By Shane Sauer
Pain. We've all felt it. (Well, unless you have this rare and dangerous disorder) It can be sharp, dull, stinging, or burning. It can be brief or last a long time. It can come on for obvious reasons or for "no reason at all". Since we all deal with it, wouldn't it be good to understand it a little better? Here are some basics of what we currently know about pain.
- Pain lives in your brain - You don't feel pain unless your brain wants you to feel it. Although we can sometimes consciously override pain, your brain normally makes this "choice" at a subconscious level. Your brain is constantly receiving pain signals from different parts of your body. However, you don't feel the pain until the signals are large enough or important enough to warrant attention.
Here's one of my favorite examples: You’re running from a bear. You twist your ankle. Your brain knows that not being eaten is more important than fixing your ankle. You won’t feel the ankle pain until you get away from the bear.
- Pain is an action signal - What this means is that pain exists for a good reason. It warns us of potential threats and reminds us to take care of ourselves. In the bear example, the pain we feel once we get away tells us to treat the ankle injury. Unfortunately, there are many times where the reason for the pain is unclear. In these cases, there can be several other factors influencing your pain because...
- The source of pain is not always where you feel it –
- Somatic pain is a pain that is localized and repeatable. In other words, it typically comes from your muscles and joints. You can make it happen by moving in a certain way and the sensation doesn’t spread.
- Visceral pain is pained caused by your organs. Your solid organs (not the stomach or intestines) don’t have dedicated pathways to send pain signals to the brain. Instead, they share the same pathways as your joints and muscles. This pain is achy, dull and broad because your brain doesn’t know exactly where the information coming from.
- Neuropathic pain happens when nerves are directly affected. This is shooting and stinging pain. Hello sciatica! That funny bone isn’t so funny, is it?
- Sympathetic pain is what happens when your nervous system becomes overly sensitized. Check out this video to learn more.
- Pain is individual – Because pain lives in your brain and is based on what your nervous system is telling the brain, no two people will have the same pain response.
I hope this information helps you realize that pain is a lot more complex than Descartes thought (image left) and most people believe.
Remember, although pain lives in the brain it doesn’t make it any less real to the person experiencing it. What it does mean is that there may be more than one way to go about handling it. In my next blog, I’ll give some ideas of things that can be done for the different sources of pain.