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Our Alarm System: A Better Way To Understand Pain

dr. marcus muscles overtraining performance physical therapy recovery Feb 17, 2021

A hot pan - don’t touch it! A wet slippery slope - probably should avoid it. A cactus - definitely avoid it. The experience of pain has taught us these simple rules, and we should be thankful! Burning our hand, slipping on rocks, and getting poked by a cactus’ spines are all three damaging things that we do our best to avoid to ensure our own health. These examples are the easiest way to understand pain, in that it is an alarm system that is designed to protect us from damage by giving us a quick response from which we can learn.

Let’s go one level deeper. What happens if you go on a big hike and wake up the next day with your legs in pain? It’s a deep soreness that you haven’t felt before and it’s really bothering your hips and knees. Is this cause for concern? Is this damage? What kind of pain is this?

What if you are simply sitting down in the gym after a workout and turn to pick up your water bottle and your back spasms, causing intense discomfort? Is this cause for concern? Is this damage? What kind of pain is this?

How about just waking up with shoulder pain for no reason, but it lasts for 10 years? It won’t respond to medication or injections, and resting it just makes it worse. Is this cause for concern? Is this damage? Why the heck is this pain still around?

As you can see, the alarm system pain provides is activated in all of these scenarios. This alarm system provides a symphony of sensation that plays its tune and it's up to you (and maybe the assistance of a professional) to decode the symphony. Let me share with you the things I look for in a patient’s presentation to help decode their sensations:

1. Numbness, tingling, or burning?

If you are having numbness, tingling, or burning that does not resolve quickly or returns regularly, you likely need an assessment from a professional to determine its root cause. PTs are very skilled in caring for this type of pain! However, if this sensation is with progressive weakness or progressive loss of sensation, you should contact your primary care provider for assessment quickly. If it is rapidly progressive, you should go to the hospital. 

2. Pain that's slowly getting better but still around?

As long as the pain is getting better overall, healing is occurring. If it's slow, it's still progress, so don’t discount it! If you are frustrated in the pain’s slow speed of improvement, it might be time to come in to see us as we are also very skilled at finding ways to more rapidly accelerate your healing. 

3. Pain that is not getting better for over a month?

If you’ve been having pain that has not been improving for over a month, it is definitely time to see a professional. PTs are fantastic at diving into the mechanical issues that are causing your pain and improving the painful region’s overall capacity to provide you a higher healing potential. 

As a final note… there are SO many factors that can affect pain! Here’s a short list of proven secondary factors that have a direct effect on the subjective interpretation of the pain alarm system:

Modifiable Factors Proven to Affect Pain*:

  • Mental health
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Obesity
  • Physical activity/exercise (over or underactivity)
  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • Employment status and occupational factors

Non-modifiable Factors Proven to Affect Pain

  • Age
  • Sex
  • Cultural background
  • Socioeconomic background
  • History of trauma/injury/interpersonal violence
  • Heritable factors (including genetic)

As you can see, this complex experience doesn’t just include the local injury but so many other factors! If you would like to read more about the pain experience and its study, I highly recommend "Explain Pain." It is a short read that is well researched and provides a great contextualization of the entirety of the pain experience. 

So, if you are having pain and want to better understand it, start with contextualizing it as an alarm system that you must learn to interpret. If you’d like to understand your pain further, “Explain Pain” is a great option. 

And, finally, when you’re ready to have your pain improve, come see us at Athletes’ Potential!

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​Thanks for reading,

Dr. Marcus Rein, PT, DPT, CF-L2

* van Hecke O, Torrance N, Smith BH. Chronic pain epidemiology - where do lifestyle factors fit in?. Br J Pain. 2013;7(4):209-217. doi:10.1177/2049463713493264

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