As a massage therapist, I’ve often wondered what our world would be like if people experienced less pain...could you imagine?
Pain sucks. It’s stressful, it’s exhausting, and it makes everything in life way harder than it needs to be. And SO many people are living with it. I was actually one of them.
In fact, I spent most of my life in pain. But not anymore.
In today’s post we’re gonna learn:
- The basics about pain
- How it works
- Where it comes from
- And how to deal with it, so you can get creative with your pain management, and live a life with more ease!
Welcome to the blogcast, Unlocking Wellness! I’m Crystal McLain, curator of Crystal McLain Creative, an online resource that supports folks who are ready to get creative with the care of their mind, body, and mother-lovin’ soul.
If you enjoy this content, would like to support my work, AND wanna score some sweet self care goodies, consider a Patreon Membership for as little as $3 a month! To learn more, you can visit: crystalmclaincreative.com.
Alright. Let's get to it.
So, I want to make a couple of things clear.
- I am NOT, by any means, a pain management specialist. I have, however, successfully managed my own pain, have worked with loads of clients in helping them manage theirs, and have done a lot of research on the topic.
- My second disclaimer is, I make zero promises here. While I’d LOVE it if you found yourself pain free after experimenting with what you’ve learned here, I can’t guarantee that’s going to happen. What I can say with near-certainty is that after you digest this information, your self awareness and body consciousness should improve, which gives you the tools to make better choices for your self care, which may result in less pain…so, still a total win.
Alright, I want to share a couple of startling statistics, which are some of reasons WHY I feel so passionately about understanding pain, and learning how to deal with it.
- According to the National Health Interview Survey, conducted by the CDC in 2021, 1 out of 5 adults in the US experience chronic pain.
- And according to the National Library of Medicine, in 2010, it was reported that the cost of pain is somewhere between $560-$635 billion dollars. That’s due to missed wages and medical expenses.
That’s a lot of people, that’s a lot of money, and that’s a lot of stress, which are also reasons why more than 10 million Americans end up misusing opioids.
And since things like pain and stress are often the precursors to a whole host of other physical, mental, and emotional ailments, I feel like pain awareness is a really great place to start when we’re talking about self care.
Pain is a hard thing to embrace.
It robs us of our energy, causes depression and anxiety, and makes life feel hard. It keeps us from doing the things we enjoy, and can cause us to reach for unhealthy coping devices.
But essentially, pain is just our body’s way of letting us know that something isn’t right, that something needs tending to. It’s our body’s way of communicating its needs.
We just need to learn its language.
So, this is how pain works.
You’ve got this brain in your head. And connected to this brain are more than seven trillion tiny fibers woven throughout your body called nerves. And at the end of these nerves are little fingery-type things called sensory receptors. And their job is to tell your brain what’s going on inside and outside of the body at all times. And depending on what’s going on with your body or environment, your brain will make you (your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) act accordingly.
So, when you stub your toe, for instance, you quickly grab onto it as a way of supporting the toe and soothing the pain. you might also get a little bit angry, and say a few choice words…This is that fight or flight response we all know so well.
Anyway, the pain from a regular ol’ toe stubbing doesn’t last very long. So you can get on with your life rather quickly. But what if you stubbed your toe SO hard that it actually broke? Well, that’s a WHOLE different story.
Now that you’ve broken your toe, you’ve got a lingering pain that you become hyper aware of. Your painful, broken toe causes you to change your body mechanics while doing things like walking, driving, or getting dressed. You’re constantly guarding the toe, making sure that you don’t bump it into anything.
And WHILE all of this is happening, the magic of neuroplasticity is taking place.
Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to create new habits. It’s the reason why you’re able to read, write, and do so many other things habitually. And because of this feature of the brain it can also cause us to create holding patterns of pain and tension.
So, the longer we’re focused on our pain, and guarding ourselves from this pain, and adapting our way of life to accommodate this pain, the more accessible this pain is going to be in the future. This is called a Pain Feedback Loop. The brain literally rewires itself to think about pain.
I know, it’s dumb.
So the reality is, even after you’ve healed, you may still experience pain, and unconsciously guard your toe. That’s because there’s been changes in the nervous system. And here’s a real kick in the pants, the pain may not even end up where you’d expect it. Like, your previously broken toe might actually slap you with pain somewhere in your knee, hip, or low back. So, so, very dumb.
But, this is where things get even crazier…
Our nervous system is DESIGNED to detect danger. And any time we’ve felt unsafe, whether that’s physically or emotionally, the nervous system kicks into protection mode. And if we’ve felt unsafe with regularity we end up living with perpetual tension, because we’re always guarding ourselves.
The levels and longevity of the stress, trauma, or tension that we experience, can greatly impact our susceptibility to physical pain or suffering.
In other words, stress manifests pain. And pain manifests stress. It’s a wicked, vicious cycle.
And one that I’m hoping we can break.
But that’s not all.
We all have different feelings about pain. And I’m not talking about our pain tolerance levels, but our attitudes towards it. Some of us are afraid of it, some are obsessed by it, some believe they deserve it. Some people feel victimized by it, while others find stoicism in it. But it’s our mindset around pain that directly influences the impact that it has on our lives, and consequently, the severity of our suffering.
Alright, that’s some heavy shit. Let’s move along, and learn the difference between acute and chronic pain.
So, I’m pretty sure most of us have heard of either acute or chronic pain.
ACUTE PAIN is considered short-term, lasting no more than six months. Yeah, six months is considered short-term. Lame. It’s also typically caused by a soft-tissue injury or a temporary illness, and it should subside as time passes and your body heals.
CHRONIC PAIN, however, is long-term, lasting more than six months. But it doesn’t have to be a constant, steady pain to be considered chronic. Pain associated with things like headaches, fibromyalgia or arthritis, comes and goes, but these are long-term conditions, hence, classified as chronic pain. And if we don’t treat our acute pain properly, or for some reason we don’t heal well, there’s a risk that it may evolve into chronic pain.
WHICH IS WHY IT’S SO IMPORTANT TO FOLLOW INJURY OR ILLNESS SELF CARE PROTOCOL!!!
That is why it is so important that we practice relaxation and stress reduction while we’re not well. Being strong or stoic or pushing through the pain for any other reason is only putting you at risk for potentially dealing with a lifetime of pain.
I do not want that for you.
Alright, that’s the difference between acute and chronic, which really, mostly just classifies pain according to its lifespan.
So, let’s quickly recap what we’ve learned so far…
- About 20% of American adults are living with chronic pain, and it’s costing hundreds of billions of dollars in lost wages and medical expenses.
- More than 10 million Americans are misusing opioids, and it’s primarily due to physical or emotional distress.
- Pain is our body’s way of communicating that something internally needs our attention.
- Pain is a sensory experience perceived by the nervous system.
- Acute pain lasts less than six months, and chronic lasts longer.
- Because of neuroplasticity, feedback loops, and stress, we may experience pain even though we’ve healed from an injury or illness.
- The more proactive we are about caring for our stress, injuries and illnesses, and the healthier our relationship is with pain, and the less likely we are to experience chronic pain or severe suffering.
Alright, now let’s take a look at some reasons why we might be experiencing pain, and ways we can manage it.
So, like everything else in life, pain isn’t always straight forward. Just ask anyone with an autoimmune disorder.
But there can be a myriad of reasons for why we experience pain, like:
- Old or new injuries
- Old or new illnesses
- Repetitive postures or motions
- Lack of dynamic movement
- Muscle strains
- Stress, tension or trauma
- Dietary insufficiencies or dehydration
- Poor body mechanics
- Muscle weakness
- Misaligned joints
- Lack of sleep
There’s lots of reasons why we can experience pain, and a lot of times it’s a culmination of things.
I wish I could tell you that there’s a tidy little chart you could reference so you could figure out exactly how to manage your pain. But there isn’t.
What you’re gonna have to do is dive into a bit of self awareness and then experiment with different types of self care. And, of course, I am NOT giving you professional medical advice here, and I would STRONGLY suggest that you discuss these options with your medical professional and figure out what is best for YOU.
Alright, before we get into all the juicy stuff, I’d like to take this moment to let you know that I’m working on building a wide-range of self care tutorials that can actually help with pain management. And these are things that my clients and I have used for years, and they’ll be available to you at the Inspiration Station found at my website.
And if you’d like FULL access to the Inspiration Station, and would like to support the work that goes into creating this content. I’d like to invite you to become a Patreon Member. Patreon Members get to join The Dream Team, and score all sorts of awesome perks like an invitation to my self care support group, Zoom parties, and some other goodies. But the best part of all, memberships are on a sliding scale and start at just $3/month.
Okay, let’s wrap things up with the good stuff.
A lot of my clients will come in with a complaint about discomfort in a general area of their body. And that’s when I start asking them a bunch of questions about their pain. And as I roll through these questions, I can see a look come across their face that indicates that they don’t really know much about their pain.
All they know is, something hurts.
So, these are some questions I’d like for you to ask yourself about your pain. And if you’re a Member, you can actually download a self-assessment survey, and pain tracking & managing tool so you can have a reference for how you’re feeling and what’s working for you.
But essentially, these are the questions you want to ask yourself:
- Where, exactly IS the pain?
- How severe is it?
- What does it feel like, what are the sensations?
- When do you notice it?
- How long does it last?
- What makes it feel worse?
- What makes it feel better?
The more upset we get about our pain, or the more we resist or try to numb ourselves from it, the more suffering it brings to our lives. So it’s really important that we recognize pain for what it is, and find a way to welcome and embrace it.
I know this probably sounds impossible, especially if your pain is massive or you've been dealing with it a long time. BUT if we build a healthier, more accepting relationship with our pain, the less stress it’s going to cause us. And if you recall, stress manifests pain, and pain manifests stress.
So, a great way to start building a better relationship with your pain is to start a mindfulness practice. And I’ve added a link from Jon Kabat-Zinn to better explain how this works. It’s actually fucking brilliant, and I can attest to how effective mindfulness is when it comes to pain management…it also helps with stress, btw.
I know poppin’ some Advil and washing it down with a glass of wine sounds pretty enticing, but there are so many other ways of managing your pain, that might be more effective AND empowering.
So, once you’ve deepened your awareness around your pain, and have managed to accept it (even if just a little bit), now is the time to start exploring your options for relief.
So, I’m just going to list through some things and talk about what they are and how they work.
Now, if you’re in an acute pain situation caused by an injury or illness, like I mentioned earlier, it’s best if you follow whatever self care protocol that’s been administered by your medical professional. But, if it’s an injury, that protocol usually consists of RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression & Elevation. But be careful with the ice and compression components of this acronym.
While icing an injured area can reduce swelling (which, itself, can cause a bit of discomfort), it can also damage the nerves (which can end up being even more painful than the swelling).
A couple of tips are to be sure you don’t put ice directly on your skin, and to not leave it there for more than ten minutes at a time. And the caution I’d like to advise about compression, is to not wrap your wounds too tightly. The body relies on circulation to heal itself, so you’re not doing it any justice if you cut that circulation off.
1. EPSOM SALT
Most of us are familiar with Epsom salt. What epsom salt actually is, is magnesium and sulfate. And when these salts dissolve into water, that makes the minerals available to be absorbed through the skin. The theory is that these minerals help relax muscles, and reduces swelling or pain from things like arthritis, fibromyalgia and other various causes.
Menthol can be found in many topical analgesics like Biofreeze and Tiger Balm. And what menthol does, is it masks the pain receptors so they end up sending a ‘cold’ sensation to the brain instead of pain. This allows you to relax so you can interrupt those holding patterns of tension. But be careful, because sometimes we need to be AWARE of our pain so we don’t cause further injury.
Your brain and immune system have things called endocannabinoid receptors. And promising research indicates that CBD, a cannabinoid found in cannabis (aka, marijuana) interacts with those receptors and creates an anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving response. And don’t worry, CBD isn’t gonna get you high, that’s the handiwork of THC.
So those were a few topical options, now let’s talk about how you can get your body involved with pain management.
1. SELF MASSAGE
While (in my opinion) there’s nothing more delicious than receiving a really good professional massage, due to finances and time, that may not be accessible for you. The next best thing is giving yourself a massage.
Massage is really great for promoting circulation to damaged tissues, relaxing muscles by interrupting nerve patterns, and releasing sticky fascia (which is a connective tissue throughout our entire body). It’s also a great way to become familiar with your body, practice self love, and discover trigger points that may be causing referred pain. This sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. But that’s the reason why I’m going to devote an entire blog and podcast just about self massage. So if you want to make sure you don’t miss that, you can sign up for my newsletter.
Sometimes our pain stems from an imbalance in our body mechanics, which can cause muscle tension, nerve impingement and limited joint range. And this happens because most of us spend a LOT of time repeating postures or movements, and don’t move our bodies in the dynamic ways they’re intended. Think about what you do with your body for your job, leisure, and hobbies. Think about how much time you spend on your phone! We’re passively training the brain to hold our bodies in these positions. And I’ll get into this a little more when I write the self massage blog and podcast.
But essentially the remedy to these holding patterns is to move your body in all the ways its intended, to stretch the areas that have become shortened, and to strengthen the areas that have become weak. Moving your body also releases endorphins, which makes the body feel great!
3. ACTIVE RELAXATION
So, pain is linked to our parasympathetic response (which is our fight or flight mode). And when we’re kicked into this mode, we have a tendency to hold stress and tension the body. And if you recall, pain manifests stress, and stress manifests pain. But, we have the ability to activate our SYMPATHETIC response, which is our rest and repair mode, which, consequently, can alleviate some of our pain.
And how we do this is by practicing active relaxation techniques like deep breathing and body scans. I’ll also get into this a bit more in my next blog and podcast.
If inflammation is one of the culprits of your pain, then a super easy way to help limit that inflammation is by eating foods that keep it at bay. Things like whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, leafy greens, veggies, fruit, fish, poultry, and olive oil are some of those foods. BTW, beer and Twinkies are not anti-inflammatory foods.
1. PHYSICAL THERAPY
Essentially, physical therapists teach you how to use your body more efficiently. They can help address why you’re feeling a particular pain, and help break the neurological patterns and improve strength and mobility by using a combination of exercises and passive treatments.
2. PSYCHOLOGICAL THERAPY
Like I mentioned before, the relationship we have with pain is a huge contributor to the level of our suffering. So seeking out a mental health therapist is a really great way to alleviate distress because they can help you address any anxiety or depression, teach relaxation techniques and new coping skills, and help you make lifestyle changes that support your circumstances.
3. BODY& ENERGY WORKERS
I could into the specifics of all the different types of energy and body work out there. But, omg, you’ve been here a LONG time already. You deserve a break. What I will do, however, is link a few modalities to resources that explain how they work. So, again, if you’re listening to this from a podcast source, and you want to learn more, find this post at my website, or, go on a Google hunt of your own.
But a few interesting things to check out are:
OMG, that was a lot! You are a trooper for hanging in there with this long-ass post and for hanging in there with your pain.
Pain is a challenging thing to live with, especially since it’s invisible to everyone else. But I want you to know that I see you, and can sympathize with what you’re going through.
If you’d like to have a supportive space to talk about pain management or other wellness goals, or if you want to learn about my personal battles with chronic pain, or if you simply want to support my work, you can sign up for the Patreon Membership and join The Dream Team for just $3 a month!