Pain and the Nervous System | PARR PT and Vital-Side Mind-Body Series

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Pain is a Warning Signal from the Brain

Pain isn’t always a sign of acute tissue injury. Often times it’s a result of the sympathetic nervous system turning on and saying “help” to that spot. Does this mean that your pain is all in your head? Absolutely not! But your nervous system may be sending very legitimate pain signals that don’t actually correspond with a tissue injury.

The Bad News about Pain and the Nervous System

The bad news: With the Sympathetic Nervous System, pain can kick off a vicious cycle of Sympathetic Nervous System activation that results in worsened pain! For example, say you experience pain somewhere in your body. Your nervous system might respond by activating its Sympathetic (aka fight or flight) side since it perceives danger. This impacts circulation and muscle tension, fatiguing nearby muscles. Then we start to use the wrong muscles instead, which we call “compensation”.

Once we are compensating with the “wrong” muscles and moving improperly, we might start to feel additional pain and tension in other parts of your body. Think if you have ever hurt your foot, then by walking differently you suddenly feel pain in your knee or hip. This can happen all over your body.

The Good News about Pain and the Nervous System

The good news: Interrupting improper movement patterns and breaking the Sympathetic Nervous System’s cycle of pain signals can happen more quickly than you think. In our PT clinic we take a very neurologically based approach and patients are often surprised that the pain they came in with can be fixed by the end of one session. This happens by fixing the improper nerve signals that are inappropriately sending pain signals.

Improving Proprioception to Improve Pain

From a movement standpoint, as you improve awareness of your body’s positioning in space (aka proprioception) you can improve how you’re moving and stop straining your muscles. Bodily awareness is the first step! Once we improve that and work on the neurological side we get to see if it is really soft tissue related or just something else going on in the body to change pain signals.

Please don’t take away from this that your pain is all in your head. Chronic pain and chronic illness patients too often get dismissed or have a doctor assume that their pain is psychosomatic. That is not what we are saying here! Pain from the nervous system is an absolutely legitimate medical concern that is treatable and, thankfully, preventable.

For example, in PT we do simple exercises called chin tucks. These help posture but also awareness of where the head is supposed be in space. So we spend time experiencing the place where the head is supposed to be. You’re literally retraining your brain that in this position a threat isn’t present. For more information on the nervous system and how you can optimize it to improve pain, stress, and fatigue, feel free to visit Lindsay on Instagram at @myvitalside and Jonathan on Instagram at @parrptaustin .

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