The holiday dates are the same every year and yet somehow, they always sneak up on us. This blog is here to inform you that holiday stress is around the corner (or already here) and that unfortunately, that nagging aching (insert joint here) pain is probably ramping up at the same time. Is this a coincidence?? Of course not, that’s why this blog is written about it 😉
You’ve probably heard that stress and pain are linked, right? Well, here is one more source to validate that for you. 👇
To break it down, the human nervous system in an ideal world should live on continuum between the sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) systems. Things that should stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system are a big meal, meditating, diaphragmatic breathing, etc. Things that should stimulate our sympathetic nervous system are fighting a bear, running a marathon, lifting a car off a person, etc. The thing with the sympathetic NS though, is that some tasks that aren’t as dramatic will also stimulate it. So this might be your boss telling you your deadline that’s two weeks away is now 2 days away, finding out your kid got expelled from school, getting injured or even watching a scary jumpy movie. As you can imagine, our bodies operate best when we are in a good balance between the two systems throughout our days.
For the purpose of this blog we are going to focus more on the sympathetic NS because of a little hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is vital and we love it. But just like anything, too much can be a bad thing. It’s normal role is in the body’s stress response, suppressing nonvital organ systems and surging to provide energy to the more necessary organ systems (if you’re we’re fighting a bear, we need to make sure our blood and energy is going to our muscles. We don’t need extra energy noticing what color the bear is or even digesting our lunch at the moment, we’re just trying to survive). A hormone that strong and powerful is not meant to be in high levels in our body at all times.
In our bodies, when any type of stressor is introduced (this can be anything from work to financial to physical pain to emotional to safety threat, the list goes on) a stress response in the body occurs. Keep in mind, the threat level of the stressor will differ from person to person meaning the response of the body will also differ. A cascade of events, beginning with the amygdala in the brain, will occur that eventually leads to a release of cortisol. It only takes 15 minutes from initial stressor to elevated cortisol levels in in our systems and it can stay elevated for several hours! In a healthy system, however, levels should normalize and we return to our continuum between the sympathetic and parasympathetic NS.
The above paragraph is our ideal situation. However, if the body undergoes a dramatic change, perhaps from a trauma, major life event, giving birth, injury, etc., its response and way of handling a stressor can also change. Meaning, when normally our hormone levels should be normalizing, they stay elevated and keep us in this fight or flight state. Over time in this high stress state, cortisol will fail to function. Cortisol is an anti-inflammatory and therefore if it is not functioning correctly, it will lead to a lack of inflammation regulation in the body. We all know inflammation is bad; so now picture this gross stress-induced inflammation throughout the body for long periods of time. This has been linked to various things (only to name a few broad ones) such as joint pain, muscle pain, pelvic pain and fatigue. It also can intensify pain/sensations which means if you’re already in pain and you get stressed because of that pain, guess what? Pain is probably going up and then your stress goes up and you get the cycle.
In short, high amounts of stress for a long time can become physical pain and continue a vicious pain/stress cycle.
So what does this have to do with the holidays?
We notice a general increase in symptoms in our patients around the holidays. If there has been no change in diet, exercise, life but pain is increasing we tend to ask: “how is your stress level” and almost every person tends to reply with an answer like “well it’s the holidays and my parents are coming in town and my daughter wants an expensive bike and I’m responsible for cooking for 20 people and I’m also still trying to lose weight since we’re taking holiday pictures soon” and you get the idea.
So this is your reminder to breeeaatthheee and remember the effects of stress. Knowing and understanding this about your own body will hopefully help; no, you probably do not have a new pain and your old pain is not back, you are stressed and your cortisol is up. So watch a Christmas movie and/or sing a Christmas carol and remember to take care of yourself during this time!
Kenzie Danner PT, DPT, CSMT, SFMA,
Functional Dry Needling L1