You probably don’t often think about “why” your body reacts in a certain way such as causing you aches and pains. But pain is necessary for your survival. If you didn’t feel pain you’d be at risk of suffering injuries which could be life threatening which you might never notice! There are people who are born without the ability to feel pain (known as congenital analgesia) and while it might sound great if you aspire to be a James Bond villain, they are at constant risk of serious accident and injury.
Of course aches and pains are pretty common. And fortunately most episodes will resolve themselves in a matter of days or weeks. Pain is only classified as ‘chronic’ when it extends beyond the typical period of when an injury is supposed to heal (so generally that’s pain which extends beyond 3-6 months). Episodes of pain can also be recurrent – low back pain being a very common problem to reoccur.
So is pain an effective warning system?
Yes and no. The problem with pain is that it functions a bit like a smoke alarm – it will go off when the risk of danger is detected, but it will not tell you whether all you’ve done is burn the toast or whether in fact your house is on fire. That’s because pain is actually an output of the nervous system – not an input. There are no pain ‘nerves’.
The central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) receive regular signals or feedback from the rest of the body – not all of them result in pain. The pain signal is activated when the body perceives there to be a threat to your health and survival (calculated in fractions of a second)!
The nervous system responds to the input of danger and makes a decision whether to elicit a pain signal. It bases this on your previous experiences (in essence all the things that you’ve done and experienced and believe that make you, you: your thoughts, beliefs, emotions etc.). And in chronic pain issues, sometimes the nervous system is having a hard time differentiating between normal input/feedback from the body and a problem which it needs to bring to your attention.
So pain may persist when the danger (or injury) has actually passed.
There’s a fantastic (and light-hearted) Ted Talk by Professor Lorimer Moseley on ‘Why Things Hurt’ which sums it up beautifully if you’d like to know more.
But that doesn’t mean you should ignore pain
Of course pain isn’t nice or friendly but it remains important in order to prevent a bad ‘situation’ from getting worse. Medication can attempt to turn the pain signals off – but that’s not really dealing with the root cause of the problem.
Hoping it will just go away if you ignore the signal long enough doesn’t really work either. Again it’s like taking the battery out of the smoke alarm when it goes off. It’s ok for a moment if you have a particularly excitable/irritating alarm, but in the long term rendering the smoke alarm incapacitated will put you at risk.
What’s worse is that if the early warning pain signs are ignored, your body will very cleverly turn up the volume to get your attention if the situation isn’t remedied. And that’s when even the smallest amount of movement can cause a pain catastrophe – literally the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It’s not all down to wear and tear
Interestingly, research has shown that the level of mechanical ‘wear and tear’ your body has, does not always correlate with your levels of pain. Research was done on people with NO reported back pain who were given MRI scans of the spine which showed that 64% of them had an intervertebral disc abnormality (e.g. disc prolapse/’slipped disc’) and 38% had an abnormality at more than one place!
Getting to the cause of pain means looking at the bigger picture
In osteopathic medicine one of the principles is that the body has a massive capacity to heal itself if we remove the obstructions to healing. The role of the osteopath is to identify the causative factors in the problem, then in conjunction with their patient, attempt to remove those obstacles. The skilled medical practitioner will treat the person not the condition taking into consideration all aspects of a person’s well-being and health; psychological, nutritional and physical. All the pieces matter.