Pain Series Pt 5: Pain Can be Over-protective

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Our alarm system can become too sensitive

Written by Mitchell Robinson

Our bodies are great at reacting to a stimulus and adapting. An example of a good adaptation is building muscle as a result of strength training. However, sometimes our bodies react too much. Think about allergic reactions. Originally, a small reaction is a good thing – it protects us. However, some people’s immune response is over the top and they react too much. Another common over-reaction can be seen when you burn your hand. Initially, your body produces extra skin to repair and protect the burn site, but some people produce too much and form a keloid scar.

The same thing can happen with our pain responses.

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Initially, pain has an important role in alerting us to protect the injured site, but sometimes our nervous system overdoes it. With persistent pain, your body can get better at sensing danger.

"With chronic pain, the body and the brain have an over-reaction to injury and persist too long."

See, most tissues heal within 6 months. Skin usually takes up to 2 weeks. Some deeper soft tissue can take ~6 months (and up to a year to regain full tensile strength). Bone usually takes around 3-6 months to heal (and again, up to a year to fully remodel). The important point here is that a time frame exists whereby all tissues finish their healing processes. During this time, pain has a vital role in protecting us from further damage (Lederman 2015). If you have pain past the tissue-healing timeframe, your pain is considered chronic (on-going or persistent).

With chronic pain, the body and the brain have an over-reaction to injury and persist too long. There's nothing to protect anymore, yet you still feel pain! The body adapts and becomes better at sending pain - it gets too good at it! Pain like this is no longer helpful.

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It’s like a car alarm that goes off every time some dust blows onto it. The dust isn’t dangerous, instead the alarm system is too sensitive. Or imagine a smoke alarm that continues to sound long after the firefighters have extinguished the fire and gone home. The more pain you feel, the better your alarm system can become at sending pain. The alarm system is no longer giving you an accurate assessment of danger anymore. (Woolf, 2011)

If you’re struggling with pain and think you would benefit from seeing a physiotherapist for your pain management, talk to your GP. Sycamore Health has a speciality in pain management and non-medicated remedies, and would love to help you take control of your pain!

Next part in this series: What You Need To Know About Pain: Part 6

Lederman, E. (2015). A process approach in manual and physical therapies: beyond the structural model. CPDO Online Journal, 1-18.
Woolf, C. (2011). Central sensitisation: implications for the diagnosis and treatment of pain. Pain, 152(3), 2-15.

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