Pain is an important sensation generated by our brain but felt in our body. Pain is a complex output, or ‘warning signal’, from our brain when it perceives ‘threatening’ information sent from our body tissues (such as muscle, bone, skin, organ and neurological tissue). It does this as a protective mechanism to prevent further harm.
For example, when we have an acute injury (such as rolling an ankle or cutting a finger) there is physical damage to those tissues. The brain and spinal cord process information sent from these damaged tissues and output an alarm signal (pain) to protect the body. Feeling pain helps us stay safe and protects us from further injuring ourselves by stopping us from putting weight on the ankle or withdrawing our finger from the sharp surface. This happens instantaneously when the physical damage occurs, and you may still feel lingering pain as the tissues heal. When we see people in acute pain our primary goal is to determine what is injured and then provide management to help the body recover and heal back to full function as soon as possible.
What happens if the pain hangs around? Pain that lasts longer than it takes for the tissues to heal (around 3 months) is referred to as chronic pain. With chronic pain there is a disconnect between the amount of physical damage and the pain experience. Meaning the physical damage to your ankle or your finger may have healed, but you may still be experiencing pain. This doesn’t make the pain any less real. However, it shows the complex nature of how our brain processes ‘threatening’ information and outputs the pain sensation. The information that your brain processes before expressing pain, is not just physical damage, but may also include many other factors. Such as what previous injuries you’ve had, how you healed from these injuries, previous medical help you may have received, whether that was a positive experience, your memory of injuring yourself, how intense your pain was, how you grew up dealing with pain, how well you’re sleeping, your lifestyle, habits, beliefs, fears and many other factors may all affect the level of pain you can experience.
To help our understanding of this complex process an analogy we often use to explain it is this. Imagine you crank up the volume on your radio. You hear the music louder. However, the person on the other end of the radio is not singing any louder. This analogy is similar to someone experiencing chronic pain. The pain signals are being amplified. However, there may not be any additional physical damage to the affected area.
What to do?
When helping people in chronic pain we need to think more broadly that just a tissue damage scenario. Quite often factors such as the beliefs about pain, fear of further injuring a body area, poor sleep and nutrition can all affect a person’s pain experience. When seeing a health practitioner it is their role to educate you about pain and provide an individualised plan incorporating regular movement and advice to help empower you to return to the activities you love. Helping you take control of your pain.