DESENSITIZATION THERAPY CAN EASE PAIN BY REWORKING THE BRAIN’S RESPONSE TO STIMULI
By Calli Barker Schmidt
By exposing the body to painful stimuli in a gradual way, desensitization therapy can help improve painful responses to touch experienced by individuals living with neuropathic pain.
Typically administered by occupational and physical therapists, desensitization therapy seeks to change the way the brain processes pain—especially pain that is the result of neurological systems that have gone off track. By gradually increasing their exposure to a stimulus, such as a warm compress, cold pack, or pieces of cloth, individuals become more acclimated to the pressure or pain. The earlier on after the onset of their pain that an individual can begin desensitization therapy, the more quickly they may achieve results, says Peter Abaci, MD, a pain specialist with IPM Medical Group, a California practice that focuses on the management of chronic pain.
Tactic employed for anxiety can help pain, too
Mental health professionals often employ desensitization techniques to help people gradually overcome fear or anxiety. A person who is afraid of heights, for example, might be guided to first imagine looking at a tall building, then take a few steps on a ladder, then, as they get more comfortable, look out the window of an upper story, with the goal of decreasing their fear until the individual is able to abide ever-increasing heights.
In a similar way, desensitization techniques also work with physical pain and hypersensitivity associated with injury or illness, Abaci says.
Desensitization is often used to treat complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS), a condition in which the body experiences a disproportionate amount of pain and sensitivity, usually as the result of an injury, a stroke, or trauma after a surgical procedure. Abaci notes it also can be helpful for individuals with post-herpetic neuralgia (skin pain following a case of shingles), diabetic neuropathy, or similar neuropathies.
“In a general way, CRPS is an abnormal processing of the neurological system,” says Abaci. “It’s some complication of the peripheral nerve from injury or disease that leads to central nervous system changes between the brain and the body.”
Rewiring the brain’s responses
Desensitization therapy takes the sensitive limb or area of the body and exposes it to increasing pressure. During these appointments, the affected area is brought into contact first with soft materials such as silk or cotton. Gradually, rougher items such as uncooked rice are used.
Successful desensitization therapy acclimates the individual to perceived pain by stimulating the affected area until the sensation gradually starts to feel more normal. The therapy aims to make daily activities, such as wearing clothing items on the affected area, less painful.
The therapist often gives individuals additional exercises to practice at home. When desensitization is successful, “it’s remodeling the way the brain is processing the pain,” Abaci says.
Successful desensitization therapy acclimates the individual to perceived pain by stimulating the affected area until the sensation gradually starts to feel more normal”