I bet you are ‘aching’ to know the answer… Sorry, that was a pretty lame pun 🙂
Pain is a big deal. Whether it’s back pain, neck pain, headaches or otherwise, it can seriously screw up your life and, at least in most cases, can stop you from doing the things you love and want to do.
I can relate… 4 years ago I injured my back trying to lift more weight than my body was prepared for. It put me out… literally – down on hands and knees crawling… Believe me when I say, I’ve been there.
Ultimately, pain is the emotion that our brain attaches to specific kinds of input from the body – signals that come in on specific types of nerves called sensory nerves*.
*There are a whole bunch of different types of sensory nerves but for today we’ll consider them as one big group.
When these sensory nerves are irritated, they stimulate specific parts of your brain that turn it into a conscious experience – like pain, numbness, tingling or burning.
Here’s the thing about pain and other symptoms – it’s almost always a secondary problem. In other words, there’s an underlying, core problem that set the stage for irritation to those sensory nerves.
Sometimes these core problems can go unnoticed for months, years or even decades.
For example, my uncle had a massive heart attack a few years ago – a very painful experience. Of all the people who have suffered a heart attack, only about 50% of them report any previous signs or symptoms. In other words, for the other 50%, the heart attack is the first sign of a problem. Sadly, for half of those people, it’s also the last thing they feel… My uncle fell into this group.
Of course, we know that the necessary precursor to all heart attacks – atherosclerosis (plaquing) in the blood vessels that feed the heart muscle itself – begins at least 10 years prior.
In other words, the primary problem (plaquing) was there long before the person felt any pain. It’s just that up until that moment their body was able to adapt to this impairment… until it couldn’t anymore.
As for my back pain (and for the many people I see each week in practice) it turns out I had some significant distortions in my spine and those distortions were severely limiting how well my spine and nerve system could function. I didn’t really feel this core problem in my spine because my body was doing the best it could to deal with it – in other words, my body was adapting, just like my uncle’s heart arteries had been adapting for 10+ years.
It was only when I pushed my body beyond what it could handle that I became aware of the underlying, core problem in my spine.
The problem is that our feedback system is set up to only alert us of problems that directly impact our survival in the moment (like pain from a broken bone, or fever and vomiting from an acute infection).
It’s simply not designed to handle slowly progressing problems like plaquing in the arteries, or a distorted spine.
Nonetheless, these problems slowly chew away at our body’s ability to perform its necessary functions (like getting adequate blood to the heart muscle or doing all the physically demanding movements our lives demand).
Think of the red-line on your car tachometer: it represents the upper limits of your engine and if you exceed that you risk blowing up the engine.
Imagine that over time – unknown to you – that red line got lower and lower on the scale… The safe range for you engine would diminish and the risk of blowing a gasket goes up.
You body is much more complex than a car, nonetheless a similar process is going on.
Exposing your body to more stress than it can handle will lower its own internal red line, thereby increasing the risk of health problems occuring including catastrophic things like heart attacks or debilitating back pain.
Now by ‘stress’ I mean:
- Physical — prolonged sitting, poor posture, lack of proper movement, accidents, injuries
- Chemical — toxic foods, insufficient nutrient intake, environmental exposure
- Mental/Emotional — Low self esteem, lack of purpose, financial, workplace, social/relationships
But here’s the crazy-scary part: at the level of your brain and body cells, the type of stress doesn’t really matter…
The most involved tissue will be the most traumatized (think of my uncle’s heart) but equally damaging is the global stress response, specifically it’s negative impact on the immune system, on the brain and ultimately on every cell in their body.
There are 2 main conclusions to draw from this:
- If you have any sort of symptom – like pain – it means you’ve already exceeded your stress red line in some capacity. The more chronic the stress, the more accumulated damage = lowering your red line point. This ultimately limits your functional capacity thus increasing your risk of blow-out.
- Waiting until you have pain or some other symptom to determine if you have an underlying problem is the same as waiting until your engine blows up before checking your tachometer.
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