Yesterday I got a paper cut on my finger. It wasn't terrible as superficial wounds go, but it hurt. A lot. Those little paper cuts can really sting.
The funny thing about this cut is that I didn't immediately realize that I had cut myself. I didn't feel any pain in my finger right away. Only after I saw some tiny drops of blood on my paper did I realize that I had cut my finger. There was no pain until I saw the blood and checked my hands to see what was wrong. But once I realized that I was cut, the pain started.
How can that be? Shouldn't my finger hurt immediately after suffering the paper cut? I mean, the tissues in my finger were cut and bleeding (slightly). But there was no pain until I saw the blood and assessed that the finger was cut. Why?
Because harm does not always equal hurt, just as hurt doesn't always equal harm.
Pain in the body serves to protect us. It tells us that something is wrong and needs attention. But if the brain processes the signal from the body and decides that there is little or no danger, pain won't be felt. On the other hand, the brain can sense pain even in the absence of a signal from the body. Sometimes pain is felt after an injury long after the injured tissues have healed.
So when I cut my finger, I didn't feel pain right away. I was busy doing other things, and my brain probably decided that my finger didn't need immediate attention. But once I saw the blood, I felt pain. My previous experience with seeing my own blood outside of my body told me that something bad had happened and some tissue damage had taken place.
Physical therapy can sometimes be painful. For example, if you have broken your ankle, you may need physical therapy to help improve range of motion once the fracture has been reduced and the cast has been removed. Gaining this range of motion can be difficult and painful, but it will probably not cause harm to the tissues around your ankle.
So be sure to work closely with your physical therapist to understand what you may be feeling. Sometimes the pain is necessary to make gains in both impairments and function. And remember that hurt doesn't always equal harm.