Understanding Pain: A Physiotherapist's Perspective
Updated: May 11
Pain is a complex and multifaceted experience that affects people in different ways. As a physiotherapist who treats acute and chronic pain conditions, I often find myself explaining pain science to my patients in a way that they can understand. In this article, I will provide you with an overview of pain science and how it applies to your everyday life.
What is Pain?
Pain is an unpleasant sensation that is often accompanied by emotional and cognitive reactions. It can be caused by injury, disease, or other factors, and it serves as a protective mechanism to alert us to potential danger or damage. Pain can be acute, meaning it lasts for a short time and is usually caused by an injury or trauma, or it can be chronic, meaning it persists for months or even years.
Pain Science: How Does Pain Work?
Pain is a complex phenomenon that involves multiple systems in the body, including the nervous system, immune system, and endocrine system. When we experience pain, a series of chemical and electrical signals are sent from the site of the injury or damage to the brain. The brain then processes these signals and produces the sensation of pain.
It is important to understand that pain is not solely caused by physical damage or injury. Other factors, such as emotional stress, anxiety, and depression, can also contribute to the experience of pain. In fact, chronic pain is often associated with changes in the nervous system that can make pain more intense and difficult to manage.
Types of Pain
There are many different types of pain, each with its own causes and characteristics. Here are a few of the most common types of pain:
Acute pain: This type of pain is typically caused by injury, surgery, or trauma, and is usually short-lived. Acute pain can be sharp or throbbing, and is often accompanied by inflammation.
Chronic pain: This type of pain lasts for more than three months and can be caused by a variety of factors, including injury, disease, or nerve damage. Chronic pain can be dull or sharp, and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, and depression.
Neuropathic pain: This type of pain is caused by damage to the nerves and can be associated with conditions such as diabetes, shingles, and multiple sclerosis. Neuropathic pain can be described as a burning, shooting, or tingling sensation.
Inflammatory pain: This type of pain is caused by inflammation in the body, which can be associated with conditions such as arthritis, Crohn's disease, and lupus. Inflammatory pain can be described as aching or throbbing, and is often accompanied by swelling and stiffness.
Central pain: This type of pain is caused by damage to the central nervous system and can be associated with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease, and stroke. Central pain can be described as aching or burning, and is often accompanied by changes in sensation or movement.
Psychogenic pain: This type of pain is caused by psychological factors, such as anxiety or depression. Psychogenic pain can be described as a dull ache or pressure, and may be accompanied by other symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, and insomnia.
It's important to note that pain can often have multiple underlying causes, and that different types of pain can overlap or coexist. If you are experiencing pain, it's important to talk to your healthcare professional to determine the underlying cause and develop an individualised treatment plan.
Can Stress and Anxiety Cause Pain?
Yes, stress and anxiety can cause physical pain. When we experience stress or anxiety, our body responds by releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension. This physiological response can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, back pain, and muscle aches.
Chronic stress and anxiety can also lead to the development of chronic pain conditions, such as fibromyalgia and tension headaches. In these conditions, the pain is not directly caused by an injury or underlying disease, but rather by the ongoing physiological response to stress and anxiety.
In addition to causing physical pain, stress and anxiety can also make existing pain worse. This is because stress and anxiety can cause us to perceive pain more acutely, and can also affect our ability to cope with pain. This can lead to a cycle where stress and anxiety worsen pain, and pain in turn increases stress and anxiety.
Managing stress and anxiety can be an important part of managing pain. Techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and mindfulness can help to reduce stress and anxiety levels, and may also help to reduce pain. Talking to a healthcare professional can also be helpful in developing an individualised plan for managing both pain and stress/anxiety.
How Does Exercise Help with Pain Management?
It may seem counterintuitive, but regular exercise can actually help to manage pain. When we exercise, our body releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers that can help to reduce pain levels. Exercise can also improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and strengthen muscles and joints, which can all contribute to reduced pain.
In addition to these physiological benefits, exercise can also help to improve mood and reduce stress and anxiety, which are often associated with pain. Regular exercise can help to boost self-confidence, improve sleep, and promote feelings of well-being.
When it comes to choosing an exercise program for pain management, it's important to work with a healthcare professional to develop an individualised plan that takes into account your specific needs and limitations. Depending on the type and severity of pain, certain exercises may be more effective than others. For example, low-impact exercises such as swimming, walking, and yoga can be beneficial for individuals with joint pain or arthritis.
It's also important to start slowly and gradually increase the intensity and duration of exercise over time. Too much exercise too quickly can actually worsen pain and lead to injury. Consistency is key, and incorporating regular exercise into your daily routine can help to provide ongoing pain relief.
In summary, regular exercise can be a powerful tool in managing pain. By reducing pain levels, improving physical function, and promoting feelings of well-being, exercise can help individuals to maintain a higher quality of life and better manage chronic pain conditions.
What is Chronic Pain?
Chronic pain is pain that lasts for longer than three months, and can be caused by a variety of factors such as injury, disease, or nerve damage. Chronic pain can be difficult to manage and can have a significant impact on a person's quality of life.
Unlike acute pain, which is often related to a specific injury or condition, chronic pain is often more complex and can be influenced by a variety of physical and psychological factors. This can make it challenging to treat, and often requires a multidisciplinary approach.
Treatment for Chronic Pain
The treatment for chronic pain will depend on the underlying cause and the individual's specific needs and circumstances. Here are a few common treatment options for chronic pain:
Medications: There are a variety of medications that can be used to manage chronic pain, including over-the-counter pain relievers, prescription opioids, and antidepressants. It's important to work with a healthcare professional to determine the best medication and dosage for your specific needs.
Physiotherapy: Physical therapy can be helpful for individuals with chronic pain, as it can help to improve mobility, reduce stiffness, and strengthen muscles and joints. A physical therapist can develop an specific treatment plan that takes into account your specific needs and limitations.
Psychological therapies: Chronic pain can be influenced by psychological factors such as stress and anxiety, and psychological therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can be effective in managing chronic pain.
Interventional treatments: Interventional treatments such as nerve blocks, radiofrequency ablation, and spinal cord stimulation can be effective in managing chronic pain in certain cases. These treatments involve the use of injections or implants to block or modify pain signals.
Complementary therapies: Complementary therapies such as acupuncture, massage, and chiropractic care can also be helpful in managing chronic pain. It's important to work with a healthcare professional to determine which complementary therapies may be appropriate for your specific needs.
In conclusion, chronic pain is a complex condition that requires a multidisciplinary approach to treatment. By working with a healthcare professional to develop an tailored treatment plan that takes into account your specific needs and circumstances, it's possible to manage chronic pain and improve quality of life.
Pain Management: What Can You Do?
If you are experiencing pain, it is important to seek help from a healthcare professional, such as a physiotherapist or a doctor. They can help you to identify the underlying causes of your pain and develop an tailored treatment plan.
There are also things that you can do to manage your pain on a daily basis. Here are a few tips:
Stay active: Exercise can help to reduce pain and improve mobility. Talk to your healthcare professional about which types of exercise are best for you.
Practice relaxation techniques: Stress and anxiety can make pain worse. Try practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation, to help you manage your stress levels.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle: Eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep can help to reduce inflammation and improve your overall health, which can in turn help to reduce pain.
Seek social support: Pain can be isolating, so it is important to seek support from family and friends. You may also benefit from joining a support group or talking to a therapist.
As a physiotherapist specialising in acute and chronic pain conditions, I have seen first-hand the impact that pain can have on a person's life. Pain can affect our physical function, emotional well-being, and overall quality of life. However, pain science has come a long way in recent years, and we now have a better understanding of the complex nature of pain and the many factors that can contribute to it.
From the different types of pain and their treatments to the impact of stress and anxiety on pain and the benefits of exercise for pain management, there are many tools and strategies available to help manage pain and improve quality of life. It's important to work with your physiotherapist to develop an tailored treatment plan that takes into account your specific needs and circumstances.
While pain can be a challenging condition to manage, with the right approach and support, it is possible to improve function, reduce pain levels, and maintain a higher quality of life. As a physiotherapist, I am committed to helping individuals with acute and chronic pain conditions achieve their goals and live their best lives. Give me a call to discuss your pain symptoms today on 0490 021 474 or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.