Guest blogger, Andy Horide, writes about how we can better understand pain experiences and the ways in which mindful yoga can help
As an Osteopath, my patient's emotional and mental state is essential to know in cases where pain has become chronic (long-term). These factors can dramatically affect our perception of pain, slowing my patient's recovery.
At some point in our lives, we have all experienced pain. It can be a result of an injury, illness, or surgery. While pain is a common phenomenon, the underlying processes that lead to the sensation of pain are not as widely understood. To better comprehend pain, it's essential to differentiate between two closely related concepts: nociception and pain.
The Body's Warning System
Nociception (the body’s warning system) is the physiological process by which our body detects potentially harmful stimuli. This process involves the activation of specialised sensory receptors called nociceptors, which are found throughout the body, particularly in the skin, muscles, joints, and some internal organs. Nociceptors can detect mechanical, thermal, or chemical stress, which may cause tissue damage or inflammation.
When activated, nociceptors generate electrical signals that travel through the peripheral nervous system to the spinal cord and, ultimately, to the brain. Nociception plays a crucial role in our survival by alerting us to potential harm and helping us avoid or minimise further injury.
Pain: A Complex Sensory and Emotional Experience
Conversely, pain is the subjective experience that arises from the brain's interpretation of nociceptive signals. It is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage. Pain is highly subjective and varies significantly among individuals, influenced by genetics, past experiences, emotions, and cognitive processes.
While nociception is necessary for pain, the two are not synonymous. Not all nociceptive signals result in the perception of pain, as the brain can modulate these signals before they are perceived as painful. For instance, during the "fight or flight" (a highly stressful situation) response, the brain can temporarily inhibit pain perception to prioritise survival.
When you've had a repeated injury, your nociceptive threshold can be reduced so your body can avoid damage like this again. Likewise being chronically stressed or having previous traumatic experiences can lower our nociceptive threshold. Therefore, we can experience pain even though there isn't significant damage to our body. You may not have perceived that pain if you hadn't been chronically stressed or had those previous traumatic experiences.
How Mindful Yoga Can Help Reduce Pain in Our Body
Mindful Yoga combines the physical postures and breathwork practices of yoga with mindfulness. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgement. When you practice mindful yoga, you focus on your breath and your body as you move through the postures. This helps you to become more aware of your internal cues and experiences, and to learn how to manage pain more effectively.
Mindful yoga can be a powerful tool to help reduce your brain's heightened or stressed state so your body can move, stretch and strengthen more painlessly. If you go into exercise stressed or anxious, you are more likely to trigger a painful response. Mindful yoga can help to reduce pain in several ways including:
Improving flexibility. When you stretch your muscles, you release tension and improve blood flow. This can help to reduce pain and inflammation.
Reducing stress. Stress can contribute to pain by increasing muscle tension and inflammation. When you practice mindful yoga, you learn how to relax your body and mind, which can help to reduce stress and pain.
Improving mood. Depression and anxiety can make pain worse. When you practice mindful yoga, you learn how to focus on the present moment and to let go of negative thoughts. This can help to improve your mood and make pain more bearable.
Understanding the difference between nociception and pain is crucial for me to really help my patients. While nociception is the physiological process of detecting potentially harmful stimuli, pain is the subjective experience that results from the brain's interpretation of those signals. Therefore, recognising the distinctions between nociceptive and neuropathic pain can help guide appropriate diagnosis, treatment, and management of various pain conditions, ultimately improving the quality of life for those living with pain.
If you would like help to get a more accurate diagnosis for your muscle or joint problem, please feel free to talk to or book an appointment with one of our highly trained Osteopaths. Find out more about Heavitree Osteopaths, Exeter.
If you are living with chronic pain, mindful yoga may be a helpful way to manage your pain. If you would like to explore mindfulness-based yoga and psychology-enhanced yoga classes in Exeter, please check out the offerings from BAM Therapy.