Learn a New Vocabulary for Sensation

Wellness Concept

Learning a New Vocabulary for Sensation

From the Healing Bridge Physical Therapy

October 2007 Wellness Notes

By Allison Suran PT, GCFP

“My back hurts,” “I have pain down my leg,” “I’m here to stop hurting.” These are comments physical therapists regularly hear from patients. Our job, then, is to get to a more detailed description of the symptoms. Your PT will clarify what you mean by “pain” by asking questions to determine if it is aching, throbbing, sharp, shooting, tingling, stinging, dull, etc. However, how often are patients taught and provided descriptions of sensations that are pleasant?

People often reduce their physical experience down to GOOD or BAD. Sometimes it’s STRONG or WEAK, or HEALTHY and UNHEALTHY. Yet there are many other distinctions that can be made for physical sensations. When experiences are reduced to good vs. bad, the brain’s capacity to fully examine the experience is limited. Learning a new language for sensations can provide more positive options for a sense of well-being.

How a person experiences him or herself is not “black and white.” Yet, when one is experiencing pain, it is easy to forget the myriad of other physical sensations that are also present at the time. People easily get tunnel-visioned around pain, thus limiting the brain’s capacity to direct attention beyond the pain. For my patients who experience chronic pain, or long-lasting symptoms, I often refer to this as the “brain/pain super highway.” If the only time a person experiences sensation is when there is a signal of pain, the nervous system develops a well-routed path to continue to feel, remember, recall, and even reprieve the experience of pain. My hope is to teach the language of sensation for the rest of the body and facilitate the development of the “scenic” routes as alternatives.

Patients can be guided into feeling supportive and pleasant sensations throughout their bodies, so the region of pain is just one of the rest-stops among many they can chose to experience. When pain triggers a physiological fight/flight response, patients can learn to redirect their attention to the breath in their abdomen. For back and neck pain, learning to adjust ones posture from their pelvis can be an excellent way to utilize and engage more accurate support for healthy posture without the overexertion of ones back muscles. By bringing attention to a sense of a flexible spine and ribs, the mechanics of the legs and feet can change to alter the stressors that may be contributing to foot, knee or hip pain.

There are numerous ways to describe physical sensations, and I have provided a partial list below.

Aching    Balanced    Bigger    Clumsy

Cold/Cool    Compressed    Contracted    Diagonal

Easy    Even    Familiar    Flat

Floaty    Free     Frozen    Graceful

Grounded    Hard    Heat    Heavy

Intense    Length    Light    Longing

Loose    Mellow    Open    Permeability

Playful    Pressing    Pressure    Pulsing

Random    Seated    Sharp    Short

Smaller    Soft    Solid    Spacious

Springy    Stabbing    Sticky    Stiff

Stinging    Strong    Temperature    Thin

Throbbing     Tight    Tingly    Transparent

Unfamiliar    Unbalanced    Vibration     Warm

Weak     Weighted    Wispy    Wobbly

However, to switch out of the dominant thoughts of pain or tension, which contribute to the fight/flight triggers in the brain, you can practice shifting attention to pleasant or neutral sensations throughout the rest of your body. This conscious effort can have huge benefits. Not only can you develop a sense of support for the areas that are painful, but by bringing your attention into your body, you shift out of your repetitive thinking brain, away from the brain-pain super highway, and create moments of relaxation that can benefit your life in so many ways: sleep, memory, and energy, just to name a few.

Learning to pay attention to physical sensations is useful whether or not you are in pain. Try practicing the discovery of new sensations in your body everyday, and see if you don’t begin to enjoy living in your body in a new way!