What is pain?

So what the heck is “pain” anyway?

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

This is a decent if nonspecific definition.  I have a few quibbles.  The vagueness is distancing, and “unpleasant” is a bit of a weak word. I suppose some pain could be described as “unpleasant”. Actually, it would be nice if all pain were merely unpleasant. I like that they include “potential tissue damage”. It seems to me that neuropathic pain could be that, the threat of tissue damage, or the risk of tissue damage, or a hint of tissue damage. Or a memory of tissue damage, which threatens/denotes risk of/hints at tissue damage.

But as a definition,  it’s a little dry. It doesn’t really describe the PAIN part of pain.

Medical news Today says, “in medicine pain relates to a sensation that hurts. If you feel pain it hurts, you feel discomfort, distress and perhaps agony, depending on the severity of it.” That’s closer in that it goes beyond mere discomfort, but it doesn’t address the damage issue.

The Stanford School of Medicine Pain Management Center says that “pain is the way your brain interprets information about a particular sensation that your body is experiencing.”

Ah, now we get to the crux of the matter. Pain does not exist in and of itself. Pain happens as a result of what happens to you. The Stanford definition limits itself to the physical body, but it can be applied to the rest of you as well.

Pain is felt by you as a result of some kind of stimulus. Whether that stimulus is physical, neurological, psychological or emotional doesn’t matter. You drop a box of hammers on your foot, your nerve pathways mistake something innocuous for a threat, the memory of something is too difficult to comprehend so the pain stops you from remembering, from going to that place, by making that place a place of pain. Your girlfriend leaves you, you want want want that thing you’re addicted to so much it hurts, there is no justice in the world and that manifests as a raging migraine.

There are a million kinds of pain. There are a million ways to deal with pain. Most involve blocking it, distracting yourself from it, wallowing in it or accepting it. More on those later.

The point of this entry is that pain is not a “thing” you can treat in a definitive fashion. It’s your brain’s response to something that’s happening to you. There are three main parts to it – the stimulus, how your brain reacts to the stimulus, and how you (meaning you the individual, the personality, the consciousness) react to how your brain reacts to the stimulus.

One thing is clear. Your pain is yours. No one else will know about it unless you tell them about it. (The telling may not be voluntary, but to some extent you get a choice.) No one can measure it or define for you, because it only exists in you.

So, how are you going to deal with your pain? Are you going to be all stoic and keep it to yourself? Because that works sometimes. Or are you going to tell someone about it in hopes that they can help? Or are you going to share with the whole class?

Published in: on April 1, 2010 at 7:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

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