A Better Understanding of Your Pain

September is Pain Awareness Month.  Pain is a normal human experience, however living with it is not. In June of 2011, it was estimated that more than 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain at a cost of around $600 billion a year in medical treatments and lost productivity, according to a report from the Institute of Medicine.  I wanted to share some information I gathered from Adriaan Louw’s book, Why Do I Hurt.  Adriaan Louw is a Physical Therapist that has been teaching post-graduate spinal manual therapy and pain science throughout the US and internationally since 1996.  He has authored and co-authored numerous articles and book chapters related to spinal disorders and pain science.  Recent research shows the more you know about pain and how it works the better off you’ll be.  This includes moving and functioning better. Our body contains more than 400 nerves from head to toe.  Added together the nerves would be the equivalent of 45 miles.  The nerves connect all tissues to the spinal cord.  The spinal cord is the pathway in which the tissues send messages to the brain for analysis.  During the pain experience nerves increase their sensitivity to protect you.  These sensors are constantly updated based on the environment.  Nerves contain various sensors to protect and inform you of any changes in your life.  These sensors include temperature, stress, blood flow, movement, pressure, and immunity. Think of your body as a company, perhaps a fortune 500 company.  Your brain is the CEO.  Your body parts, such as your shoulder, hips, back, and hands are all divisions of the company.  Your body parts (divisions of the company) are constantly sending information to your brain, the CEO, to inform it of how they are doing.  The information is sent via the nervous system and various check points along the way, similar to how CEOs receive messages from managers, directors, and vice presidents.  When you have persistent pain in an area, extra sensitive nerves send increased messages to the spinal cord, and ultimately to the brain to analyze.  In this process the messages will become less altered, and the brain will become more aware of the painful body part.  Once the CEO becomes aware of this underperforming division, he begins to investigate other branches of the company.  This is why you may experience a sense of spreading pain.  It was once thought that there was a single pain area in the brain.  Scientists have established that there are various areas of the brain involved in processing the pain experience.  These areas connect and form a pain map.  These areas are documented as follows; sensation area, movement area, focus and concentration area, fear area, memory area, motivation area, and stress response area. You may have been told that the pain is all in your head.  This is a very true statement.  All tissues contain danger receptors.  These danger receptors alert the brain about danger.  Pain is a decision by the brain, based on everything it knows about the threatening situations.  A few key points to understand are:

  • tissue injury is not needed for pain
  • emotional stress can cause pain
  • many people suffering from pain have experienced a time in their lives filled with many stressors, perhaps involving family, work or financial issues, and even unfortunately, abuse
  • with all these stressors, the brain perceives threat and thus produces pain.

So how do I eliminate pain and take my life back?  Knowledge is power.  Gaining an understanding of the neuroscience of pain will help to ease some fear and anxiety about your persistent pain.  Research has shown that aerobic exercise, which gets your heart pumping a little faster and pumps blood and oxygen through your body, helps calm nerves down.  Getting adequate amounts of sleep has a huge effect on our overall health.  Sleep deprivation has been linked to increased rates of pain, obesity, depression, and other health related disorders.  Setting goals for yourself and pacing are important.  Any task can be broken down into smaller parts.  Two things to consider when setting a goal are the things you need to do and the things you would love to do. I hope I have given a great overview of, Why Do I Hurt and a better understanding of pain.  If you are interested, the book is an easy read and I highly recommend anyone who is hurting to get a copy. Remember pain is a normal part of life.  However, living in pain is not.  The choice is yours.

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