environment, so do let me know if you have any suggestions. And do get in touch if you would like to know more or to book a massage or reflexology treatment.

Why Singing is Good for Your Health

We all know that uplifting feeling that singing gives us.


Whether we’re singing in the shower, singing to celebrate a birthday or other occasion, singing to worship, singing to soothe/heal or singing to support and motivate our favourite sports team, singing has always been fundamental to our lives and our wellbeing.


But now medical research has proven that singing, and specifically singing in a group, can provide a wealth of physical and psychological health benefits, including: 

  • Reducing pain (singing releases endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer)
  • Reducing stress (singing has been proven to lower cortisol levels)
  • Lifting our mood
  • Promoting deep breathing (great for managing anxiety or lung conditions)
  • Improving immunity
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Improving posture
  • Making us feel better!


In fact one recent study showed that group singing is as beneficial to our health as yoga!


Group singing also has the social element of meeting other people and achieving something together as group.


In an interesting experiment last Autumn, Channel 4’s “Live Well for Longer” programme focused on ways all of us can lower our stress levels in the hectic 24/7 world in which we live. The show explored a range of possible stress-reducers and blood pressure reducers, ranging from foods like beetroot, porridge oats and coconut water, through to group singing.  

We all know singing can make us feeling happy and uplifted and in a better mood, but would this be reflected in a scientific test? And indeed how would group singing stack up against the stress-lowering foods being tested?

Well the programme took saliva swabs from a group of singers both before and after their rehearsal, which measured their cortisol levels, a chemical in the body which rises when we are stressed.

And the results showed that after just a short time of singing, on average choir members’ cortisol levels dropped by an amazing 10%! Some individual members saw much larger drops, of 30%, 40% and in one case – 77%! 

So what about the foodstuffs? 

Well of the group testing coconut water, around 50% saw a drop in blood pressure while 50% saw it rise, and overall the group actually had a 2mm rise in blood pressure.


And for the beetroot experiment group the results were identical.


But the porridge oats test group had a more promising result, as 75% of them saw a drop in blood pressure, while 25% had an increase. This group showed an average decrease in the mercury over 6 weeks of 5mm.


But the most startling finding in the whole programme was the long-term effect of group singing on stress levels. It seems that those of us who regularly sing in a choir gain exponential benefits, as the experiment showed that the choir on average had cortisol levels that were a staggering 50% lower than the general population!


It’s amazing that something as simple and easy as singing in a group can make such a difference to our wellbeing.  It’s something we can all do to help ourselves stay happy and healthy. And the great news is, everyone can benefit as it really doesn’t matter whether or not you can sing – just having a go will still deliver the health and wellbeing benefits.


And if you feel your vocal cords are not up to joining a formal choir, then why not join a singing group for health and wellbeing, where the focus is on singing for fun and wellness, not getting everything note perfect.


If you’d like to know more about the health and wellness benefits of singing, or you’d like information about “Sing Your Pain Away” – group singing classes for wellbeing, health and fun, then please contact Jane Gatfield on or visit “Sing Your Pain Away” on facebook.