Could systemic inflammation cause debilitating chronic pain?
When I first started having wrist pain at the age of 24, I thought it was due to an injury and didn't realise it was actually caused by chronic inflammation. Now, over 16 years later, I've come to understand that a lot of the pain I felt during periods of autoimmune symptoms was connected to inflammation. By reducing inflammation in my body, I've lived without chronic pain for over eight years.
What is pain?
Pain is an intricate and essential aspect of the human experience. It serves as a warning signal, alerting us to potential harm and prompting protective responses. Similar to inflammation, it serves us positively for the most part. As a child, it helps you understand that touching something hot like fire will hurt, so you know to avoid it. However, when pain persists long after an injury or illness should have healed, it becomes a debilitating condition known as chronic pain. One significant factor contributing to chronic pain is inflammation.
In this article, we will delve into the intricate relationship between inflammation and chronic pain, exploring how it develops and what you can do to reduce inflammation to help you live in less pain.
Inflammation is a natural response of the body to injury, infection, or harmful stimuli like chemical pollutants, moulds and food sensitivities. When tissues are damaged or infected, the body's immune system mobilises to protect and heal the affected area. This process is characterised by increased redness, swelling, heat, and pain - all classic signs of inflammation. This acute inflammation typically subsides as the body heals, but sometimes it can become chronic.
Chronic inflammation is a persistent, low-level inflammatory state that can last for weeks, months, or even years. It can occur in various parts of the body and is linked to a range of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disorders. Chronic inflammation can result from factors such as smoking, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and a diet high in processed foods.
What is the link between inflammation and pain?
When it comes to the link between inflammation and chronic pain, it's essential to understand that inflammation itself doesn't cause pain directly. Instead, pain arises from the body's response to inflammation.
This response includes the release of inflammatory molecules called cytokines, which sensitise pain receptors and nerves in the affected area. These sensitised nerves send pain signals to the brain, leading to the perception of pain.
Chronic pain can develop when inflammation persists or recurs, and the body's pain signalling system remains in a heightened state. Over time, the nervous system can become more sensitive, amplifying pain signals. This phenomenon is known as central sensitisation and plays a crucial role in the transition from acute to chronic pain.
I have numerous clients who approach me with sporadic and vague pain distributed throughout their bodies. Our initial approach involves analysing their pain patterns to ascertain potential associations with inflammatory triggers.
Which inflammatory conditions are linked to chronic pain?
There are several chronic pain conditions where inflammation plays a prominent role. Some of these include:
Arthritis: Inflammatory arthritis conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis lead to chronic joint pain due to ongoing inflammation in the affected joints.
Fibromyalgia: While not primarily an inflammatory condition, there is evidence that inflammation may contribute to the pain experienced by individuals with fibromyalgia.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): Conditions like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis are characterised by chronic inflammation in the digestive tract, which can lead to abdominal pain.
Neuropathic pain: In some cases, nerve damage caused by inflammation can result in chronic neuropathic pain, often seen in conditions like diabetic neuropathy.
Therapies for pain reduction
Managing chronic pain related to inflammation typically involves a multi-faceted approach. First and foremost, if you are experiencing any type of pain in your body, consult your doctor to determine what might be causing it. Pain is often a sign of imbalances in your body, so it is worth getting appropriate blood testing and screening to rule out any serious conditions.
You also need to determine what the root cause of your inflammation is in the first place. There are many causes of inflammation, ranging from your diet, lifestyle choices, environmental toxins and stress levels, to name a few. As a nutritionist, understanding my client's story and how their inflammation and autoimmune disease developed over time helps to determine what might be at the heart of their inflammation and pain.
In my clinic, I also offer functional tests which provide key markers to understand imbalances in the body and give a good overall insight into your health, such as those from Functional DX and Metabolomix from Genova.
For those clients with digestive pain, a stool test can reveal inflammatory markers and gut imbalances which may be contributing to chronic pain, and by addressing these factors, they see their pain reduced. From there, you can then take a personalised approach by addressing the root cause of your condition to reduce inflammation and pain.
You can learn more about ways to address inflammation in my article, Unmasking the hidden signs of inflammation.
Trauma and chronic pain
The latest scientific research has shed significant light on the intricate relationship between chronic pain, inflammation, and trauma. It has become increasingly clear that there is a profound connection between these factors.
Chronic pain can often be a consequence of trauma, both physical and psychological. Traumatic experiences can trigger a heightened state of inflammation within the body, which in turn can lead to persistent pain conditions. This inflammation is thought to affect the nervous system, intensifying pain perception and sensitivity.
What's more, the interplay between chronic pain, inflammation, and trauma is now recognised as a complex feedback loop, where each component can exacerbate the others, which is why, if the cause, then it is difficult to overcome the chronic pain without addressing the trauma as well.
Many of my clients who have been living in chronic pain and have experienced trauma will work with trauma therapists alongside the diet and lifestyle changes that I recommend, with great results in reducing their pain levels.
Inflammation is a complex and vital process in the body's defence and healing mechanisms. However, when it becomes chronic, it can lead to persistent pain, resulting in chronic pain conditions.
I lived for years with joint pain, headaches, muscle aches and pains, growing pains and foot pain and never thought that it could be linked to inflammation and my gut health. By healing my gut and reducing inflammation through diet and lifestyle changes, I now mainly live pain-free, and this could be the same for you, too.
Understanding your own body and the interplay between inflammation and chronic pain is crucial to using therapies that address the underlying root cause of your symptoms.
If you would like to learn more about my services and the functional, medicine-based approach I take to help my clients overcome their chronic pain, you can book a free consultation with me via my profile.
While there may not be a cure for chronic pain, advances in medicine and a holistic approach to pain management can offer hope and relief to those who suffer from it.
Sun Y, Qu Y, Zhu J. The Relationship Between Inflammation and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Front Psychiatry. 2021 Aug 11;12:707543. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.707543. PMID: 34456764; PMCID: PMC8385235