Pain is a drag, right? It can disrupt your day to day life. It can ruin a fun day out. And it can be downright scary. It’s important to start by saying that pain, although very real of course – does not always mean damage. Think about this. Pain does not always mean damage.
It’s useful to distinguish here between two types of pain. If you fall over and sprain your ankle this is very painful and usually there will be some damage. The ankle becomes red, swollen and inflamed to allow healing to take place and the pain ensures that you reduce your activity for a while to allow recovery. Usually, in a few weeks, the ankle heals and pain goes.
However, we cannot apply the same logic to all types of pain. Commonly patients complain of excruciating pain as they get out of bed. You might think “What have I done? This pain is really bad, I must have done something really awful to my back”. Of course you might think this. The ankle example leads us to assume this happens in all cases. But actually no, all pain does not mean damage but….
All pain is an alarm.
What is happening in every example of pain is that your brain and central nervous system perceives that you are in danger and it is doing its very best to warn you of this. Now, it may not be clear at this stage what the perceived danger is: perhaps it is real physical damage (although unlikely with the ‘getting out of bed’ example). Perhaps you have had an injury here before and your nervous system is more sensitive in this part of your body – Note: not weak but sensitive.
All episodes of pain are mapped onto the brain so future incidents in the same area may be triggered much more easily because the nervous system has ‘remembered’ the previous episode and wants to alert you to this. Kind of like: “Help! We’ve been here before and this was really bad, remember? Don’t move that/ go there or it will happen again!!” Cue nasty muscle spasm to tell you to stop.
What triggers pain?
What is not so well known is that pain can be triggered by many factors, not just physical harm or the ‘memory’ of previous injury. We can be conditioned to feel pain i.e. if it hurts every morning when you get up then you start to expect it. Sometimes this expectation alone can create the pain. Fear of pain also exacerbates pain.
Stress and emotional upset can be a strong trigger for pain. Ever noticed that your back ‘goes’ just before a very important meeting or work trip? Just had an argument with your partner only to find your neck goes into spasm? In these situations you haven’t injured yourself, your brain and central nervous system is alerting you to threat in the best way it knows how – causing pain.
If you doubt that muscles can cause sufficient pain to stop you, try this: Make a tight fist with your hand. At first this doesn’t hurt so much but imagine if you did this for several minutes or hours – as your back muscles often do – this would really hurt!
So, remember, we are not machines that can be fixed by purely mechanical means. We have this massive computer on top of our shoulders that is constantly receiving information, interpreting it and responding accordingly. Knowing that the brain is central to every pain experience makes it a very important focus in treatment and rehabilitation from pain. Want to find out more? Do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or 020 8090 2445.