Chronic pain is overwhelming. Those who experience ait often feel as though there is no relief. What causes such pain? It generally starts with some type of physical or emotional trauma.

Sometimes it’s a one-time event that creates damage, like a car accident that changes the body structure, damaging the connective tissue that holds the body together, or the soft tissue like muscles and ligaments, or the bones. Sometimes pain is caused by repetitive movements like texting or typing that, over time, damage tissue. In response, the immune system tries to correct the damage, bringing inflammation and causing pain. Most of us have experienced emotional pain…a “broken heart,” loss or betrayal felt in the heart, in one’s whole being, that we can still feel when thinking about it. Emotions are reflected in the body fascia, the body’s connecting tissues, changing the way we move, sometimes creating pain. Therapeutically, it helps to know where it all began, but sometimes the cause is not easily found. It may not become clear until the pattern is broken and deconstructed in the process of healing.

For everyone, the first line response to any physical trauma is redness, swelling and pain. Besides the physical responses related to tissue healing and increased blood flow to the area, there are also important psychological ones: lethargy; apathy; loss of appetite. Usually the body heals itself but sometimes the pain doesn’t go away. Pain is a message from the body. It screams. STOP! NOW! If we don’t stop, it screams louder and longer.

Chronic pain is what happens next. If the pain is an ongoing dull ache or pressure it’s likely to be coming from damage to the connective tissue, the muscles, bones, blood vessels, and/or the organs. Damage to nerve tissue is often felt as a burning, crawling, stabbing or shocking pain. Emotional pain affects the same parts of the brain as physical pain. The brain reacts in a similar manner to all pain, regardless of origin. With all chronic pain, the body’s warning system repeatedly sends signals that keep the body suffering by ramping up the inflammatory pathways. Chronic pain is not a symptom. It is a disease, a dis-ease.

Genetically, most people tend toward inflammation. This inflammation is turned on the self in autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. Inflammatory metabolic disorders like diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis and others create and aggravate pain. Certainly some people develop tendonitis or bursitis easily and repeatedly, or can’t get rid of their sciatica. This is because inflammation affects the whole body, and calming it requires a whole body approach.

Nutrition is the foundation of any pain management program. The consumption of an anti-inflammatory diet is crucial. Eat a rainbow. Eat live foods. Become a vegetarian, or a very aware omnivore. Some foods are specifically anti-inflammatory. Omega-3-rich fish, such as salmon, mackerel, and anchovies (or supplements containing EPA/DHA) can be helpful. Turmeric, oregano, garlic, green tea, blueberries, broccoli and ginger are natural anti-inflammatories, which contain flavonoids and polyphenols that limit free-radical production in the body. The best diet includes a wide variety of colorful fresh whole foods in as natural a state as possible. Those live foods help build a healthier body. A healthy body is NOT inflamed.

There are foods that can worsen specific problems. The consumption of sugar, several sugar substitutes, soft drinks, fried foods, trans fats, processed grains, most packaged and fast foods, even polyunsaturated fats like corn oil, safflower oil, soy oil, and sunflower oil may aggravate pain. Less well known irritants include corn, soy, citrus, occasionally eggs, or spices like pepper. Frequently, the pain of arthritis can be alleviated by avoiding solanaceae family foods (“nightshades”): tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant. Some people experience profound relief of soft tissue or joint pain when avoiding gluten or foods identified as allergens or sensitivities. Figuring out what we’re sensitive to may make the difference in efforts to reduce pain.

Toxicity contributes to pain patterns. Toxic build-up includes past exposure to prescription drugs, junk food, environmental pollutants, and many body care products, as well as use of chemically based cleaning supplies, even if we have since cleaned up our act. Alcohol, heavy metals like lead and mercury, and hydrocarbons on the freeway all contribute. Careful detoxification programs that help pain might include a therapeutic diet and supplements, an infrared sauna and massage.

Pain may worsen in response to psychological factors. Emotions like shame, guilt, and fear have been specifically linked to a high CRP (C-reactive protein), an inflammatory marker found in the blood. Stress is the biggest culprit, though its effects are not always initially apparent. Coping with chronic stress damages the resilience of the immune system, adrenals, and central nervous system, creating inflammation and pain. Stress management techniques from meditation to laughter yoga will often help provide relief.

Natural medicine and bodywork offer many possible treatments for pain. Acupuncture tops the list, followed closely by therapies that correct the structure and physical function. Massage, osteopathic cranial biodynamics, manipulation, Bowen Technique, and many other manual therapies can be helpful.

Homeopathy and flower remedies bring fundamental change. Homeopathic arnica can be taken after almost any physical trauma. Herbal medicine has excellent remedies for pain relief. Boswellia helps joints. St. John’s wort calms nerves. Olive Leaf can relieve diabetic peripheral neuropathy. Topical capsaicin (cayenne) eases joint pain. Crampbark helps muscle spasms (including menstrual cramps). Body awareness and posture can improve with modalities such as the Alexander Technique, yoga and/or Pilates.

Finally, please remember this simple suggestion. The next time you are injured, get appropriate treatment immediately. Sometimes what feels like a small trauma is actually a significant shock. Lethargy and apathy are part of the body’s response to being hurt. Ask for help to ease pain. You will feel better, no matter what kind of trauma you experienced, and be on the path to recovery.

Dr. Anne Mitchell (and The Life Center) is reachable in North Haven and West Hartford, 203-239-3400, or