Have you ever automatically exclaimed “ouch!” and retracted in response to a stimulus that didn’t even hurt? Only to experience the pain a little while later? This is your body’s protective reflex mechanism that acts to save you from actual or potential harm. Acute pain and inflammation in the body can be a good thing. It tells us there is a danger of tissue damage so we can do something about it. However, as pain is a sensory, neurological and emotional response, the message can sometimes hang around longer than the actual healing time, or become out of proportion to the actual extent of damage in the body. This can result in something called Fibromyalgia or Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
Most acute pain should heal naturally within 4-6 weeks. Chronic pain is defined as pain lasting greater than three months. This can cause excess adrenal secretion of cortisol and catecholamine, which makes blood glucose levels unstable. A rise in blood sugar levels means a release of insulin from the pancreas to combat this. Hence more free-radicals and pro-inflammatory cytokines are produced. Furthermore, the use of opioids can cause a sugar desire effect, also leading to deranged glucose metabolism.
We all know by now that sugar isn’t good for us as it causes inflammation in the body.
Inflammation is critical during an acute injury or infection and can kill foreign invaders and promote healing. It is when this inflammation hangs around long-term and actually turns against the body’s own cells that issues can arise. Take, for example, the degeneration of the cartilage in our joints.
The number one thing we can do for chronic inflammatory and neurological pain is to move. Just move! We are so sedentary in today’s society that neural tension and inflammation build up within the body but have no way of being released. We need to get our body systems working to flush out all the unwanted toxic chemicals that cause us to function sub-optimally.
Other things you can do to decrease your risk of chronic inflammation include eliminating sugar and processed carbohydrates by eating more protein, reducing omega-6 fats, increasing omega-3 fats and looking after your gut with probiotics and fibre. Studies that have been done on the diets of chronic pain patients reveal low levels of protein foods and high levels of starches and sugars. Following ingestion of high glycemic foods, the patient’s experienced a flare-up in their pain.
So why is protein so critical?
Endogenous pain relievers are protein derivatives. There are 8 essential amino acids that the body cannot make and must therefore be obtained through food as these are responsible for the creation of pain controlling compounds such as endorphin, dopamine, serotonin and GABA. These hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain are responsible for making us feel good and hence lowering the effect of negative sensations in the body. Protein is also responsible for growth and repair at a tissue level, which can help us increase muscle mass, lose fat mass and support our entire neuromusculoskeletal system.
So how can we help treat and manage chronic pain through diet and exercise? Follow these simple rules:
- Make sure you eat one form of protein with every meal (i.e. meat, fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, eggs, etc.)
- Eat green veggies
- Avoid high carbohydrate foods (i.e. processed, sugary or starchy foods such as bread, pasta, confectionery, etc.)
- Limit salt intake
- Limit sugary drinks including milk, juice, soft drinks and high sugar energy drinks
- Drink tea/ coffee with natural sugar substitute
- Avoid milk if overweight
- Vitamin D, magnesium, calcium
- Vitamin B12
- Protein/ amino acid supplements
- At least 30mins of intentional moderate-intensity exercise per day.
Stress can also be another major contributor to pain hanging around for the longer term. Stress causes the release of cortisol, which can have inflammatory effects in the body. People who are stressed also tend to hold a lot of tension in their muscles and take more shallow breaths when breathing. To help combat the negative effects of too much stress, meditation or deep breathing and relaxation exercises can all be useful tools in relieving pain perception and sensitisation.
As pain is both a Physical and Emotional experience, it can also manifest in the body due to an emotional trauma being attached to the incident. This can heighten the normal pain response and cause increased sensitivity to a certain stimulus (hyperalgesia) or even an extreme pain response to a stimulus that is not usually painful i.e. light touch (allodynia). Therefore, in some cases, it is necessary to seek psychological counselling in order to break through emotional barriers to healing.
I hope this article sheds some light on the complex nature of pain and how taking a holistic approach is necessary for those suffering from chronic pain conditions.