15 Jan Pain ‘n’ Loops
You probably already know this, but that big bright thing in the sky (“the sun”, for those that don’t venture out too often) blasts its happy golden rays out into our solar system every minute of every single day.
These solar rays that are put out are secretly loaded with deadly killing rays known as ultraviolet radiation. If we didn’t have our precious Ozone layer protecting us from them, we would practically be dead by now. And, well, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Lucky for us however, our Ozone is doing its job and protecting us quite well enough so you can read about it. Thank you Ozone.
But, no matter how deadly our sun is, there’s no denying that it is one bright and overruling beast controlling so much on this planet from providing food for plants, vitamin D for us, and making each sunny summers day a day worth hitting the beach.
Whilst the strong and deadly rays of sunshine beam throughout our solar system and well beyond, it makes you think – what has it been doing to our tiny and insignificant planet for the past 4.5 billion years or so?
Well, one thing it has been doing is heating up the Earth thanks to our rich carbon dioxide (CO2) content riddled throughout the atmosphere that is holding the heat in (aka. the greenhouse effect).
You see, if we didn’t have the right amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, our Earth would be a frozen wasteland. Much like it was millions and millions of years ago.
You can thank the CO2 and methane build-up from volcanoes to put an end to Snowball Earth, later. For now, let’s think about the surviving 5% of ice that is covering our planet’s surface.
So, this ice that you’re now thinking about does a fantastic job at reflecting the sun’s golden rays back out into the dark void of space. This helps our little blue planet to stay cooler than what it could be.
The greedy dark and hungry-for-sun water that covers around 70% of Earth on the other hand, is a whole other story.
You see, this water likes to eat up the sun like it’s been fasting for a week and a half.
And, the more sun it consumes, the hotter the water gets. The hotter the water gets, the more ice that melts. And the more ice that melts, leaves us with more water to absorb and heat up with.
This, my friends, is known as a positive feedback loop. It is an intense and endless cycle.
We can see these exact positive feedback loops in humans, too.
Take that small bit of pain you experience in your lower back or neck after sleeping in an awkward position the night before.
The pain you feel as you slump at your desk for the next 9 hours, causes your body to tighten up in those areas. As your body tightens up, the more pain you experience.
Another intense, endless cycle.
So, you may be thinking, if there’s a positive feedback loop, there has got to be a negative one, right?
And there is. For a vicious cycle of a positive feedback loop to stop, its brother usually has to show up to help put this occurrence back into its harmonious state.
The negative feedback loop.
Whilst the name doesn’t do it justice, this one is in fact the nicer of the two.
This guy helps put things back to normal. Or, in nerdier speak, homeostasis.
For example, say you’re out running. While you’re running, your body temperature is rising. Once your body reaches a certain point, you start to perspire.
Because of this perspiration, your body temperature levels out and does not rise to the point of you exploding into a molten fireball.
Quite a handy feedback loop, if you ask me.
Now, we spoke about tuning chemicals last week and how they can affect us and lower our pain threshold causing us to experience things like an increase in heart rate, sensitivity in the area surrounding the damage, and inflammation for the healing process.
In “normal” situations, positive feedback loops show up to begin the pain signals being sent out and for the healing process to start. After this, negative feedback loops take over and put an end to the vicious cycle of a positive feedback loop. Again, in “normal” situations.
Take this really simple diagram below for video games.
As a player gets better, there’s less rewards, the difficulty rises (in some games anyway), and it results in less kills. This cycle can continue on forever until the player dies ending the vicious cycle of the positive feedback loop.
In real life, when a negative feedback loop doesn’t show up, it can be pretty serious.
Enter: Chronic pain.
When an individual experiences pain long after the regular or typical window of recovery, it can be a sign that their negative feedback loops haven’t shown up and taken charge of the situation. This is when chronic pain rears its evil head.
Dr. Elliot Krane discusses this in his brilliant TED talk where he details a patient of his that simply sprained their wrist one day, yet months and months later was still in excruciating pain. As you may know, a sprained wrist usually heals up within a couple weeks or so. Not a sort of injury that lingers for months and months, right?
Well, what his patient was suffering from is something known as alloydynia, and it’s some serious shit.
Essentially, what chronic pain – and in this case, alloydynia – is (meaning pain that exists well after the typical injury healing phase), is the brain screwing up the whole situation.
Our nervous system really is a super-intricate and highly-sophisticated piece of equipment in our body. Much, much more than just a simple highway for communication.
And when it can get it so wrong, the only thing left to break out of these bad vicious cycles of a no-show negative feedback loop, is weeks and weeks of seriously painful re-training of the nervous system and the affected areas to re-learn things so that the brain doesn’t deem just a simple brush of clothing, or the simple movement of placing the hand on a table, as a painful situation.
All of this makes you think to those that suffer from back pain for years and years, doesn’t it?
Long after their injury (if they ever had one to begin with) should have healed, the pain that they are still in is something to think about.
Perhaps you or you know of someone that deals with pain? By insisting on dealing with this pain just by masking it with medication and the occasional (or weekly) massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, or any other specialist treatment, instead of dealing with the situation, can be possibly the wrong way to go about it.
Don’t get me wrong, facing up to pain and why you experience it is a huge task. Though, how long do you go not doing something about it through getting moving as best you can, rather than just dodging bullet after bullet for years and years?
Watch Dr. Elliot Krane’s patient in therapy to get her back to where she was: Click here.
Read about how acupuncture is a theatrical placebo effect: Click here.