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What's The Difference Between Referred Pain And Normal Pain?

We hear the term ‘referred pain’ often, but what does it actually mean?

At Canberra Spine Centre, we often have patients tell us about referred pain. Some of them are more worried than they should be. Others should be paying some more attention to their issue.

In this article, you’ll learn about some different types of pain, what they mean and what you can do about them.

What’s Pain?

Let’s start with the basics. ‘What’s pain?’ sounds like a really dumb question, but it’s a good place to start.

The International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) defines pain as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.

If you’ve got a sore back, where do you think you feel the pain? You feel it in your head! Every day, there is damage occurring in our body that doesn’t register as pain.

When enough damage messages get to the right parts of the brain, you begin to ‘feel it’ as pain, in your conscious brain.

Pain and the beginning of the problem – not the same thing!

As a chiropractor, many of my patients have an understanding that their problem began when they started feeling the pain.

While pain is not pleasant and certainly represents a problem in the body, it does not signal the beginning of a problem in the body.

Our amazing bodies have the ability to compensate for things we can’t quite deal with. It’s when we run out of our ability to compensate that we start to feel pain.

Compensation and the elastic band

Imagine that you’re stretching an elastic band. When you stretch it a little, it bounces back to its original length without accumulating any damage.

This is just like the body’s compensatory ability. We undergo a small stress (i.e. change in our environment), and then we recover without any damage.

Now stretch that elastic band to the point where it won’t stretch any more… and then keep on stretching it. Now you’ve moved beyond the elastic limit of the band.

You’re causing damage. Let it go and it will no longer bounce back to its original length. The same thing with your body – when you go past your body’s ability to compensate, you begin to cause damage.

Pain is often the last thing to occur in a long line of events.

First, your body compensates for changes in the environment (i.e. stresses – long periods of sitting, poor diet, increased demands of some type).

If these stresses continue, the body continues to compensate for as long as it can… until it can’t.

When that happens, damage occurs. This process often occurs over a period of months, years or even decades.

If someone goes to see their chiropractor after a few weeks of pain, their problem has often been years in the making.

What about referred pain?

Interestingly, IASP (see above) has not officially defined ‘referred pain’. Its mechanisms are still not clearly understood.

Put simply, referred pain is pain experienced away from the site of damage, where you would normally expect to ‘feel’ the pain.

Classic examples are sciatica originating from the lower back or arm pain from heart attack or angina.

Why does it refer or radiate?

While the cause is not clear, the most plausible explanation is that damage information coming into the spinal cord arrives at a point very close to where other sensory information arrives.

The signals become mixed so that the brain thinks that pain is coming from one area, not another. So, you feel leg pain instead of back pain.

Is referred pain serious?

Regarding the spine, pain radiating down your arm or leg is generally considered to be more serious than just pain in the neck or lower back.

It often indicates more severe damage or a longer-standing problem. When you have this sort of pain, it’s best not to leave it and ‘hope it will go away’.

While pain may come and go, doing nothing about the cause of the pain will often allow the problem to grow in severity and complexity.

Get a proper diagnosis.

When you have referred or radiating pain, the best thing you can do is get a proper diagnosis from an expert. Once you know that cause of your pain, you can have the right treatment.

As chiropractors, sometimes we see people with chest pain that is coming from the spine. We can generally treat that.

Sometimes we see people with chest pain coming from a heart problem. We can’t treat that! But having a good diagnosis gets the patient to see the right person.

Chiropractors use gentle spinal manipulation and soft tissue techniques to help restore proper motion to the spine and proper nerve function.

When the body can function properly and heal itself, problems such referred pain will often resolve.

At Canberra Spine Centre, we help people with referred pain every day to recover normal function and to feel great again.

If you have referred pain and you’re not sure what to do about it, please call us on (02) 6257 9400.

If you would like some more information about the spine and nervous system and how it relates to your health, please check out the other articles on our Facebook page or go to our website:

Call (02) 6257 9400 or visit us at 7 Macpherson St in O’Connor.