Alarmingly Helpful

July 10, 2021
Pain neuroscience education alarm

Nowadays we have alarms going off all over the place. They are there to remind us, alert us, warn us and many times just annoy us. Not only are they all around us, they’re also inside us. Our bodies have their own alarm system in the form of pain.

Pain is your body’s way of bringing awareness to an area. Sometimes it’s urgent like a security alarm letting us know we need to stop what we’re doing and assess the situation. Other times it’s a nagging alarm reminding us that something isn’t quite right. 

Just like a smoke alarm, louder (more painful) alarms do not necessarily mean more significant damage or threat. A smoke alarm is just as loud for a burnt piece of toast as it is for a kitchen fire. A paper cut can feel like a kitchen fire but it’s just burnt toast.

Problems could arise if your smoke alarm becomes more sensitive after you burn your toast. What if it started sounding off every time you use your toaster? Smoke alarms don’t tend to malfunction in this manner but our bodies’ alarm system often does. In cases of chronic pain your alarm system may start triggering with previously pain free movement or with movements of body parts uninvolved in the original injury.

Fortunately, there are ways to help decrease the sensitivity of your alarm system. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as buying a new smoke alarm. Things like stress, fear, poor sleep, worry and poor nutrition can all increase the sensitivity of your alarm system. 

Fear avoidance, the avoidance of movements or activities based on the fear of pain or re-injury can lead to a cycle of increased sensitivity and limited motion that can be particularly troublesome. Slowly and safely returning to movement, activity and exercise is the best way to lower the sensitivity of your alarm. Improving other factors such as nutrition, sleep and psychosocial wellness also go a long way to quiet it.

Sometimes, it’s enough to just know that the kitchen isn’t on fire. Smoke alarms become a lot less concerning when you know that everything is alright. It becomes a lot easier to control the situation and even ignore the alarm until it finally shuts off. Learning about pain and how your environment, fears, worries, stress and past experiences affect it can help you manage your alarm system better. Just like that smoke detector, our pain alarm system is an important tool to alert us of danger but they both need proper maintenance to work effectively. 

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