When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar – a perspective on back pain

This old joke springs to mind when I think about back pain. We can think simply about a door and create an image of how it appears but in fact a door consists of at least some of the following: a piece of wood (or another material), a handle, some hinges, a lock and a frame. All of the physical components need to be made from raw materials and require the skills of an individual or a machine to make door. These skills must be learned or a machine need be designed for the specifics of making a part. In this sense, a door is not a door until all these come together. In fact, this can only make a door when the person looking at the door or using the door knows that it is a door and has the function of a door. Otherwise it is just a collection of abstract items. We can say the same for many things that we take for granted when we know what they are and their purpose.

Back pain is such a common problem that it seems as though we should experience this pain at some point in our lives. Certainly the way we live nowadays has a huge impact on the likelihood of suffering back pain. There are many simple habits that we can form to deal with the problem but all too often, we just don’t. Why? Because it is not at the top of our priority list. That said, when is back pain not back pain? When it’s understood. So this must be the start point. Understanding pain and back pain can make an enormous difference to the suffering that spans from mild discomfort to disabling agony.

Back pain is pain in the back — this may sound obvious and it is, yet there is much more to it, somewhat analogous to the door. What is the back? It is made of many components that together form the back. To know it is the back, we must have a construct of the back. We must know what is the back and what is ‘my’ back; the ‘mine-ness’. Similarly with pain, we must have a construct of pain that is learned. These are both the ‘what’, yet we need a ‘how’ to experience them. In the case of back pain, the way in which we are experiencing the back is with pain. Pain is how we feel the back at that moment.

Just as the back is constructed by physical ‘parts’ with a conscious aspect that is non-physical (the two create the whole), the ‘parts’ involve all the systems of the body as much as the self. Back pain is the end result of an enormous amount of multi-system activity, emerging in a body location that is felt. This is the ‘is-ness’ of the experience produced by the whole person that is the sum of every cell in the body. Pain as an emergent property of the whole person is a biological response to a perceived threat. This includes when the body is injured, pathologised and in anticipation that something could be dangerous. Consider a moment when you anticipate that it will hurt. What do you think? What do you do?

Practically, what does this all mean? It means that we cannot use a structural or component basis for treating back pain. The relationship between the body tissue state and the pain state is poor, perhaps even non-existent. Pain is emergent from a whole person who is embedded within a social setting, a culture and a context that all create a meaning for that individual who has a mind that needs a brain, yet the mind is unlikely to reside simply in that brain. The mind resides in that whole person much as the pain that emerges. Hence we must think about the whole if we are to be successful in treating pain.

If you are suffering with chronic pain, come and see us and discover what you can do to understand and change your pain

t. 07932 689081

Specialist Pain Physio Clinics, London

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