The Science of Pain

Dr. Cindy Haines Health Guide
  • Wikipedia tells us that pain is "an unpleasant feeling often caused by intense or damaging stimuli, such as stubbing a toe, burning a finger, putting alcohol on a cut, and bumping the 'funny bone'."

    The International Association for the Study of Pain states that pain "is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage."

    Pain is very motivating. It makes the affected person want to withdraw from the inciting event ASAP, seeking out protection, and avoiding such events in the future. Thus, it can serve as a very valuable human defense mechanism. But a major problem that remains with pain is that, many times, pain comes or persists even though there is no detectable damage, disease or inciting event.

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    Physical pain, emotional pain, spiritual pain: three different animals, yet many common threads interweave them together. Could the root of all pain stem from the same multidimensional background of genetic tendency, environmental exposure, and brain/body chemicals? If you think about it, our reaction to any kind of pain is essentially the same: an innate desire to get away/seek safe harbor/obtain relief. How we do this does depend on the type of pain we are experiencing. Seeking assistance from the healthcare industry is a common strategy. And we in the healthcare profession oftentimes come up lacking.

    In discussion of the science of pain, early theory was that pain is a simple reflex of a single channel from skin to brain. Subsequent theory holds that the processing of pain is a much more complex and integrated process, operating on at least three levels: the peripheral (e.g. the skin), the spinal (i.e. the spinal cord) and the supraspinal (i.e. the brain) levels. Of course, there is no accounting for pain other than purely physical under this theory.

    Even more recent theories incorporate the "mind-body connection" whereupon no event affecting the body spares the mind, and vice versa.

    Neurotransmitters have also come under investigation for their role in multiple forms of pain: dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine. We even utilize antidepressants and anticonvulsants as treatment options for a variety of chronic pain syndromes, recognizing the biological and chemical basis rather than choosing them for any psychological or "placebo" effect.

    Pain is one of the most common reasons people seek care from many different facets of the healthcare profession; it is also a common reason for self-medication. Pain is motivating and we in the healthcare profession should be as motivated in helping our patients find that safe harbor, that relief.


    For even more tips on how to get better health and need the health care system less, check out: The New Prescription: How to Get the Best Health Care in a Broken System by Dr. Cynthia D. Haines, M.D. (Dr. Cindy Haines) and Eric Metcalf, M.P.H. This is a book about getting what you really want: better health on your own terms. 

Published On: October 04, 2012