We all know the feeling of our bodies not quite wanting to do what we’d like them to. There’s pressure in your head, your neck is seized up or you have a stabbing pain in your back. “Just not right now” is definitely one of the most common reactions; after all, pain is never really on one’s to-do list.
If you think that the common flu is the most frequent reason for sick leave, you’re mistaken. The DAK Health Report confirms that it is primarily back problems and other musculoskeletal disorders that checkmate workers. A total of 21 percent of sick days can be attributed to this. Germany seems to be carrying a terribly big burden on its back – but what exactly is it?
This month, we’d like to take a closer look at the subject of pain under the title #painkillers. In this first article, we would like to explore what pain actually is and how it develops. We are going to focus specifically on back pain and ask ourselves how it comes about in the first place.
In the next two articles, we will then suggest treatment methods and provide tips on what other methods are available apart from pain killers to help you get through the day without discomfort.
Pain: your body’s natural alarm system
All of us have had pain at some point. It could have been neck tension or even a broken heart because of a separation. So, as you can see, pain is not always just pain – there are different types.
Let’s take a very simple example to understand the processes in the body: We accidentally bump our forehead on an open kitchen cupboard in the office (ouch!).
Everything starts with pain receptors on your skin, which become active in this moment and give off electrical signals. These signals are now transported via the spinal cord into the somato-sensory complex in the brain. Here it is determined:
- Where does the pain come from?
- How big is the painful area?
- How intense is the sensation?
- How long will the pain last?
But the motor cortex in the brain also wants to take action and either prompt us to flee very quickly or to take a break to recover from the pain. Surely you would interrupt a conversation if you’ve just bumped your head on the kitchen cupboard.
Simultaneously with all these processes, areas are awakened that are responsible for the emotional processing of pain. This is about how you deal with the pain. The range of possibilities is wide: cry, laugh, scream or faint (hopefully not!).
However, some types of pain can also trigger deep-seated emotions such as fear or panic, because we are reminded of something that we may have stored in our subconscious – supposedly safely – (here pain can act as a trigger). No matter how unnerving it may be, these are all very meaningful processes that demonstrate what a miracle the human body actually is.
In acute pain situations, you’re able to take a step back, process the pain, and calm down again. But what happens if the pain becomes a constant problem?
Chronic pain: When even small irritations test your patience
As you read earlier, most sick leave in Germany is related to back pain or musculoskeletal disorders. Because in many cases the pain has been going on for a long time, we are talking about chronic pain. Chronic pain leads to pain memory.
Scientists have discovered that the areas of the brain responsible for pain that we just spoke about, change in the case of chronic pain.
Because the brain wants to protect itself from an emotional overload of pain, for example, the relevant brain area is simply reduced in size so that you feel less pain. Initially, this makes sense, but in the long term it is disadvantageous for the affected person as this area of the brain produces its own opiates that reduce our sensitivity.
In concrete terms, this means: If this area is smaller, it is no longer able to regulate pain as well as before and we perceive even small stimuli as unpleasant. So, our “fuse” gets shorter.
This can often end in a negative downward spiral, as pain patients with chronic pain then tend to rate events as more negative than they actually are. We also know that people who are generally negative experience pain much more easily than positive people. Soon you become stuck and can’t escape from this cycle.
The good news is, according to science, the pain area in the brain can become larger again, and even grow back to its original size if the pain is treated successfully.
What can sometimes feel like a nightmare is actually a blessing from a biological point of view. Why? Because pain is the body’s natural alarm system.
Your body is basically trying to tell you: “Stop, something is wrong here and I’m asking you to have a look!” Sometimes, unfortunately, life has to slow us down by making us feel like nothing is working any more in order for us to take our bodily needs seriously and to start living consciously.
How many types of pain are there and how do they feel?
Pain can basically be divided into different categories and types. This helps doctors, physiotherapists, osteopaths, non-traditional practitioners, etc. to treat it. Here are some of the types of pain:
- Nociceptor pain. This is the largest category of pain. Here, the pain receptors for tissue injuries that lie on the skin and internal organs are stimulated. We are familiar with this type of pain from burns, cuts, or bruises.
- Reflective pain. This type of pain is caused by bad posture – for example when we’re working. Here we must mention back pain again, which is mostly caused by such bad posture.
- Psychosomatic pain. This pain is mainly triggered by psychological stress. For instance, if you have a lot of responsibility at the office and suffer from a stress overload, your neck and back will often suffer – in theory even if your posture isn’t bad. Mental stress is the trigger for this type of pain. This pain can theoretically persist even when the physical cause has been removed.
- Visceral pain. This is primarily pain that comes from the inner organs. There are areas on our skin called “head zones”. You usually notice the pain where the organ is situated, for example chest pain during a heart attack. In other cases, however, the head zone is further away from the organ. The gall bladder, for example, has its head zone in the right shoulder. An experienced therapist can do real detective work here.
Back pain in the workplace: The root of all evil?
Since we spend most of our time at work, the culprit factors behind back pain are often found at the office.
Physical causes of pain could be:
- Incorrect sitting posture at work
- Incorrect position of the laptop/desktop computer
- Standing for too long
- Lifting and carrying heavy objects
- One-sided posture
- No or weak back muscles
Apart from the physical factors already mentioned, there are also psychological factors that must always be taken into account:
- Work stress caused by unresolved conflict in the office
- Trying to reach utopian deadlines
- Pressure from the boss
- Mobbing by colleagues
- Overwhelmed by too many tasks
Try looking within: Back pain often originates in the psyche
A European Work Conditions Survey found that more than 70 percent of those surveyed who had back pain also reported stress. Stress from your boss, family problems or an unresolved bereavement can be the reason for unpleasant back pain.
This makes sense, of course, as our body is in a permanent state of alarm when it’s under stress. This makes our muscles contract and leads to tension which in turn can result in chronic back pain.
A study from Spain, led by Alejandro Salazar from the University of Cádiz, found that 50 percent of the study participants with chronic musculoskeletal pain (i.e. mostly back pain) also suffered from depression – which hadn’t even been diagnosed before that. Most of these patients had difficulty sleeping because of the pain, which makes depression more likely.
This is another example of why general practitioners should always check the mental state of those with pain and inquire about the patient’s stress levels.
Incidentally, this is also confirmed by the Orthopaedic University Clinic in Heidelberg, which has long employed treatment consisting of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, and psychotherapy for back pain.
The key to healing is to regard body, soul, and spirit as a holistic unit
Pain is an early warning system in our body that something is getting seriously out of hand. As with so many ailments, it is important not to consider the pain in isolation, but to recognise body, soul, and spirit as a unit and to look for causes holistically.
What we often observe in conventional medicine, however, is that the search focuses on one level only – usually the physical one. If a cause is suspected, it is aggressively beaten into submission with injections and medication. But we human beings are far more complicated than that.
After all, mental pain in particular is not so easily treated by just swallowing a pill but requires in-depth therapy. And sometimes – as if by magic – the back pain subsides when we resolve conflicts or symbolically “get rid of some of the baggage” that we have been carrying around with us for a long time.
Have we inspired you to get rid of your baggage and give your back more room to breathe?
Thank you for taking the time to read our article. Of course, we’re not going to let you go just like that, but we’d like to make a suggestion as to what you can do right away for your well-being.
On Wednesday, 7 October at 6:30 p.m., our live class with Chris will take place again. There will be 20 minutes of live yoga. This is not only good for shortened muscles, but also has a relaxing effect on your soul and spirit. Are you ready? Then write it in your calendar right away and let’s get going!
In our next two articles of this month’s theme, #painkillers, you will find further approaches for tackling back or muscle problems holistically and activating your self-healing powers.
Your Humanoo Team
About the author
Karina Schönberger is a copywriter and content strategist. After completing her studies, she worked in the fields of marketing, PR and events for many years. She found the way to a conscious life through work, yoga and meditation and decided to work for herself. These days she lives in Berlin and prefers to create content about the really important things in life such as health, transformation, healthy eating, astrology, travel, yoga and meditation. Karina, who was born in Kazakhstan, believes that each of us deserves a fulfilled life and has the power to heal.