We’ve all experienced that time when we’re cooking something and got our hand too close to the heat. The sensation of “too” hot causes us to withdraw our hand, the speed of the withdrawal is dependent on how many nociceptors were firing.
The nervous system doesn’t have “pain” receptors per se. What it has are nociceptors or noxious event receptors. Noxious events are the events that disrupt the status quo, heat, cold, touch… Some noxious events are at a low level and don’t cause us to much bother—wearing clothing for instance. There are times when these low level events build up and we twitch to avoid them. Some events—putting our hand on a hot frying pan—fire more receptors and cause a quick withdrawal response, a rapid movement away from the source. How we experience these events is regulated in the brain, with a large accumulation being more intense than a smaller one. Put your foot into an icy stream an you’ll withdraw from the sensation. Put your foot into a hot spring and you will have the same response. The sensation—pain—in the brain causes the movement. Pain is the call to action of movement. If we don’t heed this call for movement the pain will continue.
The body is a complicated computing system. It has hardware and software. The hardware acts under the control of the software.
Let’s look at touching a hot pan again. When we touch the hot pan our hardware will register the event “heat”, the software will analyze the event’s intensity and call for a response; slow withdrawal or fast withdrawal and send that command to the hardware. If we’re busy doing a lot of things, like talking or drinking too much wine, we may not respond fast enough. We’ll pull our hand away from the pan—movement. If we linger too long and the pan is hot enough we may get a burn, since we can’t really pull away from the burned skin—lack of movement possibility—we’ll experience it as pain. We can mitigate this with running cold water over the tissue, to substitute another sensation over the one of heat—this confuses the software.
Depending on how bad the tissue damage is we’ll not be able to move and experience the pain for some time. More severe tissue damage will require a longer time to repair, and because we won’t be moving the part we’ll encase it in a protective lack of movement. This could be a problem since the completion of the software command to the hardware to move is not happening and we stay in “pseudo” pain.
If we assume that the sensation of pain—tickling is also included in this definition—is telling us to move, then by not moving we remain in the pain. This is what happens when we have a sore muscle, we stop using/moving the muscle and remain in pain until we get used to it and either move it, or create a movement aberration to work around it. If we adopted a plan to engage the muscle slowly, intrinsically we would remove the pain—the signal to move is answered—before we develop a protective movement pattern.
This presents a dichotomy. Is healing about not using something or is it about using it? I’m suggesting that it’s both. During the acute stage of an injury the damaged tissue needs to be allowed time to repair. However, as soon as the tissue is repaired it needs to be moved to finish the healing process. In other words as soon as any part of the tissue is repaired it needs to be moved to finish the repair. Unfortunately this requires a minute control over movement that most people don’t have.
One of the hardest clients I have to help in my Rolfing® practice is the one with long term pain. The length of the painful event makes it harder for them to move into the tissue that needs to move. Spinal pain has another problem; the soft tissue—muscles, fascia, nerves—that control spinal movement on a small scale are close to the spine, we say “deep”. It’s very difficult to access this tissue to get it to move, Chiropractors try to do it with a ballistic movement—you may try to help yourself by rubbing against the corner of a wall or rolling on a ball. The brain causes the tissue to brace against the potential of more sensation. This bracing causes a lack of fluid motion and dehydration of the tissue, which causes more sensation. It’s a circular firing squad.
But we need to get this tissue moving, in a small non threatening way. Here’s a video on some very intrinsic movements that can be done to explore the body and help hydrate the tissue.