Unravelling the truth – dispelling misconceptions about pain patterns

Pain is multifaceted and a personal experience that is different for everyone. There are often misconceptions and misunderstandings about pain that can prevent you from getting an accurate diagnosis and delay appropriate treatment.  In this article, we will delve into and debunk some of the myths surrounding pain.

Myth #1: Pain always indicates the exact location of the problem

One of the most common misconceptions is that where you feel pain is directly related to the source of the problem. While it is true that pain often occurs near or in the affected area, it can also radiate or refer to other regions of the body. For example, pain originating from the heart can be felt in the left arm, neck, or jaw, or a toothache might cause ear pain, neck pain or headache. This phenomenon, known as referred pain, can be misleading and make it difficult for you and your doctor to identify the root cause of the problem.

Myth #2: Severe pain always means there is something seriously wrong

The intensity of pain does not always correlate with the severity of an underlying condition. Pain is about how dangerous your brain thinks something is, and how much threat there is to your survival. This means that sometimes, you might experience excruciating pain from a relatively minor injury, while in another instance you might have minimal or no pain, even though there might be something more serious going on. Pain is subjective and influenced by many factors, including individual pain tolerance, previous experiences, psychological state, cultural background, trauma and whether you feel safe or not. Hurt does not always equal harm – therefore it is important to consult with a healthcare practitioner who understands modern pain science to get an accurate diagnosis.

Myth #3: Chronic pain is always a result of tissue damage

Chronic pain refers to persistent pain that lasts for longer than three months, or beyond the normal healing time, and pain that is no longer useful. It is entirely possible that pain can exist without ongoing tissue damage. In conditions such as fibromyalgia or neuropathic pain, the nervous system becomes hypersensitive, leading to more pain, and pain that interferes with function. Understanding that chronic pain can be a problem with the sensitivity of the alarm system (your nervous system), rather than ongoing or new tissue damage, is crucial for effective management and treatment.

Myth #4: Pain is purely physical and has no emotional or psychological components

Pain is always physical and emotional – we feel it in our bodies, and it makes us feel an emotion. There is no difference or distinction between physical or emotional pain in terms of how your nervous system responds. As far as your brain is concerned, a broken arm is the same as a broken heart – the same chemicals are released, and your nervous system is sensitised in the same way.  This is why stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, financial pressure, and a whole host of other factors can make your pain worse. Chronic pain can have a significant impact on your mental health, leading to emotional distress and impaired quality of life. Addressing the whole person, including their physical body, their emotional and psychological factors, and considering the impact of their environment is therefore essential for comprehensive pain management.

Myth #5: Pain is a normal part of ageing

While it is true that certain age-related conditions can cause pain, pain should not be considered an inevitable part of the ageing process. Many older adults experience unnecessary pain due to untreated or undertreated conditions because they believe that pain is a part of getting older. Age alone should not be a reason to have unmanaged pain. Proper evaluation and treatment are essential and can help older adults have good quality lives.

Pain is complex and goes beyond a simple cause-and-effect relationship. Debunking common misconceptions about pain is crucial to ensure accurate diagnoses, appropriate treatment, and improved functional outcomes. By understanding that pain can be complex, is always personal, and can be influenced by various factors, we can provide better care, promote effective pain management strategies, and reduce unnecessary suffering.