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How an Overactive Sympathetic Nervous System Can Introduce You to Chronic Pain

By HERWriter
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Wellness related image Photo: Getty Images

Your autonomic nervous system takes care of things without your conscious involvement, all day, every day. While you're awake and while you're asleep.

Breathing, digesting your food, blood flow, sweating, just to name a few functions, are the territory of the autonomic nervous system.

There are two branches, the parasympathetic nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. These two systems do not operate simultaneously. When one is active, the other is not.

The parasympathetic nervous system is in control when you are relaxed or at rest. If you are taken by surprise by an emergency or a stressful situation, the sympathetic nervous system takes over like the Incredible Hulk and roars into action.

This "fight or flight" response makes your heart beat faster, sending blood at a faster than normal rate throughout the body. Digestion slows, so that more energy is available for the perceived challenge.

Your adrenal glands release the stress hormone adrenaline, also called epinephrine, which activates your muscles with extra oxygen, dilates your pupils and make your response to the situation the biggest, best and fastest it can be.

Short-term, this arrangement works very well. It keeps us safe and alive. And when the parasympathetic nervous system takes over after the crisis, ideally the body has an opportunity to regain its balance and carry on.

But sometimes the sympathetic nervous system stays active for extended periods of time. Perhaps you've lost your job, or lost a loved one. Perhaps you are being bullied at school or at work.

Maybe you have financial problems that leave you feeling vulnerable and afraid. Feeling in danger and at risk is a clarion call to the sympathetic nervous system.

When the sympathetic nervous system is in charge for too long, the adrenals may release cortisol instead of adrenaline. Over time, a chronic overuse of cortisol can cause harm to our brains and our bodies.

This is chronic stress. This is a road to poor health.

The hypothalamus is the part of your brain that kicks off the stress response. Non-essential body systems are bumped down the priority list. Repair and growth in the body go on the back burner.

A chronically overactive sympathetic nervous system can lead to high blood pressure, and can increase the risk of asthma, cancer, gastrointestinal problems and ulcers.

It can suppress the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to illness. Chronic suppression of the immune system can also lead to chronic inflammation.

In the short-term, inflammation is one of the body's ways of protecting the body from foreign invaders and other toxins, and of repairing damaged tissue. But chronic inflammation is an invitation to ill health like atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. And chronic inflammation opens the door wide to chronic pain.


Nervous system

Understanding the stress response

How stress affects the body

Explaining How The Nervous System Contributes To Chronic Pain

How the Nervous System Works

Visit Jody's website and blog at http://www.ncubator.ca and http://ncubator.ca/blogger

Reviewed June 7, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton

Add a Comment5 Comments

EmpowHER Guest

Thank you Jody, of course my tone was ironic. There's not much information around. Naturally one could perform in depth research but it gets somewhat hard and uncertain. Rather than drugs (I am in this situation and many horrific others because of a stupid drug), I was in search for general lifestyle guidelines to try and treat the condition with an holistic approach so to avoid other messing with the body.
I appreaciated the article, very useful. Thank you.

February 4, 2013 - 12:20pm
HERWriter (reply to Anonymous)

Holistic, lifestyle approach is the only one that has ever helped my pain personally. 

Some possibilities are acupuncture and chiropractic with or without laser treatment, castor oil wraps for pain accompanied by swelling. Consider dietary changes in case you have any food sensitivities or allergies. 

An ointment called Traumeel sometimes helps with muscle pain, and Lymphagen is more for swelling from a sluggish lymph system but it can also help with pain of different types.

These are a few of the things that have helped me. Not meant of course as any kind of professional recommendation, I'm no doctor, just a person who has contended with quite a lot of pain over the years.

February 4, 2013 - 2:06pm
EmpowHER Guest

ok but how one cures this ???

February 2, 2013 - 3:19pm
HERWriter (reply to Anonymous)

That is the big question. There are different answers for different conditions, and unfortunately for many conditions there are no answers yet. But research is still going on.

February 4, 2013 - 11:04am
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Jody Smith)

Piggybacking off what Joan has said, while there is no cure insight, doctors are getting better at detecting these autonomic balance issues. I am not quite sure when it was developed but there is now a test that dectects these imbalances and allows doctors to create better care paths for the patients. Since I am not a expert on this topic, here is a article that really details what this testing provides: http://www.criticalcareassessmentupdates.com/achieve-autonomic-balance-with-autonomic-nervous-system-testing/

September 17, 2013 - 2:34pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.