Pain is a sensory phenomena. Irrespective of its cause, pain is a message, mediated by the nervous system to relay information about the state of the body. Simply put, pain is the body’s way of communicating to us that something is wrong. Since your body doesn’t speak english (or any other language for that matter) it must speak in symptoms, of which pain is one specific type of message. It is our job to uncover its meaning and then translate that message into a treatment plan.
One cause of pain is structural. A fractured bone or misaligned spinal segment can irritate a nerve and cause a tremendous amount of pain. When an orthopedic surgeon can clearly identify a spinal trauma and competently repair it, everybody wins. If a skilled chiropractor can guide a subluxation back into alignment, a miraculous elimination of pain can result. Other times, the pain may be complicated by problems that exist in the soft tissue or the nervous system.
This leads us to a second cause of pain, that which is based in the soft tissue. In the above example of spinal pain, if the problem were not to respond from intervention, it is likely that the muscles surrounding the spine are compromised. It is difficult to have lasting relief from treatment to the spine if the muscles surrounding the area are frequently in spasm. This point requires practitioners to always consider and treat the soft tissue whenever remedying a structural problem. Ultimately, the bones are a slave to the soft tissue. Bones will only go where the muscles tell them to go.
Other kinds of soft tissue pain include acute muscle strain or ligament/tendon sprain, cuts and bruises from trauma, scar tissue, and swelling and inflammation that can arise from any number of internal pathologies. Most of the time, these kinds of pain are self-limiting as your body is well equipped to heal trauma. When pain becomes chronic however, it often indicates that a more complicated and systemic cause is undermining the body’s ability to heal.
This leads us to a third type of pain called neurogenic, meaning originating from the nervous system. Perhaps the most startling example of this kind of pain is phantom limb syndrome whereby a patient experiences pain in precise locations of a limb that has previously been amputated. Phantom limb patients are very specific in their reporting of pain, often being able to describe which fingers or toes are painful. This kind of pain exists within the sensory cortex of the brain. Here, multiple brain structures collaborate to form what is called a neurocircuit. Neurocircuits typically form (through a process called myelination) for development and survival, such as the case of a learned behavior – walking, eating, speaking, etc. Neurocircuits, however, can become engrained around a pain stimulus, or in other words, your body can form a habit out of sensing pain.
It is common therefore to have pain that originates from all three of these aspects. Clinical experience shows that most pain begins as a structural or soft tissue problem that then settles into your neurocircuitry, resulting in chronic pain. In this case, your body has created a pain pathway in your brain that continues to be triggered even after the physical body has healed.
Most of the time, a physical trauma carries with it one or more intense emotions that are linked with that neurocircuit. The structure may heal but if you still carry the emotional trauma, the sensation of physical pain may not abate. Furthermore, an emotional response can be so intertwined with a neurocircuit that every time your memory recalls that traumatic event, the pain circuitry becomes triggered. This is not to say the pain is purely psychological – there is no clear distinction between body, mind, and emotions when it comes to neurocircuitry. Rather, your brain has created a deeply entrenched pain pathway that can be triggered by your thoughts and emotions.
In translating your body’s message of pain, we must be open to this interplay of mind, body, emotions, and environment. Is the pain a signal that your body is not getting enough rest? Is your body overworked and worn? Is your muscle weakness caused by a side effect from a medication, such as a CoQ10 deficiency from taking a statin drug? Did you wake up with a pain in your neck after last night’s argument with your spouse (who was being a pain in your neck)?
When you dig deep, listen hard, and perhaps consult with a knowledgable practitioner who can mirror your experience, the underlying cause of pain can be discovered, treated, and lasting relief can be achieved. If you are suffering from chronic pain, the single most important thing is to keep researching and trying different therapies. Visualize a healthy, pain-free you. Never give up hope.