The final concepts of importance for this introduction to pain neuroscience are neuroplasticity and pain neurotags, also known as pain maps.
If you are typing, the brain devotes more neural activity to your hands so that you can function better. An example that shows how quickly and effectively the brain can do this is that merely taping four of your fingers together for 30-minutes can rewire the brain in how it treats moving the fingers thereafter. You can quickly lose efficacy in the ability to move each finger independently, which is known as cognitive smudging.,
If you’re repeatedly in pain, then the brain rewires to report pain more efficiently. It will also develop more patterns in the brain and more chemicals in the body to activate the alarm sensors in the neurons to more easily trigger pain. Troublingly, the longer your pain continues, the more advanced and complex the changes in the brain become.,,, The brain will even cause smudging in the brain to make the hurt body part more difficult to use or nearby body parts painful to try to get you to stop using the area.
Each time pain occurs, the brain makes a pain neurotag. A pain neurotag is a set of neurons that wire together in multiple areas of the brain based on the onset of what caused a particular pain. What happens with these neurotags is that the brain starts pulling resources away from areas of the brain responsible for essential functions for sensation, movement, focus and concentration, fear, memory, motivation, and stress response to make the neurotag and to cause pain instead. The neurotag then activates when any part of that map is triggered, whether it is a memory of an event or a movement tied to the onset of pain. Any activation of one part of the neurotag can trigger all the other areas of the brain associated with the neurotag, and an entire orchestra of neural energy can be devoted to creating pain. This means there can be many triggers for pain that shouldn’t be painful, such as the mistaken pain signals mentioned earlier. The brain areas that are part of a pain neurotag is completely individual for each pain situation,
Remember Lorimer Moseley’s pain from stepping on a twig that was similar to a snake bite? That is an example of a pain neurotag. The brain takes a snapshot of everything at that moment that led to the threat–the sensations, movement, your emotions, and memory. Any of those factors can become triggers to cause the same pain. In an effort to keep you alive, your brain can wire a pain pattern across multiple brain regions immediately around a pain experience, such as in Moseley’s case. Moseley went for a walk in a similar location and environment and experienced a similar stimulus to a snake bite. Thus, his brain activated the pain neurotag for a snake bite when a twig poked him. The more times the pain gets triggered, the more efficient the brain becomes at sending pain in similar circumstances, and the easier it becomes to trigger it again in the future. So if you wonder why a certain kind of music, a specific smell, or specific surroundings could be triggering pain for you, it’s not that you’re losing your mind. Those stimuli are likely associated with some first pain you felt, and the pain neurotag formed around that experience.
One consequence of having a pain neurotag is that you can lose capability in any or all those involved areas in the brain, since that gray matter is now devoted to pain instead. So your pain can cause problems with sensation, difficulty with moving, tremors, or an inability to concentrate. You can also experience wild outsized fears, forgetfulness, a lack of motivation, and more easily slip into fight/flight/freeze when you’re in pain.