Chronic pain can be incredibly frustrating and difficult to understand.
What’s even more confusing is trying to learn about pain science – a field of study that is notoriously complex. In this article, we will talk about how pain works and what you can do if you’re experiencing chronic pain!
I hope that this information will help you better understand your condition and find relief from your symptoms.
What is pain?
Pain is a mechanism that helps our body stay alive and healthy.
According to the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), pain is defined as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, an actual or potential tissue damage.“
The purpose of pain is to motivate us to act… usually to protect body parts that the brain thinks (rightly or wrongly) are damaged or will be damaged.
If you experience pain, it means your brain believes that your body is under attack (or under the threat of being attacked) and that something has to be done about it.
Does having pain mean that you are physically hurt?
If you are in pain, you are NOT necessarily physically hurt.
And, if you are physically hurt, you will NOT necessarily feel pain.
The Nail Story
There is the popular story of the construction worker who accidentally jumped onto a 6- inch nail, which penetrated thru the front of his boot.
The construction worker experienced immediate severe pain that he required sedation during surgery to remove the nail.
After removal of his shoes and complete inspection of his foot, the surgeons realized that the nail went between his toes, and his foot was completely fine.
No tissue damage was found but pain signals were present!
In 2005, a research study was conducted that took magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies of adults with back pain.
What was so significant with the MRI results?
Only 25-50% of the subjects who reported back pain had “abnormal” MRI results.
What that means is that 50-75% of the people reporting back pain have no structural abnormalities in their back!
Where is pain produced?
Pain is produced in the brain, not from the body.
Pain is an opinion of your brain.
This is the key paradigm shift that has occurred in pain research in recent years.
The brain does not merely observe pain as a sensation coming from your body, but it is actually the one that generates sensation!
When a part of the body is under threat or is damaged, it sends a signal to the brain.
However, you will not feel the pain until your brain interprets this information and decide that pain might be helpful for you in some manner or another.
Therefore, pain is NOT a reliable indicator of tissue damage in your body. It is just a signal that something should be look into.
Is it possible for the brain to misinterpret pain signals?
Yes, even if the body is NOT in danger, the brain may “think” it is.
Have you heard of the phenomenon called, phantom limb pain?
In phantom limb pain sensation, the limb is gone but the part of the brain that senses or controls that missing limb is still working.
With phantom limb pain, people who have lost a limb may experience excruciatingly vivid and painful sensations of their missing limb.
Amazingly, phantom hand pain can sometimes be relieved by placing the other hand in a mirror box in such a manner that it tricks the brain into believing the lost hand is still there!
This is a great example of neuroplastic pain, or how pain can often be produced by the brain instead of the body.
Can pain be triggered by factors unrelated to bodily damage?
Imagine this scenario…
What if every time you go to work, you’re involved in a stressful activity such as lifting heavy boxes, which causes you back discomfort.
Your brain will eventually link the job situation to back discomfort, to the point where you can start feeling pain just by showing up or even merely thinking about work.
It has also been discovered that emotions such as anger, sadness, and anxiety increase people’s sensitivity to pain.
It may be hard to believe but there’s plenty of research to indicate that a large number of chronic back pain is caused more by emotional and social matters than actual physical injury to tissues.
The memories of past pain experiences can be evoked or provoked by specific social situations, emotions, or ideas associated with the pain.
Have you ever noticed that your pain subsided when you went on vacation and returned when vacation was over?
Pain Science Summary
Our body has a fascinating way of spontaneously healing itself. With the right treatment and time, acute physical injuries should heal in a few weeks or months.
If pain lasts for lengthy periods of time with no obvious source of ongoing physical threat or damage, it’s possible that the pain-processing system is broken, not the body.
Put another way, if you have chronic pain, there’s a good chance your body is not really hurting. With the latest research on the pain science, here are resources and a myriad of ways to help you treat the pain.
Yes, pain is real. But so is hope.
Stay healthy and live fully!
Dr. Lex Gonzales, PT, DPT is an author and speaker who has been a physical/physiotherapist for over 24 years. On drlexgonzales.com he provides quality information and practical solutions you can use to improve your health and function.