What is pain?
Pain can be a symptom of a wide variety of problems and conditions. Your body uses pain as warning to you that something is wrong, and as a way of getting you to remove the problem. So for example when you touch something hot, you instantly feel the pain, which causes you to withdraw your hand and prevents further damage being caused to your soft tissue. If you were unable to feel pain you would leave your hand touching the hot surface and it would continue to burn you deeper and deeper.
Common ailments involving pain include:
- Headache and migraine
- Period pain / menstrual cramps
- Muscle pain including - overuse injuries such as sprains and strains, and fibromyalgia
- Joint pain including - arthritis such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and gout
- Back pain
- Heel pain
- Tennis Elbow
- Poor circulation
- Multiple sclerosis
- Nerve Damage
How is pain identified by the body?
Pain begins with your nervous system – nerves throughout your body sense stimuli such as heat, cold, pressure etc. Special pain receptors called nociceptors activate whenever there has been an injury or potential injury. These send off a message, which is passed up through the nerve in your spine to the brain. This happens in a fraction of a second.
The message is sent to different areas of your brain which help to decode it – what kind of pain was it? Did you recognise the pain – have you had it before? Is the pain worse or not so bad as last time? The brain then sends commands to different parts of your body to tell them how to act e.g. move the hand away from the heat.
Types of pain
Pain can be acute or chronic.
Acute pain - is short-term pain. For example when you burn your hand, after it has healed the pain sensations will stop as there is no longer any need for the warning message. However if you have a condition which is constantly damaging your body such as arthritis, then pain signals will be more persistent.
Long-term pain - is known as chronic pain. With chronic pain, it can sometimes be the case that although there is currently no damage being caused, the pain messages continue, making it difficult to treat
Pain can affect one area of your body, such as in the examples above of burning your hand or having arthritis in your knee. Or pain can be systemic – affecting the whole body – such as in flu or fibromyalgia. Pain can be described as steady and constant, like an ache, throbbing, pulsating, pinching or stabbing. If you visit your doctor about your pain, they may ask you to describe it and tools such as the McGill pain questionnaire can help you describe the type, severity and regularity of the pain.
How to treat pain
Treatment for you pain will depend on the cause. It can be important to identify the cause of your pain, in order to treat any underlying condition or stop any action that is resulting in the pain.
Pain relievers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen work by blocking pain signals. Paracetamol is commonly used to treat headaches and other non-nerve pain. In case of injury or arthritis, where there is inflammation, ibuprofen and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines tend to work best.
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Drug free options can also be helpful in treating pain, such as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENs), heat and cold treatments, massage and topical treatments such as creams and gels, and acupuncture.
Other factors such as diet, exercise, relaxation, good sleep, talking, counselling and hypnosis may all help to reduce the pain you experience, and reduce the chance of depression in chronic pain sufferers.