Often we mistakenly think of pain like a "signal" - I bumped my funny bone on the desk, and that contact created a "pain signal" from my elbow, which told my brain ouch, and thus I feel pain.
But there's no such thing as a pain signal. There's only information. That information may be interpreted by the nervous system as something worth generating the experience of pain over. Or it may not. Or in some persistent or chronic pain situations, I may not even needed to bump my funny bone to experience the pain.
The nervous system is constantly evaluating a variety of cues and information that when combined create a pain experience. It's a complex process involving many parts of the mind and body. Here's a few majors factors:
General, overall health may contribute to how much or how little pain we experience. There's the usual diet and exercise habits, but also things like sleep quality and our immune system's strength can be factors that play into pain.
If the body is struggling health-wise, it's more likely the nervous system will on "high alert" - cranking up the volume knob in terms of sensations and reactions to perceived threats.
There's even some primarily research on identifying specific genetic markers that may increase or decrease pain sensitivity .
□ OUTLOOK Mental health may definitely be a contributing factor to our experience of pain. One 2017 review concluded, "Pain and depression are closely correlated from the perspectives of both brain regions and the neurological function system."
Fostering hope, a positive attitude, and building emotional resilience all may be real skills that allow us to decrease or better manage the experience of pain.
□ HISTORY AND KNOWLEDGE Having a history of pain, stiffness, or soreness in a specific area of the body can often lead to the nervous system becoming hypersensitive to input from that region. Sort of like a micromanaging boss, the brain is paying too much attention to an area, and may often create or amply more issues that necessary.
Going back to the funny bone example - if I bumped it every day for a week, it's likely the more it happened, the higher the pain response will be. I may even experience some sensations or hesitation or reaction before the bump even occurs. And it's likely the pain will last longer each time.
In these cases of persistent pain, it's critical to find tools that work best for you in bringing your pain down quickly and effectively so as not to further contribute to the history that the nervous system draws on when determining the level of pain given a specific set of circumstances.
Knowledge is power. Sometimes just knowing how pain works can provide a context and perspective that can shift away from hyperfocusing on the experience of pain and toward better management of the contributing triggers and sensations. Select here for a list of persistent pain resources and tools.
□ SOCIAL SUPPORTS
We are social animals. And chronic or persistent pain can become increasingly frustrating and isolating over time.
When we see a loved one with a broken arm, most of us experience a clear empathy. It's an obvious pain. But persistent pain is often invisible to our friends and family. It can be hard to explain, especially if the pain shifts or moves around different areas of the body. And hard for those close to us to know how they can help.
Support groups (in person or online), books, blogs, and podcasts can all be valuable tools in maintaining a social support network. Positive feedback, sharing resources, and interpersonal connection may be one more tool in the toolbox to manage pain.
- - -
Other articles in this Understanding Pain series:
- - -