Most of us will experience low back pain and neck pain at some point in our lives. In fact, it is unusual not to have some aches and pains around the spine. With back and neck pain being so common in the modern world, you would assume that treatment is very effective. Sadly not.
There are different scenarios with back and neck pain, often either a nasty acute type pain or a lower level nagging pain that grinds on and on. A further common situation that I see is a persisting back pain that is part of an overall picture of widespread pain. Accompanying the pain is altered movement and muscle tension that adds to the unpleasantness. This is mainly due to the effects of overactive muscles that are being told to protect the area — acids released, reduced oxygen levels; both of which can excite local nerve endings (nociceptors) that send danger signals to the brain.
When a particular movement or action triggers the pain, we assume that this is dangerous and the cause of the pain. This is not quite the case. There is a lead up to the moment of pain when the nervous system is becoming sensitised, often slowly, over a period of time. This is called priming. Then, at a given moment, when the system is close to the threshold of becoming excited, a normally innocuous movement just tips the physiology over the line with a consequential range of protective responses that include pain, spasm and altered movement.
Sometimes there are changes in the tissues or ‘damage’. Again there is often an assumption that when the pain begins, this is the point of injury. This can be the case but equally the changes in the tissues may have been evolving over a period of time. The reality is that you will never really know, even with a scan. The scan may show a disc bulge or herniation but does this describe your pain? Or tell you when the problem began? No.
Unpleasant as the body responses are, they are normal, necessary and part of the way in which the body defends itself, largely organised by the brain. The pain draws our attention to the area that the brain wants us to protect. When the pain is severe of course our attentional bias will be towards the region most of the time — hypervigilance. How we think about the pain will determine the impact, level of suffering and influences the trajectory of the problem as our thoughts and beliefs about back pain will impact upon what action is taken. In the very acute stages, there may not be a great choice when the pain and spasm is strong, thereby limiting movement vigorously. It is good to know that this phase, as horrible as it can be, does not last too long in most cases if the right action is taken based on good knowledge.
It is always advisable to seek help and guidance: know that nature of the problem, how long it can go on, what is normal and what you need to do to ensure a good recovery. Generally, understanding that pain is not an accurate indicator of tissue damage — see video here — , controlling the pain with various measures in the early stages and trying to move as best you can starts off on the right footing. It can be scary when the pain is severe, so calming strategies really help to reduce the impact — anxiety is based on thinking catastrophically about the problem, thereby triggering more body defences in pain and tension. Mindful breathing and other relaxation skills should be practiced regularly.
In summary, back pain and neck pain are very common. The primary message here is that the acute stages are unpleasant and often distressing but they do not last long in most cases if the problem is managed well with understanding to reduce concerns and to minimise the threat value, good pain control, simple movement strategies and a little treatment to ease tension and change the sensory processing in the body so that it feels more comfortable.
If you have low back pain or neck pain, especially persisting pain or widespread pain, come and see us to find out how you can change your pain and get moving again: call 07932 689081