Having a physical problem? How is your mental health?
Author: Britt Raaijmakers
The ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ will take place this year from 10-16 May, which prompted me to write this blog. The Mental Health Foundation reports that mental health issues are all too common in the workplace and it is the leading cause of sickness absence. A reported 70 million workdays are lost each year, due to mental health problems in the UK.
Now, I am a physiotherapist, so you might think I deal with the physical wellbeing of my patients. And you are right! I would see people coming in with for instance neck, back or knee pain. Their goals are generally to get rid of that disturbing pain and return to certain activities like lifting or running without any issues.
How comes mental health into play in my practice you wonder?
Well… Whereas once (a long, long time ago) was thought that the body and mind were separate entities and that pain had to have a physical origin, we do know better now. Our body and mind strongly interact with each other and how! We might still not know all the details (‘Hello, complex brain’) but I am confident to say that any person’s physical health depends on their mental health state and vice versa.
How does that work? Let’s try and keep it as simple as possible and take ‘stress’ as an example.
We might all have experienced it at some point, and ‘stress’ is one of those words that usually relates to something negative. However, ‘stress’ is actually really useful for immediate, short-term, potentially dangerous, situations. It can help you cope with these. Your body responds to stress by releasing certain hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond. This will help us, for instance, to focus for a deadline at work you have coming up or an exam at school. Or to run away from a lion, that too! Although all these situations can be scary, this is typically referred to as ‘Eustress’, e.g., positive stress.
It’s evil sister called ‘distress’ (negative stress) is where things can get tricky! You will get those same responses in your body, but they just will not stop firing, because your stress levels are continually high. This could be due to things in your personal or family life, financial issues, ongoing pressure at work, you name it. These ongoing stress responses in your body can have a significant negative impact on your health.
One, perhaps of the more minor, but often first, signs, is that distress can lead to ongoing increased muscular tension in your body, which can give you that annoying neck or back pain that you decide to go and see a physio with.
If you would knock on my physio door I would focus on assessing your neck and treat those muscles, however I would have to discuss your stress levels with you and take those into account. If I do not, we might not be able to set realistic expectations and reach your goals.
So, physiotherapists will have to be aware of someone’s Mental Health, which can obviously extend beyond stress, as it plays a part in your pain and it can influence your prognosis and treatment plan. The better we know you, the better we can help you get your physical (and mental) health back to the level you want it to be!
Movement and exercise will be a big part of your treatment plan. That will help both those ‘tight’ muscles and gives your mental health a boost also (Let’s release those endorphins!)
Preventing is still preferred over treating, so please have a look at the Mental Health Foundation’s website for some great resources for some great self-care!: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications