Why Does Pain Hurt? And is Pain Bad For Us?
Pain is always something that is created by the brain with the aim of keeping you safe when it thinks you’re in danger. Pain is complicated, influenced by a wide range of things from inside and outside our bodies, brains and minds, and because of this there’s lots we can do to help ourselves.
Pain doesn’t happen purely because of damage to the body, it can happen without any damage at all. Tissue damage can also happen without pain and can be a normal part of aging ie in one study, 80% of 50 year olds scanned had disk degeneration in their back but no pain.
However, the longer you experience persistent pain, the better your brain becomes at alerting you earlier to what it thinks is danger. It then takes less and less stimulus to trigger a pain response in you and this can make you feel like it’s getting worse even though it isn’t.
For example two people may trip over a tree root when out walking their dogs, the one without chronic pain gets up and carries on without another thought. The one with chronic pain, is in agony and spends the rest of the day recovering in bed. They’ve both had the same experience, however the difference is that one’s brain is more sensitised than the other and so causes them to feel pain.
Your brain in essence learns to lower the threshold that triggers pain and this is why some people think that whatever is causing their pain is getting worse over time.
Pain is therefore quite unreliable at telling us if there’s tissue damage.
The science behind pain:
Special receptors in our bodies respond to harmful stimulus by sending information to the brain:
Nociceptive – responds to inflammation / injury of tissues
Neuropathic – responds to inflammation / injury of a nerve
Nociplastic – responds to pain when there is no tissue / nerve damage OR persistent pain once damage has healed
The brain takes this information and makes sense of it. If it thinks there’s danger, it creates pain. If it thinks you’re safe, it won’t.
Other things like thoughts, emotions, certain smells or places for example, can trigger the same response in our brain.
There are lots of factors that influence pain:
Your mind: past experience, thoughts, feelings, emotions, stress, coping skills, past trauma.
Unfortunately you can’t think away pain as it’s generated by the brain, not the mind.
Your lifestyle: smoking, alcohol, hydration, what you eat, exercise, your job, socialising, social and family support network, sleep.
Your biology: genetics, physical injury, immune function, medications, health conditions.
Your environment: space, mess, natural light, fresh air, noise, colour can all make an impact.
Think of each of these factors as a building block, as in Jenga. When they’re all stacked they form a stable tower. Take one block out and put it on top, no problem at all, it’s still stable and unlikely to topple. But as you take each block out and restack it, the risk of the tower toppling over increases, until eventually it falls.
So it’s not one specific thing that ‘caused’ pain. But instead a build up of lots of things over time sending messages to your brain, which creates the sensation of pain and affects how bad it feels.
The good news is, as in Jenga, we can re-stack your tower. With each block brought back into balance we’re re-training your brain to know that everything is ok, there’s no need to sound the alarm anymore.
You can start by addressing things that are in your control, such as cutting down on drinking / smoking, keeping hydrated, eating healthily, enough sleep, moving your body more, doing things you enjoy and help you de-stress (massage, anyone?).