Pain is a subject that has been studied and questioned from very early on, and as a result different theories have evolved to explain the concept of pain. In this article we be will unveiling the truth about pain and why individuals experience pain differently.
Did you know that:
- Conditions associated with pain is a big problem globally and a massive financial burden.
- It has been suggested that about 20% of adults worldwide suffer from pain, and that 10% of adults have chronic pain.
- It has been reported that about 39% of people in Africa experiences lower back pain.
- The world health organization (WHO) reported that low back pain is among the top 10 diseases and injuries that lead to disability, time off work and activity limitations. It is also known to cause increased economic burdens on families, the individuals themselves, companies and governments.
What happens when we experience pain:
To understand how pain works it is important to go through the process that happens in your body when you feel pain.
Say that you were to step on a hot coal. You would immediately feel it burning your foot and you would pull your foot away very quickly. After pulling away your foot, you would feel pain under your foot where you’ve been burnt. All of this happens in only a few milliseconds, without you even having to think about doing it.
The body’s reaction can be broken down into 5 steps.
- Nerve endings in your muscles, skin and joints will be stimulated by the touching sensation of the hot coal.
- A message, that something dangerous could be happening, will be sent from those nerve endings to your spinal cord and then to your brain.
- The brain will process this message by evaluating the situation, based on what you are seeing and by taking similar past experiences into consideration. Only then will the brain decide how dangerous the situation really is.
- The brain will send a message back down to your foot.
- Only then will you experience pain and pull your foot away from the hot coal.
So why is pain there?
Pain is there to protect us. Pain is something that motivates us to take action, to avoid injury and to give our tissues a chance to heal.
Everyone has a nervous system that works through the same process. However, the efficacy and sensitivity of every person’s nervous system is different. How much pain you feel and how you cope with it will vary greatly among individuals.
Individuals will experience pain differently. Pain can only be measured by what you say it is. Only you are able to describe it. Some people will describe their pain as dull others as burning or sharp. We try to measure pain intensity by asking an individual if they can score their pain on a scale from 1 to 10. But this measurement is very subjective and every person’s score will be different. People also cope differently when they have pain. One person might be distracted by pain and will take much longer than usual to do a certain task; while someone else might use tasks as a distraction from pain. There is no right or wrong regarding what you should feel. However, it is becoming more and more evident that we should look at pain differently.
Many theories and explanations have been given to describe pain, and to answer people’s questions: “why am I in pain?” or “what is causing my pain?”. Some theories support that pain is due to actual tissue damage, while others say that your brain is responsible for the pain that you are feeling.
The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) gives the following definition for pain: “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”
How do we treat pain?
When we treat pain we need to understand what type of pain we are dealing with. Pain can be divided into acute and chronic pain.
Acute pain is described as pain that is experienced for a few days, weeks or months. Usually, it is experienced together with an injury or tissue damage. Acute pain will get better as the normal healing process progresses. In general, you will be encouraged to keep on moving and gradually get back to your normal activities, such as work, while the pain subsides. Physiotherapy can help a great deal in decreasing acute pain and also to speed up the normal healing process. Depending on how long ago the injury occurred, your physiotherapist will decide which modalities and techniques to use that will facilitate and promote optimal healing.
Chronic pain is described as pain that is experienced for 3 months or more. This is pain that persists even after your injury and tissue damage have healed. Health professionals can agree that most tissue damage will heal within 3 months. So, it is clear that with this kind of persistent pain the issue is not within your tissues.
Unfortunately, there is no clear solution to chronic pain. It is a really big problem worldwide.
Having a brain that keeps on producing pain even when your body tissues are healed is not something desirable. It leaves a lot of people thinking that there must be something really wrong with them. Your body learns to feel pain from a very young age. The way you learn new skills like, reading or writing, is the same way in which your body learns to detect and feel pain. The longer you experience pain, the better your body becomes at it. Almost like it is becoming more sensitive to pain. Like an alarm system going off without an intruder in the house.
So what have we learned?
We have established that persistent pain produced by your brain is not so much about structural problems within your body, but more about the sensitivity of your nervous system. We have also learned that individuals experience pain differently.
Retraining your brain and retraining your nervous system can help tremendously with your pain. To do that, it is helpful to look at some things that affects the nervous system and may be contributing to the individual’s pain experience.
6 Ways to tame the pain beast
Taking medicine can help, but often only to a limited extent. Active approaches are necessary to retrain your brain. Using medication for pain relief definitely has benefits and can help to get you going. The medication can then be tapered off and stopped completely within time.
Some people consider having surgery. This could also be beneficial, but when it comes to chronic pain, it isn’t always the best or only solution. Remember to consider all possibilities.
Thoughts and Emotions
Consider how your thoughts and emotions could affect your nervous system. Pain has a big impact on people’s lives. This could affect your mood and stress levels and even leave you with feelings of depression or hopelessness. This, in turn, effects your pain levels. All these thoughts and emotions are also formed by your brain. Learning how to reduce your stress and wind down your nervous system, will help with your emotional well being. This can reduce your pain.
Diet and Lifestyle
Our modern and busy lifestyle might not always be good for us. Your lifestyle will definitely contribute to the way you experience pain. This includes many things like smoking, nutrition, amount of hours spent on sleep, amount of hours spent at work and how you choose to relax. Addressing any of these issues might be a good start.
Remember every person experiences pain differently. Step back and look at everything happening around the time your pain started. Often people can connect a worrying period of life with the pain they are feeling. You might have had more problems at work, with family, finances or relationships. Possibly something traumatic happened to you. For many people, it is part of the healing process to think through their deeper emotions and feelings.
Physical activity and function
Get moving at a comfortable pace without experiencing fear to exercise. Fear leads to your brain feeling the need to protect and causes pain as a way of protection. Set goals for yourself that would be easier to achieve, and gradually you’ll be able to move more, improve your fitness level and even decrease the pain you’re experiencing.
A physiotherapist can help you to identify which of the above mentioned factors are necessary to manage your pain successfully. A physiotherapist can treat soft tissue pain and help to work out a physical activity plan adapted specifically for your needs. They can also give you lots of advice about posture, exercise, fitness and how to try and manage your pain in your daily routine.
The reason why individual experience pain differently is because everyone has their own coping mechanisms. Pain is not an accurate measure of damage in the tissues. Pain is a protector. The better you understand your own pain, the less you will fear it, and the more you will see what your body is able to do. Have hope and rather get someone to help you understand your pain.
Book an appointment with us if you struggle with pain
Do you want to learn more about pain? Here are some links to helpful videos that will explain why individuals experience pain differently: