What is pain?

Pain is a complex subject. As we learn more about the body, the definition keeps changing. A simple description of pain, is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential bodily damage. This definition doesn’t take into account that different people experience the same stimulus differently. Some are unaware of the tissue damage, while others are hypersensitive to any stimulus. Even the same person can experience the same stimulus differently. An Australian neuroscientist told how one day while walking in the bush, he was scratch by a twig. He then went swimming and blacked out when he exited the water. He had been bitten by a venous snake without even knowing it. Several years later, he was walking in the bush and was scratch by a twig. But his brain didn’t translate it as such. The brain remembered his snake experience and produced a very painful experience for him as if he had been bitten.

The latest knowledge is that pain is created in the brain. Nociceptors, or nerve endings that initiate the sense of pain, send a signal to the spine. This signal has information about the type (dull, sharp, thermal, chemical), location, and intensity. This signal then gets sent to the brain. The brain then translates this information and decides if the body is being harmed and how it will act. For someone who works with both pain-free athletes and clients in pain, this definition makes sense to me. I have seen clients in pain with nothing physically wrong with them. I have seen athletes compete in what others consider extreme pain without issues.

There is a mental aspect to pain. A person can decide that a specific stimulus is or is not pain. Thomas Myers, a well-known anatomist and manual therapist defines pain as a sensation accompanied by the motor intention to withdraw. If the client chooses not to withdraw, the sensation is not considered pain. Sensation in the tissue is sent to the brain, and a decision is made if what it is feeling should be regarded as pain. And then it decides to either act or not act on this information.

What purpose does pain serve?

If we want to know when it’s ok to ignore pain, we need to understand it’s purpose. An easy way of doing this is to look at the opposite situation, someone who doesn’t feel any pain.

Congenital Insensitivity to Pain (CIP), also known as congenital analgesia, is a rare condition in which a person cannot and has never felt pain. It is an extremely dangerous condition in which people with the condition tend to die in childhood due to injuries or illnesses going unnoticed. As discomforting as pain is, it protects us from harm. Without pain, you wouldn’t know not to step in front of a car or jump off a cliff. Without pain, we couldn’t know of the cavity infection or about the nail we accidentally stepped on. Children learn about the limits of their bodies through the pain. Remove pain, and you can imagine the disaster it would create.

First, pain provides us information. You stepped on a piece of glass. You hit your finger with the hammer. You hit your head on the cabinet. Secondly, pain seeks to get our attention because the brain can then decide to do, or not to do anything about whatever is causing us harm. The more dangerous the situation, the more painful the sensation.

Being that the sole purpose of pain is to protect us from harm, it’s a good idea to listen to it.

What to do when in pain?

When you are in pain, what options do you have? Because pain is information, you want to decide what to do with this information. The good place to start is to gather more information regarding the issue. Has the skin been punctured? Is there a bruise? Is it a thermal or a chemical issue? Was it a false alarm? Are you injured anywhere else? These are examples of acute injuries. Acute injuries are injuries that generally only last as much time as the body needs to heal the area. If severe, an x-ray or MRI might be required. Again, this is about gathering information. Once you have the knowledge and have talked with a health professional, you will know how to proceed. These injuries are usually straight forward, and if severe enough, we simply go to emergency care.

Chronic pain, however, is pain that lasts longer than it normally takes the body to heal. These types of injuries can be more complex. They can last more than 12 weeks and can be steady or intermittent, coming and going without any apparent reason. It is still a good idea to get more information. Health professionals can provide functional and orthopedic tests to check out possible internal issues. If further information is needed, x-rays and MRI scans can be performed.

Sometimes a person will ignore an issue because they are concerned with the cost, time, and possible pain involved with the solution. Maybe they don’t want to get injections, takes pills, or get surgery. Well, I have two pieces of good news.

First, information gathering is not the same as taking a course of action. You can find out more about your situation and without deciding on a course of action. It’s essential to gather as much useful information about your problem in order to make the right decision.

Secondly, our understanding of how the body operates has improved with time and practice, so there are non-evasive and effective ways to address chronic issues. You might be concerned that surgery is needed when this might not be the case.

One example of an easy non-invasive solution, is kinesiology tape. Its effectiveness is believed to be based on the Gate Control Theory. The Gate Control Theory believes that flooding the brain with signals from non-pain receptors (non-nociceptive fibers) can interfere with the signals from the pain receptors (nociceptive fibers) and mitigate the sensation of pain. At our clinic, we routinely have to remind our clients that there are no pharmaceuticals in the kinesiology tape. Another tool that is used to mitigate pain and help with healing is the Instrument Assisted Soft Tissue Mobilization Tool (IASTM). This, too, works on the Gate Control Theory concept, and to good effect.

Ultimately, what is going to help with chronic pain is addressing the root cause. The promising impact has been seen in the therapists working on fascia, fibrous tissue that surrounds muscle, ligaments, tendons, and bone throughout the body. Imbalances in fascia translate into imbalances in the body’s structure. Because joints don’t work well biomechanically when they are out of position, the body lets you know of its displeasure with pain. Fascia can be aligned with movement practices like Yoga, Pilates, and natural movement practices by Ido Portal or MovNat. Specially trained therapists can also adjust fascia.

Should pain be ignored?

So should pain be ignored? Considering that pain protects us and is part of our survival, there are very few instances where it is a good idea to ignore pain. Give your pain attention, even if you decide to forgo acting on it until a later time. If you are serving a goal larger than yourself, you might decide to forgo physical attention temporarily. But you can easily make the case that you must be healthy in order to serve your lofty goals. If you intend to help yourself and others, take care of yourself. Listen to what your body is saying and get yourself checked out by a health professional.