Explaining Pain Part 1

There is a well experienced but less well-understood body phenomenon that affects each and every one of us. In amongst the chaos, hustle and bustle, joy, irritation, excitement and expenditure (and pain?!) that is Christmas, I’m today discussing and explaining “PAIN”. A majority of the population are likely living with some degree of ache or pain at any point in time and painful sensations don’t go away just because someone’s playing jingle bells, or maybe jingle bells is causing the painful sensation….

Pain relief concept.Do you know anyone suffering from or living with pain? Is it you? Do your aches become more pronounced just on reading the word? Pain is a complex sensation; one person’s pain is never the same as the next and what may seem trivial and non-noteworthy to one might compel another to curl up in agony. Below are five points that attempt explain and shed light on the pain experience: I’ve lifted them from the NOI group and the topic of pain is subject to extensive research by many institutions all over the world, these days aided hugely by advances in technology and our ever improving grasp of how the brain works. These are actually the first five of ten points but in true Hollywood style and because there’s often more to do than hours in the day will permit at this time of year, I’ve turned this into a two-parter and will save points 6-10 for sprucing up 2018.

painemoji1. Pain is normal, personal and always real

It is normal to feel pain. Pain is a basic, excellently refined and hard-wired response to what your brain judges to be a threatening situation. No one person experiences pain the same as the next person: the same stimulus will generate different sensations and intensities of pain in each person. And pain is always real; even when to an onlooker it appears that a mountain is being made out of a molehill, the person experiencing the pain experiences it as real.

dangersign2. There are danger sensors, not pain sensors

Your nervous system (nerves) has many, many jobs and one of these is running your sensory department – touch, taste, sound, sight, smell. The nerves responsible for these sensations – sensory nerves – contain many types of sensors, including a type called nociceptors. These nociceptors respond to a (potentially) damaging stimulus by sending “possible threat” signals – alarm bells – to the brain. If once processed the brain thinks the threat is real, it creates the sensation of pain in the relevant body part to direct attention to that body part.

hurtchild3. Pain and tissue damage rarely relate

Pain is an unreliable indicator of the presence or extent of actual body damage. How many of us have twisted an ankle/banged our heads/taken a tumble and experienced instantly high levels of pain, only to discover once the event has passed and we’ve had time to more closely examine our wounds that they’re nowhere near as bad as that initial pain level suggested? And we can all probably think of examples of times when this worked in reverse. Our sensation of pain is not necessarily justified by the existence of physical damage. We can experience pain with no physical damage, and physical damage with no pain, or anywhere along the spectrum between those two extremes.

balance scales4. Pain depends on the balance of danger and safety

Pain infers the need to protect. Therefore you will have pain when your brain concludes (after receiving the “danger stimulus” from your nerves) that there is more evidence of danger to your body than there is of safety. The worse your brain determines an injury ought to be, the more pain you are likely to experience. Conversely if you brain determines that the risk to your body is small, you’re likely to experience less pain. Watch two children take a tumble off the same wall and then watch their different responses, as determined by brain connections and processes working at a dizzying speed and computing multiple variables to determine the level of risk specific to that child.

brain5. Pain involves distributed brain activity

There is no single “pain centre” in the brain. Pain is a conscious experience that necessarily involves many different brain areas. To experience pain requires the brain to access information from many different parts – memory, conditioning, experience, visual, the current chemical balance within the brain, the age and state of the physical body, our genetic hard-wiring, our emotional thoughts and expectations – along with many more. All of this information is pooled at incredible speed and creates our response to the initial pain stimulus. Some of this information comes in quicker than other bits, which may in part explain why the sensation of pain can change in the seconds and minutes after the initial reaction.

So – a complex subject! Hopefully I’ve done a reasonable job of explaining these five points. And with luck there will be plenty of joy amongst any levels of discomfort over the upcoming festive bit. Stay safe everyone, careful on the ice – prepare yourself a little by seeing how long you can balance on one leg or hopping round the living room – and if you ‘do’ Christmas then have a wonderful time and if you don’t then have a wonderful late December and New Year anyway.

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