Pain is generally classed as chronic when it lasts for over 12 weeks or continues beyond the usual recovery time of an injury. Often there is no physical reason for the pain, yet it persists.
Pain has been studied a lot over the last decade and this research has shown it to be a very complex phenomenon. The medical belief of pain used to be very simple. It was thought that pain receptors throughout the body would detect damage, send a signal to the brain and voila we feel pain. This is indeed part of it but we now know the following factors contribute to our experience of pain:
- Emotions – you’ve probably noticed that your own experience of pain can change depending on your mood. This has now been backed up by brain scans where pain processing areas of the brain changed in participants as they looked at emotion provoking images.
- Beliefs of pain and catastrophising (thinking of the worst outcomes) – if you believe the pain will persist, it is then likely to persist. This is often associated with a fear of movement which will lead to more stiffness and more pain.
- Social – lower social classes suffer from more chronic pain
What’s incredibly fascinating is the research carried out with participants undergoing MRI scans to see if pain experienced matched the amount of damage in the tissues. It did not!! One example is a study where 69% of 45 participants had labral tears in their hip joint and were completely pain free (Register et al 2012). It was previously thought this type of injury would always cause extreme pain but scanning pain free people has shown this to simply not always be the case. It’s also been shown that people can suffer high levels of (very real!) pain with no physical damage. This is particularly obvious when you look at phantom limb pain. That’s very real pain in a body part that no longer exists! This demonstrates the fact that your brain can create pain without any stimulation from peripheral pain receptors. Pain can be created, turned up or turned down purely by our central nervous system (brain and spinal cord).
Massage can be extremely helpful for chronic pain as it addresses issues in the tissues that contribute to an over reactive nervous system such as trigger points and adhesions in the fascia (connective tissue). As massage has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, it can also address the emotional contribution of pain. Massage introduces movement back into tissues and after careful advice can give you the confidence to move more freely without fear. With this new knowledge, the next time you reach for the pain killers, think of booking a massage instead.
If you’d like to get in touch to discuss if massage could help any chronic pain you’re suffering from drop us a message.