Many of you may have suspected this for a long time. Some of you may be happily oblivious to it. Some of you would prefer to stick a finger in each ear and pretend it isn’t true. We see evidence every day at the clinic of how intrinsically linked stress and pain levels are. The more stressed you are the more pain you feel.
In this article we explain updates in pain science to explain this phenomenon that we see clinically day to day. We’re going to delve right down into the molecules to give you an in depth understanding of the latest theories on pain. But fear not sciencephobes. As always we’ve done so, we hope, in a nice easy to understand, simple and digestible fashion. We hope you get nearly as excited as we do about this fascinating topic.
Firstly a quick overview of just what pain is to enable us to adequately explain how things change with increased stress level. If you’d like a little more detail please click the slightly peculiar picture depicting pain or the heading of this section which takes you to our previous blog.
In brief we have pain chemicals which are basically chemicals that the body doesn’t like. There’s more than one kind of flavour but we don’t need to worry about that right now. All that we need to know is that these chemicals exist and the body doesn’t like them much. They are usually the side effect of something not ideal going on within our tissues.
The we have pain receptors – nocieceptors in Latin. These are the guys that detect the ‘pain chemicals’ and relay signals up to the brain. They do so by allowing the ‘pain chemicals’ to pass through holes in the membrane of the pain receptors. This in turn triggers chemical reactions which act as pain messengers which head towards the brain.
To keep this simple I’ll repeat an analogy I used in our previous post. Consider the pain chemicals as snooker balls on a snooker table. The more balls in the pockets. The more pain signals are sent to the brain. The brain then determines whether to ignore the messages coming in, or pay attention to them. When it pays attention to the messages – this in when we feel pain.
How Does Stress Affect Pain?
Having summarised a 1600 word blog post in 200 I am going to try to keep this one nice and punchy!
Stress affects this pain system in three ways.
- When we are stressed the ‘pockets’ widen meaning it is easier for the pain chemicals to get in.
- More of the pain chemicals are produced in response to any abnormality in the tissues. To continue our analogy there are more balls on the table.
- The brain – as we as people do – becomes less tolerant with increased stress. That is less tolerant to the pain messages it receives.
Normally when the brain gets pain messages it ignores them for the most part until there is enough ‘screaming’ going on from the local tissues for it to pay attention to. But if we are tired, stressed, ill or I guess emotional this means the brain starts paying attention to all these signals a hell of a lot sooner.
You can think of this as a very simple graph were we plot the amount of pain chemicals in the body against time and consider the threshold at which the brain reports pain is at very different levels. See below:
In normal circumstances, the higher of the two lines, we would feel no pain. But in the second situation, with increased stress levels, we would feel pain with the same level of issues within the local tissues.
Simply put I like to think of stress, illness and fatigue as a volume control on pain. The more you have, the more you feel. The less you have, the less you feel.
What Does This Mean For My Pain?
It really easy for me to identify with these ideas as I see it in action all day long at the clinic. I see if in myself. I know if I’ve been working too hard or having too many early morning calls for our little daughter to run me down my niggles become more significant. I’m quite lucky as I’ll simply get one of therapists to do me a treatment!
But I also now see an increase in aches, pain and niggles as a sign for me to slow down a bit. Take some time out for myself. Do the things that I know make me feel good, more relaxed and happier in myself. All of us find this too easy to neglect.
In my case I probably need to have a couple of beers as a treat. Maybe ask the wife very nicely to give me a night off baby duties. Do for a gentle swim in the sea or a walk along the beach depending on the time of year. That’s what works for me personally. What works for you will most likely be completely different. But chances are you already know what it is.
The next time you feel a little more pain consider how has day been? Has it been pretty hectic? Have I had a prolonged period of stress? Most importantly what can I do about it? You will quickly find evidence to support all we have spoken about above.
I’ll leave you with a link to a great video here from one of the leading lights in Pain Science. Trust me this is genuinely entertaining. It covers all the topics we spoke about above in the context a near death snake bite incident in the Australian Bush. Check it out to cement the ideas we have introduced today and start making those life tweaks to make you feel less pain. It doesn’t work at least you’ll feel more relaxed!
Next up we share with you our top tips for not getting stressed. These have been developed in partnership with all of our clients over the last 13 years. Most of it is common sense but a reminder is never a bad thing and maybe they’ll be something in there that really makes a difference for you, as it has many of our happy clients.
This article first appeared on our Brighton site.