This month we want to focus on the relationship between chronic stress and chronic pain. Approximately 1.5 million Canadians suffer from chronic pain and there is currently no single cause or treatment for it. Before we delve into the relationship between stress and chronic pain, it is important to know what each of these things mean.
What is chronic stress?
Chronic stress is stress resulting from exposure to recurrent trauma that causes the constant release of stress hormones. The body is not built to handle constant stress so this can result in breakdown of physiological functions. The fight and flight system protects us in simple yet life threatening situations such as fighting for food or fleeing from a predator. These stresses, although life threatening, typically have a sudden onset but quick resolution. Contrary to that, in our current society, we have to deal with ongoing constant low grade stress from less immediate threats such as workload or family troubles. And although we may not be able to consciously acknowledge this stress, it continues to take a toll on our body. It leads to the advanced aging of our cells, lowered immune systems and a continual depletion in our ability to appropriately deal with and resolve new stressors that arise.
What is chronic pain?
Chronic pain is pain that has been constant for over 6 months, continues without the presence of physiological reasoning and is independent to the injury or illness that originally caused the onset of pain. This means that no matter the treatment sought after, there is always a constant low grade of pain that does not change. The pain continues well past appropriate healing and inflammation time and can cause problems elsewhere in the body. What may have started as say hip pain can now manifest into low/mid back pain without a specific method of injury.
So how does stress affect chronic pain?
The relationship between stress and chronic pain is a vicious cycle. Physical, mental and emotional stress can result in an increase in the pain we experience. This increase in pain can also subsequently result in an increase in our mental and emotional stress. Being unable to perform our daily functions due to chronic pain such as having a shower, cooking dinner or driving because of pain can cause many individuals to become depressed therefore resulting in an increase in their emotional stress.
When we are stressed, our bodies release high levels of cortisol, our muscles are tense and our body is revved and ready to fight or take flight against the threat. With the increase in muscle tension throughout our bodies we can experience pain, loss of mobility and function. A good example of this is what is called a tension headache. Tension headaches are a result of tight muscles in the neck that can cause a migraine or “pain behind the eyes”.
Management of stress and chronic pain
As discussed in our previous blogs there are many ways to manage stress, both pharmaceutical and a more natural realm. Exercise and meditation have shown great success in research at minimizing the sensation of stress and therefore helping in reducing pain. Counselling and therapy are other alternative options that may help individuals determine what it is that is causing them stress, how to better cope with the stresses they experience and better stress management skills.
If you have trouble getting moving because of restrictions due to pain, we at Rebalance can help in determining alternative, modified exercises that work best for you