Have you experienced pain in the last 30 days?
If you really think about it, I’ll bet you’ve had some experience of discomfort recently.
During the winter, I often get cracks at the tips of my thumbs, especially if it’s cold and I’ve been skiing a lot as I have been recently. A couple of weeks ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with intense pain in my thumb from one of these cracks. It felt as though the whole thumb was in a vice. All this from a small crack in the skin!
The level of discomfort was way out of proportion to the amount of damage to the skin. That’s weird, right?
Sometimes the experience of pain happens during our daily activities and we don’t even remember the event until a day or two later when we see a bruise or scratch and remember we bumped into something.
At other times, pain can become a prison–a constant presence consuming the thoughts, emotions, and clouding all our experiences of life.
Pain is just weird.
Modern pain science informs us there’s no clear answer to why we have pain. Wee used to think there was a “pain pathway” directly from the joint or tissues, but that’s not the case. Pain is a complex experience, influenced by the brain, nervous system, tissues, joints, memories, beliefs, emotions, environment, immune system and other factors. We now understand that there’s an art and science to decreasing our experience of pain.
Pain acts like an alarm, telling us something might be wrong. It doesn’t mean something is wrong. Just like in a home or building, sometimes our alarm system is over-sensitive–it can go off when there’s nothing wrong.
Pain also creates strange things, like altering the way the brain perceives the body, or they way it manages movement. When pain is present, we get inaccurate information from the body and perceive something is “out of place” or “unstable”, when we’re really completely OK.
Pain is not a reliable indicator of the amount of damage present.
Heart attacks, for example, are often misdiagnosed because the pain is not proportionate to the event. Both the patient and the physician can underestimate the symptoms, especially in women–heart attack symptoms in women have not been a big focus of study.
A few years ago, one of my friends woke up in the middle of the night with indigestion and a bit of shoulder pain. He spent most of the night googling his symptoms before finally driving himself to the hospital at 5 am…because he didn’t want to bother his wife. My friend’s heart was dying, and he wasn’t sure if he should take action!
The pain my friend was experiencing was disproportionate to the life-threatening situation he was in. Fortunately, he made it to the hospital in time to receive treatment and is doing well.
On the other hand, lemon juice in a paper-cut can feel excruciating, demanding our full attention for a time. Because pain is weird!
We used to think that pain was a reliable indicator of damage, but modern pain science is clear that pain is an indicator of actual or potential damage. We also now understand that pain is influenced by way more than just the body’s tissues and joints. As mentioned earlier, emotions, sensations, thoughts, beliefs, sleep, nutrition, hydration, social interactions, and more will strongly affect the experience of pain.
This video, from Professor Lorimer Moseley, a leading pain science researcher in Australia, gives you an idea of the complexities of pain. It’s also quite entertaining!
Exercise and movement can go a long way toward supporting recovery, and for some people movement is the key to recovery.
For others, a more comprehensive approach is needed. When it comes to addressing all the components of the pain experience, we need to go beyond the body and develop mastery of our emotions, thoughts and beliefs.
Later this month, I’ll be offering a complimentary 3-week online course on the art and science of Personal Mastery. I have only 12 available spots in this course. If you’re interested, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll set up a 15 minute call where I’ll share more about the course and together we’ll see if we’re a fit.
The science of pain is constantly evolving, and no one fully understands it. One thing’s for sure…pain is really weird!