Your back aches. Your joints ache. Your head aches. Your neck is sore. Your feet hurt. Any combination of these can be present in people who suffer from chronic pain, whether the root cause is fibromyalgia or regional pain caused by a car accident or other injury. But while this may seem like a purely physical issue, an affliction of your body, did you know your mental state can have a profound influence on your chronic pain as well? This isn’t some new-age belief—scientific study after scientific study has shown repeatedly over decades of research that mental stress has a significant direct impact on chronic pain.
So how does stress affect pain? And how can tackling stress factor into your strategy for managing your chronic pain? Read on to learn about this crucial relationship.
How Stress Intensifies Chronic Pain
Studies have shown that there are several ways in which stress worsens the symptoms of chronic pain.
The first affects your body itself. When you experience stress, it triggers a response in your nervous system, releasing hormones that makes your muscles tense up. This occurs most commonly in the back, shoulders, neck, forehead, and jaw. Over time, this can lead to chronic muscle tension, which results in spasms, aching, and heightened pain sensitivity. This, of course, heightens the pain suffered by patients with chronic pain.
Another way that stress increases pain is how it affects the way that the nervous system, in particular the brain, processes pain. Nerves throughout the body receive sensory information, which travels up the spinal cord to the brain, where it is processed to create the experience of pain. Typically, the brain softens these pain signals so that we can still function. But a person who is often stressed puts strain on this system, and the brain becomes increasingly sensitive to pain, requiring less and less stimuli to trigger a pain response.
Recent research suggests that cortisol, known as the “stress hormone,” is responsible for this process. A study conducted at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (IUGM) and published by the Oxford University Press found that elevated levels of cortisol are associated with stronger stress responses, increased pain sensitivity, and possibly increased risk of developing chronic pain.
So stress both creates painful muscle tension, and also increases our experience of pain by making our brain process it with greater sensitivity.
Stress Management for Chronic Pain Reduction
Since stress can increase the intensity of your chronic pain, it follows that an effective method for alleviating some of your pain may be to address the stress you’re experiencing in your life.
There are many ways to treat your stress, some more general and some targeting the specific causes of your stress. Of course, the obvious first step is to try to arrange your life to be less stressful. Try changing up your daily routines to create a more balanced schedule with more room for the leisure activities that help you relieve stress.
To combat the stress you do feel, there’s a wide variety of strategies available that can help. Exercise is one such strategy. When you exercise, whether it’s a half hour on the treadmill at home or visiting the gym every other day, your brain releases endorphins. This hormone is not only your body’s natural painkiller, which helps you directly combat chronic pain, but also reduces your stress. If, however, your condition is such that exercise would be too strenuous or might negatively affect your pain, you may want to consult with your healthcare provider and consider alternative ways to get exercise like pool therapy or walking.
There are plenty of other ways of relieving stress as well. You can start with daily breathing exercises like foursquare breathing, in which you inhale to the count of four, hold to the count of four, exhale to the count of four, and so on and so forth for ten repetitions.
Once you’re ready for more involved exercises, you can move onto things like guided imagery. This is where you spend five to ten minutes each day visualizing yourself in a relaxing, tranquil scene incorporating all the senses including sights, sounds, and even feelings and smells.
Going further, you might try meditation. Mindfulness meditation involves spending twenty minutes noticing your breathing but not controlling it, noticing pain or thoughts but letting them pass like a cloud rather than pushing them away.
Beyond that, if your stress stems from a larger issue like relationship issues, insomnia, depression, anxiety, or mental illness of some other sort, it may be wise to address those causes. Getting professional help in the form of relationship counseling, sleep aids, or mental health treatment may be the right move to not only address those problems themselves, but also by extension alleviate your stress and thus your chronic pain.
Stress Management for Making Pain Tolerable
It should be noted though that many of those sources of stress can themselves stem from your chronic pain. It may hinder your ability to be sexually and emotionally intimate with your significant other, or keep you from being able to work full-time or do the things around the house you used to, or keep your from your leisure activities, or keep you awake at night. All of this can result in depression and insomnia which translates to more stress and, in turn, more pain. You can see how this becomes a cycle.
Since chronic pain is incurable, the best we can hope to accomplish is to minimize the symptoms, and one way of doing that is by breaking this cycle. Reducing stress may not remove your chronic pain, but it can soften it and mitigate the consequences so that the pain doesn’t control your life.
If your pain is making you sleep poorly, and your sleep deprivation is stressing you out and making your pain worse, then addressing your sleep issues may not cure you of chronic pain but it can keep it from getting worse and also make your pain more tolerable, because at least it isn’t also making you tired all the time. In short, treating causes of stress can minimize the grip that chronic pain has on your life.
If you have chronic pain and you’re interested in learning more about potential treatments that might be right for you, or about stress management, you should consult with a healthcare professional that’s experienced in dealing with such issues. Back in Shape Chiropractic has been serving northern Illinois for nearly thirty years, and is well-equipped to handle your questions and concerns. Simply give us a call at (847) 249-2225 and we’ll make you an appointment so you can receive the professional attention you need and deserve.
Back in Shape Chiropractic
4673 Old Grand Ave
Gurnee, IL 60031