One common definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Unfortunately, that repetition is characteristic of a cycle many people living with chronic pain and instability find themselves in.
Our nervous system resembles a computer – information goes in … it is processed … and then there is a response or output based on the information received.
Danger, Will Robinson!
A basic function of our central nervous system is to protect, preserve, and alert us to danger.
To achieve this, we have a complex pain sensory system which is necessary, appropriate, and helpful to effectively adapt to life and to survive.
For example, it makes sense if we put our hand on a hot stove we experience pain, as well as a memory of the experience.
Adaptively, we quickly remove our hand and are more cautious (due to the memory produced) the next time we are near a stove.
Similar to a computer antivirus program, our pain awareness system warns us of threats and influences us to take constructive action, often – hopefully – avoiding destruction.
When we are injured, our nervous system resembles a laptop which has crashed and is no longer working properly. Both our brain and spinal cord (central nervous system), as well as the injury site, become sensitized while an inflammatory response is initiated.
Pain Without Purpose
Normally a crashed computer requires effort and focus to rid it of corrupt files and restore (rehab) the system back into full operation. Our body’s immune healing response is similar and pain is part of the process.
Sometimes however the system acts mal-adaptively and pain becomes chronic and repetitive to the point where it no longer serves a useful purpose.
When this happens (i.e. chronic back injury), usually the crash has led to dysfunctional weakness, restrictive pain, and a lack of protective neurological stabilization and support around involved joints for a prolonged period of time.
In this situation, the more we try to ignore the weakness and to compensate, the more the whole nervous system gets ramped up, abnormally sensitized, and generally freaked out.
This situation keeps the body constantly on high alert and in crisis mode – we turn into inflammatory junkies.
Breaking the Boom/Bust Cycle
In many cases, without skilled rehabilitative interventions (i.e. through evaluation, manual physical therapy, therapeutic exercises and neurological re-education) a person can frequently become like a car stuck in the mud.
Because of the pain and weakness or instability, the individual starts adopting more faulty compensatory movement patterns which are mal-adaptive, putting abnormal stresses on the original injury site as well as other regions.
This nasty cycle creates progressively more central nervous system pain sensitivity as well as weakness, instability, and fear of movement. Because it hurts to move, more de-conditioning, tightness, and sedentary behavior sets in.
Similar to a tripped circuit breaker, if not dealt with appropriately, the body becomes less healthy, more sensitized, and weaker.
Next, consider that a lot of our success or failure in life is a product of how we respond to what happens to us.
Similarly, chronic pain no longer serves a useful purpose and is not adaptive.
David Butler describes well in his book “Explain Pain” how many people get into a “Boom Bust” cycle trap.
Picture the analogy of a person standing in a pounding surf who repeatedly gets knocked down by waves just to stand and have the next wave repeat the process over and over again.
Often those attempting to soldier on through chronic pain conditions will have flair up pain for days (bust) after having engaged in over-activity (boom) due to feeling better.
Typically, when people feel slightly better they become more active, aggravating the weakened, sensitized areas of their body, and thus end up repeating the boom/bust inflammation and pain cycle.
Over time their dysfunctional responses to the unhealthy nervous system restricts things more and more until generally everything is hypersensitive and hurts.
Call In The Pros
Those in chronic pain cycles often require professional help to get rid of pain, break the boom-bust cycle and to restore quality functional mobility.
A Doctor of Physical Therapy is highly trained to evaluate and treat movement disorders and can be a tremendous asset and resource to you as you seek to address and alleviate both your physical weakness, instability, and pain.
Skilled physical therapy often can reduce or even eliminate the need for medication, expensive diagnostics, and surgery.
Quality movement is the best medicine! Tragically, many choose drugs which are highly addictive and ultimately lethal.
If you’ve been stuck in the mud spinning your wheels, consider getting the right professional evaluation, treatment tools, and innovations that can make all the difference in getting you back on the road to recovery, better health and greater freedom!