“We have two strategies for coping; the way of avoidance or the way of attention.” – Marilyn Ferguson

One could easily say that we have trained our bodies over time to cope with pain. 

For most of us it is largely the minor and merely annoying pains that we experience in the course of living. Bumps, bruises, pricks, and minor burns are all part of life and the more active we are, the more of these minor pains our bodies will learn to endure. 

But enduring and coping can, with more intense or lingering pain, lead to a different type of coping mechanism known as compensation patterns and compensatory pain. This is the condition of experiencing pain where there should be no pain.

And it can be debilitating.

What are Compensation Patterns?

The human body is amazingly adaptive and resilient. And one of the ways it deals with pain is through compensation patterns. 

By making adjustments in our normal movement or our gait, our bodies create new movement patterns intended to diminish or avoid the pain we are experiencing. This process is known as compensation patterns, or, more colloquially, overcompensation.

As one neurosurgical clinic explains it,

“One common way that pain spreads to other parts of the body is by overcompensation, where we change our movement patterns in order to compensate for the injured or hurt part of the body. A typical example is back pain due to chronic knee or foot pain. If a part of the lower leg, like a knee or foot, is irritated, our normal body mechanics may disrupt and become limp when walking.

When this modified pattern of gait persists for a longer period, it puts additional stress on other body parts which may have to work extra hard to compensate for leg weakness. Before you know it, the lower back muscles begin to tighten up, get sore and rigid, which can spread easily to the right hip and even up the back to the shoulder.”

Often, however, this mechanism does help. For example, if your foot hurts, you may limp. This causes you to use other muscles that minimize the pain and helps prevent further damage.

When the Pain You’re Feeling Shouldn’t Be There

But there are other situations, such as when you’ve injured your back, that the same type of compensation pattern can actually increase your chances of being reinjured or cause new pain in a different area.

One study conducted by Ohio State University found that injured subjects unconsciously inflicted twice the twisting force and created one and half times the compressive force on their spines than uninjured subjects when lifting the same object.

Quite often, the way your body attempts to overcome an injury is by compensating for it. It does this by using different joints, bones, tissues, and groups of muscles to help avoid the pain. In turn, this can help lessen the strain on your injury in the short term.

Unfortunately, new pain often occurs as a result because these compensating joints and muscles are not usually designed to carry this added burden. Consequently, they can become painful or even be injured with overuse.

Long-term or chronic compensatory pain can lead to debility and increasingly painful symptoms.

A classic example is a chronic limp that may no longer be noticeable to the person suffering from the condition. 

According to a paper from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Appeals Tribunal of Ontario, Canada, 

“Limping is an abnormal gait, which can be caused by pain, muscular dysfunction, or deformity, including leg length discrepancy. Limping is never normal and the causes should be established.” 

The paper notes that one of the most common types of limping is known as an antalgic limp:

“This is a common limp caused by pain. An individual with a painful lower extremity attempts to take less weight on the affected limb and shortens the duration of the stance phase on that side, whereas the normal leg comes forward more quickly, i.e., it has a shortened swing phase. Weight bearing on the normal side tends to be prolonged. This produces a characteristic gait with uneven strides of different duration. This type of limp often occurs with normal muscle power and is due to the tendency of the body to protect a painful bone or joint.”

The paper concluded, among other things, that from a biomechanical perspective, limping can cause back pain and aggravate pre-existing back pain.

Finding Relief from Compensatory and Primary Pain with Pain and Performance Solutions

As we’ve discussed here, there can be times when, as we experience pain, our bodies will compensate by making adjustments in our movement patterns so as to minimize or avoid the primary pain.

If you’re suffering from this type of chronic pain, you know first-hand that the result is different areas of pain.

The good news is that it is possible to find relief from both the primary cause of your pain, as well as the secondary, or compensatory pain that has resulted.

When you first come to see us, we’ll work with you to learn everything we can about your back pain, along with any history of discomfort. This is so we can understand where and how your pain started.

Once your verbal assessment and history are completed, we conduct a full examination. Together, these steps allow us to determine the best form of treatment to help you along your road to recovery.

Finding chronic pain relief with therapies like Anatomy in Motion, or Aim, along with applying Active Release Techniques® can only begin after we understand where your pain started. That could mean it started previously with another injury you might have sustained.

Your trust in us and your honesty are keys to our success. Ultimately, the only way to achieve total pain relief and recovery is by getting your body healthy and working properly.

Don’t hesitate to reach out. We are here to help and answer any questions that you may have. 

You can reach us at (707) 636-4404 or by filling out our online contact form.