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Joint Pain

The New Year’s Resolution You Really Want: Rid Yourself of Chronic Pain

Author| Ben Bobrow, MD

Around each New Year, many of us instinctively think about making changes in our lives. While New Year's resolutions often don't stick (usually because resolutions focus on changing our behavior as opposed to changing the thinking that drives behavior), it is good to have an event that reminds us to look for opportunities to make positive adjustments and to see things and ourselves in a new light, or as some say "with fresh eyes." A New Year can present such an occasion.

For the millions of people who suffer with persistent pain that alters their ability to work and enjoy life, the pain, treatment failures and loss of hope result in a destructive cycle. One of the chief factors around chronic pain is how it frequently leads to depression and anxiety, both of which perpetuate the pain. Instead of resolving only to lose weight or improve their physique, as so many New Year's resolutioners do, so many people could dramatically relieve their pain by better understanding how it works and changing their approach. For many, this requires not only a change in behavior (going to the gym or local athletic club, for example) but also a radical change in thinking.

Change can be difficult for sure, particularly when you are comfortable with what you think you know. Sometimes, however, you're not all that comfortable, you just favor the devil you know overlooking into something you don't know. Often we discover that taking that risk to look at things (and ourselves) from a new perspective is both interesting and beneficial.

Insight into the nature of chronic pain doesn't necessarily end the pain, but it is a starting point that can lead to a change in the behaviors that maintain pain.

After a certain period of time with pain, our brain pathways are altered and sensitized to pain. We learn to hone in on every mild sensation and often make them seem more dangerous than they actually are. Our natural response to pain is to avoid activity and to do less. While this can be helpful for an acute, brief injury, such behavior puts us at the risk of losing connection with friends, family, work and even our identity. Such loss can touch off a cycle where hopelessness and loss of purpose prolong and intensify pain. Once such a cycle is established, it is very easy to feel like you've lost control. The longer it lasts, the more ingrained it becomes and the more challenging it is to break.

Understanding such processes can change your thinking and roll back the curtain on your pain. In order to adjust your behavior, you must give your brain a new set of instructions. Think about it like this: you have created new highways to sense and respond to pain and now you will create a detour around them. In this way, you can free the brain from its singular focus on a painful area of the body. Finding something else to grab your brain’s attention—a favorite pastime, passion, work or love—can break that neural cycle and restore wellness.

There is no lock on how to do this. Virtually anything that alters your fixed perspective and allows you to see the familiar from a new and fresh point of view can accomplish it. As a species, we humans have been shifting our consciousness for a long time. Prehistoric healers beat drums, prayed and lit incense; Indian yogis discovered that breathing could induce a contemplative state; Buddhist monks found that chanting adages focused on positive thoughts for others rather than themselves had similar effects; and Native Americans held elaborate dancing ceremonies. These ancient practitioners found unique ways to induce trance-like states that permit the brain to see familiar things in new ways.

You have to pick something that makes sense to you, and the New Year is a perfect time to get started.


References

  1. Chronic pain: The role of learning and brain plasticity. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4922795/