Ringing the Pain Alarm
by Robin Isaacs
Everyone feels pain at some point. It may range from a small paper cut to a broken bone, a headache to a sunburn, a sprain to full blown arthritis. Pain is an output of our brain and nervous system that helps to keep us safe and motivate action or change to protect the body.The latest research suggests the more you know about your pain the less impact pain will have on your longevity and your ability to move and function.
Recent pain science research shows there is very little connection between pain and tissue damage in chronic or persistent pain (pain lasting longer than three to six months). Even new (or acute) pain isn’t a perfect indicator of damage. For example, most people with a newly broken bone have very little pain after the limb is immobilized in a cast.
Pain works more like an ALARM. When parts of the body experience “danger messages”, the brain then has to make a determination whether those messages require action. When you sit in a car or plane for a long time and your butt hurts, that pain is there to motivate you to change position or to take action like getting up and walking around. You may awake with hand numbness or neck pain that slowly goes away once you change position or stand up. This pain is not indicating damage it is just merely telling you about mechanical pressure, blood supply or space concerns for your tissues.
Pain can also result from chemical irritation to nerves or tissues such as inflammation, dehydration or waste product accumulation. “Dry muscles” or “acidic muscles” can occur in individuals that don’t get enough water, nutrients, have unhealthy eating habits, or have by-products in their tissues from weakness, fatigue or overuse. Once again, this is an indicator that change is needed, but does not necessarily indicate damage.
Pain is just ONE of the many outputs from the brain in response to the danger messages from the body. Several other responses also get mobilized when the body feels threatened, including changes in movement patterns, stress responses, immune system and endocrine changes. Pain processing in the brain can be increased or decreased by multiple factors: sensitivity of the sensory system, your beliefs and thoughts about the severity of the problem, your past experiences or even your neighbor’s or family member’s history with similar conditions. Fear and anxiety have also been linked with increased sensitivity of the nervous system and production of unwanted inflammatory hormones. The science of pain is complex, but researchers and medical professional are currently developing a much better understanding of pain.
Surprisingly, science is now showing us that educating patients about their pain is an effective tool to improve functional ability. In many cases, simply being told you have arthritis can be disabling; while seeing the right health professional and learning condition specific management strategies can be quite enabling. Knowledge is power and in the world of pain management this has been proven true. Physical Therapists are required to learn about pain science in order to renew their licenses, so they are highly qualified to educate you on your pain and what it might represent. See your Physical Therapist for help managing (or eliminating) the pain.