By Phoebe Chi, MD, MPH
Do you live with chronic pain? Does pain seem to infiltrate every area of your life, to the point that it is affecting your quality of life?
If so, you are not alone.
In this post, I will focus on the complex condition that is chronic pain and discuss how it works. In a subsequent post, I will present a “Chronic Pain Toolbox” that will equip you with essential self-management skills, so that you can be empowered to regain the quality of life you deserve.
For millions of people, living with pain and physical discomfort has become a way of life. Indeed, chronic pain is now one of the most common problems plaguing adults, with 1 in 3 people being affected by it. Indeed, it is more prevalent than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. With chronic pain, living a full and active life may seem out of reach. But it doesn’t have to be this way! On the contrary, it is possible to improve both your level of functioning and quality of life while reducing your pain symptoms. The key is to have an effective approach, along with the right skills and support. But in order to take control of chronic pain, it is necessary to understand how it works and how it affects us. This is what I will focus on today.
A Complex Experience
Chronic pain–regardless of cause– is a complex experience—something that is influenced by physical, psychological, and even environmental factors. Things like lack of sleep, stress, and feelings of anxiety, depression, fear or frustration can all play a considerable role in your symptoms. As I will discuss in a subsequent post, by addressing the many factors affecting your pain, you can better manage and control your chronic pain symptoms both safely and naturally.
The Vicious Cycle of Chronic Pain
For people with chronic pain, what determines the day-to-day level of pain has very much to do with the way your mind and body respond to it. For example, whenever a part of your body is hurting, the brain automatically attempts to limit the movement of that area. This leads to stiffness and muscle tension, which in turn cause even more pain. As a result, when someone suffers from chronic pain, what happens is that their overall activity level diminishes and their muscles becomes weak and deconditioned, often to the point that even the slightest activity hurts. On top of that, pain often leads to feelings of anxiety, frustration, sadness, or depression—emotions that further exacerbate the sensation of pain by increasing your body’s sensitivity to it.
Endorphins: The Natural Painkiller
The good news in all of this is that you do not need to be helpless in your pain. This is because your brain plays an immense role in chronic pain; it acts as the gatekeeper with the ability to allow you to feel pain as well as block the sensation of pain. What does this mean for you? It means that your mindset—what you think and how you feel—makes a huge difference in the actual degree of physical pain that you feel.
To be clear, this is not to say that your symptoms are “all in your head.” On the contrary, it is now known that most if not all chronic pain–even those that don’t have a specific diagnosis–come from some physical cause, such as damaged or inflamed nerves, blood vessels, muscles, or other tissues. Rather, the point is that your brain has the remarkable ability to secrete natural painkillers (called endorphins) that work very similarly to powerful pain medications you might take in the form of a pill.
One of the keys to effectively controlling chronic pain symptoms, therefore, is to take advantage of this process by incorporating certain activities into your day that encourage the release of endorphins. In my next post, I will expound more on this by presenting practical ways in which you can manage your chronic pain and minimize the effect it has on your daily life.