What can you learn from pain and how can it actually help you?

July 10th 2018 |

Pain is a positive thing!

If we didn’t have any pain we would cause much more significant damage to our body.

Imagine if there was no pain. You would damage your body all of the time. If you didn’t pull your hand away from a hot hob or boiling pan, if you didn’t pull your foot away from a nail sticking up from a piece of wood on the floor, if you didn’t stay off the damaged ankle to allow it time to heal. Pain is both necessary and valuable and we need to learn from it.

I did a talk with a local group recently and presented this concept about pain and it really gets you thinking doesn’t it? There is an interesting video I often share with patients to explain what pain is. You can find the video here.

Now, I'm not saying that pain is all psychological. That is a very different thing. But all pain is made in the brain. The rest of the body is simply sending signals up to control centre and the brain decides if it is called pain, hot, cold, fuzzy, nice or something different.

However, the body often gets confused with the signals that go up to control centre. It has been likened to a stereo that can only tune into one radio station. The same signal over and over and over again. Pain is a bit the same. The body sends the same signals up to the brain again, again and again and the body is effectively tuned into pain. The good thing is that we can change the signals.

We regularly see people who come in with a musculoskeletal problem. There is usually something mechanical that causes the pain and correcting the mechanical fault usually sorts it out. However, in some instances when we fix the mechanical problem the pain still exists. Sometimes there is a fear that something ‘must be damaged’ and that the damage ‘must be’ causing the pain. However, the degree of mechanical damage, does not always align with the level of pain the person is experiencing.

I did a study in New Zealand one time where I was strapped into a chair with electrodes on my lower leg to stimulate a nerve and more electrodes on my thigh to measure the knee jerk response. They basically gave you electric shocks until you said it was too painful (it wasn’t the most fun thing I've ever done). What they found was that everyone had the knee jerk response at the same intensity of electric shock (I.e. everyone's pain threshold is actually physiologically very similar). However, people in the study all reported the pain levels were significantly different. So, pain threshold is very similar for us all but perception of pain is very different.

For me, this is good news. If we change the signal to the brain then you feel less pain. Simple. Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy. However, massage, joint mobilisation and stretching are all things that can help to change the signal.

So ask yourself how pain has helped you today and what you have learned from it?

Ross Smith