Our ability to perceive pain is an important function of the human body. In most cases, pain acts as our bodies alarm system to tell us something isn't quite right. Most pain is short term or ‘acute’ and is there to warn us of injury or illness. For example, if we break (fracture) our leg, pain tells us we need to rest to avoid further harm.

On average, the human body takes between 6-12 weeks to heal itself. The rate at which we heal is affected by many things, for example people who smoke or are diabetic will have a slower rate of healing. In most cases, once the healing as taken place our pain should settle. However, we may continue to experience pain if our body has not quite returned to its previous state, e.g if we have yet to build back the muscle around our previously broken leg. This process can take time and again can be affected by many things, for example the amount of quality sleep we are able to get.

 

If the body is unable to return its previous level of function, it can become part of a pain cycle (see below)

Pain can be a normal part of every day life. Often the pain we feel is related to our activity. There is usually always a reason for our body experiencing pain. The  example below, helps explain why we may experience pain in the absence of an injury. This is known as overload.  

knee pain*
back pain*

Our body doesn't like sudden change. Its much better to pace yourself and gradually increase activity levels. That way, you give your body a much better chance to adapt. 

Adapted from and credit to Adam Meakins.

The solution? 

Graded exercise, pacing, activity modification, patience & consistency.

If we experience pain for a long time, despite all the healing having taken place, this is known as persistent or 'chronic pain'.


Persistent pain often serves no useful purpose. The messages from the brain's warning system linked to long-term conditions like arthritis or back pain are not needed - just annoying. Over time, it may affect what we can do, our ability to work, or even our sleep patterns. It can have a strong negative effect on our family and friends too.

Pain signals use the spinal cord and specialised nerve fibres to travel to our brain. This involves our whole body and acts like the wires you have around your home. Each wire has a job, some control the lights, some control your heating etc. In our body, these fibres or 'wires' also work to process the pain signals. All together they work like a very powerful computer. 

Sometimes this computer system can go wrong. The messages get confused and the brain cannot understand the signals properly but it still tries to respond. Often sending out a pain signal when there is no need. It can lead to chronic or persistent pain, which can be very hard to repair. Unfortunately, we cannot just re-boot the system.

 

Despite this, there are things we can do to help manage chronic pain.

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Harrogate & District NHS Foundation Trust, Lancaster Park Road, Harrogate, HG1 7 SX

This website has been created by the Physiotherapy Dept at Harrogate District Hospital.