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by Katherine Hartsell, PTA

good and bad pain

The patients that come to physical therapy all bring unique experiences of pain with them. Many people step through the door hoping to eradicate pain, naturally assuming that the presence of pain is bad and that the absence of pain is good. However, like most things in body, pain is not that simple.

It is certainly true that pain can pose as a barrier between full participation in activities. It is also true that in physical therapy we work to measure, track, and reduce function-limiting pain. However, an important piece of pain management is understanding it. Learning to understand pain benefits all patients -from those that are working at desks to those that are running marathons.

Pain is more than a barrier to get rid of- it is also a message to learn from. These messages have to pass from the body to the brain, where they are “processed” for meaning. Unfortunately, these messages can get a little lost in translation. In physical therapy, patients become more familiar with the language of these messages so that they can interpret sensation with more clarity. We also work to adjust the volume of these messages to a healthy degree. For some patients, like the ones accustomed to ignoring pain, we work to turn the volume up a little so that they hear and react to these valuable cues that protect against injury. For others, like those with chronic pain or for those with pain avoidance, we work to adjust the volume of pain messages down so that what I call the “static” of body-brain communication is reduced.

Pain is subjective, personal, and informative. It is an inexact warning system that needs to be acknowledged and skillfully interpreted. The role of the physical therapy provider is to help interpret pain, but to also help the patient develop the ability to properly translate messages from the body. The language of the body is one that we can all become fluent in.

Katherine Hartsell is a Physical Therapy Assistant at Boston Sports Medicine