About 10 million people in the UK suffer from ongoing pain and the treatment cost to the NHS is unknown. It can be so debilitating and stressful that it stops people doing the things they love, provokes fear and distress, and takes meaning away from life. However, feeling pain is normal and generally healthy. It can be thought of as an alarm system, designed to protect us from damage or potential damage. Sometimes though, the system can become more sensitive than we'd like. There are a number of reasons for this, including previous injury or pain, beliefs, stress, mood, social context, and tiredness. Understanding how this happens and the factors involved can improve the effectiveness of treatments as well as provide reassurance.
Most tissues in your body contain nociceptors, which are danger sensors tasked with letting us know when we are damaged, about to be damaged, or may be about to be damaged. We don't necessarily feel pain as a result of nociceptor activation, it can happen below our conscious awareness. They are simply sending a message to the brain about the threat and this information is evaluated based on many things, such as those mentioned above, before it is deemed that pain would be a suitable response to the situation. And remembering that pain is a protective system, it protects us by motivating us to do something about the damage, potential damage, or threat of potential damage.
Increased peripheral sensitivity can occur after injury, or even after novel or unusually intense exercise. This increased sensitivity is essentially why pain can "flare up" in some people. The new level of tissue sensitivity can become the norm and lead to pain after what used to be a safe and "normal" activity. This happens as a result of physiological changes in the body at a cellular level.
Central sensitivity is a little different, in that it is the processing of the danger signals which experience technical issues. This leads to the output (pain) not really being an appropriate response to the input (for example, bending over). Both central and peripheral sensitivity can occur together.
Descending inhibition is your ability to modulate your pain, as your brain can activate the release of strong, powerful "pain killing" chemicals in response to pleasure or positive expectation. It's likely that this is how massage and similar therapies work, by activating this short-term response, and for some people this can be enough to create an ideal environment to heal themselves and return to their version of normal. Long term or chronic pain sufferers may have an impaired ability to activate this mechanism, but like all good things, it takes practice, determination, and commitment.
To learn more, either as a pain sufferer or professional involved with the treatment of pain, contact Alison in any of the following ways:
Call: 01350 727173
Alison Annison is an experienced massage therapist. She is currently in her third year studying sports science and spends her spare time in the great outdoors with her dog, Rockstar.