If you experience chronic neck pain, back pain, headaches, or other persistent pain symptoms, you're among thousands of others. So why do we experience this pain? What can we do when it doesn't get better?
Traditional medicine points to various causes such as injury, poor posture, computer strain, or stress. Millions of dollars each year are spent on pain management strategies like medication, that teach us that this pain is just part of normal life and needs to be managed.
While there is a scientific and well-founded basis for pain and its relation to physical injury, car accidents, genetics and the like, we often forget our emotional and psychological experiences play a role too.
This has to do with the function of our brain.
When we experience anything that feels overwhelming and surpasses our capacity to handle and feel safe, our brain tends to encode this as trauma. Having trauma doesn't mean that we necessarily experienced something like going to war (although this may be our experience), it just means that we have had an experience where our brain kicked into survival mode (fight, flight, or freeze) and we weren't able to immediately get away, deter harm, or fight back and feel safe.
For example: Suzanne* experiences chronic jaw and neck pain when she heads into the work place, especially when approaching her boss. She often doesn't realize this until afterwards, when she finds herself rubbing her aching jaw and neck and popping a few Advil. She has tried numerous treatments, such as massage and chiropractic help, and while these bring her temporary relief, this same plaguing jaw and neck pain keeps coming back.
If we look back at her history, we can see that Suzanne experienced a brief emotionally abusive relationship when she was 13 years old. In this relationship she felt isolated and controlled and eventually after seeking out help, she left. She hasn't looked back ever since, or so she thinks she hasn't. However, now, when faced with authority figures in controlling positions, she notices this body pain.
Looking at her chronic muscle pain, perhaps her body hasn't moved on.
Let's take a look at the function of our brain. When we experience an event that overwhelms our emotional/physical/psychological senses and we don’t feel safe, our thalamus detects this threat through our senses and ultimately tells the amygdala to start releasing stress hormones, such as cortisol. This allows our body to respond through fighting back, running away, or freezing (ie. feeling out of our body, not being able to move or speak). Unfortunately, the hippocampus (the part of our brain that stores the time and context of what happened during the event) doesn't always work properly because of this. When this happens, we can find ourselves experiencing strong emotions or body sensations in the future, that seem to indicate our brain still thinks we're back in the traumatic event.
While the event may be over, our nervous system stays tuned into smells, things we touch, see, or hear; really anything that reminds us of the event. Our thalamus once again detects this threat through our senses, and our amygdala responds by initiating the release of stress hormones. This can often result in similar physical sensations to what happened at the original time of the event (ie: jaw clenching, muscle tightening, pain), as well as other sensations such as nausea, fatigue, dizziness, or feeling numb.
So what does this mean for the thousands of people who experience chronic muscle pain, fatigue, and headaches?
It means that pain is often your body's way of trying to protect you, even if this doesn't make any sense in your current reality. Seeking counselling from a trained professional who has experience working with pain, and understands the connection between trauma and the brain can help. Counselling can help address the root of your pain and work towards calming the amygdala and thalamus (the parts of your brain that detect the "threat") and help resolve the traumatic events that may be keeping you stuck in pain.
(Note: It is always important to obtain medical consultation first to rule out any underlying medical conditions).
A great question to ask yourself when you're in pain is this: What is your pain trying to tell you?
*For purposes of confidentiality, no real names are used in this article