What Is Pain?
Pain is an unpleasant feeling produced by our brain in response to a real (or potential) threat. Pain is important – it is our body’s way of protecting us from injury. However, our body only has “danger” receptors not “pain” receptors; it is the brain’s assessment of the situation that decides whether pain is produced or not. It’s important to remember that pain is an output signal from the brain rather than an input signal from our body. Physical therapists for chronic pain know how to address this with an all-in-one approach for better health. No brain, no pain!
IS PAIN NORMAL?
Yes. When bones, joints, muscles, or ligaments are damaged, it is normal to experience pain. The same is true for our nervous system and our immune system. If we didn’t experience pain, we wouldn’t know we stepped on a nail and needed to take care of our foot or that we touched a hot surface and need to remove our hand as soon as possible. Pain is crucial for protecting ourselves from further injury. After an injury the body repairs the tissue damage over time, however in some instances we are left with continued pain. Sometimes, we still experience pain even when there are no physical problems because our brain is still getting pain signals.
ARE MORE SEVERE INJURIES ALWAYS MORE PAINFUL?
No, the amount of tissue damage does not always correlate with the amount of pain we experience. Think about the last time you had a “minor” injury such as a paper cut or stubbed toe—these are often very painful experiences but have very little tissue damage.
WHAT OTHER FACTORS AFFECT MY PAIN?
The brain takes all factors into consideration when determining if a stimulus should be painful – this includes factors such as moods, emotions, stress, environment, fear, failed treatments, etc.
WHY DOES IT FEEL LIKE PAIN AFFECTS MY MOOD, APPETITE, MEMORY, ETC.?
A pain response affects a number of areas in the brain. The areas of the brain If the brain is already busy with pain, the areas that are responsible for these other things are busy and not functioning like they normally would.
HOW DOES THE BRAIN KNOW WHAT SHOULD OR SHOULDN’T BE PAINFUL?
While some areas of the brain are responsible for certain tasks (i.e. memory, mood, appetite, etc.), there is not one particular “pain” area of the brain. The body use nerves to constantly send signals to the brain. All areas of the brain work together to decide if the messages from the body should be interpreted as “danger” signals that result in the sensation of pain. Once the brain determines a need for a pain response, it develops a “pain” map for this activity or situation. This is a good shortcut for the brain as these pain maps can run quickly and the sensation of pain can be produced very quick protecting us from further injury.
WHY AM I STILL IN PAIN AFTER THE DAMAGED TISSUE HAS HEALED?
Often these pain maps in the brain become over-utilized and keep running even after the tissues are healed. This leads to an overly sensitive nervous system. Nerves within the nervous system are either “off” or “on”. When the nerves are off, they are resting and not sending any input to the brain. When the nerves are turned on, they are sending messages to the brain. When the nervous system is overly sensitive, the nervous system has a hard time turning off, resulting in an overload of messages being sent to the brain.
WHAT CAN I DO TO DECREASE THE SENSITIVITY OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM?
Nervous system sensitivity is dependent on many things such as space, oxygen, and blood supply. Physical therapy can help decrease the sensitivity of the nervous system. With education regarding your condition and movement to increase space, blood flow, and oxygen supply to decrease overall sensitivity.
WHERE CAN I LEARN MORE ABOUT PAIN?
Talk to your physical therapist for more resources about pain. We have a number of therapists who have additional training in pain science and physical therapy for chronic pain. You don’t have to live with pain forever, there are many treatments out there to decrease pain and get you back to your life.