Understand Your Pain
Pain is a unique experience.
Pain isn’t just a physical sensation; it can affect emotional and mental health. It's influenced by attitudes, beliefs, personality and social factors. How you and I feel pain may be very different. And, in fact, sometimes you may feel pain differently in your own body on different days or at different times of the day.
Pain can be limiting and overwhelming, especially when it feels unpredictable and mysterious.
But pain can be managed.
I hope this is a place for you to start understanding “how pain works” in your body. Learning what is happening in your body goes a long way toward removing the fear associated with pain and gives you options and control over your life.
Your pain is real.
Let me say that again. Your pain is real. It doesn’t matter if others can’t see it. If you say you feel pain somewhere, I believe you.
We can’t see a lot of what is happening in our bodies, especially when it comes to our nervous system. Our nervous system is made up of nerves that run through our entire body (peripheral nervous system) and our spinal cord and brain (central nervous system).
Pain is normal.
We all experience pain at one time or another.
Pain is, “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage”. (International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP)) This relates to how we experience pain through our nervous system.
Our nervous system is a process that can generally be broken down into 3 steps:
1. Sensing things around us through our peripheral nerves
2. Transmitting signals to our brain to make sense of those signals
3. Reacting in a way that makes sense to us
This process allows the brain to create patterns and coordinate a whole body response.
For example, if we feel “hot” on our fingertips and our brain interprets this to mean that our fingers have touched hot surface and could burn, we feel pain and move our hands and body away. In this way, pain is a natural and protective output of our nervous system. We need it to keep us safe.
Hurt does not always mean harm.
Pain is our body’s way of warning of danger, but pain doesn’t always mean there is damage to the body. In fact, many things that can hurt a lot don’t harm us at all! For example, have you had a “brain freeze”? Eating ice cream or drinking a cold drink quickly can hurt a lot, but doesn’t do any harm. Or Braxton-Hicks contractions - also known as false contractions - can be very uncomfortable, but are not harmful.
On the other hand, people can have lots of damage without any pain. For example, in extreme cases of survival, people have not noticed injuries to their body until they are safely out of danger. The brain suppressed the pain response because the priority was to get to safety.
It all comes down to how the signals are being processed. The good news here is that there is opportunity for us effect change in this system if we feel it isn’t working well for us.
Pain may be acute or chronic.
Acute Pain is temporary, new pain that is typically caused by a specific injury or condition. For example, you may feel pain while your body is recovering from birthing your baby.
Chronic pain lasts longer than the expected period of healing, or more than 3-6 months.
Chronic or persistent health conditions are those that last for a long time. This may include heart disease, hypertension, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and chronic pain.
Chronic pain is common and complicated.
In Canada, 1 in 5 people have pain. While the conditions causing pain symptoms may be unique, they have similarities. With any condition, we need to manage symptom severity, medication, and all the stressors that come with them.
Acute pain treatments are often not helpful for chronic conditions. Chronic pain requires a multidimensional approach that is focused on reducing pain, restoring function, and improving overall quality of life and well-being. There are many treatment strategies available, including counselling, behavioural changes, environmental modifications, manual therapy, and medication.
You have the power to change how you experience pain.
Your pain experience is unique, and managing symptoms can be complicated, but you have the ability to make positive changes in your life. Learning strategies to understand your unique pain response and “calm” your nervous system is something only you can do for yourself. There are many resources out there ranging from paper books to online posts and videos; group workshops to individual guided therapy. Look out for the resources available to you and explore your pain with self compassion.
Take control of your future.