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Survival of the Safest: The protective nervous system. Part 1.

Anxiety, chronic fatigue and persistent pain. I obviously now have full command of your attention with these sexy conditions!

But given the complexity, functionality and brilliance of the human body, I have long asked myself, why is the body capable of producing such unhelpful responses?

Evolution 101: traits that make us safe are more likely to get passed on. Therefore, traits that enhance our survival chances are always going to be become dominant.

Animals of all sorts have different survival mechanisms. Chameleons can change colour to camouflage themselves from predators. Echidnas have spikey exteriors to physically shield themselves. Koalas live in trees out of harm’s reach.

Humans have highly evolved nervous systems that alert us to threats within and outside our bodies.

Individually, we possess remarkable resilience through our nervous system and its coordinated work with our immune and hormonal systems.

The human nervous system (brain, spinal cord and peripheral nerves) is incredibly well adapted for survival. We experience:

  • Thirst – to protect us from dehydration
  • Cold – to warn us when our environment is becoming dangerous
  • Fatigue – to rest when sick or in need of recovery
  • Pain – to alert us to potential threats
  • Anxiety/fear – to alert us to threats in many different contexts

Mostly, these responses are incredibly useful and essential for survival. Yet sometimes they go haywire.

Unfortunately, happiness and mental comfort come second to these crucial survival processes. If our nervous system unconsciously deems that we are not safe, protective measures are taken.

The body sometimes gets it wrong. It starts producing an exaggerated protective response that is unhelpful. This exaggeration can be a temporary amplification of intensity (think headache/migraine/acute neck or lower back pain) or can also develop into a more persistent pattern of symptoms (eg. chronic pain).

Sometimes a patient will barely be able to walk in my door due to a recent onset of crippling lower back pain. This presentation often has nothing to do with tissue damage, but merely an extremely efficient, and debilitating, protective response.


I liken it to a fire alarm going off in an office building. Everyone is evacuated and 10 fire trucks arrive at the scene. After a full investigation, it is concluded that some burnt toast set off the alarm.

When pain, fatigue or other protective responses persist, this can be another another sign of an overly sensitive nervous system. Chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, anxiety and insomnia. These conditions may all be examples of a protective nervous system that has gone into protective overdrive.

In these more persistent scenarios, it is more akin to a quieter alarm bell going off continually, with an annoying fireman (I am picturing Fireman Sam) coming in to check on our safety daily.

Why does this happen?

Stay tuned for part two.

Frequently Asked Questions

Osteopaths are primary healthcare providers which means that no referral is necessary. If your treatment is being covered by WorkSafe, TAC or DVA, you will require a referral to ensure that your costs are covered.

We are able to treat WorkSafe, TAC, EPC and DVA patients, however you will require a referral from your GP. For TAC and WorkSafe patients we will also require your claim number and date of injury.

We are covered by private health funds via extras cover. Exact details will vary depending on the individual fund and level of cover. We do have a Hicaps machine which enables you to claim health fund payments on the spot.

For medicare rebates you must qualify for an EPC plan. You will need to discuss this with your GP, and a referral is necessary.

Yes, please bring in any X-ray, CT or MRI scan results you may have. If you have a report for these scans, make sure you bring this along as well.

During your first consultation your osteopath will ask questions about your problem and symptoms. They may also ask questions about your medical history, any medications you are taking or other factors that may not appear to be directly related to your problem. If your medical condition changes during the course of your osteopathic treatment, you should tell your osteopath.

Your osteopath may ask about any recent X-rays, scans or test results that you may have.

Depending on the area of your body requiring treatment, your osteopath may ask you to undress to your underwear. It’s important that you feel comfortable, so you may want to wear loose pants or bring a pair of shorts to change into.

Next, your osteopath will conduct a full osteopathic examination and if necessary, clinical tests. This may involve diagnostic, orthopaedic or neurological tests, postural assessments and activities or exercises, which will help determine how best to manage your condition.

The examination may include passive and active movements, such as the osteopath lifting your arms or legs. As part of the examination, you may also be asked to bend over or stand in your underwear. Be sure to wear comfortable, flexible and appropriate underwear.

As osteopathy takes a holistic approach to treatment, your practitioner may look at other parts of your body, as well as the area that is troubling you. For example, if you have a sore knee, your osteopath may also look at your ankle, pelvis and back.

Your osteopath may also provide education and advice to help you manage your condition between treatments. This may include giving you exercises to do at home or work.

Osteopathy is a form of manual therapy, so hands-on treatment may include massage, stretching, repetitive movements, mobilisation and/or manipulation. Most osteopathic treatment is gentle and should not cause undue discomfort. If your injuries do require hands-on treatment of painful and tender areas, your osteopath will exercise care to make you as comfortable as possible.

Some people experience mild soreness for a day or two after treatment, similar to that felt after mild exercise. If this soreness persists or increases significantly, call your osteopath to discuss your concerns.

Your initial consultation may last up to one hour. This will enable your osteopath to take a thorough history, examine and treat you. Follow-up treatments are usually shorter. Depending on your condition, they can take 30-40 minutes.

Generally you would expect to see some changes in your symptoms after one or two visits; however, some long-term or chronic conditions may require a longer course or more frequent treatment. If you have any concerns, your osteopath will be happy to discuss these with you.

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