Why Are So Many People Living With Chronic Pain?

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According to this study, 28 million people in the UK are living with chronic pain. That is almost half of their entire population. Think about that for a moment. 28 million people living with chronic pain. In a wealthy, first world, industrialised nation.

Those quite frankly crazy numbers prompted me to have a quick google for some statistics for the US, Ireland, Europe and globally.

USA: “In 2016, an estimated 20.4% of U.S. adults had chronic pain and 8.0% of U.S. adults had high-impact chronic pain.” (source)

Ireland: “Chronic pain is thought to affect 1.65 million people in Ireland, with chronic back pain one of the more common diagnoses.” (source)

Europe: 20% of all Europeans experience chronic pain “…200 million musculoskeletal disorders and 100 million people experiencing other forms of chronic pain.” (source)

Globally: “Estimates suggest that 20% of adults suffer from pain globally and 10% are newly diagnosed with chronic pain each year.” (source)

High percentages of people suffering with chronic pain places a massive strain on healthcare services and costs the economy billions.

“The two health conditions most clearly associated with disability benefits are musculoskeletal disorders (particularly non-specific lower back pain and general chronic pain syndromes) and mental health problems. In the UK, these complaints comprise more than 50% of sick certification. Musculoskeletal complaints, predominantly mild to moderate in severity, and often with no clear or consistent underlying pathology, account for around 20% of benefit recipients in the UK, and therefore account for a significant proportion of incapacity for work20. Given that the annual economic costs associated with sickness absence and worklessness amount to over £100 billion21, the impact of pain and associated conditions remains a significant contributory factor.” (source)

How did we get to this point? With all our technology, medical advancements, nutritional supplements, oils, ointments and tinctures we still have not addressed something as common as chronic musculoskeletal pain. We put men on the Moon, and rovers on Mars, but back pain? Sorry, no idea.

And what is it about modern industrialised societies that leads to such high numbers of chronic pain sufferers? What has changed?

I believe one major factor is that our modern environment is now unrecognisable to how it was even 15 years ago. Technological advancements, and the rise of smartphones and internet connected gadgets has led to a sharp increase in how connected we are, and in turn, how many potential stressors we are exposed to.

People are constantly connected, or ‘on’. Work email alerts, FB alerts, IG alerts, LinkedIn alerts, SMS alerts, Whatsapp alerts, alerts, alerts, alerts, ALERTS! Kids, spouses, family, jobs, friends. All of these things are vying for our attention. This creates an almost imperceptible background milieu of chronic low level stress. Except it’s not imperceptible at all.

Humans respond automatically and subconsciously, to all of the above. Our landau response (Green Light Reflex) is triggered. On a wholly subconscious level we mobilise ourselves, preparing to attend to all these demands, by contracting our back muscles. This contraction of the back is the beginning of the act of moving forward, out into the world. Moving forward to deal with alerts, life etc. This is why “musculoskeletal pain in the low back and upper extremities has also been linked to stress, especially job stress.”(Source) Go, go, go! More, more, more!

Then there’s social media, a digital addiction which can bring its own heady mix of validation-seeking, fear-mongering and anxiety to people’s lives. This can trigger our startle reflex (Red Light Reflex) further increasing our stress levels. Nothing inherently wrong with social media by the way, but it is defintely prudent to limit your exposure.

Our environment has changed far faster than we have. Whenever there is an environmental change, the inhabitants of that environment (that’s us) must also change. It just so happens that the modern environment we have created for ourselves is incredibly fast paced, over stimulating and highly stressful for many of its inhabitants.

It is predicted, and expected, that our technological environment will continue to change even faster in the future. The meteoric advancement of technology will continue unabated. So how can we keep up? In order to survive in this new technological environment, we must be capable of change. We must become as adaptable as our technology.

We must learn how to adapt, and to continue adapting as we go forward. We need to learn skills and techniques which will enable us to cope with our new highly stimulating and potentially stressful environment.

A good start would be to learn how to better monitor, and regulate our responses to stressful stimuli. This will involve becoming more aware of ourselves, our automatic and involuntary responses and how we interact with our new environment. Ironically the ancient aphorism “know thyself” will become ever more relevant and important as we speed into the future.

A regular Somatic Movement practice can help us in this regard. It can provide the means to monitor, regulate and release the involuntary muscular tension that is triggered in response to the myriad stressors in our environment. The same involuntary muscle tension that can cause much of the chronic musculoskeletal pain experienced by so many.

The solutions to living in a highly stimulating and fast paced modern technological environment will not come in the form of a pill, a powder, a gadget or an app. It will come from cultivating your own self awareness and developing more control over your self and your responses to the ever growing number of stressors in this brave new world.

If any of this resonates with you, and you are interested in acquiring practical stress management, muscle pain relief and relaxation techniques, consider learning Somatics. There are more avenues for learning than ever before. If you’d like to learn with me, you can get in touch with me here.

As always, thanks for reading.

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Can Stress Management be Simple?

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Stress. It’s unavoidable. No matter your circumstances you are going to experience, and have to manage, some degree of stress in your life. But what is stress?

“Stress has many faces, and creeps into our lives from many directions. No matter what causes it, stress puts the body and the mind on edge. It floods the body with stress hormones. The heart pounds. Muscles tense. Breathing quickens. The stomach churns.
The body’s response to stress was honed in our prehistory. Collectively called the “fight-or-flight” response, it has helped humans survive threats like animal attacks, fires, floods, and conflict with other humans. Today, obvious dangers like those aren’t the main things that trigger the stress response. Any situation you perceive as threatening, or which requires you to adjust to a change, can set it off. And that can spell trouble.
Chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure and heart disease. It can dampen the immune system, increasing susceptibility to colds and other common infections. It can contribute to asthma, digestive disorders, cancer, and other health problems. New research even supports the notion that high levels of stress somehow speed up the aging process.
Though stress is inevitable, you can help control your body’s response to it. Exercise, meditation, invoking the relaxation response, and mindfulness are great stress busters.”
https://www.health.harvard.edu/topics/stressSource

From the above, the point we’re most interested in is this: “Muscles tense.” What they are saying is that stress causes involuntary muscular tension. That’s a problem. This muscle tension happens subconsciously. We are not really aware of it. This muscle tension, as well as making us feel stressed, can lead to chronic muscle pain and stiffness.

When the body is stressed, muscles tense up. Muscle tension is almost a reflex reaction to stress… https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-body

This also leads to automatic activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (‘fight or flight’ response). The physiological effects of activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (SNS) include:

  • ACCELERATED Heart Beat (anxiety anyone?)
  • HIGH Blood Pressure (uh oh)
  • INHIBITED digestion (hello belly ache)
  • RELAXED Bladder up (I never used to make night time trips to the bathroom?)
  • CONTRACTED Rectum (why am I constipated?)
  • Secretion of STRESS HORMONES from the adrenal glands (I can’t shake this bad mood)
  • SUPPRESSION of the immune system (why am I always sick?)
  • REDUCED growth (suppression of growth hormones) (that little cut still hasn’t healed)
  • SLEEP PROBLEMS (so tired all the time)
  • MEMORY DYSFUNCTION (sorry, I totally forgot about your birthday)

Doesn’t sound like much fun does it?

Do any of these sound familiar to you? If so, you may be suffering from some degree of chronic stress and the chronic SNS activation that goes along with that. SNS mode is not necessarily a negative state, as indicated above it is necessary to respond to a threat/situation appropriately. The problem is when we find ourselves in a state of chronic SNS activation. As humans, we are well-equipped to deal with short periods of SNS activation, then ideally, when the perceived threat has ended, we would return to PARASYMPATHETIC Nervous System (PNS) activation. PNS is, or should be, our default mode (also known as ‘Rest, Digest and Repair’ mode).

PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system activation has the opposite effects to the Sympathetic Nervous System:

  • SLOWER heart beat (feeling calm…)
  • LOWER blood pressure (…and relaxed…)
  • STIMULATION of digestion (…and well nourished)
  • NORMALISED bladder function (no more getting up in the night)
  • RELAXATION of rectum (regular as clockwork)
  • INHIBITS secretion of STRESS HORMONES from the adrenal glands (happy mood, happy days)
  • STIMULATION of the immune system (I can’t remember the last time I was sick)
  • NORMALISED growth hormone responses (that cut has healed right up)
  • DEEPER more restful sleep (Zzzzz..)
  • NORMALISATION of memory functions (I planned a surpise for your birthday)

That all sounds much more conducive to feelings of relaxation right?

But how do we switch back to PNS mode, or ‘invoke the relaxation response’ when we are chronically stressed?

Well, if you could somehow release the involuntary muscular tension caused by stress you could deliberately switch back to PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system mode. Somatic Movements provide us with a simple and straight forward way to do just that. They use a technique called pandiculation to reduce muscular tension (and reduce pain and improve movement, bonus!). Pandiculation works by re-establishing your voluntary control over your muscles and in the process, relaxing them. This leads to de-activation of the SYMPATHETIC nervous system (fight, flight or freeze mode) and activates the PARASYMPATHETIC nervous system (rest, digest and repair mode).

This makes Somatic Movements a simple and effective stress management tool. By learning how to monitor, regulate and control your own muscle tension you are learning how to monitor, regulate and control how you respond to stress. With practice you can become more resilient to the myriad effects of stress. You can literally learn how to relax, and activate your Parasympathetic Nervous System, any time, on demand. Becoming an expert at relaxing. Sceptical? Take less than 3 minutes and try a pandiculation right now by listening to the audio below;

The pandiculation technique utilised in the audio above can be applied to all the muscle groups in the body for total body relaxation. By deliberately releasing the muscle tension triggered by stress you can return to a state of relaxation and calm. When you are relaxed you can sleep better, when you sleep better you will feel more refreshed, when you are more refreshed, you can think more clearly, when you think more clearly you can make better decisions, when you make better decisions… well, who knows what good things might happen!

If you’re interested in learning how to use Somatics to release muscle tension and manage stress check out my Online Class offerings and 1-1 options here.

When stress is unavoidable, simple, effective stress management techniques become essential. So why not Learn Somatics? You’ve nothing to lose… except all that tension.

If you found this post helpful, please share it with anyone you think may benefit. Thanks!

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