Today, an estimated 7.63 million, or one in four Canadians aged 15 or older, live with chronic pain - a condition that although often invisible, is now understood as a disease in its own right. Everyone experiences pain, but not everyone experiences chronic pain, which is a pain that is complex, and always real. It can affect people throughout their life and has significant impact on health, community, and economy, with a total direct and indirect cost of $38.3 to $40.4 billion in 2019. So what if we could understand pain? Is it possible? And if we could, would we actually open the possibility to relieving our pain?
How is chronic pain defined? Any pain that lasts for 3 months or longer. Pain is your body's way of telling you that something is wrong. It's normal for you to have pain when you are injured or ill. But pain that lasts for weeks, months, or years is not normal. It can occur anywhere in your body, and can range from being mild to being so bad that it gets in the way of life. Of note, anyone can get chronic pain, but it is more common in older adults.
What causes chronic pain? It’s not always clear. Chronic pain is complex, and could involve damaged nerves, brain chemicals that usually stop pain after you get better from an illness or injury, but are simply not working right or it can be from an unknown cause. The feeling of pain comes from a series of messages that zip through your nervous system. When you hurt yourself, the injury turns on pain sensors in that area. They send a message in the form of an electrical signal, which travels from nerve to nerve until it reaches your brain. Your brain processes the signal and sends out the message that you hurt. Usually the signal stops when the cause of the pain is resolved, but with chronic pain, the nerve signals keep firing even after you’ve healed.
So is it possible to understand what links us to chronic pain? Well some evidence suggests it starts in childhood when the brain learns to go into protection mode when we feel physically or emotionally unsafe, and the more our alarm system goes off, the more sensitive our alarm system becomes. So how do we cope with this? As children we try to reduce the conflict by behaving perfectly, which can lead to perfectionism and people pleasing. As a result, our nervous system assumes an ongoing state of tension and vigilance. Additionally, if we have health scares in childhood, it can lead us to pain catastrophize which increases our experience of pain.
Then we move into adulthood, and meet the every day stress of life which produces physical symptoms like headache and back ache. Throw in a major life event, like loss of a partner or job, and we develop new or worsening symptoms. If our nervous system becomes overactive, then we begin the cycle of chronic symptoms like fatigue, migraines, IBS, etc. We are now picking up the habit of pain and as the pain becomes chronic, the brain becomes more protective and detects danger even when no danger is present. Our life now becomes impacted by pain and we become more restricted in life.
So how can we shift from an identification of symptoms to a relationship with fundamental health? First, don’t give up. Remember, the development of chronic pain is not your fault and there are things you can do to break the cycle. First, know your brain has something called neuroplasticity - the brain’s ability to change and adapt; we may even be able to turn down our pain, and maybe even unlearn our pain. It takes time, but if we can help make the brain feel safe, it will turn down the pain volume. So this is where the exploration begins.
First, get curious, learn what makes your nervous system feel unsafe. Experiment. Be patient. And be consistent. There are many ways to support yourself in the exploration. And Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy (BCST) is one of them. BCST is deeply supportive in balancing the nervous system. Trauma and the daily stresses of life can cause imbalances and our nervous system and bodies get caught in a cycle of fight, flight, freeze or fawn. This therapy helps to slow things down, create deep relaxation and connection to our body. As our nervous system comes back into balance, our brain feels more safe and begins to feel more at ease, and begins to turn down the pain volume.
Today, there are studies that have shown understanding how pain is created and maintained by the nervous system. So in a session, a Biodynamic Craniosacral therapist might introduce you to a practice of awareness of your body, which can be taught to be done on your own; to start seeing your body as a part of yourself instead of something that gets in the way; to start to view their body as a friend instead of a foe.
As a practice, notice what kind of language your body uses to communicate with you? How can you learn to listen to its voice? Chronic pain might have us believing our body is our foe, but in a BCST session a conversation/exploration is invited and asked - what if our body is our friend and there is an inherent trust held that the body can heal?
If you or someone you know has been suffering with chronic or persistent pain, consider a BCST session. I would love to hold space for you and the inherent wisdom of your body to heal.