What is Pain?
This is one of those questions that can have a different answer every day. It's not a clear definition that everyone knows, even though everyone experiences pain at some point. Even though we all experience pain, we all experience it differently.
We want to discuss the purpose of pain. By understanding that, we can get a better understanding of what pain is.
Pain is an experience we have that acts as a warning system for our bodies.
It's an interpretation of sensory input that is felt as pain when we feel threatened. Let's go through some background of how this happens, and this will help clarify why sometimes we feel pain and sometimes we don't.
Your nervous system is rather robust. You have over 400 nerves for a distance of more than 45 miles inside your body. All these nerves are connected, and they all communicate with your brain. These nerves are always turned on, and they are always ready to tell you information about what's going on. They detect your environment, and they detect changes.
Your nervous system has sensors to detect temperature, stress, movement, immunity, and blood flow. These are each valuable pieces of information throughout the day.
Temperature sensors tell you it's cold out, and you should put on a jacket. Stress sensors tell you you're stressed, and you need to relax. Movement sensors tell you where you are in space. Immunity sensors tell you you're sick. Blood flow sensors tell you you've been sitting for too long.
You can see how each of those information pieces can be useful.
When everything in life is good, these sensors give us enough information to be useful, and they can be easily turned on and off.
You respond to the information, and the sensation resolves. It's a balanced system that keeps you safe, and it's not painful.
When you experience pain, your nervous system sensors turn up high and send an alarm message to get your attention.
This doesn't necessarily mean you have an injury, it just means you should pay attention.
Think about the alarms on the dashboard of your car. When the tire pressure sensor goes off, it means the tire pressure is low. It's telling you what's going on. It's not telling you if you should or shouldn't be driving.
Another example is when you feel pain while moving after an injury or surgery. Stimulating your movement receptors doesn't mean you are injuring yourself. It means you are moving, and you should be aware of that.
What's really interesting is that your nervous system sensors are constantly changing. Your brain changes the sensors based on what it thinks you need.
The first cold days of the year always feel especially cold, because your brain has been anticipating the cold and has become more sensitive to temperature changes. After a few cold days, your brain realizes that the cold isn't a threat, and you reduce the number of temperature sensors. All of a sudden, a colder day doesn't feel as cold as a warmer one did a few weeks before.
This alarm system gives you a warning about potential dangers throughout your daily interaction with the environment, and within your body. Similar to an alarm system in your home, the system can get too sensitive. You want your home alarm to tell you that your window was broken, but not every time a leaf blows across the front lawn.
Here's an example of how your nervous system can become extra sensitive, and how that can result in long-term pain even without tissue damage.
If you stepped on a rusted nail, would you want to know about it?
Of course, you would. You want to know to take the nail out, clean it, cover it, put shoes on, pick up the nails, and get a tetanus shot. The pain you experienced is an alarm telling your brain to look at your foot and take care of the problem.
Now the pain doesn't last forever. When you take the nail out, the alarm will slowly turn back down. This can be a discomfort for another day or two, but eventually, the nervous system returns to a normal level, and it's ready to respond to the next potentially dangerous stimulus.
However, it's been reported that 1 in 4 people don't have the alarm system turn back down to normal.
The nervous system remains extra sensitive, and this can be felt as pain that lasts beyond the normal healing time. This can result in prolonged pain, limited movement, and increased sensitivity.
When the alarm system remains turned up, it's easy to pass your pain threshold with a minimal stimulus, and this results in pain that isn't from tissue damage (aka injury).
This is the example of your home alarm going off every time a leaf blows across the front yard. There isn't a real threat, but the alarm system is too sensitive, so you may feel pain because of this.
Having a nervous system that is constantly stimulated, keeps your alarm sensitive.
Everything you experience during your pain experience keeps the alarm system extra sensitive:
If you're stressed about your pain, then your alarm stays sensitive.
If you've not had effective treatment, then your alarm stays sensitive.
If you've not been moving enough, then your alarm stays sensitive.
Knowing how to interpret the sensation is an important part of recovering from any injury. It's ok to have discomfort and even pain.
Feeling Pain means your nervous system works. However, you shouldn't have pain that lasts beyond normal healing times. That is something that can be improved by having a better understanding of pain, understanding when you can stimulate discomfort, and understanding when you should back down from the pain.
It's important to intimately know and experience your pain.
You should know where your limits are, and you should know how to avoid pushing beyond them. It's healthy to touch, tease, and nudge your pain, and then back off from it.
You should know what you can do, and what you can't do.
This is the first part of pain we want to better understand. This gives us an idea of what pain is: it's an alarm system. It's necessary, it keeps us safe, and it can be annoying. Just like alarms on our cars or in our homes. We don't want them to go off, but we want to have the alarm system in case we need it. #snowbeastperformance