We’ve all experienced some form of pain at one point in our lives as a result of an injury or illness. Pain is the most common reason that people visit their doctors in the first place. Millions of Americans experience serious or chronic pain. But what is pain?
In this article, I will discuss what is pain, the difference between acute and chronic pain, how it works, its most common forms, factors that influence it, its impact and pain management options.
What Is Pain
Pain is an unpleasant sensation. It can range from mild to severe. It can be localized or deeper pain that spreads to various parts of your body or all over. Pain can feel like an ache, a prick, a burn, a sting, a tingle, it can be dull, throbbing, pulsating or sharp, or characterized otherwise.
Pain is all about a complex interaction between your specialized nerves, spinal cords and brain. When something goes wrong in your body your nerves send messages to your brain and pain develops as a protective warning sign. Pain can be physical and emotional or both.
Pain is a signal that something is not right. It can be helpful in diagnosing a problem, identifying a medical issue and finding the best treatment. (1, 2)
Acute vs Chronic Pain
Pain has two major categories: acute and chronic.
Acute pain is short-term. It is a more severe or sudden pain that happens as a result of an injury, surgery or illness. Usually, you know where it exactly is. It goes away within a few hours, days, or weeks with or without treatment depending on the pain. (1, 2)
Chronic pain is more persistent. It is long lasting that can go on for months or even years. Chronic pain can happen due to an injury or illness where the body has healed yet the pain lingers. It can be part of a chronic health condition or inflammation. It is sometimes not explained. Chronic pain is a health condition itself. Treatment and pain relief is more difficult and takes longer. (1, 2, 9)
How Pain Works
Pain occurs when particular nerve endings are stimulated in your body. For example, if you cut yourself or twist your ankles, the tissue damage results in disruption to the nerves themselves and send pain signals as a way to ask for help.
Pain can happen in any part of your body and also to your emotional state. (2)
Most common forms of pain (2):
- Back pain
- Neck pain
- Joint pain
- Muscle pain
- Pain from an injury
- Pain from nerve damage
- Cancer pain
- Pain from pain-related conditions, such as fibromyalgia and MS
Influences on Pain
Your pain depends on its characteristics, causes, and location. It can differ from person to person. Some people have a higher pain tolerance level. What some find extremely painful, may be tolerable or simply slightly bothersome to others. Pain is influenced not only by physical but also by psychological, emotional and social factors. (2)
Other factors that may influence your pain and how you perceive pain include (2):
- Genetics: Your genetic makeup can determine the tendency to develop neuropathic pain after a nerve injury. They can influence what pain medications work best for you.
- Gender: Women tend to experience more frequent, longer lasting and more severe pain than men.
- Long-term problems: Chronic conditions and illnesses can affect, cause and are associated with pain. These include migraines, chronic headaches, fibromyalgia, and IBS.
- Psychological factors: People with depression, anxiety or low self-esteem likely experience more and worse pain than others.
- Social factors: Stress, isolation, loneliness, lower income, unemployment and lower education levels are all linked to higher prevalence of pain.
- Past experiences: Trauma, past painful memories can influence your pain, response to treatment and even predispose you to more pain.
- Other individual factors: Your upbringing, general attitude, coping strategies and other personal factors can influence how you interpret, tolerate, and react to pain.
The Impact of Pain
Pain is common yet complex. It can interfere with your daily life, work, school, household tasks, relationships, social life, energy levels, mental health and overall life. (2)
Your pain management strategy depends on your pain, whether it is acute or chronic, its location, characteristics and medical conditions it may be related to.
Pain management strategies can include (4, 5):
- RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) for injuries, especially sports injuries
- Over-the-counter pain relievers, including acetaminophen (Tylenol) and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as naproxen (Aleve), ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil), and aspirin
- Prescription medication for pain (may include NSAIDs and opioids)
- Prescription medication for an underlying medical condition or illness
- Physical therapy
- Bodywork, including chiropractic, massage therapy, trigger point therapy, and myofascial release
- Psychological counseling
- Alternative therapies, including acupuncture, craniosacral therapy, biofeedback, hypnosis, somatic therapies, guided imagery, Chinese medicine, herbal remedies, Reiki
- Anti-inflammatory whole foods nutrition filled with greens, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, inflammation- and pain-fighting herbs, spices, and foods, such as turmeric, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon
- Meditation, relaxation technique, breath work, yoga, Tai-chi, stretching
Q – Can pain kill you?
A – Pain itself can’t kill you, but the consequences of pain can. Pain can lead to stress that can compromise your immune system that can lead to disease, including cancer and heart problem. In some cases, these diseases can lead to death. The stress from pain can also worsen your health condition. Excruciating pain can also put your body into circulatory shock that can result in death. (5, 6)
Q – Can pain make you feel sick?
A – Yes, pain can lead to nausea, fainting, dizziness and fever.
Q – Can pain cause anxiety?
A – Anxiety can cause physical symptoms, including pain. It can also worsen your pain. Pain, especially chronic pain can also lead to mental health difficulties, including anxiety and depression. You may be anxious that your pain gets worst or experience anxiety having to go to a social event or job performance while being hindered by pain. (7, 8, 9)
Q – Can pain increase heart rate?
A – Yes, in some cases, pain can increase your heart rate.
Q – Which pain reliever is the best.
A – This depends on your personal health condition. Always talk to your doctor before choosing a pain reliever or trying a natural pain management tool or remedy.
I hope that you’ve found this article helpful. If you have any questions or feedback, share them in the comments below.