I get this comment too many times each year to count. It comes from patients hoping that the extreme pain that they are currently experiencing is connected to a common problem with an easy cure. What patients need to understand is that muscles are almost always involved, and that the brain can act like an absent-minded postmaster, attributing the principal pain to the wrong structures. Here is a general guideline to know what you are up against when pain occurs.
All tissues have nerves that carry information to and from the brain. With muscles, the brain does not need to know what is happening quickly. The nerves reporting information from the muscles are slower, and so provide a sensation that is more dull and nagging in nature. Information communicated from the joints, however, is important to the brain so that it knows where we are in space at any moment. The brain then recalculates muscle contraction to keep us from falling during a variety of positions and activities. Because these nerves communicate information much more quickly than those found in the muscles, the sensation with joint pain tends to be more sharp and stabbing in nature.
Among the many functions that muscles provide, they are involved in a reflex arc, or loop. This means that anything that creates a signal where the body needs to respond quickly – like pain – causes the muscles that are on that loop to contract. I often explain muscles as being the Volunteer Fire Department. Whenever there is an alarm, they will spring into action, and stay activated until the alarm shuts off. For this reason, when the patient says “I think it’s just a muscle…”, they are partly right. The key to a quick and uncomplicated recovery comes about from testing the injured area to determine if it is muscle only, ligament, tendon, joint or nerve. Only then can you know how to most quickly turn off the alarm and relax the muscle. With the original problem elsewhere, treating the muscles alone just prolongs the muscle spasm.
Some patients deal with chronic soreness and stiffness, without sharp pain. With this generalization, it might lead them to think that it is only a muscular problem. However, early joint degeneration, disk problems in the spine, arthritis and spinal misalignment can cause a low-grade alarm. Because these underlying inflamed tissues are not acute or full-blown in intensity, the average person does not suspect that they are the root cause. Having a professional with expertise in musculoskeletal injuries is critical to make this diagnosis. Chiropractors, orthopedic surgeons, neurologists and physiatrists are the most qualified to make these determinations, and only chiropractors offer the full spectrum of conservative treatment options.
If your condition or that of a loved one is more than muscle, or it is lasting longer than it should take for a recovery, give me a call. I will be ready to give you some at-home suggestions so that you can determine if it needs further care.