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What is Pain? How It Works and What You Can Do

Pain generally describes the uncomfortable sensation we feel in our bodies. Pain can affect your mood, concentration, memory, movement, and sleep. It can also harm your productivity and social relationships. In fact, 2019 data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention shows that over 58.9 percent of adults in the US in 2019 experienced mild or severe pain. 

As we celebrate National Pain Awareness Month, may it serve as a reminder to learn more about pain. Read on to learn more about what pain is, how it works, and what you can do to treat or manage its symptoms.

What is Pain?

In the simplest terms, pain is an uncomfortable feeling caused by an accident, injury, or other health issue. When you experience pain, your brain will receive nerve signals to your brain to tell you that something’s wrong with your body. Having this alert in your system allows you to react on time and prevent further damage to your body.

You can feel pain in any part of your body, but it commonly affects the following:

Pain comes in different degrees of intensity and frequency. Some can feel like sharp stabs, others like dull aches. Pain can affect a single part, cover a large area, or shift from one area to another. Some pain could feel mild, while others could be intolerable. Some can feel pain either continuously or in different waves.

Pain can also vary depending on a person’s threshold of pain. For example, one person can tolerate a deep cut while another cannot withstand it. It’s important to keep this in mind when you’re gauging your tolerance to pain.

How Does Pain Work?

Now that we know what pain is, our next question is: how does your body know you’re in pain? Here’s how it works. 

Your body detects pain through a channel of nerve cells through the spinal cord to the brain. The process begins with the pain receptor nerve cells. When these cells detect tissue damage, they pass this information along the spinal cord to reach the brain. Once the pain signal reaches the brain, you will experience an aching or a stinging sensation in the affected area.

For example, let’s say your hand touches a hot surface. When the contact happens, the pain receptors will send this message to your brain. Along the way, your spinal cord will detect these nerves and activate your reflex arc. This reflex will make your muscles immediately contract and pull away from the heat source.

Once the nerves reach the brain, you will feel a burning sensation on your hand. To counter the pain, your brain will release feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins. 

To help you understand pain better, we’ve explained the three dimensions of pain in better detail:

  • Sensory: How does the pain actually feel? Where is the pain coming from?
  • Cognitive: What do you think of the pain? How does your brain interpret it?
  • Affective: How do you behave as a result of the pain?

Common Pain Indicators

When you are in pain, you might feel one or more of these sensations:

  • Aching
  • Burning
  • Pinching
  • Stabbing
  • Stinging
  • Tingling
  • Throbbing

In some cases, you can also feel other physical symptoms such as:

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Sluggishness or weakness

Additionally, there’s more to pain than just the physical symptoms. Pain can also affect your emotional and mental state and make you feel:

  • Angry
  • Depressed
  • Irritable
  • Moody
  • Restless

Types of Pain

You may be wondering, what are the different types of pain? We’ve narrowed it down to the most common types of pain, which may either be acute or chronic.

What is Acute Pain?

Acute pain describes a sudden, sharp pain that occurs without warning. While it can bring intense pain, it doesn’t last long and typically spans for just a few days, weeks, or months. This kind of pain is caused by accidents, injuries, and health conditions like:

  • Broken bones
  • Bruises
  • Burns
  • Cuts
  • Pulled muscles
  • Labor contractions
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Repetitive stress
  • Surgery

Treating acute pain is possible, and it starts by identifying if you have any underlying conditions. Once the source of injury is treated, the pain will eventually go away.

However, acute pain could turn into chronic pain if it remains untreated for a long time. For example, a sports injury can cause long-term damage to your joints and muscles if it isn’t treated properly over a long period.

What is Chronic Pain?

Chronic pain lasts longer than acute pain. Its duration spans at least three months and can extend for years. It could be mild or severe, and continuous or intermittent. Data from 2019 shares that 20.4% of adults are suffering from some form of chronic pain.

Chronic pain can be traced to musculoskeletal disorders that affect the bones, joints, ligaments, muscles, and tendons. Aside from mild to intense pain, people suffering from chronic pain can also experience the following symptoms:

  • Tense muscles
  • Limited mobility
  • Lack of energy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Sleeping problems
  • Depression

Some examples of chronic pain include the following:

  • Arthritis
  • Chronic joint and muscle pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Migraines or tension headaches
  • Nerve pain
  • Sciatica

While there is no known cure for chronic pain, you can still maintain a good quality of life with proper pain management. This includes a combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle adjustments. If not managed properly, chronic pain can result in serious health complications.

How to Treat & Manage Pain

Pain treatment will depend on different factors, such as the type and cause of pain. Listed below are some of the treatment options you can consider if you’re suffering from acute or chronic pain.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is an alternative treatment procedure rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. It works by inserting very fine needles at specific target areas in your body. Using these needles stimulates your nerves and releases endorphins (the pain relief hormone).

This treatment method aids in alleviating pain and tension in your muscles. It also helps relieve the following conditions:

  • Migraines
  • Lower back pain
  • Neck pain and stiffness
  • Osteoarthritis

TENS Therapy

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) uses a battery device with electrodes that connect to your skin. These electrodes are placed near the nerves or trigger points. It utilizes low-voltage electric currents to stimulate your brain’s opioid and pain gate system to treat pain.

Chiropractic Care

Chiropractic care is the practice of joint maneuvering and manipulation for pain relief. A therapist performs controlled thrusts to correct the misaligned area (usually the back, hip, neck, and spine) and return it to its original position.

These mechanical manipulations help ease your pain and discomfort. Once your body’s bones and muscles are back into place, your body can heal better. Common chiropractic care procedures include:

  • Back alignment
  • Hip alignment
  • Spine alignment
  • Full body adjustment

Relaxation Therapy

Relaxation therapy is a great alternative to pain relief medication. It works by shifting your focus from the pain so you can reach a calm, serene state. Doing these exercises also releases endorphins to reduce your pain.

Consider trying some of these relaxation therapies and exercises:

Physical Therapy

If you’re in pain, you’ll certainly benefit from physical therapy. Your therapist can employ some of these techniques to help alleviate your pain:

Exercises & Stretches

Other than the typicalYou can also perform exercises to soothe your sore and painful body. Moving and stretching your body helps loosen tense muscles and produce endorphins. What’s more, having stronger and more flexible muscles can help you manage your pain better. 

Below we’ve listed down some of the exercises you can try at home:

Receive the Best Care For Your Pain

Pain is an uncomfortable but inevitable part of our lives. Fortunately, by understanding how pain works and learning about the different ways to treat it, you can alleviate pain and enjoy life to the fullest.

LifeClinic offers chiropractic care and physical therapy services to ease your discomfort and help your body naturally heal. You’ll receive a personalized treatment plan for your pain. Find a LifeClinic near you today to start your journey toward recovery.

Receive more health, fitness, and nutrition advice. Browse the LifeClinic blog today.

Dr. Reza Alizadeh

Dr. Reza is the visionary behind LifeClinic. His leadership is the foundation for the patient and team member experience, and overall direction of the LifeClinic. As the creator of IMJT, Dr. Reza continues to be the primary teacher on this technique.

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