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How does stress make pain worse?

Do you ever have neck or back pain after a stressful day? Maybe a headache?
Why do you get tight muscles when something stresses you out?

There are nerve receptors that are involved in pain generation. There job is to send a signal to the brain that they have been stimulated. The brain knows that a signal from these receptors in the body is usually a sign of danger and will usually then decide that the body is in pain, specifically to that area. In his talks, David Butler often brings up adrenaline sensitive peripheral nerves and the amazing ion channel turnover. Specifically, this means that these nerve receptors can become extra sensitive to the chemical adrenaline, also called epinephrine. With this sensitivity, less stimulation is needed to send a danger signal to the brain. Think of a car alarm that is set to go off when someone breaks the window. When the alarm is hypersensitive the alarm may go off if a loud truck drives by. No damage happened to the car but the alarm still went off. When we are stressed out our body produces more adrenaline. This can be a good thing because it helps us to prepare for action. Unfortunately, if a nerve is damaged, stretched, or pressed on for too long it will create "baskets" of adrenaline sensitive fibers. As David says here:
"If a person has a highly adrenoreactive area of peripheral nerve and if they are in a state of persistent elevated stress then repeated firing into the CNS will occur. And if the person is stressed, central inhibitory controls will probably be lifted anyway and a persistent neuropathic pain state may ensue."

What this means is that if someone has a nerve that is sensitive to adrenaline and if they are always stressed out then the danger signal to the brain will be almost constant. If that is the case then the Drug Cabinet in the brain will be lifted away and persistent pain will likely develop. Not fun.

Fortunately, you have some control over this. The first line of defense is to reduce your stress level  thus reducing your adrenaline. Also, just knowing that your pain is not from a damaged muscle but stress chemicals, your brain will then be less likely to think of the signal as pain. Third, if you get out and move your body in a way that reduces any specific nerve perturbations you will have less chance of a future sensitivity. Most good Manual Therapists (RMT, Chiro, PT, etc) will know how to help you do this.

Most forms of massage therapy have good evidence behind them on their ability to reduce stress. Two of the modalities Michael implements, DNM and Simple Contact, work on a model that directly addresses pain and adrenal sensitive nerves.
If you have any questions about this feel free to contact us at well+able and we would love to help you out if we can. It would also be of benefit to watch the previous stress video, the Drug cabinet video and the What is pain video.

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