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What's Behind Your Everyday Aches and Pains

How to get to the bottom of your suffering and find relief

By Jennifer Nelson

Stub your toe by mashing it into a table leg (well, don’t actually do it, just think back to the last time you did). Within milliseconds, the stubbed toe sends pain signals to the brain to let it know you stubbed your toe. The message reads, “Sorry to bother you but you just wiped out your toe on that table leg and it’s probably pretty messed up, maybe even broken.”

Next, the brain assesses how bad the injury really is by drawing on all the credible information it has to go on. “Hmm, last time you did this your toe was black and blue and you limped around for a week.”

Now the pain message shoots back to the nerves in your toe with the level of perceived pain they’ve determined the injury requires. Pain researchers say it’s a conversation between the central and peripheral nervous systems. This conversation can go awry like the engine warning light in a car — though the mechanic never finds anything wrong. Conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic pain may be chalked up to the sensor itself — misfiring pain signals.

Some health providers believe it is the brain’s prerogative to ignore pain completely. “Oh, that stubbed toe, pay no attention and continue what you were doing.” That doesn’t mean your conscious brain should ignore pain. We do that at our peril.

Pain Is Purposeful

“When people try to ignore or power through their pain, they teach their brain to get good at being in pain, warns Ya-Ling Liou, a chiropractor and author of Every Body's Guide to Everyday Pain. This is how chronic pain sets in, she says.

Persistent aches and pains plague nearly one-fifth of adults in the U.S., according to the 2010 National Health Interview Survey, but Liou refuses to buy the idea that pain is a part of aging. She has too many elderly patients who live pain-free.

Become a Pain Detective

“As soon as you feel pain, you should ask yourself what were you doing?” says Liou. What physical position were you in? What was your stress like? What was your life like? You can unearth a lot of clues by answering these questions, and it’s much harder to remember the answers years later.

Plus, the way pain feels (burning, stabbing, sharp, dull) may help you trace it back to its trigger. Because everyone’s brain determines pain differently, the way pain feels can be misleading, but typically, a burning sensation can spell nerve pain. Dull or achy discomfort can mean muscle pain.

What’s more, if you can change pain — make it better or worse, by moving, resting, elevation or applying ice — you can control the pain, and Liou says there’s hope to cure it.

Different Kinds of Pain

Pain can be mechanical, chemical, emotional or a combination of those. We can even feel pain when there’s no physical reason for it because of what's called the nocebo effect: when we think something is painful, it will be.

  • Mechanical pain is repetitive movement, the strain of overworked muscles and ligaments
  • Chemical pain is due to internal and external (environmental) irritants that cause inflammation, including foods
  • Emotional pain is when stress gives you a stomach ache, makes your shoulders hurt or brings on a migraine

Common Causes of Pain


“Everyday aches and pains can be caused by minor arthritis, joint pain and stiffness, muscle aches, cramps and inflammation,” says Rebecca Lee, a New York City nurse and founder of the natural health resource

Once certain underlying causes are ruled out with tests like bloodwork, MRI and X-rays, everyday aches and pains can be pinpointed back to other causes, such as infection, the flu, a cold, exercise, drug side effects, stress, depression or anxiety.

A lot of people reject the idea that stress can play a role in pain or make it worse. But Liou explains that because we don’t physically react the way animals do (fight or flight) in response to most stress, we don’t have an outlet for it. That energy has to go someplace in the body, finding its way to your GI tract or your lower back, for instance.

When Aches and Pains Crop Up

What should you do if you suddenly have aches or pains?

If you’re sore after a weekend of activity, wait it out. Give yourself 48 hours to see if it passes. If it doesn’t, ask yourself if you’re able to affect the pain with movement. Are you getting relief from anything? If the answer is yes, it may be a matter of waiting, applying ice and resting. If pain doesn’t respond, it probably requires a visit to your doctor.

“Desensitization helps, whether massage, vibration or stretching,” says Dr. Amy Baxter, an Atlanta-based emergency physician and inventor of Buzzy, a bee-shaped palm-sized device combining cold and vibration to ease the pain of injections, used by thousands of hospitals and clinics.

When pain becomes chronic, investigate what else may be going on. Stress, emotions or even foods can keep your body in a state of inflammation and discomfort. Liou says a naturopath or dietitian may help pinpoint a cause. Even if you don’t have food allergies, you could be a victim of common inflammatory food triggers such as red meat, sugar, dairy or refined carbs.

When you stay on top of pain, ask the right questions and seek help when needed, you can prevent most aches and pains from settling in long-term.

“To prevent chronic pain, find exercises that are not harsh to the joints, wear comfortable shoes, eat healthy and walk as much as possible,” Lee says.

Photograph of Jennifer Nelson
Jennifer Nelson is a Florida-based writer who also writes for MSNBC, FOXnews and AARP. Read More
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