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Why do we feel pain?

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

Pain is one of the most common symptoms of a complaint, yet one of the most poorly understood concepts by health professionals and patients alike. Depending on the situation, it can be helpful, debilitating, and can save or make your life very difficult. Take for instance someone who is suffering a heart attack. They experience pain and immediately alert someone, who then calls paramedics and hopefully saves a life. Compare this to the 50-year-old labourer who has no mechanism of injury, but has terrible back pain, and is unable to work. They both have pain, yet in one instance it is useful, in the other extremely limiting. Why is that? It a nutshell, pain is a warning system for the body. It doesn’t mean that something IS going wrong. It simply means something MIGHT go wrong! If you held your hand over a naked flame, you will eventually feel pain, before having to take it off. Your hand might feel hot to touch, but it probably isn’t burnt. In this case, your brain picked up that something MIGHT go wrong and sent you a signal (pain) to take your hand away. This is called ‘acute pain’. Chronic pain is slightly different and occurs when the brain has become highly sensitised to certain movements or sensations. If someone hurt their back bending forward, they might become highly wary of bending forward. As a result, to protect them from ‘hurting’ themselves again, their brain will send pain signals to stop them from bending forward. Again, your brain thinks that something MIGHT go wrong. Now imagine if this happens over the course of months, even years. Eventually, your brain will be sending pain signals every time you move! The pain is not made up, it isn’t over-exaggerated, and it is very real. There can be many external influences on pain as well. For example, if you have had a friend who overcame a similar issue quickly you may act more positively towards the pain, compared to if that person never overcame the pain. A 12-year-old child who wants to play sport may be able to get over pain quickly. A mother who has sustained terrible burns may rush back into a fire to save a child, without feeling any pain. Again, in all these examples it is about the brain deciding if the ‘injury’ is a threat. So what is the solution? often it comes down to breaking down the desired movements into simple parts, and practicing the simple parts as pain-free as possible while acknowledging that a little bit of pain is okay, as it does not mean that something terrible will happen! If you would like assistance with persistent pain, come in to see us. We will be able to assess your pain, write a program that is progressive, support you through your program and teach you how to better self manage your pain with the guidance of our exercise physiologist. Its time to rethink pain -

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