Pain is a normal human experience and without pain, we wouldn’t survive. Our bodies rely on an “alarm system” called the nervous system, to alert our brain of any “intruders”(Louw, 1-2). Though pain is a required initial response to injury, living in constant pain is not and may mean that something has changed in your alarm system.
Nearly 100 million Americans are living with chronic pain. Chronic pain is pain that lasts for more than 12 weeks. In order to understand chronic pain, we first need to understand how our body responds to pain. Our nerves are the alarm system for our body, they are always on and ready to alert us of any potential danger (Louw, 2-3). For example, if you place your hand on a hot stove burner, you want your body to alert you to tell you to remove it. The nerves in your hand will send a message to your brain to tell you to “move your hand off the hot stove.” Once you remove your hand you will still experience pain, as it is logical response to in order for you to care for the burn. Your bodies alarm system calms down after danger is removed and is ready to alert you again. (Louw, 3).
However, sometimes after an initial alarm, our bodies don’t “reset” to our normal resting state once the danger has been removed. Our alarm system is now in a heightened sensitive state, ready to go off with any activity such as sitting, bending, or standing.
This increase in sensitivity can also occur with repetitive action, or frequent firing of our alarm system. Think of the hand you put on the burner; the pain is gone after the issue heals. Now say you put your hand on the burner again. If you repetitively place your hand on the hot burner over and over you are constantly sending out an alarm to your body. With time, the tissues from the burn will heal. However, this has now put our bodies alarm system on an extra sensitive setting.
Top issues associated with chronic pain
- Tender areas: The nerves in these areas are a lot more sensitive even though there isn’t damage to the tissues.
- Mood Swings: With increased pain, comes increased stress and cortisol in our system which can alter our mood.
- Weight Gain: Increased cortisol in our system is also associated with weight gain. People with chronic pain also move and exercise less which can result in weight gain.
- Sleep disturbance: Living with chronic pain can make sleep very difficult.
- Difficulty focusing: Cortisol alterations can also lead to problems with focusing and concentration.
- Depression: Higher levels of cortisol are found to be a leading cause of depression.
Other major factors in helping to reduce chronic pain is exercise and physical therapy. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise for 10-20 minutes a day, increases your heart rate and oxygen which helps to calm down nerves down (Louw, 39). Aerobic exercise is a great way to combat the impact of cortisol in our symptoms and helps to reduce fatigue, improve sleep, decrease stress levels, improve mood, and weight loss (Louw,39). PT can help improve your bodies strength and mobility through exercise specific to you. Keeping movements in pain free ranges reinforces to your brain that movement is okay and isn’t going to hurt. This positive feedback to your brain helps to improve your confidence with movement. This allows you’re nerves to calm down and reduce the sensitivity of your alarm system.
Understanding how pain works is important in understanding how to eliminate it and get back to your normal life. If you have chronic pain throughout your body consider seeking professional help from a physical therapist or doctor to take the next steps in reducing your pain. Physical therapy is a great resource in managing chronic pain. For more information on how Action Potential can help you, request an appointment today.
Louw, Adriaan. Why Do I Hurt?: a Patient Book about the Neuroscience of Pain. Orthopedic Physical Therapy Products, 2013.
Image Source: https://images.squarespace-cdn.com/content/v1/54740c47e4b0a8f9b2118a04/1515101219439-LGCCUQ2ZZ84K96GRR9GU/ke17ZwdGBToddI8pDm48kAQzqzUzFjNHAsK-II-TeCAUqsxRUqqbr1mOJYKfIPR7LoDQ9mXPOjoJoqy81S2I8N_N4V1vUb5AoIIIbLZhVYxCRW4BPu10St3TBAUQYVKcPaJ58MkSAasMqx2VtCuuHYi1YEpztzV77UkZDitLljMGgLmjfg1_ED8uWJRkpKH_/banner-PainManagement-normal.jpg?format=1500w