If you live in the United States, or any other industrialized country, you’re probably only too familiar with the experience of racking up credit card debts. You might be surprised at how similar chronic pain is to credit card debt.
Allow me to explain the analogy. Imagine that you have a card with, say, a $3,000 credit limit. You use it routinely for groceries, gas, school supplies for the kids, and weekends away. As long as you’re at least making the minimum payments, it’s no big deal. But what if you have a $2,000 balance on the card and, all of a sudden, your car breaks down, saddling you with a $1,300 car repair bill?
It’s a problem. Instead of staying within your limits, you have now exceeded them. This means penalties—fees you will pay for exceeding your credit limit. Worse, what if you won’t get paid for another four days and you were relying on your credit card to buy groceries? What about the kids’ soccer registration? These were once routine, innocuous charges, but they have now become a very “painful” situation.
You might think that the cause of all this “pain,” is the breakdown of your car. It would be more accurate, however, to see it as the accumulation of many charges. The car repair only “hurts” so much because the card was already close to its limit. And it hurts a lot worse because of what else it costs you: the ability to use it to buy groceries or pay for the soccer registration. If someone is accumulating debt and not paying it off, the debt remains. The same is true in the body.
Like Credit Card Debt, Pain Accumulates
A trauma of some sort may be the reason that a person has been pushed to or beyond their “threat debt limit,” resulting in pain, but had there been less debt on the balance before the traumatic event, it may not have resulted in such a painful experience. If the pain is preventing or limiting other important life functions, it can actually make the pain worse.
We tend to think of pain as having a direct correlation to tissue trauma or injury. Therefore, we think that if we’re in pain it’s an indication that something’s wrong with the tissue. It is better to think of pain, particularly chronic pain, as an indication that the body has accumulated and not effectively processed too many threat experiences and is no longer responding appropriately to sensory inputs.
You’re probably familiar with the saying “We do not see the world as it is; we see it as we are.” The human brain adapts to experiences and other factors, such as beliefs, cultural factors, environment, and expectation. It filters all sensory inputs from the body and its surroundings through these filters of experience, to assign meaning and create an interpretation which triggers an action or a response.
In essence, pain is a response mechanism to trigger action. In chronic pain, the brain has become “wired” to interpret more sensations as threats than is optimal, resulting in hypersensitivity and an increased pain response in the body. This is a result not just of tissue trauma, but of an accumulation of “threats.” Broadly speaking, it’s accurate to say that we don’t feel pain as it is; we feel it as we are.
It seems that, due to various factors (genetics, lifestyle, habits, environment), some people may have lower “threat debt limits,” meaning that they have a lower threshold for what will cause them to hit or exceed that limit, resulting in a maladaptive threat response, i.e. pain.
It is equally clear that some people “maintain balances” (rolling debt) in their life due to work and family stress, sleep behaviors, exercise (or lack thereof ) and physical movements (often compromised in some way), previous injuries or traumas, nutrition, gut microbiome, and so forth.
Why Most Approaches to Chronic Pain Don’t Work, and What Does
When we understand chronic pain as a process of accumulated “debt”, which has probably built up in over many years, we can understand the limitations of most therapies.
Pharmaceutical treatments may mask the pain, preventing patients from feeling it for a limited time, but they do nothing to tackle the underlying problem. Using drugs to dull the pain may have the same impact as dulling the reality of our credit card debt with alcohol. It makes us feel better in the moment, but it doesn’t necessarily change the circumstances that led to that debt, and in fact could be making us worse.
Meanwhile, the brain may interpret movement therapies, however well intentioned, as harbingers of increased threat. Over time, they may actually contribute to chronic pain. Even those approaches that help a little, such as massage or TENS therapy, can be compared with making minimum payments. They temporarily bring patients below their pain threshold, but those patients remain very close to that threshold, vulnerable to crossing it at any time.
The treatment we offer at Radiant Relief, facilitates a process which allows the brain to reduce the overall perception of threat. It’s like paying off a significant chunk of credit card debt and reducing overall levels of debt. Unlike drug therapies and temporary movement therapies, most patients find that it provides not only significant relief on a short-term basis, but that—once the brain has been sufficiently retrained—the relief persists and occasional booster sessions are enough to allow patients to live full, vibrant lives.