Osteopathy For Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Image credit: By DoPhotoShop - http://dophotoshop.com/carpal-tunnel-exercises.php, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14614865

Image credit: By DoPhotoShop – http://dophotoshop.com/carpal-tunnel-exercises.php, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14614865

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a common presentation, but is often poorly managed. Osteopathy can provide a conservative option to treat carpal tunnel syndrome.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a fairly common condition that affects women slightly more than men, with numbers ranging from 1-7% of the population affected. (1)

It is described as “a painful disorder of the hand caused by pressure on nerves that run through the wrist. Symptoms include numbness, pins and needles, and pain (particularly at night).” (2)

It usually presents with the following symptoms (3):

  • paresthesia, dull, aching pain, or discomfort in the hand associated with weakness or clumsiness;
  • fluctuating level of symptoms with exacerbation at night (nocturnal numbness), worsened by strenuous hand use or activities with maintained posture (driving);
  • and partial relief of symptoms by changing hand posture or shaking the hand.

Diagnosis or description?

Generally speaking, any condition that has the word “syndrome” in its name is not a diagnosis, but rather a collection of clinical findings.

In the case of carpal tunnel syndrome, it is considered a clinical diagnosis, but, whilst the symptoms can be similar from person to person, the clinical findings (and thus underlying causes) can be quite different, based on a variety of different factors.

Some of these factors include:

  • Individual anatomical differences (wrist space, nerve length, a cervical rib etc)
  • Lifestyle and occupational activities (assembly line workers tend to have a higher incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome than other occupations – NINDS)
  • Pregnancy – pregnant women have a higher incidence
  • Health status – diabetes, hypothyroidism and obesity are known risk factors (Frontiers)

To diagnose carpal tunnel syndrome a clinical examination is sufficient, though in more severe cases, nerve conduction tests are recommended.

When you consider that any combination of factors can be present, an individualised approach to management becomes critical.

General Recommendations

The general medical recommendations (1, 4, 5) to treat carpal tunnel are (in order):

  • Rest. Rest is important, but it is often futile if there are other issues involved, because as soon as you stop resting, symptoms flare up again.
  • Splinting, particularly at night. Splinting can be useful, but again, it isn’t because of a “lack of splinting” that you develop the condition in the first place. This means, that without addressing the other factors, splinting is just another form of rest, and symptoms will likely return once splinting has stopped.
  • Physiotherapy. Hand, wrist and arm exercises can be useful in helping reduce symptoms and address causative factors. Exercises targeted at mobilising the nervous tissue, can be particularly helpful here. Whilst different professions, osteopaths can do most of what physiotherapists can do and vice versa, and what matters most is that the professional in question is up to date in their knowledge and provides an individualised treatment approach.
  • Diuretics to reduce fluid. Diuretics can provide a short term reduction in fluid, but again, we need to work out why the fluid was accumulating in the first place. If, for example, there is lymphatic congestion, the diuretics will only have a short term effect, often with the risk of side effects. Another common cause of congestion is hypothyroidism, which needs to be medicated properly, so identifying the cause of the congestion is as important as reducing the fluid with diuretics.
  • Cortisone. Cortisone can reduce inflammation locally, with the potential risk of nerve injury resulting in worse pain. The benefits do not outweigh the risks, in my opinion, considering the alternatives available. If you do decide to have a cortisone injection, it’s best to have it performed by a surgeon who performs it often, as their skills will be higher, reducing the risk of adverse effects.
  • Surgery. Surgery is indicated in severe cases, but is not always successful (like any treatment). It has the risk of nerve and/or artery damage, with the benefit of increasing the space under the transverse carpal ligament, which is often a cause of symptoms. The success rate of surgery for carpal tunnel is generally higher at 12 months than conservative approaches, when considering nerve conduction studies, but due to the risks involved, the recommendation is to initially treat conservatively, and only explore surgery if there is not the desired improvement.

(My) Osteopathic Approach

To understand my osteopathic approach to treating carpal tunnel syndrome (and any condition really), you have to have a grasp of complex systems and emergent properties.

Put as simply as possible:

This means that something like pain, or symptoms arising from the nervous system are not predictable based on statistical or experiential averages, and any linear causality we deduce, is false logic.

So, when it comes to treatment, we have to have an understanding of normal physiology, then use our clinical skills to find the “abnormal” or “dysfunctional” or “disturbances to normal”.

We can then apply an intervention that results in a change (remember, this change is unpredictable), monitor the change (see if the abnormal has become normal) and then reevaluate the approach.

In essence, it is a trial and error approach, but an educated one.

Measure Twice, Don’t Cut

It’s important to measure the effects of treatments somehow, but, this can be hard, because clinical findings vary for the same condition, and the same clinical findings will not always result in symptoms, even in the same patient.

Because of this difficulty in measuring clinical findings and symptoms, I try to use objective outcome measures. These are simple, validated (by research) questionnaires, like the Boston Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Questionnaire, which provide a measure of the disability associated with a certain condition; and they can be very helpful to use at the beginning, mid-point and end of treatment process to gauge efficacy.

As mentioned earlier, nerve conduction tests are valuable in certain cases, but are invasive and costly from an economic point of view, so they are not always practical.

Treat The Whole, Not The Cause

As I described in Osteopathy For Low Back Pain, there are general, or systemic effects from osteopathic treatment, as well as local.

When treating a person with carpal tunnel syndrome, as opposed to treating carpal tunnel syndrome as a condition, these general effects can be important in improving overall sense of wellbeing as well as positively affecting the body’s physiological functioning.

Sense of wellbeing is often overlooked in outcomes based medicine, but, with outcomes being equal, the process that produces a more pleasant/less unpleasant experience for the patient is superior.

nerves_of_the_left_upper_extremityIn addition to the general aspects of an osteopathic manual treatment, with carpal tunnel syndrome, a focus on the structures related to the median nerve starting from it’s origin in the brachial plexus as it arises from the C5-T1 nerve roots, all the way to it’s end point in the hand.

It is surprising how many people I see who have consulted with their GP and perhaps a rehabilitation professional (occupational therapist, physiotherapist, hand therapist) who have only had interventions directed at the wrist and hand.

Simple anatomy suggests that this will not be adequate.

Given the nature of nerves, symptoms will appear distal to (below) any site of adverse tension/compression. Considering the hand is the site of carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms, my preference is to work up from the hand and wrist towards the neck and thorax.

Common areas of dysfunction include:

  • Transverse carpal ligament (this is what surgeons cut)
  • Carpal (wrist) bones
  • Radius and ulna (forearm bones and their joints)
  • Interosseus membrane of forearm (connection between radius and ulna)
  • Elbow flexor muscles and associated connective tissues
  • Pectoralis minor
  • Upper ribs (especially the 1st rib) and clavicle
  • Scalenes (and other neck muscles)
  • Cervical spine (neck) and thoracic spine and rib cage

Unless all these areas are considered and any dysfunction addressed, I wouldn’t consider the examination process thorough enough.

Neurodynamics must be considered

One of the issues with traditional approach to carpal tunnel syndrome, is that the median nerve itself is not considered as a primary cause of the symptoms, but rather a secondary “victim” to other changes.

Neurodynamics considers 3 aspects (Shacklock):

  1. The mechanical interface of the nerve and body tissue (joint, ligament, muscle etc)
  2. The neural tissue itself
  3. The innervated tissues

Abnormal changes at any of these aspects can alter neurodynamics (the function of nerves), leading to symptoms.

Techniques Are Secondary

Lot’s of people want to know what technique will work best, whether it is a manual technique delivered by an osteopath, or an exercise to self manage. The technique doesn’t matter as much as the reasoning behind the technique and how the technique is executed.

So if someone reasons that muscular tension in the neck muscles is affecting the median nerve, a range of techniques to reduce said tension will be helpful. These can be active or passive and are guided by patient and practitioner experience and preference, as well as a risk to benefit analysis (when known).

This technique needs to be delivered or performed in a mindful manner, with attention being paid to the experience of the technique, as well as the response, by all parties involved (patient and practitioner).

By engaging patients in the process, the treatment automatically becomes more “active”, which we know produces superior results to passive treatments in the long term (BMP).

Conclusions: Putting It Altogether

 

Carpal tunnel syndrome has two components – the symptoms experienced (pain, numbness and tingling etc) and the reduced nerve conduction, which is not always perceptible.

Osteopaths have a role to play in reducing the symptoms (6), and research performed on other manual therapies supports this (7).

However, it must be considered that there is no set formula for a condition like carpal tunnel syndrome, and that each person will have their own “physical story” explaining their condition, and it is this story that a practitioner must somehow read, understand and interact with.

So when you are seeking treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome, you want to find a practitioner who considers everything, not just what is happening at the wrist, not just what is happening “in your body”, but everything.

It sounds cliche, but that is what a truly holistic approach entails.

 

Nick Efthimiou Osteopath

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 

 



 

 

References

(1) Primary Care Management of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

(2) Better Health Channel – Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

(3) Carpal Tunnel Syndrome – Primary Care and Occupational Factors

(4) Conservative Interventions for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

(5) Is surgical intervention more effective than non-surgical treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome: a systematic review

(6) Effectiveness of Osteopathic Manipulative Treatment for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: A Pilot Project

(7) A Pilot Study Comparing Two Manual Therapy Interventions for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

(8) Median Nerve Image

A Simple Mind Hack To Reduce Pain

Neurons

Neurons

Pain is the conscious correlate of perceived threat. – Lorimer Moseley, Professor of Clinical Neurosciences and Chair in Physiotherapy, Uni SA

Pain is only pain if we are consciously aware of it, if you aren’t aware of pain, you don’t have pain!

Knowing this, if we can shift our awareness away from pain, we can reduce it.

In medical terminology, this is described as distraction therapy.

Distraction therapy is an effective pain management strategy, and it’s something you’re likely to be familiar with.

If you’ve ever spent any time with children, you’ll have seen them hurt themselves. Sometimes, after a minor fall/scratch/scrape children make a bigger fuss than warranted (tears and tantrums), mostly for attention. Many clever parents use simple distraction techniques to take a child’s mind off the pain they are experiencing. It usually works a treat.

This is distraction therapy.

How Does It Work

There are 2 inter-related but separate mechanisms that are at play.

The first, and probably the coolest, is that distraction therapy leads to the secretion of pain relieving opoids by the brain (1).

These opioids, termed endogenous, as opposed to exogenous opioids that you consume (codeine, oxycodone etc) act within the central nervous system to reduce pain.

The second involves competition for attention between an important sensation and consciously directed focus (2).

This is because the conscious mind can only focus on one thing at a time.

Sure, we can rapidly alternate our attention between two or more things, but at any given moment our attention can only be on one thing.

And going back to the opening quote, “pain is the conscious correlate of perceived threat”, if our consciousness is focused elsewhere, then it cannot focus on pain.

How Do You Use It?

The great thing about this, just like with children, you can use this to help reduce your pain.

It’s important to understand that distraction therapy is not magical. It is simply a pain management technique that is free, easy to implement and accessible to all.

Distraction therapy can work with pain of all different causes, but you can’t ignore the underlying issue:

  • If your pain is caused by a medical condition, see a doctor!
  • If you are suffering pain due to injury, the injury must heal first before the pain goes away.
  • Likewise if you have pain related to movement issues, they must be resolved.
  • Finally, please understand, that persistent or chronic pain is considered a disease in its own right, it’s also not considered to be curable, instead, focus on finding effective management strategies.

 

So how do you do it? The beauty of distraction therapy is that there is no one way.

The most important thing is to use an activity that is interesting and meaningful to you. One that is comfortable and immersive.

You can’t think to yourself “I’m doing to distract myself from the pain by doing this” while you are doing it, because that means your attention is on your pain and not on the activity.

Doing this causes you to engage in a state of flow, and given that your brain will want to remain in this state, it will secrete opioids to modulate your pain.

That’s a win-win. You get to do something that is important to you and reduce your pain at the same time!

There is no limit to how long this will work for, it depends on how strong your concentration is.

Intention and Distraction: The Next Level?

Whilst the research on distraction therapy focuses on the immediacy of performing a task and the subsequent physiological response, here at Integrative Osteopathy we have used similar principles to help patients throughout their entire day.

This is not, strictly speaking, distraction therapy, but the principles are similar – namely that the conscious mind can only give attention to one thing at a time.

Not only does this technique help with pain management, but it can improve your mood and even your life.

The technique is called setting your intention.

It simply involves a short period of quiet contemplation in which you focus your attention on your intention.

What is your intention? It is another way of describing your focus.

If you look back through time, pretty much all cultures had periods of quiet contemplation built into their lives.

Whether it was prayer, meditation or spiritual rituals, these practices allowed people to process events that had happened and the associated thoughts and emotions, and find a place of comfort, if not clarity.

It is part of the reason mindfulness/meditation is gaining such traction in recent years – our attention is being attacked from every direction, distracting us – mindfulness helps with finding clarity again.

To add in quiet contemplation to your life, it need not be complex. In fact, it’s better if it’s not.

How To Set Your Intention

Setting your intention starts with quiet contemplation. A great time to implement it is in the morning, as it sets you up for the day ahead.

Pick something you habitually do, like taking a shower or brushing your teeth, and immediately before/after, close your eyes, slow your breathing and spend a few minutes alone with your thoughts and feelings.

Focus on the one thing, above all else, that you want for the day. This is your intention.

 

Your intention needs to be framed in a positive way. Your brain doesn’t recognise negative words. To illustrate, make sure you don’t think of dancing elephants while you’re reading this sentence.

Once you have the elephants out of your mind, get back to setting an intention.

This focus will govern all your actions for the day, both consciously and unconsciously.

After you have set your intention, you can create an intention card (3). Write your intention down on the front of small card, in one word. Then, on the back of that card, write out a prompt question.

Usually, you would frame it like this:

A. Statement of the intention
B. A question prompting the action which leads to the intention

Here’s an example:

Imagine someone who always feels stiff.

They might set their statement of intention as this: Fluid movement.

Then their question might read: what do I have to do to experience more fluid movement?

Instead of thinking about how stiff they feel, this question prompts somebody to get up and move, to stretch, to avoid prolonged positions and a whole heap of other things, all from a positive outlook. In essence, it’s distracting them from the problem whilst prompting a solution.

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 

References

(1) Attention Modulates Spinal Cord Response To Pain – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982212003934

(2) How Does Distraction Therapy Work – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15745617

(3) Intention Cards – http://www.authenticeducation.com.au/intention-cards/

Rethink Pain: Moving Beyond Muscles and Bones

Classical Anatomy

This is the first post in what will be a series about “re-thinking pain”, or rather, re-conceptualising it.

The aim of the series is to help you move from a tissue based understanding of pain to one based in neuroscience, which is more accurate and more correct (although a better term would probably be “less wrong”, as there is still so much to learn).

Why is this necessary?

  • The language we use around pain shapes the way we think about, and experience pain. Using tissue based descriptors of pain reinforces the idea of a “bottoms up” model of pain, which is wrong, and can often make things worse in the long term. Moving towards a neuroscience approach helps move away from this model.
  • Chronic pain is a massive problem in Australia (and around the world), affecting millions, costing billions and growing worse every year. Chronic pain often starts as poorly managed acute pain. One of the most important management strategies of any painful condition is education.

The Problem

To begin to understand how we have ended up with such a problem regarding pain requires tracing back through the centuries of medical and philosophical history.

In short, we used to describe pain as “coming from the tissues” up to our brains, where we felt it.

What is now understood, is that pain is a brain output, with many different “filters”, that are unique to each and every one of us, being applied before we are consciously aware of it.

Despite having this knowledge, we can see that even within the official definition of pain, the problem exists.

An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.

The definition of pain above has been put together by a group of highly intelligent people (International Association for the Study of Pain), who have spent a large portion of their lives studying pain, it’s effects and how to treat it.

Unfortunately, there is one small problem, and it has nothing to do with the definition itself, but rather, the fact that pain is “described in terms of such damage”.

When we explain all pain in terms of tissue damage we paint a picture in people’s minds. Unfortunately, when it comes to pain, this picture is not only incorrect, but harmful.

One can assume this became part of the definition because of what takes place in the real world:

  • Your back hurts, people say you have strained a ligament/joint.
  • Your knee hurts, people say it must be arthritis.
  • You have a headache, must be wear and tear of the head. No, that last one doesn’t sound quite right.

So how exactly is this harmful?

When pain is described in terms of body tissues alone and combined with the type of language typically used (words like torn, strained, scarred, degenerative) to describe tissue based pain, irreversible damage in the form of nocebo* can be caused.

This can lead you to think that something is wrong with your body that needs to be fixed, when things are in actual fact, completely normal.

Additionally, thinking in terms of body tissues leads to a mechanistic view of the body, one that wears out over time and the association of this “wear” with pain. The body is a biologic organism, one that is always adapting as best it can, it doesn’t “wear out”, but rather fails to adapt. There are lots of reasons for this failed adaptation though, it’s not just the result of “getting older”.

Check out this Facebook post on from September:

"It's probably just WEAR AND TEAR"My oh my, does that saying get tossed about. Usually, it goes something like this:…

Posted by Integrative Osteopathy on Wednesday, 30 September 2015

*Nocebo, is basically the opposite of placebo, ie causing harm when no harm has been done.

The Solution

We need to rethink pain, to conceptualise it as a dynamic process, arising in the nervous system and governed by our brains.

Yes, pain is often a result of tissue damage. However, there are many cases of severe tissue damage with no pain experienced at all and vice versa.

Additionally, the intensity of pain is very poorly correlated with the severity of any tissue damage.

Finally, when tissue damage has occurred, there are three scenarios.

  1. It is quite severe and needs medical intervention at a hospital. Think of compound fractures, 3rd degree burns, deep cuts etc.
  2. It is not severe enough to require medical intervention beyond basic first aid.
  3. It is somewhere in the middle.

In all 3 cases, with time, the body will heal as best it can.

As long as there is adequate rest, nutrition and then re-loading of the tissues in a progressive manner as governed by the condition and individual requirements, you’ll get as full a recovery as possible.

So initially, once the need for medical intervention is ruled out, the important thing to do is treat the pain.

This goes against almost all manual therapy and allied health advertising to “treat the cause of your symptoms”.

Alleviating pain will, in many cases, sort out a lot of associated “findings”, the so called causes of your pain, and then beyond that, allow your body to heal.

If you came to us for treatment, here’s how we might do that:

  • Explain all of this information about pain, in a way that makes sense to you, so that you aren’t as stressed or anxious about it anymore.
  • Have a look at you stand and move and suggest ways that might make standing and moving less painful.
  • Get hands on and apply some really pleasurable manual techniques. There is no need to dig in deep for the sake of it. The goal isn’t to change the tissue, it’s to change the perception and get the brain releasing pain relieving chemicals.
  • Do some breathing techniques to help you relax. You’d be surprised at how poorly most people breathe, even when they are concentrating on doing it properly.

All of these techniques are based on the same principle – once the threat is reduced to an acceptable level, the brain will stop protective behaviours, which include pain and altered movement.

So to summarise a blog post in a sentence:

Pain is all about threat perception, it doesn’t mean damage and body tissues can’t produce pain, only the nervous system can**, so we must focus on the nervous system, including the brain, when describing and treating pain, so as to not cause further complications via nocebo.

 

 

**Yes, the nervous system is a body tissue, but for the sake of the argument we are using simple language.

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

Integrative Osteopathy is an osteopathic practice located in the heart of Fitzroy North, within the reputable Healthy Fit gym. For all inquiries, call 0448 052 754, or to make an appointment online, click here.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 

Pain Is A Verb, Not A Noun

Brain
When you seek treatment for pain, part of that process should be a thorough education about pain.

This education should cover the basics:

So that you understand the physiological process, at least at a basic level.

Many people think pain is only a marker of tissue damage. It’s not. It is a multi-factorial sensory and emotional experience.

To help people change their understanding of pain, I like to describe pain as a verb, not a noun.

For those of you who can’t remember primary school English (or never learnt it in the first place):

  • Verb = doing word
  • Noun = thing

Thinking about pain as something you experience, instead of something you have is empowering.

It gives you an active role in your pain experience. This means you can influence your experience, for better and worse

How? With your thoughts, feelings and actions.

Pain Is A Body and Brain Experience

All pain has three major components:

  1. Physical
  2. Cognitive (thoughts)
  3. Emotional

The relative contribution of each component varies.

Often we can determine which factor is likely to be the primary driver of each pain experience, but we can’t measure by how much.

Even though were aren’t always aware of each component, they are always there.

If the primary driver of your pain is physical, then physical treatment approaches tend to work best.

This is the same for psycho-emotional pain, which response best to psycho-emotional treatments.

Kind of obvious yeah?

Where it gets tricky, is that even physical approaches have cognitive and emotional aspects.

There is no separation.

Get Involved In Your Treatment

The best outcomes in pain treatment occur when you and your practitioner are working together.

This maximises the effects of treatment.

The more effective your treatment, the faster your resolution of pain. Again, kind of obvious yeah?

You are probably more involved in your treatment than you think.

First, you chose your practitioner (hopefully). The act of choosing is both psychological and emotional. You want to choose someone who is good at what they do, and who you like.

Second, you are probably already doing things to help your recovery. They may or may not be the best things, but you’re already changing your behaviour.

A good practitioner will point you in the right direction of what change is best, but you’ve made a start.

How To Change Your Pain Experience

Our mental and emotional state influences our perception.

Think about watching a movie. If you are on a first date, it’s a very different experience to watching the same movie with your long term partner after you’ve had a fight.

Same stimulus, different psycho-emotional status and thus different perception/response.

This principle can be applied to factors affecting pain:

  • Take control of your emotions. First, identify your thoughts and emotions around pain. Commonly these include fear, anxiety, overwhelm and frustration, among others. Then you can change them. A good practitioner will help you with this.
  • Improving your stress management. Stress is dictated by the way we frame an experience. Any event has the potential to be stressful. By learning to change your framing of stressful scenarios, you can minimise your stress load.
  • Change your environment. Our environments shape us, for better and worse. Sometimes, as hard as it is, the best thing you can do for your pain is change or leave aggravating environments.

Conclusions

It might be strange to consider pain as a verb, not a noun. But as I outlined, it can make a massive difference to both your pain and suffering.

Taking a different view on things is the first step to changing your outcomes.

And while different views can be quite confronting, it is the only way to grow.

Hopefully, this growth means improving or eliminating your pain.
Nick Efthimiou Osteopath

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 


 

 

Pain Science Made Simple

Scary Unkown

When the primary complaint is pain, treatment of pain should be primary. – Barrett Dorko, P.T.

At Integrative Osteopathy, one of my core practices is to empower people through education, so they feel better both in the short term, and the long term as a result of resilience and independence.

A hugely important part of this process is pain and neuroscience education.

Whilst this may sound daunting and perhaps even irrelevant to you, research shows that neuroscience (including pain science) education has a positive effect on pain, disability, physical performance as well as anxiety and stress.

In addition, not learning about pain early on can lead to the rise of chronic pain conditions later, by not alleviating the fear that is often associated with pain (consciously or unconsciously)

Considering how effective this intervention is, and the fact that pain is the number one reason people consult an osteopath in Australia, it’s a no brainer to ensure a thorough teaching about pain precedes any other treatment.

What is pain?

Any teaching about pain must start with exactly what pain is, and currently, the definition put forward by the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) is:

Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.

Now that seems straight forward enough, but let’s look at it a little deeper.

What exactly does this mean though?

Pain is more than just a physical phenomenon

Most people associate pain with injury and damage, and whilst this is often a component of pain, pain is much more than damage.

This is why the word potential is used, it implies something else is at play – we don’t need tissue damage to occur in order to feel pain.

Pain is an alarm, not a damage meter. This can be one of the hardest things to grasp when first learning about pain, and will be explored in more depth later in this post.

Pain is an emotional experience

If you have ever experienced pain, you will likely recall not being yourself, you may have been “short” with people, or become more introverted, or demonstrated any number of changes to your normal demeanour.

That’s the emotional part.

Every person’s pain is unique

We commonly use words like sharp, dull, throbbing, aching, burning, stabbing and shooting to describe pain.

This helps communicate each pain experience in a more “universal” manner, allowing clinicians and patients alike to identify certain attributes of pain, potentially helping with diagnosis or coping.

However, what this doesn’t allow for is the uniqueness of pain.

The use of the word experience in the above definition, suggests the individual nature of pain.

We all feel differently and what we feel depends on many factors – our genetics, our current situation in life and our cultural upbringing are just a few of the contributing factors to how we experience pain.

Pain is an output of the brain

Understanding the broadness of pain and the fact that pain is not reflective of tissue damage, the next step is to grasp the concept that pain is an output of the brain, rather than an input to the brain.

To understand what this means, let’s use a simple analogy.

On a computer, we can use a mouse or keyboard to provide an input. This input is then processed, and then, depending on the program in operation, and output is displayed.

Currently, I’m typing in a word processor, which means when I hit the “w” key, w appears on the screen. However, if I were playing a game, that “w” key might move my character in a certain direction.

Same input, different output.

When it comes to pain, we experience it when our brain decides, unconsciously, that the sum of information it is processing is “dangerous” and we realise this danger consciously – the feeling of pain.

Regarding the inputs to the brain, there are 3 main sources (in no particular order):

  1. Cognitive (thoughts)
  2. Affective (emotions)
  3. Physical (messages from the nerves)

What’s interesting, is that only one of the three inputs is regarding the status of the body.

If the sum of all this information is perceived as “dangerous”, then we experience pain, changes to movement and posture, a heightened stress response etc.

So really, pain is a broader part of the nervous’s systems operations to keep us safe. Though sometimes it goes wrong, for the most part, it’s a pretty good system. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be here today.

Nociception and pain

We are really diving deep into this pain stuff now, but this is quite an important part of the pain experience.

Nociception is simply the reporting from the peripheral nerves to the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) on the status of the tissues.

There are 3 main kinds of nociceptors:

  1. Thermal (reporting on heat/cold)
  2. Chemical (reporting on chemical irritation, like inflammation)
  3. Mechanical (reporting on tension and compression)

There is always some nociception occuring, that is so our brain knows what’s happening with our body. However, this doesn’t necessarily turn into pain.

When nociception reaches a certain threshold, then the nerves fire faster, which can alert the brain to something happening. It doesn’t mean there is damage – but only that there is more stimulation of those nociceptors.

This only becomes pain, if, when combined with the other inputs mentioned above, your brain decides the information means “danger”.

Acute versus chronic pain

Acute pain is a completely normal response to dangerous stimuli. It usually follows some form of tissue irritation, which may or may not include damage to the tissues.

This is the pain we experience when we bump into something, strain a muscle or cut ourselves. It serves a protective purpose – alerting us to the incident and getting us to change our behaviour accordingly, so we do no further harm. It usually subsides when healing has taken place – often before (think of a cut, it doesn’t hurt all the time, only in the beginning).

For some people, pain does not resolve after the acute phase, and it becomes chronic pain, which is a problem in and of itself.

Chronic pain occurs due to changes in the nervous system, which make it more sensitive.

Whilst too deep a topic to cover in a short section, the most important thing to grasp about chronic pain is that the longer it has been present, the less correlation there is with tissue damage, and the more sensitive the nervous system has become.

Chronic pain is manageable, but it needs a very different approach to acute pain.

Conclusions

Pain can be thought of as an alarm bell. A highly sensitive alarm bell that often rings for no reason and sometimes keeps ringing despite people cutting of its power supply.

Understanding the complexity underpinning the pain experience is an important step to resolving or managing pain, and one that pays long term dividends.

This post can only touch on the basics of pain, but it is enough to give you an overview of the main components.

 

This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.

This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.

 



References

Burke, S.R., et al, A profile of osteopathic practice in Australia 2010-11: a cross sectional survey, BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders 2013, 14:227 [http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2474/14/227]

Louw, A., et al,  The effect of neuroscience education on pain, disability, anxiety and stress in chronic musculoskeletal pain, Arch Physical Med Rehabilil, 2011 Dec;92(12):2041-56 [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22133255]

Melzack, R. and Katz, J. (2013), Pain. WIREs Cogn Sci, 4: 1–15. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1201