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Chronic Pain and Chronic Illness

If you have chronic pain or illness, then you’ve probably had the experience of dealing with physical and emotional discomfort despite your doctor telling you that you’re fine. Although blood work comes back in the normal range, you have the gut instinct that something is off in your body. I’d imagine you’ve also felt the frustration of feeling cruddy on the inside, while looking like a typical functioning adult on the outside. Your inner and outer worlds aren’t matching and it can feel incredibly isolating to face the denial and misunderstandings from others, let alone trying to meet all the expectations of our demanding world. If you are looking for a validating and affirming community, you’ve found it. So, let’s chat a little bit about what’s going on and what we do about it….

Chronic pain and illness refers to persistent pain and sickness that lasts longer than the expected duration of healing. It can be caused by various medical conditions or injuries, and is often accompanied by physical and emotional consequences, such as increased stress, anxiety, overwhelm, grief and depression.  The impact of chronic illnesses can be wide-ranging, affecting various aspects of a person's life, including physical and emotional well-being, social interactions, and daily activities.


What are the symptoms of chronic illness?

Chronic illness symptoms vary depending on the specific condition, but some common symptoms include fatigue, pain, weakness, cognitive difficulties, inflammation, and fluctuations in mood. Additionally, individuals with chronic illnesses may experience other symptoms specific to their condition, such as shortness of breath in individuals with respiratory disorders or gastrointestinal issues in individuals with digestive conditions. These symptoms can often be debilitating and have a significant impact on a person's overall functioning and quality of life.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 60% of U.S. adults live with at least one chronic illness, and 40% have multiple chronic conditions. This adds up to about 133 million Americans living with chronic illness.

What are the symptoms of chronic pain?

Chronic pain is characterized by persistent and ongoing discomfort that lasts for more than three months. Some common symptoms include continuous or intermittent pain, muscle aches, joint stiffness, fatigue, sleep disturbances, decreased mobility, mood changes, and anxiety. The severity and location of the pain can vary among individuals, making it a complex condition that often requires personalized treatment approaches.

According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 50 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, which is about 20% of the adult population.

How do chronic pain, chronic illness and mental health intersect?

Chronic pain, chronic illness, mental health, and gut health are all interconnected. Due to the 

physical and emotional challenges presented, chronic pain and illness can contribute to mental

 health issues such as depression and anxiety, while poor mental health can also worsen 

pain symptoms. The uncertainty of the future, the constant pain or discomfort, and the impact 

on daily life and relationships can further contribute to a decline in mental well-being


Additionally, research suggests that an unhealthy gut can lead to inflammation and imbalance in the body, which can exacerbate chronic pain and mental health conditions. 


For example, let’s say you suffer from chronic pain and therefore had to limit your daily social interactions and activities to account for reduced energy and being mindful not to escalate your symptoms. In doing so, this can make you more susceptible to anxiety  (“How is this going to impact my symptoms?”), increased stress (“If I don’t get this done today, I will have more to do tomorrow”), grief due to missed experiences and the life you dreamed about, depression from feeling lonely, isolated and misunderstood by your community of friends, family and doctor, and low self-esteem/poor body image as you may not feel comfortable in the body your in. Long-term, the increased mental health symptoms will way heavier on you, creating more inflammation in the body, and increasing the possibility of a medical flare up. It feels like a never ending cycle.


This is why in chronic pain and chronic illness, it is important to address both our physical and mental health together. We cannot heal from one without addressing the other.

The body remembers the experience

I also believe that our body remembers the stories and impact from trauma and adverse experiences. All the emotions and memories we don’t want to deal with and stuff down have to go somewhere, right? It's stored in our bodies, wrecking havoc on our hormones, nerves, muscles and cells. Overtime, if our emotional health is not being addressed, our bodies will start to communicate back to us in the form of illness and pain to get our attention. “Hey, you! We aren’t doing so well and I don’t know how else to get your attention so you will make a change. We are suffering and we can’t just keep ignoring it anymore!” It's the body's way of wanting to be seen and heard.

Pain is the language that our body uses to speak to us about it's concerns.

The role of the vagal nerve in chronic pain and illness

The vagal nerve, also known as the 10th cranial nerve or the vagus nerve, connects to several organs including the heart, lungs, esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, small intestine, and colon. It communicates important sensory and motor functions to these organs, regulating processes such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, and immune response.

The vagal nerve plays a crucial role in maintaining brain and gut health as it regulates processes such as digestion, mood, and immune response. A well-functioning vagal nerve supports a healthy gut microbiome, which is important for overall well-being.

When the vagal nerve is dysregulated, it can 

lead  gastroparesis, irritable bowel syndrome

(IBS), inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), cardiovascular conditions, autoimmune conditions, chronic fatigue, dizziness, acid reflux and more. Furthermore, it may contribute to mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and even neurodegenerative disorders. Basically anything the vagal nerve comes in contact with, it can impact.

 Factors that can contribute to a dysregulated vagal nerve include stress, trauma, toxic work and home environments,  poor relationships, poor lifestyle choices, infection, and inflammation.  These factors can also equally contribute to mental health symptoms.

Due to the connections of our vagal nerve, our Bodily and Emotional health are tightly interwoven. We have to address both in order to unlock full body healing.


The role of functional nutrition?

A functional nutritionist can play a crucial role in addressing chronic pain, illness, and gut health. They take a holistic approach by assessing a person's unique nutritional needs, dietary patterns, and lifestyle factors that may contribute to their conditions in order to get the root of an individuals symptoms to assess what is actually going on. They can help identify potential food sensitivities, optimize gut health through personalized dietary plans, and recommend specific nutrients and supplements that support healing and reduce inflammation. By considering the interconnectedness of these factors, a functional nutritionist can assist individuals in managing their symptoms and improving their overall well-being. Click here to read more about functional nutrition at our practice.

The role of Individual therapy?

Psychotherapy can be beneficial for individuals with chronic pain, illness, and mental health concerns. It provides a safe and supportive space to explore and address the emotional and psychological aspects of these conditions. Through various therapeutic techniques like EMDR, Brainspotting, Parts Work, or mindfulness-based approaches, individuals can learn coping strategies, develop resilience, and gain a better understanding of the mind-body connection. Psychotherapy can help identify and challenge negative thought patterns, manage stress, improve emotional well-being, and enhance overall quality of life in the face of chronic pain, illness, and mental health challenges. It is important to work with a qualified therapist experienced in dealing with these specific issues for optimal support and guidance.

If you are sick and tired of being sick and tired and the never ending loop of pain, illness, and increased mental health symptoms, then we invite you to reach out and see if we are a good fit. Together we can address the whole you, from brain to gut, in a holistic manner to get to the root of what is going on, giving you tools and techniques along the way to promote optimal healing. I know you're exhausted and ready for some rest, let us take it from here.

Written by Chelsea McDonald


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