The Science Behind Chronic Pain

This is the first in a series of articles on how to beat chronic pain naturally and inexpensively. We could all just decide to go get a prescription for some strong painkiller, add on a muscle relaxer, and throw in a sleeping pill…and we would feel no pain, we would be relaxed as a wet noodle, and we would sleep 12 hours every night. But we wouldn’t feel healthy, that’s for sure. We wouldn’t feel healthy because you can’t find health in a bottle of pills.

A lot of people deal with chronic pain during their lives. This first article will provide some scientific background on why some pain becomes chronic – why it lingers well past it’s usefulness. The latest science provides a lot of insight into why some of us are unable to get past our pain and get on with our lives.

Specifically we are going to go over why chronic pain is not the same as temporary pain.

Now, I know that no one really wants to sit through a science class, and I don’t really want to teach one, but I think it’s important to “know your enemy”. Temporary pain is short-term, and it’s the body’s response to an injury, and it serves a purpose: to warn you when bad things are happening to your body. It doesn’t create a lasting impression on your nervous system like chronic pain does.

All the latest science is confirming that chronic pain actually causes real changes in the brain, and these changes cause that pain to perpetuate.

To become an excellent bowler, golfer, or singer, you need to practice, practice, practice. Like the old sayings go: “practice makes perfect”, or “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice”. This involves repetition, and this is required because the body needs to be trained to throw that perfect strike or hit that perfect drive down the fairway. This involves coordinating all the muscles involved, and THAT requires a nervous system free from interference. Most of the elite athletes we know about, Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods for example, have chiropractors that go with them as they travel for tours and races because they know that they spent years training their nervous systems and if they want to compete at 100% they need to show up to play with healthy spines.

When you learn to play an instrument, your ears get in tune with subtle differences in pitch or tone and you can develop “an ear for music”. When you draw a lot, your hands become finely-controlled so you can draw a smooth line. When you first start drinking and enjoying a nice glass of wine or craft beer, you start developing an appreciation of the flavor and aroma of different types or reds, white, lagers and ales. An expert chef can tell exactly how much spice to add to a dish to make it taste just right. This is all the result of a nervous system that is finely tuned and very sensitive because of repetition – practice, practice, practice!

For another example, a skilled chiropractor spends countless hours palpating spines and looking for misalignments, and is able to feel fixations and locate tender segments in a way untrained people cannot.

These are all examples of the way our brains and bodies get better at what it repeatedly does, and all this repetition strengthens the neural pathways involved in those activities. The sensing of pain is no different. Just like your palate, your ears, and your sense of touch – your sensitivity to pain can become sharper and the neural pain pathways can be strengthened. You become GOOD at feeling pain. This is not a good thing to be good at! No one wants to be a pain connoisseur, an expert at feeling and identifying pain!!

Recent studies have shown that the central nervous system physically remodels due to chronic pain. When you have long-standing pain this actually strengthens the neural pain pathways just like practicing your golf swing will strengthen those pathways involved with gripping the golf club and swinging it smoothly. Any time a nerve is stimulated that nerve is strengthened. Pain nerves are, unfortunately, able to be trained just like the nerves that perfect your swing or control your taste buds. When you had your first beer or glass of wine you might have thought it wasn’t exactly delicious, to put it mildly. But after repeated exposure to different styles and tastes you develop an ability to tell good wine from bad wine, and a pale ale from a wheat beer. Soon you can even tell when a wine hasn’t aged enough, or when a beer has gone bad.

When the pain is there for a while, the constant stimulation of pain nerve fibers can cause changes to the nervous system that lead to the perception of pain persisting even after removing the original cause of the pain. So, even when the thing that is causing the pain has disappeared, the pain is still there!

This is called “central sensitization” – essentially pain receptors in the body become hypersensitive, and at the same time the brain becomes more receptive to even minor pain sensations. When that happens it starts to feel like everything hurts.

Every one is better off with a healthy nervous system. Pain doesn’t need to become chronic, and something can be done, naturally, to get past that pain. In order to maintain or re-gain a healthy nervous system you should have your spine checked by a chiropractor. At Park Bench Chiropractic we focus on helping our patients maintain healthy nervous systems and active lifestyles. Call us at (301) 378-0334 or stop by today to see if we can help.

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Dr. Romano is a board certified and licensed chiropractor in Maryland. He practices in Frederick, Md at 1780 North Market Street with Dr. Matt Schooley.  Dr. Romano and Dr. Schooley are also available to speak to groups about different health-related topics and about the importance of a healthy nervous system.