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Why Do We Feel Pain?

When you drop something on your foot or slam your finger in a drawer, you know that pain will usually follow. Did you ever wonder why you feel that pain? Feeling pain in response to an injury is a signal that your body has been damaged in some way. Or, if you have an illness, headache, or another type of pain, it’s a signal to your brain that something is not right.

Our nervous system is made up of the brain and the spinal cord, which combine to form the central nervous system; and our sensory and motor nerves, which form the peripheral nervous system. Nerves send information about what is happening in our environment to the brain via the spinal cord. The brain then sends information back to our nerves, helping us to perform actions in response.

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Acute pain vs. chronic pain

There are two major categories of pain: acute pain (short-term) and chronic pain (long-term).

Acute pain is a severe or sudden pain that resolves within an expected amount of time. You might feel acute pain when you experience an injury, have surgery, or are sick. An example of acute pain is when you twist your ankle. The sensory nerves in your ankle respond by firing off, letting the spinal cord instantly know that something is wrong. Your spinal cord delivers the message to the brain. Finally, the brain decides how bad the injury is and what to do next. Your brain is a massive database stored with every incident like this in your life, and it reverts back to other situations when this kind of injury has happened. Then your brain decides whether to invoke tears, increase your heart rate, release adrenaline, or any one of a billion other possible responses.

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With chronic pain, however, the initial pain receptors continue to fire after the injury. Chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts three months or more, or longer than the expected healing time for an illness or trauma. Chronic pain can be caused by a disease or condition that continuously causes damage. For example, with arthritis, the joint is in a constant state of disrepair, causing pain signals to travel to the brain with little downtime. Sometimes, there is no longer a physical cause of pain, but the pain response is the same. In these cases, it is difficult to pin down the cause of the chronic pain, and difficult to treat.

What else can influence pain?

Response to pain is individual, and what may be painful to one person can be only slightly uncomfortable to another. Because pain messages pass through the emotional and thinking regions of your brain, your experience of pain is shaped not just by the physical damage or sensation, but by psychological, emotional, and social factors as well. Your memories of past painful experiences, genetics, long-term health problems, coping strategies, and attitude toward pain can all contribute to how you feel pain.

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