A neuroscientist studies how the brain perceives pain.

How you think about physical pain can make it worse

It's not all in your head. But a promising new approach to treatment may offer relief to many sufferers of chronic pain.

Vitaly Napadow, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, studies how the brain perceives pain. To do that, he uses electroencephalography to track the brain wave patterns of patients with chronic lower back pain.
Photograph by Robert Clark, Nat Geo Image Collection

Dan Waldrip had been in pain, on and off, for 18 years. He was a healthy 27-year-old when he woke up the morning after mowing his lawn with his back throbbing so intensely he couldn’t get out of bed. Afterward he suffered intermittently, feeling fine for weeks and then experiencing days of stabbing pain or dull aches.

Over the years, Waldrip spent thousands of dollars on chiropractic procedures, acupuncture, physical therapy, pain medications, and numerous other treatments. Once, during a business trip to South Africa, desperation drove him to hire an energy healer at an outdoor market. When nothing worked, Waldrip accepted that his “tricky back” would always impact his life.

“If I was walking along and dropped something, I would panic that bending over might make my injury worse,” says Waldrip, who is now a 49-year-old private equity manager in Louisville, Colorado.

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