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Pain Explained

Pain – Explained!

Pain is our body’s natural response mechanism for protection. For instance, if we touch something that is hot, pain is felt. Pain signals are then sent to our brain and it responds by sending messages to our muscles to move away so we don’t hurt ourselves further.

We can also experience different types of pain, such as, sharp pain, dull, intense, burning and excruciating pain etc.  We can better understand how pain responds and feels depending on the time we have experienced pain for.

Transient pain is only experienced for a few seconds, if we knock ourselves, we might feel slight pain but it subsides quickly and doesn’t cause any lasting effects.

Acute pain is felt over a few days or hours and might be intense, but the pain goes down or away after this time.  This is typical if we sprain or pull a muscle, the pain is felt for a few days, then inflammation settles and the pain dissipates.

Chronic pain is pain we have over a long period of time.  Some people suffer from bad back pain for months but find the pain manageable, or someone with a long term condition such as arthritis may suffer from long term pain due to the changes in the joint.

Other categories of pain we experience but may not be familiar with are:

  • Nociceptive pain – these are sensory receptors, or a nerve ending cells that respond to chemical reactions (i.e. allergic), hot or cold and mechanical reactions (breaking of bones, tearing of muscles, etc).  Pain is sent through nociceptors to the brain, where we elicit a response.  So if we suffer from hay fever, we can experience nociceptive pain due to a chemical reaction in the form of painful and itchy eyes.
  • Cognitive pain is from an emotional cause, such as going through a break up or experiencing loss of a loved one.  Our body feels pain and reacts with sadness and grief.
  • We can feel peripheral neurogenic pain, which is pain felt in the outer parts of the body down to the fingers and toes, but originates from the spinal column. Symptoms are pins and needles, numbness, weakness and tingling felt in our arms, legs, feet and hands. It’s our way of knowing that a nerve passing from the spinal column is being trapped somewhere along its journey.

Once we injure ourselves our bodies will start to go through the healing process and part of this response is inflammation.  Injury to tissue causes cell damage, which results in increased sensitivity at the site of injury, so it will be sore and painful to touch.  As inflammation increases, the sensitivity is felt in the surrounding tissues around the injury, it may be red, feel hot, and there may be swelling.

The inflammatory process can take up to 72 hours from initial injury before it starts to settle down. We can help reduce this further by taking over the counter medication to block pain, or prescribed by the GP. We can also use ice for inflammation, which helps block pain receptors and reduce swelling.  For chronic pain, heat is best to loosen stiffness and get muscles moving.

In physiotherapy we use the anagram RICE, which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation to help reduce swelling and inflammation.

Research has shown that exercise can also reduce pain.  When we exercise we release endorphins and adrenaline, these are hormones that help protect the body so we don’t feel pain and keep going.   This is true of athletes, such as long distance runners that have to push their bodies to perform.

If we experience pain from tightness in our muscles, stretching can lengthen muscles, take out some of the tension and give the tissue fibres flexibility, reducing pain.

It is important once pain is reduced to strengthen and rehabilitate areas of weakness, using exercise as a tool to prevent further episodes and condition our bodies to deal with the everyday stresses we put on them.


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