What on Earth is pain!?
What’s the purpose of an alarm? In its most basic sense, an alarm prompts you to do something. When your alarm goes off in the morning it’s a prompt to wake up. If your car alarm goes off it’s a prompt to get there quick and see what’s going on! Pain put simply is an alarm or a “danger sensor”; it's our body’s special way of telling us to take some action. Let's not think in terms of pain pathways or pain endings – rather “danger sensors”.
"...our pain experience is based on perceived danger."
Consider these examples:
- Firmly squeeze your ear lobe - it hurt right? Although no damage was done to the tissue, the pain is telling you to stop squeezing your ear.
- 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/