So, you’ve been to your doctor/physio & they’ve reassured you that nothing serious or harmful is going on, but you still have pain. For many of us pain is an inevitable part of life. Whether it’s breaking a bone, spraining an ankle, or just waking up with a stiff and painful neck wondering what happened in your sleep.
Ultimately pain serves as a protective system designed to save us from causing further harm to ourselves. There are times when this system is highly useful, such as making us limp immediately after twisting our ankle or taking our hand away from a hot element. Just like our other body systems can become dysfunctional, e.g., our breathing system after catching a cold, or our digestive system after eating something funny, our pain system can go wrong.
Our pain system can become dysfunctional in one or two ways; the first is our system not producing enough pain. Some individuals have the unique ability to not experience pain at all, known as congenital pain insensitivity. A life without pain may sound like a dream, but unfortunately these people do not learn from the lessons that pain teaches us and often get seriously injured because of this. The second way is that it produces too much pain or our “pain alarm” becomes too sensitive.
When this happens moderately painful experiences can become extremely intense and sometimes things that aren’t meant to hurt us, such as our clothes rubbing against our skin or normal movement of a body part are now painful (1). This intense pain experience can be highly distressing and cause emotions such as anxiety, fear and stress. It can also disrupt our sleep and interfere with our daily lives, further impacting on our ability to function (2). Although this pain can be quite unbearable, it does not accurately reflect how much damage you have done to your body.
A good way to think about it is to view your pain system as a fire alarm. In normal conditions the alarm goes off when there’s lots of smoke and fire tearing through the house, the fire brigade is called, and the fire is put out. After injury or if our body is feeling sensitive, this system malfunctions and instead of being set off by a fire, it now goes off when a candle is lit. The alarm has still gone off, but the threat of a fire is minimal. When this happens, we need to address the alarm itself as the tissues “house & everything in it” is okay, yet the alarm still goes off.
Things that can help reduce the alarm sensitivity include; being optimistic about our ability to recover, doing gradual movements working towards things we are avoiding, getting enough sleep, monitoring our stress levels, maintaining a balanced diet (3) and exercise (whether its yoga, going to the gym, cycling or swimming, they can all be beneficial!).
So, if you find yourself experiencing aches and pains think about other contributors to why our body might be feeling sensitive such as a bad night’s sleep, a stressful period you’re going through, or whether you’ve done too much or not enough movement & look at some of the above ways to help yourself feel better (4). Further medical evaluation should be sought for all painful conditions causing concern, or if abnormal symptoms such as fever, redness and swelling are present.
1.Melzack R, Katz J. Pain. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Cogn Sci. 2013;4(1):1-15.
2.Talaei-Khoei M, Ogink PT, Jha R, Ring D, Chen N, Vranceanu AM. Cognitive intrusion of pain and catastrophic thinking independently explain interference of pain in the activities of daily living. J Psychiatr Res. 2017;91:156-63.
3.Bjorklund G, Aaseth J, Dosa MD, Pivina L, Dadar M, Pen JJ, et al. Does diet play a role in reducing nociception related to inflammation and chronic pain? Nutrition. 2019;66:153-65.
4.Wirth B, Humphreys BK, Peterson C. Importance of psychological factors for the recovery from a first episode of acute non-specific neck pain - a longitudinal observational study. Chiropr Man Therap. 2016;24:9.