This post is by Dr. Dustin Lee
Raise your hand if you have ever experienced pain before. If you are like most people, then you can probably recall at least a handful of painful experiences that you have been through. You can probably remember where you were at, what you were doing, what it felt like and who you were with when the pain occurred. Some of your experiences may have involved an unknown situation, such as bending forward and suddenly feeling back pain, while some other experiences may have been accidental, like accidentally smacking your thumb with a hammer. However, in most situations, pain was experienced for a reason, and that reason was likely to protect you from causing further harm. This is the reason you decided to stop bending forward and lifting objects, and the reason that you withdrew your thumb from holding the nail and decided to stop swinging the hammer aimlessly toward the nail.
Pain is a rather interesting topic to discuss because not many people see eye to eye on what the pain experience is. For instance, depending on your sex, culture, family environment, beliefs, experiences, etc., your perception of pain might be vastly different than someone else’s. There are Indian tribes that can pierce their bodies multiple times with hooks and hang from their piercings without displaying any signs of discomfort. If you are like me, you grimaced just from imagining or reading this; our perception of that situation is that it should be painful, but their perception must be vastly different.
I believe that we can share common ground when discussing pain. This common ground should be easily relatable to the average Jane or Joe, but also discussed at the biophysiological level when determining how we can best intervene against painful experiences with medical and healthcare providers. We will start with the definition of pain. Pain is defined by the International Association for the Study of Pain (IASP) as, “an unpleasant sensory or emotional experience in the presence of actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” 1 This definition holds tremendous value because it describes pain as being a sensory experience, with the potential for having an emotional context, with or without having any type of injury (termed as trauma) associated with the body. This also implies that pain is not necessarily a simple formula where “a” equals “b,” but that the pain experience is made up of many complex interactions within our bodies that occur to produce the sensation of pain. This also implies that pain can be normal and protective when our body experiences injury or tissue trauma, but that pain can be abnormal in that it does not necessarily require injury or tissue trauma for pain to be experienced.
Seems complex? It is.
Can we do something about the pain experience? Yes.
How? By treating pain by understanding how pain is produced and where the appropriate treatment needs to be directed.
Fun to learn about? Only if you are a nerd like me.