Pain is a funny thing. It limits our function, work, and everyday activities, however most people would not be able to explain exactly what it is or how it works. For something so common, it’s odd that pain science isn’t more talked about. That’s why I wanted to take a moment today and talk about pain, hoping to help you understand the basic ins and outs so that the next time your neck hurts, you don’t have to wonder why.
Pain itself, is defined internationally as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” This definition tells us two big things. One is that pain is a complex emotional experience, not a simple on and off switch. The second is that pain does not necessary need to be accompanied by tissue damage! Both of these points can help us understand that pain isn’t necessarily related to harm, and that it can be influenced by a number of other factors. Ever wonder why you feel worse when you’re tired or stressed, that’s part of the complexity of pain.
One way to help understand the process of pain is to think of it as an alarm system. Throughout the day, a number of different sensory inputs are received by the brain. Depending on the variety of inputs, your brain can interpret these as threatening, or not. When it perceives something as a threat, pain is used as a warning or alarm to make you aware that there is something it does not like. Sometimes, however, this system can be overly sensitive to sounding the alarm (e.g. in persistent pain), or under responsive (e.g. in habituation).
Sensitization happens when the alarm sounds to even the smallest of inputs to which it would normally ignore. This can occur over time and is influenced by both the continuous irritation of tissues as well as other contextual factors (e.g. stress, anxiety, lack of sleep…). On the opposite end, this system can become more under responsive in a process called “habituation”. This occurs when we slowly present inputs that were normally painful without setting off all the alarms. We can see a great example of this in those who compete in mixed martial arts. These athletes have to function and make decisions while getting punched, kicked, and everything else. Over time, these athletes have become habituated to those inputs so that the alarm system is firing off the charts every time they spar.
In summary, pain is a pretty complex and multi-dimensional response to a perceived or real threat influenced by many different things. The biggest takeaway is to realize that pain is not always correlated to tissue damage, and can be influenced by lots of other things going on in your life. Lastly, pain is changeable, and can become sensitized or muted depending on the actions you take over time. Hopefully that helps provide a bit of insight into pain, and if you have more questions or want to talk further, please don’t hesitate to contact us at 902-530-3553 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
** credit to Greg Lehman at greglehman.ca for his "recovery strategies" book, where most of the information was gathered from**