If Only I Knew...
Why Does it Hurt?
By Marie-Catherine Bruno, BScPT, Cped(C).
We have all suffered at one point in our life, some of us more than others, but we have all experienced the sensation of pain. Some of us are even a pain, but that is a whole different topic! So what is pain? What causes it? Why do we feel it? How can some drugs and electrical machines help ease it? How does that work? Why can't we just turn pain off?
First of all, there are two types of pain: fast pain, and slow pain.
Fast pain is the type of pain that you get from a paper cut or a pin-prick with a needle. It is very localized and disappears quickly with no residual sensation.
Slow pain is that unpleasant burning or aching sensation that emerges from tissue damage. It is usually fairly diffuse and therefore more difficult to localize than fast pain. It may persist for some time following removal of the painful stimulus (e.g.. burning your hand - the pain stays even after you have moved away from the burning element). Slow pain is the one that causes us troubles; the one that triggers reflexes and emotions, the one that stops you from training and doing other activities you love, so this will be the one we will discuss in this article.
Pain follows a very complicated pathway throughout our body before we can actually feel it. It starts in the nerve that patrols the area that is being damaged. This specific part of the nerve is called nerve ending. Any painful stimuli will trigger an electrical impulse that travels from the nerve ending to the spinal cord and up to the brain where it gets interpreted. It is at this very specific moment that you will begin feeling the pain (it is a matter of a split second). Now what is interesting is that pain is just an interpretation, meaning that sometimes you may feel pain in your shoulder but in reality the problem is located in your stomach. That is because some areas of our bodies are very well served by nerve endings, making the pain we feel very precise (like the skin at the tip of our fingers), and some other areas (like internal organs) are not as well served and share some nerves, therefore creating some potential confusion in the brain! But in any case, pain is a sign that damage is being done.
Some of us seem to deal better with the pain than others. It is a fact and it is all a question of threshold. As mentioned earlier, pain is just an interpretation of an electrical signal, and since some of us interpret language and emotions differently, well, we may also interpret pain differently. Some of us are more sensitive to pain and truly feel more pain than others for a given stimulus. There is not much that can be done about it other than train yourself to ignore the pain. Many other factors can also influence your own pain threshold: lack of sleep (you become a lot less tolerant to pain when you are tired), hormonal shifts (yes, everything hurts more when women are PMSing), existing injuries (pain adds up exponentially), emotions (fear is known to increase pain - doesn't it hurt a whole lot more when we realize how much we are actually bleeding?!!), alcohol, drugs, certain foods... I know many of us like to brag about having a very high pain threshold, but truth is other than not being scared of the dentist, it has absolutely no advantage. As a matter of fact, it is a disadvantage, because it allows us to ignore important messages coming from the main computer, the brain. Pain is a warning. Ignoring pain is like avoiding looking at the red light in your dashboard that says check engine.
Ways To Deal With The Pain
- Pain killers - analgesics
These are drugs designed to affect the nervous system and stop painful messages going to the brain. They work at the local pain level to stop message carriers and therefore make your brain ignore the pain. Although very handy when pain becomes unbearable, you must keep in mind that they are only masking the pain and that the pain stimulus is still there, telling you that there is still tissue damage going on. Also, your system becomes used to them and they slowly lose their effect over time. Unless you are suffering from chronic pain (a pain that now affects the central nervous system and has nothing to do with nerve endings anymore - some sort of short circuit in the system), you should be very careful when taking pain killers because taking drugs to ease the pain is like driving your car around with ear plugs so that you don't hear the sound of the rotten muffler. Don't simply ignore injuries, treat them.
Not being a fan of ingesting chemicals (aka pills), I much prefer natural ways to reduce pain. Acupuncture is one of them. Acupuncture can help in cases of slow pain. The principle is simple: when a painful stimulus strikes, your body automatically releases endorphins (natural drugs secreted by some glands in your brain) to help you deal with the pain and lower the intensity. After a few minutes the drugs wear off and the pain settles in, usually at a milder intensity than of the initial event. Acupuncture creates a new stimulus that triggers the release of endorphins, just like the old idea of banging your thumb with a hammer to get rid of a headache, but in a much more civilized way! It works well but again usually provides short term relief.
- Runner's high
Research has shown that running at a low to moderate intensity for over 30 minutes stimulates the release of endorphins, those natural pain-killer drugs. Running can put you in a state of overall happiness, both from the release of drugs and the release of accumulated tension, which also helps bring your pain threshold to a higher level and help ease the pain. Now please note that if the pain you are trying to tame is caused by a running injury, trust me this solution is not going to help! But if from a different source, this is one of the best ways to get rid of your pain and heck, get fitter at the same time!
- Electrical Currents
Those of you who have been to physiotherapy or to any type of alternative therapy may have been exposed to T.E.N.S. (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation), interferential currents or to diadynamic currents. These currents all have the same goal: to interfere with the electrical impulses that carry pain messages in your nervous system.
There are two ways a current can interfere with the pain messages: by creating a new one, or by overloading the nervous system. The three devices mentioned above all have the capacity to overload the nervous system. By choosing the right frequency and wavelength, those machines can send a million of messages to your nervous system and overload the central system, aka the brain. Once the system is overloaded, there is less room for pain perception. This system is so simple, we do it all the time