Understanding pain: what to know
It’s often pain that brings you to see a physiotherapist. Perhaps you’re nursing a sports injury, dealing with a repetitive strain or struggling with a bad back.
People describe pain in many different ways – stabbing, aching, throbbing, burning, shooting, dull or shape, to name just a few.
Whatever description you give your pain, you want to be rid of it. Pain can have a significant impact on your life. Ongoing pain can cause anxiety and distress, reduce your job performance and limit your ability to play an active role in your family and friendship circle.
Types of pain
There are different types of pain.
Nociceptive pain is a reaction to harmful stimuli that are damaging your skin, muscles, bones or other tissues. This is the most common type of pain. You’ll feel it if you have a bruise, a sprain, a fracture or a condition like arthritis.
Neuropathic (nerve-related) pain could be caused by an infection, injury or a condition like diabetic retinopathy or multiple sclerosis. This is often described as a ‘shooting’ pain or a burning sensation along the nerve path. Numbness or tingling may also happen.
The other issue is how long the pain lasts. Acute pain is sudden, intense but usually short-lived pain in response to a threat like a burn, sprain or infection. Chronic or persistent pain refers to pain that lasts longer than 3 months, past the time of normal tissue healing.
Why do we feel pain?
Pain is part of your body’s complex self-protection system.
On one level, it’s fairly simple: feeling pain changes your behaviour which protects your body. If you touch something hot, the pain you feel makes you move your hand away quickly and prevents further damage. If you don’t move quickly enough and tissue damage happens, your pain signals may become more sensitive.
But pain is far more complicated than that. It’s influenced by your psychological make-up, past experiences and social connections. Persistent pain can be influenced by interconnected factors such as:
- How stressed or scared you felt when the injury happened
- How you’ve processed what’s happened to you
- How long you’ve avoided your normal activities
- Your family history.
That means pain is different for everyone.
Sometimes your pain system becomes overprotective, like a smoke alarm that keeps blaring over nothing more than burnt toast. Various things have happened in your life that have made your pain system extra protective over a certain part of your body. A small painful stimulus might cause an intense level of pain. You might even now feel pain when there’s nothing wrong in your body.
What does that look like? Let’s imagine a patient called Sue. About a year ago, Sue hurt her back and was told not to bend over as it would worsen her injury. It was an awful time of intense pain that made her very cautious about her movements. She still moves very carefully and avoids bending. Her back is actually better. But Sue’s pain system doesn’t believe that. It’s overprotective of her back and keeps warning her to be careful about her movements. That means she continues to experience back pain even though her back has healed.
So, what can be done about it? How can Sue help her body’s pain system to downgrade its concern over her back and accept that her back is now OK?
Resetting your body’s pain system
Calming down your pain signals involves retraining your brain, creating new pathways that aren’t in panic mode.
That can be a slow process, involving steps like:
- Understanding (and learning to believe) that your pain is not causing you damage
- Managing your overall health, sleep and exercise as these things all influence your experience of pain
- Ensuring you’re in a supportive environment with good people around you
- Managing any anxiety or depression which might be amplifying your pain.
When you deliberately address these factors, you can help your body start to dial down its pain signals. Even better, you start to live a more fulfilling life and increase the ‘happy hormones’ circulating in your body.
How The Brisbane Spine Centre can help
Living with persistent pain is hard. You need support from people who understand your situation, recognise that your pain is real, and know how to help you move past it.
That’s how we work at The Brisbane Spine Clinic. We’ll work alongside you to manage your original pain site, reassure you if the area has healed and help to slowly reset your pain messaging system to an appropriate level that lets you get on with your life.
It’s not necessarily an easy or straightforward process but, with the right support around you, you can hopefully reduce your pain levels. Please book an appointment today.
All information is general in nature. Patients should consider their own personal circumstances.