Back to Basics

Dr Jess Milsom

 “When back pain suddenly shows up, we are tempted to blame it on the last minor stressor that affected it, such as a soft bed in a hotel. This is like blaming your bankruptcy on the last latte you bought before your account finally went into the red.” 

– Todd Hargrove.

When pain occurs it’s not uncommon for us to try to find a triggering event. Sometimes, this can leave us stumped as there wasn’t a clear change from our normal activities, it kind of just came on, or we must have just slept funny. Pain and our body’s physiology are not simple, most of the time it isn’t caused by just one event (unless your injury was a result of direct trauma).  Research suggests that pain is complex and can occur from physical factors, lifestyle factors, and mental factors. Put simply, pain tolerance levels are closely linked to our entire well-being. 
Think about how complex the balance of nature is. Extinction of one species can influence the population of other species, or altered weather patterns can affect the growth of plants and animals. Like the intricate balance of nature, our pain symptoms can rely on the stability and good functioning of our body systems. This is what we refer to as the body’s homeostasis. The self-regulating process of the cells in our body to maintain stability and adapt to conditions. When there is an accumulation of small and subtle changes to these cells – a constant and steady increase in cortisol (a natural stress hormone) – it affects the functioning of other cells. 

When perceived with a threat, a natural stress response is triggered. Cortisol increases your blood sugar levels, which increases brain activity and increases the available substances needed for tissue repair. It also dulls non-essential functions of a fight or flight situation. These include your immune system, digestive system, and growth processes. It lowers testosterone, which is a vital growth hormone for men and women. This is optimal for short-term survival in stressful situations, however, if cortisol levels remain elevated things can start to go haywire. When we experience prolonged stress, our bodies have reduced pain tolerance and heightened pain. This is a process known as ‘sensitization’. We may struggle to maintain or grow muscle mass due to the dampening effect cortisol has on our growth hormones, and we might find ourselves getting struck down by the common cold often due to our weakened immune response. This ultimately leads to a change in the function of your whole well-being. 
So, the next time you notice a flare-up of symptoms, or a new unexplained injury occurs, let’s take it back to health basics. Ask yourself:
•    Am I fuelling my body with nutritious foods?
•    Am I drinking enough water? 
•    Am I getting enough sleep? 
•    Am I exercising on a regular basis? 
•    Am I exercising too much and not letting myself recover properly? 
•    How are my stress levels? 
•    What am I doing to manage this stress? 
•    How many inflammatory things am I putting into my body? 
For example, smoking, vaping, highly processed foods, and drinking excessive alcohol all increase inflammation in our bodies.
•    Am I spending enough time with those I truly care about and with the same values and interests as me? 
•    Am I spreading myself too thin with superficial relationships? 

We’ve all heard the saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup”, well this extends to pain and injury too. If your body is already fighting to maintain homeostasis, then how can you expect it to repair damaged tissues and cells at a quick rate?