I don’t feel pain often, but when I do I don’t like it and I want it to go away. Thankfully, my facility practices alternative therapies so I can have my pain addressed right away. In 2012 the National Institute of Health did a survey revealing that approximately 11.2 percent of the American adult population has felt pain every day for 3 months. Moreover, it showed that 17.6 percent of American adults deal with severe pain. In 2018, the Center for Disease and Prevention did a study showing that just over 20 percent of Americans suffer with chronic pain. These numbers are astronomical and yet they are true. In fact, some suggest they are growing larger. So is pain something we all have to learn to live with? I don’t think so, but it is something we have to better understand.
Most of our patients come into the office because of pain. They seek out alternative therapies, like acupuncture, massage, and yoga because western treatment doesn’t help them. These therapies are successful in reducing and alleviating pain because they approach the body as a whole system, not the target – kill approach discussed by Mukharjee in his Ted Talk (here).
In order to understand why alternative therapies are more successful, we have to take a deeper look at how pain is defined.
What is Pain?
What is pain? Why do we feel it? Can we measure it? Should we listen to it? In this article and several to follow, we will take a deeper look into pain and approaches to management.
First, let’s define it. For many of us, part of the definition would include grunts, groans, and more than one expletive. Pain is 100% subjective. There is no way to measure it directly. It is, by it’s very nature, hard to define. Two people can have the exact same injury and feel different levels of pain from it. By strict definition it is the sensation of discomfort stemming from physical or emotional damage. From this definition we cannot discern when discomfort becomes pain.
Pain from Physical Damage
Physical damage means that there has been a disruption of the tissue and that the body needs to repair it. The pain is a signal telling us to take care. Essentially, when there is damage to tissue the body sends a message from the affected area through the nerves for interpretation in the brain.
In the case of immediate danger – a hot stove, that message goes only to the brain stem and there is a reflex arc activated telling you to pull your hand away. Once the hand blisters and pain continues, then the message goes into the brain in multiple locations. Those parts of the brain maintain several jobs that may include, mood, sleep patterns, hormones, etc. This is why with chronic pain other parts of life will be affected, because those parts of the brain being activated by pain may therefore activate changes in sleep patterns for example.
There is no pain center in the brain. Pain engages multiple areas of the nervous system at the same time. It’s quite remarkable, really, but it is far from perfect and therefore can become dysfunctional, as is the case with fibromyalgia.
In Fibromyalgia, the pain actually comes from the central nervous system (the brain itself) and not a particular area of injury. In this case and other chronic cases, pain is no longer a symptom, but rather it becomes a disease or disorder. However, there was a time when doctors would tell Fibromyalgia patients that the pain was all in their head – emotional pain. We now know that is not the case, however, can you imagine being one of those people? Maybe you are…
In addition, new studies are coming out revealing that there are genetic implications for how we interpret pain and the possibility for pain to be instigated on a cellular level (click here). Check out the pain research forum (here) for the most up to date science in pain research. This research shows the depth of pain receptors in the system. An interesting fact to note is that there not many pain receptors in the abdomen, so pain from organs needs to be referred out to different places in the body, but more on that in another blog.
Pain from Emotional Damage
This is a real thing. We can feel pain as a result of loss, depression, anxiety and other emotional stresses. In these cases there is no tissue damage. However, we can feel pain in specific parts of the body. This tricks us into believing there is physical damage when there isn’t any. Eastern medicine helps to understand this because in this system, emotions are directly associated with particular organs and areas of the body. For example, fear is associated with the kidneys and the low back. Anger and frustration are associated with the liver and the mid back. Sadness, depression, and anxiety are associated with the heart/lungs and upper back and shoulders.
In Western Medicine, there is no link between emotions and pain and therefore doctors look down on patients that fall into this category, making the patient feel worse. This only enhances the issue. Often these patients end up on painkillers that don’t work because painkillers are designed to reduce physical pain. Unlike Fibromyalgia which has been proven to be a disorder and is currently being studied and medicine being developed, emotional pain is not recognized in Western medicine. There is little help for mental health disorders and emotional stress. If left untreated, mental and emotional stress develop into physical issues, that are, in turn, not treated properly because they are a manifestation of a deeper problem.
Alternative therapies, like Acupuncture and Shiatsu take into account for the energetic health of a body and treat for it. Emotional and mental disorders and stress are an energetic imbalance. Because these treatments naturally treat the energetic body along with the physical, all patients receive this kind of help (and, hey, most of us can use it, even if we don’t fall in the disorder category). This is a major reason why alternative therapies are effective. While pain can be the disorder like it is in Fibromyalgia, it is more often a symptom of an underlying imbalance within the tissue and energetic systems. It does not go away easily, but with consistent treatment, it can be significantly reduced and managed. The next blogs will flesh out different types of pain and the best ways to manage them.