Understanding pain

What is pain?

We all experience pain; some more than others and there are many kinds of pain. There can be sudden pain when we fall and cut our knee or twist our ankle. Pain can be unpredictable – for example, you could lift an object hundreds of times without a problem and then, without warning, one time this same lift causes pain.

Pain can also start with no obvious injury – for example, someone who has worked in an office for 15 years who starts to get neck pain. Pain is how our brain warns us that something might need protecting or is causing damage to our body. We experience pain when our brain processes the information that it is receiving as threatening.

Pain from sprains, cuts and posture are everyday pains. The brain concludes our body tissues are under threat, so we change our posture, or rest our sprained ankle to allow healing and the pain lessens. We remember the uneven ground we tripped on or the posture that caused the pain, our memory helps to protect us from making the same mistake twice.

We have all heard stories of people in the Emergency Department with objects like six-inch nails through their hand. When you look at the nail passing through the damaged tissues you think there must be pain, but when asked they report little or no pain. Tissue damage sends messages to the brain via the nerves, but this does not necessarily result in pain. The ratio of the amount of tissue damage to the amount of pain swings the other way, too.

All of us will have had a paper cut. We know how painful they can be but, at the same time, we struggle to see where the cut is. It can be hard to believe that such a little cut can cause so much pain. This is one of the confusing things about pain. The pain you experience does not relate to the amount of tissue damage. It can be difficult to understand and accept that pain does not always mean harm.

People who live with persistent pain have told us that learning a little more about pain and the nervous system helps them better manage their pain.

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