What is persistent pain?

Pain starts as an unpleasant signal in the body – think of it as a warning sign. It is designed to grab our attention and keeps going until we sort the problem out. To sum up:

  • Pain demands our attention
  • Pain demands an explanation
  • Pain demands we get help

This is called a 'threat' response, so our brain downloads chemicals to make sure we take action:

  • muscle tension and protective chemicals to guard against further damage
  • worry and anxiety chemicals to find out what is wrong
  • stress chemicals to make us respond and get help

Persistent pain is triggered when the nerves carrying unpleasant information become irritated and continue to react even though the initial cause has healed. Sometimes the pain system stays switched on, perhaps after surgery or changes in posture. The threat chemicals continue to download, making the system fire again - this is known as the vicious cycle of pain.

Your pain system may be wary of anything that makes it react – activity, inactivity, changes in weather, or even unpredictable triggers.

Pain management is about helping the body produce chemicals to make a threatened system feel safer.

Why have I got pain if there is nothing to cure?

You may worry that pain means there is something going wrong, but sometimes persistent pain flares up even though there is nothing to cure.

Pain is invisible so people with pain may look fine – that’s why it is important to understand how your condition works.

So, how to reassure the body that activity is ok?

Little and often is the key. Gradually and regularly retraining the body that gentle movement holds no nasty surprises can help produce safer chemicals. You could also make your own list of things that ease the pain such as:

  • Heat (which helps the muscles feel safe and relax)
  • Distraction (don’t forget the brain is designed to be very interested in pain - whether it indicates damage or not)
  • Relaxation and calming breathing exercises can soothe the pain system
  • Positive thinking and talking can help calm and reduce some of the pain