Pain: How and Why We Feel It
Posted on 2nd June 2021 at 09:21
When you stub your toe on something or trap your finger in a door, you know the sharp pain that usually follows, along with a few choice swear words.
But have you ever wondered why you feel pain? Feeling pain in response to an injury is your body signalling that the body has been damaged in some sort of way. Or, if you have a headache or illness, the type of pain is a signal to say that there’s something not quite right.
Our nervous system is made up of the brain and the spinal cord, which combines to create the central nervous system (CNS) and our sensory and motor nerves creates the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The nerves in our body are constantly sending information about what is happening in our environment to the brain via the spinal cord. Once the brain has received that information, it will then send information back to our nerves which allows us to perform actions in response.
Acute vs. Chronic Pain
There are two major categories of pain: acute pain, which is known as short-term pain, or chronic pain, which is referred to as long-term pain.
Acute pain is normally felt after you have experienced an injury, illness, or surgery. This pain is quite severe and comes on suddenly but normally resolves within an expected amount of time. For example, with the classic case of stubbing your toe, the sensory nerves in your foot fire a signal letting the spinal cord know that something is wrong. The spinal cord delivers the message to the brain where the brain decides how bad the injury is and what to do next. Your brain remembers every incident that has happened in your life so will revert back to similar situations when this injury has occurred before. The brain then decides whether to increase your heart rate, release adrenaline, or potentially produce tears. There are so many other possible responses too.
However, chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts three months or more. Chronic pain can be caused by a disease or condition that continuously causes damage. For example, with arthritis, the joint affected is in a constant state of disrepair which in turn causes pain signals to travel to the brain continuously. Sometimes there may not even by a physical cause of pain but the pain response remains the same. In these cases, it’s very difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the chronic pain, leaving it quite difficult to treat.
What else can influence pain?
Pain is very objective, meaning that what may be very painful to one person may only cause mild discomfort for another. Due to the pain messages being passed through the emotional and thinking regions of the brain, everyone’s experience of pain is shaped not just by the physical damage or sensation, but by psychological, emotional and social factors too. Your memories of painful experiences, genetics, long-term health conditions, coping strategies, and attitude towards pain all contribute to how you feel pain.
What we know now about pain and how to treat it is only the beginning of what we will eventually understand about pain. There is still so much that we need to learn about chronic pain and effective pain management.
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