Thursday, August 25, 2011

Posture and Pain -

Pain is a tricky sensation. Whether chronic or acute, it can greatly impact our productivity, mood, and even our health. Pain is a very complex sensory event that includes both a physical (physiological) and a psychological component. The link between mind and body is still a big mystery and how this relates to pain is not yet fully understood.

You can almost always tell when someone is in pain because of their body language. For most people, the primal response to a lot of pain is to “curl up into a ball” or “double over” in pain, considered “submissive” postures. A headache is greeted by putting your head in your hands. An old injury or sore spot can make you cringe and hunch over to nurse or rub it.

Our reaction to pain alters our posture, but can our posture also affect our reaction to pain?

A recent study suggests that it can and does. Slouching and submissive postures like these can actually lower pain tolerance and increase the sensation of pain. This creates a feedback effect (more pain leads to more slouching which leads to more pain, etc.) that can actually make pain worse. Conversely, taking on a “dominant” pose, such as sitting up straight (with good posture) or puffing up your chest, can significantly increase your threshold for pain and lessen the sensation of pain.

The reasons why this happens are not clear at this time, but the researchers put forth an interesting hypothesis. Taking on a more dominant posture may make people feel more in control or more powerful, therefore being able to handle more pain. The phrase “mind over matter” comes to mind, and appears to matter.

When we think of dominant posturing, the animal kingdom probably comes to mind. Typically, only the “alpha” member of a group exhibits this type of upright, puffed up posturing. Conventional thought on this is that the alpha displays this posturing as a result of being the alpha and having characteristics of being stronger or more resilient. However, other research has shown that the link between displays of power and actual power may work both ways. In some animals, taking on the alpha posture, even if they are not the alpha, caused hormonal changes associated with being the alpha. Among these changes are decreased cortisol (a stress related hormone), increased testosterone, and a corresponding decrease to the amount of pain perceived.

Fake it until you make it

What this study suggests is that if you can manage to, despite your pain, maintain a solid, confident, and dominant pose, you can increase your pain tolerance and decrease the amount of pain you feel. This effect appears to occur simply from assuming the pose, even if you don’t believe yourself to be dominant or in control. For people who are sensitive or allergic to pain medication, this technique can help to reduce pain without the side effects. Even if you aren’t sensitive to medications, this can help to reduce or eliminate the medication you need to manage pain. The old saying “fake it until you make it” takes on a whole new meaning.

Researched and written by Dr. Rebecca Malamed, M.D. with assistance from Mr. Malcolm Potter.

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