By: Erin E. Ducat DC, CSCS, CCSP
No one likes pain. All we want is for it to go away — now! But what is the purpose of pain? Where does it come from? What does it do?
Pain is like the “check engine” light in your car. It tells you there is a problem, but not necessarily where the issue is coming from. Within the human body, the problem that creates the pain signal may be an injury such as a strain or disc herniation. Sometimes it can be referred pain from a damaged nerve. What really confuses patients (and doctors!) is when the pain comes from stimulus that normally wouldn’t be painful (such as fibromyalgia) or when the patient reports the pain is in a limb that doesn’t exist (phantom pain in amputees).
The more we understand about pain, we start to realize that it’s not a clear “on” or “off” signal. It’s more like a “dimmer switch” that can increase or decrease due to a variety of factors.
Let’s assume you had a stressful day at work and you had to sit in the car for a long time due to traffic on the way home. There are a lot of stress hormones in your blood now. These hormones make your nerves and brain very sensitive to all sensation and can make you feel pain in your low back when normally you wouldn’t have any discomfort. In this situation, the low back pain is signaling a problem, but it wasn’t simply due to sitting in the car on the way home. The stress played a big part and left you vulnerable to aggravating the back.
This “dimmer switch” model for pain explains why it’s so difficult for patients and doctors to sometimes determine what is causing discomfort. It’s like a moving and shifting target. This also explains why chiropractic physicians often have success at relieving chronic pain when conventional medicine was not effective.
Chiropractic physicians look at their patient as a whole person and try to help reduce other lifestyle factors that might be contributing to their patient’s discomfort such as stress, lack of exercise, diet or postural concerns. In addition chiropractic manipulation (or adjustments), have been shown to calm down the pain “dimmer switch” when they are applied to an area of the spine that doesn’t even hurt.
So the next time you have pain that doesn’t start with an obvious injury, start to take a look at your overall health. Are you stressed? How has your diet been? Are you getting sleep or exercise? If the pain persists, try not to mask it with medication and seek care from your chiropractic physician. Remember the pain is signaling that something needs your attention!
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