Pain is complex. To simplify, like food feeds us, it is the nervous system that feeds our joints, tendons and ligaments. Receptors pick up information, send and process it via networks within the central nervous system to the brain.
The brain then decides what to do about this message, taking in lots of other information like the type of tissue and extent of the injury, and even how healthy someone is. Responses can vary from pain, weakness and sometimes even stiffness.
That makes it sounds like there's nothing you can do, but the truth is you can manipulate the amount of pain you feel – even while your injury is healing. Here are some things you can try to make the recovery process a little more comfortable:
1. Do not press, prod or poke
A lot of people like to go for a deep tissue massage or get a tennis ball right on the spot to help 'release' pain. While it may provide some benefit in the short term, it won't necessarily change the state of pain in the long term. In fact, any form of manual therapy should be seen as a short-term pain relief, like medication.
Prodding and poking a painful area focuses the nervous system on that area, which means more sensitivity in the long-term. Focus on being broad to distract the attention of the nervous system away from the exact spot. For example, rather than a golf or tennis ball, use a broad foam roller or have a general massage to help.
2. The bigger the movement, the better
Isolated movements – using certain body parts – can exacerbate pain more because the focus is drawn to a specific part of the nervous system. Instead, introduce movement that focuses on your entire body. For example, you could try vinyasa yoga, which is good for global mobility.
For those who like to lift weights, opt for total-body moves over exercises that isolate specific muscle groups. Once pain has subsided, you can try re-introducing more specific movements and other varieties of exercise.
3. Don't constantly talk about it
While it's important to share your feelings with family and friends – especially if the pain is bringing about feelings of anxiety or depression – bringing it up constantly will reinforce the pathways in the brain and nervous system associated with your source of pain, and this can cause unwanted long-term habitual and behavioural changes.
Think back to when you used to study for exams: going over the same thing repeatedly is how you drilled it into your head. It's a similar principle when talking about pain. Try to discuss the pain with the health professional you are seeing primarily. As for everyone else, avoid making it the main topic of conversation where possible.
Additionally, try not to think pain as always a negative thing. It's an unpleasant sensation, but often it's there for a reason. It is possibly telling you to do something – move if you've been still for too long, or book that appointment at the doctor you've been putting off.
4. Don't be afraid to exercise
Being active is a good way to help your pain. A lot of people are scared that exercising will make things worse, but in fact, regular gentle exercise will help to reduce inflammation. It'll also improve your blood flow and immune system, which will help the healing process.
Often, patients say their pain worsens if they sit, stand or lie down for long periods of time – including during the night when they are asleep. Keeping yourself moving will help to distract your attention, so don't be afraid to get your heart rate up.
5. Know the foods that make things worse
Aim to eat a whole foods diet rich in fatty fish, green leafy vegetables, nuts and fruits, which all help to fight inflammation. Many other foods have anti-inflammatory properties, such as matcha, green tea, turmeric, ginger, so incorporate those where possible.
Sugar, alcohol and caffeine are stimulatory and have inflammatory properties. This means they can keep your nervous system buzzing and sensitive, so reduce your intake as much as you can. Limit refined carbohydrates and red meats too, as these can cause inflammation too.
6. Prioritise sleep
Sometimes pain can disrupt sleep, so this might be a tricky one. Sleep is important for tissue healing and helps to relax your nervous system, which has been busy throughout the day. If you think you're likely to be restless during the night, try to wind down for bed earlier to give your body optimum time to rest. If the pain wakes you during the night, doing some light movement may help ease it. You could also try some breathing exercises to calm your nervous system.
7. Go and have fun
Socialising with friends and family is a great distraction from pain. Laughing triggers the release of happy hormones in the brain such as serotonin, a mood stabiliser, and endorphins, which have pain-suppressing qualities. Feeling down, anxious or angry keeps your nervous system on high alert, which won't help your recovery process.
Last updated: 03-06-2020
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