What is pain and why should it be treated holistically?

The most common reason for visits to a health professional is for the treatment of pain. Pain is defined as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage” (International Association for the Study of Pain, IASP). A key takeaway from this definition is that pain is not just a sensation, but also an emotional experience. It is also important to note that the amount of pain we experience does not directly correlate with tissue damage.

Pain is an uncomfortable feeling that tells you something may be wrong. It allows the body to react to and prevent further tissue damage. People feel pain when a signal travels through nerve fibres to the brain, where it is interpreted. It can be steady, throbbing, stabbing, aching, pinching, or described in many other ways. Sometimes, it’s just a nuisance, like a mild headache. Other times it can be debilitating.

Our pain system is extraordinarily complex and is triggered by more than just what is occurring within the physical body. Psychological and social factors can also cause and influence pain, these are called non-tissue factors. A great example of this was reported in a 1995 British Medical Journal. A builder had presented to emergency in excruciating pain from a 15cm nail, which had pierced his workbook. However, when the doctors removed it, they found the nail had passed between his toes and missed his foot completely. Another interesting example is phantom limb syndrome in which 70% of amputated people experience sensations such as stinging, pain and prickling sensations from the no longer existing part of the body. This demonstrates how pain is an experience that arises from signals from the brain.

Thanks to advances in pain science, we now know that:

  • Most pain episodes occur to prevent tissue damage (pain can be a warning signal)
  • When pain persists, it often gets strong and lasts longer (regardless of a change to tissues)
  • With persistent pain, the pain system becomes more efficient and can be overprotective
  • Non-tissue factors include stress, anxiety, poor sleep, fear of injury
  • Abnormalities on scans aren’t necessarily the reason for pain
  • Humans have an amazing capacity to heal, repair and adapt

Research strongly supports that poor mental health and high levels of stress are often associated with higher and longer-lasting pain levels. After the recent COVID-induced Victorian lockdowns, many people have struggled with mental health. Therefore, when you present to a health practitioner, like the team at 13th Beach Health Services, for help managing pain, it’s important that you are considered holistically. Addressing factors such as diet, sleep, exercise, relationships and mindset are of great importance when creating a plan to get on top of pain. In order to promote this holistic approach to our health, a few simple questions that we can make a habit of asking ourselves regularly include:

  • Movement: Have I moved or exercised today? If not, when is my next session ‘booked in’?
  • Nutrition: Today, or yesterday, have I eaten something nourishing and nutritious? If not, when will my next healthy meal be?
  • Sleep: How did I sleep last night? Am I putting sufficient effort into preparing myself for a quality night’s sleep?
  • Connection: Have I reached out and made an effort to invest time in someone I value recently? When is my next ‘catch-up’ planned?
  • Mindset: How am I thinking today? Did my thoughts help me cope with the challenges I faced?

Finally, regardless of what a scan may tell us, the amount of pain we feel is always valid and should be treated seriously.



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