Ask the Dentist: There's more to chronic pain than biting your tongue

Lucy Stock, dentist at Gentle Dental Care in Belfast, says chronic pain is much more complex than what happens when you bite your tongue

Ouch! Biting your tongue can be extremely sore but it's very different from chronic pain
Lucy Stock

EVERYTHING was going swimmingly at my dinner party; the first two courses had not poisoned my guests and the chocolate soufflés had risen.

My self-congratulatory mood wasn’t to last, though, as, just as the chocolate sauce started to flow out of the soufflés my eldest son let out a piercing howl. I sprinted upstairs to find him holding his blood-splattered mouth.

“Please don’t let it be the teeth,” I implored as I examined the damage and ascertained that that the injury had been caused by face stamping from the younger brother.

I worked hard to hide my contentment when I saw that the blood was coming from a large gash in the tongue and not the teeth (the tongue heals rapidly, no treatment).

This is an example of acute pain. It’s easy to understand how this tissue damage excites nerves that send signals to the brain and then we feel pain. However, pain is not always straightforward; it's not normally cause and effect.

If pain lasts for more than six months it is considered to be chronic pain. Chronic pain affects between a third and half of the population of the UK.

It is much more complicated than nerves firing and the brain reacting. The brain works in an exceedingly complicated way; it can turn up pain or decrease it like a sound amplifier, so pain is not a reliable sign of what’s really going on in our bodies. Chronic pain is influenced by many things, like how stressed we are, life events at the time of the initial pain and even how we talk about the pain.

Being in love and holding hands has been scientifically shown to reduce chronic pain.

What all this means is that there is hope for people suffering from chronic pain conditions to reduce some of their pain. A confident, happy, secure brain amplifies danger signals less than an anxious, miserable brain.

There are techniques to help the brain feel more secure, like biofeedback and cognitive functional therapy. You can alter physiology with deep vigorous breathing, exercising, reducing anxiety and even how you speak about the pain.

There is no cure-all for chronic pain; remember to consult your doctor or dentist.

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