Often called ‘the fifth vital sign,’ pain is as important as temperature, pulse, respiration, and blood pressure as a key indicator of a patient’s medical status. The longer we live, the more likely it is that we will eventually experience some type of injury or disease that results in temporary or even chronic pain. Surgeries become more frequent, both elective and those deemed vital to our survival and well-being. Injury and surgery leads to scar tissue that may cause lingering pain, mar our outer appearance, and diminish certain movement capabilities. Many of us also take a variety of pharmaceuticals and/or recreational drugs to delay some disease process or to alleviate symptoms of chronic physical or emotional pain. These drugs, even properly prescribed prescription drugs, may sometimes exacerbate the problems and even create new unexpected painful side effects.
Sometimes, continuing to take pain medication actually perpetuates the pain when the medication is stopped or increased doses may be required to maintain the same effect. With body therapy, on the other hand, over a period of time, fewer and fewer treatments may be required because the body cells remember the sensations of neuromuscular letting go and previously over stimulated nerve receptor cells begin to quiet down.
Causes of Pain
A popular belief, even among medical professionals, is that the most common cause for pain is a pinched nerve. According to this belief, there are three types of pain:
*Nocioception – immediate, protective pain
*Inflammatory – local cellular damage
*Neuropathic – one or more nerves are affected, delayed in onset, becomes chronic pain, requires physical input to heal the injury…and is radiculopathic (nerve root impingement causing weakness, numbness, and difficulty controlling certain muscles)
Chronic pain is believed to be caused by shortened (contracted) muscles resulting from neuropathy and radiculopathy. This theory is based upon Cannon’s 1949 Law of Dennervation Supersensitivity which states: “Any measure (such as a nerve impingement caused by radiculopathy) which blocks the flow of motor impulses and deprives an organ or tissue of excitatory input (motor impulses) for a period of time, will cause abnormal functioning (called ‘disuse sensitivity’) in the receptor organ or tissue.
Recent research, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI’s), has demonstrated that no matter how much a normal functioning spine is compressed or twisted, there is ample room in the space between the vertebrae for free movement of the nerve. Researchers are now suggesting that much of the pain may be caused by sensory receptor overload from postural imbalances. Through a process called “sensitization,” a pattern may be set up in the body in which hyperexcited receptors feeding the central nervous system cause the brain to send signals to twist and torque the body to avoid pain.
The pain generating stimulus must be interrupted until the memory in the nerve cells has been forgotten. For many chronic pain cases, deep tissue therapy a few times every week can help these hyperexcited receptors feeding the central nervous system to quiet down and the sensation of pain to dissipate and even disappear.
Deconditioning Complications of Chronic Pain
Any part of the body that has severe and chronic pain will discontinue normal, symmetric, coordinated movement, and the person with pain will simply self-splint, immobilize, and decondition the area. Muscles, nerves and joints weaken and deteriorate leading to muscle atrophy, neuropathy, contracture, decreased movement, and gradual weight gain. To compensate for a weak, painful area, joints, nerves and muscles in other parts of the body will work overtime, leading to “overload and overuse syndrome.
Hormonal Complications of Chronic Pain
Chronic pain is a potent stressor that may affect every endocrine system in the body. Initially, the pain causes an excess of stress hormones (catecholamines and glucocorticoids) to help the body control pain and prevent damage. However, this excess may trigger hypertension and tachycardia, sometimes leading to cardiovascular death.
If severe pain continues and is not controlled, adrenal exhaustion and decreased stress hormone levels may result. The fluctuation between excess and deficient glucocorticoids, often called Cushing and Addison syndromes respectively, can lead to many severe symptoms, including: mental deficiencies, muscle weakness, edema, osteoporosis, diabetes, forming stones, tooth decay, and even testosterone deficiency. A further effect of pain and lowered levels of important hormones is a compromised immune system, lowered resistance to infections and slower healing of wounds when injured.
Neuropathic Complications of Chronic Pain
Persistent pain causes excess electrical activity in peripheral nerves, spinal cord and brain. This ‘hot wire’ effect appears to cause nerve tissue damage in the spine as well as the brain, which can lead to dementail and other organic brain problems.
Cardiovascular Effects of Chronic Pain
Pain increases blood pressure. This is not such a problem for a person with a normally low to average blood pressure. But for a person suffering from hypertension and high blood pressure, the increased blood pressure resulting from the body’s pain response can lead to a more serious heart problem such as a stroke or aneurysm.
Pain, especially as we age, should not be taken lightly. There are all sorts of medications available to decrease the level of pain. And when needed, pain medication can literally save lives. But for chronic pain, there are so many diet, exercise and body therapy prescriptions that can not only be life saving but can transform the quality of a person’s life.