Pain is often the reason why people make an appointment to see their healthcare provider.
If the feeling – the pain, the discomfort – is recent or acute, it is often easier for a healthcare professional to diagnose and treat the problem. You may have hurt yourself in some way, had an accident, are recovering from surgery, or getting the flu, etc.
But when the pain becomes persistent or chronic and does not seem to respond to the usual medical or therapeutic intervention, treatment or management can be more complicated.
If each person was asked to describe what their pain felt like – what it meant to them, it is likely that each person would respond to that question differently.
So, why don’t we do that-– describe and verbalize what the feeling really feels like without using the word ‘pain’?
Pain is defined as an ‘unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage’ by the International Association for the Study of Pain, 1994.
If we look at that definition more closely, we can see that the pain may, in fact, have a physical cause, be an emotional response to a problem, or be something else entirely. All we know for sure is that this feeling – whatever it is – is subjective and belongs only to you.
So, whereas acute pain can be protective and useful (for example, get your hand off the burner, or put ice on that painful joint you just sprained), persistent pain is no longer serving a useful purpose. However, it is still a message though not necessarily a warning or a dangerous feeling.
Your body may or may not have been injured or have a disease/condition, but it may feel as if your body has been damaged in some way.
The pain you might be experiencing can be described in physical terms, like throbbing, shooting, cramping, sharp, and burning, etc. And there are emotional words that better describe the feelings bothering you, including worried, anxious, stressed out, overwhelmed, etc. And there are other words to describe what and how you are feeling, like nauseous, dizzy, off-balance, clumsy, etc.
Communicating the feelings that we are experiencing (and not being embarrassed by expressing emotional concerns) in a better way can make treatment and management more effective. And maybe we can figure it out for ourselves.
It is also possible that your health provider uses the word pain generically when discussing symptoms, rather than asking you specifically what sensation/feeling you are experiencing.
It may be up to you to improve this dialogue by encouraging your healthcare provider to not use the word pain, but to find out what and how you are feeling.
For example, instead of saying, I have pain in my back. You can change that to a more precise: ‘I have this crampy feeling on the right side of my back, just below my waist. There are times when I get a shooting sensation into my right leg, which radiates to just below the knee at times.’ Further discussion will explore what reduces the sensation and what exacerbates it.
Another reason for you to see your healthcare provider may be because you are feeling extremely fatigued but not sleeping well. You may want to ask yourself if you are also experiencing other physical symptoms or are dealing with a situation in your life that could be causing those symptoms (and are providing you with messages as to what is really bothering you). Perhaps butterflies in your stomach, elevated heart rate, or shortness of breath.
Your physical body is smarter than you think. We need to learn how to listen to those feelings and figure out what our body and our brain is really telling us.
There is no easy answer for managing chronic muscle and joint problems. Our bodies are always changing as we age. It’s important to learn to control your symptoms 24/7. Changing position, resting, applying heat or ice, using assistive or electrotherapy devices, and even using a mobility device (cane, walker, scooter) may be some of the coping strategies you need to integrate into your day.
As a physiotherapist, I developed a symbol – a red dot with circles around it to mean ‘whatever sensation is bothering you.’ It’s a reminder that you may also be experiencing more than one feeling/sensation at the same time. It is up to each one of us to pay attention to those feelings, understand the reaction in our bodies and respond, react, adjust to those feelings appropriately.
Gloria Gilbert is the author of the ebook, Don’t Go To The Ouch. She assumes the role of a health coach, providing information on a range of topics to help clients better understand and manage their symptoms. Her site has videos to view, downloadable PDFs and a blog.