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Chronic Pain: When Your Body Gets Angry

Of all the conditions out there, chronic pain can be the most challenging to treat. It can become increasingly unresponsive to treatment and may lead to other chronic illnesses or aggravate issues with depression, anxiety, the bowel, obesity, insomnia and fatigue. This can ultimately lead to significant impairment in work, social interactions and family relationships. Diet and nutrition—often ignored when addressing chronic pain—play a vital role.

Those suffering from chronic pain often rely on physical treatments like massage, physiotherapy and chiropractic. These treatments are often used inconsistently, with many people switching from one treatment type to another. For effective pain relief, these treatments must be used in combination to address the underlying mechanical imbalances. However, for many, combining these different physical treatments provides only partial pain relief.

A more successful approach manages more than just the mechanical imbalances. What also needs to be addressed are the aspects of body function affected by chronic pain, the nervous system, immunity and bowel function to mention a few. This broader approach treats the underlying chemical imbalances behind chronic pain. With many chronic pain conditions, there is an underlying inflammatory state, in other words, a hyperactive or angry immune system. If this inflammatory imbalance is present, diet and nutrition can play an important role in pain control.

An example of how nutrition can play a role in chronic pain control is an elimination diet, which involves avoiding common food sensitivities such as wheat or dairy. However, it is also important to include omega-3 fatty acids, mostly from fish oils, in the diet. Taking both of these steps can help to calm an angry immune system and reduce inflammation and pain.

Similarly, the muscular system can be in an angry or tense state. Muscles get irritated with prolonged or excessive physical activity or when the chemistry is out of balance. Part of this chemical imbalance may be aggravated by the inflammatory state described above or a mineral imbalance. Many minerals like potassium and calcium play a vital role in muscle metabolism, but magnesium seems to be the most effective at calming angry muscles. At doses well above that you would get from food or a multivitamin alone, magnesium can act as a muscle relaxant and help settle painful, irritated muscles.

With all this talk about angry muscles and immune systems, the nervous system is sometimes forgotten about. The nervous system can also become irritated, resulting in excessive generation of pain impulses. This in turn can over stimulate the muscles, making them even more irritable. This cycle leaves an individual feeling very tense, stiff, anxious and potentially in a lot of pain—constantly. B vitamins, in particular B6, B12 and folic acid, can help to nourish and calm the nervous tissue, potentially improving nervous system function and settling down the flurry of electrical activity. Again, magnesium, in the right ratio with calcium, can have a sedating effect on the nervous system in addition to its beneficial effects on the muscles.

In the end, success depends on integrating massage, chiropractic and physiotherapy, which help to correct the mechanical imbalances associated with chronic pain, with dietary and nutritional approaches that help change some of the underlying chemistry that perpetuate the chronic pain.

Dr. Brian Gluvic is a naturopathic physician at the Village Health Clinic in Surrey. He is board certified in acupuncture and prolotherapy and has a family practice, specializing in food allergies, digestive disorders, chronic pain and fatigue syndromes. For a consultation call 604-575-7275 or visit