To Be or Not to Be… in Pain
With age, some people tend to experience more pain, and many of us accept it as normal. But maybe we do not have to. Let us explore how pain works. Why do we hurt, and why do some people have different pain tolerances than others? And most importantly, how do we decrease or stop pain?
What Does the Science Say about Pain?
The feeling of pain finds its origin in a part of your brain called the cingulate gyrus, also responsible for learning and emotions. This may explain why nobody feels things in the exact same way and why it is so hard to qualify the level of pain.
Pain is an amazing survival mechanism. Your brain decides that you should experience pain if it believes there is a problem or a threat. Pain can even be triggered when there is only potential threat of damage. And strangely enough, sometimes there will be tissue damage and the brain will not feel pain.
Pain can be useful and informative, as it is one of the symptoms of inflammation. It tells us to stop doing something that can injure us or warns us about our environment. Think of muscle burn in overexertion or repetitive motion, or the pain you have when you try to step on an injured foot. The pain is there to help you heal and prevent further damage.
However, in certain people, pain becomes persistent even after an acute injury is healed, and it can spread to a different area of the body. Pain then becomes the problem itself. Your brain can learn to be in pain.
The ability of the brain to adapt and make new connections and to learn new information is called neuroplasticity. The more we focus on something, the easier it is to learn. We have all heard “practice makes perfect.” This is a great tool. Conversely, when we focus too much on pain, it can make it feel persistent, more intense, and harder to get rid of. What can be done if our brain has learned to be in pain?
Strategies That Help to Modulate the Pain
Having a Positive Attitude
- Focus on what makes you happy, have a gratitude list, concentrate on small accomplishments day to day. Such positivity has been shown to help patients heal.
- Meditation can also be a very effective tool to manage pain. Many different styles exist, so you must explore to find one that is a good match for you.
Getting Enough Sleep
- Sleep is the ultimate restorative activity. When we do not have enough sleep, we trigger the fight-or-flight mode of our nervous system even more. When its sympathetic system is overactive, it will increase the sensation of pain perceived by the brain.
- In some cases, patients report that certain foods will increase their pain level. Having a varied, colourful diet, rich in vitamins and minerals, may be helpful in providing the body with needed nutrients to repair an injury.
- Take care of your bowels. The gut is often called the “second brain” and has a big impact on brain function and inflammation.
- Certain supplements have been found to be helpful to support the healing process of both the tissue and the brain neuroplasticity. Talk to your certified naturopath or pharmacist for proper guidance.
- Do a little bit every day. Taking short walks several times a day has been shown to help decrease the level of perceived pain.
- Move in a pleasant setting; go to a peaceful park, meet with fun people, try an exciting new activity.
- Visualize the motion: When movement is impossible, thinking about it may reproduce some of the same neurological benefits.
- See your family chiropractor—really!
How Does Chiropractic Affect Pain?
The brain knows how the body is positioned and how it is moving because of a network of sensors distributed in the body. These sensors allow the brain to make a 3D image of the body and then use that information to make the body move. Eighty percent of those sensors are in the spine. The spinal movement is therefore extremely important in having an accurate perception of your body’s position and motion.
Scientists have shown that chiropractic spinal adjustments can have a positive neuroplastic effect (more helpful connections) on the brain, specifically on the prefrontal cortex. This is a part of the brain that is very involved in why the pain becomes chronic. Researchers believe that the chiropractic adjustment of the spine can turn down—or even turn off—the pain signal that the brain is creating. This adjustment seems to allow the brain to better evaluate the body position and motion as well as what is happening to it, therefore allowing the body to respond more appropriately to these circumstances. The chiropractor will find the spinal segments that are not moving appropriately, which may or may not be where the pain is felt, and—with a gentle adjustment—will restore more motion in that joint. This may subsequently improve the nervous function, allowing the brain and body to have an improved communication.
Pain is a universal experience, and it has helped humans to survive over millennia by keeping us from harm. But it can become invasive and incapacitating when it gets out of hand. Our current fast-paced lifestyles and hectic environments may increase our bodies’ tendency to live in a fight-or-flight mode, which in turns predisposes us to chronic pain and inflammation. What is important to remember is that there are solutions available to us to mitigate the impacts and find paths to deeper healing.
May your journey to health be a successful one!
Dr. Nathalie Godbout, Chiropractor
Dr. Nathalie Godbout believes that a nervous system without interference plays a key role in our health, allowing us to adapt optimally to our changing environment. Moreover, our health behaviours (sleep, exercise, nutrition, and mental health) are essential to this balance.
A special mention to Haavik Research for their continued effort to gather the best science available for chiropractors.
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