Pain’s Deeper Meaning

by Christiane Northrup, M.D.


When it comes to pain, it’s nearly impossible to separate the mind and the body.

Every year, millions of women cope with pain. Women are more likely to experience chronic pain syndromes, such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, and other painful conditions, than men. This has a lot to do with your life’s circumstances—and what you believe your life can be like. Layered on to this are real physiological factors that affect the overall health of your body and your ability to heal.

Two Kinds of Pain

There are two kinds of pain: acute pain and chronic pain. Acute pain is usually severe, but only present for six months or less. Typically, this type of pain is caused by tissue damage and inflammation that occurs as a result of an injury. Acute pain isn’t necessarily bad. It often indicates that you need to change a behavior. For example, you need to take your hand away from the hot stove or rest your muscles. Acute pain can also be associated with normal body processes, such as “growing pains,” muscle soreness after weight strengthening exercises, or labor. In this case, acute pain is a sign of a positive change that’s taking place in the body.

On the other hand, chronic pain is either the result of persistent tissue injury (present for more than six months) or the ongoing activation of pain receptors. This can lead to changes in your brain that result in increased nerve sensitivity. Over time, this depletes the neurotransmitters in the brain, especially serotonin, which may explain why people with chronic pain are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Similarly, people with chronic depression and anxiety are more likely to develop a pain disorder due to concomitant changes in their brain’s neurotransmitters.

When it comes to pain, it’s nearly impossible to separate the mind and the body. Research has shown that emotional pain, such as the pain of rejection, registers in the same place in the brain as physical pain. This explains why emotional pain can intensify physical pain, and vice versa. Eisenberger1

Breaking the Cycle of Chronic Pain

While acute pain sends the message to slow down and wait for your body to heal, chronic pain management requires the opposite—something that seems counter-intuitive to many women dealing with chronic pain. According to Chinese medicine, chronic pain is caused by stuck energy (called chi). To free the “stuckness,” you have to get moving! Far too many women remain on pain medication that not only dulls their memory, it prevents them from doing the very thing that will end the pain—getting up and moving forward in their lives.

Pain can become a vicious cycle in a woman’s life. Here’s how:

  1. Believing that one’s chronic pain is due to an unhealed injury leads to more pain.
  2. The perception of pain leads to the use of pain medications.
  3. Chronic use of pain medications dulls the ability to move forward in life.
  4. Not being able to move forward in life leads to the additional pain of feeling stuck and hopeless.

As long as a woman believes that her degree of pain is related only to an unhealed back, or neck, etc., she’s not likely to feel relief. In addition, when someone lives on disability benefits and no longer has a vocation or avocation, the chances for pain improvement are very slim.

Get Moving!

Exercise, and movement in general, increases endorphins, which make you feel better both physically and emotionally. Experiment with different forms of exercise and reposition your body throughout the day. This causes blood to flow to the tissues, bringing them oxygen and nutrients essential to the healing process. The objective is to keep your joints and spine as fluid as possible and tissue inflammation to a minimum. Ultimately, this will help get rid of your pain and help you stay pain free. Start slowly, enlisting the help of a physical therapist, neuromuscular therapist, or professional trainer.

Here are other suggestions to help you move that chi:

  • Acupuncture. This practice helps release stuck, stagnated chi. It also helps the body release its own opiates (pain relieving neurotransmitters similar to those in oxycodone, Percocet) and other addictive narcotics. Producing these substances naturally eliminates the chance for overdose, mental dullness, or other adverse side effects.
  • Resolve emotional issues. Often there’s an emotional or life situation keeping you stuck. Take a good look at your relationships and your job (or how you typically spend your day). Do you feel “stuck?” Are you in a rut? Is it time to make some changes? Don’t be embarrassed to seek help in the form of a medical professional or life coach.
  • Change habitual thought patterns. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that our thoughts create our reality! You know this, too. So do what you can to replace health-eroding thoughts and emotions with more positive ones. As a result, you’ll change your biochemistry, your life circumstances, and be more able to move through challenging times.Many people have been taught that they can’t have what they want and that a life full of struggle is somehow more honorable than one of joy. Unlearn this lesson! It’s not selfish to seek pleasure in our thoughts, relationships, and vocation. Life is meant to be lived joyfully! (Learn more by reading The Secret Pleasures of Menopause.)
  • Get some body work. Working with a massage therapist, neuromuscular therapy, or a physical therapist can help ease your pain and get you moving again.

Physiological Factors

Of course you’ll want to support your body as you transition to a more active lifestyle. This starts with a pharmaceutical grade multi-vitamin/mineral products. Sometimes there are underlying physiological factors that need to be addressed, too. Here are a few I suggest you pay attention to:

  • Check vitamin D levels. An overwhelming number of studies show that at least half of all people (my guess is it’s closer to three quarters) with unexplained chronic pain, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other musculoskeletal pain, have low vitamin D levels (less than 20 ng/ml). Faraj2 Holick3 SchwalfenbergPlotnikoff5 You want your vitamin D levels to be 52 ng/ml or higher (but not higher than 100 ng/ml). This may require taking 5,000 IUs of vitamin D per day for a few months. After that 2,000–3,000 IUs per day is usually enough to maintain the optimal level of 52 ng/ml for people with chronic pain.
  • Decrease tissue inflammation. Tissue inflammation of all kinds increases pain. Being overweight is one of the most common causes of tissue inflammation because excess body fat actually produces inflammatory chemicals in the body. Often, people who lose weight find that their chronic pain disappears. Proper nutrition in the form of a low-glycemic diet is key.
    To reduce inflammation, make sure you get enough omega-3 fats. Aim for 1,000 to 2,000 mg EPA and DHA per day. Four ounces of wild Alaskan salmon contains 1,300 mg. Ground flax or hemp seed are also good sources.
  • Get enough magnesium. Stress and pain medication deplete the body of magnesium. And a large percentage of women with chronic pain syndromes are also deficient in this important mineral. Among other things, magnesium is essential for maintaining healthy serotonin levels in the brain. Try 500 mg of magnesium twice a day with food. You really can’t “overdose” on magnesium because it’s excreted in the stool, although too much can cause diarrhea. If that happens, just cut back on the dose.

The “keys to the kingdom” of recovery from chronic pain are available to anyone willing to change their perception of the sensations in their body. But you must engage your will in order to get better. The brain can be trained to turn down the volume on pain perception. Any well-trained athlete will tell you that focus, intention, and rhythmic aerobic movement can change your perception of pain. So does getting engrossed in a good movie or book!

The very act of deciding to move forward in your life engages your will. This releases pain-relieving opiates and moves chi. On the other hand, looking for evidence of disability increases the pain response in your body. Know this: Regardless of what has happened in your life, you have the ability to engage your will and move forward. When you do this, you will begin the process that reprograms your mind and body toward health, resilience, and a pain-free life.

Learn More — Additional Resources


  1. Eisenberger, N.I., et. al., 2003. Does rejection hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion, Science, 302(5643):237-9.
  2. Al Faraj, S., Al Mutairi, K. 2003. Vitamin D deficiency and chronic low back pain in Saudi Arabia. Spine. Jan 15;28(2):177-9.
  3. Holick, M.F., 2003. Vitamin D deficiency: what a pain it is. Mayo Clin. Proc., Dec;78(12):1457-9.
  4. Schwalfenberg, G., 2009. Improvement of chronic back pain or failed back surgery with vitamin D repletion: a case series, J Am Board Fam Med, Jan-Feb;22(1):69-74.
  5. Plotnikoff, G. 2003. Prevalence of severe hypovitaminosis D in patients with persistent, nonspecific musculoskeletal pain, Mayo Clinic Proceedings, December; vol. 78: pp. 1463-1470.
Last Updated: October 18, 2009

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D.

Christiane Northrup, M.D., is a visionary pioneer and a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness. Recognizing the unity of body, mind, and spirit, she empowers women to trust their inner wisdom, their connection with Source, and their ability to truly flourish.


Add comment
  1. Bre
    3 years ago

    Thank you for this article. I have had chronic pain for 20 years as a result of osteoarthritis, degenerative spine, spinal stenosis, osteophytes, ankylosing spondylosis, failed lumbar and cervical laminectomies at C4-5, L 4-5, herniated disc at S-1. I’ve been so depressed and in pain, lately, I considered end of life methods.

    I’ve always been a fitness fanatic, except, the last 6 months I’ve lost interest and my well-toned physique.

    I’m going to try and motivate myself to try this. Pray that it works.

    Thank you for sharing your incredible work and insight.

  2. Jean S.
    3 years ago

    WOW!!! This is the best information I have ever read on pain. And it all makes perfect sense!!! No one that I know sitting home on disability ever gets better….they have all gotten much, much worse. I read an article you wrote years ago about a doctor who had bad back pain. He finally wound up sitting home too. It was strongly recommended to him to get moving. Through his dedication and physical therapy he did get back to work. The worst thing for his back was to quit using it. Thank you Dr. Northrup for sharing all your knowledge with us. It is priceless!!!!

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