The phrases ‘high pain threshold’ and ‘high pain tolerance’ are common and most of us think we have a good idea about where ours sits. But what do they really mean?
First, let’s have a closer look at what pain actually is. Pain is when our brain responds to particular signals coming from our body and concludes that there is danger present. Our body is constantly sending signals through nerve fibers to our brain to notify it of its status, and our brain interprets these signals to determine whether there is a risk of damage to the body.
A high pain threshold is when pain signals are being activated, but we are not feeling any pain. The level of this threshold can change as the context changes and our body decides what the biggest threat is.
For example, you are playing soccer and the result of this particular match is really important to you. You are injured by rough contact; however, you keep playing without any pain and are able to finish the rest of the game. A few hours later you notice significant pain in your ankle. What occurred here is that the damage to your ankle occurred hours before the pain was a priority, and during the soccer match, you were experiencing a high pain threshold.
Now, let’s look at how your pain threshold can be lowered. Say that a few weeks on, your ankle was rehabilitated, and you are back to optimal fitness. You are playing soccer again and a similar contact occurs. This time, you experience immediate pain in your ankle and are unable to play the remainder of the game. You remember that you have an important match coming up and are upset that you won’t be able to play.
The following day you wake up and find that your pain has lessened considerably. This is hard to understand, given the high level of the pain on the previous day and that it was more painful than your first injury. This is your pain system being dynamic and learning from a previous injury to protect the body. The buffer between potential damage and actual damage has changed; this shows that pain is actually not an accurate measure of damage.
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How Can Pain Change?
If you are noticing that your body and brain are reacting differently, such as you experience pain for a longer period of time than you used to, or at a greater intensity than expected for a particular injury, you may find yourself questioning whether your body is becoming over-sensitive. Other things you may notice include:
● Activities you once found comfortable are now causing you some pain.
● Pain gets worse rather than better over time.
● The pain is spreading to other areas of your body.
● Pain is beginning to impact different aspects of your life.
● You are becoming more forgetful, unable to concentrate, irritable, and unable to get to sleep easily.
● Your pain starts to consume your thinking and you are losing hope it will ever go away.
Any of these scenarios can cause worry and stress and the best solution is to visit a skilled professional who understands pain mechanisms and can assess and treat you.
What Affects My Pain System?
There are several factors in your life that can influence your body’s self-protection mechanisms, and therefore can also influence the pain you experience when an injury occurs. Some of these include:
● The threat of injury on your ability to work or play sport.
● Having a negative experience with a healthcare professional when seeking help.
● Knowing other people who have experienced serious repercussions due to a similar injury.
● Worry that your injury will lead to a frightening diagnosis or surgery.
● Not being able to adapt your lifestyle or career to allow yourself to recover.
● Wondering how those who are dependent on you will cope if you are injured.
● Being absolutely exhausted and having trouble fulfilling your basic needs with nutrition and sleep.
● Worry that you won’t ever fully recover.
Diagnosing & Treating Pain
Don’t put up with pain. Not only does it affect your daily life, but it can lead to further issues if not dealt with. Always consult a health care professional who understands pain, such as a GP or a physiotherapist. Your doctor or physio will be able to undertake a thorough assessment and diagnose the cause of the pain, followed by creating a specific treatment plan or referring you to further specialists if needed.
Pain is unique to each person, but it is important to seek help as soon as possible. Generally, the longer you have had pain, the longer it can take to remedy it. So, if you are experiencing pain, whether from a specific injury or not, make an appointment with one of the experts at Melbourne Sports Physiotherapy, who aim to have you moving pain-free as soon as possible. Their services include physio for hip pain, knee physiotherapy, physio for back pain, deep tissue massage and so much more. With their help you can return to an active, healthy, fulfilling life.