Pain is Normal, Chronic Pain is Not
By Sandy Edwards, PT, MSPT, Partner at TherapySouth
Surprisingly, experiencing pain is absolutely normal. It’s your body’s response to harmful stimulus. In turn, this protects you from danger or alerts you of potential danger. Undeniably, the sensation of pain is important for survival and safety. Pain is felt by people of all ages. Sometimes children experience severe pain from simply growing up. Other times, adolescents are diagnosed with chronic illnesses. Adults even experience pain based on the lifestyle choices they make.
But living in chronic pain is not normal. And it’s absolutely a reason to seek out professional help, even if patients are very young. Let’s explain what we mean.
What is Chronic Pain?
When you become injured – such as an injury to the ligaments, muscles, or joints – healing frequently happens within 3 to 6 months. If you’re experiencing chronic pain syndrome, you should generally expect it to resolve within this timeframe. This is especially true if you’re seeking out appropriate, non-opioid treatment for your pain.
But what about when chronic pain persists?
Chronic pain, sometimes called chronic pain syndrome, is defined as pain that lasts longer than 6 months.
There are many common misconceptions and misunderstandings regarding how chronic pain and management of its symptoms works. However, research suggests that it is due to overly sensitive nerves. Additionally, psychological factors may play a role. Let’s look at this a little more in-depth.
How the Brain is Responsible for Chronic Pain Syndrome
Many people commonly ask, ‘Is chronic pain all in my head?’ The truth is that the brain judges whether or not a situation is threatening or dangerous. And ultimately, the brain decides if you experience pain or not.
For instance, you step off the curb and badly sprain your ankle. You likely expect to feel pain. But what if you step off that curb, sprain your ankle, and look up to see a bus coming toward you? In that moment, your brain decides that moving out of the street is much more important to your survival than experiencing the pain caused by your sprained ankle. During this brief period of time, your brain does not register the pain in your ankle since this would prevent you from moving quickly out of the way.
The same concept applies to the stories about soldiers who suffer an injury during battle, yet they don’t realize they’ve been hurt until the battle is over. Or there’s the injured athlete who makes the game-winning play with an elbow injury. Or there’s the badly burned father who runs back into the burning house to save his child.
Pain is a complicated concept. And thus, so is chronic pain.
Navigating the Reasons Behind Your Pain
If you’ve ever experienced a paper cut, you can likely imagine the intricate workings of pain. For such a small cut, it hurts a lot. But you can see that the tissue damage is not the same as the degree of pain you feel. It’s a confusing dilemma.
Ultimately, a normal response to pain, such as in the case of an acute injury causing lower back pain, involves the injured area alerting the brain that there is danger. This is the pain you feel. It acts similar to an alarm system. The brain then tells the body to take action. This action may be to move out of harm’s way, seek medical attention, or create a memory to avoid future and similar injury. For those that develop conditions after a life experience (pelvic floor disorder, gaining or losing weight, playing a sport), it’s not as simple as avoiding future injuries.
But in chronic pain cases, the nerves continue to alert the brain of danger. The alarm bells still ring even after the danger has passed. With the nerves on high alert, the area and the nerves become highly sensitive. Activities or stimuli that normally wouldn’t cause pain do.
And there are various factors behind the chronic pain experience. Aspects including fear, stress, culture, overall health, and expectations can also alter or amplify pain. If you’re experiencing increased stress in your life, you’re more susceptible to pain. If you’re in bad health, you may also be more at risk of experiencing chronic pain syndrome.
The good news: there are ways to manage it. One of them? Orthopedic physical therapy.
Chronic Pain Management: Understanding is Step One
It’s important to remember that it’s never too late to begin orthopedic physical therapy. You may be experiencing severe pain. You might even think that the PT pain will be worse than the chronic pain you experience.
It won’t be.
Yes, your therapist will work you hard. They test you. They expect you to work hard, too. But it’s about more than working hard. You also need to gain an understanding of the pain you experience.
The more you understand chronic pain syndrome, the better you are able to manage it. This is where a professional can help. If you’re experiencing discomfort, book a physical therapy appointment. A physical therapist can treat the injury, as well as educate you about how chronic pain management works.
Use the BetterPT clinic location tool website or download the app to book your physical therapy appointment today. Find a clinic near you that specializes in exactly what you need. And now, with direct access to physical therapy, you don’t need a referral before seeing a PT. This goes for in-person sessions as well as ones attended virtually over the BetterTelehealth platform, too.
Chronic pain isn’t normal, and you shouldn’t have to go through life in constant pain. Find new ways to manage your pain. Uncover what’s causing it, then step forward into a better and healthier life.
Sandy Edwards, PT, MSPT is Partner and Clinical Director at TherapySouth. She earned her B.S. from North Carolina State University in 1990 and her M.S. in Physical Therapy from UAB in 1992. Sandy has over 27 years’ experience in acute care rehab, sub-acute rehab, and outpatient settings, and is a Certified Dry Needling Practitioner.