The Immune System and Pain

Are your old aches and pains worse now that you’ve become ill or after a vaccination? Let’s explore why.

Our body’s protective mechanisms:

Much of what our body does is aimed to help us survive; we have MANY protective adaptations including:

- PAIN - alerts us to actual or potential tissue damage

- VOMITTING - expels foreign/unwanted matter in the digestive tract

- COUGHING - expels foreign/unwanted matter in the airways

- FATIGUE - prompts our body to conserve energy for repair of tissues

- ANXIETY and DEPRESSION - keep us away from what we may perceive as threatening (conscious or subconscious)

- MUSCLE SPASM and TIGHTNESS - can splint an area that our body perceives as needing protection/immobilisation

The immune system utilises many of these protective mechanisms, and we are learning that the immune system and the pain system are more closely linked than previously thought!

What we know about the immune system and pain:

Pain is not a direct sensory experience. There is a great deal of complex processing that happens within the body between that paper cut on your finger and searing pain you feel.

Specific nerve endings detect changes in three types of information that could be potentially threatening:

- information about pressure

- information about temperature

- information about chemicals

This information is then send along the nerves, up the spinal cord, then to the brain where the brain has to conclude whether or not pain needs to be produced to elicit behaviour change. (for example, maybe you need to stop touching the edges of your paper!)

This information about CHEMICALS is where we the immune system chimes in. The immune system generally prompts an inflammatory response to tissues damage or foreign bodies - to eliminate or eradicate. The immune cells that are released in this inflammatory response make the nerve endings more sensitive to pressure, temperature and chemical information, that is, less of a stimulus is required for the nerve endings to fire.

When we are sick (with the flu, gastro, virus), our body tissues are bathed in an “inflammatory soup”, this is a fantastic sign that our body has a fully functioning immune system trying to defend a wonderful treasure! But unfortunately, this can result in an acute (short-term) pain experience as our nerve endings become more sensitive.

So don’t let your immune system fool you, it may be making certain areas of your body feel more sensitive. Listen to your body with compassion, treat pain with respect and slowly return to exercise and everyday life.

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