Keeping Fit: Ways to overcome chronic pain

Jeremy Walraven

Do you suffer from one or more chronic conditions such as arthritis and fibromyalgia? If so, have you ever been told the pain is “all in your head"? Could there be any truth in this statement?

According to the Arthritis Foundation, when it comes to pain it’s probably not all in your head, but the brain may magnify the issue. Luckily, we can learn to manage chronic pain by means other than medication. Today, let’s look closer at a few ways to hopefully attain some relief.

Tone down the pain

The Cleveland Clinic explains that pain can be broken down into two groups, peripheral and centralized.

Peripheral pain is the sharp or aching pain you feel locally, like the pain of a torn rotator cuff muscle in your shoulder. Centralized pain, or “central sensitization,” describes pain that is a chronic and complicated condition resulting from the spinal cord and brain not processing pain signals accurately due to being overly exposed or overly sensitive to pain.

Basically, over time our nerves become more efficient at sending pain signals to the brain. The more the brain registers and processes pain, the more sensitive it becomes to this stimulus.

Eventually, your brain is constantly on “high alert” to detect pain. So, even a small pain in the body is felt as being much worse than it actually may be. Arthritis, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic headaches and persistent lower back issues often fall into the centralized category.

If you are one of countless individuals living with a painful chronic issue, don’t fret, scientists say it is possible to tone down an overly sensitive brain.

Master mind control

Pain and emotion have a strong bond as these circuits actually overlap in the brain. This allows the brain to process a great deal of information at one time and has been dubbed nature’s “economy route.”

It is believed negative feelings amp up pain, while positive ones may help lessen pain. Beth Darnell, a pain psychologist from Stanford University, states, “Negative emotions are like gasoline thrown on the fire of pain, not only making chronic pain much worse, but even causing it in some cases.”

She says the opposite is also true, that “Positive emotions can significantly lower pain when patients stop focusing on how bad they feel.”

Even behaviors such as sighing and grimacing reinforce pain and discomfort, often resulting in a sense of powerlessness. Taking time to relax through activities such as meditation may help calm the mind, decreasing pain by restoring a sense of control that many researchers agree is a key to pain management.

CBT may be best

Can changing your thought processes help reduce pain? The Mayo Clinic describes cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a popular type of talk therapy that has proven to be effective in treating a wide range of disorders, including managing chronic physical symptoms.

According to the American Psychological Association, CBT works on identifying and changing inaccurate and negative thinking, emotions and behaviors. A major goal of CBT is to aid individuals in becoming their own therapist by improving coping skills in those living with chronic conditions. Wayne State University pain researcher April Vallerand said,“If you perceive yourself to be disabled, you’re going to act like it.”

Furthermore, CBT is used to help teach a person to calm the body and relax the mind. As with any form of therapy it is a process that actually starts when you leave the office and implement what you have learned.

Move more, meet more

Many people become fearful that any added exercise will lead to more pain. In reality, increasing your activity level may be a big help.

The Arthritis Foundation states the extra activity may help you be less fearful of hurting and release “feel good” hormones into the bloodstream. An added bonus is that exercise often brings people together. And more socialization helps many people when it comes to the treatment of pain. Thus, classes such as the Bradley Wellness Center’s Arthritis Aquatics, which takes place among small groups in heated water, are a great way to increase your activity level while simultaneously interacting with others.

Even though the pain of many chronic conditions is very real, we can still seek relief in numerous ways. Take what you have learned here and put it to good use. Strive to have a positive outlook, find someone skilled in the practice of CBT to talk with and be both physically and socially active.

Don’t let pain strip away your enjoyment of life.

Jeremy Walraven is a fitness consultant at the Bradley Wellness Center.

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