Think of pain as being your "harm alarm," a signal that is designed to get your attention, to motivate you to escape whatever is causing it. After all, pain -- potential harm -- could mean injury or even death. In this way, pain serves a useful purpose because it is functions to keep you safe and alive. This all works quite well if you simply cut your finger while dicing vegetables for dinner.
But what about chronic pain? According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, more than 100 million Americans are living with a chronic pain condition, such as fibromyalgia, migraines, or back pain. Once pain becomes chronic, pain sounds its alarm regularly, perhaps even constantly. How do you escape something that's coming from inside you?
Pain is in the Brain.
People often think of pain as being purely a sensory experience -- meaning a highly unpleasant physical sensation -- and they tend to ignore the psychological aspects of pain.
No matter the cause of your pain, or where you feel it in your body, it is all processed in your central nervous system which is controlled by your brain and spinal cord. It's common to think of pain being located in the part of your body that hurts, such as back pain being located in your back. However even in cases where people have had surgery for back pain -- their back pain is actually located centrally, in the nervous system. Your brain and entire nervous system are influenced by your thoughts, your feelings, your beliefs, your memory, and your environment. In fact, to a very large degree, how much pain you feel after surgery is determined by your mood and other psychological factors.
This doesn't mean your pain isn't real. It means that pain is fundamentally a psychological phenomenon. For everyone. Narrowly focusing on pain as a sensory problem has contributed to the overprescribing of opioid medication.
We've been treating pain the wrong way.
In fact, psychology is built into the definition of pain. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as both "...a noxious sensory and emotional experience." Treating pain from the physical perspective only ignores half of the definition of pain. If we treat half of anything, can we be surprised when it does not work well?
Pain acts as a stressor on your nervous system and your mind. It causes changes in your respiratory and heart rates, increases muscle tension, constricts blood vessels, and can cause anxiety, over-focus on pain, and feelings of helplessness.
You can learn specific skills to calm your nervous system, thereby dampening pain processing in your brain and spinal cord. Used regularly, these skills can work as effectively as medication to ease pain and related distress
Four Tips for Calming Your Nervous System for Pain Control
1. Take stock of your triggers and treat your stress. Stress amplifies pain, so it's important to reduce it. You may not be able to control the circumstance that triggers your stress, but you can control your reaction to it. Learn to become less reactive and you will find you have much greater control.
2. Tune in to your breath. Work to change your breathing pattern so that it becomes deep "belly" breathing (also called diaphragmatic breathing). Use diaphragmatic breathing several times daily. Stick with it and release your expectation that it will change your pain right away. Remind yourself that the goal is retrain your nervous system first; pain reduction comes later.
3. Learn to meditate. Meditation gives you brain control and helps you focus less on pain -- thereby directly reducing pain and suffering. Used regularly, meditation is powerful pain medicine.
4. Harness the power of your thoughts and emotions! Your everyday thoughts and feelings have a profound effect on your pain. This means the more you focus on your pain the worse it will get.
With pain psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy, you can learn how to view things differently in order to chart a positive course towards less pain. Consider working with a pain psychologist, health psychologist, or therapist skilled in cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic pain.
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Acupuncture is an increasingly popular form of relief from traditional Chinese medicine. Eastern practices may seem out of the norm in the west but they can bring interesting results. Long thin needles are inserted into specific points on the body — called meridians, known as pathways into your body — and are believed to help rebalance energy flow. Some practitioners believe it stimulates certain nerves and muscles.
Hypnosis is an interesting avenue to pursue for pain relief. The conscious part of the brain is temporary out of service during hypnosis, leaving the person relaxed and completely focused on letting go of any sort of distracting thoughts. Our brains are incredibly powerful and, of course, what lets us know we’re in pain. Letting go and focusing, and harnessing that concentration, can leave a profound effect on your body and the pain you’re feeling.
If you’ve ever truly felt the heat from eating anything with a chili pepper, you have capsaicin to thank for that. This component is what gives chili peppers their fiery oomph and is something that can help in the relief of joint pain and more. Capsaicin cream, when applied to the skin, that helps relieve pain by decreasing a natural substance in your body — substance P. The downside is it can take several weeks for full relief so this is probably best used with conventional medication.
One of the reasons why yoga is a popular exercise is that it leaves you feeling truly great. It’s a combination of mediation, stretching, core work, and more that helps you to let go of anything distracting and focus on certain parts of your body. Naturally, this is also a good method of pain relief. It helps decrease joint pain and improve some range of motion while certain types of yoga may also decrease pain linked to the lower back.
Music therapy as pain relief has two components that rely on our brain. First, pain is registered in our brain by a series of signals — something we already know. However, some studies have shown that playing music, or hearing something pleasant, can release dopamine from the brain that can make you feel good or, in the case of pain relief, better. This is based on perception: the more pleasant you find a song, the less pain you feel.
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