Lately, mainstream news has told us that yoga and other types of exercise do just as well as physical therapy to improve chronic pain. Why is that? In this series of blogs I’ll talk about what pain is, how it works and why it’s so important to understand it.
Solving the problem of chronic pain doesn’t depend so much on treatments for your body. Actually, most improvements in chronic pain don’t come from passive treatments like medicine, rehabilitation, injections or surgery. They come primarily from:
- Education about personal pain management in the different areas of life
- Changes in protective factors and risk factors
- Early intervention to prevent pain from becoming chronic pain
As a matter of fact, when a person has chronic pain, 70-80% of the factors that influence the pain are things that the individual – not the doctor – can change. That’s why educating ourselves is so important. And that’s why I’m writing this! It helps me to clarify the information in my mind, and I hope it helps you, too.
First, let’s talk about what protective factors and risk factors are, and in a later article I’ll talk about the role they play in pain, because it’s important to realize that the physical part of the experience of pain doesn’t tell the whole story. We need to look at the whole person (our entire “self”) in all aspects of life to understand why things hurt. This is because a balance among the different areas of life contributes to general health and homeostasis – the ability your body to maintain, or return to, a balanced state.
Risk factors are things in your life that predispose you to pain, make it worse or cause it to continue as a chronic condition. Protective factors are things that protect you from pain or help you to recover from it. They can be small things, but they add up, and when you put everything in the balance, the combination of protective factors and risk factors either helps you or hurts you by helping your brain to decide if you are safe or in danger.
Now let’s looks at examples of protective factors and risk factors in different areas of life. I’m going to put some of the particularly important factors in bold letters.
This refers to your daily actions and behavior, for example, sleep, diet, posture and frequent movement. Risk factors in this area are: poor or little sleep, irregular sleeping hours, feeling rushed or hurried, tensing muscles excessively and habitually, repetitive motions, alcohol and drugs, and activities with a high probability of injuries. Injuries are not the only cause, of course, but they are one of the most common causes that initiate pain. Protective factors are relaxation, and regular and adequate sleep and diet.
Negative factors are physical inactivity, weakness, other illnesses or conditions, and genetic predisposition. Positive factors are balanced and relaxed upright posture, physical activity and strength.
This is the part with thoughts and attitutes, but it’s inseparable from the physical part. (As Alexander said, “You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.”) On the side of risk factors here we have ignorance, lack of knowledge or understanding, and misunderstanding. The factors that protect you are: learning, knowledge, honesty with your self and confidence in your ability to overcome pain. The most important protective factor – and I can’t stress this one enough – learning about the biology of pain and how it works. It is scientifically proven and accepted that learning about pain reduces its threat to you, and it has a direct relationship with a reduction in pain.
Beliefs, meaning and purpose are protective. Hatred, feelings of emptiness and thinking about the worst that could happen and that everything is a catastrophe put you at risk, as does believing that pain is a sign of damage in your body. Hope, faith, inspiration and love protect you, and so do activities like prayer and meditation. Extremely important as a protective factor is believing that you have control over your pain.
Anxiety, fear and depression are closely related with pain as risk factors, and they tend to accompany pain. Happiness, confidence and being optimistic protect you from pain.
Risk factors include conflicts, fights, stress and abuse. Basically, the kind of relationship that sucks energy out of you. Another risk factor is one called secondary benefits. This means the benefits that you have, consciously or unconsciously, due to your pain. For example, if you have a pain condition and you get leave from work, you don’t have to go to work, and you don’t have to see that manager who doesn’t believe you when you say you can’t work because of the pain, so you get to avoid that type of conflict. This kind of situation tends not to help with recovery from pain because in some way, the pain benefits you. Social Support is a protective factor. Community and relationships characterized by calm and harmony protect you. And helping other people does, too!
A disorganized, dirty, chaotic, noisy or accident-prone environment puts you at risk of pain. On the other hand, an environment that is clean, orderly and organized is protective.
These types of factors can influence your experience of pain, initiate or maintain chronic pain, reduce your probability of having it, as well as solve it.
Increase your protective factors and reduce your risk factors to take charge of your pain.
If you’d like to know more, check out my blog to learn how to protect yourself from chronic pain. You can sign up for my mailing list here to receive occasional newsletters with helpful information and information about Alexander Technique classes.