The autonomic nervous system is not the nervous system that transmits the sensation of pain but it has a huge influence on how much pain you feel. It can make your pain more or it can make your pain less.
Learning to control your autonomic nervous system will help you control your pain.
Your body is controlled by two separate nervous systems. The Somatic which you control consciously with your brain, and the Autonomic system that is controlled by your brain without you thinking about.
This is the set of nerves that controls the things that you do voluntarily. When you stand and walk your brain sends a message to your muscles through the somatic nervous system.
When you feel pain it is a function of the sensory division of the somatic nervous system.
The ANS is controlled by a deeper part of your brain called the brain stem. It controls things that your body does unconsciously.
The ANS controls things like:
Heart rate, Respiratory rate, Salvation, Perspiration, Pupil Dilation, Urination, Sexual Arousal, Breathing, and swallowing
Some of these can be influenced by voluntary thought and input, but all of these will continue without conscious thought.
The Autonomic Nervous System has three separate divisions:
The sympathetic nervous system is activated during times of stress.
By stimulating the release of excitatory neurotransmitters it will increase your heart rate and breathing. It will direct blood away from your internal organs and increase the flow of blood and oxygen to your muscles.
These same excitatory neurotransmitters will stimulate your nerves to make your senses sharper and faster. It will make you hypersensitive and any pain that you feel, will feel sharper and your response time will be quicker.
This is your "fight or flight" response. This is the system that takes control when you are being chased by a lion.
The parasympathetic nervous system is activated during times of rest.
Relaxation and pets have been shown to suppress your sympathetic system and stimulate your parasympathetic system
Image thanks to vastateparks via Wikimedia Commons
It will stimulate the release of inhibitory neurotransmitters that will act to lower your heart rate and breathing, and it will increase the blood flow to your internal organs for digestion and other necessary functions.
These inhibitory neurotransmitters will suppress any pain you are feeling. They will make your reaction times slower and it will make any pain that you feel duller and less important.
This is your "rest and digest" response. This allows your body to rest and repair itself.
The enteric nervous system controls your gastrointestinal tract. It controls digestive activities such as production of stomach acid, movement of materials through the digestive tract, and bowel movements.
The three different parts of the autonomic nervous system control a complicated array of different neurotransmitters that have a wide range of different effects on our bodies.
These systems rely on an ever changing balance and constant input from all three groups of nerves in response to our constantly changing environment.
During brief periods of stress while hunting or escaping danger the sympathetic system would dominate and during periods of relaxation the parasympathetic would be stronger.
Over the past many thousands of years this autonomic nervous system has worked well and allowed us to survive a wide variety of perilous and not so perilous situations.
Living today's modern lifestyle we are constantly bombarded with different stressors. Things like driving to work, having a confrontation with your boss, and pressure to meet deadlines stimulates the sympathetic nervous system.
It is this constant stimulation that causes imbalance.
Remember, it is the sympathetic nervous system that "excites" the nerves. It makes your brain sharper, raises your heart rate, and increases the release of stress hormones that put your body on edge, ready for "fight or flight".
When the sympathetic system overwhelms the others, it can lead to fatigue, digestive problems, insomnia, depression, and anxiety, and especially pain.
Any chronic pain that you are experiencing will be much worse when the sympathetic nervous system is making your senses sharper and faster because the pain signal is that much more enhanced.
Discomfort Becomes Agony
Conditions like phantom limb syndrome, neuralgia, neuropathy and reflex sympathetic dystrophy are a malfunction of the nerves themselves. They are sending the pain signal and you are feeling pain, but the cause of the pain is gone or healed or never existed.
Only the pain signal and your pain still exists.
Many of these mental and physical conditions are like a magnifying glass on pain making a pre-existing physical pain much much worse. These conditions are also very difficult to diagnose because the evaluations are confusing and the mechanisms causing the pain are not well understood.
All of these different types of pain are made worse by stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and by release of the excitatory neurotransmitters.
Find time in your life to allow the parasympathetic nervous system to dominate. Remember, this is the system that suppresses or slows your body's reaction to stress and allows for rest and repair.
Finding time every day for meditation or other quiet time for focusing on relaxation will lower your heart rate and blood pressure, improve your digestive problems, and make you feel rested.
The parasympathetic nervous system suppresses the sensation of pain. It slows the response of pain receptors and it inhibits the pain signal traveling to your brain.
When you are relaxed and resting the pain loses some of its sharpness. It becomes more like something you simply "feel", instead of something that makes you suffer.
When you are living with chronic pain it is unlikely that anything will make your pain go away completely. However, putting yourself into a situation that allows your parasympathetic nervous system to dominate will certainly make you more comfortable.
Pain may be inevitable, but people must choose to suffer.