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Where’s the Pain? Here’s One Referral You Don’t Want

By Dr. Molly Casey

Source of the Pains

If you’re alive, you’ve felt pain at some point in your life. Pain is one way your body speaks to you. It is important to learn to listen to your body. Although not normal, pain is a common life experience.

You’d likely be very surprised at how many people experience pain on a daily basis. Many people feel significant levels of pain regularly. This chronic type of pain can become such a routine part of daily life that it isn’t even noticed anymore. This is not healthy. This is called referral pain.

Different types of pain mean different things. I wrote previously about radiating pain. Today we look at referral pain, what it is, and why it happens.

What Is Referral Pain

A lay person is typically not going to know they are experiencing referral pain. That’s what makes it so dangerous and why it should be assessed by an expert such as a chiropractor. This article focuses on educating you that all pain is not equal and it’s important to get to the root of the problem. There are certain types of pain that can be indicative of more serious issues than you may think. Referral pain can be an example of that.

Referral pain is a type of pain that is felt in an area of the body that is different from the actual origin site of the stimulus that causes it. There are many examples of this, including cervical spine (neck) subluxations that can cause jaw pain, or issues with the gallbladder that can be felt under the right scapula (shoulder blade). Perhaps the most commonly known example of referral pain is left arm pain that can be a result of a heart attack.

Why Does Referral Pain Occur

The brain communicates with the body by sending electrical impulses down the spinal cord and through miles of nerves to every single cell, system, organ, and structure within your body. All parts of the body communicate with the brain through the miles of nerves, into the spinal cord, then up to the brain. You are totally unaware of the majority of communication that occurs, but there are other parts of the communication you recognize, and you experience this communication through the sensory system (relating to the physical senses). You can imagine that this is an extremely intricate and layered process.

There are multiple areas of the body where sensory neurons converge in a single area on a single tract. The convergence of these sensory receptors, the complexity of the system, as well as the layers of neurons found in the tissues, make it so the brain can’t distinguish the type or origin of the pain. The brain can’t determine if the irritation is in the visceral (organ) tissues or the somatic layers (muscles, bones, tissues). Therefore visceral pain is experienced or present as a pain in the somatic layers.

Radiating Pain vs. Referral Pain

Referral pain and radiating pain are not the same type of pain, and they indicate very different things to the practitioner assessing the issue. Referral pain is felt in an entirely different area of the body than where the issue is actually occurring. Radiating pain travels from the source of the problem throughout the body. For example, a subluxation in the lower lumbar spine (low back) can travel all the way down the leg and to the foot. It’s important to note that both types of pain can be serious for different reasons.

What to Do?

As stated prior, pain may be common but it is not normal. Pain is one way in which your body communicates with you. You must be willing to listen; if you’re not, the problems will never be corrected.

Most often, you won’t be able to tell the difference between the type of pain and the source (or its generator). The first thing you should do is see a professional to have an evaluation. When you’re experiencing pain within the body, chiropractors are a great resource for getting checked. They can evaluate the pain, its source, and give an action plan, whether it be chiropractic care or referrals for additional testing or other professionals, if necessary.

Start listening to your body. Understand that sometimes the pain can be indicative of more serious issues than what you are relating it to, and an evaluation is always a wise idea.

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