When you’re experiencing pain it can be uncertain and sometimes even scary. Should you rest? Should you work through it? Should you just wait and see? And most importantly – do you need a medical procedure to fix it?
The most important thing to understand about pain is that first and foremost – it’s information. What you do with that information can be different for everyone. Sometimes when you experience pain, it means you’ve harmed yourself and there is tissue damage, for example, you burn yourself, cut yourself, sprain your ankle, etc. But not always. Pain is just that – an experience. Your brain sends a signal and it’s up to you how you interpret it. In cases where someone has experienced pain for a really long time, such as with chronic back or joint pain, the experience of pain can start to become confusing. When you experience pain over and over, the signals coming from your brain can get muddled. And how you interpret those signals can become unreliable over time.
Does the neck or back pain you wake up with every morning really mean there is damage in your spine? Not necessarily. The best way to figure out if pain equals harm, or if it’s something you can actually do something about on your own, is to pay attention to how your pain behaves.
Let me explain.
Have you ever noticed that when you sit for a long time, your back or knee becomes stiff and achy, but then starts to feel better the moment you stand up and move around? Movement – and how your pain responds to movement – is one key indicator that will tell you what’s going on with your pain and whether or not you should rest, push through it, or ignore it all together. It’s also a great indicator as to whether or not the pain you’re experiencing can be managed completely on your own – or if you’re going to need some kind of medical intervention!
Musculoskeletal pain (back, knee, shoulder, etc.) will typically respond in one of three ways when you move.
– It gets better the more you do something.
– It gets worse the more you do something.
– Or nothing at all happens. Your pain doesn’t get worse – but it doesn’t get better either.
If your pain gets worse the more you do something, you should definitely stop and get it checked out. You may not have damage yet, but you could cause yourself some damage if you ignore what your body is trying to tell you.
But if your pain gets better the more you do something, or if it doesn’t really change, then it’s worth exploring. Your body is letting you know that it doesn’t like what’s going on right now, but that there is hope. It means there is a pattern to your pain that is associated with the way you are moving (or not moving) and that when you discover what that pattern is – you can do something about it. This is very common with arthritis and bulging discs and people often jump to medical procedures too quickly to solve what they think is causing their pain. When you’ve got arthritis in your knees, for example, it’s a degenerative condition that doesn’t reverse itself. It’s there all the time. So why then does your knee pain come and go? Same for back problems. If you’ve got a bulging disc in your spine, how come you can have good days and bad days with your back?
It’s because the structure – the arthritis or bulging disc – is not necessarily “the thing” responsible for your pain. If you can move a certain way and make your arthritis or bulging disc feel better – it’s a sign that there is more to the story. Things like arthritis and bulging discs will often cause you to start moving differently, and these altered movement patterns could actually be the reason you’re experiencing pain – not the structure itself. If your pain is influenced by movement – then it can likely be controlled by movement – and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find a movement pattern that can fix it. Surgery and other medical procedures won’t do that for you – and you can end up worse than when you started.
Moral of the story – pain is information and sometimes it’s worth exploring before you jump to conclusions (or procedures). Musculoskeletal pain doesn’t always mean there is damage, it’s sometimes just a sign of wear and tear and that if you pay attention and start moving differently, you can make yourself feel better completely on your own. How your pain behaves is one of the best ways to figure this out. If you’re not sure how your pain is behaving, see an expert who can help you figure it out!
Dr. Carrie Jose, Physical Therapist and Pilates expert, owns CJ Physical Therapy & Pilates in Portsmouth and writes for Seacoast Media Group. To get in touch, or get a free copy of her guide to back pain, email her at [email protected] or call 603-380-7902