Strategies to Reduce Chronic Pain, Part Two

Warning sign.
No gain?

In a previous post I discussed some basic strategies to reduce chronic pain, based on what we know about pain science.  As discussed here, chronic pain is sometimes not so much a problem with actual ongoing physical damage to the body, but instead due to overactivity in the pain alarm system itself.  Here are some more strategies to prevent the alarm system from getting out of control.

Don’t Ignore Pain – Take Corrective Action

Pain is above all a survival mechanism designed to encourage you to take action to correct what the brain perceives to be a threat to the physical tissues.  Ignoring the signal can lead to problems.  When a window appears on your computer screen saying there is a virus, you don’t solve the problem by minimizing the window.  Similarly, you don’t solve pain problems by ignoring the signal.  Instead, listen to the signal and try to take corrective action.

To understand what is meant by “corrective action”, consider thirst, which is a signal that you are dehydrated and need to drink.  The thirst will go away as soon as your brain concludes that you have drank an appropriate amount of water, and before the dehydrated tissues have actually received any water.  The thirst ends when the brain concludes that corrective action has been taken, it doesn't wait until the problem is actually solved. Pain is similar, because the brain will often stop pain suddenly even though no tissue healing could have possibly occurred.  Ever notice that you got better as soon as you walked into the a doctor’s office and then you were frustrated because you had nothing to complain about?  Perhaps this occurs because the brain concludes that you have taken appropriate action to solve the perceived problem, and that pain is no longer necessary to encourage action.

It is an unhappy fact that pain often arrives for no good reason.  On the other hand, it is a happy fact that that it can go away for no good reason as well.  So, even if you don’t know the right thing to do about your pain (most people don’t), any reasonable corrective action you take has some chance of working, even if it does nothing to remedy the actual tissue damage (assuming there was any in the first place.)  What your brain considers corrective is anybody’s guess, but some good guesses might be rest, massage, a hot tub, some empathetic nurturing from a caregiver, magic herbs or other placebos, or a trip to a guy in a white coat who claims to be an expert about something.   Sham acupuncture works just as well as real acupuncture in curing pain.  Sham surgeries work as well.  You can call these placebos, and that is the right word, but what is really happening is that the brain is concluding that corrective action has been taken and that pain is no longer necessary.  Placebos work sometimes, so try one.  (It probably doesn’t matter much if you know it’s a placebo.)   By contrast, don’t try to tough it out, or take drugs or do other stuff to ignore the pain signal.  This will only make things worse.

Don’t Turn Temporary Pain into Chronic Pain

In a previous post I discussed the unfortunate fact that the longer pain goes on, the easier it becomes to feel.  This is a consequence of many complicated physiological factors, as well as a very basic process by which the neural pathways responsible for generating pain become more easily activated the more times they are used.  It’s like blazing a trail in the jungle or forest – the more times you walk on the trail, the clearer the path becomes, and the more likely you will be to take that path again.

In some cases you can use this knowledge to prevent a temporary pain from becoming a more persistent and permanent pain.  Let’s say you tweak your foot and have a minor pain that you suspect will go away in a few days, if you stop running.  But you go ahead and run anyway because the pain is very minor and you don’t want to lose training days.  The running doesn’t seem to be making the pain worse, but it does prevent the pain from going away.  Six months later, the pain is still there, and now it won’t go away even when you do take a few days off.   After a few more months, the pain can be activated at lower and lower thresholds of activity, including walking.  And now it is really starting to interfere with your running and you need pain pills to continue.   A tiny problem has now magnified into a major problem, because …. pain breeds pain.  Maybe you or some expert will erroneously conclude that you have tendonitis or some other mystery overuse syndrome, when the only real problem is a hyped up pain system.

I had a client once who knew many ex-professional basketball and football players.  Many of these guys were living in extreme pain and were unable to do simple things like walk up and down stairs.  I think one of the major reasons was not the physical wear and tear on their bodies, but the reprogramming of their pain systems that occurred over time.  When you are a pro, you can’t take time off until the pain stops, you play through it, sometimes for years.  This is a perfect recipe for reprogramming your nervous system to cause pain.  Bill Walton recently admitted that chronic back pain was literally making him suicidal.  His pain started in college when he injured his back in one game and then played another (in a brace) three days later.  Twenty five years later, Walton said the pain was so bad that being dipped in boiling acid wouldn’t even begin to describe it.  Perhaps some exaggeration there, but a chilling cautionary tale nonetheless.   Playing through pain is often necessary to reach the highest levels of sport, but it is a great way to develop some long lasting and nasty pain problems.  Remember that pain breeds pain, so don’t turn small problems into big ones by playing through pain.

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