I used thirst to help someone understand pain. He had been given the structural explanation for recurring low back pain (trapped nerve that runs all the way to the toes), which naturally leads to a tissue based focus on ways to get better. Whilst this is a common way to describe pain, it is wrong. Pain is a protective response to a perceived threat.

Yes, if a nerve is sensitised by inflammation or injury, it will transmit danger signals to the spinal cord and then the brain. All the while, signals are being sent down from the brain to mingle with these ascending signals, the sum of which will be scrutinised by brain networks to determine whether a threat exists. If there is a threat deemed tangible, then the body will protect itself with pain, altered movement, altered thinking and altered behaviours:

  • it hurts in a location
  • you limp or limit how far you move the painful area
  • you consider how bad it is and whether you can go to the party, game, work etc
  • you don’t go to the party, the game, work etc

This is all very useful at the outset, but becomes less so as time goes on and the body is healing.

Often there is a kindling or priming effect. The first acute painful episode calms down but then recurring bouts of pain become more intense and with less and less time between–familiar? In the first instance, the systems that protect do so effectively, slowing you down and enforcing action to allow healing. This would usually be in response to inflammation, and is all entirely normal whilst being an unpleasant experience. Not nice, but nothing to worry about. Of course, you would be wise to take heed and do everything that you can to fully recover, which means that the tissues heal and the protective systems switch back to normal modus operandi. There is a chance that you will need some guidance.

It appears that there are some people who maybe vulnerable to developing on-going pain, which is on-going protection. There is likely to be a genetic aspect to this, and certainly a prior experience that may have primed the systems so that they kick in more vigorously, or simply do not turn off when they need to. An over-protect or sensitivity. The priming event(s) may happen much earlier in life so that when the body perceives a threat some years later, there is recognition of the need to protect based upon what has been learned before. Detecting this potential vulnerability is really important in the assessment so that the right action can be taken to counter on-going pain.

Back to thirst.

Where do you feel thirst? Think about it for a minute. Where in your body is thirst? It is not a dry mouth; so it is not your mouth (a dry mouth is a dry mouth and that is all). Is it in your stomach or chest? We have a sense of discomfort that can include a dry mouth, and when we note that sense we give it a meaning. That meaning is "I am thirsty’. The point of this is to motivate us to take action and seek water to quench the thirst.

The same happens in pain. We have a feeling or sensation in our body that grabs our attention. This sensation is given a meaning: this hurts, and then we look for a cause, why does this hurt? What have I done? What is going on? What are the implications, now and in the future? Naturally this happens very quickly, in a split second. The pain then motivates us to take action, like thirst. We rub, cry out, seek help.

In both thirst and pain it is the meaning that defines the experience, and whilst we feel things in certain places, it is how we think about them that gives the richness and implication. We therefore have these experiences with our whole body and self. We feel and experience thirst with our whole body, the sensation not distinct from how we then think and act. The same in pain. To se the whole creates marvellous opportunity for change, growth and moving forward. In most cases thirst is easily overcome, chronic pain being far more challenging.

Chronic pain is about on-going perception of threat as body systems adapt, we adapt and the world around us adapts. We are on a continuous timeline of development that we can influence by our knowledge, understanding and use of skills. Understanding your pain is the first step, creating a foundation for overcoming pain.

Contributed via Richmond Stace, The Specialist Pain Physio/Pain Coach