How much do you really know about pain?

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Do you know how to ‘understand’ your pain and take appropriate action?

Most of us know what it feels like and more than a third of all UK adults have experienced some level of chronic pain but how much do you really know about pain?

We all experience pain from time to time. If we’re lucky, it’s just a fleeting experience. But for some, living with recurring or chronic pain has become their normal routine.

In today’s blog, we’ll look at what pain is, why we have it, how it affects the body and how it’s measured.

Ready to get curious? Let’s find out more…

What is pain?

In a nutshell, it is your body’s way of telling you that something’s not right. It’s a signal from your body to the brain that there is an injury, inflammation or event happening in the body that’s out of the ordinary.  But there is more to pain than just the physicality of it.  

Anything we experience, we also perceive, and that perception adds an additional layer to the experience or concept of pain, which is a term used in the definition provided by the Free Medical Dictionary and can increase or reduce intensity. This means that pain is always both a physical and mental experience. 

How pain works and how it affects the body

It can manifest in various ways, including aching, throbbing, stabbing and pinching. Essentially a response signal, it is triggered by something referred to as ‘stimuli’ which means something that stimulates. The stimuli is interpreted as posing a threat or damage to your body.  The signal travels along your central nervous system to your brain where it gets assessed as to whether we take action or not. 

Pain and the stress response

Because pain is basically a ‘threat message’, it triggers your survival mechanism – the Fight / Flight / Freeze response.  This has an impact on your body’s ability to do general maintenance like detox, digest and even reproduce.  This means that it can, for example, affect your libido, make you feel nauseous and even make you pass out if the intensity is really high.

The pain scale

How is pain measured?

Pain is often described as mild, moderate or severe. At the lesser end of the spectrum are things like mild headaches, which while irritating, don’t usually prevent us from going about our day-to-day activities. At the other end of the spectrum are things like severe toothache, joint or muscle ache and debilitating migraines.

Here at The Helpful Clinic we recommend using the 0-10 scale to measure intensity of feelings.  You may remember the Stress Intensity Scale we talked about in the last blog. This method of scoring feelings on the scale of 0-10 is an essential tool for managing and tracking our feelings whether that’s stress or in this case pain. 

You may also find that your ability to tolerate pain can shift over time, which will then result in different scoring.  This isn’t about scoring being something academically rigorous, it is about having a scoring mechanism that helps you keep track of your experience and helps you let other people know how you are feeling. 

Acute and chronic 

Finally, pain is classified as either acute or chronic. Acute pain is often severe, but doesn’t last for a very long time, so from a few minutes to a few hours. Chronic pain can vary from mild to severe, but presents for a prolonged period of time, anywhere from several days to several years or longer. We’ll be addressing this in more detail in the next blog.

We always exist in the three dimensions of physical, mental and social so it’s also important to note that physical pain (because that’s what we’re mainly talking about here) also interacts and is affected by our mental and social health. Remember the earlier description of the concept of pain. 

There’s always a perception of the mind in terms of what we are making the pain mean like life threatening, minor or debilitating. We need that perception to help us respond. Our mood is affected and we can feel angry, irritable, depressed and anxious.  Remember we always have thoughts and feelings about our thoughts and feelings. We’ll be looking at this more closely in the next blog.

When we are suffering our ability to be kind, considerate and thoughtful is often compromised, especially when the pain intensifies.  Therefore our relationships can be affected and our ability to engage socially. You can read more about why that is here in this blog where we talk about how the brain works.  

There’s another significant social factor which has to do with our access to health care, there’s a well known association between level of health and affluence.  But it’s not only the access we have but also our confidence in the medical profession and our ability to be assertive and articulate about our experience to ensure we get the care we need. 

Why do we have pain? 

Most of us don’t welcome pain when it shows up, at least not when it’s uninvited. It’s a difficult feeling to experience and you may even have wished to never feel it ever again. Well, you may want to rethink that. Feelings are information. If you didn’t feel pain, what information would you be missing out on?

Ashlyn Blocker has Congenital insensitivity to pain and doesn't feel any, ever
Ashlyn Blocker, who feels no pain, at home in Patterson, GS. Image courtesy of The New York Times

There’s a rare and life threatening condition called Congenital insensitivity to pain. A person with this condition never feels pain.  You may think that this is wonderful but no this is not the case. Take 16-year-old Ashlyn Blocker from Patterson, Georgia, who has this condition. She has hurt herself many times. She’s never learnt the moves and mechanisms that protect our bodies and help us maintain it because she doesn’t get the pain signal.  This can be extremely worrying and at times deadly serious.

What does it mean?

There can be a number of reasons for different types of pain. So getting curious is key in helping you find your way to the most helpful course of action.

Some are more obvious to spot like when we have a toothache, we can pretty safely assume it’s because we have a problem in our mouth, like an infection or abscess. Other types of pain like lower back ache could suggest that we’ve pulled a muscle when lifting something recently but it could also mean that it is in your kidneys (located in that area) or that you’ve got a slipped disc. 

The point here is that pain tends to show up at the site of an injury or issue, which is why we are often able to identify what the cause could be. If we can’t, our doctor, chiropractor, chiropodist or other health professional usually can.

Learning to understand what different pain sensations mean for you and how to respond appropriately helps you take helpful and constructive action.  It also means that you’re more likely to get to the root of the issue rather than just hold it in abeyance. 

Different pain sensations often mean different things

Pain as an indicator

So, pain works like an indicator to tell us we’re not 100% okay. It is designed to get our attention so we then take action. This could be taking painkillers, resting, drinking some water, putting some ice on a sprain, etc.  If you’ve ever sprained your ankle, chances are it stopped you in your tracks.  If you hadn’t felt the pain, you wouldn’t have stopped and almost certainly caused yourself further injury. 

We often use the analogy of a car dashboard with its various warning lights. These signals are there for a reason: they alert us to any potential issues so we can get them checked out.

Now if you were driving your car and the brake fluid light came on, chances are you wouldn’t ignore it, right? You’d head to the nearest garage (or home if you’re handy with cars) and have it checked. The same should be the case with our bodies when we experience pain.  Relying on painkillers to numb the pain is like disconnecting the brake fluid indicator light rather than actually addressing the brake fluid issue.

Do you know your body’s main systems?

How confident do you feel in being able to locate where it’s coming from and what it might mean? An important part of being able to recognise pain and interpret it is knowing the main systems in your body. Sometimes it’s not clear where pain originates from so it helps narrow it down and then you can get curious and gather more clues to help you take action. Here’s a list of the main ones:

  • Immune system
  • Cardiovascular system (heart)
  • Digestive system
  • Respiratory system (breathing)
  • Reproductive system
  • Central nervous system
  • Energy system
  • Muscular system
  • Skeletal system
  • Endocrine system (hormones)
  • Detox system (an umbrella term for all detox function systems).
Do you know your body's main systems?

Get curious how pain shows up in your body?

Give yourself say 10-15 minutes with a notepad and pen and start collecting information about your experience of pain. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • When did you last experience pain? Where in your body was it? On the scale of 0-10 how intense was it?
  • How often do you experience it? Daily, weekly, monthly or rarely?
  • Where in your body or in what system do you feel pain more often?
  • How often do you experience pain because of an accident or injury (yup, this is also an indicator or clue)

It’s not unusual for people to have pain show up more frequently in some systems than others. Think of it as early indicators or warning signs that are unique to you. Some of us are more prone to stomach or digestive issues, others more vulnerable to bugs and viruses and there are some where e.g. the muscles or joints are the more frequent source of pain. There can be various reasons for this. When you get curious about your pain and zoom in on what system or part in your body is involved, you’ll gather valuable information about your overall health and wellbeing. This will help you address what’s going on and look after your health well.


In our next blog we’ll be talking about your relationship with pain (yup, you’ve got one) and provide you with a bunch of helpful tools, tips and hacks for dealing with mild, moderate, severe, acute and chronic pain.

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor