Pain is not easily explained or understood. We only have our own subjective experiences to draw from. Is it possible for one to truly understand another person’s pain? It might be about as easy as understanding human consciousness. Pain is so weird. Sometimes a stupid amount of pain can be caused by something so small and innocuous, like a paper cut. Other times we can have a severed finger and hardly feel a thing. What’s up with that? I’ll give you a hint. We still don’t know.
As I mentioned in my previous post, pain is our body’s way of telling us there is a perceived threat to our safety. However, pain does not always offer an accurate portrayal of what is really happening with the tissue. Remember that we can have tissue damage without pain.
Almost all of us have noticed a bruise on ourselves without any recollection of where the bruise came from. Maybe we happened to bump our forearm against a doorknob without noticing because we were in a hurry. For whatever reason, the brain did not perceive this as a threat and no pain was felt. To clear up any confusion, this would be an occurrence of tissue damage without pain.
The brain and nervous system are constantly modulating pain. This is a great advantage to us because sometimes we are just too busy with our lives to be bothered by pain. Or we are too focused on our survival for pain to be any benefit.
Here’s another example of how the central nervous system modulates pain. If we were running for our lives from rabid dogs intent on maiming us, it may not be best for our survival to feel pain from a twisted ankle. In fact feeling pain may very well make survival more difficult. It wouldn’t be a good idea to stop and tend to the ankle as the dogs were bearing down on us. So our brain sends signals to the damaged tissue decreasing the sensitivity enabling us to focus on the task of escaping. After escaping from danger the opposite would be the case, it would be in our best interest to feel pain. Pain would motivate us to protect and rest the ankle, enabling us to run another day.
The opposite is also true. We can feel pain without any tissue damage. A story reported in the British Medical Journal in 1995 told of a builder who had a 15 cm nail impaled through his foot. Any movement of the nail caused extreme pain so the man was sedated. The nail was then pulled out from below. When his boot was removed it was discovered that the nail had penetrated between his toes and his foot was completely fine. Looking down and seeing a massive nail sticking through the top of his boot must have rung a few alarm bells, no doubt his brain would have perceived this as a serious threat. This might be an extreme example of experiencing pain without injury but it illustrates how our perception of events plays a huge role in our pain experience.
Understanding a little about how and why we experience pain can be helpful. Realizing that being in pain doesn’t necessarily mean that there is tissue damage can set the mind at ease. The feeling of safety can make pain less painful. A worrying brain can make pain more painful. Is it possible to ‘think’ pain away? Unfortunately no, this stuff happens on a subconscious level. That being said, learning about pain can be a powerful tool in helping to live better lives.