Pain is a complex issue. It is hard to measure objectively. That’s why your doctor will ask you to rate your pain on a scale of 1-10.
But this can be tricky. If a person has never felt a “real 10” of pain, they are relating their current pain level to their personal historic pain ‘high.’
And everybody has a different pain threshold. For some, only one analgesic pill works where others may need 2 or more. What makes pain difficult to treat and diminish, too, is that not everyone responds as well to similar treatments or methods.
My own experience with chronic pain has led me to gain some insight into the issue. I’d like to share some of these with you here…
My chronic pain life
As a youngster I experienced severe headaches and as a teenager chronic body pain set in. My parents were both healthcare professionals; my father an osteopathic physician and my mother a psychologist. I was exposed to a broad range of treatments for my chronic pain throughout my early and young adult life as a result, including: NSAIDs, allergy shots, biofeedback, psychotherapy, chiropractic, physical therapy, opioid prescriptions, and so much more.
As a teenager I started looking into a broader range of alternative therapies and modalities, including acupuncture, homeopathy, Chinese herbal medicine, yoga, Rolfing, bone-setting, qigong energy healing, hypnosis, even psychic energy healing. I traveled the world in search of a cure and placed myself at the hands of shamans and practitioners from New York to Mindanao, from Chicago to Malaysia.
Some things worked and some didn’t. Yet nothing, not even the prescriptions or the therapies or hands-on treatments had lasting effects. The pain always returned.
Decades of this “eternal return” of the pain has led me to certain new insights into what not to do and what one can do, to actually make a difference.
The pitfall of chasing pain
I know when pain is acute we look for immediate relief. This is ok. Also, I’d like to note that even though I am a proponent of natural and alternative methods, I am not opposed to pharmaceuticals. They have a time and a place in the continuum of pain.
That said, one of the worst things (in the long term) one can do it to “chase their pain,” especially if one suffers chronic pain. Every time pain comes should not be an indication you need to run for a pain killer. The long term negative side effects of NSAIDs and opioids are long and dangerous. There is also the pain rebound effect from coming off long-term or continuous use of NSAIDs. As the effects of the medication wears off the pain returns, only this time stronger and more frequently, adding to the complexity of the issue.
The best approach, in my experience and opinion, is to uncover the reason for the pain, the trigger for the pain, the mechanism for the pain. These are all different ways of saying, “treat the root cause, not the symptom.” Pain is not a disease; it is a symptom that something is wrong.
Hurdles to root cause
All health care providers have theories on root causes. I am no exception. We each see symptoms, like pain, as having a cause and effect trajectory. Some, however, spend most of their time trying to ease the pain because that is what most patients complain about. And of course, it is faster and easier for a health care practitioner to ease someone’s pain, than it is to uncover the root of the pain trigger. There simply is not enough time to have a long enough dialogue with a patient over an extended period of time (months, perhaps) to uncover potential roots, and then to follow them around to ensure they are doing the “remedies” (e.g., therapies, or dosing of meds, etc) that are being asked of them. To be sure, studies show that one of the biggest hurdles to health recovery is “patient compliance to doctors’ orders.”
Time presents one hurdle or barrier to uncovering the root causes of a person’s chronic pain condition. Others are that patients don’t tell their health care provider all the relevant details—either because they are embarrassed or they don’t think the information in relevant. As an undergraduate student I studied medical anthropology and one of the more interesting phenomenon was how in traditional cultures in New Guinea for example, when seeking medical care for an issue would tell the doctor one set of information and the shaman an entirely different set of information around the event. Yet all information is relevant as the mind and body are connected. Today, we might tell the doctor about our neck pain and spasm and day we don’t think we slept crooked and then tell our therapist about an argument with our spouse. Yet, the argument with the spouse creates stress that potentially caused the neck spasm from emotional stress—A true psycho-somatic (mind-body) cause and effect.
What I have found most successful is sitting quietly, alone, and uncovering the root causes of pain from within ourselves. There is no drama, no acting as a patient, no presenting partial information that you think is relevant or needed for a specific practitioner. Only you, your thoughts, and your body feeling.
Meditation on the root cause
Meditation is one of the best ways to know oneself. Thousands of studies confirm the results of meditation on its ability to lower blood pressure, anxiety, help sleep and reduce pain. I have learned many forms of meditation over the years useful for different results. For pain relief and root cause uncovering, I do the following:
- Get comfortable in loose fitting clothes, in a room that is a good temperature for you. Either lie down or sit up, whichever you prefer and that helps you feel most at ease.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose and exhale even more slowly through your mouth. So if you breathe in for 4 seconds, breathe out for 8 seconds.
Do not stress over the breathing method or your sitting or lying position; just relax and allow yourself to be at ease.
- As you inhale, expand your belly (full abdominal area) and as you exhale allow your abdomen to “deflate.” Be sure to do this easily and tension free. Do not force it.
While many meditation methods have you focus on the breath, or on the sensation of the breath as is passes through your nose, or on the rise and fall of your abdomen… I would like you to forget about that.
- Instead, bring your full attention inside your body. Instead of feeling your hair and skin I want you to try to imagine and feel your organs and blood and nerves from within.
Keep your attention inside your body and continue to breathe in a relaxed manner and just allow your body to feel what it does.
- Where there is pain, I want you to experience if it is throbbing or pounding or burning or something else altogether. The idea is to experience what you are feeling inside your body while you are relaxed and at ease. (Often this feeling is different than what you experience externally in the joint or skin or neck while distracted or stressed).
Pulling back layers
This meditation practice will allow you to better attune to your body through the act of shutting out the outside world, relaxing and turning your attention inward. Over time you will experience layers of things peeling back and different things showing themselves.
For example: When I get back tension headaches, I used to grab for Ibuprophen and a heat pack to release muscle tension. After doing this simple mediation practice I came to feel the pain layers inside of me. First, my neck would relax and I would feel that release and realize it was another symptom alongside the pain and not the cause of the pain. This was a huge Eureka moment! Now instead of trying to press out the pain and tension and take meds to dull it, I could relax out of it.
Once I relaxed out of the tension I could feel a throb underneath it. As I observed and experience the throb while relaxed and at ease, I found that I was struggling with my breath slightly. It was almost like I was intermittently holding or stilting my breath. After some more time in this meditation practice I was able to normalize the breathing cycles and allow for a smooth transition between inhalation and exhalation and this resulted in my abdomen relaxing more. I didn’t even know my abdomen was tense; it was my head and neck that hurt.
Once the muscles relaxed, the breath was restored, and the abdomen relaxed I could feel a “foggish energy” in my body release and leave. I don’t know how else to describe it; perhaps “toxic stress energy” is a term. When this released, the pain diminished.
The takeaway is that the pain is a symptom of something else. That something was a tense neck, intermittent breath holding causing slight oxygen deprivation, and chronic abdominal tension which all affected the free flow of energy, blood, fluids, breath and movement in my body. And when the free flow was blocked, pain was the result.
This was my example and yours may be different. The main idea is that expecting anyone other than yourself to pinpoint the true root cause of your pain may never happen. Proof is the millions suffering chronic pain and the billions spent on remedies, prescriptions, tests and days lost from work.
For the example given, stress was the root cause. Emotional and physical stress affecting the body in several ways, each hidden under another layer. Those layers cannot be peeled back, and the root cause potentially never uncovered, by a blood test or telling of symptoms to a health care provider.
Take a few minutes per day, or several times per day (on waking and at bed time) to do the simple meditation on yourself outlined above. See what you can discover about your pain condition. And if your pain is chronic, the next time the medication wears off, don’t chase more… instead take a meditation journey within and see how you can release and find.