First off, pain is not inherently bad although we think it is! Our pain response is a protective output of the brain that aims at alerting us to when something is threatening. When we accidentally touch the hot stove, signals are sent to the brain from receptors in our fingers and the brain takes in this information and decides whether you’re in danger or not. If you are, such as your finger on the hot stove for too long, the brain outputs PAIN as your alert to remove your finger to prevent further damage. In this way, pain is actually a necessary part of life to help keep us safe! The pain associated with a certain injury will then likely hang around for a little as part of the healing process and to ideally keep you from hurting or injuring the same area again.
Pain Longer than 3 months
When pain from a specific incident hangs around longer than 3 months, typically beyond when the injured tissue has already healed, it becomes chronic. And the longer it stays, the more negative impacts we can see. Before we talk about those negative changes, let's discuss a few reasons why pain may last longer than 3 months. A big factor resulting in persistent pain symptoms is inadequate or incomplete recovery (maybe if you skipped PT following an ankle sprain, you know what I am talking about). Emotional stress at the time or during injury has a profound influence on your pain experience and will largely dictate your ability to recover mentally, no matter how big or small the injury is. Nutritional status is another aspect that plays a role. Your body needs the proper fuel to adequately heal and if you continue to flood your system with highly inflammatory foods, you’re not doing yourself any good!
Chronic Pain Symptoms
Now we will dive into some of the not so fun consequences of chronic pain symptoms. The nervous system will actually begin to change in response to this prolonged state. Your nervous system can become hypersensitized and confused, giving you the pain alert more frequently and in response to things that aren’t harmful or threatening.
Here’s an analogy
Think of a house who’s security alarm goes off with a break in. The break in may have been traumatic and an awful experience, leaving the house in fear of it happening again. Rather than acknowledging the event for what it was and implementing a few new tactics to improve safety, the sensitivity of the alarm gets turned up which allows fear and all the negative emotions to stir. Now, the alarm gets triggered when a squirrel jumps onto the lawn. As this cycle continues, the alarm system can become so sensitized and confused that even a gust of wind sets it off, bringing back all the emotions of the initial event.
So what can you do about it!?
This information is provided to not discourage you but to make you aware of what is going on in your body! Knowledge is power after all! I want you to take in this information but also know that there is HOPE! You CAN take control of your pain! By working with skilled providers, you can work through the many different ways to help retrain the brain and your nervous system to break the chronic cycle of pain and improve your quality of life! A few examples of things you can do include reaching out to a trained physical therapist (like Dr. Arianna), keeping track of your “triggers” and the things that worsen your symptoms by starting a pain journal, and working on 5-10 minute meditations daily to help quiet your flight or fight response. More wonderful resources to increase your knowledge (and therefore power!): Explain Pain by David Butler and Lorimer Moseley, The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge, MD, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolkata, MD