Is that pain you feel in your back, neck or shoulders just a momentary twinge from strain you are putting on your body, perhaps with a new exercise regimen? Or is there something deeper and more serious at work? Either way, you ignore it at your peril.
“Pain is an alert system; it tells us that something is wrong,” says Bradford Butler, a chiropractor and author of The Blueprint for Back Pain Relief: The Essential Guide to Nonsurgical Solutions (www.drbradfordbutler.com). “Chronic pain goes a step further. It is telling you that a whole system in your body isn’t working right.”
For many people and their physicians, the first option for pain, and sometimes the second and third options as well, is to munch on some pain pills – over-the-counter or prescribed – and go on your way.
“That’s fine, except it doesn’t address the fundamental problem,” Butler says. “Too often, with back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain or other chronic pain, many doctors focus on reducing the pain rather than addressing the cause.”
He likens it to waking up with an excruciating toothache, and then visiting a dentist who discovers a huge cavity but, instead of repairing the cavity, just gives you a powerful drug for the pain and sends you home. “Left untreated, the pain would get more debilitating and the damage to the tooth would worsen, leading to bigger and more invasive and expensive procedures,” Butler says. “But that’s what happens when it comes to the American healthcare system and treatment for chronic pain.”
Butler offers these words of advice for those whose bodies are trying to warn them that something is amiss:
• Choose your doctor wisely. Blind faith in any doctor is not the answer, Butler says. Instead, ask yourself what the particular doctor you plan to visit is trained to do. In the primary care world, for example, doctors are trained to analyze and to treat symptoms, so they are more likely address the pain rather than its cause. Surgeons often will recommend surgery, because that’s their specialty. Yet, he says, medicine just masks symptoms and surgery isn’t always successful. “It’s your pain, so ultimately it’s up to you to do the research and find out what works, avoid what doesn’t, and find someone who will really help you with your problem,” Butler says.
• Don’t let your body resetting its pain level fool you. What happens when you let the pain go? Your body adapts. “It can’t sound the alarm constantly, so it resets,” Butler says. “Where once the threshold for pain was X amount of damage, that threshold gets raised. What that means for you is that the pain goes away. You think the problem must be gone, when in reality, your body’s pain setting has been raised. Eventually, the only time you’re feeling pain is when you’re already in dire straits.”
• Think in terms of prevention. This is something dentistry definitely gets right, Butler says. Dental patients are encouraged to have regular checkups, whether they’re in pain or not, so the dentist can head off potential problems. “That’s the way it needs to be for neck and back pain,” he says. “Being free of symptoms doesn’t mean you don’t have major problems brewing. It just means that you don’t know they’re developing.”
“We need to listen to our pain and fix whatever is wrong as soon as possible,” Butler says. “You won’t get better – permanently better – until you find the cause of the problem.”
Bradford Butler, a chiropractor and author of The Blueprint for Back Pain Relief: The Essential Guide to Nonsurgical Solutions (www.drbradfordbutler.com).