Pain carries two ‘messages’; actual damage as well as anticipated damage; we can see this when we are sunburnt – our skin is much more sensitive to touch, as our pain pathways are over-reporting all sensations. Anticipated-damage reporting means that our bodies can avoid damage and not have to waste resources on continual repair. However, it means that sometimes we feel the sensation of pain when no harm has been done.
Pain is created within our brains, and not at the site of actual/anticipated damage, and this means that sometimes our wires get crossed, and we feel pain in places other than where the problem is. Heart attacks can cause pains in our left shoulder and jaw, gallbladder problems can cause pain in our right shoulders; only focusing on the musculoskeletal system means that some ailments can be mistreated.
Sometimes pains can be felt when there is no damage at all. This is especially noticeable in people who have limbs amputated due to accidents, and is called ‘Phantom Pain’. However, everyone’s brains have the ability to create these phantom sensations, not just those who have lost limbs. The circuits already exist, but we are unaware as the body parts are present. Phantom pains do not respond well to conventional therapies, as the problems are deep within the brain, and not in the tissues of the body.
Pain is such a complex sensation; we ask a lot from our painkillers. However, painkillers do not cure anything. The site of a problem is rarely the location of the pain. For example, back pain arises when segments adjacent to a relatively static level are forced to move more, creating increased lactic acid and inflammation if the movement continues for long enough, or the problem is not treated effectively from the outset; effective therapies look for and treat the cause of a problem, rather than merely offering pain-relief.
The most effective form of pain relief is rest – the message of pain is impending or actual damage. Regardless of the activity that is causing the pain, if you refrain from that motion you are ‘killing the pain’.
If the pain continues when the activity is restarted, it may be coming from inflammation. Before you reach for the tablets, use ice. A small bag of crushed ice placed over the injured area for five minutes will reduce the blood flow to the affected area, and reduce the inflammation. Following this up with some gentle stretching/mobilisation exercises - i.e. gently perform the activity that was causing the pain – will warm up the area gently. If the ice-mobilisation pattern is repeated for three or four cycles, this will help remove the pain-inducing inflammation.
It’s not wrong to take painkillers. True, they don’t fix the problem, but it doesn’t make sense to live in pain. However, taking painkillers and carrying on doing the activity that was causing the pain in the first place is compounding the problem. Most aches and pains are caused by the body trying to adapt or compensate for a small ailment. Removing the causes of the pain removes both the problem and the symptom.