Healthcare often goes through phases where certain buzzwords will take a dominant place in the minds of marketers and consumers looking for the next big thing to change someone’s life. That’s how the ideas behind terms like ‘wellness’, ‘detox’, ‘gluten-free’, and ‘keto’ get taken and raised like a banner that will change the face of healthcare. An interesting one that I’m seeing catch some steam in recent years is a term that chiropractors and neuroscientists have been using for decades called ‘neuroplasticity’.
I remember hearing and reading about the concept of plasticity about 15 years ago as an undergraduate student going through neurobiology courses. It describes the concept that the brain uses to strengthen the neural connections that it uses often and to weaken the connections that it doesn’t use, in order to adapt itself to the environment. The concept is really profound in people that have experienced strokes. Strokes cause brain cells to die which means those brain cells are not likely to ever grow back. So if the part of the brain that helps to move your leg suffers a stroke, then you may see that person develop a limp.
If the brain was hardwired and you lost the “leg” portion of the brain, then the function of that leg would stay permanently impaired for life. However, that’s not really what we see in real life. Often times, an area of the brain that is affected by stroke may die and become damaged, but the brain can re-organize itself and use other parts of the brain to help regain some of the function in that leg. This is some of the rationale behind the improvements in rehabilitation seen in patients stroke patients undergoing occupational therapy, physical therapy, and chiropractic.
This idea is called plasticity, because it implies that the brain is NOT rigid and hardwired like we once thought, but it is softer and can be re-modeled to fit the needs of that person.
The Popularity of Plasticity and The Perils of Hype
The idea of plasticity made a leap from scientists and doctors to the general public when Dr. Norman Doidge wrote a New York Times Bestseller called:
The book details some amazing feats of healing and adaptability displayed by the human brain. A patient with damage to the balance organs in her ears and felt like she was perpetually falling was taught how to regain her balance by using a tongue sensor. It also shares the story of a woman who was born with just one-half of a brain who has grown to be normal in almost every way. The stories are powerful and moving. They really make you feel like your brain is really capable of almost anything.
From that idea, great ideas have been developed to rehabilitate people with brain injuries and phantom limb pain, and even to teach the blind to see with their tongues. It has also left the field littered with loads of products and services who have hijacked the term to describe brain training tools that allegedly prevent Alzheimer’s or improve memory. It’s also come into the realm of many self-help gurus who distort the science and terminology of plasticity as a way to manipulate sales for their books and consulting services.
While plasticity is a real phenomenon and has some very strong real world applications, we have to guard ourselves from promoting false claims and false hope.
How neuroplasticity can help or hurt your recovery
Neuroplasticity is not a hippie woo term that requires a special chant or mindset in order to derive the benefits. It doesn’t require a self-help book, special chants, or a special exercise to make things work.
Plasticity in its simplest form is the idea that the neural pathways that fire together repeatedly get stronger, and neural pathways that don’t get used start to fade. To throw a cliche out there, plasticity is about practice making perfect, or more realistically practice making permanent.
The more that your body uses a neural pathway the better it becomes at doing that task. That’s how a novice guitar player can fumble around miserably when first learning an instrument despite intense concentration can start to play almost effortlessly with a couple of months of daily practice with good coaching/direction. The muscles of the fingers didn’t change much in any meaningful way, but brain that that was coordinating the movement of those fingers are finely tuned to the timing and precision required of those movements.
It also means that if that same novice guitar player developed bad habits while learning the guitar, that those habits will persist even as they are able to play more songs and riffs. The more that he practices poor technique and sloppy finger movements, the more his brain will use those same techniques because he is getting better at doing something poorly.
What does that mean for you as a patient? Let’s use one example
When you get injured, your body produces pain as a response to injury. Pain serves as an alarm system to slow you down and prevent further injury. That’s why you move a little slower, limp, or walk awkwardly when you throw your back out. After an injury has healed, some patients have developed plasticity in the neural pathways that were triggering pain. This process of sensitization of the peripheral and central nervous system can cause these patients to feel pain even after the injury has healed. Even worse is when this causes plasticity in the pathways that hold your spinal muscles in a certain way that reflects your pain and makes certain movements more painful.
The damage to your body has healed, but plasticity helped the pain to persist. No bueno
This same property of the nervous system can be used to help you recover and heal as well. By understanding which parts of the brain are functioning poorly or damaged, a guided program of treatment can be developed to help the brain recover or compensate appropriately.
So we take that same patient who has developed plasticity in pathways to create chronic pain, then other pathways can develop plasticity to beat the pain. This is one of the emerging concepts in chiropractic research that suggests that adjustments create plastic changes in the brain that may help change muscular activity or abolish the pain response.
When done in combination with a well crafted and designed exercise and rehabilitation program, the tools available to create plasticity in the brain is only limited by the ingenuity and creativity of the doctor, and the determination of the patient to execute their plan of care.
But this isn’t just exclusive to pain. These plastic changes may help you use your muscles a little bit more efficiently for your next big lift. It may help your brain organize itself to find better balance. It may also create changes in the systems of your brain that regulate heart rate and blood pressure too!