It might seem obvious, the reason behind why we get pains and aches – but the logic behind why the body does what it does is not regularly discussed.
Pain is necessary to our survival. If we did not experience pain we would be at risk of suffering injuries which could be life threatening without our attention ever being drawn to it – and there are unfortunate people who are born without the ability to feel pain (known as congenital analgesia). This might sound great if you aspire to be a James Bond villain – but those poor souls are at a great risk of serious accident and injury.
Ongoing aches and pains are a widely occurring issue. Fortunately most episodes of pain will resolve of their own in a matter of days or weeks. Pain is classified as a ‘chronic’ when it extends beyond the typical period of when an injury is supposed to heal – most commonly regarded as pain which extends beyond 3-6 months. Episodes of pain can also be recurrent – low back pain being a very common problem to reoccur.
The problem of pain is that it functions a bit like a smoke alarm – it will go off when the risk of danger is detected, but it will not tell you if you have burnt the toast or that the building is on fire. In chronic pain issues, the nervous system is having a hard time differentiating between normal input/feedback from the body and a problem which it needs to get your attention to.
Pain is actually an output of the nervous system – not an input. There are no pain ‘nerves’. The central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) are receiving regular signals or feedback from the rest of the body – not all of them result in pain. The pain signal is actually activated when the body perceives there to be a threat to your health and survival – this is actually calculated in fractions of a second! The nervous system responds to the input of danger and makes a decision whether to elicit a pain signal based on your previous experiences – this is in essence all the things that make you, you: your thoughts, beliefs, emotions etc. To watch an excellent short talk on this mechanism please watch a fantastic (and light-hearted) Ted Talk by Professor Lorimer Moseley on ‘Why Things Hurt’. This can be watched HERE
Pain is therefore not the enemy. It’s not nice or friendly – but there is a need for it to be present; to prevent a bad ‘situation’ from getting worse. Medication can attempt to turn the pain signals off – but is this really dealing with the root cause of the problem or hoping it will just go away if you ignore the signal long enough? This is like taking the battery out of the smoke alarm when it goes off. This is okay for a moment if we have a particularly excitable/irritating alarm, but in the long term rendering the smoke alarm incapacitated will put us at risk.
The physical (and psychological) aches and pains are there to let you know that something is not right. Ignoring them or turning off the alarm might work for a time, but if the early warning signs are ignored the body will very cleverly turn up the alarm to get your attention if the situation is not remedied. That can be when the smallest amount of movement causes a pain catastrophe – literally the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Interestingly, research has shown that the level of mechanical ‘wear and tear’ does not always correlate the levels of pain. Research was done on people with NO reported back pain who were given MRI scans of the spine which showed that 64% had an inter-vertebral disc abnormality (e.g. disc prolapse/’slipped disc’) and 38% had an abnormality at more than one place! This study can be read HERE.
In osteopathic medicine (which was founded over 100 years ago in the USA by Dr A T Still) one of the principles are that the body has a massive capacity to heal itself if we remove the obstructions to healing. The role of the osteopath is to identify the causative factors in the problem, then in conjunction with their patient – attempt to remove those obstacles. The skilled medical practitioner will treat the person not the condition – taking into consideration all aspects of a person’s well-being and health – psychological, nutritional and physical. All the pieces matter.
If you wish to have a chat about how this traditional/classical osteopathic approach could help you, please book in for a free 15 minute consultation.
Richard Glover BSc (hons) Ost Med
Osteopathic Medicine, Nutrition and Exercise