Understanding pain and your body’s cues

Pain is highly personal, but there are commonalities from person to person that can empower you toward a personal best with pain management. These commonalities give you a framework for better understanding pain and finding your path to optimal mobility.

Respect the cues

There are times when pain holds you back, and rightfully so, that you might listen to your body’s cues and determine the source of your pain for a healthy plan of care. You may have put stress upon your body without proper conditioning, proper lifting, adequate help, or adequate recovery time. You may have experienced an injury or undergone surgery.

Duration: acute vs. chronic pain

Duration of your pain causes it to be commonly categorized as either acute or chronic. Acute pain is sudden and often severe in intensity, but is seen as temporary. Chronic pain can be either mild or severe but is present for a duration of longer than three months, often signaling an underlying issue and need for ongoing treatment.


Furthermore, determining the source of your pain allows you and your health care provider to create the best plan for care. The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) groups “triggers” according to these three categories:

  • Nociceptive pain is localized to an area of injury or dysfunction. The pain is often aggravated or eased by certain movements or positions, demonstrating the pain has a clear mechanical nature.
  • Peripheral neuropathic-induced pain occurs with a history of injury, disease, or mechanical compromise to a nerve. Pain generally occurs due to damage or disease of neural (nerve) tissue.
  • Central sensitization results in pain that is disproportionate to the nature or extent of the injury or disease. The pain is usually nonmechanical and unpredictable in response to factors that usually aggravate or decrease pain.


Areas of weakness and leaning too much on certain areas of the body through repetition or poor posture can create imbalances that result in pain. Having better awareness of your posture and body mechanics allows you to recognize these imbalances early on.

Shape Magazine’s website has a helpful list of common imbalances and how to fix them, but you should always consult your physician first regarding options for pain treatment:

  • Neck pain and headaches can be the result of a shoulder imbalance, where one shoulder is lower than the other.
  • Headache pain can stem from a forward-leaning head, a case where your head is jutting forward of your shoulders and decreasing blood flow to your head and neck.
  • Knee pain during running could be due to tightness or immobility in your hips or ankles.
  • Lower-back pain may be due to an imbalance in your hips. (Read the full article at this link.)


One of the more challenging aspects of pain is how it can create barriers in our life physically, mentally, and emotionally, as noted by the APTA:

  • Fear avoidance – an avoidance of movements or activities because of a belief about the potential negative consequences of those movements or activities (e.g. My work might harm my back)
  • Catastrophizing – an exaggerated, negative orientation toward pain (e.g., “Because of this pain, I feel I cannot go on”)
  • Kinesiophobia – a fear of moving or exercising (e.g. I am afraid to return to exercising
  • Muscle weakness
  • Inability to move as freely as usual
  • Difficulty performing daily activities

Ask your doctor about the benefits of topical pain relievers, physical therapy, chiropractic medicine, and massage therapy and how these alternatives might help you alleviate pain and its barriers to healthy living. Understanding pain and your treatment options is a great first step to improving your mobility.


American Physical Therapy Association website, “Physical Therapist’s Guide to Pain” by Joseph Brence, PT, DPT, COMT, DAC.
Shape Magazine website, “6 Imbalances That Cause Pain—and How to Fix Them” by Greg Presto