At some point in your life, you will experience pain. That is a universal truth if I’ve ever heard one. Everyone has painful experiences with initial traumas occuring at the physical level (spraining an ankle, breaking a bone or stubbing a toe to name a few) or the psycho-emotional level (heartbreak, verbal abuse or loss of a loved one). Even more painful episodes may occur with no known cause.
As we’ve examined more and more closely what goes into the human experience of pain, recent research is giving us clues about how pain comes about, it’s evolutionary benefit and what goes into making something more or less painful for an individual. As we continue to learn more about how and why pain occurs, we are also getting a clearer understanding of how to deal with pain most effectively.
Let’s first talk about why pain occurs. From an evolutionary perspective, most physical pain occurs in order to stop you from doing what you’re doing to stop tissue damage. If you break your leg, the intense feeling of pain with any pressure on the leg will prevent you from walking on it because if you did, you would make the injury much worse. In that case it makes sense. Where it gets confusing (and often frustrating) is when there is the sensation of pain, but there is no danger of tissue damage.
Continued pain without damaged tissue can be the presentation for people with chronic pain. In most cases, tissue of the body (bone, skin, ligaments and muscles) heals completely in 3-6 months. Therefore, unless there has been further injury, pain should stop within that period of time. However, that is simply not the case for a lot of people suffering with chronic pain. It is estimated that 100 million people in the US suffer from chronic pain so this is a big problem and one that we need to address with more than pharmaceuticals.
In cases where chronic pain occurs without tissue damage, the brain is being tricked into believing that there continues to be tissue damage. A key issue in these cases is sensitization of the nervous system. Sensitization is a process in which repeated stimulation results in amplification of a response. In the case of chronic pain, the initial stimulation (painful event) occurred, causing the nervous system to react (as it should). However, for a variety of reasons during what should be the healing process, the nervous system became overloaded and is unable to “turn off” the pain response. This results in the feeling of pain that lasts far longer than what is needed to protect the tissue.
The good news is that there are a variety of ways to correct a sensitized nervous system. The key to all of these is to focus on allowing the nervous system to calm down. Once it is reliably out of a sensitized state, it will correct itself and the feeling of pain will go away on its own.
Here are ways you can affect your nervous system in a positive way:
- Meditation – Research shows that meditation and breathing exercises provide ways to reduce stress and wind down the nervous system by activating the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). Learn more about the importance of being able to activate the PNS by reading this blog post.
- Diet & lifestyle – How we eat and live can contribute to a sensitized immune system. Constant TV, phone and media exposure create a never-ending barrage for our nervous system to deal with. The Standard American Diet (SAD) includes a large amount of inflammatory foods that are also taxing to the nervous system. For a sensitized nervous system, it is essential to avoid excessive screen time, get out and socialize, sleep 8+ hours / night. For dietary recommendations, start by making sure you drink enough water (divide body weight in half, drink that in oz), avoid sugar and processed foods, avoid or severely limit alcohol and smoking.
- Physical activity – Comfortable levels of movement without fear help de-sensitize the immune system, increase blood flow to restricted areas and decrease inflammation.
- Acupuncture – Acupuncture can have far-reaching effects on the body, many of which we are still researching to understand better. So far, research has uncovered that acupuncture:
- Increases blood flow to tissue (essential if there continues to be tissue damage)
- Releases hormones, neurotransmitters, natural pain killers, increases oxygen saturation in tissue
- De-inflames and desensitizes the nervous system
- Results in new tissue formation
Chronic pain can affect every aspect of a person’s life and make it hard to to anything else. However there is hope! Pain is 100% a construct of the brain and nervous system and the brain can be re-trained! The key is approaching the pain from multiple angles in order to achieve relief.