How Grief Can Influence Pain

How Grief Can Influence Pain

Emotions can have a profound effect on our physical health, especially when it comes to physical pain. The following is a powerful example of how this can play out in healthcare settings.

Barry (that’s not his real name) was a tough, good-natured rooster who had worked very, very hard in freezing works for over 35 years. Before finding treatment that worked, Barry had spent much of his career battling through severe pain. After finding treatment that worked, all he needed was a bit of ‘regular maintenance‘ in order to live virtually pain-free.

Barry came in every 3rd Tuesday without fail for some work on the ‘knot’ behind his right shoulder blade. In reality, the knot was a repetitive locking of his costovertebral joints caused by the intensity of the work he did. 

Every time Barry’s shoulder was treated, he felt immediate relief, which predictably lasted for 2 & 4 weeks before it started to tighten up again. So he settled on seeing me every 3rd week. We did this for the better part of 5 years. 

Barry was happy with this arrangement and resisted my petitioning him to do ‘scapular stabilisation‘ exercises and reduce his dependency on treatment. His perception was that the pain was simply caused by five decades of physically brutal work. And mostly, he was just happy that he wasn’t in almost constant severe pain any more. So we just happily muddled along. 

One particular Tuesday, Barry came in for his regular visit. We both enjoyed his visits, and he was usually full of fun. But on this particular Tuesday, he seemed a little flat. Assuming he was probably just a bit tired,  I followed the exact same treatment protocol as I always did. But when Barry got up from the bench, to my dismay, he didn’t feel any better – for the first time in 4 years. I was very surprised and reflected immediately on whether I had done anything differently. I couldn’t identify anything I had done wrong, so I just sent him away and told him to call me if he needed me. 

On Thursday of the same week, Barry’s wife came to see me for her mild sciatic complaint. The first words out of her mouth were, ‘What the hell have you done to my husband?’ Me ‘WHAT? Nothing different to what I always do for him’. 

It turned out that 15 minutes after my treatment, Barry’s shoulder pain became the worst it had been in over 20 years. He was in agony, devouring painkillers (which he hated doing with a passion) and unable to sleep.

Prior to this terrible event, Barry’s treatment had worked every single time without fail for four years. At first, it seemed like a complete mystery, but on further questioning, his wife helped solve the sad mystery.

It turned out that Barry’s beloved younger sister had died suddenly on the Monday before I treated him. True to form, he had been far too stoic to share that fact with me. 

When I was able to examine Barry 2 days later, I found that he had developed some of the worst muscle spasms I have felt in a human shoulder. It took several weeks of quite intense work to settle it back down to normal Barry levels.

Identical treatments that dramatically and predictably improved Barry’s quality of life under normal ‘emotional circumstances’; created absolute carnage in Barry’s tissues under the deeply physical impact of grief

This is a story about the power emotions have to influence the functions of the body’s cells. 

Strong emotional disturbances like grief are known to raise inflammation. And adverse life events are well known for triggering chronic musculoskeletal pain. There is a deeply physical aspect to these well-known patterns.

When we are under emotional stress, our systems flush with neuropeptides. Neuropeptides carry chemical messages between the cells of our body’s systems. These chemical messengers have the ability to profoundly alter the way our body functions and the way our nervous systems report pain.

Of course, this also means that if we care for our emotional well-being, we can potentially have a profound influence on our pain and our health as a whole.

In order to ensure that emotions like grief don’t negatively impact chronic pain in the long term, it is vital to tend to them. There is nothing to be done with the sheer intensity of immediate loss. But in the longer term, there is much that can (and should) be done to process intense emotional patterns like grief.

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