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What is back pain?

What is Back Pain?
At some stage we all have experienced pain, perhaps in your back or perhaps in another part of your body.
But what is pain? What does pain tell you? Is all pain the same? Below you can find more information on what pain is. Understanding back pain is the first step towards taking control of back pain.
Pain as a warning signal or not?
If you, accidentally, cut your finger with a knife, you experience pain. This pain signal is triggered in the cells of the tissue in your finger that are being damaged by the sharp knife. Although unpleasant, the pain is actually a useful response from your body since it alerts you that your finger is damaged and you need to take action to prevent further damage and/or ensure recovery from the damage. This is called acute pain. Similarly, when you sprain a muscle in your back, you will feel a sudden jolt of pain. Again this pain signal warns you need to take action in order to recover or prevent further damage.
"Does pain equal damage?"
However, persistent back pain is very different from the above examples. Persistent pain no longer acts as a warning signal and it does not refer to any tissue damage. The warning system goes into overdrive and sends out repeated pain signals, which are not needed or are out of proportion. The pain signals in persistent pain, also called chronic pain, no longer serve a useful purpose. But nevertheless you experience pain and it is virtually impossible to distinguish the useful pain signals from the disruptive pain signals. However knowing that persistent pain is often not a warning signal, means that you can respond differently to the pain. While you may think that rest is best when experiencing pain, for persistent back pain it is actually much better to stay active. Knowing that your pain does not mean that any structures in your back have been seriously damaged can take away some of the concerns you may have about using your back whilst in pain.
Definition of pain
Pain is not only a physical response; your mind also plays an important role in how you perceive pain.
One of the world's leading organisations in the area of pain research (the International Association for the Study of Pain, IASP) has defined pain as: 'An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage'.
In this definition you can see that pain is not only a signal that your body sends out in response to a certain trigger (a sensory experience), but also an emotional experience. In other words, how your mind responds to pain is an important aspect of how you perceive pain.
"Back pain is not only felt in the back - it is also an emotional process"
You may have heard of people overcoming great pain when their mind was focused on something else. This is a good example of how the mind or your emotions can influence your pain experience. Secondly, the definition of the IASP also shows that pain could be, but is not necessarily, associated with tissue damage. This refers to the difference, explained above, between acute pain and persistent or chronic pain.