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Stress Part One: Cumulative Stress and Chronic Pain

Every day I meet people who are in chronic pain. In fact, twice in the past I had chronic pain. Once in my lower back and once in my left knee. At its worst the back pain kept me from standing upright or walking, and the knee pain kept me from walking up or down stairs or inclines. Military medicine wanted to operate both times.

The first time I was living in San Diego and I found a movement specialist in Los Angeles who showed me how to correct the back issue, with movement not surgery. Years later I was living in Washington when the knee became debilitating, so I flew to LA again with the same results. The knee was rehabbed with movement instead of surgery.

Most of the people I work with now are everyday people who want to move better and feel better. However, being close to Fort Lewis I see military and law enforcement personnel everyday who are walking around in pain. Why? Compromised movement plus the load of equipment equals lasting effects.

Why is back and knee pain in particular so hard to diagnose? Mostly because Western medicine is made up primarily of systems specialists, and chronic pain is often the effect of whole body issues. When my lower back was in pain, the doctors and physical therapists I went to focused on the back. However, they were unsuccessful because the back was not the issue, merely the symptom. My back pain actually came from a misalignment of the sacrum and the right pelvis bone. Instead of manually adjusting the two, I was given a prescription of simple exercise that allowed the effected muscles to relax and the bones to naturally reseat themselves. But the misalignment is just part of the story.

Have you ever seen a baby so flexible it put its toes in its mouth? Of course, now if I brought in an anesthesiologist right now and put you under do you think your toes would make it your mouth? Surprise! They would. We think of our flexibility as if muscles stretch like rubber bands. But the elasticity of our muscles has little to do with our joint range of motion. Instead our nervous system places restrictions on our movement as a result of trauma we experience throughout our lives.

Here is an example: at birth you are completely flexible, at age 5 you roll your ankle, at 10 you have a bike wreck, at 12 you fall out of a tree, at 16 you have a shoulder injury from baseball, then you start driving, watching TV/computer screen, wear glasses, get a tattoo, and finally have a really stressful day a work – and your back starts hurting.

If your back is the result of cumulative stress, then all the Motrin, cortisone shots, spinal manipulations, surgeries, etc… that are frequently done will not get rid of the back pain.

Finally, one day you come to see me. I watch you walk across the room. I look at which compensation based on past trauma, or current habits, is most effecting your movement. We work on that and get measurable results. With those results we prescribe movement and dosages to start correcting the problems and get you out of pain.

If you are in chronic pain, you are not preparing for SHTF, you are in it now and under more stress it will only get worse. By learning to understand and resolve chronic pain issues now you can get out of pain and be better prepared to help those around you during a crisis.

So, as for stress. Physical stress is cumulative throughout our lives. It may be the result of trauma, or posture, or repetitive movements. Physical stress from movement is the lowest of the five stressors that contribute to chronic pain, but the most often contributor so this is where we start making corrections.

The next higher stressor is your vestibular system. This is your sense of balance and movement and is often a contributor if a person is extremely sedentary, or has sustained a severe traumatic injury in the past, like an auto accident.

The next higher stressor is vision. Our eyes perform 29 functions. When we fail to exercise them adequately, maybe by starring at a computer all day, they begin to fail us and cause high levels of stress on our nervous system.

Next up is nutrition. If you do not have adequate vitamins, minerals, and water your body cannot maintain or repair itself.

At the top of the pyramid is mental stress. This is stress derived from how you react to external stimulus such as family, work, living conditions, or threats.

When all these stresses combine, it can push you over your personal stress threshold and result in chronic pain. But, long before they get to the pain stage, they begin to effect performance. So, stress affects all of us and needs to be resolved as much as possible. Over the next few articles I hope to give you some tools to self-assess and start to control stress to improve both pain and performance.

About Butch Trail

Profile photo of Butch Trail
Butch Trail is a retired Marine with operational deployments in Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean ranging from combat, to security, to humanitarian operations. He experienced first hand the devastation and aftermath of Hurricane Hugo as a victim with weeks of interruption to basic services. He has a Master of Arts degree in Security and Emergency Management, and a Bachelor of Science degree in Social Psychology. He is a Naval Security Manager, an Anti-Terrorism/Force Protection Officer, a Marine Corps Combat Markmanship Instructor, and a Marine Corps Martial Arts Instructor. He has a black belt in jujutsu and several traditional and modern combatives systems and has trained and taught since 1985. He owns Taiso Fitness and Nutrition, specializing in applying neuro-mapping solutions for optimal performance under stress.

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2 comments

  1. Hey Butch it sounds like some of what you do for people is similar to Kelly Starrett and his Mobility WOD project. http://www.mobilitywod.com/

    Are you familiar at all with the free materials he’s released?

  2. Profile photo of Butch Trail

    Yes, Kelly has done a lot to bring physical therapy to a consumer level. Another great resource is Eric Creesey (http://www.EricCressey.com/), although his material is aimed at a more educated/trained athlete or coach. However, physical therapy takes place largely in the proprioceptive realm. Over the next dozen articles I will give you some assessments and corrections you can take to determine and correct higher level disorders. Each person is different, so the exact same program will help some people and break others. If a coach does not know this, or know what to do about it, the results can range from unexcitedly mediocre to disastrous. On the other hand, when you fully understand this, performing optimally is not only possible, its expected. Keep an eye on this series, it will start to get beyond proprioception around Part Six or so. I look forward to any questions you have then.

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