Pain is one of the most common reasons that people seek medical care. But, for most of us, it can take persistent or worsening symptoms to finally admit that it’s time to do something about it. Many of us won’t even consider a trip to the doctor or other professional until the pain starts to impact our favorite activities, day-to-day lives, work or other obligations.
But what happens when pain goes untreated? Is it really a big deal to let it linger while you wait to see if it’ll go away on its own? Surprisingly, yes — while it may not seem like a problem to ignore back, joint or muscle pain for a while, it could make it even harder to get rid of and even make your symptoms more severe. This may be both surprising and concerning because so many of us have a habit of putting off treatment for nagging aches and pains. September is National Pain Awareness Month and we’re diving deeper into all things pain, including what it is, how prevalent it is, the science behind it and why getting early treatment is crucial to avoiding complications.
So why is ignoring pain a bigger problem than we thought? Well, pain comes in many forms, and research shows that it’s actually quite complex. In fact, a whole field known as pain science has grown out of the study and management of pain. When pain lingers, science indicates that it can become more complicated and even more ingrained in both our physical and mental health.
So, what is pain?
The International Association for the Study of Pain defines it as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage.” According to this definition, pain isn’t just physical; it’s a genuine sensation that can result from your emotional circumstances. The other interesting part of this definition is that pain can be associated with actual or potential tissue damage.
Naturally, we can understand how pain is associated with actual tissue damage — you stub your toe on a piece of furniture, the tissues on your toe briefly get injured, and you feel a familiar pain. But does this definition imply that you can also experience pain at the mere thought of stubbing your toe on a piece of furniture? You may be wondering how “potential tissue damage” can cause pain — stay tuned as we explore this phenomenon.
Nearly 50% of Americans are dealing with musculoskeletal pain.
Many conditions cause people to experience pain, but musculoskeletal conditions like back, joint and muscle injuries are the most common cause of pain and disability in the United States. In fact, an estimated 1 in 2 Americans over 18 suffer from musculoskeletal conditions likely accompanied by pain.
What actually causes us to feel pain?
The answer to this question is not always clear. For years, scientists and medical professionals thought that pain had to be directly linked to actual tissue damage. But recent research has found that tissue damage and pain don’t always go hand-in-hand. We can experience pain without any tissue damage at all.
Consider this head-scratcher of an example that is quite famous in the world of pain science — a study, originally published in the British Journal of Medicine in 1995, details the case of a builder that accidentally stepped on a large nail that went straight through his boot. His pain reaction was immediate, severe and obvious to his fellow workers and emergency medical professionals. But when he got to the hospital, and medical staff began to evaluate his injury, they found that the nail had gone between his toes and hadn’t pierced his foot at all.
So how could he have felt so much pain without an actual injury? This is where the experience of pain gets very interesting. Research suggests that many factors beyond actual tissue damage can influence an individual’s experience of pain, including biological mechanisms, pain sensitivity, past personal experiences with pain and emotions.
The difference between acute, subacute and chronic pain.
When pain first starts, it’s known as acute pain, which simply means that its only been present for a short time, usually no more than a few days. After these first few days, the pain or injury can be classified as subacute for a couple of weeks to months. With minor back, joint and muscle injuries, the subacute phase is often when most of the healing happens, and you start to feel better. But if the pain doesn’t begin to subside during this time, you risk developing chronic pain.
Chronic pain is defined as pain lasting more than three months. When an injury or pain becomes chronic, it can start to have a long-term impact on your overall health and become more difficult to treat. Chronic conditions can be tough to cope with and are often complicated by other symptoms like anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping and generalized fatigue. Another big difference between chronic and acute pain is the concept of pain sensitization.
When you experience pain for a long time, your brain and spinal cord can develop a heightened sense of threat known as sensitization. When sensitized, your body can become overreactive to even the smallest stimulation, distorting your pain perception. In other words, things that wouldn’t usually be painful, now are because your body has become overly sensitive.
Untreated pain can become chronic and complicated.
When pain becomes chronic, you’re more likely to experience sensitization and mental health symptoms that complicate pain presentation and treatment. So, what was once a straightforward pain response related to tissue damage becomes an entangled web of physiological and psychological factors that all need to be addressed for meaningful, long-term relief.
None of this information is meant to scare you or make you run out to the doctor whenever you have the slightest pain. Sometimes a pain response is a good thing; it can be our body’s way of warning us and protecting us from further tissue damage. And some things in life just hurt for a short time, like stubbing your toe, bumping your funny bone or burning your hand on the stove. With these injuries, this tissue damage is obvious and barring any complications, the pain subsides as the tissue repairs itself.
Pain is a bigger cause for concern when the reason for it is unclear, or it doesn’t get better even after the tissues have healed. If you have a new back, joint or muscle injury and your pain isn’t consistently improving after a couple of days to weeks, getting early treatment can help you heal faster and prevent it from becoming chronic or coming back in the future.
But what if you already have chronic pain or pain lasting more than three months? Is it a lost cause? Absolutely not. Chronic pain is treatable but usually requires a more comprehensive approach. Working with professionals to help you begin addressing the physical, mental and behavioral aspects of your pain is a great way to tackle a chronic back or joint condition.
RecoveryOne can help.
Online back and joint care from RecoveryOne is designed to help ease pain and get to the root cause. With over 200 research-based recovery programs, RecoveryOne offers solutions for the various types and stages of back, joint and muscle pain. So whether you have a new injury or you’ve had pain for a while, RecoveryOne likely has a personalized program that is right for you.
RecoveryOne’s programs can help you expedite the healing process for acute and subacute injuries so you can start feeling better faster. Getting early treatment can help you avoid chronic pain and limit the impact an injury has on your life. RecoveryOne also offers professional support with certified health coaches and our physical therapist support team. For chronic pain, RecoveryOne’s multidisciplinary approach, including health coaching, professional advice and personalized exercise therapy, can help you uncomplicate your pain and get on a path to a healthier you.
And, the best part — for eligible members, RecoveryOne is available at no additional cost and can be conveniently done from the comfort of home. To get started, check to see if you’re covered today.
About the Author:
Written by Dr. Jess Cobb, PT, DPT. Jess is a licensed physical therapist with over six years of clinical experience in orthopedics. Jess is also a writer, educator and member of RecoveryOne’s marketing team. She’s passionate about helping people better understand their pain, manage their musculoskeletal conditions and confidently get back to the activities they love