First, dramatic blog titles and clickbait are a pet peeve for me, so let me assure you that the following is truly the single most important fact about pain.
Pain communicates DANGER; it does NOT communicate DAMAGE.
You see, our bodies are hard-wired to protect themselves from damage BEFORE it happens. Imagine a car alarm that only went off after the car was stolen and long gone. That would be useless! To be effective, a good alarm must go off at the first hint of danger.
I often ask my patients to think of security at LAX. If somebody sees a cloud of smoke, security is not going to wait to uncover the source of it before they take measures to ensure travelers’ safety; whether the smoke is coming from an actual fire or from a toaster in the employee lounge all or part of the airport is going to get shut down. Our body’s alarm system is no different. Sometimes the alarm system can be a little too… alarming!
You might be thinking, “Okay, but what about when I know there is actual damage- when I can SEE that I’ve broken a bone or cut my skin?” Great question!
As far as I know, nobody likes to go to the doctor and get a needle stick. However, for some people that little pin is a minor nuisance. For others, it is absolutely excruciating. It’s not because people have different NERVES. Its because people have different MINDS.
If the pain we feel when we get a needle stick was a communication of DAMAGE, it would be a pretty mild experience for everyone. However, because it is a communication of DANGER, a person’s personality, past experiences, and prior knowledge all affect what is felt.
Let’s break down that last sentence a little bit:
What contributes to a sense of danger?
Are you a high-stress or low-stress person? Type A or Type B? Do you get excited by risky situations or do you prefer safety and stability? Our unique personalities, beliefs, and worldviews influence what we feel.
Sometimes our past experiences can sensitize us, and sometimes they can desensitize us. A small fender bender accident might be much more traumatic to someone who had recently been in a big car crash. That person would be sensitized by the experience. Let’s say that the person in the fender bender was a professional stuntman. A little fender bender might not even elevate his heart rate! The stuntman had been in so many similar experiences that his brain was bored and desensitized to it.
This one is huge! Why? Of each of these three factors, prior knowledge is the most changeable. We have no control over our past experiences, little control over our personalities, but quite a lot of control over our education and understanding of our own physiology. Simply knowing and understanding a phrase like, “Pain communicates DANGER; it does NOT communicate DAMAGE” can change how pain feels.
If we can change how pain feels without drugs or surgeries, life will be a lot better.
Pain is a very personal, very complex experience! It is less objective than we often think it is. However, this does not mean that pain is all in our heads or that if you have pain you just need to get over it. What is needed most is understanding, patience, and good communication with your body. Once the danger “alarm” has sounded, it is time to assess the situation and uncover what is really going on. Is it a real fire or just a smoking toaster?
If you are reading this blog because you or a loved one has pain, especially chronic pain, I would encourage you to attend our upcoming pain seminar on Saturday, March 9th at 8am.
We will be delving into the differences between danger and damage and working on learning how to communicate better with our bodies for vibrant, active living.
Email Pain@Villagefpt.com with your name to reserve a spot for you or a loved one.
Yours for a live alive,