Understanding Pain: What is it? Why do we hurt?

When we think of pain, we think of an occurrence that is unpleasant and discomforting. We don’t want to experience pain. Instead, it’s something we want to avoid. However, despite its uncomfortableness, it is essential to life and survival. Pain tells us when something is wrong or if we’re in danger of being harmed. At the most basic level, pain is a signal that tells us to avoid something that is causing our body injury or harm.  


What is Pain?

Although we have advanced significantly in the medical field, doctors and scientists still don’t fully understand pain. It’s a very complex process. At a basic level, it’s a signal that alerts our body to injury or impending injury. However, pain is far more complicated than just neural and sensory signals. Emotions, culture, and personal experience are also intertwined with the pain process.

Additionally, pain can be felt and experienced differently depending on the stimulus (i.e. what is causing the pain). For example, pain can be felt as a pricking or stabbing sensation. It can also be experienced as throbbing, aching, or burning.  


Nerves, the Brain, and Pain

The type of nerves that sense pain and transmit pain signals are called nociceptors. Nociceptors are found throughout the body, such as the skin, muscles, joints, and many organs. When we come into contact with a harmful stimuli (such as a cut or burn), nociceptors send a signal to our spinal column.

Once the signal reaches the spinal cord, our spinal cords “manage” what happens next. Depending on the pain and stimuli, the spinal cord can initiate quick reactions, called reflexes, to the situation. Think about when you burn your hand on a hot pot of boiling water. You instantly feel the pain and simultaneously jerk your hand away.

In most situations, the pain signals do not stop at the spinal cord. According the gate control theory of pain, there are “gates” in the spinal cord that control the flow of pain messages between the nerves and the brain. Stronger signals are often directly sent to the brain for quick processing and reaction. Weaker signals may be prevented from reaching the brain.

When a pain signal is passed to the brain, the signal can be sent to different areas of the brain and cause different reactions. The brain stem, for example, can begin to release endorphins. Endorphins are a type of hormone that can inhibit pain. Other regions of the brain can cause you to cry or increase your heart rate. The brain can also call upon past experiences to deal with the situation. Memories of these past experiences can amplify or reduce the pain.


Stress and Pain

Stress can also affect pain perception. In fact, stress can increase sensitivity to pain. Like pain, stress alerts your brain to danger. Therefore, when paired together, sensitivity to pain can be amplified.


Acute Pain and Chronic Pain

Acute pain often happens suddenly and has a specific cause, such as a broken bone, surgery, or trauma from an accident. Acute pain typically gets better over time and doesn’t last more than a few months.

Chronic pain, on the other hand, is usually identified as pain that lasts longer than 6 months. This can be due to a chronic disease or pain signals that remain active even when no injury or damage is present. With arthritis, for example, the joints are in a constant state of inflammation and disrepair. This causes pain signals to constantly be transmitted.

If you suffer from chronic pain, consider seeking out a pain management doctor. A pain management doctor will work with you to pinpoint the source of your pain and help you find a treatment plan that brings you relief. Contact Apex Medical Center for Las Vegas pain management doctors and services. Pain management is at the heart of our practice, and each of our doctor brings a wealth of experience in helping people learn to manage and control painful conditions.

Apex Medical Center

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