In our world, we’re so used to quick fixes:
- Cut yourself chopping? Put a Band-Aid over it.
- Tummy sore? Pop a pill.
- Still single? Go on a dating reality TV Show. Try swiping on online dating.
While this can work for some things, it doesn’t always apply. If you’ve experienced a chronic condition, such as an autoimmune disease or chronic pain, you’ll agree with me when I say that it can be incredibly frustrating when someone tells you that one pill will heal it all. As someone who has suffered from fibromyalgia, I’m with you.
So, I've decided it's time to dive into chronic pain – what is it, what causes it and is there anything we can do about it?
What’s the Difference Between Acute Pain and Chronic Pain?
Acute pain, a type of pain that lasts less than three months, is an essential function of our body – it signals that there’s damage and prevents further harm through the overuse of the area.1 Chronic pain, which lasts for three months or more, no longer helps the body. Instead, chronic pain can be detrimental to the physical and psychological well-being of the sufferer.
So, What Causes Chronic Pain?
1. Challenging Childhood Experiences
Yep, first up, I’m going to hit you with the hard-hitting stuff – childhood trauma. As we grow up, the nervous system learns to detect danger. When we experience something that feels unsafe as a kid, the brain gains a deeper understanding of protecting us and sounds our internal alarm system. If we undergo a lot of danger, the internal alarm response of our nervous system becomes increasingly more sensitive.
2. Coping Mechanisms
Let’s say younger you got into a verbal fight with a friend, and you didn’t like sitting in the discomfort of the conflict. If this pattern repeats throughout childhood, you may have developed some people-pleasing strategies to help you avoid conflict. Or, let’s say, you failed a math test. If your parents were disappointed in you at the time, you probably tried harder and were praised for doing better in the next one. In adulthood, this could lead to perfectionist tendencies. While both of these coping strategies can seem harmless to the naked eye, they cause a constant state of tension in the nervous system, triggering chronic pain.
3. Everyday Stress
When we come into contact with something that we deem stressful, our nervous system activates the sympathetic nervous system: our flight or fight response. Symptoms of the sympathetic nervous system include a rapid heart rate, increased breath rate, muscle tension, inhibited digestion capability and more. The more we activate the sympathetic nervous system, the more active it becomes – which means our body feels like it has to constantly fight off stress, even if there's nothing particularly stressful happening.
4. Major Life Events
While everyday stress can trigger physical symptoms, significant life changes can also develop new or worsen current symptoms. For example, health scares, such as major surgeries, diseases or injuries, can cause our nervous system to become overprotective. This experience can cause us to catastrophise pain or have a more intense experience of pain. Other major life events that can cause chronic pain include:
- A change in relationship status
- A financial change
- Death or loss of a loved one
- Change in employment or career
- Ongoing discrimination
- Change in housing
- Involvement in an abusive relationship
Symptoms of Chronic Pain
An overactive nervous system can hit its tipping point and cause chronic symptoms. These symptoms can appear spontaneously or with an injury.
Symptoms of chronic pain include:
- Neck, back or shoulder pain
- Knee pain
- Leg or foot pain
- Hand or wrist pain
- Lingering pain from an injury
- Gastrointestinal changes
When pain transitions from acute to chronic, it can cause us to adjust our pain sensitivity. The brain becomes more protective, detecting danger and triggering a pain response, sometimes even when there’s no danger. Unfortunately, these changes are often combined with life changes, which cause more stress, inevitably leading to more pain.
Does Anything Else Happen If We Experience Chronic Pain?
Chronic pain can impact every aspect of life, including our ability to perform at work, our physical activity levels, social life, relationships, mental health and daily routine.
Is There Anything We Can Do?
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change through growth and reorganisation.2 Luckily, this can work in our favour, as positive experiences can promote neuroplasticity.
1. Arm Yourself with Knowledge
To reverse the cycle of pain, we need the brain’s rational part, our prefrontal cortex, to get more involved. Understanding how pain works can help the prefrontal cortex play a more significant role and is a great first step in chronic pain management.
There are several other ways we can help rewire the neural pathways of the brain, including:
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – CBT is one of the most common and well-researched treatments for chronic pain. You can work through CBT with a psychologist, therapist or counsellor.
- Meditation – as someone who has experienced chronic pain, I can attest to Vedic meditation’s effect on chronic pain management. Find out about Vedic meditation here.
- Social Groups – there are plenty of chronic pain support groups that you can find online that empower you to work through your experiences of chronic pain and feel less alone.
- Stress Management – speaking with a trusted friend or relative, moving your body in a way that feels safe and nourishing, journaling, deep breathing, and therapy can all help with stress management, which can help relieve chronic pain. To help me unwind, I love nothing more than lighting a negative ion candle, popping on meditative music, closing my eyes and taking a few deep breaths.
- Gratitude Practice – keeping a gratitude journal and writing down a list of three things you’re grateful for each day can be a great way to re-train the brain to look for something to be thankful for rather than things to be fearful of.
- Self-Discovery – to help the nervous system understand it’s safe, it can be helpful to understand what made it initially feel unsafe, which can be completed with the help of a professional. Understanding why the nervous system is responding in a certain way can help you navigate a way out.
2. Be Aware of Foods That Can Help Chronic Pain Management
Focusing on eating a predominantly anti-inflammatory diet is a great way to help reduce bodily inflammation and manage experiences of chronic pain.
Reducing Pro-inflammatory Foods:
- Refined carbohydrates: while not all carbs should be avoided, refined carbohydrates tend to increase bodily inflammation, with little to no benefit on the body. Find refined carbohydrates in some bread, pasta, pastries, cookies, cakes and most processed foods.
- Sugar and high fructose corn syrup: a driver of inflammation – let it go! Foods that are high in added sugar include chocolates, soft drinks, syrups, sauces, gravies, cakes, cereals, cookies and pastries.
- Artificial trans fat: these foods promote inflammation, so; it’s time to give them the flick. This includes fast foods, certain margarine, vegetable oils, packaged cakes and cookies and some pastries.
- Excessive amounts of alcohol: excessive amounts of alcohol can increase bacterial toxins, leading to leaky gut and inflammation.
3. Heal Your Gut.
Our gut is home to almost 100 trillion microorganisms, most of which are bacteria. There are primarily good bacteria in the gut that help us digest food and release the energy and nutrients we need. However, an overwhelming amount of unfriendly bacteria can trigger problems for our immune and nervous system. If you want step-by-step guidance on how you can heal your gut, have a look at my Heal Your Gut Program here.
If you really want to heal your gut, show it some extra love. Love Your Gut, made of Diatomaceous Earth, assists waste removal, improves digestion and increases nutrient absorption. It’s now available in capsule and powder form. You can also try Supercharged Food’s Fulvic Humic Concentrate (FHC). These drops help absorption of important nutrients, decreases acidity and enhances your cells use of antioxidants and electrolytes.
4. Increasing your Intake of Vegetables:
To reduce inflammation and chronic pain, consume a variety of vegetables and fruit. Both fruit and vegetables hold a wide variety of polyphenols, phytochemicals, nutrients and vitamins that help protect the body against damage. If you’re looking for veggiespiration, you’ll love my Vegan Roasted Sweet Potato with Basil Pesto and Chopped Salad here.
5. Increase Your Intake of Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids help fight inflammation in the body. You can find omega-3 in oily fish like salmon and herring, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flax seeds and flax oil. For anti-inflammatory goodness in a glass, I know you’ll love my Vegan Edible Smoothie here.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for chronic pain. However, the more open-minded and willing to learn about it you are, the better. As always, please remember that you don’t need to go it alone – I recommend finding a trusting healthcare practitioner with who you can work to start managing your experience of chronic pain today.
Source: Lee Holmes. Supercharged Food
FOOTNOTE: To further manage pain contact the team at Naturally Healthy in Hamilton to make an appointment with Frans van de Weerd. 079583845
1Craig AD. A new view of pain as a homeostatic emotion. Trends Neurosci. 2003;26(6):303–307.
2Mateos-Aparicio, P., & Rodríguez-Moreno, A. (2019). The Impact of Studying Brain Plasticity. Frontiers in cellular neuroscience, 13, 66. https://doi.org/10.3389/fncel.2019.00066