Central Park beckons, but you can’t seem to bring yourself to hike in North Woods like you always do every New York summer. For the past three months, a nagging back pain seemingly out of nowhere has held you back from not just workout routines but also activities you’ve always done with ease, like sitting for extended periods. With no traumatic event to blame and even after treating yourself to massages and heat packs, frustration has set in and you wonder where to go from here.
Chronic or persistent body pain is a struggle many of us experience, even as non-athletes or without any obvious physical trauma to explain the symptom. They can occur in any part of the body, and in many cases, not getting to the root cause prevents alleviating the difficulties meaningfully. It’s officially defined as pain lasting more than 12 weeks, sometimes even with treatment and medication. NYC-based certified physical fitness practitioner Joseph Gonzalez, who specializes in solving movement dysfunction as founder of Mejor Strength and as an expert on the wellness platform Puremaven, puts it succinctly: “When it gets in the way of doing the things you love and,” he adds pointedly, ”you're scared of stressing parts of your body out, you're not living. You're living in fear!”
If you suffer from persistent pain with no obvious explanation for its cause, experts say the worst thing you could do is adopt a random treatment plan. As you hopefully make your way to seeking professional help, understanding how a combination of hardwired, especially unconscious, habits could be behind your pain is an excellent place to start:
1. You may be breathing incorrectly.
Breathing happens without much thought, so you may miss the fact the respiratory system plays a key role in both posture and spinal stabilization. They’re so co-dependent on each other that a dysfunction in one will impact the other. In fact, medical evidence has shown improper breathing could link to lower back pain.
Many of us are probably not breathing correctly, and it isn’t as simple as it may seem that many wellness practices like yoga and meditation teach proper and intentional breathing as a foundational skill.
2. You’re emotionally distressed.
You’ve accepted that headaches can be a by-product of stress, but…back pain? You may think that work deadlines or a nagging family issue has nothing to do with your back, but scientific evidence shows that stress has real physical effects on how your body deals with pain. Being in a high-stress state of mind causes blood pressure to rise, which ultimately increases your breathing and heart rate, causing muscle tension.
Trying to identify the potential physical roots of body pains is a logical starting point for clinicians and experts when diagnosing them. However, Joseph, whose unique, 360-degree approach to physical training earned him the nickname "Movement Detective" from his clients, never rules out how emotions could correlate with a client’s body pains. “I’ve had a client whose emotional link to their traumas has never been truly addressed, and they tend to take a longer time to heal,” he explains. “But as they worked through those in therapy with a psychoanalyst, I could see a real positive change in our training.”
3. You’re feeding your body harmful things.
You are what you eat, as the classic adage goes. Our immune system is a major factor in why pain persists in our muscles, tissues, and joints when our body deals with any trauma. Our diet supports our immune system by turning it on and off at appropriate times. According to Dr. Fred Tabung, a visiting researcher at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and as cited in Harvard Health Publishing, “a poor diet can alter your immune system, so it acts abnormally and can contribute to persistent low-grade inflammation.” Poor diet, it seems, is tantamount to having a bacterial infection.
Unhealthy diet habits directly affect our internal organs. Bad liver health, which results from a suboptimal diet, being a little overweight, or consuming alcohol, among other things, would lead to higher enzyme levels that could cause body pains.
4. Your walking behavior needs improvement.
Just like breathing, walking is something we don’t think much about because we do it as we go about our daily lives. One of the key factors that contribute to neck issues and core instability is spatial recognition. Joseph clarifies, “Ideally, as we walk, we should feel as if objects are moving towards us, but we tend to hyperfocus on a subject, making us use parts of our body that shouldn’t be used.” It’s a habit that we don’t even realize we’re doing, but that develops into a pattern whose effects stack up.
The National Library of Medicine found that “influencing walking behavior can increase the physical activity of patients with chronic pain hospitalized for multidisciplinary rehabilitation.” They found that activities that required walking were a better solution to help patients improve function and reduce pain. Developing a proper walking habit is an essential part of recovering from chronic body pains.
5. You’re working against gravity without realizing it.
“What? I should worry about gravity, too?!” It might sound funny that the very thing holding us firmly on the ground would contribute to our body pains, but it’s important to build habits that let you manage gravity well since it’s always there! How we hold ourselves sitting down is as important as how we hold our bodies standing up, and gravity is a factor in both cases.
When we start moving as babies, we develop antigravity muscles (our core muscles). They help maintain proper joint alignment in our body and prevent musculoskeletal pains and injuries. As we age, when we slowly lose the ability to use antigravity muscles to support, our alignment of the head, shoulders, spine, hips, knees, and feet change, which then builds onto our pain.
“Absent any physical trauma, there’s no such thing as a body pain that just happens `all of a sudden’.” Joseph emphasizes, “It’s habits and micro-pains that have been stacking on top of each other.” Like with most things that cause us harm, experts believe it's crucial to catch these habits sooner rather than later, as it becomes tougher to break free from them. Whether it’s one of a combination of these underlying causes, getting to the root cause with the right expert help can bring lasting relief.