What We Used to Think
We used to think that pain was a direct sensation that indicated tissue damage. The only way to feel pain was to be injured in some way. Science has since learned that the stimulus directly occurring from tissue damage isn’t really pain. It’s something related to pain called nociception.
What We Know Now
We now know that pain is not a sensation, but a perception that is experienced in your mind. This isn’t to say that pain is all in your head. Only that sensations from your body are perceived in your mind. Pain is related to tissue damage, but independent of it. It’s more appropriate to think of pain as a warning sign that your brain gives off to keep you safe. With this new understanding, we know that pain doesn’t necessarily indicate injury. You can have pain without injury, and injury without pain.
When tissue is damaged, a signal called nociception is sent to the brain. The brain sends out a response in an effort to minimize damage and begin the healing process. This signal is processed in the brain and usually perceived as pain. For a number of reasons, the perception of pain can also occur in the absence of tissue damage. When this happens, factors such as environmental or psychological stressors might be what are causing the pain. Yes, excess levels of stress can lead to more physical pain.
It’s also been proven that no two human brains are identical. Not even in identical twins. This means that a sharp, burning, stabbing, or pricking pain might be perceived completely differently from person to person. We use pain management strategies that incorporate this idea when treating our patients, and use it as motivation to consider every patient’s case of pain as unique.