Understanding Pain and How It Occurs

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You know what the sensation of pain feels like. Its pain can take several forms, whether it’s the light of a fire, the daily ache of arthritis or a throbbing headache.

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What you do not know is the science behind why you’re hurting. A dynamic relationship between specialized nerves, your spinal cord, and your brain involves pain.

Imagine a complex traffic system with on-ramps, differing speeds, traffic signals, varying weather and road conditions, a traffic control centre, an emergency response centre,

There are two major categories of pain. Pain can be short term (acute) or long term (chronic):

  • Acute pain is a severe or sudden pain that resolves within a certain amount of time. You might feel acute pain when you have an illness, injury or surgery.
  • Chronic pain is persistent, lasting for months or even longer. Chronic pain is considered a health condition in itself.

Usually, with acute pain, you know precisely where and when it hurts. After a scratch, your elbow hurts, or you feel discomfort at the site of a surgical incision.

Acute pain is caused by injury to tissues. Its goal is to alert you to injury and to protect you from further harm.

With chronic pain, the cause for the pain may not be understood. An injury, for instance, has healed, but the pain persists, and may even become more severe. Without any sign of an accident or disease, chronic pain may also happen.

At the most basic stage, when unique nerve endings are activated, pain starts. This may result from harm to the tissues of your body, such as when you cut yourself.

Pain may also result from the nerves themselves being impaired or disturbed. Often with no apparent reason, or long after an injury has healed, pain happens.

Any part of your body may be affected by pain. Back and neck pain, joint pain, headaches, nerve pain, wound pain, cancer pain, and pain-related disorders such as fibromyalgia are some of the most common causes of pain (a disorder that causes widespread musculoskeletal pain).

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Pain is the way your body alerts you to risk and lets you know what is going on with your body. Sensory nerve cells help you feel pain. These are the same type of cells that convey your senses with knowledge, enabling you to smell, see, hear, taste and touch.

The pain-responsive nerve cells are part of the peripheral nervous system, which comprises all the nerves in the body except those in the spinal cord and brain (the central nervous system).

Peripheral nerve cells align into a network of fibres that bring signals to your spinal cord and brain from the skin, muscles and internal organs. The messages take the form of chemical reactions and electrical currents.

There are special endings in the peripheral nerve fibres that can detect various forms of harmful stimuli, something that affects or attempts to damage the body’s tissues—a cut, pain, heat, inflammation, even chemical changes, maybe a cut. Injuries, infections, and surgery may all cause damage to tissue.

These specialized terminations of the nerve are called nociceptors (no-sih-SEP-turs). In your skin, bones, joints, muscles and connective tissues, as well as in the protective membranes around your internal organs, you have millions of them.

Nociceptors at the root of the injury transmit pain signals in the form of electric impulses in response to tissue trauma. These pain signals fly to your spinal cord via a peripheral nerve.

Nociceptive pain is referred to as this type of pain. It may be moderate or extreme. It may be sharp, stabbing, throbbing, burning, stinging, nagging, dull, tingling, or painful. Ouch!-Ouch!

Specialized nerve cells process and prioritize signals from the peripheral nerves inside the spinal cord. These nerve cells function like gates, regulating with what pace and intensity the pains signals get through to your brain.

Extreme pain is viewed as an immediate warning, as from a burn, which causes your muscles to move your hand away from the stove. Some pain signals are relayed more slowly or with less intensity, such as from a scratch or a disturbed stomach.

Pain signals pass to the brain from the spinal cord. By sending back signals that facilitate the healing process, the brain responds. For instance, to deliver extra white blood cells and platelets to help heal tissue at an injury site, the brain will signal the autonomic nervous system, which regulates blood flow.

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Also, the brain can signal the release of chemicals that suppress pain. Pain often results from damage to one or more spinal or peripheral nerves.

As a consequence of an accident, infection, surgery or sickness, this may happen. The affected nerves can randomly misfire and send pain signals, rather than in response to an injury.

Burning, freezing, numbing or tingling are also identified as this form of pain, called neuropathic pain. It can also establish the feeling of “pins and needles” When diabetes affects the small nerves in the hands and feet, a common type of neuropathic pain occurs, causing an intense burning sensation.

When pain pathways in the peripheral nerves and spinal cord become persistently stimulated, another type of neuropathic pain occurs. The pain message is intensified by this process, called sensitization. The initial illness or accident is out of proportion or even removed from it.

Even if an injured limb is gone, the pain transmitting pathways along the nerves are still triggered, as though the limb is still there. This is what occurs with so-called phantom limb pain.

For one person, an accident or disease that is incredibly painful could be just mildly irritating for another. Oh, why is that? The response of a person to pain, as well as psychological, emotional and social factors, is highly influenced by many individual characteristics.

They travel through the emotional and thought areas, as well as the physical sensation region when pain signals enter your brain. The dynamic emotional and cognitive processing that follows the physical harm or feeling forms a person’s perception of pain.

So you really have pain in your head and in your body, too.

Factors that can affect how sensitive you are to suffering and how you respond to it include:

  • Genetics. How sensitive the body is to pain signals and how you experience pain is affected by your genetic makeup. Some evidence indicates that there may also be a significant genetic component in the propensity to experience neuropathic pain after a nerve injury. Your reaction to pain medicine can also be affected by genetic factors.
  • Gender. Women experience more intense pain, more serious pain levels, and pain that lasts longer than men do. If this is because of biological variations or psychological and social causes is not understood.
  • Long-term health problems. Pain is associated with many chronic diseases and disorders, such as fibromyalgia, migraine headaches and irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Psychological factors. In people with depression, anxiety or low self-esteem, pain is more prevalent. It may also be made worse by an exaggerated pessimism or ‘catastrophizing’ of pain.
  • Social factors. Stress and social isolation lead to a more painful experience. Research also shows that lower levels of education, lower wages and unemployment are associated with a greater prevalence of pain.
  • Past experiences. Your recollections of past traumatic encounters will impact your current experiences. Even a mild probing will produce a strong pain response if you have had a bad experience with a dentist or have never been to a dentist and are very nervous about it. And pain itself will predispose you to greater pain: a previous episode of pain is the most consistent risk factor for developing a painful condition.
  • Other individual factors. How you interpret pain signals and how you handle pain will influence your childhood, coping mechanisms and general attitude. So can your perceptions of how you should feel or respond to “think”.

Pain is prevalent and complicated, and a burden. Pain interferes with the desire to engage in regular operations. Your relationships and experiences with others may be adversely influenced.

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It can drain your energy and just make you feel less safe. The more serious the discomfort, the greater the toll it takes on your well-being.

Fortunately, to help control both acute pain and chronic pain, several different treatment options are available. A crucial role can also be played by your attitude and lifestyle.

You are likely to be effective in dealing with your pain if you approach any stressful situation with a positive mindset and a desire to improve.

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Jennifer Aigbini
I am a language enthusiast, studying Linguistics at the University of Benin, in Nigeria.
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