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What is pain, its most common types and what happens when I feel it?

A bearded young man closes his eyes as he touches his neck in pain

From dull aches to muscle soreness and sharp sensations

A bearded young man closes his eyes as he touches his neck in pain

Many of us are not very good at dealing with pain – from needles to knee scrapes, it doesn’t take much to make us wince. Our self-preservation reflexes snap into action and we jerk ourselves away from the dastardly object before we even realise what has happened.

Our bodies are spring-loaded to save us from potential injury by taking even the smallest enemy seriously. So, really, pain is a good thing – if you didn’t feel it as you spilled your boiling hot coffee on your hand, you’d be oblivious to the burn inching across your knuckles. So what is pain – and what happens when we feel it?

What is pain?

“Pain developed as an evolutionary protective mechanism to help us avoid harm,” GP Dr Michela Sorensen explains. “We have specialised pain receptors known as nociceptors that are activated when we’re injured. They send a signal through the nerves to the spinal cord and up into the brain.”

How do we feel pain?

Before the message is delivered to the brain, nerves in our spinal cord react in a microsecond, ordering our muscles to instinctively pull away to avoid further damage.

Once the brain realises something is amiss, it springs into action and sends a pulse back to the part of the body affected so we know which area we need to pay attention to.

Research shows that women feel most types of pain more intensely than men. Scientists speculate this gender difference is partly due to genetic and hormonal differences as well as a tendency to focus on the emotional aspects of pain. Men, by contrast, typically focus on the physical expression of pain, which can help improve pain tolerance.

A mother tends to her young daughter who is crying due to a hurt finger

Is it all in your head?

Our grey matter may be an expert at identifying which toe we’ve stubbed, but it has no pain receptors itself. In fact, surgeons can perform surgery inside the skull without general anaesthetic while the patient is awake. In 2018, a South African man even played guitar during an operation to remove a brain tumour.

Types and causes of pain

From dull aches and muscle soreness to sharp, stabbing sensations and agonising burns, there are myriad ways to experience pain. “One way to categorise pain is by the damage caused,” Michela says.

What are the common types of pain?

1. Neuropathic pain

“Tissue damage is neuropathic pain,” she explains. This includes burning, electric shocks, tingling, pins and needles, numbness and itching.

2. Psychogenic pain

“Psychogenic pain usually starts off as neuropathic but then other factors such as stress, fear or mood can cause it to be prolonged.”

3. Acute pain

Another classification of pain is acute or chronic. “Acute pain is sudden onset, usually as a result of tissue damage and lasts less than three months.”

4. Chronic pain

“Chronic pain lasts longer and can persist after the injury has healed if the pain receptors continue sending signals to the brain,” Michela says.

If you use some fruity language when you cut your finger, good news – swearing can reduce pain

What can happen if we feel too much pain?

How do we know if pain is serious enough to warrant a trip to the GP?
“My advice would be that if the pain is different to anything you’ve felt before, if it’s stopping you from doing things or if it lasts more than few days, you should see a doctor,” Michela says.

So next time you scald yourself with hot coffee, think about the miraculous way messages zip around your body to contain the emergency and then how quickly the damaged cells begin to repair. And if you use some fruity language when you cut your finger slicing carrots, good news – science has shown swearing can reduce pain, with the benefits most noticeable if you don’t usually swear regularly.

Suffering from joint pain? Check out our article on what causes joint pain and how to avoid it. Have a literal pain in the neck? Take a look at our piece on how to fix a sore neck. Is back pain impacting your day-to-day life? We’ve created a piece on the best ways to reduce or eliminate lower back pain.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

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