The human body is capable of perceiving different unpleasant sensations which the brain interprets as pain. It is important for the body to be able to recognize certain types of pain because the feeling of pain warns our brain that we are experiencing an injury. For example, a sharp feeling of intense burning pain tells our body to quickly remove our thumb away from the hot stove before more skin becomes harmed. In the same way, putting weight on a sprained ankle sends a jolt of pain to remind us that the stabilizing ligaments in our foot have not yet healed. Pain isn’t always a bad thing because it can protect us. In many instances, if we completely disregard pain, we risk further injury.
Our bodies have specialized nerve endings known as nociceptors that have built in receptors to detect harmful physical stress such as mechanical injury, chemical injury, or potentially dangerous temperature changes (heat and cold). Once stimulated, these nociceptors send signals through the spinal cord to the brain, which interprets the signal as pain.
Acute pain begins suddenly, and is usually described as having a sharp quality. This type of sensation is helpful to the body because it warns us of a dangerous or potentially hazardous situation. Some examples of acute pain would be: a burned finger, a sprained ankle, a scraped knee, a broken bone, pain after surgery, during a heart attack, during childbirth, while passing a kidney stone, and after you accidentally hit your finger with a hammer. Acute pain only lasts for a short or readily identifiable amount of time. Once the underlying cause of the pain has been removed, the discomfort goes away. Modern medicine is excellent at understanding and providing treatment for acute pain.
However, the longer the sensation of pain remains perceived by the brain, the greater the likelihood of the discomfort turning into chronic pain. Chronic pain can continue inexplicably for months and years after a stress or injury has healed. Although chronic pain can be linked to an initial injury (such as a bad infection, sprained back, or car accident) sometimes chronic pain has no known cause. For some unknown reason nociceptors continue to bombard the brain with signals that the brain interprets as persistent pain. Because medical doctors and researchers are unable to determine the reason why the nociceptors continue to transmit pain signals, the medical community has difficulty assessing and providing treatment for chronic pain.
Examples of conditions that may cause chronic pain are: migraines, low back pain, muscle tension headaches, cluster headaches, cancer, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Fibromyalgia, Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, phantom limb pain, Lyme disease, sciatica, endometriosis, occipital neuralgia, physical damage to nerves (neurogenic pain), Post Mastectomy Pain Syndrome, slipped or bulging discs, Crohn’s disease, and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
It is not uncommon for people who suffer from chronic pain to become frustrated and depressed, especially if their healthcare providers insinuate that their pain problem is all in their mind, or if their friends and loved ones do not understand their situation. Even though chronic pain cannot be easily measured or defined, it is a very real and debilitating health concern that requires further research.