, , ,

The Pain is in Your Head!

We oftentimes hear the phrase “pain is in your head” used to motivate others around us while suffering
through a physically intense endeavor. I frequently heard this or similar renditions while in the Army
during training events like our semi-annual fitness tests, long unit runs, and grueling ruck marches. The
meaning of statements like this is to reinforce the power of the mind over the body, to mentally fight
through the physical discomfort. However, it turns out that pain is actually experienced in our heads and
NOT actually where pain is felt. Pain truly is in our heads. Now bear with me as I elaborate.

You see, the painful body part is too “dumb” and not equipped to produce pain. Let’s use tweaking the
low back while lifting something heavy, for example. Within the tissues of the low back are special
receptors and nerves that simply detect whatever might be a threat to the body. This includes local
chemical responses from inflammation, exposure to high forces of pressure, and extreme heat or cold.
These nerves detect this stimulus but do not know how to utilize this information; however, they know
who does…. the brain! So, these low back nerves that detected a potential threat send a signal away
from the local area to the spinal cord which then relays the message up to the brain for further
processing. Once received, the brain makes note of where the message is coming from, what type of
message was received (a potential threat!), and the current situation (bending over picking up
something heavy). It quickly processes the message to produce the output of pain.

Believe it or not, pain is a blessing protecting us from further harm. If it wasn’t for pain, I wouldn’t be
able to detect the sharp rusty nail I am stepping on and quickly pull my foot away from it, preventing
getting tetanus. Without pain, I wouldn’t know if my appendix was about to rupture, potentially causing
a fatal event. Pain forces me to the doctor to get the appropriate treatment. Pain prevents us from
running on a sprained ankle, causing further harm to sensitive tissue. Without pain to protect us and
guide us, we wouldn’t have survived long as a species!

Not only can the brain receive and process information from pain receptors and nerves, it is also the
body’s headquarters for processing any and all information related to our senses, movement, internal
health, cognitive processing, emotional state, and overall well-being. The brain will use other information
to fine tune the output and can amplify, distort, or weaken the output based on this other data. It can
also suppress the pain output in a life or death situation. For example, a Soldier being shot in the arm in
combat may not realize it until after the firefight is over. During this scenario, the arm’s pain receptors
and nerves detected the threat and relayed the information to the brain for processing. However, the
brain quickly “decided” the arm is less threatening than the potentially fatal situation it was facing, so it
dampened the pain output to deal with it later, when not in a life and death situation.

Because the pain is processed in our heads as well as EVERYTHING else, there can be some crosstalk
between different processes simultaneously occurring that can greatly impact the pain output. For
example, a person with both chronic back pain and depression may experience more back pain if their
depression worsens. What is it about being more depressed that causes more back pathology? Nothing!
But because both the depression and the back pain are processed in the brain, they can oftentimes
negatively impact each other. The opposite is true, too. Feeling more hopeful and optimistic can have a positive effect on chronic pain. This is why managing chronic pain should include a holistic approach (a
topic certainly worth its own article).

Of course, the physiology of experiencing pain is much more complex than explained here, but hopefully
this simple description helps identify the complexity of pain and how it’s not necessarily all about the
painful body part. It’s important to remember this while going through the rehabilitation and recovery
process, especially when there is a lack of progress, worsening of symptoms, or when dealing with other
health issues simultaneously (physical, mental, spiritual, etc.).

So, in summary, the pain you and I feel is actually in our heads. No, we are not all crazy, and the pain
experienced is actual legit pain. We just need to remember this as we recover and heal as there can be
many other factors that can influence the rehab process and pain symptoms. By understanding and
acknowledging this, we are able to identify non-pathological reasons why pain may worsen, and this
gives us a little more control over what often seems to be an uncontrollable situation.

For more information, check out this 5-minute animated video:

, , ,

You Threw Your Back Out! Now What?

Most of us have experienced that sudden unexpected sharp low back pain and the inability to fully stand up erect afterward. If you haven’t yet, chances are you likely will at some point. Unfortunately, we oftentimes do not expect it to happen as it either occurs with the most obscure unthreatening activities (picking up a pencil, wresting with your kids, getting out of the car, etc.) or when we believe we are physically prepared to take on load (deadlifting, squatting, etc.) but the aftermath tells us otherwise. So, when it happens, what should you do?

First, don’t panic. Take a moment to catch your breath and evaluate the situation. Yes, it can be extremely painful and alarming but 99.999% of the time it isn’t life threatening. To assist ruling out more severe pathology (cancer, spinal cord injury, etc.), think about the how the pain started and the resulting symptoms. Below are some criteria to help:

  • Is the pain associated with a low-traumatic specific cause or mechanism (picking something up, twisting, etc.)?
  • Does the pain change with movement and/or position (ex: worsens with bending, better with sitting, better with walking, worse in the morning, etc.)?
  • Are you experiencing any other concerning symptoms (ex: changes in bowel/bladder function, nausea/vomiting, numbness/tingling, unexplained weight fluctuations, paralysis or severe sudden weakness, dizziness, headaches, etc.)?

If you can answer “yes” to the first two questions and “no” to the third, then the pain is likely “mechanical”, meaning it is not life threatening and is associated with the movement-related parts of the body. More severe and worrisome causes of back pain typically present as a constant unrelenting pain without an identifiable cause, pain that does not change regardless of movement/position, and pain along with other worrisome symptoms like those in question three above. Additionally, high-velocity traumatic causes of back pain (high-speed car accident, fall from high surface, etc.) should also be medically evaluated to rule out fractures. If you deem your pain as life threatening or suspect a fracture, definitely get it medically evaluated as soon as possible. If not, then congrats! You are the proud owner of acute low back pain and should keep reading.

Next, keep moving. Old school medical advice directed back pain patients to stay off their feet and oftentimes prescribed “bed rest” for prolonged periods. Turns out this treatment strategy is more harmful than good. Current medical literature supports continued activity, starting with lower level activities and gradually increasing workload until back to prior level of function. Sitting and laying around avoiding aggravating movements may seem logical to allow the body to heal; however, it’s common for individuals to actually feel WORSE after prolonged periods of rest. The longer you stay away from being active, the higher the risk of becoming deconditioned, weaker, and stiffer while potentially developing fear avoidance behaviors and acute depression if avoiding activities typically enjoyed.

With that said, it is not wise to continuously push through painful movements with the “pain is weakness leaving the body” mentality. Doing so can aggravate healing tissues (similar to picking a healing scab) as well as increase your body’s sensitivity to movement, resulting in higher pain levels. (Note: Pain is a very complicated output of the brain after it receives/processes multiple stimuli, to include pain receptors. The complexity is a whole other article on its own, but you can trust me on this!). So, the goal is to avoid the far ends of the activity spectrum: not enough and too much. Like Goldilocks, you need to find the middle “just right” point that keeps you moving without overdoing it. Light range of motion exercises and stretching is typically recommended along with light cardiovascular exercise like walking or riding a stationary bike. Check out the video below for some good exercises commonly prescribed for acute low back pain.

While going through the recovery process, it’s crucial to maintain an overall healthy lifestyle to promote a good healing response. Because physical activity is usually restricted initially, maintaining a well-balanced diet is key to prevent unnecessary weight gain and provide the body the right nutrients to optimize healing. Binge watching Netflix and eating a tub of ice cream is not a good approach. Sleep, too, is very important. One of our biggest healing-promoting hormones is Growth Hormone which naturally spikes during our deep sleep cycles. Additionally, our biggest stress hormone Cortisol (which limits recovery) naturally lowers while asleep. Reducing and disrupting sleep patterns therefore decreases the body’s natural ability to heal by reducing the “good” hormone we need while maintaining elevated levels of the “bad” hormone. I also recommend avoiding tobacco use and heavy alcohol consumption as both can reduce blood flow and the oxygen/nutrients delivered by the cardiovascular system, resulting in delayed healing.

The last piece of advice I can offer is to stay positive, be patient, and embrace the roller coaster ride of recovery. You will get better, it may just take some time. Each injury and person are unique; therefore, timelines, progression, and symptoms will vary. And if you have a history of low back pain episodes, each recovery will be different. Mindset is HUGE when injured (go back to the previous comment about the complexity of pain output). Feeling down and out mentally can carry over to how you feel physically. Also, remember that recovery is not a smooth ride with predictable improvements each day but more like a bumpy roller coaster ride with ups, downs, and loopy-loops (see below image). It’s common to experience a “bad day” after a “good day”. This does not indicate further harm or reinjury but is a common response as the body progresses.

So, in summary, tweaking your back happens. And, unfortunately, it sucks. However, you will recover. The body is amazing and able to heal despite all the day-to-day abuse thrown its way. There are things you can do to promote the recovery progress as described above: stay moderately active, maintain a healthy lifestyle, and have a positive mindset. Typical acute pain episodes improve over one to three weeks. If your pain persists longer, intensifies, or progresses to include “red flag” symptoms (see question 3 above), you should consult a medical provider to further assist.

Shameless Physical Therapy Plug: Seeing a physical therapist early in the back pain episode can further assist in the recovery process. If your state and health insurance allow for direct access to physical therapy without a referral (like South Carolina), I encourage seeking a physical therapist first to avoid delayed care and possibly unnecessary imaging and medication prescriptions.

I hope this is helpful. Definitely reach out to us at Vertex PT Specialists if you have any questions or concerns. Or if you are in the Columbia, SC area, we would love to help you out if your back pain continues to nag you!


Dr. Pat Casey, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS, SFMA, CF-L1
pat.casey@vertexpt.com
803.973.0100