Physical trauma and the related pain and inflammation can be significant sources of chronic stress.
When chronic stress created by a cycle of inflammation and pain is broken, the exhausted HPAs and the balance of the body are then able to repair and heal.
The effects of trauma, inflammation, and pain must be understood by anyone seeking to minimize the Chronic Stress response.
Trauma is defined as an injury caused to living tissue from an extrinsic agent. Physical trauma can result from injuries such as falls, cuts, burns, and anything else that damages tissues. Inflammation is the body’s natural response to heal damaged tissues. When physical trauma causes chronic inflammation, critical physiological functions become increasingly compromised. As a result, the body has a tougher time coping with the inflammation and pain that compromised these systems in the first place.
Significant traumas––especially long-lasting ones––increase the production of cortisol, the primary anti-inflammatory hormone, and can result in HPA Syndrome. Chronic stresses such as inflammation cause hyperstimulation and exhaustion of the HPA glands from demands on cortisol production. Add trauma to a body with exhausted HPAs and now you have a destructive cycle, with the HPA glands becoming more fatigued and the body less capable of resolving its inflammation and pain.
Let’s consider whiplash, a physical trauma that induces severe pain and inflammation. A common whiplash injury occurs when the driver of one vehicle collides with the rear of another vehicle. The driver who was rear-ended receives a whiplash injury. Because of tissue and possible skeletal damage, the whiplash inflames the discs, muscles, and ligaments supporting the vertebrae of the neck. It also causes head trauma and accompanying inflammation, because the brain literally gets bounced around inside the skull upon impact.
The inflammatory cascade to the neck that results from a whiplash injury stimulates the production of cortisol and can ultimately lead to HPA syndrome. A whiplash injury can also have a harmful effect on the vagus nerve, which transmits signals from the brain to the gastrointestinal tract, heart, and larynx. Often, people without digestive issues develop gastrointestinal symptoms and disorders after experiencing a whiplash injury. The resulting digestive maladies then become another source of chronic stress, further increasing the total stress load on the body.
Inflammation is a localized, protective response that occurs in the body as the direct result of an injury or the destruction of tissues. Inflammation is actually an immune response intended to destroy, dilute, or sequester the injured tissue, as well as any infectious agents that might be causing tissue damage. Inflammation involves a complex series of events designed to protect the rest of the body from the by-products of the damage that has occurred in a localized area and brings healing to the injured area.
In its visible, tactile, acute form—such as when you hit your thumb with a hammer—inflammation appears red, hot, and swollen. Inflammation is obviously painful and can cause loss of function. Low-grade, chronic inflammation, such as the inflammation that might occur in the small intestine of someone who is gluten intolerant, might not be painful or perceptible at all. However, subclinical inflammatory processes—such as those associated with gluten intolerance—are a serious problem and a major source of chronic stress, handicapping the healing process.
Inflammation is a complex process that varies in its ability to be either beneficial or damaging to the body. Inflammation can be a response to gross tissue damage induced by some form of trauma. Inflammation is also one of the body’s first responses to infections as the body tries to rush immune cells to the affected tissue to defend against infection. These types of inflammation are beneficial to the body because they aid in destroying the pathogen and help in the healing process. The body may also trigger inflammation in an area with no threat or foreign invader, indicating the previously discussed autoimmune condition in which the body perceives its own tissues as foreign.
Pain is an unpleasant sensory experience associated with tissue damage. We’ve all experienced the mild pain of a minor cut, burn, or muscle strain. However, pain resulting from a shattered bone, serious burn, ruptured spinal disc, or cancer can persist 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and become a source of intense chronic stress. Many people consider inflammation and pain as a part of everyday life, something they must deal with as a natural to the aging process. Inflammation and pain are not normal at any age, and the failure to address them can lead to a disruption of critical physiological systems. Tissue swelling caused by the inflammatory process is one of the primary reasons we experience pain.
Chronic pain commonly disrupts sleep. Sometimes such pain is so disruptive that you can’t get the rest necessary to recover from the trauma causing the pain. Without sufficient rest and recovery, your HPA hormone reserves become depleted. This further exacerbates the state of HPA syndrome that began with the initial physical trauma and related inflammation and pain.