Pain is a normal part of everyone’s lives, however the experience of it is highly personal. It also has a self-protective aspect: for example, touching a hot stove and quickly withdrawing your hand to prevent yourself from being burnt, or spraining your ankle and not being able to put any weight through it as it heals. But when pain becomes persistent, it can negatively impact many areas of our life and wellbeing.
Research has shown that being afraid of pain can make things hurt more, and that understanding pain helps to ‘de-threaten’ the response, making it overall less unpleasant. Here are three key concepts to help you uncover what your body is trying to tell you:
- There are no pain sensors in the body
This one always comes as a shock to people! It’s true, there are no specialised pain sensors or nerves in the body – however there are danger sensors. These danger sensors carry messages to the brain, which then decides whether or not pain would be an appropriate response to the situation. Context is key.
If you have had pain for more than a few months, then the danger sensors can become more sensitive and can keep sending messages even when there is no tissue damage occurring. This can lead to an overprotective system, which can actually stop us from doing the things that are necessary for recovery (such as movement, seeing our friends, or getting out in nature).
- Inflammation is a balancing act
Humans have a range of in-built processes that are naturally pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory. Some of them can be positive and helpful: for example, when you have sore muscles after a workout, your body has created a temporary pro-inflammatory response to make the muscles stronger for your next session. Time spent in nature or having a good laugh creates an anti-inflammatory response. It’s all about balance!
Unfortunately, our modern life is known to be pro-inflammatory – this can include poor sleep, high stress levels, excessive alcohol, smoking, a low-quality diet and not being physically active enough. It is normal over a lifespan to experience some age-related changes in our joints, however if you are constantly feeling stiff and sore, this could be an indicator that your lifestyle is adding to your inflammation levels.
- Movement is medicine that needs the right dosage
If you haven’t been able to get active lately due to pain, the weather, or even just low motivation, something as simple as a 30-minute walk can feel like a huge amount for the body. We then become inflamed, we might feel out of breath or excessively tired, and we become disheartened – which leads the cycle to repeat itself.
A better approach to getting active is to take what you think you can currently do, halve it, and do that regularly. If you think you could manage a 20-minute walk, then go for a 10-minute walk every day and build up each slowly each week. This approach is a form of pacing yourself, and it can help prevent the inflammation cycle discussed above.
Alternatively, if walking isn’t quite right for you at the moment, you can apply the same principle to a gentle swim or cycle. Seven small bouts of movement during the week are more beneficial for the mind and body than one massive effort which causes pain. The same can be said for other forms of movement such as gardening and housework – there are unfortunately no medals for getting things over and done with in the shortest time!
Of course, it is always important to involve a qualified and trusted health professional to discuss your experiences as you start to explore what your pain means. Sometimes our body makes pain to tell us something isn’t right, and other times it is stuck in a loop when we are actually safe to get out there and enjoy ourselves. Living an ‘anti-inflammatory lifestyle’ is a great way to future-proof your body and mind.
By Jennifer Smallridge
Exercise Physiologist, B.Ex&SpSci, M.ClinExPhys, ESSAM, AEP
da Silva, M.D., Guginski, G., Sato, K.L., Sanada, L.S., Sluka, K.A. and Santos, A.R., 2020. Persistent pain induces mood problems and memory loss by the involvement of cytokines, growth factors, and supraspinal glial cells. Brain, Behavior, & Immunity-Health, 7, p.100118.
Mosley, G.L. and Butler, D.S., 2017. Explain pain supercharged. NOI.
Skou ST, Pedersen BK, Abbott JH, Patterson B, Barton C. Physical activity and exercise therapy benefit more than just symptoms and impairments in people with hip and knee osteoarthritis. journal of orthopaedic & sports physical therapy. 2018 Jun;48(6):439-47.