I read a tabloid article earlier this week which talked about a celebrity suffering with a back injury. Articles like this, found in the media, often use language that can cause fear around pain and injury. Inaccurate descriptions of injuries in the media can impact on the amount of fear felt by you if you are experiencing an episode of back pain.
I’ve lost count of the number of patients I’ve treated with back pain who have come in to see me in tears. So many people have the fear that their back pain will cause them to end up in a wheelchair because they’ve been told their discs have slipped, or their spine is crumbling.
So what does happen then?
Pain can be complex and is not easy to explain or understand. However, I am always more than happy to take the time to talk through with you what is likely to be going on to cause your back pain.
A lot of the time, the pain we feel is disproportionate to the damage that has occurred. Our bodies go into ‘protective mode’ to warn us they think something is going on. And the way our bodies protect us is by causing us to feel pain. And often this pain is greater than it needs to be.
Have you heard the smoke alarm analogy?
Think about a smoke alarm… has your smoke alarm ever gone off when you’ve burnt a slice of toast? There’s no fire, and nothing dangerous has happened, yet the smoke alarm has still been triggered. Our bodies can work in a similar way, with pain being our ‘smoke alarm’.
What could be going on?
There are many factors influencing back pain.
Structural changes can happen. Nerve function can be altered, nerves can be irritated, and in rarer more severe cases, they can be compressed. We can get inflammation occurring in our joints, ligaments, and muscles in our backs.
Disc injuries can also occur, but they do not slip. We used to use the term ‘slipped disc’ as a layman’s term for a disc injury. However, patients’ perception from this description was causing a lot of increased fear around back pain. Discs can become irritated, or sometimes they can herniate to varying degrees. We also know from MRI studies that over 50% of people over 50 are likely to show some kind of disc injury on MRI scan, even though they have no back pain.
Biopsychosocial factors such as stress, anxiety, and depression can all also play a big part in the severity of the pain we feel, and how long it lasts.
With the right help and advice, it is usually possible to reduce the symptoms caused from any of the above mentioned contributing factors associated with back pain.
So next time someone tells you you’ve slipped a disc, or your nerves have gone from your legs, please ask them to explain what exactly they mean. It’s likely that the structural change contributing to your pain isn’t as bad as what you might be picturing in your head!
If you have any questions about this, please feel free to email me.