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Where Is Your Pain Coming From?

Updated on March 4, 2021

Sometimes, you can pinpoint exactly where you are feeling pain and that point does in fact represent where you are injured. But there are many instances in which you may feel pain or discomfort in one area of your body while the actual injury is in a different location.

The most well known example is pain that a person can feel along her left arm or left jaw while she is experiencing a heart attack. The actual injury is within the heart, but pain is felt elsewhere. This is called referred pain, which can happen between areas of your body that feed sensory nerves into the same general area in your central nervous system. In the example of a heart attack, sensory nerves from your left arm, left jaw, and heart all feed into about the same level of your spinal cord, so when the nerves from your heart send signals of distress to your central nervous system, your brain may register these signals as coming from your left arm or jaw, even without an actual problem in your left arm or jaw.

Referred pain can be felt anywhere in your body. Sometimes, pain that is perceived to be at the front of your hip may actually represent dysfunction in your sacroiliac joint where the back of your pelvis meets up with your sacrum (tailbone area). Another common site of referred pain is the back of the wrist, where tight forearm extensor muscles up near the elbow cause the brain to sense wrist pain even though the bones, joint spaces, and soft tissues in the wrist are fine.

Pain that is felt within your abdominal and pelvic cavities is even more apt to originate from a distant tissue or organ than musculoskeletal or skin pain. This is because of the way that your internal organs elongated, rotated, and even migrated while you developed as an embryo and fetus. Take, for example, your small and large intestines, which, from one end to the other measure about 26 to 30 feet long - most of the tissues that make up your small and large intestines began as a collection of cells called the midgut, which was less than a speck on this page when you were a 5 mm long embryo. Imagine the transformation of this microscopic cluster of cells to 30 feet of small and large intestines, and it's easy to understand why the one nerve - called your vagus nerve - that sends sensory information from your intestines to your brain isn't capable of letting your cerebral cortex know the pinpoint location of inflammation that is occurring within your gastrointestinal tract.

Now consider that the vagus nerve is also responsible for sending sensory information for most of the organs in your abdominal cavity to your brain. That's a lot of information from many overlapping tissues within your body traveling through branches of one nerve. So it makes perfect sense that pain within your abdominal and pelvic cavities is often ill-defined, and that the location of your pain as you perceive it may not indicate exactly where in your body you are actually damaged.

Why does any of this matter?

I regularly work with clients and patients who self-diagnose based on where they feel pain and go on to try various remedies. I'm all for encouraging self health care and trying natural remedies that support the body's self healing mechanisms. But in some cases, I find that people self-diagnose incorrectly and end up choosing less-than-optimal treatment plans for their health challenges.

For example, I've encountered literally hundreds of people over the past 16 years who have tried various gall bladder cleanses to self treat gallstones, when, after doing a proper evaluation including imaging studies, we were able to conclude that gallstones likely never existed or caused problems, and that pain was actually due to other common issues like sprained costal cartilage or an enlarged liver (some degree of fatty liver or cirrhosis).

I've also worked with many people who have unnecessarily drowned their mouths and bodies with lemon juice or apple cider vinegar to self treat kidney stones, when, in many cases, their discomfort was almost certainly due to other issues like ulcerations or indigestion.

The take-home message is this: Where you feel pain isn't always the actual problem area within your body. Whenever you feel discomfort that can't be explained by an obvious cause (like a physical injury or a food that you are clearly not able to tolerate), so long as your condition is not life or limb threatening, your best course of action is to prioritize getting as much physical and emotional rest as your circumstances allow, and to eat only foods that leave you feeling comfortable and that lead to healthy bowel movements; ideally, your diet should be relatively free of added sugar and refined carbohydrates.

In most cases, you don't have to turn to specific remedies for various aches and niggles. Rather than speculate on what is wrong and spend time and resources on questionable remedies, it's best that you simplify everything, tune out unneeded noise, and give your body the rest and minimal sustenance that it needs to restore your health.


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Dr. Kim, such sound advice. Thank you again!

Appreciate the good advise in this article and wish to see it ssociated with illustration to ease the identification and understanding of technical terms used.

As always, thank you! Lori Ann Garza