When you stub your toe on something or trap your finger in a door, you know the sharp pain that usually follows, possibly along with a few choice swear words – no judgement here! 
But have you ever wondered why you feel pain? Feeling pain in response to an injury is your body signalling that the body has been damaged in some sort of way. Or, if you have a headache or illness, the type of pain is a signal to say that there’s something not quite right. 
Our nervous system is made up of the brain and the spinal cord, which combines to create the central nervous system (CNS) and our sensory and motor nerves create the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The nerves in our body are constantly sending information about what is happening in our environment to the brain via the spinal cord. Once the brain has received that information, it will then send information back to our nerves, which allows us to perform actions in response. 

Acute vs. Chronic Pain 

There are two major categories of pain: acute pain, which is known as short-term pain, or chronic pain, which is referred to as long-term pain. 
Acute pain is normally felt after you have experienced an injury, illness, or surgery. This pain is quite severe and comes on suddenly but normally resolves within an expected amount of time. For example, with the classic case of stubbing your toe, the sensory nerves in your foot fire a signal letting the spinal cord know that something is wrong. The spinal cord delivers the message to the brain where the brain decides how bad the injury is and what to do next. Your brain remembers every incident that has happened in your life so will revert back to similar situations when this injury has occurred before. The brain then decides whether to increase your heart rate, release adrenaline, or potentially produce tears. There are so many other possible responses too. 
However, chronic pain is defined as pain that lasts three months or more. Chronic pain can be caused by a disease or condition that continuously causes damage. For example, with arthritis, the joint affected is in a constant state of disrepair which in turn causes pain signals to travel to the brain continuously. Sometimes there may not even be a physical cause of pain but the pain response remains the same. In these cases, it’s very difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the chronic pain, leaving it quite difficult to treat. 

What else can influence pain? 

Pain is very subjective, meaning that what may be very painful to one person may only cause mild discomfort for another. Due to the pain messages being passed through the emotional and thinking regions of the brain, everyone’s experience of pain is shaped not just by the physical damage or sensation, but by psychological, emotional, and social factors too. Your memories of painful experiences, genetics, long-term health conditions, coping strategies, and attitude towards pain all contribute to how you feel pain. 
For instance, someone who has had a previous bad experience with needles may feel more pain when getting a shot compared to someone who doesn’t have that association. Similarly, someone who suffers from anxiety or depression may experience heightened pain levels due to the way these conditions can affect the brain’s processing of pain signals. 

The road to better understanding and treatment 

What we know now about pain and how to treat it is only the beginning of what we will eventually understand about pain. There is still so much that we need to learn about chronic pain and effective pain management. 
Researchers are continually studying pain and its mechanisms, striving to develop better treatments and interventions. From medications to physical therapy to mindfulness techniques, there are various approaches to managing pain, and what works best can vary from person to person. 
Plus, there is growing recognition of the importance of holistic approaches to pain management, taking into account not just the physical aspect of pain but also the psychological and social factors that can influence it. This might include cognitive-behavioural therapy, support groups, or lifestyle modifications aimed at reducing stress and improving overall well-being. 
As our understanding of pain continues to evolve, so too will our ability to alleviate suffering and improve the quality of life for those living with chronic pain conditions. By recognising pain as a complex and multifaceted phenomenon, we can move towards more comprehensive and compassionate approaches to pain management. 

Final thoughts 

Pain is a key aspect of the human experience, serving as a vital warning system to protect us from harm. While it can be unpleasant, it also plays an important role in keeping us safe and healthy. By understanding the mechanisms of pain and addressing the various factors that can influence it, we can work towards more effective treatments and better support for those living with chronic pain. 
Do you want to help others treat and manage their pain? Why not consider a career in sports massage? Find out more about our sports massage courses and introduction to sports massage courses here. 
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