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How Pain Becomes Chronic.

Did you know that if you have been experiencing pain for longer than 6 months, it is now considered chronic. Whether it was a clear injury or it just showed up one morning... So if you have been experiencing persistent pain for longer than 6 months, let's look at what could be going on!

How does pain become chronic?

We know that if we touch a hot stove our brain sends a pain signal and we pull our hand away right? Nope, sorry. Our brain has nothing to do with it, nor does a 'pain' signal.

When we touch a hot stove there are sensory neurons in our skin that detect changes in temperature, pressure, and chemicals. So when we touch that hot surface (or our hand get caught in the closing of a car door) that neuron sends a signal to the spinal cord and the spinal cord sends a direct response through a motor nerve (the ones responsible for movement of our body) to immediately pull the hand away. Interested in a little more detail? Click here.

Now, this is a very healthy response and keeps us safe from danger. YAY nervous system!

Let's imagine a different scenario... We are out learning to catch a baseball and it ends up hitting us in the head. OUCH! So, in response the brain (now involved) notes the details of this instance and remembers to be more on the lookout for baseballs flying in the air. So when we head out to practice our nervous system is more alert. YAY nervous system!

But what happens when you get hit again, and again, and from out of nowhere! Your brain starts to see baseballs as dangerous and the nervous system goes on high alert whenever there is a baseball within 5 miles of you. Not so great as this causes fear. If you've read one of my previous articles about the fear/pain cycle you know where this is going.

This fear can cause you to essentially begin to re-live the experience of getting hit by a baseball in a way to protect you from ever going near a baseball again in your life. This hyper activity in the nervous system creates a change in the neurons (often called neuroplasticity), a sensitivity. And now, even looking at a baseball on TV makes you very uncomfortable and can even increase your pain levels, even though, logically you know a baseball did not just hit you. BOO on the nervous system!

Now, let's look at this idea in terms of chronic pain. This can get complex as there are so many different factors and life experiences & beliefs that can come into play.

Let's say that you have a job where you have a heavy workload and a demanding boss who isn't very predictable in their reactions. Maybe you've also grown up with a parent who had back pain...

Now when you head into work, your nervous system is already on alert. Thinking about what needs to be completed, what your boss may blow up about today, what didn't get completed yesterday, and the big project that is coming up in the meeting today that you are lead supervisor on. Just the thought of all these tasks and the uncertainty of your boss's reaction create a tension that you've likely been holding for a few months now.

That tension starts to feel achy in your lower back, the same place your parent had their back pain. First thing you think of is that it is hereditary and this sucks, you know the pain and dismay your parent had to deal with. That only adds to the anxiety (which is a form of fear that the nervous system sees as danger!) and half way through the day the sensation is way more intense. From sitting at your desk, you are now sure that it also has to do with your posture and weak core.

Stop for a moment... Think about this story, has there been any acute, distinctive tissue damage or clear injury? No. So why do we constantly believe that our level of pain sensation equals tissue damage?

This story continues over another few months, maybe heading for a massage when you get a chance and yes, that certainly feels better but it doesn't last more than a day or two. You start doing some abdominal work, maybe even practice pre-bracing your core anytime you move (please don't do this!), but your work load stays the same, you walk around your boss like you are walking on eggshells... And the pain doesn't get any better, though occasionally on the weekends it doesn't bother you at all (though you don't really notice).

This story could continue in so many different directions, with so many different factors. Kids, schedules, responsibilities, socio-economic factors, relationships... really I could go on for hours.

So what can we do? Apart from changing your job, getting a better boss... there are options. One of the most successful options out there right now is Pain Reprocessing Therapy. I'll admit, I am biased. In working with Critical Alignment Therapy since 2004, I've been working with back pain for a long time. When I started working with the Curable app and being introduced to PRT I could see how it had similarities with CAT. When the book, The Way Out, was released I read it 3x and took pages of notes. Here was a book that had some solid science behind it and I could see the ease of blending it into the way I taught CAT and worked with chronic pain clients.

This option isn't a be all and end all, but the difference that you can see in the control of your pain levels is significant. There will still be more work and practice, but there is a way to change the sensitivity of the nervous system and get back to a calmer, less pain-filled life.

Ready to learn more?

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