Understanding pain and learning about injuries, no matter how big or small, can help you find the best options to help with your recovery strategy.
"Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage." -The International Association for the Study of Pain
What's interesting about that statement is that it confirms that you can't separate the physical from the emotional and that pain can be a real or perceived threat.
Even moreso that pain doesn't necessarily mean damage.
The Central Nervous System (CNS) is constantly gathering and processing information to keep you safe. The CNS has nearly 46 miles of nerves in your body with nerve pulses travelling to and from the brain at a speed of 170mph. All of these nerves are sending information such as temperature, blood flow, movement, where we are in space, etc. Your brain houses the ability to process emotion, all of our senses, our motor functions including coordination of movement, balance and equilibrium, and posture; it evaluates higher mental functions such as concentration, planning, judgement, and creativity.
That is a lot of information happening at a rapid pace. The output of this information can be pain. Pain is a signal for change and it is necessary for survival
Pain is Normal and Necessary
Noxious stimuli can activate our nerve receptors called Nociceptors. These Nociceptors send information to our brain via the spinal cord indicating that there is a potential for danger. They respond to physical, chemical, and temperature stressors. In reality, these receptors are a great motivator to let the body know that there may be a threat or injury imminent and you may want to do something about it.
It's a safety switch. Often, this noxious stimuli is processed and perceived as non threatening so the body continues on as usual. An example would be getting a paper cut. Yes, it hurts a bit, but in the larger scheme of things, it's not much and you will recover quickly. There is no need to fear the paper.
However, these same Nociceptors can also become overly sensitized. Imagine that once upon a time you sliced open your finger while cutting up a piece of fruit. It was a nasty cut, a lot of blood, and you were alarmed that it may have caused some nerve damage. You wrapped it up and made a fear-drenched, mad dash to the ER. They proceeded to stitch you up and send you on your way with instructions to keep it clean and a 'good luck' out the door. Their response to your turmoil did not in fact match your own.
Your body experienced actual trauma, tissue damage. The Nociceptors are now sensitive to stimuli and are going to do their job well, putting you on high alert in the future when around any sharp and pointy objects. Being highly sensitized to keep you safe after that ordeal means that a tiny paper cut that you should be able to shrug off now becomes an oddly painful ordeal. That seemingly small, non threatening piece of paper has created an agonizing experience in your finger.
This is where pain can get weird.
Understanding Pain is Weird
Pain can have a multitude of influences affecting it. Social influences, emotions, beliefs you have adopted can all be involved with chronic pain. Obviously, this goes well beyond tissue damage.
After trauma, the input from the nerves is now corrupted. Overly sensitized information to the brain can cause a massive disproportionate reaction from the brain. Poor input equals poor output. Continuous irritation to tissue damage from stress, lack of sleep, fear, anger, anxiety, memories, etc will fuel the fire of sensitization. Basically, the longer you have pain, the better you are at being in pain, and the more sensitive those Nociceptors become.
Being sensitized like this can cause your pain to travel around to different areas seemingly not involved with an original injury, can cause you to be sensitive to light, various temperatures, smells, more irritable or emotionally fragile to small things, or feel excruciating pain with the slightest touch. Sound familiar? Anyone in chronic pain is raising their hand and nodding vigorously.
Take a few moments to watch this video. It will explain the many weird complexities of pain.
Here's an amazing revelation.
You can desensitize your pain!
If you are living with chronic pain you know exactly what I'm talking about. You may not realize it, but I'm hoping that I can help you to understand. You have adapted. When you are always in pain there are shifts in the intensity and duration.
Perhaps this will ring a bell; some days are better than others.
It shifts. Days where you know you have a lot to accomplish or days that you have activities that you are not willing to miss; pain takes a backseat. Unknowingly and effectively, you have turned down your response to pain in order to do these things. The Nociceptors are still there, they are still processing and sending those danger potential signals, but they are turned down. They are mellowed out. Until...
Until you stop doing what you were doing. Until the day is over, the activity has ended, and all you have forefront in your mind is that you are in pain. And you think to yourself, "I did it to myself. I knew I was going to pay for that." This thought process and belief system fuels your perception of pain.
Here's what you should focus on; that brief respite has shown you that you can change your pain. You played, you laughed and enjoyed, you lived your life doing the things you wanted or needed to do. And the pain was not your focus during those events. This is something you can nourish and grow. This is something that you can make permanent.
With effort and time, you can change your response to the sensitivity and the overactive danger signals. You might still have pain, as we all do for any number of reasons, but the way that pain affects you and the meaning or importance you give to your pain can change. You can still live well and have pain.
Understanding pain and how it affects you grants you the ability do something about it. You can be an active participant and use the tools at your disposal in order to recover from pain.