What is this thing called pain anyway?
When we talk about pain, it is important to understand that it is a very individual experience and to remember WHY we experience pain. Pain is a signal that goes from the body to the brain and says something is not right. It hurts. How we interpret the hurt and our reactions to them are multi layered. We have physical reactions—move away from the pain, guard against further injury, and increase the production of neurotransmitters and adrenal hormones, among other reactions at the tissue and bio-chemical levels; we have emotional reactions that can be related to past experiences, fears, pride, courage, and/or fill in the blank; we have thoughts that are in response to the pain such as “buck up”, “oh not again”, “I’m going to die”, “anything but this”, and/or fill in the blank.
People who live with chronic pain tend to register pain sooner. This is called Pain Threshold. (Pain Threshold: the point at which stimulus (such as pressure or temperature) is reported by a person as pain.) So the same amount of pressure on someone who lives with chronic pain will be experienced as pain while someone who does not live with chronic pain may not report it as pain until more pressure is applied. I’m not sure that there is one explanation that this is the case. But I suspect that because we live with pain, we are sensitized to notice it and we may also have increased things like Substance P (a hormone known to be present with pain), inflammatory response, and nerve endings that are on higher alert.
Pain Tolerance: the amount of pain a person can withstand before breaking down, either emotionally or physically. People who live with chronic pain tend to have high pain tolerance so the bandwidth of pain is larger than non-chronic pain people. We tend to feel it sooner but we are able to tolerate it at a much higher level. That means that many of us live with pain that would put many other people to their knees. Pain tolerance can be a blessing and a curse. For one, it is good to be able to continue on with life despite the pain. But it can also mean that we do not pay as much attention to warning signs that might help with early interventions on new pain or worsening pain. (Remember that pain is a signal about a stimulus either internally or externally that is registered as hurting.)
I have lots of different aches and pains that I manage. One of the things I deal with is Thoracic Outlet Syndrome that manifests as pain in my shoulder and shooting pain down my arm. Recently I have been experiencing a deep ache in my elbow and sharp pain when I grip. I know that means that I have tissue damage in my elbow—known as lateral epicondyle inflammation or tennis elbow. (no I don’t play tennis. I think it is from a combination of pulling weeds and mousing at my computer.) I could ignore the pain, know that I have a high tolerance, but then the early signs don’t getting noticed. I know my body well enough to know that I need to rest, ice, self massage, and put on a FGXpress patch—that is what my pain is telling me and what my experience of treating it tells me. If I just try to mask the pain, then the injury continues to grow until it breaks through. Usually, by that point, it will take much longer to heal.
Pain is part of life. It gives us information so that we know that is happening around us and in us. When you are able to thrive with pain, you have power to make choices that support a whole life. This includes listening to the messages of the pain, proactively caring for your self, and not judging what is. Simple but not easy—thriving with pain.