Obviously, this article is going to sound a little self serving since I am, after all, a chiropractor in Mesa with a vested interest in my patients not taking drugs of any kind unless absolutely necessary. My more inquisitive patients all seem to ask a similar question…if the body is so brilliantly designed, where do chronic musculoskeletal complaints come from?
Certainly there are injuries that are severe and result in tissue damage that is much greater in degree and have a high likelihood of producing chronic pain. Think skiing, skateboarding or snowboarding injury. High speed car crashes. Motorcycle accidents. Equestrian wipeouts. Surgery.
But what about the weekend warrior who pulls a hamstring? The 8 hour per day computer user? Or me, as a lifelong martial artist, who has had untold injuries over the decades to pretty much every potential area of my body? Why do these situations lead to chronic pain?
My personal thought (backed by lots of research and years of clinical practice) is that the development of chronicity has much to do with how we handle the immediate period after the injury or onset of symptoms. What do the vast majority of us do (which is, of course, the direction indicated by billions of dollars of advertising) in this immediate period? Rest the area and pop an over the counter pain medication or anti-inflammatory. This is arguably the worst possible combination possible.
First, let’s address the immobilization aspect. Literally within minutes of immobilization, the soft tissues surrounding the immobilized joint begin to break down. The longer that joint is kept from a full range of motion, the worse the tissue damage. Anyone who’s ever broken a bone and had it casted can attest to how much joint motion is lost once the cast comes off. Recovery time can be even longer than the immobilization time.
With tissue injury, ultimately, the size of the region affected is larger than the original injury size. Consider the swelling associated with an ankle sprain—the area of the ligament injury may actually be very small, but the entire ankle, foot and lower leg swells up to the size of a balloon and becomes discolored. Now the amount of injured tissue is much larger than the original injury and this tissue has to heal. But healing occurs in a haphazard fashion if the area is not used. I give the analogy of a leak in your bathroom faucet. You call in the plumber. He shows up with a crew that’s been drinking at the bar for half the day. They proceed to rip out half the bathroom to fix the leak and rebuild with a level of skill only a three-sheets-to-the-wind Irishman can achieve.
Our body is no different. As we heal after an injury, the new tissue, whether it is bone, muscle, ligaments, fascia or tendons, is laid down in a disorganized manner. Only as that region goes through movement do these healing tissues become stressed and become organized along the lines of force. Immobilization becomes the enemy of proper healing.
Next, let’s address the routine use of over the counter anti-inflammatories, or prescription, for that matter. All anti-inflammatory medications are, by their very nature, designed to interfere with the inflammatory process. Unfortunately, inflammation is the normal process of healing. Disrupt this and you disrupt the ability of our tissues to heal the way they were designed. Contrast this with the use of ice right after an injury. Ice works simply by reducing blood flow to the newly injured area, thus keeping the damage of the drunken plumbing crew from getting too out of hand. Arguably a good idea. But then blocking the crew from repairing the area in specific ways, like maybe taking all their crescent wrenches away from them, is going to result in improper repair.
Hopefully you can begin to understand why the combination of immobilization and anti-inflammatory medications immediately after an injury may be the first step in developing chronic pain. Repeat this cycle the next time you injure the area and the dysfunction begins to mount.
This particular study demonstrates just how bad the outcome can be when non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) are used after a rotator cuff surgery tendon repair. Researchers looked at the tendon to bone healing that occurred in the presence of NSAIDs and found that every case was affected, from complete failure of healing to weakened tissue. No normal healing tissue was present when compared to the group in which no NSAIDs were used.
While this relates to surgical cases in animals, the same process is interfered with in every case of tissue injury that happens in our body when NSAIDs are used. While my opinion that you should run to your chiropractor at the first hint of any type of pain may sound self-serving, the reality is that you may be diverting the development of chronic pain.