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Pain as a Danger Signal

Have you ever banged your head, scraped your arm or bashed your toe? Chances are, you have and know how incredibly painful it can be! 

The next thing you probably do is look for a bruise, a scratch or signs of blood. But how often do you find nothing? 

Sure, a bruise may take a while to come through (how often do you have a bruise and wonder how it got there?! More on that in 'The Brain as a Filter' blog), but more often than not, you may find no physical evidence that you experienced pain at all!

So, why do we experience SO much pain with very little, if any, physical evidence at all? 

Ultimately, pain is our inbuilt alarm system; a means to protect ourselves from harm. As children, we learn the classic lesson: touching something hot and learning that hot things hurt! If we didn't have this fundamental physiology, well, safe to say I probably wouldn't be writing this. 

Oven Image Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Let's continue with the example of 'touching a hot object'. After touching something that burns, our brain learns not to do it again, and our body works quickly to prevent any lasting damage. Clever huh?! Let's break it down:

1) Your hand touches a hot object.

2) The heat is high enough to activate enough temperature-sensitive receptors in the skin to cause a signal to be sent towards the spinal cord*.

3) The spinal cord has another set of nerves that then take the signal up to the brain.  

4) The brain decides that this is a sufficient signal to create a response. The response is pain. 

5) Ouch.

*It is at the spinal cord that we get a reflex motor action where we withdraw our hand from the hot object before the signal reaches the brain and, therefore, before we actually feel any pain. 

Our body protects itself through reflex action, and the pain comes slightly later to 'teach' us not to do it again/ make us aware of the problem.

So what lesson can you take from this about your pain? 

The amount of pain you experience does not necessarily relate to the amount of tissue damage.

As hard as that may be to understand, pain comes after (like milliseconds after!) any incident as a lesson. I use the word 'incident' as it does not need to be an injury. 

For some reason or another, your brain is receiving enough signals (amongst other things) to make you experience pain because it believes that your body is under threat or in danger. It wants you to take action/to protect yourself. 

Pain is a danger signal, not a damage indicator. 

Warning Sign Image Photo by Kevin Jarrett on Unsplash

Unless you have suffered a significant injury where the pain is expected, pain from innocuous events such as picking up pencils and bending forward is unlikely to cause substantial damage. You can take some reassurance that even though the pain is awful and sometimes debilitating, with the right action, it will improve, and the alarm system will turn off!

If you are currently suffering from back pain, reflect on the following:

1) Is the pain better when you are busy? Working? Playing sport? With family?

2) Does your pain seem to be worse when sedentary? Sitting? Driving? Lying down?

3) Have you found anti-inflammatories (Ibuprofen, naproxen, etc.) to be of limited benefit?

If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then the chances are that you have no to minimal 'structural' damage to your back. 

I hope this has shed some light on those invisible bumps and scrapes! But remember, take reassurance in that just because something hurts, doesn't mean you have caused yourself severe damage. It's a danger signal, not a damage signal. 

Nathan, the Osteopath

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