If you’ve ever had a nerve or brain injury, you would know that it is scary. Usually, the moment you suspect that nerves could be causing your problem, it feels much more serious and severe. You might feel worried and wonder: “what if I lose all feeling” or “what if I can’t move and end up in a wheelchair”. Most people think that nerves and the whole nervous system is something that does not recover easy.

However, there is good news. I’m here to tell you more about how resilient your nervous system really is and how it can heal itself in wonderful ways without you even knowing. Neural plasticity is a term to describe just that.

What exactly is neural plasticity?

Neural plasticity is also known as neuroplasticity or brain plasticity. It can be defined as the ability of the nervous system to change its connections and re-wire itself in response to changes or injury happening in your body.

Let’s take a few steps back to look at what exactly is your nervous system. Your nervous system consists out of your brain, spinal cord and nerves. You can think of it as the electrical wiring system that keeps your body going.

  • Your brain is the centre of control, the place where all nerves come together. It sends messages, it saves information and manages all the systems in your body. Without it, you would not survive.
  • The spinal cord is a thick bundle of nerves that connects directly to your brain. It is the highway for messages to be sent to and from your brain. From it you have smaller nerves that branch out to the rest of your body.
  • Nerves run directly from your spinal cord and form a whole network throughout your body. It ranges from thick nerves, to the smallest and finest nerves and nerve endings. All these nerves connect to each other in the end.

That is why we talk of it as your nervous system. It contains all nerves in your body. And when one part gets injured, the rest is affected as well.

What happens when you injure your nervous system?

To really understand neural plasticity, you must first understand what happens with a nervous system injury. This is a broad topic, so let’s break it down in easier sections.

Brain

This is an injury that directly affects and injures your brain. It can range from a bump to your head, to a stroke (due to bleeding in your brain) or even an infection like meningitis. Depending on exactly where in your brain the injury takes place, it will affect certain functions in your body. Our brains are responsible for managing everything from breathing, to digestion, to movement, to thinking or speaking. And because of this, a brain injury is likely to affect one or more of these skills. Often, a brain injury will lead to some of the affected brain nerve cells to die completely.

Spinal cord

An injury to your spinal cord is typically caused by a traumatic injury, like a car accident or falling from something very high. You do get certain infections and diseases that could attack your spinal cord, but that is very rare. When your spinal cord is injured, it usually affects the rest of the spinal cord and nerves below where the injury took place. For example: if someone damages their spinal cord in a motorbike accident, they could be paralysed from the place of the injury and down. Mostly spinal cord injuries lead to changes in your ability to feel different sensations and ability to move, all depending on the severity of the injury.

Nerves

Injuring a nerve will usually just affect the rest of the nerve below it. This will change your ability to feel sensations like pressure, temperature and soft touch and it might affect your ability to move the bodypart where this nerve is found. Don’t think a nerve injury is less significant, it could just as easily give you just as much pain and problems as a brain injury.

Putting it into perspective

Even the smallest injury to a nerve will affect your brain as well, because that nerve won’t be able to transmit messages to your brain the same way as it used to. The same can be said of a brain injury. Even though the injury might be to your brain itself, it will affect the type of messages being transmitted to the rest of your nervous system. This brings us back to the point. You need to think of your nervous system as a whole.

Nina Myburg Physiotherapist and medical professional at Well Health Pro
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Did you know that by frequently using certain brain cells, you actually strengthen the pathway, because you use it so often. And if you don’t use it, your brain re-structures it or eliminates it. Think of it as learning to drive. Initially, you have to concentrate really hard and get used to the car. But, with time, you’re so used to it, you could almost do it in your sleep (don’t let this be an excuse to drive when you are asleep).

Carli van Dyk - Physiotherapist and medical professional at Well Health Pro
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Where does neural plasticity come in after a nervous system injury?

First let’s look at the term Neural plasticity. Plasticity refers to the brain’s malleability, which means it can be easily influenced, trained, or controlled. Neural refers to the nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and nervous system. Thus, neuroplasticity is when nerve cells change or adjust, just like learning a new skill. Luckily, we have millions of brain nerve cells and our brains are good at learning new skills. So, if a certain part gets injured, nerve cells around it can form new pathways to connect to each other.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that all nervous system injuries will simply be healed. It will all depend on the amount of damage and type of injury.

You might read this and think: “I don’t have a nervous system injury”. But, other things will also affect your nervous system in such a way that it has to adapt. Things like pain, stress, anxiety or auto-immune diseases can all put a lot of strain on your nervous system. When you’re in pain, your nervous system will constantly be busy with processing pain signals and trying to manage it. So, you can imagine that chronic pain or constant stress means that your nervous system will adapt to this pain. For example you start forming habits to avoid the pain, like not exercising or not bending, because you know it will be sore.

How can physiotherapists use neural plasticity?

Neural plasticity is not a certain technique that physiotherapists can simply use. Each person’s body is different and each person will heal at their own rate. Your body will be responsible for forming these new nervous system pathways. But, as physiotherapists there are certain things we can do to encourage neural plasticity. These things are spread out in your treatment session.

  • Listening and carefully evaluating your problem to get an idea of how your nervous system could be involved
  • Advise you on ways to encourage healing
  • Explain the condition and sort out concerns and fears you might have about your problem
  • Encourage new habits that will help to improve your pain
  • Help you to set goals and work with a plan towards new goals

Our physiotherapists are equipped with the right skills to help you with all of the above-mentioned things.

You won’t be charged specifically for neural plasticity during your treatment and it isn’t something you will cleary feel. But in the bigger picture, it is a necessary step to ensure your body heals the best it can.