When my patient Susan feels her neck
pain coming on, she drops whatever she’s doing at the time, turns on
her favorite CD, and begins her deep abdominal breathing exercises that put her in a calmer state of mind. If Susan is at home,
her teenagers know to leave her alone for a while until she has
finished her relaxation exercises and calmed her body and mind. If
she’s at work, Susan closes the door to her office and takes her phone
off the hook to allow a break from the frenetic workplace environment.
to drop what you’re doing and relax at will in the midst of having pain
is not an easy skill. Nevertheless, Susan and many of my patients have
found ways to interrupt the pain process whenever they feel the first
sign of tension or pain in their muscles and joints.
many of my patients use relaxation therapies to remove themselves
mentally and emotionally from the painful moment, pain is extremely
complex. Not only is it influenced by changes in your body chemistry,
there are environmental, psychological, and social triggers. Chronic
pain is not like an ear infection, where you can take an antibiotic
and, in a few days, there’s no more pain. There is no salve or ointment
that can cure it. Many times, your doctor cannot even find what’s
causing the pain. Unlike a fracture or a known disease, soft-tissue
pain may not appear on an x-ray or even respond to medical treatment.
Moreover, how do you measure pain? What may be horrible pain to you may
be considered mild to your colleague, or vice versa.
Calm the Mind to Calm the Body
pain is so elusive and difficult to measure, it lends itself well to
mind/body therapies. I have found in my clinic that relaxation
therapies are extremely effective in decreasing pain when used in
conjunction with moist heat applications (page 174) and medications.
Often when patients take pain medications over a long period of time,
their bodies adjust to that level of medication. However, when my
patients combine stress management and relaxation therapies along with
pain medications, most report having fewer episodes of debilitating
pain and some patients even take less pain medication. When they add
moist heat applications (or hot baths or showers) to the medications
and relaxation therapies, they experience even greater results with
less pain and increased mobility. Although no one is sure just how
relaxation exercises work to decrease pain, some researchers believe
that muscle relaxation might reduce the number of pain signals
delivered to the nervous system.
Change Your Pain Perception
are some studies showing that we can learn how to make our brains feel
less pain and react to pain so that it doesn’t bother us as much or
even at all. Surely you’ve heard stories of a person who can walk on
nails or hot coals without feeling pain. I recall reading about a
mother who virtually lifted a car off her teenage son when the jack
collapsed on him while he was changing a tire. Another recently
reported story was of the young surfer in Hawaii who felt no pain when
her arm was taken off by a shark. Likewise, the soldier in Iraq who
miraculously never stopped in his effort to save his buddies even with
a severe injury to his leg, claimed to feel no pain.
these efforts used to be thought of as heroic, scientists can now show
some of the brain responses with the use of magnetic resonance imaging
(MRI) of the brain using special techniques. This functional
neuroimaging allows pain volunteers to see their brain activity while
feeling pain. As they try to control the pain using various mind/body
methods, the volunteers can then see how this changes brain activity.
Just thinking about your pain—creates pain. This is why relaxation therapies can help you regain control.
Start with Simple Strategies
beyond acceptance of your pain, it’s time to learn some easy ways to
relax and regain control of your life. For example, evaluating your
priorities and budgeting your time are excellent organizational skills
that can help you eliminate the “clutter” in your daily life. Saying no
when you are overly committed is another positive strategy you can
take—even though most people have a difficult time doing this. I
remember one patient, Marianne, telling me that simply getting the
nerve to say no to family and friends caused her more inner turmoil
than actually saying no!
Exercise Boosts Mood and Restful Sleep
super way to de-stress includes increasing exercise. Regular exercise
increases the neurotransmitter serotonin, helping to boost mood and
regulate sleep. Exercise also increases phenylethylamine, a natural
stimulant that also boosts a positive sense of well-being. In addition,
as I discussed in Rx #2, exercise keeps your joints moving in a full
range of motion and keeps your muscles and bones strong—all important
for living pain free.
also encourage my patients who have difficulty coping with stress to
greatly reduce their caffeine intake, as this food mimics the stress
response with a short-term rise in their blood pressure and heart rate.
Many patients have come to my office and found their usually normal
blood pressure and pulse elevated after having a cup or two of coffee.
Caffeine also heightens the side effects of pain medications, resulting
in feelings of trembling or high anxiety for some individuals.