As a physical therapist who specializes in pain management, I find many patients misunderstand or misinterpret the concept of pain. Pain serves a fundamental purpose: to protect you, tell you something is wrong, and motivate you to take action. Without pain, you wouldn't feel a needle prick or ankle sprain.
The pivotal, often overlooked concept is that your brain, not your body, creates pain. That understanding becomes a game changer because, new research reveals, when you understand pain, you can heal better and faster.
Rather than pain receptors, your body contains nociceptors that carry danger messages along nerves and up into the brain. Your brain interprets how you deal with that pain.
I want to be clear that pain is always real. Pain isn't in your head; it exists in your brain. When you understand your brain controls pain, you can take control to transform how you see and work through pain.
From that perspective, I want my patients to understand these seven key concepts about pain:
1. Pain becomes chronic for several reasons.
Pain shouldn't stick around. When it lingers beyond 90 days, it becomes chronic or persistent. This can occur for numerous reasons like if you have a weak immune system, your environment isn't optimal for healing, or you struggle with poor lifestyle choices like lack of exercise, nutrient deficiencies, being overweight, poor sleep, and stress.
2. Pain has its limitations.
Pain isn't very good at telling you where the problem is located. With chronic pain—or pain that sticks around more than 90 days—it often moves around and changes location for seemingly no reason. Sometimes with an injury, you might not have pain. Even two of the exact same injuries can have different outcomes.
3. Your brain ultimately decides whether or not you experience pain.
Pain is an output of your brain, not an input from the body. Many parts of the brain contribute, such as those responsible for movement, emotions, memories, language, sight, sound, smell, hearing, and touch. Your whole brain gets involved with pain. Within a millisecond, millions of brain cells contribute to that decision to produce or not produce pain.
4. Conventional medicine often misinterprets pain.
Old-school medicine evaluates things like your joints or muscles to understand pain, yet more cutting-edge pain management looks at the brain and nervous system. From that understanding, persistent pain can occur because of an overly sensitive nervous system or how your brain processes information from your body and environment.
5. Your beliefs and surroundings affect pain.
Thoughts like "I fear pain and avoid certain activities" and "Activity, movement, or work will make my pain worse" prolong your ability to heal. Stress, social withdrawal, and lack of support can also adversely affect pain management.
6. Your brain prioritizes pain.
Twisting your ankle on a busy sidewalk can create piercing pain. But let's say you twist your ankle while walking across a busy street, where a car could hit you. Your brain prioritizes the worst potential danger, which obviously means getting across the street without getting hit. (That doesn't mean you won't feel ankle pain later.)
7. Understand how you can heal and how pain can empower you.
Mindset, exercise, stress control, optimal sleep, and nutrition are among the many things you can do to take control and minimize pain's impact. Lifestyle factors play far more of a role in pain management than conventional medicine often wants to acknowledge.