All pain is a signal from the body that something isn’t quite right. You have to stop and listen, and truly understand what it’s telling you before you can let it go. In my work as an osteopath, I see all kinds of physical pain — muscle strain, arthritis, tension, spasm, intense period pain, postnatal healing— all caused or exacerbated by inflammation. Most people just want to pop a pill for the pain, but that only treats the symptom, not the source.
To get at the source, you need to dig a little bit deeper. I suggest the same 10 questions to everyone who is in pain, because I’ve seen that these are the core issues that can prolong, intensify, or even trigger chronic pain, especially when we’re not aware of them. To help you get to the source of your pain and start healing faster, ask yourself these questions:
1. What have I been eating?
If I hear sugar of any kind, hiding behind any other name — bagels, white bread, jam — I know we can start there. Sugar (and other simple carbs) is the number one dietary cause of inflammation and pain. Cut out sugar and, I guarantee you, you'll relieve some of your pain within 24 hours, if not sooner. Other foods that can be triggers for inflammation include wheat, dairy, alcohol, and about 10 others you can see on this list. Focus on fresh vegetables and fruits and tap into the thousands of phytochemicals that fight free radicals that cause inflammation.
2. What have I been drinking?
Ditto for the sugar question — if I hear orange juice, coffee drinks, or milk, let alone margaritas — I know we have to start there. But this question is primarily about hydration. Over 40% of adults drink fewer than three cups of water a day (the equivalent of two cans of soda) and 7% drink no water at all. Water is the primary vehicle for your body’s detoxification processes. Without enough water, your blood circulation slows and your lymphatic system gets sluggish. Of course your rate of inflammation will go up, and of course you'll feel more pain. Drink more water and lube up those joints … and your whole body.
3. How have I been sleeping?
Sleep is your body’s most important, efficient and effective process to detox and replenish your energy stores. Losing just two hours of sleep one night can trigger the release of pro-inflammatory chemicals called cytokines that increase pain-causing inflammation in your entire system. Losing this little sleep can also increase your blood pressure and blood sugar, both of which can also heighten inflammation. When it comes to sleep, I say quantity is quality. Try to get at least 7 or 8 hours of sleep at night, and take a 20 to 30 minute nap during the day, if at all possible.
4. How much have I moved my body?
I’d love it if everyone took a 30-minute walk, did the Tibetan Rites, or did a bit of yoga every day. But beyond these daily practices, we just need to move! Up to 70% of us sit for six or more hours a day. We get so wrapped up in what we’re doing, we forget to even stand up.
Are you literally sitting behind your computer for hours at a time? (Maybe you’ve been doing that right now?) Even just brief walks around your office or your house every hour will help your body balance blood sugar, keep your circulation and your lymphatic fluids moving, and balance your hormones — all of which will help to manage your chronic pain.
5. How excited am I about my work?
What does work have to do with pain, you ask? Well, you may think you’ve developed that neck pain from on-the-job stress, or that low back pain from sitting in a desk chair all day, but think again. Your body may be trying to tell you something. Ask yourself, “Is this job my passion, my purpose? Do I still get that butterfly feeling in my stomach?” Or have you fallen out of love with your work?
If you no longer feel empowered by your work, if you’re just phoning it in (or have never found your true vocation to start), it’s time to have that heart-to-heart with yourself and be brutally honest. Remember the Mary Oliver quote: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Having a reason for being will keep you engaged and alive, and not focused on your pain.
6. Have I been “numbing” with drinking, drugs, shopping, eating, TV?
We have given the term "psychosomatic" pain such a bad rap in this country. But “psychosomatic” simply means a “physical illness or other condition caused or aggravated by a mental factor such as internal conflict or stress.” By this definition, in my experience, all pain is psychosomatic. Pain is stressful, and stress is painful. We needn’t separate emotional pain from physical pain because they are one in the same.
Instead of trying to numb ourselves to avoid the pain (and giving ourselves even worse problems with addiction, extra pounds, unsustainable debt), we need to nurture ourselves to move through our pain with love. Make a list of self-nurturing activities that you can turn to whenever you feel yourself reaching for a drink, a smoke, a candy bar. I find that a 20-minute soak in a hot bath with Epsom salts, some incense, and a cold washcloth over the eyes usually does it for me.
7. How much quality time have I had with friends and loved ones?
When you're in pain, you must be ruthless. You can’t allow people into your world if they leave you depleted. Close your eyes and think of two or three people whose faces leave you feeling warm, make you smile, and envelop you with a sense of safety. Those are the people with whom you should spend time when you're in pain. Their positive energy will help to heal you.
When you meet them, please don’t go to a party or a noisy bar; your nervous system doesn’t need the extra sensory assault. Just share a good meal and a glass of wine, and take some quiet time to really connect. Oh, and remember hugs, at least seven hugs a day. (Oxytocin, the cuddle hormone our bodies release when we hug, helps decrease several biological markers of acute and chronic inflammation. )
8. How much quality time have I had to myself?
No matter who you are or what you do, I recommend that you find some way to take at least 20 minutes (and ideally one hour) every day not speaking to a single soul. Maybe watch some YouTube videos of Louis CK or funny dogs and abandon yourself to 10 minutes of good belly laughs. Or just read, write, sneak in that nap, do your mediation, take a hot shower or quiet walk — any activity in which you can be alone with your thoughts and your breath. Dr. Andrew Weil recommends a lovely breathing exercise that will instantly relax you: Breathe in through your nose for 4 counts; hold for 7 counts; exhale through your mouth for 8 counts. Repeat four times to soothe your overburdened nervous system anywhere, any time.
9. Do I feel loved right now?
When we experience fear, anxiety, or anger, those negative emotions manifest themselves as instant hormonal reactions in our bodies. Emotional pain can and does cause physical pain — certain parts of the brain register them both types of pain the same way.
You need to be brutally honest with yourself and ask the tough questions: Am I holding onto this tension because I am sitting incorrectly—or because I am miserable in my marriage? Am I stressing out about my relationship so much that my lower back keeps giving out?
If you’re not sure, chances are, you need to do a bit of soul-searching about your core relationships.
and, most importantly:
10. What am I saying to myself?
We don’t realize how much power our self-talk has when it comes to pain. We have the power to reverse the pain process with our thoughts. These thoughts create neurochemical cascades in the brain that can either halt pain or make it worse.
Start off every day by looking in the mirror and saying, “I trust believe in myself. I am getting stronger with every day. I feel more powerful, more positive, and pain free.”
While these face-to-face “conversations” may feel awkward at first, remember that you are rewiring your brain to resist pain and to invite peace. This practice alone could be the most powerful shift you make toward a pain-free life.
Learn more about Vicky Vlachonis’s 3-step program to end chronic pain and become positively radiant in her new book, The Body Doesn’t Lie.
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