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De-Code Your Pain: Investigate the Three Common Triggers

by Ya-Ling J Liou(more info)

listed in bodywork, originally published in issue 231 - July 2016

Have you been working hard to re-configure your posture, your work ergonomics or your sleeping position with the hope of solving nagging, persistent pain? If none of your efforts lead to lasting relief, you may be missing key pieces to the puzzle. Everyday aches and pains are often associated with a specific position or activity because you typically become aware of pain when it hurts to perform part of your daily routine. Still, this doesn't always mean the mechanics of the activity are to blame.

It's impossible to gain control over your pain unless you understand its cause. Movement is definitely one major pain risk factor. We can easily make things worse by engaging in activities that place more than average stress on our joints and tendons. But many of us find ourselves wondering, "Why didn't it used to hurt when I'd do this very same thing?" When pain doesn't resolve despite your best efforts at rehabilitating movement and posture, it's likely your pain is due to an imbalance in two equally significant pain triggers: biochemistry and emotions.

Pain Cycle 231

The biochemistry of pain is complex, and the emotional component of pain is still steeped in stigma - but there are straightforward ways to de-code them. To make sense of all three categories of pain triggers, you need an understanding of the single-most important feature at the root of all pain: inflammation.

Inflammation is the body's first line of defense in response to any kind of stress. Inflammation causes a sudden increase in circulation at the stressed area. When all systems function optimally, the associated fluid influx is flushed away almost as quickly as it arrives, leaving behind repaired and rebalanced tissue.

Any stress in the body undergoes this reparative process. A minor ankle sprain is a mechanical form of stress that presents obvious signs of inflammation - redness, heat and swelling. Low-level inflammation can develop in response to subtle stress, like repetitive movement patterns that seem painless, but with repetition, can cause imbalance worthy of a stress response. Biochemical stress can result in an obvious inflammation response: Anaphylaxis from a bee sting or food allergy is the attention-grabbing version, while mucous in the sinuses is a less dramatic response to the body's biochemical overload.

How well you handle the inflammatory reaction to mechanical or chemical stress depends, in part, on your emotional coping capabilities - not in an abstract way, but in actual measurable biochemical changes. Chronic low-grade inflammation anywhere in the body can impact brain chemistry. This is because the chemistry of inflammation depends on molecules that are also integral in mood regulation, such as serotonin, and is why prolonged emotional stress can contribute to pain. The inflammatory response and stress modulation rely on similar substances.

Decreasing your chances of developing recurring everyday pain depends heavily on how you deal with minor early episodes. It's essential to do something and not ignore signs of pain. Powering through minor pain teaches your brain and nervous system to become used to being in pain. The more you train your brain to accept pain, the more likely your pain will become progressively worse - or louder - if the underlying problem isn't addressed.

Investigate how to manage initial signs of aches and pains using these tips:

1. Recognize the Mechanical Stressors

Start by understanding the three leading motion- and posture-related stresses on your skeleton: compression, lengthening and shearing. (Find a more detailed description here.)

Compression is unavoidable and a necessary part of living with gravitational force. Gravity keep us rooted on the earth's surface, but also can make some activities brutally unforgiving when we're in pain. Sitting places the most compression on the cushions between our spinal disks that can lead to everyday pain;

Lengthening is what happens when you move any body part away from your center point. Sometimes it's intentional, as in stretching, but it's interpreted as a source of stress by your brain. (Read about why stretching can be detrimental here.) More often, lengthening is associated with a prolonged position, such as gazing at the computer screen for hours on end. This causes lengthening of certain neck muscles as the head deviates from our center;

Shearing is a combination of the first two mechanical stressors. When you add lengthening to compression, you end up with the same thing that happens when tightening a screw-cap on a bottle. Not only is there a pressure down from above, but there's a twisting effect. (Learn about shearing stress commonly encountered in yoga here.);

Despite all the variables involved in mechanical stressors, the best step to take when pain comes on suddenly is simply to lie down. Lying on your back returns your spine to a neutral position and removes all three mechanical stressors. Lying down minimizes further mechanical strain and keeps the molecular inflammatory cascade in check, as well.

2. Deploy Strategies to Control Biochemical Stress

If lying down provides some relief, but not enough, it's time to deploy some biochemical stress control. The first and most widely used tool is ice. Applying ice constricts the blood vessels and helps move trapped inflammation from the area of pain.

Additionally, moving inflammatory swelling out of an area of injury often requires actual movement. Carefully move the injured body part through a range of motion while staying away from added pain. If possible, gentle walking should come next.

Exposure to irritants in the air or in food can send body-wide inflammation levels soaring. In this situation, everyday pain cannot resolve until you address the irritants using a system-focused approach. Pay attention to what you're taking in. Minimize well-known inflammatory foods, such as sugars, dairy and alcohol,[1] and increase your water intake. Add some dietary enzymes that will help you break down and process the existing inflammation.

Anxiety over your pain often equates with your perceived loss of control over the situation. This anxiety can chemically hinder recovery, which means that it's essential to identify what you can control in moving forward on your path to becoming pain free. Again, lying down to decrease the pain not only gives you relief from any mechanical strain, but helps your nervous system assess the level of severity. Experiencing a change in the pain level also gives you assurance that your pain is something over which you can exert some control. (Read more here about why your stress might be keeping you in pain here.)

3. Take Steps to Emotionally De-Stress

Once you've explored the mechanical influences and body chemistry nuances to your everyday pain, you would be well served to take a look at your stress level. Stress in the body releases certain hormones that can be helpful for short spurts of stress, but harm the body if prolonged. Your immune system and your body's efficiency with general repair take a dip when the biochemistry of stress lingers past its originally intended application.[2,3,4]

Ignoring a new ache or pain because you're too busy to give it the attention it deserves may set the stage for an inflammation overload. Until you decrease your life stress, your body chemistry will prevent you from healing. First, consider your sleep habits. Getting better and more frequent sleep or relaxation time can be a powerful tool. Lack of sleep is associated with higher levels of inflammation in the body,[5] but without sleep you can end up in a fight, flight or freeze mode -- the body's emotional and physical manifestation of extreme stress.

If work and other obligations crowd out needed rest or down time, consider reducing your commitments. Saying ‘no’ to others allows you to say ‘yes’ to self-care.

Author's Note:

If you have persistent pain that seems to have appeared out of the blue, be sure to consult with your healthcare practitioner. The suggestions in this article are not intended to replace qualified medical advice.








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About Ya-Ling J Liou

Ya-Ling J Liou DC DC is a chiropractic physician who, after more than 20 years of clinical experience, continues to expand and share her intuitive body care techniques. Her new book, Every Body's Guide to Everyday Pain (Return to Health Press, 2015), takes into account the whole person, and aims not only to address the mechanical balance of the body, but also the chemical and emotional aspects that so often influence this balance. Dr. Liou lives, works and writes in Seattle. Learn more at Dr Liou may be contacted on Tel: +1 206 985 1379; You can follow her blog at Dr. Liou's Wordpress Blog

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