The Nervous System and Chronic Pain – Can Physical Therapy Help?


Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy has a staff of trained specialists who will work with you to create a unique treatment plan for any pain, discomfort or sensitivity you may have. Make an appointment online for a free consultation today! For more information about physical therapy and sports medicine, check out additional blog articles.

Arizona sports medicine expert Aaron Parr has a doctorate in physical therapy and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). He has worked in both orthopedic medicine and sports rehabilitation, so he knows how frustrating chronic and untreated pain can be for some individuals. In this article, he explains how the nervous system can lead to a patient’s chronic pain, and how physical therapy can help improve or eliminate this problem.

Contrary to popular belief, pain does not always stem from damage to muscles or bones. It can sometimes come from the actual nerve tissues within the body. As muscles and bones respond to stress, whether it be acute or chronic, tissues in the body change. These changes might involve protein being released from a cell, or perhaps, the breakup of collagen bonds within connective tissue. Whatever the source, the damaged tissue is not actually causing pain. Instead, the brain decides that these changes are significant enough for a person to be aware of and, in turn, causes an individual to interpret these signals as pain, stiffness or general discomfort. This is the reason why we feel pain.

Chronic pain may be caused when nerve impulses are sent alerting the brain to damaged tissues, making us feel pain, yet the tissue damage is not actually occurring in proportion to the injury response. This oversensitized threshold of pain is sometimes the result of prior injury. Essentially, the nerves send and interpret the wrong message – and this leads to an estimated 116 million Americans suffering from chronic pain each year. While the causes of chronic pain are varied, there are certain exercises physical therapists can guide patients through that will decrease both sensitivity and pain.

One of the best ways to treat chronic pain is by performing nerve glide exercises. Nerve gliding refers to the physical-mechanical process of moving and shifting different components of the massive neural network, which cause the nerve to ‘glide’ as you move your joints. This encourages the nerves to behave normally, and promotes a healthy nervous system with fewer misinterpreted messages. A licensed and certified physical therapist will have the knowledge and expertise to ensure that a patient performs appropriate exercises based on his or her symptoms, and moves through the exercises in a safe and effective manner.

Maintaining the health of the nervous system will benefit patients in several ways:

  • Signal conduction to the muscles will improve
  • Greater range of motion
  • Increased sensory perception
  • Decreased pain and/or discomfort

Physical therapists have a multitude of techniques at their disposal to help reduce patient’s pain, such as stretching, strengthening exercises, pain relief exercises, ultrasound, and many more. Everyone is different, so it is important to work with a physical therapist to determine the cause of your pain, and then develop a personalized treatment plan that is right for you.


Aaron Parr

PT, DPT, CSCS | Surprise Location