by Dr. Shanthi Thomas
Pain is a common human condition. All of us agree that pain is unpleasant, and that it can be physical or emotional. We also know that pain is very subjective. An individual’s pain is experienced only by himself/herself. Moreover, different people have different degrees of tolerance to pain. Some people do not flinch at any pain while some others scream at the sight of the dentist’s chair!
Pain that lasts only for a short time (from minutes to about three months) may be called acute pain. It could be a soft-tissue injury or temporary illness. Typically acute pain disappears with the healing of the injury or the illness.
Pain that lasts a longer time, over many months or years, either continuously or intermittently is known as chronic pain. This occurs usually due to a health condition such as fibromyalgia, a spine condition or arthritis.
Pain that occurs due to the damage to the nerves or other parts of the nervous system is known as Neuropathic pain. It could be a stabbing, or a shooting pain, or could be described as pins and needles. It may also affect the kind of sensations one is able to feel.
Pain that occurs due to damage to body tissue is known as Nociceptive pain. It is a sharp, throbbing or aching pain and is often caused by external injury. This is the kind of pain you experience when you twist your ankle, or fall and scrape your knee.
Pain that occurs when the spinal nerve gets inflamed or compressed is known as Radicular pain. It radiates to the legs from the back, by way of the spine, and may manifest as numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness.
Sometimes, pain is caused or worsened by factors that are more psychological than physical. An individual with an underlying psychological disorder may perceive physical pain as being more intense than an individual without a psychological disorder.
Imagine that you have fallen and scraped your knee. The tissue on the knee gets damaged, and that is registered by microscopic pain receptors called nociceptors in your skin. Each nociceptor is one end of a nerve cell, which connects to the spinal cord by means of a long nerve fibre. When the nociceptor registers pain, it sends a signal up the nerve fibre (several of which bundle up to form the peripheral nerve) to the spinal cord. From the spinal cord, it is transmitted to the brain. Thus, pain is felt in the brain.
Chronic pain that is due to a condition such as a spinal problem often has no cure; the pain can only be managed. There are various ways in which such pain can be managed.
Regular exercise can ease chronic pain by causing the release of endorphins which are the natural pain killers of the body. It also eases pain by improving flexibility, muscle tone and general well-being. Exercise is particularly helpful for neck pain, lower back pain and fibromyalgia. Moreover, exercise reduces depression and anxiety which could exist along with the pain.
Deep breathing and meditation take time to master, but they surely help in easing pain. Basically, they are both relaxation techniques. People with chronic pain often experience a lot of muscular tension in response to their pain and the stress that goes with it. With relaxation techniques, the stress comes down, and you gain more control over the pain.
Both alcohol and smoking exacerbate existing symptoms and worsen pain. They interfere with sleep as well, and rob you of the necessary recuperating time that sleep provides. Moreover, some of these unhealthy habits can lead to heart disease and cancer.
You will be surprised at how many people live with the same conditions as you have. As always, the feeling that you are not alone in your suffering can give you strength and a certain perspective in relation to your pain. Moreover, you may learn different coping mechanisms from different people.
It is very easy to fall into anxiety and depression when one is grappling with chronic pain. Getting counselling, especially a particular type of counselling known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help you learn to cope better and help you avoid negative thoughts that often make the pain worse. Meeting a mental health professional to discuss your response to the pain will be a very useful strategy.
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