by Keri Rogers PT, DPT (Board Certified Orthopedic Clinical Specialist/Fellow, American Academy of Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapists)
(Part 1 of a 2 part series about pain)
Understanding the Benefits of Pain
We all experience physical pain at times in our lives. Sometimes our body experiences discomfort or soreness such as following a workout, if we have been sitting for too long or if our shoes are too tight. However, sometimes pain becomes persistent and should be addressed. That’s why it’s important to pay attention and gain some understanding of the benefits of pain.
What is Pain?
When there is any type of tissue injury in your body, your brain sends a signal through your nervous system and results in an uncomfortable or unpleasant sensation. Each person experiences pain differently – some people react to the slightest pain and others have a high tolerance.
Generally, pain can be described as acute or chronic.
Acute pain is sudden and lasts no longer than six months. It’s the type of pain that makes you winch when you feel it. Often described as “sharp”, acute pain can be the result of an injury to your organs, bones, or muscles. This pain usually comes and goes and is a normal and protective response. An example may be if you sprain an ankle or pull a muscle. Often times this type of pain resolves on its own, but physical therapy can help to reduce pain more quickly and to minimize the risk for an injury happening again.
Chronic pain lasts for a long period of time, sometimes months or years. Conditions such as fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis may create chronic pain. It is important to note that you can continue to feel pain even though an injury is healed. Chronic pain can also happen even if you don’t have an active injury but does mean that your nervous system is perceiving a threat of injury.
Distinguishing between these two types of pain is important because it can provide clues to your physical therapist.
How Pain Informs Your Physical Therapist
Your physical therapist is trained to recognize different types of pain and what they may signal. They will likely ask you to describe your pain by asking a number of questions, including:
- Does it feel like burning, stinging, or stabbing?
- Where does the pain start in your body, and does it spread anywhere?
- What makes the pain worse?
- What makes it better?
- Is there any time in the day when the pain occurs or is worse?
- Does the pain impact your ability to perform daily functions?
- Does the pain impact your overall mood?
Using that information, physical therapists can determine the source of the pain and how to treat it.
What is “Good” Pain?
Think about the last time you were working out. You may have experienced a burning sensation while lifting weights that goes away when you stop working on that muscle. That burning sensation is a sign of lactic acid buildup in your muscles – it’s considered “good” pain. Physical therapists like to use the saying “sore is safe.” Soreness does not mean injury.
Another example of a time you may experience “good” pain or discomfort is if you sit in one position for too long. You may begin to feel aching in your low back or stiffness in your neck. Your legs may feel tight. This is your body giving you clues that you need to move. Again, in this scenario, there is no injury occurring. Our bodies respond to both high levels of activity and inactivity.
However, there are times when pain is not good. This is the type of pain you need to communicate to your physical therapist and/or doctor.
When Pain Signals Danger
In some cases, pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong. If you experience any of the following types of pain, do not ignore it. Make an appointment to see your physical therapist or doctor.
Sharp pain that limits your range of motion – If you cannot move a part of your body without experiencing sharp pain such that you avoid that movement altogether, you need to have it checked out.
Ongoing pain from a previous injury – If you are experiencing pain at the site of a procedure, treatment, or surgery, this may be a sign of related or additional concern.
Pain associated with swelling – If you have any type of swelling, growth, or other deformities that are also painful, you probably should have it examined.
Pain that persists – If you’ve been following directions to treat your pain with rest, ice, heat, over-the-counter medication, or even prescribed medication and it does not subside when it should, you need to contact your physical therapist or doctor.
Chronic pain — If your pain never subsides or just gets worse and worse, you are ignoring an issue that needs to be addressed. The longer you allow chronic pain to continue, the worse the problem will become.
Pain associated with bruising – Unless you are clumsy or have a habit of running into heavy objects, painful bruising can be a sign that there may be a broken bone or a more severe injury.
Intense, acute pain — If your pain is intense enough to make you nauseous or vomit, seek medical help immediately.
Pain associated with fever or chills – If you are experiencing pain along with a fever and/or chills, you most likely have some type of illness that could require medical attention.
The key to understanding the benefits of pain is not to it. Pay attention to the sensation, monitor how long it lasts, and communicate with your physical therapist or doctor. The sooner your pain is addressed, the more likely it will subside. Physical therapists are able to explain your pain to you and to help you overcome the pain and improve your function so that you can enjoy life.