Why do we feel pain? What is our body telling us? Learn 10 facts about pain and how physical therapy can help treat it.
1. Pain is a protective device.
Things shouldn’t hurt for no reason. In a healthy body, pain is a sign that something is wrong. It’s a signal from your brain that there is something that needs attention. You wouldn’t ignore a check engine light on your car, so treat pain the same way.
2. Pain doesn’t give specifics.
It doesn’t tell us what is going on in the tissues of the body. Our bodies’ pain system is not very specific. Its job isn’t to measure how bad something is hurt; its job is to tell us something is wrong. Imagine a time when you stubbed your toe or got a paper cut – it may have hurt a lot, but there wasn’t much damage. A lot of pain doesn’t always mean a lot of damage.
3. Pain is complicated.
The pain we feel is a combination of different things, not just the sensory information the body is sending us. It also has to do with how much pain we expect, how much danger our brain thinks we are in, and our past experiences with pain.
4. Our brain tells us where we think the pain is.
Pain occurs where the brain thinks there is a problem. This isn’t always where the problem actually is. Many individuals who have had limbs amputated feel phantom pain. They feel pain in a limb they don’t have. Their pain is real, but the brain is making it hurt.
5. Pain depends on experience.
6. The brain tells us how much danger it thinks we are in; not always how much danger we actually are in.
7. The brain recognizes the potential for pain.
Our body has sensory receptors called nociceptors that respond to stimuli that alert us to danger. We used to think that nociceptors alone caused pain, but this is not true. For the nociceptors to create pain, the brain must decide that the tissue is in danger and that we need to do something about it. If you put your hand on a hot stove you will quickly draw it away – and it will hurt, even if you didn’t let it rest there long enough to cause any burn or damage to the skin. It hurts because the brain recognizes the potential for damage and tells us very quickly to get it away from the source of danger (the stove).
8. The brain tries to protect us from more pain.
If our brain thinks that a part of the body is vulnerable or in danger of pain, it is going to do something about it. It may cause us to protect that area by moving differently, avoiding certain movements or activities. It will react very quickly at the first sign of danger. It can even increase the number of receptors in the area as well as chemicals and signals that alert us to the potential for pain.
9. The more we feel pain, the better our brain gets at creating pain.
This is bad for several reasons, one being it causes over reactions. For example, if you have chronic low back pain for months or years you are going to learn to protect your back. Any movement that causes even a little stress to the back will cause pain because your body is trying to protect your back, even if the movement would not normally cause pain. Eventually, it takes less and less stress or activity to cause pain.
10. Chronic pain and how our brain reacts to it prevents us from getting better.
When your body is constantly on high alert for pain, you are not able to get stronger or correct what is causing the pain. Physical therapy treats chronic pain by addressing why pain is happening in the first place instead of just treating the symptoms. In addition to correcting movement patterns, strength and tissue damage, the goal is to teach the brain how to respond normally to potentially painful stimuli.