Compiled by our Masters trained Physiotherapist Chris Smith. To book an appointment with Chris, or read his Meet the Team profile CLICK HERE.
In a previous blog we explained why things hurt and how the bodies' pain system works. In this blog we will explain what persistent pain is, how common it is and why our pain systems sometimes still remain active when our injuries may have healed.
As humans it makes sense to have a pain system as an alarm to warn us when we have injured our body. The pain signals us to change our behaviour and rest in order to allow our injuries to heal. Most soft tissues within the body including muscle, ligament, tendon and bone will heal in approximately 12 weeks, and therefore you would expect that as the injured tissue heals the corresponding pain signal we experience reduces in intensity to advise you to increase what you do without coming to further harm. The trouble is this doesn’t always happen!
Infact, up to 25% of people's pain still remains once the healing should have occured. Pain that does not settle in 3 months is termed chronic or persistent pain. To understand why this occurs we need to know a little more about our bodies pain systems. Electrical signals picked up in the injured tissue by pain cells (nociceptors) are passed into the spinal cord and then up to the brain for processing. Pain science has shown us that within the spinal cord and brain 2 types of sensitisation can occur which can amplify and prolong our pain experience. These are called peripheral and central sensitisation.
Peripheral sensitisation means increased pain sensitivity to movement or pressure in the area where the injury occurred. The injured area becomes sensitive to movement and touch that would usually be non-painful. This is a normal response and helpful following an injury. However, the longer your nervous system produces pain, the better it gets at producing it. Your body learns pain! This process is called central sensitisation and occurs in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Think of a sensitive car alarm going off with a strong gust of wind. The gust of wind (movement) is not dangerous anymore, but the car alarm (brain) is too sensitive. This type of sensitisation can keep driving pain long after the initial tissue healing has occurred and can go on for months and even years.
Scientists think that both genes and environment play a role in explaining why some patients develop central sensitisation and persistent pain and some do not. It is likely that the way humans perceive and make sense of their pain experience may lead to persistent pain. Our pain centres are in our brain and the brain also processes our thoughts and feelings. Stress, worries, fears and beliefs about the pain may all lead to prolonged pain. The pain can also have a wider impact on our lifestyle, jobs, relationships and hobbies, all of which can create worry, depression and frustration. These feelings can actually keep the pain system sensitised in the brain. It is well known for persistent low back pain for example that low mood, anxiety and depression and worries of long-term disability are associated with developing persistent pain.
Firstly, if your pain has gone on for more than 3 months it is likely that some degree of central sensitisation may be occurring. There are some other signs also. If pain becomes more widespread and if it can be affected by lifestyle stressors easily then you may have central sensitisation. Also, if you’ve become more sensitive to stimuli that impact the nervous system. These may include movement, exercise, noise or light.
When managing persistent pain everyone's individual situation is different and will require a tailored approach. As physiotherapists we need to look at things more broadly in addition to specifically at the original injured area. Through asking further questions about lifestyle such as sleep, stress, beliefs, fears and general health we are likely to be able to suggest techniques to help calm down the pain. Techniques such as graded exercise, sleep hygiene, relaxation, meditation and mindfulness are essential to promote a calm environment for the pain to settle.
In addition it is important for patients to have a basic understanding of how pain works because once you understand why your pain remains and how common it is it can instantly make it less scary, worrying and reduce anxiety around the issue. The more you understand, the more empowered you feel to manage the pain.
As physiotherapists with holistic knowledge of pain science, psychology and physical activity and lifestyle we are well placed to treat people with persistent pain, Therefore, if you’re struggling with a persistent pain problem come in to see me or a member of our team for an assessment to see how we can help you move forwards.