Where is Your Pain Coming From?

By Kateri Kane PT, DPT

Pain is an incredibly subjective measurement.  No two people experience pain in exactly the same way.  Intensity can be different from person to person, but so can location.  Two people may have a problem with their neck but one feels pain in the neck and the other feels a pain in the arm or shoulder.  This situation in which pain is experienced somewhere other than the source of the problem is called referred pain.

The phenomenon of referred pain is probably something you have either heard of or experienced before.  One relatively well-known example is having shoulder or arm pain during a heart attack.  Despite the fact that the root of the problem is the heart, the shoulder or back may experience the pain.  Other organs as well as muscles can be the root of pain in various regions of the body.

Referred pain may be experienced as sharp, achy, dull, burning, and as several other descriptors.  A headache is a prime example of possible referred pain.  There are multiple potential causes for a headache including a sinus infection, increased pressure within the skull, tensed muscles from stress, a malalignment in the cervical spine, and the list goes on. 

Let’s focus in on stress headaches.  What you may not realize as you type away at your computer for hours working on that report that needs to be submitted this week or as you’re driving home in heavy rush hour traffic is that your muscles all around your neck are tensing up.  As your muscles tense up, the tightness can cause the muscles to create increased tension around the head, forming a headache.  By providing sustained pressure along these tensed muscles and perhaps some heat, the muscles will relax and the headache will subside.

Many solutions are not as simple as relaxing a few muscles.  Pain that is felt in the back may actually be coming from internal organs.  Treatment may vary depending on which organ is involved and what the present problem is in the organ.  The key is that symptoms coming from your back are not always rooted in the back.  Similarly, problems else ware in the body are commonly rooted in the back.

Radiating pain is pain that starts in a particular area but travels to another area creating a larger region of symptoms.  Spinal stenosis or a disc herniation in the low back can cause symptoms down the legs even as far down as to the toes.  Symptoms may not simply be pain, especially when the root is the back; numbness and tingling may be the sensations experienced instead.  The take home message here is that your symptom location is not what ultimately determines the cause of your problem.  So, if you ever go to see your doctor or physical therapist for symptoms at your wrist or hand and they check out your neck motion and muscles, you have an idea of why.

We hope that this information give you a better grasp on how pain works and how much confusion it can cause when it is referred.  Feel free to leave any comments or suggestions regarding snow removal or any other topic in which you are interested.  Thank you for reading and stay active.


Anatomy  ESHS


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