September 1, 2020

Why Does My Pain Change When I’m Stressed Out?

Author: Dr. Erin Babineau

One of the largest misconceptions we have in today’s world is that pain equals harm or damage. Pain does not mean damage. It means protection. The amount of pain we feel is an output function of your brain to help keep you alive. This output message varies from person to person. Pain is actually a good thing. People who do not feel pain, actually have a shorter life expectancy. 


The other misconception is that pain can be isolated to one or two things as the source or the root cause. We recognize the anatomy, but pain is multifactorial, and the anatomy is large – it includes our brain and nervous system. If we could pinpoint one cause, then we wouldn’t have 80% of people today experiencing back pain at some point in their lives. Further, the longer we feel pain, the more our nervous system starts to gear up for battle. It’s like if your house kept getting broken into. Your alarm system in your house will get more and more sensitive. Meaning, one day it may go off even if a leaf blew by your door. Our nervous system and response from our brain to pain functions the same way as this. It is the protection of your house, your body.


The positive part of both of these misconceptions is that you have control over that output message. How? By knowing the science behind pain and coming up with a plan to target your nervous system and all the things that influence it. During any time of stress (and it’s stressful right now!), when potential interventions are put on hold, volumes of exercise are changing, you may be working from home or not working at all, and stress is high, we know that this all influences our pain levels. This could be viewed as a positive – it still means that again you have control over influencing the pain your body is feeling. You have control to make a difference with little changes in your routine to get your body back on track.


So, how do we do this and start to see changes? You work with your trusted physical therapist and health care team. We learn boundaries around pain and how to nudge into things so that you can get more and more active, stronger, and gain function. We start to get curious about each factor that influences this protective response, which is specific to you, and then come up with a plan that addresses this. These tools start to calm down your nervous system alarm over time. Yes it takes a little time. But once you have a plan, you will start to see changes that you yourself are doing! You get the control back. How cool to see your body be resilient like this. You and your body are strong. You just need the right information to help you get back on track and back to what you love to do.



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