Why Pain Is Not The Sole Predictor Of How Bad An Injury Is

Did you know that pain is not the sole predictor of how bad injury is?

What!!! I hear you exclaim. For many years people have believed this. In fact to this day I still have clients come for treatment that believe their injury is horrific because their pain is horrific or that their injury has now resolved completely because they are no longer in pain.

Pain has been synonymous with injury ever since the 16th century, when French philosopher Rene Descartes theorised that the body was similar to a machine, that pain was a disturbance passed down along nerve fibres until the disturbance reached the brain. Any tissue damage would pull on a cord that was attached to a bell in the brain, alerting the brain to the damage.

As this theory evolved, there was still one overriding theme that pain = tissue damage.

Over the last 20 years there has been overwhelming research to suggest this is not in fact the case.  Well not entirely anyway. The body does in fact have nerve endings that, in response to certain stimuli, send signals to the brain. They don’t however send messages about the damage, they send messages about the “danger” of this stimulus. These nerve endings respond to any mechanical (eg pinch or punch), temperature (eg ice or fire) and chemical (eg acid) stimulus.

It is important to remember that these nerve endings can be stimulated by things at lower levels that would actually physically cause you damage. Remember the last time you jumped into the very hot shower, you stubbed your toe or someone pinched you. On all of these occasions the initial pain you felt was most likely intense, however it (hopefully) subsided very quickly and no actual tissue damage was present.

So why do we experience pain?

Pain is like an alarm going off in your head to alert you to how much danger you are in. It is your bodies protective mechanism. Sometimes the alarm “rings louder” than it needs to due to it becoming over sensitive, misreading the situation and how dangerous it might be. 

For example :

  • If you have hurt your back bending over to lift something before, your brain will remember this and be on high alert in the future.
  • If someone has told you that something is out of alignment and this needs correcting, your brain will be more on edge when that area is under stress.
  • If the MRI on your back has shown a bulging disc or degeneration, you will naturally be more protective of this area regardless of whether or not is caused your pain in the first place.

The brain can increase pain levels it receives from the nerve endings based on a combination of these factors and more……..like emotional factors such as stress, but we will leave that for another day.

So what do we do about pain?

Pain is a symptom of the brain. It is your brain’s interpretation of how dangerous the situation is, no matter how large or small. So do we ignore it and move on? Absolutely not. It is your bodies protection mechanism. It lets you know that something is going on, it’s just not great at telling you how severe the problem actually is. What next? Pain is often a motivator to act. Go and see a knowledgeable and qualified health care practitioner, like us here at Sports & Spinal Albury, to be accurately assessed to see if your pain is related to an injury, to be diagnosed so that you know and understand what is going on and treated for your injury and not just your pain.

-  Dr Vaughan Saunders

B Sc (Clin Sc) M Hlth Sc (Osteo)