Insane Pain

We have all encountered it at some point – some more than others. It can be anything from a paper cut to being sliced open with a knife. But interestingly, pain often isn’t experienced if your arm is cut off! 

Why can hitting your head on an open cupboard door send you to a fetal position on the floor (I may be speaking from recent experience – ouch), but soldiers have returned from war with bullets lodged in their neck without them even realising?

What actually is pain?

Well I can tell you this IT IS REAL and it happens like this:

  • Something triggers a response. For an example we will use the situation that you are in your kitchen and you suddenly feel something sharp on your finger.  Receptors in our skin pick up that something has gone wrong.
  • A message is sent to our spinal cord. Our peripheral nerves transmit a message to the spinal cord “Something is wrong with my finger.”
  • The spinal cord then sends a message to the cerebral cortex in the brain – “Something is wrong with my finger, can you sort it out.”
  • Then the cerebral cortex asks the frontal lobe on the brain “There is something wrong with my finger, have we had this before?” 
  • Answer is “Yes. No big deal. You are in the kitchen and holding the mail. It is a paper cut. React as you have before, as follows – Scream Yeeoowch, and shake your hand like crazy.”
  • The message is sent back down your spinal cord to muscles for them to act and you respond ‘appropriately’.

Sounds normal right?  But consider this…what if what you thought was a papercut ended up n actually being something a little more harmful – like a bite from a red-back spider that was hiding in the mail?  You end up having to have treatment in hospital for a spider bite and chest pain as a result of your brain interpreting the stimulus as harmless.

This little story continues the next week: you are opening the mail in the kitchen and you feel something sharp on your finger. The same process happens as before BUT your frontal brain answers the transmitted message with “you are in the kitchen and holding the mail. YOU ARE BEING BITTEN BY A SPIDER. THROW THE MAIL ON THE GROUND AND JUMP ON IT and apply an ice pack to your finger.” However, it WAS just a papercut and your mate is in the house and wonders why it is that you are jumping up and down like a lunatic!

Here is the deal – your brain learns and quickly adapts from experiences and so it has learnt that your body is in danger from a scratch on your finger and reacts as such. If this learnt behaviour is not retrained, then every time you open the mail you may end up feeling pain in your finger – even when there is no physical damage to your finger. 

Pain is a mechanism that our body uses to protect us from injury. 

Research has shown that there doesn’t actually have to be something physically wrong with our cells to feel pain. Although it is something that we instinctively want to heal or fix. This can sometimes result in us taking medication that we may not actually need, BUT we can’t fix what isn’t broken! 

However, thinking again about the soldier returning from war with the bullet lodged in his neck – well at the time of impact, he was in immense danger with gun fire surrounding him and his mates falling all around. He did not feel the bullet enter his neck because that was not the danger at the time. 

Intriguing right?

Persistent pain

In some cases, pain can sometimes last longer than the expected time for physical healing to occur. In a way the system becomes over sensitive and the body can respond with the protective mechanism (being pain) when really there is no further damage being caused to the cells. 

Think of it like this: You have security cameras on your house, but it gets burgled anyway. So you replace the cameras with more high tech cameras that pick up more movement from further away and send your phone alerts whenever anything is sensed. Then your neighbours cat walks across your driveway…you get an alert to your phone that you are being burgled! The cat is actually no danger to your house but your alarm is so sensitive and alerts you to the danger. 

If your body suffers from persistent pain, it can react the same way. Movement, postures and doing things that were once able to be completed easily, now trigger off a pain due to a hypersensitive nerve response. 

So you have pain, what can help?

Really there is no one right way to treat pain. Each person is different and has a unique experience with pain. There are a few things that research has shown to be a trend, like a person’s beliefs and coping mechanisms, sleep and mental health can all affect the level of experienced pain. Some of these can be changed, and others can’t. 

Pleasure mutes pain

Research has shown that pleasure mutes pain. Whatever it is that brings you joy – music, art, movement etc used very similar pathways in the brain. If you can find a way to increase the pleasure in your life, often the ‘danger’ signals can start to decrease. And if those danger signals aren’t there, the pain is not going to be a result. 

Movement is Key

Teaching your body that it is not in danger by gradually introducing the thing that it thinks is causing danger has been shown to reduce pain. While our body makes adaptations to protect itself as discussed through the examples above, it can also adapt and be retrained. 

Understanding how pain works combined with a slow progression of movement and exercise and reducing fear through re-training your body can help you recover and reduce your pain. 

Determining what movement is going to work for you is best left up to the experts. Physiotherapists and Exercise Physiologists are your first point of call for a slow graded exercise program that is individualised to your condition, medical history and your movement and exercise history. 

We would love to help you to recover from your pain at Fizzio for Life. Give us a call today. 

Written by Kerryn Ivers, Exercise Physiologist, Fizzio for Life

Sources: Pain Australia, Explain Pain (2003) Butler, Mosely.