Pain: An overview

From years of research, it’s now clear that pain is generated by your brain 100% of the time. When we refer to “your brain” however, we are not talking about “you”, but rather your subconscious mind – the part of your brain that acts to protect you from danger, without you even knowing about it.

In fact, every sensation that you feel – sight, smell, touch, taste, emotion, temperature, nausea and more – is actually generated by what your brain is telling you that you should be feeling, and perhaps not necessarily by what is actually happening. Optical illusions are a really good example of this, as are the physical symptoms associated with an anxiety disorder.

The underlying causes of pain

Pain in your body is caused by your brain’s decision that a part of your body, or indeed your whole body, may be in danger. But as mentioned above, in actual fact it may not be. Pain can be physical or emotional as well.

Usually this system of protection works very well. For example, if you put your hand near a fire, your brain feels heat near your hand, and instructs your arm to draw away. Or if you sprain your ankle, the pain makes you aware that you should probably rest the ankle for a couple of days so that the ligaments can begin to heal. These are examples of acute pain, which normally ceases when the body tissues heal, or the body part is removed from the immediate danger.

However, sometimes things don’t go quite as planned. Despite the fact your body has had ample time to right itself, the pain is still there. This can get really frustrating! In order to understand why this happens, it’s important to have an understanding of how pain is actually generated. Put simply, there are three ‘zones’ that a nerve signal from your body must pass through before pain is generated.

How nerve signals travel through the body to cause pain

The first zone is the periphery, which is any body part that is not your spinal cord or your brain, like your arm, shoulder, neck joints, lower back or leg. Nerve fibres send a signal to your spinal cord, and the spinal cord sends that signal to your brain. What is important to note is that when the signal reaches your brain, it’s still just a signal. It is not pain yet. The signal is then interpreted by the brain to generate an output – i.e. a feeling of something (like touch, sound, smell, pain, or perhaps nothing!).

Most pain has its beginnings in this periphery zone. But remember, it is not pain until your brain decides that it is. The brain (via the spinal cord) must then interpret what the signal means (hot, sharp, cold, blunt, etc.) and where the signal is coming from exactly.

As well as this, the brain also takes into consideration such things as where the body part is, other sensory inputs like sights and sounds, your emotional state, your social situation, and similar previous experiences – in fact anything you can think of – to consider if a pain response is necessary.

Taking all these inputs into account, if your brain comes to the conclusion that there is a danger it will give you pain. If it concludes that things are safe, there will be no pain. In other words, if the brain decides that the part is not safe, or there is a risk that it is not safe – you will experience a pain.

Pain and the sensitivity of your nervous system

Every second of every day, your nerves from your periphery, your spinal cord and your brain are communicating with one another, and determining if your body or body parts are safe. We understand that this may sound different to how you currently believe pain might happen. But the research is absolutely conclusive on this fact.

As life teaches us though, sometimes our brains make really terrible decisions on our behalf – and persistent pain is one of those decisions! The difference however is that the pain decision is made independently of your conscious thought, which means that you have the pain, but seemingly cannot control it. The result? You could have very minimal tissue damage and have awful pain – or have terrible tissue damage and experience absolutely no pain at all.

What does this all mean? Basically, persistent pain is more to do with the sensitivity of your nervous system. When you have persistent pain, the main factor sensitising your nervous system could be in your periphery, your spinal cord or in your brain – or perhaps a combination of all three! The Headache and Pain Management Centre can help find out which area is causing your pain.

How we assess and treat the causes of your pain

While this may sound very complicated and confusing, it’s usually quite simple in most cases to assess in individual patients. In every patient with persistent pain, regardless of your age, gender, work status, religion or race, the best way to reduce and manage your pain effectively is to “retrain your brain” and desensitise your nervous system.

This could mean desensitising your periphery by using muscle releases, strengthening, dry needling or mobilising the joints. Usually, we find there is something within your body which can be directly treated (an active trigger point, stiff joint or sensitive nerve) that has been sending a signal to your brain for years but hasn’t been properly dealt with.

In addition, retraining your spinal cord and brain through advice, education, positive mental attitudes and graded exposure to movements and activities that cause your pain to occur complements the treatment of the periphery very effectively.

It is usually a combination of treating your peripheral and central nervous systems that will give you the very best results.

Talk to us to find out more about the source of your pain

Our experience shows that pain is usually elicited by something that is quite obvious to diagnose, but as you can now appreciate, that may not be the whole story.

At The Headache and Pain Management Centre we have developed a logical process which will help to guide you on your journey. We will assess your pain and find out if anything has been previously missed by other clinicians. We will then tailor a treatment program based on your needs, not someone else’s.

To find out more, please call us on 1300 16 55 33 or use the contact form above.

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