10 Feb 2020
Scratching the Surface of Pain Science
10 Feb 2020
Many times, the symptom that drives people to seek out care from a chiropractor or other manual therapist is pain. When we feel pain, we may attribute it to a physical injury or tissue damage. We identify pain as a barrier, that prevents us from completing a task or movement, in fear of the return of that unpleasant sensation.
But what exactly is pain, and what does it signify?
According to the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP), pain is defined as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”
Many people believe that pain means something is wrong with their body, in the location where they feel the pain. This is closely related to what we learn throughout our childhood; namely that pain always has a clear cause. We bump our toe, and the result is a painful toe. We fall and hurt our knee, and we get pain in our knee. This is a natural response because it causes us to protect the injured area in order to avoid hurting it more. This leads people to draw the conclusion, that if they have pain, it is because they have tissue damage in their muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, or other connective tissue.
Unfortunately, this conclusion is sometimes wrong, especially in cases of long-standing pain, when tissue healing has already occurred. Advances in pain science now show us that when you have long-standing (chronic) pain, it has less to do with the actual state of your tissue, and more to do with your brain and nervous system.
Pain is always a brain event – every single feeling that we have, both emotional and physical, is processed in the brain. This means that pain can be modulated by different factors that influence our decision-making and perception. Previous contextual experiences or beliefs influence our brain and may result in feelings of increased pain, or they may help us feel less pain. Studies have shown that the severity of the pain response is not directly correlated to the amount of tissue damage that is occurring. Think of pain like a smoke alarm – it tells us that there is smoke present but doesn’t differentiate between burning something on the stove or the entire house on fire. It provides us with information that something is going on but does not necessarily direct us to the root cause.
One of the most important things to understand is, everyone has a different experience with pain. Even two people who are experiencing the same amount of tissue damage may have very different experiences with pain – stemming from their individual perception of the issue, their beliefs, and the current sensitivity of the nervous system. Pain is personal and finding a practitioner who understands that the root cause of your pain may not solely lie within the damage to the tissues is an important part of recovery.
This blog just scratches the surface of pain science and opens the door for improved conversation regarding pain. If you would like to learn a little more, I invite you to view this short video, “Understanding pain & what to do about it in less than 5 minutes,” or book in for a complimentary 15 minute meet and greet to discuss how chiropractic care could help with your pain.
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