There are multiple factors that contribute to chronic back pain, many of which relate to its underlying cause. However, how we respond after the initial onset can mean the difference between a short episode and chronic pain. This response is referred to as the Cycle of Pain.
Most people who experience back pain report that the pain resolves itself within a few days to a few weeks, regardless of what they do, while for others it persists. When the pain does not resolve quickly, negative thoughts can emerge, thoughts like, “I’m damaged”, “I won’t/can’t do the things that I enjoy”, “I’ll never get better”, or “This must be serious!”
They may then decide that it would be best to ‘protect’ themselves from further ‘damage’ by restricting activities, an approach that works well for injuries such as broken bones and influenza but not for muscular back pain. So, they stop exercising and participating in activities that they enjoy.
The pain continues to worsen due to the drop in physical activity and increased stress, leading to more muscle tightness and more pain, further reinforcing the belief that something is damaged because the pain they are experiencing is increasing.
The increase in pain then leads to negative emotions such as sadness, discouragement, and frustration, and these emotions become an additional stressor, leading to a stress response, more muscle tightness – and more pain. The cycle continues, with more negative thoughts, more self-imposed restrictions, plummeting emotional outlook, more pain, and so on.
This is how something seemingly simple such as bending over to pick up a sock can eventually lead to chronic back pain. It wasn’t the initial event but the response to the event that prolonged the pain.
It’s important to understand the Cycle of Pain and to understand whether you may be caught in this cycle. It can be a tough, dark place, one that can be difficult to climb out of without knowledge of what is going on and knowing how to redirect out of this pattern.
Choosing a Cycle of Recovery
Once you recognize that you are in a cycle of pain, you can begin to take steps to reverse the cycle. Begin by considering the activities that you’ve either stopped doing, restricted or modified, and select an activity that you enjoy and find relatively easy. Then, take action by participating in that activity in some form. While moving, scan your body to identify areas of tightness. Take a deep breath, and as you exhale, release any tension or muscle tightness.
Know that muscles contract when your brain sends a signal to the muscle. Your brain can also deliberately send a signal to relax the muscle, and a diaphragmatic breath and body scan will assist the process.
When you begin to move again and relax your muscles, your muscles will function more effectively, the pain will decrease, and your thoughts and emotions will become more positive as you transition from a cycle of pain to a cycle of recovery.
Now that you understand how the cycle of pain can contribute to chronic back pain and the cycle of recovery can help to reverse it, you have a choice. Which do you choose?