Overcoming Chronic Pain

Hands up if you have ever experienced any form of chronic pain in your life. If your hand is infact risen, that’s okay, you’re normal. Welcome to the human condition!

In its grave depths, chronic pain can seem like the most distressing, debilitating and disorienting phenomenon. I know, I’ve been there. That blaring, looming signal occupies all of your energy and attention, leaving very little room to enjoy the everyday things – a sunny day, a brunch with your friends, or quality time with your family.
All you can think about is how do I shut it off?!

If chronic pain currently or has ever plagued you in life, you’re in the right place!

Shoulder stretch Pilates

At MatWorks Pilates, we believe in bringing a positive change to your life through Pilates. And as holistic, person-centered professionals, we consider the whole, complex person that you are when you step into our class.

This means, we deeply care about your niggles, aches and pains and strive to help you not just survive but thrive inside and outside of the Pilates studio!

Learning about chronic pain

The first step to navigating pain is merely learning more about it! So, let us chat about pain for a second…

Pain science has come a long way. The once archaic model of pain suggested that pain equals tissue damage. Meaning, pain in a certain area of the body meant that something is inherently wrong with that part of the body. 

However, the latest pain science research throws this logic out the window and instead suggests that pain actually lives in the brain.

Pain that persists past normal tissue healing times often has more to do with factors that may seem totally unrelated to it!

Pain lives in the brain

Infact Health Navigator New Zealand has broken this down for us:

Key points

  • About 1 in 6 New Zealanders live with chronic pain and no two people are affected in the same way.
  • Chronic pain can range from mild to severe and can continue day after day or come and go.
  • Chronic pain is thought to occur when nerves become over-sensitive and send warning messages to the brain even when there is no injury, or the original injury causing pain has healed. In other words, ‘the fire has been put out, but the fire alarm is still going off’.
  • Chronic pain is complex and can be difficult to treat. Chronic pain can be distressing and can impact on your emotional and physical wellbeing. The aim of treatment is to find ways to support the person with pain and reduce the impact of the pain on your life. 
  • Medicines alone are not an effective way to manage chronic pain because of the harmful side effects of using them on an ongoing basis. Rather, non-medication treatments and strategies for helping you cope with your pain and come to terms with it are more effective.

What do we have control over?

Well, sometimes, through no personal faults, our nervous system can become hypersensitive. The nerves crank up the volume and signal danger, aka pain, in the absence of real physiological damage. Have you ever noticed that following a few bad nights of sleep that icky shoulder or that nagging lower back hurts more than usual? Or knocking your knee against a chair is sooooo much worse when work has you utterly stressed and frantic?

So how do we use this information to our advantage?
Well, this is really good news! While the reasons for pain may be unclear, what is clear is that there are a lot of lifestyle factors, some of which are in our control, that can build sheer resilience in the face of that pain and significantly dampen it.

The rest of this article shines a light on all of the factors that tend to exacerbate pain, and moreover, on those that will then equip and empower you to feel happier in your own body!

1. The Pain itself – How often do you feel like you can manage your pain? Do you fear you may never recover from it? Do you find yourself ruminating over it?

2. Your support system – Do either your work, family or friends cause you significant stress? Just like that nagging chronic pain, are any of these elements bringing you down?

3. Your mental health – Are you often anxious or depressed about your pain? Or about other unsettling aspects of your life? Is it just really hard to cope with usually negligible things right now?

4. Your overall health – Aside from that stiff neck, how’s your health otherwise? Do any other health issues, big or small, ail you?

If you nodded along yes to any of the above, know that you’re not alone, know that there are a plethora of counter strategies you have at your disposal to combat these stressors, and know that these factors are as valid contributors to your pain as physiological tissue damage. Even though you’ve been convinced that your hip hurts because it is weak and awful and unstable, there may be more to it. So yes, you probably don’t have a broken spine and your hip flexor isn’t perennially damaged. But it is possible that your pain system is blaring its alarm in response to other stressful stimuli.

deep breathe in

Take a deep breath, and let’s discuss all of the tools you do have at your disposal so you can reclaim your wellbeing.

Get moving!
This is a tricky one. When the pain’s so all-consuming I understand how tempting it is to lie in bed and continue watching “just one more” Netflix episode and so quickly quell your rational voice screaming “go move, you know you’ll feel better after”. As frequently possibly, first, be kind to yourself. Then, whether it’s 10 minutes of stretching, a virtual class with MatWorks, a walk, a swim, or whatever form of exercise you fancy, go do it! The rush of exercise-induced, feel good hormones are such powerful opponents to the pain system.

So powerful, why don’t you give it a go now with this 5 minute neck stretch and see how good you feel after? 

Or rest..?
If you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum, where every minute of every day is permeated in tasks and worries, a longer sleep in, a meditation session, or a day at the park is probably what your body is craving. Consciously set aside even just 30 mins for relaxation, allowing time for you to not do, and simply be.

Have fun!
Sometimes relaxation doesn’t have to look zen. It can be a day at the beach with your friends and family or a coffee catch up with the near and dear ones in your life. Social support and a nurturing community can be such an important buffer to life stressors that would normally have us bogged down. A simple nature and laughter filled day can do wonders for relaxing the nervous system.

Amp up the goodness and greens
It’s no surprise that consuming generous servings of fruits and vegetables is a giant thank you towards your body. Fad diets come and go like fashion trends, it’s hard to keep up. One season it’s all gluten free and another it’s keto. What these diets fail to acknowledge is
1. Everybody and every body is different. Veganism feels wonderful to one’s gut, while it wreaks havoc on another’s. So rather than worrying about what not to eat, simply start with doing more of the good stuff! Instead of criminalising bread, eat lots more veggies with herbs and spices in your meal. Soon enough, adding more and more of the good stuff will seamlessly replace the not so good. Food is meant to be relished, savoured. It’s rarely about being perfect, but just good enough.

More Zzzzzz!
Ever noticed how a stubbed toe hurts SO much more when you’ve had a crappy night of sleep?
Sleep is for the weak strong! Our bodies reboot and recuperate during sleep, specifically deep sleep! If there’s one alteration you can make towards ameliorating your pain, get not only more hours, but better-quality sleep. A few steps in that direction can look like switching off gadgets and bright lights at least an hour before bedtime, establishing a consistent sleep time and routine, indulging in calming activities before going to bed, and actually, exercising! Yes, exercise induces more restorative sleep. A good night’s sleep and you may be a less achy, less irritable and more vibrant version of yourself – to yourself and those around you!

To summarise, it’s often the little, simple things that cumulatively make a difference. Does it feel possible to step back from eternally ruminating and catastrophising over that achy shoulder or that delinquent lower back? While exercise is oh-so-significant, sometimes it’s actually not about doing 101 exercises to control and fix your body, but about leaning back and taking tiny, holistic steps. Steps that will eventually make you the boss of your pain!

So why not start today?

Try out the following 4 part stretch series! 

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