Bob Denny: Why does it hurt?


Published: Friday, December 6, 2013 at 1:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 6, 2013 at 1:47 p.m.

Does it hurt? Why does it hurt? What is pain, anyway? And what can you do about it? Let’s take a broad look at “pain.”

Understanding pain: There are special nerve cells throughout your body, called “sense receptors.” They transmit everything you feel, see, hear, smell and taste to your brain. Psychologists call these nerve impulses “sensation.” When these signals reach your brain, they are interpreted, or “perceived,” in areas of your brain that specialize in that particular type of sensation, like vision or hearing. Pain is similar to these sensations, in that it is sensed by pain receptors and transmitted through nerves to the brain, like other senses.

How do you sense and perceive pain? That’s a little more complicated, and not thoroughly understood by scientists. Even when the cause of a pain has been removed, you may continue to feel pain—sometimes for years! Chronic pain can seriously interfere with your life, and for the most part, it is treatable.

Here’s an example. When you contact a hot iron, it causes chemical changes and nerve cell activity, not only at the site of the event, but also it changes the chemical and electrical energy along the nerve, and even in the brain.

Neuropsychologists develop theories to try to explain pain. One theory, “gate control theory,” suggests that there are “gates” along the nerves that can either block signals or allow them to travel to the brain. When the body is injured, the gates can’t block the sensation of pain, so it reaches the brain, where it is perceived and experienced as “Ouch! that hurt!” The treatment can apparently block the pain signal along the nerve. That may explain why applying pressure on the injured area, or applying something like a soothing lotion or menthol, may relieve the pain.

What can you do? Even though pain isn’t thoroughly understood, you can use some tried and true helpful ideas from folk wisdom, common sense, and of course, the field of medicine. Here are some suggestions that may help:

Do you know what caused the pain? If you smashed your thumb with the hammer, the cause is obvious. But many pains may be difficult or impossible to find! With the help of some tests, your doctor may be able to help you find the cause.

There are a wide variety of treatments, classified as physical, behavioral, or mental. Even if pain isn’t “all in your head,” sometimes medical science can’t find what causes it! Whether or not you can find the cause, there are some treatments that could help. Pain specialists may offer help by using some special techniques, like pain medication, physical therapy or even hypnotherapy. There are many effective treatments you can do yourself! How about the use of salve or lotions, massage, stretching, exercise, or getting extra rest? You might try “distraction” or “displacement.” Here’s how they work:

Distraction: I’ve noticed that when I’ve had a headache or a stomach ache, it’s helpful to pick up a book or a magazine, or watch a TV program you like. Taking your mind off of it seems to make it fade into the background. I noticed when I put the book down, sometimes the headache will come back!

Displacement: One psychological principle says you can’t feel two contradictory feelings at the same time. If you’re happy, you can’t feel sad at the same time. If you feel very good and happy, you can’t feel pain at the same time. Try building up those good thoughts and feelings, doing something fun, or finding an enjoyable diversion. Chances are these will replace, or displace, the pain!

Pain is experienced different for each person. Experiment a little, and find out what works for you. Just taking a positive action can help you feel empowered, and the confidence you get can help give you the motivation and strength to break through, and get beyond what’s troubling you.

Bob Denny has taught psychology for 10 years at Florida Gateway College, and is a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. Some of the ideas about pain are from his psychology class textbook, Psychology (10th Edition), by Tavris and Wade, Prentice Hall 2011.

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