By Crystal D. Thomas, DPT
What is Pain?
Pain is one of the most common symptoms that may lead someone to seek the help of a physical therapist or other health care professional. Pain protects you by alerting you of danger, often before you are injured. It makes you move differently, think differently, and behave differently, which also makes it vital for healing. (Butler, 8)
No matter what type of pain you have, it’s important to learn how to effectively manage it.
Pain is an output from the brain.
While we used to believe that pain originated within the tissues of our body, we now understand that pain does not exist until the brain determines it does. The brain uses a virtual “road map” to direct an output of pain to tissues that it suspects may be in danger. This process acts as a means of communication between the brain and the tissues of the body, to serve as a defense against possible injury or disease.
Occasionally the pain system appears to act oddly – like the thumbtack in your toe that may not even hurt until you notice blood at the injury site. Other times, the pain system actually fails – some life-threatening cancers aren’t painful, which is the very reason they can go undetected and become fatal. Even if problems do exist in your joints, muscles, ligaments, nerves, or immune system, it won’t hurt if your brain thinks you are not in danger.
The reverse holds true, even if no problem exists in your body, the brain is capable of telling certain parts of your body that it hurts in an effort to protect the body if the brain thinks its necessary.
The degree of injury does not always equal the degree of pain.
Research has demonstrated that we all experience pain in our own way. While some of us experience major injuries with little pain, others experience minor injuries with a lot of pain (think of a paper cut). If you sustain an injury, its important to see a physician so they can assess the extent of your injury.
Don’t skip your regular check ups and diagnostic tests to avoid injuries down the line.
A study performed on individuals 60 years or older who had no symptoms of low back pain found that 36% had a herniated disc, 21% had spinal stenosis, and more than 90% had a degenerated or bulging disc, upon diagnostic imaging. It’s important to get testing done to ensure that potential health problems don’t go unnoticed.
Psychological factors, such as depression and anxiety, can make your pain worse.
Pain can be influenced by many different factors, such as psychological conditions. A recent study in the Journal of Pain showed that psychological variables that existed prior to a total knee replacement were related to a patient’s experience of long-term pain following the operation. It’s important to seek professional guidance if emotional symptoms are affecting your health.
Pain management is a specialty.
Some physicians undergo fellowships after their residency to earn specialized degrees in pain management. These specialists are not only familiar with procedures or exercises that will help alleviate pain, but can educate you on ways to manage it yourself.
If you are experiencing any type of pain and are interested in speaking with your health care professional, download the following pain profile supplied by the American Physical Therapy Association. It includes a 5-day pain journal that you can provide to your doctor upon your visit.