The more we know about pain, the better our ability to react and respond to it. While it's not a pleasant experience, it is necessary. It keeps us safe and warns us about threats to our safety. If you want to learn about how our pain system works, then you can read our prior blog What Is Pain?
Understanding what pain is important, but you probably want to know more about how to calm the pain. During this blog, we will talk about calming your nervous system, and how learning more about pain is a valuable step to start feeling better today.
To calm pain receptors, let's review the basic idea of how pain works.
Your body has an alarm system that activates when a threat is present. This is our pain system. It alarms when there is a threat, and it should calm down when the threat is removed.
However, some people (1 in 4) have an alarm system that doesn't return to the normal resting state and remains extra sensitive.
This can be due to fear, ongoing pain, failed treatments, unclear explanations, and other stresses. This isn't uncommon, and its intention is to protect you.
Understanding that part of your pain may be due to an extra-sensitive nervous system helps your nervous system to start calming down. The less threatening the pain is, the less pain you experience.
Unfortunately, pain doesn't turn off like a light switch, but instead steps down little by little, so a dedicated plan and understanding help you stay on track to let the pain gradually reduce.
Learning more about pain is the first step to long-term relief. This powerful story helps us understand how this first step can open multiple opportunities to get relief. This is a true and well-documented study that has helped develop much of our understanding of pain.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who had chronic back pain. She had back pain for several years despite being active, fit, and healthy. She was an elite dancer and could do all the things you expect from an elite dancer. However, she had chronic back pain from injury years prior.
She was becoming frustrated and discouraged as she was not getting the results or relief she wanted. She had been to specialists, completed many tests, given various explanations, received various treatments, and had no relief. She was asked to be part of a study about pain beliefs.
In this picture, you see three rows of brain scans. These scans are all of this woman and were all taken within an hour.
In the first row, she is relaxing, and you can see her brain is calm, as there are no red blobs.
The images in the second row capture her brain activity when she moves into a painful position. You can see her brain becomes highly active, with great brain activity represented by many red blobs.
In the third row, she is in the same position as in the second row, so why do her brain scans show fewer and less dense red blobs?
Between scan two and scan three this subject spent 30 minutes learning about pain.
By understanding what pain is and how it works, she experienced less pain. Her brain was calmer, she reported less pain, and she was able to start being more active immediately after.
We know that certain activities can help us calm our nervous system and reduce pain.
Any easy, gentle aerobic exercise that pumps blood and oxygen, will be one of the best exercises to reduce your pain. This lower stress and manageable workload for your body result in calmer nerves and less pain. This should not be strenuous exercise. Aim for 20-30 minutes of brisk walking which raises your heart rate slightly. Also, you don't have to do your aerobic exercise every single day; 4-5 days a week of light aerobic exercise is plenty for most.
If you've already tried light exercise and have had a painful response, try scaling down.
Start with five minutes of walking.
As you get more comfortable, increase the time, or increase the speed of walking
Build up to 20 minutes of gentle aerobic exercise
Work on being consistent so you can complete 20 minutes of work most days of the week.
Recovery days are necessary, but if you need three days to bounce back, then you did too much.
Remember, you may have long-term pain due to an extra sensitive alarm system. This would result in an alarm causing a painful response, even though you know nothing was injured! This may be a new idea to you, but one of the most important things to learn about pain is that hurt does not equal harm.
One of the biggest reasons you may hurt with exercise or daily tasks is by doing too much.
While we want you to move and be active, you also need to pace. Going too hard or crashing through pain may leave you sore or painful for hours or days after.
If after you recover you go right back to doing too high of an activity or intensity volume, you can get stuck in a nasty cycle that will result in frustration and failure. Moving and activity without significant pain will help you calm your nervous system and keep pain away.
However, if you become so fearful of pain and completely avoid it, then your nervous system can get overly sensitive, resulting in you focusing on pain, which turns into....more pain.
Over time, it takes less and less stimulus to trigger the alarm system.
This results in pain with minimal movement or activity, which is not what we are looking for.
What you want to do to progress after pain is by completing an activity your body tolerates well, meaning it doesn't elicit pain during, immediately after, or the following day. This not only pumps blood and oxygen to help calm the nerves, but it also gives your brain an understanding of what you can do and builds confidence.
This confidence removes your brain's fear of pain.
Don't be afraid of pain, but you do have to respect it. If you don't know where your pain is and what you can do, then fear of pain amplifies the symptom. Don't crash through pain, but don't completely avoid it either. It's best if you tease your pain, nudge it, and touch it. This lets you gradually increase without going overboard and flaring back up.
It's ok for you to get sore after a workout, as long as you are staying safe. Feeling sore tells you that you worked out, that you moved. It does not mean you are injured. Think about the soreness you feel after a good workout. This is not threatening and is actually welcomed.
Many people will use the powerful tool of medication to help with pain. This is not our first choice of action, but it is available, and at times it is necessary. We have pain medications for a reason, and any specific questions should be directed to your physician.
If your nervous system is so sensitive that you can't start moving and exercising, then medication may be useful to get started. They should be tapered and are not a long-term solution.
The reason we don't want to use medication long-term is that you shouldn't have to. Your brain already has all the most powerful medications in the world. Your brain is full of healthy drugs that calm pain and ease the experience. We call this wet brain.
Here is an example of how your brain produces pain medicine to calm your pain experience.
If you stub your toe, that really hurts! How long does it hurt?
Hours? Days? Months?
No, it only hurts for a minute, maybe two.
Your brain produces medication that calms the threat messages since you aren't likely to continue stubbing your toe.
Your brain tells your nervous system to calm down and that there isn't an immediate threat.
Now, here is the really interesting part. If you've been in pain for a long time, then your brain stops producing pain medication. The medication dries up, and you don't get the benefits of your built-in medicine cabinet. We call this dry brain.
Like everything the brain does, this is to protect you. By not producing the chemicals to reduce your pain you become more sensitive, and have more pain.
This is designed to motivate you to do something about it.
Your brain is tricky, and it's important to understand why it does what it does.
What you probably want to know is: How do you get the medication factory in your brain to turn back on?
How do you get from dry brain back to wet brain? Well, you probably won't be surprised by the answer. Here's what we know works:
Understanding pain and what it really means
Meditation and relaxation
Bodywork and manual therapy
You can see we have many options to help you get your internal medicine cabinet full and flowing. Finding what works for you, and using each tactic, is how we get your brain doing what it's good at, and that's interpreting and calming your nervous system.
Many people deal with pain on a daily basis. Many people accept this as a reality, and they expect this will continue forever.
If you're a person dealing with long-term pain, then you need a long-term solution.
This may not be the solution you expected, but learning about pain, adding healthy movement to your routine, and using as many pain relieving techniques as possible is how you get back on the road toward a pain-free life.
If you, or someone you know, needs a different solution than what traditional healthcare has offered, then save or share this information. Also, check back for more information. We believe that teaching people about pain is one of the most powerful and impactful things for those dealing with chronic or severe pain. The more you know about pain, the more control you have over it. #snowbeastperformance