What is it?
60 to 70% of people will have an episode of low back pain in their life. A high proportion of these people will experience chronic pain. An important component to recognize along with chronic pain is the cognitive processes that are involved with symptoms, pain, and outcomes. In fact, depression is commonly experienced with low back pain, and it can have a significant effect on the perception of pain and ability to function in everyday life. Those who demonstrate symptoms of fear, avoidance of movement or depression actually experience more pain in regards to their low back symptoms, and it can significantly affect recovery time. These psychological processes can lead to a type of heightened neurological sensitivity where the nervous system becomes overactive. In this sense, our nerves can send pain signals to the brain, even when we are not necessarily harming the tissues in our spine.
This is not to say that the pain isn’t real. However, it is not correlated with actual structural damage. This is commonly known as “Type III pain”, or neuropathic pain, and up to 35% of Americans have some component of this maladaptive pain. As pictured in the diagram above, when we experience an injury, we have acute pain or trauma. Secondarily, we react to it in some way from a psychological perspective. If we tend to become afraid of our pain, the nervous system can become overly heightened in an attempt to avoid fearful movements and behaviors. In essence, the brain has a top-down effect on our nervous system. The result is an increased perception of pain with compromised function. This exacerbates and perpetuates the cycle leading to disabling low back pain.
What can you do?
The first step to breaking the cycle of maladaptive chronic pain is to educate yourself:
How we cognitively approach our pain has an effect on the sensitivity in our nervous system. This is the mind-body connection, and it relates heavily to our perception of pain.
Pain does not necessarily equal damage or harm.
Focus on function and stay active. What are you able to do today that you were not able to do yesterday?
Perform relaxation techniques such as deep breathing/diaphragmatic breathing.
Keep a journal of what you are doing/how you feel when you experience more symptoms in your back. This may help you recognize maladaptive thought patterns.
Research has shown that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Physical Therapy can help reduce and even eliminate persistent chronic Low Back Pain.
For more information on maladaptive and chronic pain:
Watch this TED video for an explanation and example of maladaptive pain: http://ed.ted.com/on/Li50Ci7S
Read this article for an explanation and analogy of how pain works: http://www.physioactive.ca/what-is-pain-c-chan-gunn-md/