That chronic back pain is a message from your body. Are you listening? These 5 questions will help you gain insight.
When back pain is occasional and acute, it generally has a really important message like: “Take me to the doctor! I’m injured—which is very helpful. But chronic pain is different. It usually means the injury or insult to your body has long since passed, and there is an echo of the pain in the nervous system—even though there is no longer any danger. Sometimes chronic pain rises for no discernible reason: You just start to hurt and don’t stop.
So how do you listen to constant pain that seems to have no specific reason or cause? You can’t have the normal relationship with it you might have with a sprained muscle: treating it gently, getting physiotherapy, and feeling it slowly improve. Physiotherapy can help chronic pain, but when your pain lasts far longer than an original injury, the problem is generally in your nervous system, not the musculature. Your body has gotten into a habit of sending a pain signal to the brain, and that signal can be exacerbated by stress, anxiety, and other emotional resonances.
While pain might not be signaling an injury, it doesn’t mean it has no message. You must learn to listen to it in a different way.
You can begin this process using mindfulness meditation, but be aware that this practice requires you to tune in to the pain, rather than trying to distract from it or ignore it—the latter of which can be helpful tools for some sufferers. The key of any mindfulness practice is that you do your best to be present to whatever is actually happening in the moment and hold it with tenderness. It isn’t always easy to be present when you’re in pain, so this can take some practice.
In order to try it, sit or lie down in as comfortable a position as possible, and tune in to the sensations you feel. Rather than immediately labeling the sensations as pain, breathe deeply and get curious. Where is it, exactly? What is its texture, color, temperature, rhythm? Does it shift as you sit with it, or does it remain exactly the same? Does it have an image, a name? Does it remind you of anything?
You can also talk to the pain. Your body is always trying to help you—though it may do so in some very annoying ways. Understanding how it’s trying to help might give you some perspective into what it needs.
These five questions can prove insightful:
- “Where have I been bending over backward in my life?”
- “What have I pushed behind me or turned away from?”
- “What is this pain allowing me to do or stop doing?”
- “Is there an emotion that this pain is protecting me from?”
- “What does this pain want or need?”
In order to understand what’s wrong, you sometimes have to ask what’s right. How is this pain useful to you? What is it signaling about your life, friendships, daily routine, or stress coping mechanisms?
You may or may not get any clear answers from your back pain, and if you do, the answers may not be simple. I’m not suggesting you’ll have an epiphany that will cure your pain, though the simple act of letting yourself feel what you feel can be a relief that, in turn, can calm the pain signal. This is a practice of befriending your body, of trusting it to talk to you, and teaching it you will consistently listen. There is so much wisdom held in your body—even in your pain—and if you give your pain a chance to guide you, you may find it shines a very unique and quite useful light on your life.
Want to dive deeper? Read about healing chronic pain.