By Contributor, Rachel Louissaint, DPT, Doctor of Physical Therapy

Pain by definition is an unpleasant emotional and sensory experience characterized by actual or potential tissue damage.  Throughout our human experience we will all feel pain. We should also look at pain as a warning sign or symptom. Many people suffer from pain without any trauma or injury. Most of the time when I ask my patients where their pain originated from, they don’t really have an answer. As a physical therapist, it becomes my job to investigate and assess in order to help find the root cause of their pain. 

A major part of managing pain is understanding the sensation of pain and how it gets transmitted in our bodies. Pain begins as a stimulus that causes or has the potential to cause tissue injury. Nerves called nociceptors send signals to the brain alerting the brain of a potential issue. The brain then processes the information and sends a signal to the body and the body responds by taking an action to limit the amount of damage to the structure. For example if you place your hand near something hot, the stimulus of the heat gets sent to your brain from the nerves in your hand. Your brain then tells your body to move your hand away from the heat in order to decrease the potential of you burning your hand. 

When you feel pain, it should trigger you to take some action. Far too many of us ignore pain in the hopes that it will go away. When in actuality, the problem festers and becomes a bigger issue down the road. Managing pain can be very complicated and tedious, but take it from someone who treats injuries, you would rather treat one issue now then deal with a mountain of issues later. Here are 5 helpful tips on what to do when you start to feel pain. 

1. Pinpoint when the pain started

The onset of pain is very important when trying to diagnose a root cause. Pain that started yesterday versus three months ago is managed differently. Time is a contributing factor when discussing pain. Time can be the difference between acute pain and chronic pain, which both carry contrasting factors in treatment and management. 

2. Determine what kind of pain you are feeling

How you interpret pain is the key to understanding what tissues might be involved. The sensation of pain can be described using many different words like achy, sore, tingling, sharp, shooting and cramping. For example, the sensation of numbness or tingling would relate more to a nerve issue versus joint damage.

3. Pay attention to what makes it better or worse

The levels and sensations of pain fluctuate constantly. Sometimes pain can be affected by a stimulus that makes it feel better or worse. When assessing your pain you want to be aware what these stimuli are. Some people keep pain journals to record the changes in their pain throughout the day. I once had a patient that complained of excruciating back pain, but when I asked her when her pain felt better or worse, she realized that her pain was worse after meals. That correlation helped diagnose her with a gallbladder issue and prevent her from future unnecessary medical procedures. 

4. Identify whether or not the pain is affected by position

Similar to the last tip, you want to be aware of the effects that positional changes have on your pain. Pain that gets better or worse with changes in position may be musculoskeletal in origin. On the other hand pain that remains constant throughout changes in position may be from systemic changes in your body like cancer or other disease processes. 

5. Take note of the intensity of the pain

One of the main reasons people end up in the ER is because their pain has reached an excruciating and unbearable level. You don’t want to let your pain get that bad for you to do something about it. Especially because when pain reaches a high level intensity it can be a sign of major changes in your body.

Our bodies are constantly changing, feeling and sensing different things. Body awareness is vital in the management of health and wellness. You want to make sure that you stay on top of things like getting annual physicals. If you notice you are feeling pain for a significant amount of time or intensity, always seek the help of a licensed medical professional.

These tips are not intended to substitute professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always make sure to seek the advice of your doctor or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding your health condition. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor, go to the ER or call 911 immediately.