Chronic Pain “Is It All In My Head?”

Many sufferers of chronic pain may have been told this by a trusted health professional or may have even crossed their own minds when there seems no end in sight. It may seem strange, but pain doesn’t exist at the site of the injury. Let’s dive into this further.

Pain is defined as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that is felt in the body.” Chronic pain, the presence of the pain sensation for longer than 3 months, has a world-wide prevalence of 20-30% – that is 2.37 billion people worldwide!! One of the most common areas to experience chronic pain is your lower back. Here in Australia, around 4 million people (that’s 16% of our population) is living with chronic back pain in a self-reported health survey (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020).

As mentioned before, pain doesn’t exist in your lower back, it’s all from your head, but being more specific, its coming from your brain. This does NOT mean you are “making it up” or “putting it on”. Throughout our bodies, our peripheral nervous system contains neurons called primary nociceptors – these exist everywhere except our brain. These neurons are constantly detecting danger signals (e.g. joint injuries, muscle tears) and then send this message to the spinal cord. Like how you send an email to your supervisor when coffee machine is broken.

Once the message is in your spinal cord, this signal is then combined with other sensory messages (such as sight, sound, smell from the environment) and is transferred to the brain. The message reaches the brain to be interpreted along with all other message to figure out the best response – sometimes this can be a pain response. Say you have just rested your hand on a hot stove, your brain tells you to remove your hand because it hurts.

Unfortunately, the brain can do its job too well and interpret non-pain provoking messages as pain – such as your shirt brushing across your back. This can occur when you have been experiencing pain for long periods of time, history of unsuccessful treatments or psychological factors. In this situation, your brain is not fabricating pain, it is just lumping these signals with the pain related signals – similar to when you find a chicken nugget in your bag of hot chips. The good news here, is that this pain can be managed by a combination of psychological care, physiotherapy and movements.

If you want to know more information, contact the team at North Lakes Health Hub.

Image source: What is the peripheral nervous system? (Cleveland Clinic , 2022)