Different experiences of the same injury

Welcome to the third article in the UNDERSTANDING PAIN series.

If you missed the first or second articles outlining the science of pain and changes in chronic pain, you can read them here.

In today’s article, let’s look at two different examples to help you understand how the same injury can be experienced differently by two people.

The pain experience: Meet Borris

In the first scenario, a man – let’s call him Borris – is doing some labouring on a construction site. He picks up a 20kg rock and feels something ‘go’ in his neck.

It was a bit too heavy and he has strained one of the joints in his neck. The detectors in the joint sense a change and send a message to his spinal cord, which alerts his brain.

Borris had something similar happen 5 years ago, which kept him off work for 4 weeks. He has a mortgage, so missing work would be a real problem, especially as he’s already a bit worried about his finances.

Borris also has a belief that his neck is quite fragile and one of his close friends recently had neck surgery.

In a split second, his brain has analysed all of this information and concluded, ‘Borris, we are in real trouble here, mateand it sends him a crippling pain experience.

Meet Dorris

Borris has a twin sister, Dorris. In this scenario, Dorris is camping with her husband and kids.

Dorris loves camping and she is unloading the car with a bit too much enthusiasm. She lifts the 20kg tent bag and feels something ‘go’ in her neck. She has sustained the exact same injury as her brother Borris: same force, same area of the body and same severity.

The brain has been made aware of an issue and assesses the situation. Dorris had been really excited about the trip, so was in a particularly good mood. She experiences neck pain a few times each year – it usually lasts a few days then gets better. She grew up playing sport with her brothers, so she reckons she is pretty tough and resilient.

In a split second, without Dorris knowing, her brain has analysed this information and concluded: Dorris, I think we are alright here, love. I’m gonna send you a small pain experience just so that you take it a bit easier over the weekend, but I don’t believe you’re in too much danger.’

So, from Borris and Dorris’s scenarios, you can see how exactly the same extent of tissue damage can produce two very different, but equally as real, pain experiences.

The fact that they have experienced pain, albeit at different intensities, is a good thing as it will give the injury a chance to heal through rest.

But the difference in the pain experiences they each had is likely to influence how each of them respond to the injury and how effectively they manage it.

In the final article I will outline the best strategies for overcoming chronic pain.

Stay tuned :)