Have you ever had an injury that causes pain for a short period of time, then goes away? What about an injury that seems to linger for months or years such as neck or lower back pain? Why is it that some injuries tend to cause pain for longer than others? The answer lies in the biology of how we as humans perceive pain.
Your body’s reaction to pain is like an alarm system lead by the “CEO”, or your brain. When an injury happens, local damage to the tissues stimulates a receptor called a nociceptor. This receptor sends a signal to the lower centers of the brain to interpret the level of threat so that you can get your body out of danger. For instance if you stuck your hand on a hot stove, you would want to know as soon as possible to remove your hand to prevent further damage, right? This reaction happens very quickly as a defense mechanism for the body to get you out of harm’s way and release natural pain killers to reduce the sensation. After the stimulus is removed and you are out of danger, the pain slowly subsides as the tissues heal and the alarm system returns to normal.
But what about pain that persists long after the injury has occurred such as chronic back pain? In a certain percentage of people even after the tissues have healed, pain is still perceived in the area as higher centers of the brain are involved. The alarm system stays on high alert leading to increased sensitivity to pain all over the body. The brain then takes other stresses, emotions and memories and attaches them to the painful experience you had. This can lead to reduced release of natural pain killers in your body, increased stress, and an inability to perform activities you once enjoyed.
So how do you treat pain that has lasted for a long time? Some of the best evidence out there suggests cardiovascular exercise, manual therapy, stress reduction and education on the science of pain as being the best way to prevent continued pain perception in the body. If you are suffering from pain that lasts long after an injury has healed, there is hope! Many healthcare providers specialize in this treatment approach including physical therapists. These highly effective treatments combined with patient participation in the program has been successful in both studies as well as in the clinic. If you would like to learn more about this topic, please keep your eyes open for an upcoming seminar Central Valley Physical Therapy in Candler this summer.