Is Your Pain Caused By Stress, Anxiety Or Worry?

Were you taught that pain is just a symptom of damage to some part of your body? Most people were and it certainly can be the case in the early stages of injury, like when we sprain an ankle. But what about pain that carries on longer than we expect and doesn’t get any easier, perhaps even sometimes getting worse as time goes on? 
Do you find that your pain can get worse:
  • After long stressful days?
  • When you’re sleeping less?
  • If you’re anxious or worried?
  • Even when you’re doing less?

Pain Is Weird

It doesn’t really make sense how pain can start in your lower back, move into your hip, travel a bit down your leg and then also give you a headache? Or a feeling your arm or shoulder just feels a bit out of sync? Or your pain increases for no real reason when you’d been doing pretty well this previous week? 
So, yes, that makes no sense at all if pain is just about damage. But remember that is not how pain works. We now know that pain is poorly related to damage to a specific structure in your body.

Pain Is Protective

Imagine if we didn’t feel any pain? We’d all be burning hands and breaking all sorts of bones! Pain is protective, a bit like an alarm system. So, like that sprained ankle, pain tells us it’s sore – so we limp around a bit for a few days to protect the ankle. And over time that pain eases off and we return to walking normally again.
But what if our alarm system gets a bit too over protective? Like the annoying car alarm that goes off for no reason at 5am in the morning? Or the super sensitive fire alarm that starts beeping at full volume when it senses a bit of smoke? No cars are being stolen, no buildings are burning but ultimately those alarms are designed to protect. Our body’s own alarm system can get over protective as well.

Pain Is A Recipe Of Many Ingredients

So when pain hangs around longer than usual, it becomes less about physical damage and more about other things. With persistent pain, our body is getting better at producing pain and our body reacts more easily, much like those over sensitive alarm systems. 
So what in your life can make you more sensitive? We need to consider things like stress, poor sleep, avoiding meaningful activities, fearing the worst, negative beliefs about pain, emotional health… almost everything really.
This video is a nice quick (less than the 5 minutes!) visual way of explaining this.

Pain Is Changeable

Start by thinking of your body as a cup. If your cup gets full of all the things going on in your life, and then starts to overflow, that’s when you can start becoming more sensitive to pain and your alarm system is easily set off. 
You can either decrease the effect of those things in your cup or build up your capacity to tolerate those stressors by making your cup bigger. Or ideally do both. And the good news is we have a lot of possibilities to help with your pain and your sensitivity; it is rarely about one specific thing that has to be “fixed”. 
And understanding that pain is not always equal to damage helps us tolerate and adapt. 

How Your Chartered Physiotherapist Can Help Your Pain

  • Build a bigger cup – we can guide you about the best way to get moving and finding the right balance of activity for you. Usually it’s best to begin by just poking into some mild discomfort with some gentle movements for a few minutes a day and then gradually building up into doing things that are meaningful to you. 
  • Look at the contents of your cup – we can talk through all the things in your life and come up with ways to help manage and reduce them. We will know when you may benefit from the support of other health professionals too. 
Pain doesn’t mean you have to stop doing all the things in your life. Remember pain means your alarm system is overactive; it’s not so much about any damage, more about the need for protection. But the issue is our body can overdo the protection. You don’t need “fixing” before you can start moving and doing!
What we work on doing to keep you healthy and pain free is to treat the conditions that make you more sensitive. You can’t actually change things like that arthritis or degenerative changes but you can change the things in your life that sensitise them. If you remember one thing from reading this, remember “pain is more about sensitivity than damage”.
What would you be doing if your pain was less of a problem for you?