What on Earth is pain!?
Why do we have alarms? In the most basic sense, alarms merely elicit some action from you - they prompt you to do something! The alarm clock in the morning is meant to elicit the response of waking up and starting your day. The car alarm is meant to elecit a prompt response to get there ASAP and see what’s going on! Pain put plainly is an alarm or a "danger" sensor. It's purpose is to elicit a response from us. It's our body’s unique way of telling us to perform some action. It's not super helpful to think in terms of pain pathways or pain endings, instead, think of alarms or "danger" sensors.
...our pain experience is based on perceived danger.
Think through these examples:
- Squeezing your earlobe firmly hurts, right? Though you did not do any damage to your earlobe (hopefully!) you still felt pain. The pain is meant to elicit the response of ceasing squeezing your earlobe.
- When your hand gets too close to a fire you’ll feel pain – a prompt to move your hand away!
- When you roll your ankle you experience pain when you try to move it as normal. The pain is telling you to minimise walking or heavy loading on the ankle while it heals.
- If you injure your shoulder, you may feel pain when you raise your arm up too high - the pain is telling you avoid aggravating positions while the tissue heals.
These alarms come on to protect us.
Pain warns us of potential danger and compels us to act to relieve or avoid that danger. Therefore, our pain experience is based on a perception of danger. It doesn’t tell us how much danger we’re actually in. Even if there are no problems in your muscles, nerves, bones and ligaments, you can still feel pain if your brain concludes you’re in danger! (Butler & Moseley 2003)
Why does any of this matter?
When you view pain as an alarm or “danger sensor”, it helps make sense of some of the strange things about pain. Consider the following questions from Greg Lehman’s pain workbook, ‘Recovery Strategies’:
- Does a smoke alarm tell you if there’s a fire?
- Does a smoke alarm tell you how much smoke there is?
- Do smoke alarms tell you precisely where the fire is?
- If an alarm goes off, does it tell you exactly what the problem is?
- Can alarms go off for no apparent reason?
Are you starting to see that there's more to pain than meets the eye?
Are you ready to break free of your pain?
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In the following blog posts we’ll discover how pain is an alarm, how alarms can become sensitised or desensitised, what pain doesn’t tell us about the body and why pain can persist. There will be some overlap of key concepts and not every concept will be relevant to you, but all of the content is useful for developing a better understanding of pain.
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Finally, most pain is not life threatening. But, in very rare cases pain may be a sign of something serious. If you’re struggling with pain and think you would benefit from seeing a physiotherapist for your pain management, talk to your GP. Sycamore Health has a speciality in pain management and non-medicated remedies, and would love to help you take control of your pain!
Next post in this series: What You Need To Know About Pain: Part 2
Butler, D. S., & Moseley, G. L. (2003). Explain pain. Adelaide: Noigroup Publications.
Lehman, G. (2017). Recovery Strategies. Retrieved from http://www.greglehman.ca/pain-science-workbooks/