We often hear physiotherapists refer to the pain cycle, but what exactly do they mean?

Understand the pain cycle

After an injury, we are in pain and fearful of moving, afraid that this might make the pain or injury worse. Overtime, If we continue to avoid movements, this behavior may create a continuous cycle of negativity referred to as “the pain cycle”

When an injury happens, an individual will first feel an increase amount of pain. Our brain responds to the pain signal by protecting all muscles around the injured area, causing them to spasm and restrict movements in order to avoid further injury (guarding).

This protective mechanism may become negative to our healing process if it persists past the time that the tissues have repaired and may cause muscle weakness and atrophy long-term. As a result, there is decreased function, which may lead to increase stress and feelings of frustration, decreased motivation and more pain.

To illustrate this cycle, we can imagine an individual who has sustained an ankle sprain. Fearful of movement and increased pain, the individual limps in order to avoid using it. However, the avoidance behavior continues for several weeks to months. Not only does the patient develop pain at the knees, hips and back from limping but it also causes muscle weakness and atrophy at the calves and ankles long-term, limiting his functional activities and affecting his overall quality of life.

How to break the pain cycle

It is important to break this cycle as soon as possible! A physical therapist will allow you to better understand pain, use passive techniques to reduce pain and increase movement and gradually introduce active techniques such as exercises

As the individual starts to increase movement, range and strength increase and overall function as well. This creates less  physiological stress and less pain which inhibits the muscle guarding creating a positive cycle!



Brainworks. Contain Your Pain: Breaking the Pain Cycle. (2010). Retrieved from https://brainworksrehab.com/contain-your-pain-breaking-the-pain-cycle/, on September 19, 2019.