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The Pain Alarm

Yep, another article about pain. What can I say, it is a complex topic and one article may strike a chord with you and your experience, while another is more of a ‘meh’.

Let’s look at neuroplasticity (yep, big word) and how that plays a role in your pain experience.

Imagine you are out learning to play catch and you get hit with a baseball. OUCH! So, your nervous system now puts a little more awareness into looking around and paying attention. That is a good thing! But, unfortunately you get hit again, this time in the head when you weren’t expecting it. OUCH! And, rightfully so, your nervous system becomes a little more vigilant about paying attention.

What danger does your alarm sense?

But what if you are more of an anxious person and that nervous system of yours is already on a high alert setting. Now it may just send you more pain signals than necessary in order to keep you safe from baseballs. That could be a good thing… until it isn’t.

It is possible that because of the 2 experiences and the higher level of concern, you now develop more of a fear of baseballs. To the point that even looking at a baseball (safely sitting on a shelf in a display box) triggers a painful sensation in your head. You’ve healed physically from your baseball injury, but your nervous system is still on high alert and needs to remind you to stay away.

This is one of the ways your pain alarm gets out of control. It is due to the neuroplasticity of your nervous system and how it sends & receives signals in the body. The good news is that as much as it can become so much more hyper-vigilant, it can learn to go the other way as well. Phew!

Let’s look at back pain in this context. You wake up one morning and your back is cranky. Sure, maybe you didn’t sleep well (did you know that sleep deprivation contributes to stronger pain signals?) but you’ve also had a stressful last few weeks. Work demands, family schedule, parental health concerns… These all add up. Making the nervous system feel like there is danger.

Not as obvious as a lion.

But how does that tie into your back pain? Have you ever noticed that your back hurts more after a stressful day? That when you are under pressure, even though you haven’t done anything particularly taxing on your body, it still hurts? We’ve come to blame this on posture, weak core, sitting too much, and other ‘structural’ habits. While they can contribute, research suggests that they are only a small part of the bigger picture.

Now, how does this all relate back to the pain alarm concept? We all believe that pain comes from a danger signal that we used to believe was always a structural issue. We now know an overload of constant stress, worry, anxiety, lack of proper sleep, financial concerns, perfectionism, etc… (all things that are not structural in nature) can cause the nervous system to sense the same level of danger and therefore set off the same pain alarm.

So, when we go to treat persistent pain we need to look at, and treat, the non-structural danger signals as well. Build your path back to wellness. Look at the big picture.

Ready to learn more? Watch for next week's article about how the nervous system can see danger (and what to do about it) when the body finally starts to release tension.

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