Understanding Pain Referral
What is Pain Referral?
Pain referral is a very complex and poorly understood phenomenon. Simply put, pain referral is when you feel pain in one area of your body, but the source of the problem actually lies somewhere else. It’s like a crossed telephone line, where the nerve signals get mixed up, sending pain messages to the wrong address. This can be very confusing and frustrating, particularly when you’re told by a physiotherapist that although the pain is in your upper back, the issue is actually in your neck.
Why Does This Happen?
Nerves are the highways for our messages to travel from the brain to the target tissue, and vice-versa, and sometimes their messages get scrambled. There are a couple of theories as to why this occurs. One theory suggests that nerves from different areas converge in the spinal cord, so when one gets irritated, it can spill over and activate neighboring nerves, leading to pain in seemingly unrelated areas. Another theory involves the brain interpreting the signals incorrectly, projecting the pain to a familiar location despite the true source being elsewhere.
Common Culprits of Pain Referral:
Pain referral can occur in various conditions, with some of the more common examples including:
- Low back pain: Pain radiating down the leg (sciatica) despite seemingly fine back muscles.
- Neck pain: Headaches, shoulder pain, or even arm numbness originating from irritated tissues within the neck.
- Hip pain: Groin pain or referred pain in the knee can be common in hip pain, making diagnosis tricky.
- Arthritis: Pain spreading beyond the affected joint, causing confusion about the true source.
Identifying The Source
Physiotherapists are trained detectives when it comes to pain referral. Through a comprehensive assessment, your physio will be able to identify the problem. This assessment process includes:
- Detailed History: The way the injury behaves gives us an insight into the likely tissue causing the pain, and helps to rule out other potential causes
- Physical Exam: While the history of the pain helps identify potential causes, the physical exam allows us to eliminate potential diagnosis and identify the root cause
Remember: Pain referral is complex, and this blog serves as a brief introduction. If you are suffering with persistent pain, book in with one of our physiotherapists for a personalized assessment and treatment plan. We’re here to help unravel the mystery and get you back to feeling your best!