If you have been watching the Olympics this week you have seen stories of athletes performing remarkable feats while having some sort of injury.
How do they do that? High pain tolerance? Pure motivation?
For us Non-Olympians, regular people, we frequently feel “fine” during the day, but then at night “it (back, knee, hip) REALLY hurts”. Does that sound more familiar to you?
Each of us perceive pain totally differently and there are multiple factors that affect our pain, besides just having a “high tolerance”.
Here are nine things you should know about pain.
1. Pain is processed in the brain, not at the site of injury.
We used to believe that pain originated within the tissues of our body. We now understand that pain does not exist until the brain acknowledges the signals from the nerves. It is a warning sign that your body, or a specific part of the body may be in danger. It is the way our brain and body communicate and serves as a defense against injury. For example: Your hand is on the hot stove. Your nerves send a message to the brain of extreme heat, you feel pain and you move your hand away quickly.
2. The degree of injury does not always equal the degree of pain.
Think of a paper cut, those suckers hurt!! That may hurt more than a broken bone because we have more sensory receptors in our fingertips than in bone.
3. Despite what diagnostic imaging (MRIs, x-rays, CT scans) shows us, the finding(s) may not be the cause of your pain.
Advancements in imaging have been a powerful tool for modern medicine, but they are often give too much information. For example, multiple studies have shown that MRI of the back frequently find herniated discs in patients who don’t even have back pain. See my previous blog that gives more information on MRI and false positives.
4. Psychological factors, such as depression and anxiety, can make your pain worse.
Pain can be influenced by many different factors, such as psychological conditions. One symptom of anxiety can be joint pain. Some research notes that back pain is more common in those with anxiety or mood disorders than those without. According to the Harvard Health Publishing “researchers have learned more about how the brain works, and how the nervous system interacts with other parts of the body, they have discovered that pain shares some biological mechanisms with anxiety and depression.”
5. Your social environment may influence your perception of pain.
Frequently, people’s pain level increases in a stressful situation, such as work or at a doctor’s office. The pain signals may kick in as a form of “self-protection”.
6. Understanding pain through education may reduce your need for care.
According to a study of post-operative pain management, those who were educated pain expectations and management prior to surgery reported less severe pain during the first 24 hours postoperatively, experienced fewer and less severe pain medication side effects, returned to normal activities sooner, and used more nonpharmacologic pain management methods postoperatively compared with those who did not receive the education.
This makes complete sense, because if we understand what is about to happen, the fear and anxiety levels are much less, and therefore pain perception is lower.
7. Our brains can be tricked into developing pain in prosthetic limbs.
Also known as “phantom limb pain”, patients who are recovering from an amputation can experience pain or tingling from the limb that is no longer there. This confirms that pain in processed in the brain and it’s not always from the site of the injury.
8. The ability to determine left from right may be altered when you experience pain.
Networks within the brain that help you determine left from right can be affected when you have severe pain. If you are experiencing pain, have you noticed your sense of direction is a bit off, or that you have difficulty focusing? You can’t answer questions quickly, or you forget what you were going to get when you walked back into your bedroom? Communication between your brain and your body is not always sharp when pain signals are involved and the experience of pain may not be exactly where the cause of pain is. You may hear of this a radiating pain. For example, people with a rotator cuff tear may feel the pain along the lateral side of their arm, not at the shoulder.
9. There is no way to know whether you have a high tolerance for pain or not. Science has yet to determine whether we all experience pain in the same way. While some people claim to have a "high tolerance" for pain, there is no accurate way to measure or compare pain tolerance among people. We cannot compare how someone “feels” pain. Pain experience may even vary in the same person depending on what is going on around them.
If you have pain that limits your movement or keeps you from taking part in work, daily living, and other activities, call us for a free 30 minute consultation to find out how we can help. 504-313-6502
We help active adults get back to exercising, feeling fit, and participating in the activities they love without medications, injections, or surgery.
Catherine Courtney, PT
Specialist Physical Therapist