Thankfully the action of the nerves that detect movement and pressure suppresses this pain at the spinal cord and you don’t feel it. However loss of movement of an area means the suppression is reduced and pain can start to be felt. Anyone who’s sat through a long film will know that. Your body is literally telling you to move so that you don’t damage it. The brain itself can also suppress pain from above if it is busy doing other tasks that are deemed more important, ie running away from danger or doing something more pleasurable.
Pain is felt when the impulses from those pain fibres actually manage to reach the sensory cortex of the brain. So you register pain in the head. To achieve this you must have increased excitation of the pain nerves. This can be down to an increase in stimulus or a lower threshold to fire the nerves. The chemistry of your body and level of electrolytes can influence pain generation. If your body is lacking in nutrients that are used for the building blocks of natural anti-inflammatories then you will generally be more likely to experience pain. Or if tissue is injured, chemicals released by the damaged cells lead to easier excitation of pain nerves and you feel pain.
It is possible to have a lot of wear and tear and have no pain at all. Similarly you can be in agony when there is very little damage showing. So if you have an x-ray or scan of a recently injured joint that was previously pain free and it shows degeneration or a tear of a structure don’t go straight for the surgical option. There is little correlation between tissue damage and pain. Think twice or even three times, seek an opinion of someone who isn’t a surgeon. You may be in pain simply because the pain nerves are more excited and the suppressive mechanisms aren’t working. If this is the case surgery won’t make any difference as the torn tendon might not have been the source of the pain. It could be coming from somewhere else entirely.
Surgery should always be a last resort, once it’s done it can’t be reversed. There are risks of infection and risks of further pain due to the inflammation and excitation of pain nerves from the surgery itself. In some cases this can trigger a complex pain syndrome that is self fulfilling and perpetuates.
The natural approach begins by activating the neurological mechanisms that suppress pain. Stimulation of these nerves anywhere in the body can help, the strength of the effect is variable depending on what area is stimulated and is related to the representation on the brain itself. Movement, mobilisation, manipulation, taping all help reduce pain. However they have to be applied correctly to ensure the balance of neurological activity is helping rather than hindering.
If the physical therapy approach you choose isn’t successful, try a practitioner in a different discipline such as Chiropractor or Osteopath, or vice versa. Or even two different practitioners within the same profession as they do work quite differently a lot of the time. After you’ve exhausted all options consider the surgery but remember the pain won’t just disappear after surgery, you will still have a period of 6-12 weeks of recovery and rehabilitation to go through.
Also you should look closely at your diet. Lack of fresh fruit, whole foods such as nuts, seeds, dark leafy green vegetables and oily fish can mean the body does not have the raw materials to create anti-inflammatory chemicals. Furthermore smoking and alcohol can aggravate inflammation.
The use of the painkiller Gabapentin alongside manipulation and stimulation can also be helpful to suppress the nerves so that treatment can be gently started in chronic pain syndromes. We do not recommend the use of Non Steroidal anti-inflammatories or paracetomol as the former is detrimental to gut, heart, liver and kidney health and the latter has no benefit long-term and will reduce your emotional as well as your pain sensation.
Recent National Pain Audit figures show a worrying trend. A staggering 20% of health expenditure in the UK is now spent on back pain services. Chronic pain affects 8-60% of the population depending on the definition of pain (1). Severe pain affects 11% of the population and 8% of children. Yes 8% of children, a group that are generally ignored as problems are put down to” growing pains”.
If more attention was put to diagnosing and recognising that young people start their journey to chronic pain young then maybe something could be done to redress the trend.
Severe chronic pain affects relationships, work status, sleep, mood, general ability to do daily tasks and all aspects of general health. Even more worryingly, daily back pain is linked with increased risk of a coronary event. This makes sense as less activity means reduced cardio-vascular fitness. Movement of the spine and joints also feeds activity into the brain and the resulting reflexes help to support and drive not only movement but also the autonomic responses that control body functions such as blood pressure and heart rhythm.
The simple reason is that as a population we are less active. People drive to work or school nowadays then many have sedentary roles that mean the body is held still for long periods. This will cause mild pain as your body will want you to move. That in itself is not a problem until it is repeated day after day for long periods. Gravity is a very strong force and even when you are not moving it exerts constant pressure. For example looking down at your smart phone will increase the weight of your head threefold. That’s a heavy load on your neck muscles and discs.
If you are also getting heavier then the forces become greater and the stress on structures and changes in posture results in a greater chance of back pain. If you are active you will generate reflexes and fire nerves that help to suppress pain, for more on this go here.
Nerves love to fire if they are healthy. If you fire them enough they will grow new and stronger connections and the result is healthier tissue and better faster, more accurate responses. If you don’t fire the body will remove the connections and the opposite occurs. You get less energy, less accuracy and tissues that are supplied become weaker.
However if you are already weakened, then firing too much can fatigue the nerve to the point that it can become so tired it will actually become very weak and eventually die. This is a process known as apoptosis. So if you are weak already or have nutritional compromise then you may overdo it and cause harm.
Firstly make sure you have the raw ingredients to support good nerve cell activity. A good healthy diet should give you this. So avoid fast food or ready meals with flavour enhancers. Monosodium glutamate will fatigue your cells very rapidly as it acts like a turbo, so will high sugar diets as nerve cells do not need insulin to absorb and use sugar. The result is like an engine over-revving, it will go pop at some point! Avoid too much caffeine, never drink energy drinks that is nerve cell suicide! Excessive alcohol and smoking are also highly detrimental to nerve health.
Leafy green veg is full of great nutrients to support cell health. Fish is a good source of protein and essential fatty acids, as are seeds, nuts and pulses. Magnesium is very supportive of energy release in cells and is found in dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains,avocados, yoghurt, bananas, dried fruit, dark chocolate, and more.
Assuming your nutrition is good the next step is to start exercising your body and mind. If you are very weak start gently and build up incrementally at a round 5-10% increase in activity a week. If you feel very tired make a note of when that happened and only do 70% of that. Stay at that level for a few weeks and then start to increase activity. It may be a slow road but if it’s steady you will progress smoothly. If you try and jump activity too fast you may get more tired and / or injured.
Gradually you will start to feel a lot better. This isn’t easy though as the reason you got bad in the first place may be down to bad habits and these can be hard to break. So make gradual changes to your lifestyle and you will be more likely to keep on the straighter and narrower path.
Take a look in a full length mirror at yourself and see if the following applies to you.
A commonly seen aberrant posture in clinic is one where your foot is turned out, the arm on the same side is held slightly flexed at the elbow and is rotated inwards so that you can see more of the back of the hand than the other side when looking face on. The same shoulder will also be held forwards. Typically this is due to weakness of the anti-gravity muscles down one side of the body and is a milder presentation than Pyramidal Weakness found in some typical stroke patients.
The anti-gravity postural muscles hold the shoulder back and rotate the arm outwards. They also lift the leg and foot from the floor. Commonly this pattern of weakness leads to rotator cuff problems, tennis elbow, hip pain, shin splints etc. If you have had any of these problems or get them repeatedly despite having had treatment then you possibly have a functional weakness of a relay area in the brain called the Ponto-Medullary-Reticular-Formation or PMRF for short.
You can have as much Physiotherapy, Chiropractic, Osteopathy or whatever other therapy you like, but if the weakness is established the problem will keep recurring. Why? Because the brain will keep pulling you into the poor posture. If you are exercising and getting stronger you will have less symptoms, but push it hard and you’ll be likely to get your injury again. This is because the area in the brain will fatigue one side faster than the other and your control will diminish. The result, yet another injury. Just think how many sports people have struggled through their careers with hard to treat injuries. The list is endless.
By specifically treating to enhance function in this area we can help to restore normal function. If we combine this with visual exercises we can help to hard wire the pathways to strengthen them. This requires repeated stimulation over a short period to get the nerves to express genes that lead to growth of new connections. It won’t happen without repetition.
So if you’ve ever had a car accident or a whiplash type injury from sports such as horse riding, skiing, boarding and obviously boxing then you may be prone to these problems. If you’ve ever had a concussion or been knocked out the chances of this are significantly increased.
Make sure you find someone who can look at these patterns to help you for the longer term and not just a quick fix.
Last week (April 2015) a study was published in the British Medical Journal that got a lot of headlines. An analysis of 13 quality trials showed that Paracetomol is no better than a placebo for treating back pain, arthritic pain and disability. What’s more, those patients regularly taking Paracetomol for back pain or arthritis were 4 times as likely to have abnormal results on liver function tests. So taking this medication for your pain will make you less healthy.
Similarly taking Non Steroidal Anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as Ibuprofen and Naproxen can lead to health problems related to gastro-intestinal inflammation. Interestingly Aspirin did not cause inflammation of the small intestine (2). This inflammation leads to increased permeability of the intestine. If you consider that the intestine is the barrier between you and your food, bacteria and powerful enzymes it’s good to keep it healthy.
If larger molecules cross the gut wall they can stimulate your immune system to attack them. Unfortunately, this reaction can then continue on similar molecules within you. Therefore increased gut permeability (caused by expression of a protein called Zonulin) contributes to the development of auto-immune diseases such as coeliac disease and diabetes type 1. (3) It has also been recently hypothesised that joint inflammation in relatively benign osteo-arthritis is also a product of this process. If that is the case then taking Nsaids could actually contribute to the cause of the problem you are taking it for.
The research paper from the BMJ recommended exercise and manipulation to help stay pain free. Manipulation stimulates the nerves that regulate muscle tone and also inhibits pain. Most people will have pain from either over doing things or not doing enough. So if you are not active start by taking walks and then think about swimming, cycling and general workouts. Build up slowly over time and you will soon start feeling better. If you are a weekend warrior make sure you do regular consistent exercise to build up your conditioning or you will get injured. If you do have pain don’t take painkillers and NSAIDS. Use Ice, get help from an expert who understands biomechanics, athletic training, neurology, anatomy, diagnosis in other words us!! Don’t pop a pill, it will make you less healthy in the long run. If something’s wrong find out what and why and do something constructive about it. Your liver, kidneys and gut will thank you for it.
So, when you consider all of the above it is crazy to take paracetomol and anti-inflammatories as part of your training. Pain is there to warn you. If you listen to it properly it can be your best friend as it will keep you healthy and aware of issues before they become established. If you ignore your warning systems you are heading for trouble.
Yes!! Studies have shown the efficacy of taking a concentrated turmeric formulation (4). Turmeric contains Curcumins which have been shown to reduce inflammatory cascades in the early phases of inflammation. It is not heat stable so cooking will nullify it’s effects. So a curry on the way home is not good practice. It won’t act instantly like a drug but is a useful supplement to help with a number of problems caused by inflammation if taken daily. We stock it as part of our holistic approach to improving musculo-skeletal health.
For more information on any of the above topics contact us on 01202 733355 or email us.
(1) Machado GC, Maher CG, Ferreira PH et al. Efficacy and safety of paracetamol for spinal pain and osteoarthritis: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised placebo controlled trials.The BMJ 2015;350:h1225. doi:10.1136/bmj.h1225.