The latest scientific research has led to a better understanding of just how much our experience of pain is affected by non-physical factors. A complex network of nerves in the body, referred to as the ‘pain neuromatrix’ is involved in transmitting and processing pain signals. Areas of the brain that process emotion and stress are also involved in our perception of pain. If you are under emotional stress or are depressed, for instance, this can impact negatively on your interpretation of pain, turning a small amount of pain into a significantly painful episode.
This complicated mix of ingredients explains why soldiers in battle have been known to feel an initial sting but then fight on for hours before realizing that they’ve been shot. You’ve probably heard stories of footballers who have severely sprained an ankle or broken a bone during a crucial game and gone on to play out the whole game – but immediately afterwards been unable to walk.
The brain in survival situations is able to suppress or inhibit painful signals from the body. In contrast, people with only minor strains in their backs but who have fearful personalities, high anxiety and low pain thresholds, can in stressful situations feel severe pain which is vastly out of proportion to the level of underlying damage.
In recovering from sports injuries, the particular individual’s ‘pain profile’ can make a big difference to their speed of recovery and return to sport. If you understand how ‘pain is in the brain’, you and your therapist can manipulate the situation to get you up and moving as quickly as safety permits, even if you are still feeling back pain during rehabilitation.
By gradually, gently returning to normal levels of activity, despite feeling continued pain or discomfort in your back, you can in effect trick your brain and nerves (neuromatrix) into thinking there is nothing wrong. Over time, as you move normally, your body readjusts to normal signals travelling from your back to your brain, desensitizing the neuromatrix in a gradual winding down and re-setting of the system back to normal.
This is why it is not a good idea to stay in bed for weeks while your back pain symptoms last. It is better to get up and get moving – studies have shown bed-rest to be no better a way to manage back pain than getting active again.
—Excerpted from Beating Back Pain by Mark Alexander – founder, inventor and Managing Director of BakPhysio Pty Ltd.