The Mind-Body Connection: When Pain Isn’t All in Your Head
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, one in four Americans may experience pain in any given month, and one in 10 say pain has lasted more than a year. The most common complaints are lower back pain, migraine/severe headaches and joint pain (most commonly the knee).
Additionally, the National Institutes of Health reports that more than 25 million adults (11.2 percent) had pain every day for the previous three months and that close to 40 million adults (17.6 percent) encounter severe pain.
Norin Ukani, a Texas Center for Joint Replacement certified family nurse practitioner who focuses on pain management and pre- and post-surgical care, says that chronic pain has become a significant national problem.
“When so many people are living with pain and it affects their quality of life, I feel like it’s time to acknowledge that there’s something we’re missing,” she says. “Pain is an unpleasant sensory experience of both the mind and body, and perception of pain can be subjective. Each person’s experience and ability to deal with it is different. The stimuli are different, but we also have to consider his or her emotional and mental state, background and pain tolerance. We’re talking about overall health; complete mental, social and physical well-being.”
The mind-body connection or link between emotional and physical pain is a complicated one and likely differs from person to person, but Ukani says the connection is very real.
“It’s a vicious cycle because we see people who are ‘emotionally unsatisfied’ and it affects their whole body, leading to symptoms like fatigue, body aches, headaches, sleep problems, light-headedness, gastrointestinal issues and so on,” she says. “On the other hand, when arthritis patients have pain it’s hard to do things, which leads to fatigue and weight gain so when they do try to move, it hurts. Everything is connected.
“Pain patients suffer a lot, but often they don’t know what to do, especially those with conditions like fibromyalgia,” she explains. “I make sure to ask about their whole history, not just their pain. We talk about lifestyle and family history, so I get an overall picture and then start working on a plan. Once the patient understands the plan thoroughly, we work together to break the cycle.”
After spending several years working in a pain clinic, Ukani says she began to see trends and common threads among her patients. Many were on high doses of major pain medications, from which she worked to slowly wean them.
“I can’t prescribe medications, but I work with patients to guide lifestyle modification, which can take a full year to really make a difference,” she says. “Around 50 to 60 percent of patients that I worked with followed their plans and had good outcomes. A lot revolves around the diet, as new research shows that food contributes to inflammation of the body and affects our joints, muscles, and gastrointestinal systems. An anti-inflammatory diet helps eliminate things like sugar, artificial sweeteners, caffeine and fast food while adding healthy foods like salmon, berries and healthy greens.”
Ukani explains that a big part of a patient’s success will come when he or she combines a healthy diet with exercise. A sedentary lifestyle leads to weight gain, which generates other health problems, including cancer. When we spend our lives on the sidelines, we welcome other diseases and limit our quality of life. This allows issues like depression and anxiety to creep in, which can lead to more pain, and that can cause a never-ending cycle of emotional and physical pain, feeding off each other.
Ukani says one former patient experiencing depression was taking medication for anxiety.
“I started getting him physically active by working in the garden, which is something he used to love, even just 10 minutes a day,” she explains. “Now he’s doing it every day for an hour, is much happier and has stopped all anxiety medications. Life can be confusing and complex, but now he has a simple plan and holds himself accountable.”
Depression and anxiety on top of pain can make a person turn inward and stop seeking help, but Ukani says socialization with friends and family are crucial to a person’s mental and physical well-being.
“There are so many things you can try, like physical therapy, yoga, meditation, biofeedback, reflexology, massage therapy, support groups and even Zumba, which is so good for pain,” Ukani adds. “You may not want to do it, but when you start to open up and share your experiences with others, it creates insight.”
Pain clinics like Texas Health Pain Relief & Wellness Center at Texas Health Plano work with patients to look at all the issues, not just the physical pain.
“Pain is natural, but the Pain Center teaches patients how to deal with problems and stresses in life by changing their perception,” Ukani says. “If I wake up and think, ‘I’m in pain,’ then I’m not okay, and I don’t know how the day will go. We’ve got to get our bodies, minds, actions and energies working in a positive direction. Treating patients holistically is initially time-consuming, but it works and allows the patient to eventually take charge of his or her own health. We can’t make anyone implement positive changes, but if they are ready for it, we’re here to listen, support and provide guidance.”
For more information on the Texas Health Pain Relief & Wellness Center at Texas Health Plano, visit TexasHealthPainRelief.com or call 972-981-4090 to schedule an appointment. For a referral to a pain management physician, call 1-877-THR-WELL (1-877-9355).