Pain is a very interesting phenomenon. Pain signals from the body to the brain are vitally important in protecting us from life-threatening injury, and they are also the after-effect of tissue damage, whether minor or life-endangering. Pain serves as more than a warning signal though, and can help to initiate the healing response. So pain is actually essential to health. However, when pain becomes chronic, it is stressful, and has some very detrimental effects on our health and well-being.
Pain can cause fear and undue stress on the body-mind complex. I believe that fear plays a big part in how we perceive pain. If we understand that the pain is temporary and part of the necessary response to injury and healing, it seems bearable. But when we can’t identify a reason or there seems to be no known method of resolution, pain can become terrifying. This fear reaction adds to the level of the pain and the ability of the person to manage it.
A simple illustration of this phenomenon is to compare the pain resulting from a new exercise routine and abdominal pain that comes on suddenly and without explanation. One is understood as a necessary discomfort in order to build stronger muscles and the other sometimes generates fear of a dire diagnosis of some incurable or devastating disease.
There are situations where pharmaceutical pain management is warranted and necessary. That said, there are also many ways to handle pain with less detrimental after-effects. Given the current, and widely publicized explosion of opioid addiction, our healthcare system now seems motivated to explore some of these methods. Another problem with pain medications is known as the rebound effect, wherein the body, over time, adapts to the chemistry of the pain medicine so that subsequent reduction of the medicine then triggers pain.
Another very important reason to avoid pain medications is that we now know they interfere with the resolution of inflammation. Inflammation is the normal response of the body to injury and chemical damage. When the body is functioning properly, inflammation helps to bring healing to the injured area and then resolves naturally. Pain medications interfere with the resolution phase of inflammation and can cause the body to go into a chronic inflammatory cycle.
Many pain and anti-inflammatory medications can cause stomach ulcers, liver damage, intestinal permeability problems (aka “leaky gut”), and many other side effects. Sometimes these side-effects are from long term use of these meds, but occasionally they can result from just a few uses. In my mind, before any medication is used, several factors must be weighed.
First, is the use of medication necessary to prevent death or serious damage to the body? Second, do we know what is causing the pain or symptom? And third, is there a better, safer, more effective strategy? When it comes to pain, I find many times there is a better, safer and more effective way of managing it for improved long-term outcome.
Chronic pain can be caused by a number of factors such as chronic inflammation due to dietary and metabolic factors, loss of tolerance to environmental stimulants, chronic stress, deterioration of joints, muscular tension, fascial adhesions, injuries or surgeries that heal improperly or with excessive scar tissue and the list goes on and on.
So how do you free yourself from the stranglehold pain can have on your life and sense of well-being? There are a number of steps in this process. Follow these and I will assure you, at the very least, a better handle on your pain and a better quality of life:
- Find the underlying cause of your pain. Sometimes this is not easy, especially in the current healthcare environment of treating the symptoms without uncovering the cause. It is very important to know what you are dealing with so that it can be resolved and not just covered up and perpetuated. The most pertinent analogy is that you would never turn off a fire alarm and then neglect to put out the fire. But that is what you do when you turn off symptoms without finding out what they are warning you about.
- Enact the necessary lifestyle changes to correct the cause of your pain. 90% of healthcare issues today are caused by lifestyle factors. There is a solution to your pain!
- Get active! It is a known fact of physiology that activating the mechanoreceptors in the joints through movement, shuts off the nociceptors (pain receptors). Pain relief can be as simple as more movement. There are exceptions to this of course. A broken bone should not be moved and excessive movement can cause more inflammation and damage. So use your common sense and evaluate your response to the activity. Honestly though, much of the time you just have to push past the discomfort and make yourself MOVE!
- Use plant-based pain relievers. Remember that aspirin was originally made from white willow bark and prednisone is just a synthetic form of our body’s own anti-inflammatory hormone, cortisol. The difference between the man-made and natural versions is that the plant chemicals cause a resolution of the inflammatory cycle rather than interrupting it. Some plant-based pain relievers are willow bark extract and magnesium. If the pain is due to inflammation (and most of the time it is!), your best bets are turmeric, omega-3 fatty acids, frankincense, ginger and resveratrol but there are many, many others depending on the particulars of the underlying cause.
- And lastly, but certainly not least-ly, take advantage of the power of your mind to reduce the stress response, including your fear and anxiety about the pain. If you understand the cause of the pain and know that it is not immediately life-threatening, you can relax a little and focus on the powerful ability of your mind. Studies show that the “placebo effect” is at least 30% effective. This is because once your worry and anxiety stop interfering, the brain can get active in producing the correct chemicals to aid in healing. Your brain produces chemicals, like endorphins, that are natural pain relievers.
Here are some mind-body techniques to investigate:
- Meditations designed for pain relief. You can find some on YouTube and more on the Insight Timer app.
- The Heart Math Institute, which provides a wealth of tools on their web site, heartmath.org
- John Sarno, who developed a pain management technique that has helped many people rid themselves of chronic pain. Dr. Sarno passed away in 2017, but he published several books on his technique, one of which is The Mindbody Prescription, Healing the Body, Healing the Pain.
Pain is an important signal from your body and should not be ignored. The root cause of the pain should be investigated and uncovered. Of foremost importance is that this underlying cause be corrected. Otherwise, you are using the band aid approach, which can lead to more complex and serious problems down the road.
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