What is pain, and why do we experience it?

Everyone experiences pain, whether you stub your toe on the way to bed, accidentally touch a hot stove, suffer an injury or illness, or a million other reasons. And, as we touched on in last week’s Orthology Blog, the way each of us experiences that pain can be very different—from type to intensity and, of course, area of your body.

But what is pain? And why do we have it at all? Dive into the science of pain this week with Orthology Chelsea’s Jack Renfroe, PT, DPT.

What is pain?

Pain is a protection mechanism stemming from our body’s ultimate goal, self-preservation. We rely on pain to alert us to dangerous situations and drive us to take immediate action to avoid further injury or threat. By design, pain is unpleasant.

In all tissues in the body there are specific receptors, called nociceptors, that communicate sensory information to the brain. Mechanical changes to your tissues such as when you twist your ankle, temperature changes such as touching a hot stove, or chemical changes caused, for example, by your body’s complex reaction to hitting your thumb with a hammer, can all cause your nociceptor to send a message to your brain.

Your brain receives these messages, then determines whether or not what’s causing them is dangerous or threatening. If your brain determines that your body is in danger, then it will send out the sensation of pain to protect that area—for example, causing you to pull your hand away from a hot stove. As you have no doubt experienced, all of this happens almost immediately. This is pain at the most basic level.

But in some cases, pain can exist independently of injury or illness, or continue to persist long after injuries are healed. Why does this happen if pain is designed to protect us?

The brain and pain

When information from your nerves and tissues reaches your brain, things immediately become more complicated. That’s because how our brain actually processes pain isn’t purely dependent on those messages. Just like other sensations, our brains rely heavily on context and previous experience to inform how we feel in the moment.

The unique interpretation of the information your brain receives paired with the efficiency of the communication channel between your body and brain are also the driving force behind why each of us experiences pain so differently.

When we experience pain for a long time, such as in the case of chronic or slow-to-heal injuries, our bodies begin to make adaptations to this communication pathway.

Over time and constant stimulus, the communication pathway can become more sensitive, causing something that wouldn’t have been painful in the past to become excruciating. The brain may determine that it needs to send a pain signal even when the messages from the body are small or nonexistent.

We can continue to feel pain long after our injury is fully healed, all because the brain knows the body has undergone injury or trauma, and it wants to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.

Talk to an expert about your pain

If you’re experiencing pain, it’s important to seek care from your team of care providers right away.

If your pain doesn’t require additional tests or procedures, or is not related to a more serious illness or condition, a combination of treatments like exercise, physical therapy, chiropractic care, diet modification, behavioral therapy, medication or other treatments might help you find relief.

Pain is personal and complex, and working with an expert can help you find the right path back to living your life.