Most of us have heard of the term “chronic pain”, but what is it and how do we develop it? Pain officially becomes identified as chronic when it has lasted for more than 3 months, but let’s look into some of the factors involved in chronic pain to try to understand it a little bit better.
What is chronic pain and how do we get it?
From our first fall as a toddler we begin to build a very useful association between pain and events that may threaten our well-being. Pain is a crucial evolutionary tool that helps us to learn what things are dangerous in order for us to survive and also allows us to know if we have physical damage in our body that we need to attend to. However, with some people who suffer from chronic pain this link becomes rewired to associate non dangerous or non damaging activities with danger/fear/anxiety and thus producing the experience of pain. Furthermore, the experience of trauma, be it physical, psychological or both, can strengthen the link between an activity and pain. This means that if an injury occurs in a very traumatic way or is linked to a life changing event, the chances are more likely that chronic pain will develop. Once enough time has passed, tissues have healed and other structural damage is ruled out, the main culprit becomes the pain itself which is increased by a hypersensitive nervous system. This is why our way out of chronic pain is usually not through surgery or other avenues that change the structure of the tissues themselves but rather with options that allow us to strengthen new connections in our brain that do not lead to the experience of pain. With that said every case is different and it is always possible that pain is caused by a specific structural issue which is why it is important to consult a healthcare professional, obtain second opinions etc.
How can it be treated?
Although there are many different avenues to take for treatment options, a physical therapist is the perfect professional to help you to get better by guiding you through the right progression of exercises to appropriately challenge your body and encourage your brain to strengthen new pathways that don’t produce pain. Physical therapists can also help you to differentiate between pain from harmful stimuli and pain from non harmful stimuli ensuring that you stay on the right path to getting back you your life.
When people say “the pain is in your head” they are absolutely right because pain is literally produced in your brain. This does not make the pain you are experience any less real than if it were caused by tissue damage, but it does mean that the treatment plan must be different.
Here is a short youtube video that summarized everything I just explained in an awesome animation, enjoy!