Is Pain Real or Is It All in Your Head?

September 27, 2017

It is estimated that 9.4% of the world’s population suffer from some form of back pain, but a new study suggests that – for many people – such discomfort may simply be a figment of the imagination.

Inspired by previous evidence showing that amputees can continue to feel pain in a limb they no longer have, a group of Australian researchers set out to investigate the neuroscience behind clinical pain. The team recruited a small sample of 15 people with self-reported symptoms of chronic lower back pain, alongside 15 additional healthy participants of the same age to act as a control group.

The Study

Over the course of the study, three experiments were conducted.

The first experiment used a device that applies pressure to the spine in order to objectively measure the resulting stiffness. The measurements were then compared to how the participants said they felt.

In the second experiment, participants were told that they were about to receive an applied force before being asked to estimate the magnitude of the force they had received.

For the final experiment, the researchers looked at whether or not adding sounds to the application of pressure would change the perceived stiffness. From this, it was found that feelings could be modulated using different sounds. For example, the feeling of stiffness was worse with creaky door sounds and less with gentle whooshing sounds. It was then concluded that feeling stiff may represent a protective perceptual construct.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Why Does This Happen?

Our perception of pain is shaped by brain circuits that are constantly filtering the information coming from our sensory nerves. Research has shown that the brain can choose to turn up the volume on certain pain information, or it can turn down the volume and pay less attention to it.

This ability to modulate pain explains the experiences of people like Dwayne Turner, an Army combat medic in Iraq who received the Silver Star for valor.

In 2003, Turner was unloading supplies when his unit came under attack. He was wounded by a grenade and was hit by a piece of shrapnel in his leg — he did not even notice that.

Despite his injuries, Turner began giving first aid and pulled other soldiers to safety. As he worked, he was shot twice again with one bullet breaking a bone in his arm. Yet, Turner would say later that he felt almost no pain.

Pain is Important

Pain is never fun to experience but it is one of the most important bodily signals we have. It alerts us to injuries such as a burned hand, and tells us when something might not be right.

While medical treatments such as Physiotherapy can be helpful for treating pain, psychological treatments are also an important part of pain management. Understanding and managing the thoughts, emotions and behaviors that accompany the discomfort can help you cope more effectively with your pain and can actually reduce the intensity of your pain.

Tips for Coping with Pain

1. Stay Active
Pain — or the fear of pain — can deter people from doing things that they enjoy. It is important to not let pain take over your life!

Watch a movie, take a walk in the park or engage in a hobby. Pleasant experiences can help you cope with pain and distract your mind away from it.

2. Exercise
There is a common misconception that exercise wears down the cartilage, which is why many people stopped working out as they get older. However, research has shown that the more exercise those suffering from knee osteoarthritis do, the healthier their knees become.

Exercise can help to strengthen the muscles around the joint, which reduces the stress it sustains.

While high-impact exercises such as soccer and rugby may not be suitable for everyone, you can still stay healthy with low-impact exercises such as jogging and swimming.

3. Know Your Limits
Continue to be active in a way that acknowledges your physical limitations but do not push yourself to do more than you can handle. The “no pain, no gain” saying does not fit in here!

How PhysioActive Can Help

At PhysioActive, we place great emphasis on optimising total health and we treat the patient as a whole person. That is, instead of treating an illness, as in orthodox allopathy, we look at an individual’s overall physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing before recommending treatment.

Our holistic approach can help you manage your pain and think of it in a different way.

Contact us now to find out what your options are.

This post has been written by Goh Yun Jie.

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