Pain is in your head. No, really, it literally exists between the walls of your skull. We experience pain when our brain interprets the signal from our sensory nervous system as pain. Nocioceptors are neurons that transmit the signal of pain from our body towards our brain, but we don’t actually experience pain until it registers in our brain. Our constitution, our previous life experiences, and our present state of health can all influence how nerves transmit, and how our brain interprets these signals of pain from the body. The same neurons that transmit pain through the spinal cord are also responsible for transmitting other information such as temperature. This is just one example of how a different sensation that is not pain is so closely intertwined with the pain pathway. Furthermore, how we react to these signals of “pain” or discomfort also determines how our brain interprets and labels the signals. How we have labeled experiences in the past determines how we anticipate and react to experiences to come in the future. Thus, the labeling itself is an integral part of the perpetuation of the pain cycle. Our objective mind which maybe subconscious or conscious is always looking to label our experiences. The more we can shed the light of awareness on this process and bring the perspective of our bigger picture health dynamic the less powerless we will be to our symptomology. It is fairly universal that as humans we prefer pleasurable experiences to un-pleasurable ones. This naturally creates a tendency of behavior in which we go to extreme lengths to avoid un-pleasurable experiences and pursue pleasurable experiences. This behavior may also include reacting to un-pleasurable experiences with contraction, avoidance, and aversion. Equally this tendency of behavior will react to pleasurable experiences with grasping, craving, and also a different kind of contraction to maintain that experience. As many who have been in extreme pain can relate, the contraction of fear and aversion often creates distortion which will increase the sensation of pain. Also, the labeling of an experience as threatening, negative, or even painful can further the cycle of contraction which can amplify the conduction of the pain signals going to the brain. This is not the kind of contraction that would be used in a sporting event, in which a muscle is flexed and then relaxes. This is the kind of contraction that just adds to the global tension in your body and often presents as forward curled posture, headache, stomach ache, and jaw tension. Fear takes you away from a parasympathetic state and decreases your ability to digest food, repair the tissues of the body, or think clearly. A study published by the International Yoga Journal in 2015 compared the effectiveness of Meditation verse that of physical therapy on patients with lower back pain found that patients who meditated for 30 minutes a day had better results than those receiving the same amount of physical therapy. According to the participants of the study, their success was due to their ability to uncouple their emotional reactions to their pain. The patients were also told to focus on relaxing their muscles and meditate in a position of spinal alignment. It is our belief systems around health and our relationship with our bodies that greatly influence how we label our sensations and react to them. Health is a dynamic state of equilibrium in which our body and mental systems are able to adapt to change. We live in a society where the predominant belief system is that health is 98.6°F, a blood pressure of 120/80 And that life should be pain-free. This leads to a lifestyle in which at the slightest fever we reach for the Tylenol or with a couple high BP readings we get put on blood pressure medication for the rest of our lives, and we treat back pain with addictive opioid narcotics which has led to the current epidemic killing so many in our country. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in 2015. Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 20,101 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers in 2015”. This study also found that 20 million Americans had a substance abuse disorder involving prescription pain relievers in 2015. That is about 1 in 16 people in this country have an extremely dangerous addiction to drugs that were given to them or someone else by a medical doctor. In this paradigm panic is rampant, reactivity is high, and acknowledgment of the superior intelligence of the body is scarce. Imagine how our reactivity would change if every time we got a fever we acknowledged and were grateful for the complicated processes that were increasing our body temperature to fight disease, or if every time we had pain we were grateful for our bodies ability to communicate warning messages to slow down and reevaluate what we are doing to prevent further injury.
As a chiropractor, many people come to me because they are in pain, and are looking for solutions. Some just want a quick fix and others have the patience to explore their relationship to pain itself. We would all rather not experience pain, and anyone is more effective and has an easier time being at ease and peaceful in their bodies if they are not experiencing pain. It’s a lot easier to meditate when your back isn’t screaming at you than when it is. I even think that chiropractic can be one of the best ways to get out of pain drug-free. That being said the fact is that the existence of pain in life is inevitable, and we will all have to deal with it at some point or another. If we react to pain with fear and contraction we etch this experience into the emotional centers of our brains and perpetuate the pain cycle. This can create more anxiety and contraction with the memory or anticipation of pain. How do we end this cycle? Practice, every time we confront our pain without fear, contraction, or aversion we rewire our perception to accept that which is unchangeable and thus freeing up our energy to change the things which we have influence over.
A good friend of mine says “pain is mandatory suffering is optional”. The road to mastering our minds so that we don’t react to pain with fear and contraction is so long that very few will ever truly get to that stage, however every step on this road brings us closer to being freed from a sensation centered motivational system and liberates us to choose a more value centered way of living.