Understanding Pain

What is pain?
This article is a useful guide to know how to manage and prevent pain and keep the body healthy! So what’s happening in your body when you experience pain? Pain is something that almost everyone experiences at some point in their lives. To manage pain we need to understand that there are two components to pain: that occurring where the tissue is damaged (physical) and that occurring as the signals are processed by the brain (perception). These are then divided into two main categories; acute and chronic.

Acute Pain is short-term pain. It can be immediate and strong. Acute pain can last a few seconds, a few hours, or sometimes last up to several weeks. Acute pain indicates that there is something wrong with the body, such as an injury to the hand or a cut to the knee.

Chronic Pain is experienced when pain persists for longer than expected; usually beyond 6 months. Chronic pain may not be as intense as acute pain however it is pain that is almost always present. Understanding the nature of pain is important

Why do we experience Pain?
Pain is like your body’s alarm system that protects you when something is wrong. When you sustain an injury, nerves in the damaged area release chemical signals. These signals are sent to your brain, where they are recognized as pain. Your brain will then send a message that aids in responding to the pain. For example, if you touch a cup of hot tea, pain signals from your brain send a message to pull your hand away. Unfortunately, chronic pain is different and often isn’t as easy to alleviate. Management of chronic pain is vital in enhancing quality of life and well-being.

How the body controls Pain
Pain signals travel through a system of nerves in your brain and spinal cord. The body generally tries to stop these signals by developing chemicals called endorphins that help block pain signals going up to the brain. Pain is interpreted differently by each and every individual. The experience is subjective and is influenced by age, gender, ethnicity and cultural background.

How can pain be managed?
Although pain is common, it is experienced differently by each individual as it is of a subjective manner. You may need to try several pain management strategies before you find one that works best. Pain management strategies include RICER*, medication, physical or occupational therapy, acupuncture, massage and perception modifying techniques such as relaxation techniques or cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). Generally, a combination of pain relieving medication and therapy is most effective in pain management.

Rest: Activities that worsen symptoms should immediately be avoided for the next 24-48 hours to prevent further aggravation
Ice: To help control inflammation (swelling) and pain. Ice should be wrapped in a cloth or towel, avoiding direct contact with the skin. Ice should be applied for 20 minutes, every hour and for the first 24 hours.
Compression: A bandage that does not restrict blood flow should be applied to the affected area for the first 72 hours after injury.
Elevation: Positioning of the affected area above heart level will also assist in reducing pain and swelling during the first few days after the injury.
Referral: If symptoms persist, it is recommended that you consult with your medical practitioner for additional advice.

Pain Management Strategies:

  • Medication

Medication assists in regaining some level of comfort. It is important that you consult with your medical practitioner to discuss medication that is right for you.

  • Physiotherapy and Biokinetics 

Therapy involving a specific programme of activity, stretching and strengthening may help reduce pain as it promotes recovery and in return improves your mood.

  • Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a component of traditional Chinese medicine which encourages natural healing and releases endorphins.

  • Massage 

Massage works best for pain associated with soft tissue injuries. Massage aims at promoting blood flow and healing to the affected area through therapeutic inflammation.

  • Perception modifying techniques

The brain can be trained to change the perception of pain with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

  • Relaxation 

Relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation can reduce tension and promote a good quality of sleep.

  • Life style adjustment 

Exploring ways to limit pain by the length or type of tasks you do, knowing what triggers your pain and avoiding it, self-pacing rest and activity as well as taking a positive attitude to achieving your life priorities assist in pain management.

Article sponsored by Health International


Article by Emma Scott. Emma is a biokineticist at Kingsmead Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre . You can contact her on 0775 463 191.