The Math of Pain

I just heard a bit on Quirks and Quarks about pain, and how if you, say, catch a Frisbee when your hands are cold it hurts more. The upshot was that if your hands are already somewhat in pain because of the cold, then the impact of the Frisbee will cause even more pain.

Pain plus more pain equals MORE pain.

So if you’re already sore from an injury, a stimulus that might not ordinarily seem painful to you will hurt. A lot. Like someone touching you in a gentle, loving fashion when you have a recent, raging sunburn. You ordinarily enjoy being stroked and coddled, but that sunburn turns the pleasant into something unbearably unpleasant.

And if you have chronic pain, like fibromyalgia or lupus or a bad back, when those ailments are acting up your tolerance to pain will be decreased. An accidental elbow to the ribs on the subway or a brush against a protruding table edge, or even normal physical exertion may cause pain instead of mere annoyance.

This makes the cure for pain sometimes unbearable, because when it comes to muscle/soft tissue related pain, the best way to alleviate the pain is to stretch and exert the muscles. It gets the blood flowing, drains away accumulated fluids, lessens inflammation and breaks up the inappropriate bonds within the soft tissues.

The cure for pain is often painful, even if the pain is emotional. The best way to get over a trauma is sometimes to think about it, replay it, get used to it, normalize it. That’s one of the cures for PTSD.

[The other “cure” is to forget about and go have a drink. But the success rate is highly individualized. And the physical version of that is to self-medicate, or get a doctor to prescribe something that will blot out the pain.]

If you sprain your ankle, you have to give it enough rest for the torn ligaments to mend, but you have to keep it moving at the same time, or you’ll lose range of movement and muscle tone, which will make it that much harder to walk once the tissues are back together again. In a way, you’re revisiting the original trauma, forcing the ligaments to acknowledge that, yes, they were apart, but now they are back together and they must hold together. You’ve kept up the circulation and the muscle tone so you have something for them to rely on until they are back up to speed.

And that hurts. It hurts to do the exercises. It hurts to start walking again. Your foot is already hurting from the injury and inflammation, and then you start putting weight on it and it hurts even more.

Other things will hurt more too. Say you’re laid up with a twisted knee. The you get your period. Normally that’s uncomfortable but tolerable, but since you’re injured you can’t move around as much as you usually do. That makes your period hurt more, because you’re not doing the things that ordinarily make it feel better.

But on top of all that, you’ve got a level of pain in your body that is making you hurt. BAD. And the usual discomfort becomes seriously painful, because you can only take so much pain.

So 1p + 1p = 4p

That math doesn’t make any sense, so people accuse you of being a whiner. Or lazy. Or weak.

They don’t understand that the second pain isn’t being processed by a pain-free body/brain. The brain is processing all this pain and it changes the equation to

(1p + 1p)2 = 4p

And that’s one trap of chronic pain.

Published in: on April 3, 2010 at 5:19 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] does seem to be a clustering effect. Probably because, as I wrote in The Mathematics of Pain, pain makes you more susceptible to pain, and other things. If one condition or ailment or disease […]

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