The Surprising Causes of Your Chronic Pain

Have you been told your persistent pain is due to “wear and tear” of your joints? That because you have arthritis you can expect to be in pain for the rest of your life? Or it’s because of your “poor posture?”

Unfortunately, these beliefs are all too common and pervasive even in the medical community. And holding on to these beliefs will prevent you from finally breaking through your pain.

I’m here to dispel these common myths of pain, tissue damage, and aging. And we’ll also cover three simple steps you can take to manage your pain. The reality is your pain is not due to “wear and tear” and you don’t have to accept living in pain for the rest of your life.

To illustrate the point here are a few facts about tissue damage and pain (from the Recovery Strategies Pain Guidebook):

  • 96% of athletes younger than 22 will show changes on an MRI that would be considered abnormal
  • 37% of 20 years olds with no pain have disc degeneration in their spine
  • 57% of 20–50-year-olds with no hip pain will have cartilage and ligament tears

Let’s Talk About What is NOT Causing Your Pain

“Pain is a distressing experience associated with actual or perceived tissue damage with sensory, emotional, cognitive, and social components.” -Recovery Strategies Pain Guidebook

The truth: tissue damage is a poor indicator of pain. The human body is complicated. An initial injury will result in pain because in that situation pain acts as a protective feedback mechanism. You damaged something, so pain directs your attention to the issue and tells you to take it easy while you allow yourself to heal.

But sometimes that pain persists despite the completion of the healing process. So if you experience pain for more than 3–6 months on a recurring basis you fall into the category of persistent or chronic pain. And that persistent pain may or may not be related to any sort of tissue damage.

Experiencing pain even after healing should have occurred is a sign that your nervous system is in a heightened state. That for some reason the pain alarm continues to go off even though it’s providing a benefit to you anymore. And yes, pain is an output of your brain but don’t mistake that for imagined pain. For anyone who needs to hear this, your pain is very real.

So long story short, if you have persistent pain it likely isn’t related to damage within your body.

Then What are the Actual Risk Factors?

So now that we understand where your pain isn’t coming from, let's dive into the actual contributors.

In recent years researchers have taken on the task of unraveling the mysteries of pain. It was apparent that the medical practice of fixing damage through surgical procedures wasn’t helping. And what they’ve found is a complex picture.

There’s been no correlation found between the severity of arthritis, posture, or changes within your joints and persistent pain.

The factors that do actually contribute to pain paint a much bigger picture. One of the most shocking finds of research on chronic pain: your zip code is strongly correlated with your health and risk of developing persistent pain. You read that right.

And that’s because factors such as education level, life stress, lack of sleep, and lifestyle choices all play a strong role in your risk for chronic pain. We also know that the risk of developing chronic pain increases as we age due to changes in pain sensitivity, not arthritis.

And while this means that unraveling pain is often complex, the great news is that you have a lot of options to find solutions for your pain.

Where Do You Start if You Have Pain?

“Learning about pain can help promote healthy behaviors.” -Recovery Strategies Pain Guidebook

That was a lot of information to take in and you might be feeling overwhelmed about where to start if you have pain. The solutions are actually quite simple and accessible to everyone. Here are three of the best places to start.

1. Sleep

Getting a good night of sleep is the single best step you can take toward managing your pain. But it’s tough to break the cycle because pain contributes to lower quality sleep. Lack of sleep then heightens your body’s sensitivity to pain and stress, which feeds into the cycle of pain keeping you awake at night.

To start, take inventory of your sleep. Are you struggling to fall asleep? Wake up frequently during the night? Or wake up in the morning not feeling well-rested. It could be a combination of several factors.

Once you’ve made note of what is limiting your sleep you can start to seek out solutions. Assess your sleeping environment, create a bedtime and morning rituals, and limit how much time you spend on your phone or watching TV before bed.

2. Stress Reduction

Identifying life stress to better manage it is easier said than done. But your nervous system is sensitive to stress, often increasing your levels of pain.

Again, start with taking inventory. What aspects of your life make you most stressed? Keeping a journal to document this is helpful.

Once you’ve identified some areas that need some work it’s time to seek effective stress management solutions. This will take some trial and error to find what works for you, so stay open-minded and try to avoid being discouraged through this process.

Explore meditation or deep breathing techniques, find hobbies or constructive outlets for creativity, or try a few sessions of counseling. It can be helpful to have an outside perspective and guidance.

3. Positive Reinforcement

Another impactful way to reduce your pain is to focus on the positive. In doing so I’m not suggesting ignoring reality. But pain has this way of making us focus on all the things we think we can’t do or are missing out on.

Your thoughts and beliefs have an impact on your nervous system’s ability to stay calm. And this step also starts with observation. Notice what thoughts float through your mind throughout the day, especially those related to your pain. Are they positive or negative?

Again, a journal is helpful for this process. Start to change your thought process by writing down all the things you can do without pain. This gets your mind in a better place to focus on the positive and make it a habit. Focus on all the movements and activities you can do and keep a gratitude list.

Always journal or write about things that bother you as well, suppressing negative thoughts and emotions doesn’t help resolve them. But challenge yourself to find one positive aspect of your life each and every day.

You’ll be surprised at how effective this practice is. Research finds that those who have a higher self-perception of their health tend to be more active and healthier.

Changing your beliefs holds the answers to finding effective solutions for your pain. This will be a lifelong process of continually learning, reassessing, and adjusting your approach. Take it one step and a time. The results will compound and be more impactful over time.

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