Most people think pain is an indicator of the amount of tissue damage present in the body. The belief is that high amounts of pain equate to a large injury, and a small amount of pain equates to a small injury. However, through extensive research, it has been shown that pain has little correlation to the amount of tissue damage. For example, a paper cut may cause intense pain, while a broken bone may go unnoticed. In 2013, when Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware sustained a horrific leg fracture, he reported, "it was one of those things where I couldn't believe it. I honestly didn't feel the pain. It was more a shock."
"At the center of the alarm system is your brain, which beeps when it THINKS something is going wrong or is potentially dangerous."
Kevin Ware’s story perfectly demonstrates that pain is more like an alarm system. It is an evolutionary provided and naturally built system designed to keep you out of danger. At the center of the alarm system is your brain, which beeps when it THINKS something is going wrong or is potentially dangerous. If the system is healthy, it warns you when something is wrong just as your home alarm rings when a burglar breaks a window or your car alarm sounds if a car thief tries to wiggle your door open.
"Just as a smoke detector can be set off in the absence of fire, a home alarm in the absence of a burglary, and a car alarm when you accidently press the panic button, your body’s alarm system sounds off signals of pain in the absence of any REAL danger or threat."
However, just as a smoke detector can be set off in the absence of fire, a home alarm in the absence of a burglary, and a car alarm when you accidently press the panic button, your body’s alarm system sounds off signals of pain in the absence of any REAL danger or threat. The alarm may sound if a bird flies into a window or if you accidentally open the door after you have set the security code. In both of these cases there is no real danger, but the alarm rings in an effort to protect you. For safety, it is far superior for the alarm to be more sensitive and have false alarms, rather than to be hard to trip and not protect you in the case of a true threat.
Just as other alarms can misfire, your internal protective mechanism can do the same. Fear, stress, endorphins and adrenaline, anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, overactivity, poor nutrition, sickness, and many more factors can influence your alarm system’s perception of danger, increase sensitivity, and lead to a greater protective experience of pain. In Kevin Ware’s story, a large amount of endorphins and adrenaline as well as a massive NCAA crowd slowed his alarm system from signaling. Being familiar with the numerous factors that turn up or turn down the sensitivity of your internal alarm system is the first step in understanding how to better calibrate in the presence of injury.
(This text is adapted from "Sticks & Stones," a book by Jarod Hall PT, DPT, OCS and Jim Heafner PT, DPT, OCS. "Sticks and Stones" is in the final stages of development. Final versions of the text to be released to public in May 2018. Please reach out if you are interested in learning more information!)
If you think your pain-alarm system is misfiring, contact Heafner Health!