Understanding is the First Step
Millions of people suffer pain on a daily basis and along with that pain comes a limited mobility. Whether it’s chronic or simply persistent nagging aches from joint stiffness and tight muscles, flipping that pain switch allows for more freedom of movement, increased flexibility and better circulation. But…understanding pain is the first step to finding relief.
Sensei Tristan Truscott is no stranger to pain. He spent years earning his black belt in the martial arts — fighting and getting pummeled daily. And then, as an instructor, he spent decades teaching women and children self defense – where it was his job, his sole purpose, to take on the role of the attacker in the classes and allow his students to beat him up. But that was an acceptable sort of daily pain… a manageable level of pain that he was accepting as part of his job, part of his life.
But an injury in 2000 brought on a new level of pain beyond anything he had ever imagined. And it didn’t stop.
It went on. And on. And on. Far past the time that the actual injury was healed. It was almost as if a PAIN switch had been thrown and now that it had, his “new normal” was agonizing pain. It turns out, that’s EXACTLY what it was.
Millions of people know what it’s like to be in pain every day. It’s called chronic pain and it has become a huge problem in our country.
But the key thing people need to understand is that PAIN is in the BRAIN! Really get that. It doesn’t mean that it’s not real; the pain still shows up in the body. It just means that pain is actually a neurochemical process that is first experienced in the brain. That’s why pain medication works the way it does. Pain medicine doesn’t do anything for the injury itself. Instead, it targets and affects the pain receptors in the brain.
People often get confused about this. And that’s why they often mistake chronic panic for “an injury that doesn’t heal.” But that’s just wrong. There may be nothing physical left to heal (sometimes there never was, like with fibromyalgia for example). It’s simply that the pain itself doesn’t go away – because it’s still being triggered in the brain.
OK, how is pain SUPPOSED to work?
First off, pain is actually crucial to our survival. When you touch a hot iron, or you hit your thumb with a hammer, you experience pain immediately, so you pull your hand away quickly from the source of danger. Normally, the pain will go away as the injury heals. That’s called “acute pain.” And acute pain will last until the injury is healed so even if you are in pain for weeks, that can still be acute pain. Take a broken leg for instance. That may hurt during the healing process but the pain becomes less and less as the physical cause of the pain heals. The pain is to let you know “BE CAREFUL! We’re healing here!” The pain brings your awareness to that fact that something is wrong and you need to be a little careful while your body tries to correct the problem. Acute pain serves a purpose and then (eventually) goes away when its job is done.
What About Pain that Doesn’t Go Away?
- Lingering Pain:
Pain from an injury or disease that doesn’t go away after the original cause of the pain has healed.
- Cascading Pain:
Painful joints, discomfort from stiffness and inflexibility of tight muscles, nagging aches or constant fatigue that builds over time as your body tries to compensate and “protect you” from the original pain. (In our society, this goes largely ignored and unreported because people tend to dismiss it as “this is just the way it is.” If left untreated however, these little pains can escalate and cascade into a more devastating and debilitating pain.)
- Mystery Pain:
Pain with no known origin. There was no injury. There was no reason. There was suddenly just pain.There is certainly overlap among these groups, but it’s easier to understand if we look at each of them, one by one…
Sufferers typically ask, “The injury is gone. Why am I still in pain?”
Returning to the example of hitting your thumb with a hammer, the nerves in your thumb would trigger an electrical signal that travel up your arm, into your spinal column and into your brain. The signal tells the brain “WARNING! DANGER!” Your brain immediately takes a snapshot of everything happening in your body (and around you) in that moment. It has to get a full picture of everything so that it can rank the threats. (It wouldn’t make much sense to give a high priority to a hurt thumb if a bus is about to run you over.) When working correctly, this is actually an amazing part of our survival process. However, for now, let’s keep it simple. Your brain takes a snapshot of everything happening in that moment of pain and labels everything as “possibly dangerous.”
Basically, your brain takes a “selfie” that includes:
- what is hurt?
- what am I feeling? (emotionally and physically)
- what’s happening around me? (possible sources of pain)
If there is no threat of immediate further danger, the brain starts to “lock down” the area around the injury. This can prevent you from moving it and causing further damage, while the injury heals. The brain also lets the surrounding areas know that they may have to “pick up the slack.” In this example, if the thumb is hurt, a message may be sent to the surrounding fingers, the wrist, the elbow, the shoulder (everything along the path of the electrical signal) that there is danger nearby and everyone needs to remain hyper-aware and possibly restrict their range of movement while healing is happening. But sometimes, even though the injury heals, the brain is still remaining careful or cautious. Maybe you are even telling it to do that — with being careful how you move your neck, or taking special care that you don’t do certain movements. All of this results in the brain staying in a “stressed” state — contracting and shutting down more and more out of fear of further injury. In fact, the brain is so hyper-aware, that any condition that reminds it of the snapshot that it took can cause a pain flare-up again: As a warning to you to be cautious. What that means is that if you experience the same emotions you were feeling, think the same thoughts you were thinking, visit the same place where you were injured… any of those might trigger another episode. Which in turn makes the brain even MORE cautious because it was right… this DID cause pain, so it needs to remain hyper-aware and even MORE cautious. That’s why so often, those coping with pain or chronic conditions become hyper-sensitive in other ways as well. They might get cold more easily. Even the smallest change (like reduced blood flow from sitting for extended periods) can raise red flags of warning to a brain that is in “hyper-sensitive” mode. Basically, the pain doesn’t go away because the brain doesn’t recognize it is “safe” yet.
Sufferers typically ask, “I was just a little stiff. So why does it seem like I’m falling apart now?”
This is actually the most under-reported type of pain because people have started thinking that coping with these little aches, pains and stiffness is NORMAL. “This is just part of getting older.” A lot of people won’t even label it pain because they think it makes them look weak. It’s just discomfort or stiffness. In fact, this is NOT a body in it’s “normal” state. This is a brain that is locked in “stress mode” where it is hyper-aware of changes and locking down mobility and flexibility to prevent pain. And when it locks down one area but continues to get danger signals, it will try locking down a different area. That’s why people sometimes think that pain travels. Because the brain keeps trying to protect different areas, by contracting and restricting mobility and flexibility. But it doesn’t stop because it never gets the “ALL CLEAR” signal. Ironic, isn’t it? The very actions that the brain takes to compensate and prevent further pain, actually CAUSES more pain. It’s an escalation of stiffness, soreness and tightness which leads to feeling stiff and achy all over. And all because the brain doesn’t recognize it is “safe” yet.
Sufferers typically ask, “How can there be pain when nothing is wrong?”
Millions of people suffer from pain but have never had an injury. It’s important to know that the “danger” response in the brain can be triggered by things other than a physical injury. Emotional or psychological pain, anxiety, worry, or stress from anything involving family, work, money issues or even abuse — in any of these cases, the brain gets signals of a threat or danger. Unfortunately, since there is no real site associated with the threat it goes with what it has done before… for example, for someone with a previous back injury, it will start there and work outward from that.
In fact, when some people think they have a recurring injury, it actually might be one of the more subtle emotional or psychological “dangers” that the brain can’t identify, so it jumps back to that old injury. However, if there has never been any injury, the brain jumps straight to PANIC MODE where it alerts the whole body that something is wrong and to be hyper-aware. This affects digestion and sleep immediately (because your brain wants you focused on what could be wrong so it can identify the threat.)
In fact, these are good WARNING FLAGS that let you know if your brain is in “protect mode:”
- Are you sensitive to small changes in temperature?
- Do you experience pain or stiffness when sitting for long periods?
- Has the amount of activity that you can do before experiencing pain decreased?
- Do you have digestion issues or do you have trouble sleeping?
- Are you currently on medication to calm your nerves?
- Are you experiencing more stiffness or tightness in your muscles or less flexibility in your joints?
Any of these are a sign your brain is hyper-alert for some kind of threat. And if the danger signals don’t stop, it will keep contracting and locking down areas until it finds something that will eliminate the threat. The brain is just waiting for permission to relax – it still thinks it’s not “safe.”
So there’s no hope?
You can see from all of this why chronic pain remains grossly under-treated. Because doctors are stumped at how to treat pain when there seems to be no physical cause for that pain.
But the beautiful truth of the matter is that once you know that the pain is in the brain, it gives you avenues of recovery that weren’t open to you before. The main ingredient in getting lasting relief from your chronic pain is changing the way you think about your condition in relation to your physical symptoms. If you are open to actively participating in your recovery process, you CAN find relief. After years of suffering, Sensei Tristan was able to find amazing relief from his injury through practicing Qigong (also known as the grandfather of Tai Chi) – but he was still left with the chronic pain from his body trying to “compensate, contract and protect.” His body was incredibly traumatized from the pain of his injury, but in trying to protect him from further pain, it was actually creating MORE pain. So, now he was on the road to recovery… in fact, he was at a place where most people find themselves in their daily life… but he wasn’t satisfied. For years, he had felt trapped in a body that didn’t work properly and he had had enough!
Using his background in the different healing modalities, Sensei Tristan came up with a unique combination of mind-body healing techniques that were so simple, they almost seemed too easy. These techniques, that he calls the “second phase” of his healing, allowed him to:
- unwind the muscle tension, to let the muscles release the “protect” pattern they were in, and let go of the pain they were holding onto so tightly
- protect and restore his joints, and signal to his body and mind that “all is well” and that it’s OK to restore his full range of movement
- go beyond the stiff, sore, aches that any movement caused to a more smooth and ageless flexibility… becoming more flexible and fluid than even before his injury.
The way that these techniques work is that they approach the body on its own terms. Using the mind and the breath with natural body movements, these techniques let you RESET YOUR BRAIN and YOUR NERVOUS SYSTEM into “safe mode” — to expand rather than contract — so you have more mobility, flexibility, balance and strength. They help you move your body the way it was designed to be moved – without fear or guarding.
Here’s what Sensei Tristan said about his own amazing recovery…
“For some of us, one day we wake up and realize that we’re just always in pain. Always sore or stiff. We might learn a few pain management techniques that work: take a few ibuprofen, visit the chiropractor, get some rest… but ultimately it seems those techniques don’t work. It’s just temporary relief. And those are the lucky ones! Some of us don’t even get that reprieve. That’s who I used to be. If the pain went away at all, it would keep coming back until eventually it grew into a chronic condition. People that aren’t in that type of pain can’t imagine how it can so drastically impact your life… not just the pain… the quality of your life…your “mood” (which can read as moody even though you’re just trying to cope with the pain.) Everything you do is affected… everything becomes a challenge… for some, it’s a barrier to work, for some, it means foregoing getting together with friends or family, and for some of us… we can barely sit or move because of the terrible pain. We just start measuring the time between flare-ups — between when it’s bad and when it’s unbearable. That was me. But it’s not me anymore. Today I’m pain free. Living the life I want. Enjoying time with my friends and family without thinking about what activities I “shouldn’t do.” It’s like I was in prison and now I’m walking around free. If you’ve never felt limited by that sort of pain or lack of mobility, it may be hard for you to understand. But listen, if you know what I’m talking about, just know that there IS relief. There is a life filled with beautiful and effortless movements… without gasps of pain. Being able to spend time with your friends and family and not thinking about your pain or having to “be careful” — just enjoying being there with them. And in a good mood!! It’s truly amazing the emotional and psychological impact that pain can have and the equally incredible feelings of joy and relief that come when the pain ends. I truly wish everyone could experience this”
There is life beyond pain!
In fact, Sensei Tristan’s #1 Breathwork Technique for releasing pain is part of his Martial Yoga: Movement Medicine formula. Regardless of your physical shape, age, pain level or schedule, this breathing technique will help you to re-calibrate and reset the signal between your body and your brain – turning off the “protect” response and provoking the relaxation response. Since returning to teaching, Sensei Tristan has shared this with many of his martial arts students and coaching clients over the years and they’ve had incredible results. Some experience INSTANT relief after doing it only once.
So whether you:
- are coping (or suffering) with pains, aches, discomfort or injury
- are plagued by stiffness and soreness
- are sick of all the “minor” discomforts — like being uncomfortable when you sit for too long
- find yourself being “careful” in the way you move, and would rather live a care-free life than a care-ful life