In the past six months, how often have you experienced pain? As many as 40% of Americans have pain most days or every day, experiencing what medical professionals call chronic pain. We define chronic pain as pain lasting for greater than 6 months, but it’s much more impactful than its definition might lead you to believe. Let’s be honest – numbers and definitions don’t matter much to those experiencing pain. When you’re the one who can’t get out of bed or pick up your grandchild, the numbers aren’t going to be on your mind.

Chronic pain begins the same as most pain – we may strain a muscle, break a bone, tear a ligament or otherwise damage a part of our bodies. We feel pain when we move that part of our bodies, so we avoid moving in ways that cause pain. This may lead us to move differently to avoid pain or it may cause us to avoid moving altogether. Over time, the tissues we originally damaged heal. Despite this healing, our brains are still telling us to avoid movement because it hurts. When we do move in ways that were previously causing stress to those damaged tissues, it still hurts. The pain is real – even if the injury is no longer there. So, what’s happening?

There are many different types of receptors in your body that sense things like pressure, temperature, light touch, and pain. Pain is a protective stimulus that our nervous system sends to alert us to damage to the body. By design, the sensation of pain is something we try to avoid. The trouble is, when we avoid movements that cause pain for an extended period of time, our nervous system starts to loosen its definition of pain & our alarm bells are ringing if we even get close to stressing the tissues that were damaged initially. Eventually, these alarm bells are going off constantly, convincing us that any movement is painful – so we just stop moving. This can start what we call the “Chronic Pain Cycle.”

1) It hurts when we move
2) We stop moving
3) Our muscles, hearts, and lungs become deconditioned
4) Moving becomes harder
5) Moving causes more pain each time we try & the cycle repeats itself

If your doctor determines that there is no physical damage to your body that is causing your pain, it may be necessary to interrupt this chronic pain cycle therapeutically. Physical therapy can help your nervous system re-organize sensations to reduce the frequency & severity of its pain reactions. It can also help desensitize your body to movement & help you build strength and endurance to support reintegration into activities you once enjoyed. Massage therapy may be recommended for relaxation of muscles that have tensed up to protect the body from pain. It can also be helpful to perform mindfulness activities, practice meditation, or participate in cognitive-behavioral therapy to modify negative thoughts associated with movement or pain. Regardless of the approach, interrupting the Chronic Pain Cycle is critical. If you’re experiencing chronic pain, please don’t hesitate to contact your physician & inquire about your treatment options. You deserve to get your life back.

~Sarah Bassett, PTA, CBIS, CKTP