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What is Pain?

So what really is pain? 

Pain is something we have all experienced at some point in our lives. Whether it was a skinned knee on your driveway as a kid or the chronic low back pain you’re experiencing right now, pain is REAL. However, it remains misunderstood by many. A lack of knowledge and information about the source of pain often leads to wasted time and money. Let’s dive into what pain really is, clear up some of those misconceptions and learn how we can mitigate its effects.

Pain DOES NOT mean tissue damage

Pain is also often associated with damage. Many think that “my _____ is in pain, so my _______must be hurt or injured.”  However, pain and damage are not one in the same. Take a common injury, such as a disc bulge (a common condition within the vertebrae of your spine that is known to cause back pain). Did you know that roughly 40% of people with NO back pain show disc bulges on their MRI’s? This statistic shows that pain does not always accompany tissue damage and vice versa. For our own health and longevity, we must start to see pain as what it really is, a signal and a protector. 

Pain is a signal. 

We are always surrounded by potentially harmful factors. For example, a piece of broken glass on the ground or a hot pan on the stove could cause serious damage to the body. When our body senses (see’s, feels, smells or hears) these environmental factors it sends a powerful signal to the brain which produces “pain” in order to remove us from that harmful situation. For example, if you touch a hot pan, your body produces a rapid pain response and you pull your hand away. 

Yet, we don’t have to be in a harmful situation for our body to reproduce that same painful response. The human body is very good at conditioning itself, especially when it comes to pain. Your body remembers those painful triggers, and the more times it is put in those harmful situations, the easier it becomes for your body to produce that same pain. It can be a vicious cycle. 

For example, you may always have an achy and sore neck at work. Even the thought of sitting at your desk, regardless of where you are, can cause that same pain. Your body does this in order to protect itself from injury or damage. 

Pain is a protector. 

Your body does not want to be damaged, so it does everything it can to remain healthy and heal itself. As I mentioned before, pain is nothing but a signal that the body uses to avoid damage. As a result, the pain has the power to help us avoid injury and to help our tissues to heal when they are injured. 

Sure you may have had a small injury, say a sprain or strain at one point, and maybe it hurts a bit at the time. However, the body is self-sufficient and likely repaired the tissue within a few weeks. So, you may be asking “why am I still in pain months, maybe years later?”

Sometimes, pain is TOO protective.

Do you have one certain spot on your body that tends to get very tight? Maybe in the front or your hip or deep within your shoulder? That’s likely your body working to stabilize a part of your body, such as a joint, muscle or connective tissue, that’s weak or not properly functioning. Pain is your body’s natural way of telling itself “hey I don’t like something you’re doing (the way you’re moving, sitting, standing, what you’re eating, the environment you’re in, the stress you’re under, etc.) and you might get hurt if you keep moving this way!” 

How does this work? Well, Injuries HEAL, but the tissues around an injury GUARD. When you experience a small injury, the tissues (muscles, tendons, etc.) around that injured site react, or tighten, in order to protect you. Pretty cool right? However, that pain you’re feeling weeks or months down the road is likely those tissues, still tense, thinking they need to “put their guard up” to protect you. Those tense tissues can cause you to move in ways that aren’t normal to you. This creates pain, as your body senses that the tissues are functioning differently than they normally do. Your pain is not the result of a persistent injury, but rather the surrounding protective tissues that have been learned to over-react for too long.

In conclusion, pain is a helpful signal and your most powerful protector. 

Now that you have a bit more of an understanding of what pain is, and what can cause it, stay tuned for our next post where we dive deeper into pain relief and outline some helpful tips to decrease your pain and enjoy life to the fullest! 

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