When you just want to get rid of joint pain you swallow a painkiller to “kill” it. But pain is just a messenger, and—although making it go away for a while can be a welcome relief—pain shouldn’t be ignored. Because, just as the pain is the messenger in this analogy – the brain is the sender. Pain is the brain’s way of alerting you to pay attention.
The nervous system – the body’s alarm system
Similar to the way an alarm system works, the nervous system is designed to identify potential security threats and communicate those to the brain. So if you touch a hot stove, you’re brain will know right away and will alert you to the danger by creating pain. And similar to an alarm system, the brain is wired to respond to stimuli that could be threatening. Certain stimuli that are immediate and serious can cause a reflexive, or automatic, response – such as the reflex of pulling your hand away from a painfully hot stove or the automatic response of a building’s security system locking down due to an identified security threat.
How the brain alerts you to anatomical threats
Continuing with our analogy of the body’s nervous system as an alarm system, the control center of the nervous system, the brain, is where the decision-making happens. When your brain identifies a stimulus as a threat, it may produce a pain response, alerting you to proceed with caution.
Why is this important?
Let’s take for example joint pain. Joint pain can arise from increased pressure on the bones of a joint due to decreased cartilage cushioning or muscle bracing due to dysfunctional muscle activity. The pain sensation alerts you to what is happening inside your body, giving you the opportunity to take care of it. And, as will be discussed below, neglecting it can have dire consequences.
Painkillers as a way to cope with pain
Most of us will happily take a pill to alleviate a minor headache or a pulled muscle, without worrying about it too much. Using painkillers to ‘opt-out’ of minor pains that will go away on their own, is, for many, a no-brainer (no pun intended).
However, in the case of long-lasting (aka chronic) conditions, it’s important to address the cause of the pain – rather than risk letting it get worse. Conditions that last for more than three months are considered ‘chronic.’
Neglecting painful chronic conditions – the price
Although painkillers can provide a welcome relief from chronic pain, they shouldn’t be a substitute for addressing the root cause of the pain.
Let’s consider a condition that is often not addressed early enough: chronic joint pain. In many cases, people don’t deal with chronic joint pain until after it has already begun inhibiting their ability to function. If left to get worse, joint conditions such as osteoarthritis can prevent sufferers from walking and moving normally. As an attempt to avoid the pain, people suffering from joint pain often develop dysfunctional movement habits which can cause further damage.
By taking painkillers, while neglecting to address chronic joint pain, it is possible to wind up with serious joint problems that could have been avoided.
What your brain wants – how to address the source of joint pain
If our brains are alerting us to something by sending pain signals, it’s probably for a good reason, right? So when it comes to addressing the root of the problem, the first step is to identify what it is. When it comes to chronic joint conditions such as pain in cases of ‘wear and tear’ of the joint, the root cause is often the change in alignment of the joint caused by the wearing of the cartilage and the increased pressure caused by the muscle dysfunction (bracing) around the joint.
One popular way to address this is to just replace the whole joint with surgery. Joint replacement can have good results, but are obviously not without risks. In addition, they demand a prolonged period of intense rehabilitation afterwards. Having gone through all this successfully, the joint replacement still doesn’t necessarily change the patient’s walking patterns – rather it gives the patient a do-over with a new joint that hasn’t been worn down by the dysfunctional movement patterns yet. However, unless the patient’s movement patterns are addressed, they will likely continue with the same dysfunctional patterns even after surgery. Generally, joint replacements last for 15-17 years.
Physical therapy, on the other hand, can address movement patterns. By training the muscles to coordinate better and maintain better movement patterns, a good physical therapist can help patients work towards better biomechanics.
AposTherapy® – an innovative way to address the source of pain
Based on the principles of physical therapy and sports medicine, AposTherapy® is an innovative biomechanical program designed to address the biomechanical source of knee, hip, ankle and lower back pain.
Using a footworn device, the therapy realigns the patient’s biomechanics, which alerts the brain that a change is happening. Some AposTherapy patients report feeling pain relief immediately upon putting on the device and walking around for the first time. Over time, the neuromuscular system (i.e. the complex work of the nerves and the muscles) learns to maintain the improved biomechanics, so that the patient can function better even when not wearing the footworn device. As the brain recognizes the biomechanical improvement, it can choose to stop sounding the chronic pain alarm. This is how AposTherapy® is designed to address not only the joint pain but the biomechanical root of the problem.
So, what is the proper place for painkillers in addressing joint pain?
As discussed, painkillers have their place. They can help you get through temporary painful conditions such as minor illnesses and aches and pains. And they also have their place when dealing with chronic conditions. The danger comes when patients use painkillers to ‘buy time’ and, in the process, ignore damage that is being done, or worse, get used to using them or even addicted to them.
The bottom line is that chronic joint pain should be treated as an alarm bell, which should be addressed at the root cause. Treatments such as AposTherapy can be used to address the root causes of chronic joint pain.