Category Archives: Irritable Bowel Syndrome

24Oct/16

Women in pain

Women in painRecently I gave a talk to a group of female health professionals at the Inspiring Women in Medicine meeting entitled ‘Women in pain’. I spoke about the significant societal problem of women suffering persistent pain, which is one of the issues that comes under the banner of women’s health. Society needs women to be healthy and hence the problem of women in pain must be addressed. Fundamentally at present, society does not understand pain sufficiently to address this enormous public health matter effectively, which is where I believe we must begin: understanding pain.

If society understood pain….

  • individuals would know what to do and think in order to orientate themselves towards getting better
  • it would not be feared; instead the focus would be on overcoming pain
  • healthcare would deliver the right messages early on so that the right actions are informed by correct beliefs about pain
  • the right treatment appraoches would be employed from the outset
  • there would not be the same level of suffering — the figures say: 100 milliion Americans suffer persistent pain; 20% of the population; 1:5 children

Chronic pain is a huge global health burden that costs both individuals and society enormously in terms of finances and suffering. Of course, this pervades out into family and social networks and hence those around the individual can also be suffering through their on-going provision of care. Pain is a strain on society, literally. If it were understood, this can change.

Women in painWomen are reported to suffer more pain and visit their doctor more often about pain than men. Females are more likely to suffer functional pain syndromes. There are still many people, including healthcare professionals, who do not know what functional pain syndromes are or have insight into the basic biology that emerges as a range of painful problems that are very common. They include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), migraine and headache, back pain, fibromyalgia, pelvic pain (e.g. vulvodynia, painful bladder syndrome, dysmennorhoea) and temporomadibular dysfunction. Other regular features include anxiety, depression, a history of early life events (and later in life when a challenging situation brings about pain and suffering), perfectionism, a person who is very hard on themselves and hypermobility.

This being the case, one would expect that research into how females experience pain and why they feel more pain would be stacking up. Unfortunately this is not the case with most research done in males and male rats. Clearly that has to change alongside the overall attitudes to women in pain.

Women in painRecently the press ran with stories about how women in pain receive different care and approaches to men. Women waited longer for treatment, were less likely to receive opiates for pain (opiates are effective for acute pain — there are big issues with the use of opiates for chronic pain) and were deemed to be more emotional and hence somehow their pain was different in the sense of how it should be treated. Of course this is wrong on every level. Each person has a unique pain experience that is flavoured by a perception of threat within a certain context and enviornment, based on prior experience and beliefs of that person. Therefore, each person needs to be addressed as such and treated according to this principle, man or woman.

There arWomen in paine some ideas as to why men and women should experience pain differently. The most obvious is that of gender biology based primarily around hormones and the menstrual cycle. In particular there maybe an important time at the onset of menarche when sensitisation could emerge in some individuals, thereby priming them for future events such as injuries, viruses and illnesses when the systems that protect us (immune, nervous, sensorimotor, autonomic, endocrine — they work together as opposed to being in isolation) are active in the face of a perceived threat and increasingly vigorously. What the person lives are the symptoms of thee systems working including fever, pain, altered perceptions of the world, altered thinking and emotions. It can sound like these are all separate ‘reactions’ when in fact they are part of an on-going cyclical process: we think, perceive and act as a unified lived experience.

Another observation relates to empathy and how women maybe more empathetic for the purposes of caring for their children. A truly empathetic person is a caring person yet they must be careful and skilled so as not to embody their own versions of observed others’ suffering. As an example, it is not uncommon for me to feel a pain in the same place that a patient is describing their pain to me. Understanding the mechanism, I can rationalise the feeling and it will pass as I actvely change my perception — this is likely the same mechanism that underpins the change from being in pain to not being in pain in all people. I know that others I have spoken to also have this experience, which one could argue is deeply helpful as a healthcare practitioner as we seek to understand the causes of the other person’s suffering.

A described emotion that often appears within conversations about pain, particularly women in pain, is that of guilt. The reasons for expressing guilt are based around the conflict between work, home, partner and children — trying to please all but rarely pleasing or looking after oneself. Being kind to self is important in the sense that being hard on oneself can be the cause of great suffering. This is common and will almost certainly be taking the woman closer to her biological protect line, the point at which threat is perceived and enacted as a pain experience. Learning how to foster the existing compassion towards oneself then, is a typical part of a comprehensive programme for getting better. With many whom I see displaying and admitting perfectionist traits, it is not a surprise that harsh inner dialogue results in repeated negative emotions. Strung together frequently, this forms the basis for chronic stress, which in turn is the means for a pro-inflammatory state, which emerges as aches and pains, troubled tummies, headaches, mood changes, sleep issues, fertility problems and more. The reason is simply that in the pro-inflammatory state, the body is in survive mode that is great when there is a real threat. However, most of the time there is no threat, it is just something we are thinking about that triggers the same response via a prediction taht one exists.

Now, there is nothing wrong in experiencing negative emotions. We need them as much as the others. It is really about the apporpiateness of the emotions: when we feel them, how long we feel them for, how often etc etc. If we consistently think that something bad will happen or ruminate on things that have happened rather than seeing things for what they really are in this moment, then this basic survival biology will keep going. This is where mindful practice is so beneficial, cultivating awareness of existing habits that allows for a reappraisal, a space to see things for what they are and gain insight into the causes of your own suffering and others, from which you can choose a new and healthy way onward. Clearly there is much more to say about mindfulness and its benefits, in particular in the face of mcuh exciting data from studies across the world.

Whilst this blog scratches the surface, it hopefully provides some food for thought. This is a significant public health issue that we can tackle by understanding pain and applying simple and sensible compassion-driven care, which will make a huge difference. Coaching the individual woman to coach herself in a direction that is toward her desired outcome is out role as we empower individuals and allow them to realise their sense of agency in getting better. There are simple measures such as movement, exercise and mindfulness that work in synergy to create a meaningful life to be engaging and enjoyed so that when challenges arrive, they are overcome and used as learning experiences. Science, compassion and sense are at the heart of the Pain Coach approach, one that we can all adopt to change for the better. Ourselves and our patients.

RS

The Pain Coach 1:1 Mentoring programme is for busy clinicians who wish to develop their working knowledge and to be effective in coaching people suffering chronic pain to lead meaningful and fulfilled lives. Contact us on the form below or call Jo for further information t. 07518 445493

 

 

 

21Sep/15

Vulvodynia

VulvodyniaVulvodynia is a painful condition, often exquisitely so, located in the vulva, which is the skin surrounding the vagina. Usually unexplained, this troubling condition can arise seemingly from nowhere, interfere with intimate relations and hence attempts to conceive. Vulvodynia is also known as a functional pain syndrome–these are painful problems that lack a pathology of note that explains the extent of the pain and include irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, TMJ dysfunction, migraine and pelvic pain. Functional pain syndromes are often concurrent with hypermobility, anxiety and depression, a further common character trait being perfectionism and a tendency for the person to be hard on themselves thereby creating a cycle of chronic stress.

The pain of vulvodynia is often very localised and triggered by direct contact. Naturally this occurs during sex and touch, but sometimes sitting position can bring on the pain. As with any sensitisation, there is a primary location of pain but there can also be a secondary area surrounding that is due to central nervous system (and other systems) involvement. Suspected vulvodynia or other pains in the pelvis should be assessed and examined by a gynaecologist as a first step before beginning treatment, and by a consultant who knows and understands both the condition and the impact — Miss Deborah Boyle at 132 Harley Street.

With vulvodynia often being part of an overall picture of sensitivity, it means that there is a common biological adaptation that is upstream of the range of seemingly different conditions (the functional pain syndromes). As soon as the individual understands that pain is not an accurate indicator if tissue damage, but rather a reflection of the perceived threat and prioritisation by the body-person, there is a realisation that the pain can change. Pain can change because perceptions can change as we take on board new information and consequently think and act differently, creating new habits. The new habits set the conditions for on-going and sustained change that includes overcoming pain.

We have limited attention and hence can only be aware of certain amount of stimuli in any given moment. If pain is consuming much or all of your attention and consciousness, then this is all that is happening in that moment, with all other possible experiences being disregarded–it is a matter of prioritisation. When the perception of threat is reduced by a constructive thought or action, the pain moves out of our attention span and we become aware of other thoughts, feelings and experiences. How we respond to pain is unique and learned through our lifetime right up until that point; all those bumps and bruises as a child, how our parents reacted, more serious injuries or illnesses and the messages we received from doctors, teachers and other ‘big people’, then through adult life, moulding our beliefs about ourselves, the world, health and pain each time we feel it. The sum of all this activity, most of which we are unaware of, sets up how you respond to the next ache, pain or injury, blended of course with genetics. It seems that some people are genetically set up to be more inflammatory, meaning that responses to injury are potentially more vigorous and go on for longer. Understanding this means that the right messages and treatment can be given, thereby appropriately addressing the injury or pain. One of the big problems is that this does not happen, and the explanations are structural and based upon the body tissues. This ignores the fact that we have body systems that protect and these systems have sampling mechanisms in the tissues and organs but largely exist elsewhere–e.g./ nervous system, autonomic nervous system, endocrine system, sensorimotor system, immune system. We have to go upstream as well as improve the health and mobility of the local tissues.

Going upstream is vital in overcoming vulvodynia, and this is where the Pain Coach Programme works–this is my part of the treatment programme. You may also choose to work with a women’s health physiotherapist who will work more locally. So what is the Pain Coach Programme?

The Pain Coach Programme is a a blend of the latest neuroscience of pain with a strengths based coaching approach to success. Understanding your pain and that you have the biology and strengths to overcome your pain is a vital start point. You have been successful in the past using these strengths, and you can do so again by drawing on these characteristics and using them to develop your health in terms of how you think and act. Overcoming pain is all about resuming a meaningful life, engaging with activities and people as you want to, in a way that allows you to flourish. The Pain Coach Programme provides you with the knowledge and skills that you need to in effect become your own coach, moment to moment making clear decisions that take you towards your vision of how you want to live. This alongside treatment and specific training to develop normal movement and a healthy body-mind. The skills you learn also help you to fully engage in life, whether this be at home, at work or at play.

If you suffer vulvodynia or other painful problems, call us now to start your programme: 07518 445493

20Jun/15

The problem of migraine

migraine by r. nial bradshaw (2012)

migraine by r. nial bradshaw (2012)

The problem of migraine is bigger than most people realise. In fact, the problem of chronic pain is bigger than most people realise, this being apparent as I purposely ask people I know and meet if they know what is the number one global health burden. It is chronic pain by the way, and migraine and headache sit in the top 10 along with back pain, neck pain and osteoarthritis. Depression is at number 2.

Migraine is sometimes referred to as a functional pain syndrome. Not everyone likes this term, myself included, yet it’s use does mean that we can consider migraine as one of a number of conditions that hurt and cause great suffering. These conditions have a common biology known as central sensitisation, meaning that the individual’s systems that protect are more likely to do so, resulting in persisting pain in many cases.

The other well known functional pain syndromes include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), temporomandibular disorder (or jaw pain, clicky jaw etc), pelvic pain, dysmennorhoea, vulvodynia, interstitial cystitis, chronic back pain and fibromyalgia. These are often co-morbid with anxiety, depression and hypermobility. As individuals, it is common to find perfectionist or obsessive traits that may be useful in certain arenas such as work, helping to achieve great success, yet in other areas of life cause problems. More women than men report these problems, although I am seeing increasing numbers of men who often describe groin pain as a starter but then we explore the history and discover one or more of the aforementioned list. A further frequent finding is difficulty conceiving, this primarily due to the body systems that protect being persistently fired up (by normal living and exposures as well as stressors), and whilst that person is in such a mode, having children is not on the body’s agenda whereas survival is.

As with most of the functional pains, the story highlights certain vulnerabilities that can increase the likelihood of persisting pain including genetics, epigenetics, early life stressors and prior infections/injuries. These factors sculpt the systems that protect as they learn how to respond as well as becoming increasingly vigilant. The combination therewith creates an individual who is more likely to respond to actual or potential threat with vigorous and prolonged action and behaviours. With anxiety in the mix, this person is then likely to over-worry, which in effect further raises the threat value and heighten the responses even more. And so it goes on.

Rarely are the conditions explained adequately to patients, and certainly knowledge of the link between the seemingly different problems has never been volunteered to me by a patient. Therein lies a problem that the individual is suffering one or more pains and other symptoms (e.g./ tiredness, poor concentration, disrupted sleep, lethargy, flu-like symptoms, brain fog), yet they have no understanding as to why, or how it comes on, or what they can and must do to change the situation and move forward. Explaining the condition(s), the links, what the patient needs to do and what we can do to help and support them over a period of time that we can estimate is a key start point.

Further to the common biology, we can observe in the clinic the posturing, movements, guarding, poor body sense, altered sensorimotor function and the overall manifestation of how that person is feeling through body language and the words they use. We can gather far more information about the person, the whole person, by talking to them, listening to them and their concerns. What is their lived experience? The structured interview does not allow for this conversation. Yes we need some specific questions, but creating an open environment gives the person a chance to talk, feel heard and validated. This sets the scene for specific training, techniques and strategies that need to be used throughout the day and the development of understanding, all of which are the knowledge and skill base that the patient needs to overcome their pain.

No matter how long you have had pain, it can and does change. We are designed to change, and this is happening all the time. We are on a continuum, and we can have a say in where we go. It is a challenge and requires dedication, motivation, resilience and practice, but with the right thinking, action and support, great things can be achieved. I am honoured to see this happen in the clinic every week as people overcome their pain and resume being who they think they should be.

If you are suffering or think that you could be suffering with functional pain syndromes, call me for a chat and we can decide what you need to do to start overcoming your pain: 07518 445493

Clinics in Harley Street, Chelsea and New Malden Diagnostic Centre

22Oct/14

Girls, stress and pain

I have seen a number of teenage girls over the past year who are affected by chronic pain. They are often referred because of recurring headaches or migraines but we discover that there is widespread sensitive at play. How does this happen? Why does it happen?

Headaches and migraines can be functional pains. When these pains are part of a picture of sensitivity, often accompanied by anxiety, there are often other problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, pelvic pain and jaw pain. Whilst these problems all appear to be different, they have a common biology. Typically I work with women aged between 30 and 55 who suffer these aches and pains, but increasingly this is an issue of the younger female. Having said that, when I explore the story of an adult, we often find reasons for sensitivity that begin in childhood. This priming sets the scene for later events.

As adults we face many challenges. We have body systems that are trigged by these challenges, especially if we think they are threatening to us. In particular the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is quite brilliant at preparing us to fight or run away, which is very useful…..if you are facing a wild animal. On a day to day basis, it is in fact useful for the ANS to kick in and create some feelings in the body that alert us to danger — the caveat being, nothing is dangerous until it is interpreted as so, and hence we need a construct of ‘danger’ and of the thing that is perceived to be dangerous. For example, a baby may not have the construct of a lion and hence sees this big, cuddly, moving….thingy…like my teddy (may not have a construct for any of these either!), and essentially detects no threat. As the baby detects no threat, he or she behaves in a way that may not threaten the lion and hence the lion may feel safe. Both feeling safe, they become friends. Perhaps — these things have happened apparently. Please do not try this at home, but hopefully you get the idea. Back to day to day….

In the modern world we often feel anxious. This is the body warning us that something is threatening. In many cases that I see, there is a strong reaction to banal events and non-threatening cues. Or if the cue is worthy of attention, the response is well out of proportion — e.g. utter panic and defensive thinking-behaviours. To what do we respond most frequently? Definitely not lions. Muggers? Gunmen? Earthquakes? Tidal waves? These are all inherently dangerous situations, that we simply do not often face. Sadly some people do have such encounters but the majority of us do not. The answer is our own thinking. The thoughts that are evoked — seemingly appearing form nowhere at times — are not the actual problem but instead the interpretation of the thought (metacognotion; our thinking about our thinking). The meaning that we give to a thought, often automatically, will determine the body response as our thoughts are embodied. And just to complicate things further in relation to thinking, there’s a world of difference between the experiencing-self and the memory-self. The former refers to what is happening right now, the latter to what we remember, or think we remember. In terms of pain, if our memory of a painful event concludes with a high level of pain, this will flavour the memory-self and we will report as such. The story, which is a snapshot within our lives, and how it turns out has a huge impact upon the subsequent memory of what happened.

The adult within an environment that becomes threatening, the workplace for example, can become very responsive to different cues that once were innocuous. Now they pose a potential danger and each time that happens and we respond with protective thinking and behaviours, the relationship becomes stronger — conditioning. There is no reason any this cannot be the same for younger people who are consistently within an environment and context that begins to pose a threat; a demanding school environment with high expectations plus the child’s own expectations and perfectionist traits. Place this context within a changing period of life and minimal time for rest and there is the risk of burn out or development of problems that involve many body systems. We cannot, no matter what age we are, continue to work at a level that is all about survival.

I focus on girls and women because females outnumber the males coming to the clinic. Many are perfectionist, many are hypermobile, many are anxious, many are in pain and many are suffering. This is a situation that needs addressing worldwide, and starts with understanding what is happening, why it is happens and how it happens. Over the past 10 years this understanding has evolved enormously, providing tangible ways forward. This does not mean that we need to change perfectionism, but rather recognise it and use it wisely; this does not mean that anxiety is abnormal, but rather recognise it as a normal emotion that motivates learning and action; this does not mean that feeling pain is a problem to fear, but rather know it can change when we take the right action; and it does not mean that we will not suffer, but rather accept that part of living involves suffering that we can overcome and move on.

We have created an incredible, fast moving world. The body does not work at such a pace. It needs time to refresh and renew so that we can think with clarity and perform to a high level, achieve and be successful. We are humans. We are a whole-person with no division between body and mind; instead one thinking, feeling, sensing, creating, moving and living entity responding to the experience of the now and to memory of what we think happened. Gaining control over this with understanding and awareness provides a route forward to wellbeing, no matter where the start point.

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If you are suffering with persisting pains — body pain, joint pain, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), headache, migraine, pelvic pain, jaw pain + feeling anxious, unwell, tired — call now and start moving forward 07518 445493 | Clinics in Harley Street, Chelsea and New Malden

06May/14

London Fibromyalgia Clinics | London FMS Clinics

London Fibromyalgia Clinics — I think differently about fibromyalgia, functional pain syndromes and chronic pain. Believing that there is a need to challenge the way these problems are addressed, I created a specialist clinic that draws upon neuroscience, philosophy and other disciplines to create innovative and effective ways for individuals to move forward in their lives.

Fibromyalgia is known as a functional pain syndrome, sharing a common biology with other problems such as migraine, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), pelvic pain, musculoskeletal pain and painful bladder syndrome. This common biology is an adaptation in the central nervous system called central sensitisation with changes in the excitability of the nervous system alongside on-going responses of the immune system. The way that the body systems and the brain adapt and learn means that it has become persistently protective, igniting painful and other responses to a range of normal cues and situations. The sensitivity results in on-going pain and general sickness responses (e.g./ aches and pains, tiredness, fatigue, appetite changes, mood changes, anxiety, loss of concentration, brain fog, altered body sense); the latter just like a feeling of the flu.

Stress often plays a role. Stress is a response to a perceived threat, the meaning of which we give to the situation as an individual. The physiology that follows is designed to protect us from wild animals — either to run away or fight. Whilst this is useful when danger presents itself and in the short-term, if these responses continue, they impact upon the immune system, switch off the digestive system and reproductive system (neither eating or digesting a meal are useful in the face of danger; reproduction is not useful in the face of danger — resulting in a sensitive and/or sluggish gut, and fertility problems), prepare the motor system and mobilise energy in preparation for flight or fight.

It is a combination of genetics and experience that results in the condition. Our genes are moulded by these experiences and to what we are exposed: stress, injury, pathology. Protection is triggered but not turned off, the responses continuing as if there is a problem, even when it is resolved. These on-going responses then create further changes, for example chronic inflammation, and a continued loop that maintains the condition. That is until the circumstances are changed and the conditions created to move out of the loop and onto a route of wellbeing.

Believing that pain can and does change via neuroplasticity, I create bespoke treatment and training programmes for individuals who visit the clinic from all over the UK. The programmes ensure that you fully understand the problems and comprehensively target the biological mechanisms addressing the physical, cognitive and emotional dimensions. I help you to develop the knowledge and skills that you need to move forward in your life with a range of proactive strategies, techniques and treatments grounded in neuroscience.

Call now for more information or to book an appointment: 07518 445493

14Jan/14

Are you turned on?

At the risk of sounding ambiguous, many people are turned on. In particular, city dwellers and workers who are being hit with innumerable stimuli, bombarding the senses, triggering on-going responses by the brain, the mind and the body. Whether it be the noise of the traffic, the lights at night, the phantom vibrations of the phone, pollution or close-quarter travel on the train, outputs are being generated by the nervous system, the immune system and the endocrine system that are experienced as thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, some being pleasant, others not so.

Once a chronic state of arousal has been reached, the on-going energy demands can eventually result in burn-out or a gradual state of declining physical and mental health — the two being inextricably linked.

How does this manifest?

The all-too common conditions that we see include general body-wide muscular aches and pains, headaches and migraines, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), anxiety, indigestion, pelvic pain, fertility issues. The thread that ties these seemingly unrelated problems is stress. Stress however, is a physiological response to a situation that is perceived to be threatening. Two people can give entirely different meanings to a particular scenario, thereby having diverse experiences — it is all about an individual’s perception. Our perception is based upon beliefs about the world, sculpted over the years by exposure and influences.

The biological response to threat involves the autonomic nervous system and the motor system at least, preparing to either flee from the danger or confront the situation. An incredible set of responses, they evolved from the need to deal with wild animals. Fortunately this does not happen too often these days, but there are plenty of potential threats including the thoughts that pass through our mind. The brain does not differentiate between a thought and actually being present. The response is similar and usually thinking about something unpleasant that may happen will lead to feelings of anxiety — tingling in the tummy, tension, increased pain.

If these systems are persistently triggered by stress, there is less opportunity for smooth digestion, conception, healing and clarity. Being chronically turned on hence results in digestive issues, sensitivity of the bowel (bloating, pain etc), difficulty conceiving (thoughts of sex and conceiving are not going to be high on the brain’s agenda if there is a constant perception of danger) and pain that results from gradual changes in the tissues. In fact, every body system is impacted upon by the chemicals released during an on-going stress response. And not in a good way. Performance is affected, mood varies, sleep is disrupted, concentration is poor, catastrophising becomes rife and negative thinking about life predominates.

How do we turn off?

Relaxation or having the ability to switch off is often a skill that requires learning and practice. Going to the gym, having a cigarette or a coffee is not turning off. These are all stimulating a system that is already fraught. It is the calming, restorative, digestive and healing mechanisms that need to be fortified.

Promoting calm in a habitual way across the day is a potent way of re-programming the right responses for the right scenarios. Checking in on the body and thought processes, attending to the present moment rather than automatically drifting into the past or future, avoiding stimulation (e.g./ electronic screens, coffee, cigarettes, sugary foods and drink, certain reading material), mindful practice, breathing techniques and cultivating focused attention are all ways in which we can build our positive bank account in terms of energy and feeling good. Creating good habits. Exercise although stimulating, and certainly in a gym with bright lights and loud music, should form part of a routine for the overall healthy benefits. It is the best wonder drug that we know of and it is free.

Changing behaviours is difficult but it is achievable with the right programme that addresses both body and mind. Cultivating a routine around sleep, movement, diet, exercise, mindfulness, work and family will groove a healthy, resilient, positive and happy path forward. Turn off.

12Dec/13

Persisting pain and chronic stress — how much do they cost your business?

Persisting pain and chronic stress –> 20% of people suffer chronic pain according to recent figures. The number who describe feeling stressed is also high. In many cases, those who are in persisting pain will also feel stress, and those who are chronically stressed will describe on-going aches and pains. Biologically there are links between pain and stress explaining the ‘bed-fellow’ relationship, often involving inflammation.

From a business perspective, if you have a workforce it is likely that there will be a number of people suffering pain and stress. This undoubtedly will affect performance with financial consequences for the business. One of the biggest influences upon performance is the level of happiness that an individual experiences at work.

Stress and thinking

Feelings of stress result from our perception of threat. This is individual and depends upon the meaning that we ascribe to the situation that can be real and in front of us, or to a thought. The bodily sensations associated with stress are well known: tension, increased heart rate, sweatiness, ‘butterflies in the tummy’ (this is actually changing blood flow through the gut) — all are preparation for a fight or to escape from a physical threat; a wild animal.

See Robert Sapolsky talking about stress here

Most of the time we feel stress because of what we are thinking about; the brain not differentiating between a thought and actually being in the situation in terms of the reactions and responses that it initiates. These are of course natural and normal responses if there is a genuine threat. However, if we are consistently kick-starting protective measures when there is no actual threat present, the system becomes increasingly efficient and vigilant, firing off even in innocuous situations. In other words, the body protects itself when it does not need to.

Chemistry

Similar to all experiences there is a chemical basis to stress that manifests as our ‘reality’. In the short-term, the feelings of stress motivate action to deal with the stressor and thereby restore balance, or homeostasis. If the system continues to be provoked, in essence a chronic stress, these chemicals will persist in preparing the body for action, shutting down the gut (or clearing it out), similarly the bladder and reproduction (because there is not much point thinking about sex when you are being chased by a tiger) — and now consider the seeming rise in issues around fertility. The continued release of these chemicals in response to thinking and perceiving threat drives increased muscular activity that begins to hurt (chronic back pain, neck pain, pelvic pain etc), uses much energy that becomes depleted (chronic fatigue), suppresses the immune system (regular infections, poor healing, on-going pain and sensitivity — especially females) and impacts the endocrine system (dysmenorrhoea, anxiety).

Functional pain syndromes & Women in Pain

Many of the common yet significantly troubling conditions are underpinned and heavily influenced by the chemical balance. Chronic stress cultivates inflammation that is normally in delicate balance. Inflammation affects all body systems, sensitising the controlling nervous system that manifests as a painful syndrome: irritable bowel syndrome, pelvic pain, migraine, headache, chronic back pain, TMJ dysfunction, fibromyalgia and bladder dysfunction (recurring infections — or are they? — interstitial cystitis); often accompanied by anxiety and depression. Interestingly there is good evidence that depression has an inflammatory basis.

At work

We can only attend to one activity well at any given moment. Multi-tasking is an illusion — this is just doing many things badly. To maintain our focus and attention requires discipline. When the mind wanders, which it does, we lose focus and attention. If we do not have the ability to control the meanderings and we are taken to places that are troubling through rumination, the body always responds as if we are actually in that place. To become skilled at recognising this as a process and to be able to maintain awareness of the present moment is potent for both health and productivity.

Focused attention training or mindfulness training allows us to become aware of the wandering mind and recognise that the body is responding to thoughts of the past or the creation of a future. Of course neither of these actually exist, they are tapes being played by the brain. They do feel real.

Simple techniques that can be learned and practiced, anchor us to the present moment, disarming the thought. It is just a thought. This does not mean that we stop thinking, and this is impossible as thousands pass through the mind each day. Rather, we can decide which thoughts need attention and those that can be let go as they offer nothing but discomfort. On living out a thought, there is always a physical and emotional response. We become very good at letting this happen automatically, habitually, the so-called autopilot. Creating awareness around this delivers control and clarity that leads to clarity.

And pain

Pain is meant to grab our attention so that we take action. It is a great motivator and this is a vital device for survival. When pain persists beyond a useful time, the adaptations within the body systems and the behaviours we adopt become part of a cycle that becomes increasingly difficult to break. Yet change is always possible with the right understanding of pain and strategies to target the biological mechanisms of pain and those of the influences upon the sensation of pain: stress, fatigue, emotional state, physical activity.

Here’s a great video about pain

Certainly, when pain is the running mode, it directs attention to the body area deemed to require protection. In brief, pain is part of a protective response to a perceived threat, similar to a stress response that equally directs our attention towards something assessed to be dangerous — but it does not have to be actually dangerous for the same set of responses. The body (tissues) is where the pain emerges, yet we require a brain and the densely interconnected highways of communication  between neurones, the brain cells, for the creation of the sensation.

Whilst working the focus needs to be on the task in hand. Pain certainly interrupts this focus, taking up mental resources as the attention both drifts and dwells upon the body part being protected.

Stress and pain

The two are inextricably linked in many ways. To tackle one needs consideration of the other in both mechanism and the drivers that maintain the responses to the perceived threat — recalling that pain and stress are both reactions to the perception that danger exists.

When an individual experiences stress at work it can be due to a feeling of being undervalued or insufficiently challenged. There are many other reasons.

Approaching the problem at work — a brief overview

Much has been written about strategies that the workplace can use to cultivate a positive environment at work. If the employees are valued, have a sense of purpose and support, clearly this will feed into the business. On the other hand, a disconnected and stressed workforce will under-perform within a climate of resentment.

On an individual basis, learning strategies that deal with stress can make an enormous difference. Building resilience and developing positive psychology skills certainly enhances performance at work, cultivating satisfaction and self-esteem.

A practice that has a profound and potent effect upon stress is mindfulness. Becoming skilled at being present by focusing upon breathing disarms the thinking that pulls us into the past or creates a future. The benefits of mindful practice include improved physical health, clarity of thought and enhanced performance. Neuroscientists are now looking at the mechanisms that underpin mindfulness so that we can optimise the effects.

Movement is vital for our health. A work environment should encourage regular movement and permit exercise at lunchtime. Eating at the desk is simply unhealthy, especially when you are concentrating on something other that the food. Recall that the digestive system turns off in stressful situations, hence why so many people describe varying degrees of irritability in their gut.

Summary

Individuals suffering stress and chronic pain will be unable to fully focus upon their work. Biologically, attention will not be upon the work for sufficient periods to perform.

A supportive workplace using a range of simple strategies that include supporting those in need, allowing gradual return to work when employees have been off and looking at ways of enhancing performance by cultivating a positive environment with the basics — for example, allowing movement opportunities, healthy snacks and water.

On an individual basis we can tackle pain and stress in a number of ways that should include exercise, movement at work and mindful strategies.

With both the individual and the workplace communicating well and taking responsibility, we can cultivate positive environments for working and performance.

10Dec/13

Uncomfortably numb

Feeling numb can mean that the self has lost its physical presence, or in an emotional sense, feelings have become blunted. These are both different constructs of loss for which we are compelled to seek an answer, often causing great angst. To step out of the normal sense of self is profound, difficult to define and causes suffering, whereby one has lost his or her role.

Physical numbness, if we can say this, will usually be described in terms of a body region feeling different. Altered body sense is a common finding in persisting pain states and in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In extreme situations, an out of body experience can be described where the person views themselves from an outsider’s perspective, in the third person. Often though, one refers to numbness as an area with reduced or no sensation. This can be objective such as when a stimulus (eg/ a pin prick; a light brush) is applied to the body surface and the sensation is lacking; or subjective when an area is felt to be numb yet a stimulus can be felt normally.

Although numbness in the the body is not painful per se, it is often tarnished with an aversive element that is described as unpleasant. This seems to be a particular issue in the extremities; conditions that involve nerves such as Morton’s neuroma. The mismatch between what is physically present and can be seen yet not felt, is difficult to understand and compute until the construct is explained.

An explanation: the body is felt via its physical presence in space, interacting with the immediate environment, yet is ‘constructed’ by networks of neurons in the brain. These neurons or brain regions are integrated, working like superhighways in many cases, thereby enhancing certain experiences or responses. At any given moment, the feelings that we feel and the physical sensations that we experience are a set of responses that the brain judges to be meaningful and biologically useful. The precision with which we sense our physical self and move is determined by accurate brain (cortical) representations or maps of the body. These maps are genetically determined yet moulded with experience, for example the way the hand representation changes in a violinist. Similarly, when pain persists we know that the maps change and thereby contribute to the altered body sense that is frequently described. It is worth noting that patients can be reluctant to charge their altered body experiences for fear of disbelief when in fact they are a vital part of the picture.

Emotional numbness is consistent with physical numbness in the sense of a stunted experience, whereby the expected or normal feeling in response to a situation fails to emerge. Rather, something else happens thereby creating a mismatch between the expected feeling and that which occurs. This experience manifests as a negative and is not discriminatory, affecting a range of emotional responses. A sense of detachment from the world often accompanies the lack of feeling. One could argue that this is a form of protection against feelings of vulnerability where we can also use our physical body, our armour, to shield us from the threat. Of course the threat is down to our own perception of a situation, another example of a brain construct. A situation is a situation but we provide the meaning based upon our own belief system and respond accordingly, often automatically.

Cultivating a normal sense of self is, in my view, the primary aim of rehabilitation and this encompasses both the physical and emotional dimensions. Both are influenced by thoughts, the cognitive dimension, that emerge from our belief system that drives behaviours. Hence, a programme design must reflect the interaction as it presents in the individual, most of the clues residing in the patient’s narrative that we must attend to in great detail. Validating the story and creating meaning is the first step towards a normal sense of self, to be enhanced with specific sensorimotor training and cognitive techniques such as mindfulness based stress reduction and mindfulness per se.

Wider thinking and practice is desperately required in tackling the problem of persisting pain. One of many responses to threat, pain is part of the way in which we protect ourselves along with changes in movement and other drivers to create the conditions for recovery. Sadly, many people ignore or miss these cues in the early stages through being fed inaccurate information about pain and injury. Many common ailments that can become highly impacting and distressing such as irritable bowel syndrome, headaches, pelvic pain, widespread musculoskeletal pain, anxiety, fertility issues and low mood, gradually creep up on us as the sensitivity builds over a period of time; the slow-burners. An answer to these problems that are typically underpinned by central sensitisation and altered immune-endocrine functioning, is to create awareness and habits that do not continually provoke ‘fright or flight’ responses that essentially shut down many systems in readiness for the wild animal that is not present. Actually, the wild animal is the emotional brain that when untamed can and does create havoc through the body, affecting every system.

The ever-evolving science and consequent understanding now puts us in a great position to trigger change. Initially discussing numbness, I have purposely drifted toward a more comprehensive view looking down on the complexity of the problems that we are creating in modern existence, manifesting as common functional pains. As much as we are knowing more and more about these conditions, we are actually describing the workings of the different body systems in response to a perceived threat that may or may not exist. This is always multi-system: nervous, immune, endocrine etc. and all must be considered when we are thinking about a pain response. But let’s not just think about pain as this is one aspect of the problem, one part of the emergent experience for the individual — think movement, think language, think body language, think ‘how can we reduce the threat’ for this individual so as to change their experience of their body responses. It is at this point that we see a shift and it is possible in all of us. We are designed to change and grow and develop, so let’s create the conditions for that change physically, cognitively and emotionally.

13Aug/13

Endometriosis & Melatonin | Women and Pain Series

Chronic pelvic pain is a troubling condition for many women. The reason for pelvic pain varies but certainly includes endometriosis where the lesions impact upon nerve health and function (see here) with consequential sensitisation. The purported mechanisms of pain include inflammatory pain and neuropathic pain with subsequent central sensitisation that underpins the persistance and variance often described.

Pain is an output, a response to the brain’s perception of what is happening in the body. The sensation of pain emerges from that part of the body deemed in need of protection. The pain itself is modulated by a range of factors including stress, fatigue, anxiety and the environment. The actual feeling of pain is the end result of the brain’s analysis of what is going on ‘now’ on the basis of what it already knows and has learned. Hence, prior experience can flavour the pain. Changes in the spinal cord and higher centres can amplify danger signals, modulate normal signals (begin as normal and communicate with nociceptors, therefore the brain receives a danger signal despite the initiating impulse being one of touch; i.e./ allodynia) and are responsible for the varying patterns of pain such as when a treatment helps on one occasion yet seemingly worsens the pain on a subsequent occasion.

Alongside the painful experience there are other body and brain responses to the perceived threat. Altered control of movement that includes guarding and protective posturing that leads to patterns of on-going chronic tension. In the case of pelvic pain this emerges around the pelvic girdle, in the abdomen and in the spinal muscles and often across the body. It is not unusual to find that there are many tender and tight areas when the body has been protected for some time, demonstrating a more widespread pattern. Often there is sensitivity expressed via other body systems , for example the gastrointestinal system in IBS, headaches, migraine and recurring bladder infections to name but a few. General health can often be impacted upon, with levels of activity diminishing alongside a fear of moving and socialising (a gradual withdrawal from being out with friends and family). This typically leads to a downward spiral affecting mood, self-esteem and manifesting with anxiety in many situations. It is really a ‘hyper-protective’ state physically and mentally where many cues become threatening and hence we protect, sometimes consciously by making choices and frequently automatically or habitually. Breaking this pattern however, is entirely possible.

We are fundamentally designed to change, evolve and grow. When we set the right conditions physically and mentally (and it has to be both), then we can move forward and change our outlook and experience. I know that an individual is going to progress when they start changing their language, metaphor use and at the same time their appearance changes via posture, facial expression and general demeanour. The spark returns.

The optimal approach requires that we consider all the dimensions of pain: physical, cognitive and emotional. This must be integrated and a programme created to meet the unique needs of the person. Concomitant with a range of strategies and training techniques to retrain normal movement, tension patterns, ease pain, tackle stress and anxiety etc, medication can play a role. The efficacy of pain medication is varied and often there are side-effects to consider. A recent study looked at the use of melatonin for endometriosis-associated pain with some very interesting results.

The commentary of Timothy Ness in Pain 154 (2013) 775 summarises the study below: ‘The article by Schwertner et al..demonstrated efficacy of the hormone, melatonin, in the treatment of endometriosis-associated pain…..one of the few medications which have proven useful in the treatment of endometriosis-associated pelvic pain but it is also notable as an example of the back-and-forth translational process associated with preclinical models of pain/analgesia and the clinical demonstration of treatment efficacy.’ And, ‘In this particular example the information flow went in both directions from humans to non-humans and then back again’. He refers to the fact that the data produced in rats was also found in humans. Many studies use rodents as subjects with obvious limitations in terms of extrapolating data for humans.

Pain. 2013 Jun;154(6):874-81. doi: 10.1016/j.pain.2013.02.025. Epub 2013 Mar 5.

Efficacy of melatonin in the treatment of endometriosis: a phase II, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.

Schwertner A, Conceição Dos Santos CC, Costa GD, Deitos A, de Souza A, de Souza IC, Torres IL, da Cunha Filho JS, Caumo W.

Source

Laboratory of Pain & Neuromodulation at Hospital de Clínicas de Porto Alegre (HCPA)/Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Abstract

Endometriosis-associated chronic pelvic pain (EACPP) presents with an intense inflammatory reaction. Melatonin has emerged as an important analgesic, antioxidant, and antiinflammatory agent. This trial investigates the effects of melatonin compared with a placebo on EACPP, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) level, and sleep quality. Forty females, aged 18 to 45 years, were randomized into the placebo (n = 20) or melatonin (10 mg) (n = 20) treatment groups for a period of 8 weeks. There was a significant interaction (time vs group) regarding the main outcomes of the pain scores as indexed by the visual analogue scale on daily pain, dysmenorrhea, dysuria, and dyschezia (analysis of variance, P < 0.01 for all analyses). Post hoc analysis showed that compared with placebo, the treatment reduced daily pain scores by 39.80% (95% confidence interval [CI] 12.88-43.01%) and dysmenorrhea by 38.01% (95% CI 15.96-49.15%). Melatonin improved sleep quality, reduced the risk of using an analgesic by 80%, and reduced BNDF levels independently of its effect on pain. This study provides additional evidence regarding the analgesic effects of melatonin on EACPP and melatonin’s ability to improve sleep quality. Additionally, the study revealed that melatonin modulates the secretion of BDNF and pain through distinct mechanisms.

For further information about our proactive treatment, training and coaching programmes for chronic pain and injury, or to book an appointment please call us on 07932 689081 | Women in Pain Clinic in Harley Street

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J Pain Symptom Manage. 2012 Nov 27. 

Analgesic and Sedative Effects of Melatonin in Temporomandibular Disorders: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Parallel-Group, Placebo-Controlled Study.

Vidor LP, Torres IL, de Souza IC, Fregni F, Caumo W.

Source

Postgraduate Program in Medical Sciences, Faculty of Medicine, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Abstract

CONTEXT:

The association between myofascial temporomandibular disorder (TMD) and nonrestorative sleep supports the investigation of therapies that can modulate the sleep/wake cycle. In this context, melatonin becomes an attractive treatment option for myofascial TMD pain.

OBJECTIVES:

To investigate the effects of melatonin on pain (primary aim) and sleep (secondary aim) as compared with placebo in a double-blind, randomized, parallel-group trial.

METHODS:

Thirty-two females, aged 20-40 years, with myofascial TMD pain were randomized into placebo or melatonin (5mg) treatment groups for a period of four weeks.

RESULTS:

There was a significant interaction (time vs. group) for the main outcomes of pain scores as indexed by the visual analogue scale and pressure pain threshold (analysis of variance; P<0.05 for these analyses). Post hoc analysis showed that the treatment reduced pain scores by -44% (95% CI -57%, -26%) compared with placebo, and it also increased the pressure pain threshold by 39% (95% CI 14%, 54%). The use of analgesic doses significantly decreased with time (P<0.01). The daily analgesic doses decreased by -66% (95% CI -94%, -41%) when comparing the two groups. Additionally, melatonin improved sleep quality, but its effect on pain was independent of the effect on sleep quality.

CONCLUSION:

This study provides additional evidence supporting the analgesic effects of melatonin on pain scores and analgesic consumption in patients with mild-to-moderate chronic myofascial TMD pain. Furthermore, melatonin improves sleep quality but its effect on pain appears to be independent of changes in sleep quality.

05Nov/12

Women and pain | Part 1

 

‘As many as 50 million American women live with one or more neglected and poorly understood chronic pain conditions’ 

Generally I see more female patients than male. This observation supports the view that chronic pain is more prevalent in women than in men for some conditions – see the International Association for the Study of Pain fact sheet here. There are some ideas as to why this may be, including the role of the sex hormones and psychosocial factors such as emotion, coping strategies and roles in life. Additionally, experimental studies have shown that women have lower pain thresholds (this is a physiological reading) and tolerance to a range of pain stimuli when compared to men although this does not clarify that women actually feel more pain – see here. Pain is a subjective experience of course, and modulated by many factors.

A campaign for women’s pain | Chronic pain in women (2010) report

It is not uncommon for a female patient to tell me about her back pain and continue the narrative towards other body areas that hurt and cause problems. This may include pelvic pain, migraine, headache, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic knee pain, widespread sensitivity and gynaecological problems (including dysmenorrhoea, endometriosis and difficulty conceiving). These seemingly varied conditions are typically looked after by a range of medical and surgical disciplines: gynaecology, neurology, rheumatology, gastroenterology and orthopaedics. More recent science and thinking has started to join the dots on these problems, offering new insight into the underpinning mechanisms and more importantly approaches that can affect all the conditions in a positive way. This is certainly my thinking on this hugely significant matter.

Reconceptualising pain

Undoubtedly pain is complex. This is particularly the case when pain persists, disrupting and impacting upon life. Reconceptualising pain according to modern neuroscience is making a real difference to how we think and treat pain – see this video. Briefly, thinking of pain as an output from the brain as a result of a complex interaction of circumstance, biology, thought, emotion and memory begins to give an insight into the workings of the brain and body. Pain is individual, it is in the ‘now’ but so coloured by the past and what it may mean to the individual. The context or situation in which the pain arises is so very important. We talk about pain from the brain but of course we really feel it in our physical bodies, but the location is where the brain is projecting the sensation – see this video.

Neuroscience has shown us that the danger signals from the body tissues are significantly modulated by the brain before the end output is experienced. Factors that influence the messages include attention, expectation and the circustance in which the individual finds herself. We have powerful mechanisms that can both facilitate and inhibit the flow of these signals and these reside within the brain and brain stem. For this reason we must consider the person’s situation, their expectations, hopes, goals, past experiences and current difficulties, and how these can affect their current pain.

Stress & emotion

Any hugely emotive issue within someone’s life can impact enormously upon pain and sensitivity. This can be the stress of a situation including caring for a relative, losing someone close, work related issues and divorce. The problem of conception certainly features in a number of cases that I see, causing stress and turmoil for both partners but clearly in different ways. Fertility receives a great deal of attention in the media and there are a many clinics offering treatment and therapies, in effect raising awareness and attention levels towards the problem. The pain caused by difficulties having children can manifest physically through the stress that is created by the situation. Thoughts, feeling and emotions are nerve impulses in the brain like any other and will trigger physical responses including tension. Stress physiology affects all body systems, for example the gastrointestinal system (e.g./ irritable bowel), nervous system (e.g. headaches, back pain) and the immune system (e.g. repeated infections).

Lifestyle

Lifestyle factors play a significant role in persisting pain. Modern technology and habits that we form easily may not be helpful when we have a sensitive nervous system. For example, sedentary work, the light from computer screens, pressures at work, limited exercise, poor diet, binge drinking and smoking to name but a few. All are toxic in some way as can be our own thinking about ourselves. When we have a thought, and we have thousands each day, and we pay attention, becoming absorbed in the process, the brain reacts as if we are actually in that situation. Consequently we have physical and emotional responses that can be repeated over and over when we dwell on the same thinking. This is rumination and is likely due to ‘hyper-connectivity’ between certain brain areas – see here. We can challenge this in several ways including by changing our thinking and using mindfulness, both of which will alter brain activity and dampen these responses. It does take practice but the benefits are attainable for everyone.

In summary, the underlying factors that must be addressed are individual and both physical and psychological. Pain is complex and personal, potentially affecting many different areas of life. How we live our lives, what we think and how we feel are all highly relevant in the problem of pain as borne out of sensible thinking and the neuroscience of pain. Understanding the pain, learning strategies to reduce the impact, receiving treatment that targets the underlying mechanisms, making healthy changes to lifestyle and developing good habits alongside the contemporary brain based therapies can make a huge difference and provide a route forwards.

For information on our ‘join the dots’ treatment programmes for chronic pain, contact us here or call 07932 689081