Understanding Chronic Pain
Physical pain is an unpleasant, natural, and unavoidable part of life. Whether you fall off your bike or prick your finger on a needle, pain sensations are produced when receptors are activated and send electrical signals to the brain. While pain is normally fleeting and designed to shock the body into action, chronic pain is a reality for millions of people around the world. Medical researchers are learning more about chronic pain all the time, with new treatments developed for this pervasive and distressing condition.
Normal pain sensations are designed to induce a physical response. While temporary pain often lacks subtlety, in essence, it is your body's way of telling you that something is wrong. Chronic pain is different, however, with messages that normally last for minutes or days sometimes enduring for weeks, months, or even years. While symptoms and time frames vary widely, chronic pain is defined as any pain that lasts for at least three to six months.
Chronic pain involves a complex net of electrical and chemical messages within the brain and nervous system. While pain signals always travel from nerves to the brain, the signals get less intense and eventually stop when the cause of the pain is resolved. With chronic pain, however, nerve signals keep firing even when the body is healed. While this is obviously a problem, according to recent research, it may occur when the body works too well.
According to neuroscientist Dr. Stanton, "We're feeling pain because our brain is determining whether or not we need to be protected... What we often see in people with chronic pain, is that the pain system itself is over-protective — it's doing too good of a job." This understanding alone could be incredibly valuable, especially if we find a way to modulate the sensitivity of pain systems. With the brain and gut already known to influence inflammation and pain responses, lifestyle interventions could be the key to chronic pain management.
According to Dr. Stanton, "So they're things like making an effort every day to move more, making an effort to get enough sleep, [and] really thinking about diet, because diet can play a huge role in how much inflammation we have within our body... All of those things they might not seem like much, but when you add them all together and when you individualise them to that person, that can be an enormous contribution." While people often avoid making positive changes due to the pain they cause, making gradual changes over time does help the body to adapt.
Along with lifestyle changes, the link between physical and psychological pain is changing the face of chronic pain management. People who experience physical pain often get stuck in a negative mind-body loop, with depression and anxiety developing and causing more pain as a result. According to Dr. Stanton, anxiety blocks the "natural drug cabinet in the brain", and depression "changes the biology of your experience." Once again, natural lifestyle interventions are the key to effective pain management, with healthy food, exercise, and mindfulness central to every positive recovery story.