Chronic Pain and the Hardest Pill to Swallow
by Chelsea Henry
Dr. Tracy Jackson spoke at TEDx Nashville about “The Hardest Pill to Swallow”, regarding chronic pain. We at HaLe’ feel inspired, because we see the evidence of the effectiveness of our holistic approach on the pain levels of our clients and students every day.
Chronic pain steals your mojo on every level. It is the #1 presenting complaint to doctors and top reason people are out of work, and yet US outcomes and treatment of chronic pain are among the worst in the developed world. We have a limited and flawed understanding of chronic pain, and we don’t want to accept what we do know.
Pain is a perception, and how do you prove it to doctors who are trained to diagnose and treat physical symptoms in the body? People with chronic pain go to 10 min doctor visits and present their case so that the doctor perceives their perception of their pain correctly. The worst that can happen is if the doctor thinks it is all in your head. But ALL pain is literally all in your head!
Think about a kid who doesn’t want to go to school because there is a test, or a monster under the bed. They get a tummy ache. They get a physical symptom based on an emotional issue. As adults, we deny that pain from mental stress manifests as pain in the body. But we cannot feel pain without a functioning brain. Chronic pain causes central sensitization, and our mood, sleep, and pain pathways all overlap. It all feels like pain in the body.
Americans are prescribed enough opioid pain pills for every person to take 3 pills a day for 42 days every year. The #1 cause of accidental death in the US is opioid overdose, which is more than car accidents. And yet no scientific study shows that opioids are effective for chronic pain after 6 months, and after that they start to change the body so that it feels more pain. They also mess with mood, sleep, immune function and sexual function. Chronic pain is not about a lack of pain pills. We are missing something.
Everything is connected in the body. You have to move regularly if you have chronic pain, it is the cornerstone of all effective treatment. It is significantly even more effective if that movement incorporates breathing and mindfulness techniques, like yoga. Some doctors ask how can that work if surgery and oxycontin don’t, but it has been proven to drastically reduce the pain experience by changing the way we think, breathe, and move. Harvard neuroscientists have shown that we can change the very structure of our brains and can reverse the changes caused by chronic pain by using the breath.
Pills and procedures do work for some people, but if they don’t work for you, you have to accept it and do something different. We can admit that stress and lifestyle choices contribute to and cause chronic pain at any age. We can hold ourselves accountable to seek out the longer, more durable path to real relief. We can advocate for more holistic functional rehabilitation resources (which have been thoroughly proven to work!) available to all of us, and teach that we can be active participants in our own healing and our own lives. The hardest pill to swallow is that there is no quick fix to chronic pain. But there is a fix!