Does Pain Always Mean You’re Injured?
November 29, 2016


When you experience pain, it’s natural to assume an injury or underlying structural problem is to blame. Doctors work off the same assumption, and it’s correct in many cases. However, the physiology of pain is complex and can’t always be traced to a specific problem within the body. Sometimes pain doesn’t signal an injury, and not all injuries hurt. To know the difference, you have to understand the mechanisms of pain and become familiar with the way your body reacts to damage.

A Strange Absence of Pain

The body uses pain as a signal to get you to stop and assess a potential problem or perceived danger. This means pain can be relative depending on the situation. During intense activities, it’s possible to become injured but not feel pain until later on. If the injury doesn’t pose a threat or require your immediate attention, it could be some time before you receive a sign something is wrong.

Scientific evidence demonstrates this apparent disconnect between the body and the mind:

  • Studies on elite athletes show many have evidence of injury without any negative impact on performance
  • A review of over 3,000 people with no pain symptoms revealed 52 percent of 30-year-olds and 80 percent of 50-year-olds suffered from disc degeneration
  • 22.1 percent of participants in a 664-person study had torn rotator cuffs but exhibited no symptoms

These numbers also show how it’s possible to have what doctors would consider an injury requiring medical treatment without it affecting your daily life.

Pain, Injury or Both?

How can you tell when pain signals a problem or if you have a problem that isn’t causing pain? Injuries often present with particular symptoms indicative of damage:

  • Unusual movement, popping or snapping during activity
  • Immediate pain following such an event
  • New or unexplained pain developing over time, especially after repeated use of an area
  • Swelling, bruising, bleeding or other visible deformities
  • Latent pain becoming acute during activity
  • Persistent unresolved or worsening pain
  • Sudden inability to move or put weight on a part of your body
  • Weakness, numbness or tingling without additional pain

Pain without any of these symptoms may be the result of other biological or psychological factors. Imbalances in the immune system, undiagnosed illnesses and food allergies or intolerances can all cause apparently inexplicable pain. How you perceive pain may also be connected to how you were taught to handle it growing up. People who experience chronic pain may overestimate their pain levels simply by anticipating a movement or action will hurt more than it actually does.

Dealing with Pain and Injury

The first step in dealing with existing pain or a suspected injury is to have it evaluated by a doctor to rule out any serious structural damage or conditions in need of treatment. A thorough examination can also reveal the true source of pain. It’s not uncommon to have discomfort in an area far removed from where damage or tightness actually exists.

Whether you’re injured or dealing with unspecified pain, your doctor can help put together a program for proper recovery. Initial treatment for injuries usually involves a period of rest followed by re-introduction of activity in the form of physical therapy or a low-impact exercise program. In more serious cases, an injury may need to be corrected with surgery before full recovery can begin. Treatment of pain without apparent injury may include medication, physical therapy or simply backing off your regular level of activity for a while.

In both cases, it’s important to pay attention to how movement is affected and respond to body signals to prevent imbalances from developing. Your body has a tendency to compensate for pain, and these adjustments can be permanent if not addressed early on.

Regardless of the root cause, all pain is legitimate. It can limit your ability to function and diminish your quality of life. Always pay attention to your body, and recognize how the complex communications between body and mind can affect your perception of pain. Learning to work within physical limitations to regain and maintain balance and strength helps lessen existing pain and makes you less susceptible to injuries in the future.