CENTRAL SENSITISATION – WHAT IS IT AND WHO IS AFFECTED
You may have heard this phrase before or read it in an article in a magazine or online but what does it really mean? Well, your ‘central’ nervous system is your brain and your spinal cord and its nerves. Your nervous system responds to stimuli and can change its response slowly over time with each exposure leading to ‘sensitization’.
In my clinic I often see clients with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which is believed to be one of the many results of Central Sensitization (CS). Others can include Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Myofascial Pain Syndrome, Restless Leg Syndrome and even Migraines. But why and how does this happen?
The jury is still out on why, but some thoughts are:
• The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is dysfunctional – the body’s stress response is necessary and useful but imagine being stuck in gear causing overall distress.
• Inflammation – another useful tool and a natural healing response to injury, virus and disease but not so useful if it is widespread and constant.
• A problem with the brain’s chemical messengers – known as neurotransmitters, they might not be behaving as expected or within known parameters.
How many of you have developed an allergy or intolerance to a certain food or substance which seems to have escalated over the years? It is more common than we think with an estimated 21.3 million adults (33%) in the UK suffering from one allergy with 10 million suffering more than one (Mintel 2010). Here is my story:
As a child, between the age of 8 and 12, I would often perform as a dancer and acrobat in school and community summer fetes. These shows were often on fields with me dancing and rolling around on the grass showing off my acrobatic skills. After the first fete I was fine, by the third or fourth I noticed that my skin was itchy after the performance. After two years of doing these I wasn’t even able to sit on the grass when on a family picnic without feeling itchy. But it wasn’t until I was in my mid 20s, while on a romantic date that I had a bad reaction to the pollen in the warm summer air. My eyes were itchy, my face puffed up, my nose ran and I started to become wheezy. We ended up in a fast food restaurant which had air conditioning and my symptoms subsided. Fast forward 2 years and I was diagnosed with Hayfever, 2 years after that, seasonal Asthma, 4 years after that…..full blown Asthma and Hayfever. Then gradually over the next 25 years I become more sensitive to other known stimuli like dust and my children’s guinea pigs!!
My body’s reaction to a stimulus gradually changed over a period of time, and following each exposure. until eventually I developed CS but what goes on in the body of someone with CS?
• Allodynia: This is when the body feels pain to stimuli which does not usually cause pain. Like wearing a soft fluffy jumper but it feels like sandpaper on your skin. Or being tickled with a feather yet it feels like being scratched with a knife.
• Hyperalgesia: Feeling an increased pain sensation to stimuli which is known to elicit pain. Like having a deep tissue massage but instead of that feeling of ‘good pain’, it feels like being beaten up in a boxing ring!
For people with Chronic Fatigue and Fibromyalgia, eventually everything is amplified which can lead to lights seeming too bright, heat too hot, noises too loud. Their body is on high alert, there seems to be no end to pain somewhere in their bodies with periods of less pain or flare-ups. It is utterly exhausting being in pain, always aching, always tired but never feeling rested after sleep. Being in this state leads to ‘fibro fog’ (confusion), poor recollection, panic, anxiety, emotional, tearful, angry, irritable….you get the picture.
What help is there?
From my professional viewpoint, there is myofascial release, gentle massage and trigger point therapy. By using a light listening touch and maintaining good communication with my clients, I am able to work with their nervous system with the intention of calming everything down. Less is most definitely more. But the most valuable gift we can offer someone with this level of CS is to listen and truly ‘hear’ them. Let them know that they are understood and supported, talk to them about their symptoms and ask if there is anything you can do to help. It doesn’t sound like much but the relief of knowing someone else ‘gets it’ (to quote a client) is very powerful. After reading this I hope that you too ‘get it’ now go out there and show it!