Ask a PT: Why do I feel pain in my shoulder if it’s coming from my neck?
Have you ever felt pain in one area of the body, only to be told by a clinician that the real source of pain is somewhere else?
You’re not alone - this is quite common.
In fact, 12% of Sword Health members end up getting a program for a different area of the body than the one they feel the pain in. It’s called ‘referred pain’ and it’s one of many things that physical therapists are trained to look out for.
Your brain on pain
Here’s why it happens: pain is complex and involves both the body and the mind.
Our body is like a giant antenna, capturing signals that travel to our brain. All the pain happens in our brain: the brain controls where and how much it hurts. So, pain is an experience that can be influenced by multiple factors. Imagine stubbing your toe at the same moment as finding out that you won the lottery. It’s highly unlikely you’d feel the pain in your toe, as your brain would have more important things to focus on.
When you feel referred pain, it’s caused by signals from different parts of your body converging in the same place in your brain. You might have knee pain that’s actually caused by hip arthritis, or shoulder pain that’s actually stemming from an irritated nerve in your neck.
The danger of treating the symptom and not the cause
When you treat the area that the pain is referring to, rather than the true source, the best possible scenario is that nothing will happen - the pain simply won’t go away. Worst case scenario, the original condition could get worse and you could end up considering medication, injections or surgery.
In about 1% of cases, pain isn’t caused by a musculoskeletal issue at all.
A wide range of disorders can manifest as physical pain - from anxiety, to neurological conditions, and even cancer. If this is misdiagnosed, someone may run an entire course of treatment for their pain without clinical supervision, only to find that they have a condition requiring a different kind of treatment altogether.
How physical therapists prevent misdiagnosis
Physical therapists like me are trained to find the real source of pain - a process that requires years of clinical training. We understand underlying patterns to detect referred pain or other conditions as early as possible, and can recommend you see a clinician if we think something else may be at play.
At Sword Health, we’re proud that our members only ever interact clinically with a licensed Doctor of Physical Therapy.
In addition to making sure we’re treating the right condition, we continuously monitor how you’re performing, adjust your prescription as you progress, and motivate you every step of the way, ensuring you don’t just get better, you stay better.
Want to learn more about Sword? Request a demo and someone will get in touch.
About the author: Megan Hill, PT, DPT
Megan Hill, Doctor of Physical Therapy, is a licensed physical therapist focused on musculoskeletal rehab and chronic pain management. She dropped her plans to go to law school for physical therapy after a knee injury from the Chicago Marathon left her in need of rehab, and she hasn’t looked back since. She’s on a mission to empower people to manage their health through exercise, education and coaching, rather than relying on passive approaches.
Megan earned a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology from Duke University and is a certified running coach.
Megan lives in Denver, Colorado, where she spends every spare second running, biking, hiking, sailing and stand up paddleboarding with her husband, Layton, and dog, Ollie.