Have you ever noticed your pain becoming worse after having a stressful day at work? Have you ever felt your pain to be worse following a bad night’s sleep? Have you ever drawn a link between busy days or busy life periods and an increase in pain? Before we discuss life factors, let’s discuss how the body feels pain.
Nerve fibres in our periphery, i.e. on the outside of the body, allow you to feel pain. For example, if you stub your toe against a door your toe will feel sore. The nerve fibres in your toe will send a message up to your brain to let the body know it is experiencing pain.
The brain has an area which is a physical representation of the body called the cortical homunculus. This represents the importance of various parts of your body as seen by your brain and also illustrates the sensitivity and density of nerve fibres in that region.
For example, the hand is given a large area in the cortical homunculus because the density of nerve fibres in that region is very high. So to bring us back to your pain. When you stub your toe and the message gets relayed to your brain, an area in the brain (like in the homunculus) which corresponds to that body part will ‘light up’. As you experience more pain or pain for longer periods of time, this area in the brain will become bigger and so will increase your sensitivity to pain i.e. you will feel pain more easily than before. This is one simplified reason as to why pain which persists for longer is more difficult to treat. This is primarily because there are central changes occurring within the brain which have a knock on effect on your experience of pain.
So Let’s return to that stressful day or that bad night’s sleep. Because our nervous system allows us to feel pain, anything which affects our nervous system can also affect pain. Lack of sleep, stress, anxiety and worry all weigh heavily on our bodies and affect the functioning of the nervous system. As a result, our system becomes a little more vulnerable and sensitive. This then results in us feeling more pain.
For example, something which is not normally painful like brushing your arm against a wall, may become painful when the nervous system is sensitised. Modern day living comes with many stresses and unfortunately, these often negatively affect our pain.
So what can you do to help?
Often when your pain is being triggered or aggravated by external factors like poor sleep, stress or anxiety, there are certain management strategies that can be put in place to help this.
Targeted treatment therapies such a medical acupuncture, gentle manual therapy, neurostructural integration technique and tailored therapeutic exercise can all be useful in ‘winding down’ the nervous system.
Other pain management strategies such a cognitive behavioural therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy can also be highly valuable adjuncts. However, often simply being able to recognise the main driver of your pain can have a huge impact in terms of reducing pain intensity. Understanding the issue at hand can ease tension and this will often have a positive impact on your pain.
The best piece of advice I can give you is this: if you are finding yourself experiencing a flare-up and you can recognise antagonistic factors in your life which you think are contributing, then try take part in some activity that is going to encourage your system to relax. This may be a warm bath, a nice walk in the fresh air, reading a good book, practising mindfulness or relaxation, among many others.
Different strategies work for different people so pick something which allows you to relax and leave behind any stresses or life issues and focus on yourself, your body and your mind.
By Rachel Neary
Photo courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net/stockdevil