We all experience pain from time to time. Pain is a signal from the body when something does not feel right. This can result from an injury, illness, or even our emotional state.

In many cases, pain is a straightforward equation of injury = pain. You stub your toe, and you feel pain right at the tender spot it was injured. However, this is not the only way pain works.

Consider another example: when you drink a milkshake too fast, the sensation of cold on the soft palate of the mouth triggers a signal to the brain that results in what we call “brain freeze.” It is excruciating! But if you think about it, it’s out of proportion to the situation. Your soft palate is not injured or even in danger.

What makes pain interesting and also frustrating is that what we think of as pain is not actually located in the body. Pain is located in the brain.

Chronic pain may be in your head

It’s All in Your Head

A tiny papercut can produce intense pain, while a soldier in combat may feel no pain sensation from a severe wound during a battle. (1) The feeling of pain is not as simple as what happens to our body. Our brain can choose to amplify or minimize signals from the body, and many factors outside of physical stimuli contribute to the experience of pain.

Feeling emotional or distressed can magnify our experience of pain, regardless of the nature of the physical injury. (2) Pain can also be “referred,” meaning we may feel it in one part of the body, but the point of injury is somewhere else. This can happen during a heart attack when the first symptom is often tooth or jaw pain. (3) There is also phantom limb pain where a person feels pain from a limb that is no longer there. (4)

When it comes down to it, our brains are not all that good at interpreting pain, and this complexity makes chronic pain, in particular, difficult to track down.

But the multi-factorial nature of pain is also good news. It means there are many different avenues to explore for pain reduction, and having an injury or pain condition does not mean someone is sentenced to a lifetime of discomfort.

What Is Chronic Pain?

Acute pain and chronic pain are two very different things.

Acute pain is a normal trigger from your body that something happened, and you should pay attention. For example, if you fall and bang up your knee, your body will signal that your knee is injured, and the feeling of pain will likely spur you to rest and care for that leg. Over the course of a few days, the knee will heal, and the pain will go away.

If the pain continues to linger after the initial injury heals, it may be chronic pain. This is pain that is persistent and can be present in the absence of or long after an injury. Sometimes the cause of chronic pain is known, as in conditions such as arthritis or fibromyalgia. Other times chronic pain is present without a diagnosable cause.

Low back pain is one common example. Up to 10% of adults in the US experience ongoing, chronic pain in the low back area. (5) In many of these situations, there is no identifiable injury present. The low back just hurts.

This is chronic pain, and in addition to the unpleasant physical sensation, it can disrupt sleep, negatively impact mental health, and chip away at a person’s sense of well-being. (6)

Managing Pain Is Essential to Wellness

Feeling physical discomfort every day over weeks or months leads to lower quality of life and can become all-consuming. In addition to the health effects of daily pain, there are impacts on other aspects of wellness. Pain disrupts a person’s ability to engage in everyday activities and negatively affects relationships and social engagement. (7)

While some pain is an inevitable part of life, chronic pain doesn’t have to take over. Choosing wellness means taking the steps necessary to address and manage anything preventing feelings of well-being.

Working with a medical professional is an essential step in managing chronic pain that interferes with daily life. However, there are also effective self-care interventions that provide relief and the ability to take charge of your pain and feel better.

The importance of sleep: Sleep Allows Us to Be Our Best Selves

Get Enough Sleep

Pain and sleep are deeply intertwined. Pain can make it difficult to sleep, while simultaneously being short on rest increases pain sensitivity. (8)

While the cycle can be challenging to break, following good sleep practices is essential. Create a soothing bedtime routine that includes relaxation techniques to calm your nerves. Gentle stretching, yoga, or tai chi are a great choice. Even a few gentle movements before bed could help the body relax enough to sleep.

If sleep continues to be a challenge, talk to your doctor about taking your pain medication at night to help you get the rest you need. The timing of treatment can make a big difference.

Try yoga or tai chi to manage pain

Try Yoga or Tai Chi

Both yoga and tai chi have been shown to aid in chronic pain management. (9) (10) The combination of movement, joint articulation, and mind/body awareness work together to soothe many pain triggers. They address the physical pain as well as calm the mental and emotional distress caused by daily discomfort.

Meditate or Use Relaxation Techniques

Effective self-care for pain management needs to target not just the body but also what is happening in the brain. Meditation and other relaxation practices take advantage of the plasticity, or trainability, of the brain to address pain at its source.

The body may feel a specific area of discomfort, but in chronic pain, the brain has become sensitized and is a driving force behind the ongoing experience of pain. (11) Techniques that lower the brain’s threshold for pain triggers can be very effective.

Engaging in meditation reduces the activation of areas in the brain responsible for pain signaling. (12) Long-term practice makes the brain less sensitive to pain triggers and addresses pain’s emotional component by reducing distress and feelings of hopelessness.

Managing chronic pain is essential to wellness

Find Appropriate Physical Activities

Not every type of physical activity is appropriate for chronic pain sufferers, but there is something for everyone. Engaging in higher levels of activity improves the body’s overall health and effectively reduces pain. (13)

Physical movements such as walking, swimming, yoga, or tai chi are often accessible and significantly boost feelings of well-being. Check with your doctor to get the go-ahead and then start moving more.

Get Distracted

Focusing on pain sensations amplifies the signal in the brain. It’s like driving a car down a dirt road over and over, creating deep grooves. Every time a vehicle drives on that road, it will naturally follow the well-worn tracks.

Deeply entrenched pain pathways in the brain are part of why chronic pain is so persistent. The brain takes the path of least resistance, and it requires effort to get out of the grooves. Distraction is one way to choose a better direction for the brain to follow and create new, healthier tracks. (14)

Instead of giving pain your full attention, find something to distract you.

Any activity that requires you to focus on something else can allow the pain to fade into the background. Over time your brain can become less likely to fall into the habit of pain.

Do What Makes You Feel Better

Pain may be linked to the brain, but it is a mind, body, and spirit condition. Targeting all three aspects will address chronic pain from every angle and provide the best chance of repairing health and improving feelings of well-being.

Pain doesn’t have to have the last word. Find healthy coping techniques that minimize your discomfort and open you up to a life that is not centered around pain. Do the things that make you feel better so you can be fully present with the people and life you love.