Pain: The Basics
We’ve all felt pain and we all know how unpleasant it is, but it’s actually important that pain is unpleasant.
Stay with me on this… It’s important because it makes us change the way we move and behave so that we protect the part of the body that is injured, which in turn helps us to recover rather than do more damage.
At this moment in time, there are many scientists around the world studying pain and focusing on areas like what causes it, and how we might best treat it, so it’s worth asking…
Why is it important to understand pain?
While most of us recover from an injury within a few months, some people go on to suffer persistent pain. What many people do not know is that persistent (or “chronic”) pain affects millions of Australians, and has a potentially enormous negative impact.
There is a lot of mystery surrounding pain, and this is probably because pain is purely subjective – we can’t ‘see’ it. While a grimace or a limp might give us clues, the only way we can truly know that someone is in pain is if they tell us they are.
The complexity of pain
We’re not sure what causes pain. We know it is not simply a matter of a ‘pain message’ travelling from the sore part, up the spine, and to the brain. After all, people can feel pain in a body part that no longer exists – for example phantom limb pain.
Pain is constructed by complex interactions between the brain, the spinal cord, nerves, inflammation, the muscular system – the list goes on. The amount of pain we experience does not always match the degree of injury, and the picture seems to get more complicated with time.
How do we treat it?
In treating chronic pain, a multidisciplinary approach is usually the most effective; physiotherapists, pain medicine specialists, psychologists, and many others, all offer different areas of expertise.
But, like anything, prevention is always simpler and more effective than treating problems after they develop and it seems that managing pain levels in the early stages after an injury is really important, to prevent pain from persisting in the months to come.
Always ask your physiotherapist if you are unsure about your recovery after an injury, remember to make a gradual return to your usual level of activity, and talk to your physiotherapist and/or doctor about the best way to keep on top of your pain levels with medications.
Flavia Di Pietro PhD. is a physiotherapist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Sydney.