One of the topics that generally becomes part of the conversation I have with my clients relates to the way that pain moves or migrates from one area to another, and sometimes back again after it has gone away for a while. Why does this happen and what is going on? To understand that, we need to understand some fundamentals about pain.
There are many different things which ultimately cause pain, but a few of the most common are pressure, congestion (or inflammation), and restriction. (If we were reductionist thinkers, we would say that they were all problems of congestion.) These main three all act in similar ways in regard to how we perceive the pain caused by them, since pain is an interpretation in the brain of signals coming from the affected areas in the body. The key thing to note here is that the brain acts like a computer to process the signals coming in. If the signal never reaches the brain for interpretation, then you don't experience pain. This is the mechanism for most pain-relief drugs.
While the brain interprets the signals, it uses a few basic rules to determine what our experience is. These rules are loosely translated into the following:
- If the signal strength (from the affected area) is greater than threshold amount "x", provide an indicator (physical sensation) that something is wrong.
- If the signal strength increases above threshold amount "y", modify the indicator sensation into pain. (The threshold level of "y" indicates the threshold for the creation of pain.)
- If multiple signals come in at the same time, make me more aware of the strongest signal (i.e. mute or tone down the other signals and indicating sensations).
As a generalized experience, people first notice problems in the body manifesting as a twinge, a little stiffness, or a bit of temporary soreness, etc. This is the first rule in action. There is a problem, but it is a low level problem at this point, and so your body is making you aware of the issue. Most of us notice the indicating symptom, but quickly ignore it. "Oh, it's just a little sore... it will go away on its own."
As the problem persists and progresses, the signal strength increases. Once the signal strength increases over a magical threshold, we experience real pain (rule two in action). It can be annoying low level constant pain, sharp pain, or anything in between. Indecently, the threshold level is the key to what we experience. If the signal strength is over the specified level, there is pain. If it is lower, there is no pain. This explains why some pain "magically" goes away (since it is under the threshold level).
This is a very simplistic, but accurate explanation of our experience regarding pains that come and go over a period of time (whether it is hours, days, or even years). And just because a pain "goes away," doesn't mean that the problem is gone... it can still exist, but at a level that is below that which causes you pain. The signaling is like a light switch... on or off depending on if the specific threshold level is met.
If you have multiple areas of pain, then usually you will notice only the worst one. You can think of this as the squeaky wheel scenario. The worst pain is noticed until its level decreases so that it is now less than the level of the second worst pain. When that happens, the previous worst pain becomes the second worst pain and the previous second worst is now (in our awareness as) the current worst pain. Since we typically notice or feel the worst pain area, when they "change ranks" we also perceive a shift in the location of pain. "My neck stopped hurting, but now my shoulder hurts." These forces are in constant flux and can easily change back. "My neck started hurting again, but my shoulder isn't so bad any more."
As a massage therapist, I know this can be confusing to understand. I'm sure if you think back to your history of dealing with pain, these loose interpretations of the body's rules will make sense. If you interpret things differently, I'd love to hear about it. This information comes out of my practice working over many years with many different clients.
In addition to me rattling on, and hopefully providing you with useful information on what you experience, I want to leave you with one important message: If you get an indicator sensation that something is wrong, do not wait for it to develop into a real pain situation. It is far easier to eliminate small issues, than it is to eliminate issues that have entrenched themselves into your body. Do not ignore the little sensations of your body informing you something is starting to become an issue.