Where does pain come from?

What is pain and where is it produced?


Anyone who has experienced pain for a long period of time will come to understand that pain is not straightforward or easy to figure out. It can burn, shoot, stab or ache, it can give you a feeling of being cold or hot, it sometimes moves from where it originally was, it can come with tingling or numbness, and it can come and go. Frustrating!


Understanding how to live with, or get out of, pain is helped with the knowledge of what pain actually is.


What is pain?


Pain is defined as:


“A distressing experience associated with actual or perceived damage with sensory, emotional, cognitive and social component.”


Is that what you were expecting? Let’s break it down.


First of all, we can all agree that pain is distressing. Any of those symptoms mentioned above are not pleasant and something we definitely try to avoid feeling.


The part about “actual or perceived” damage highlights that pain is not always an indicator of injury. Have you ever discovered a bruise somewhere on your body and not been able to remember how it got there? That’s damage without pain. 


Pain acts more as an alarm system, warning us that damage may or has already occurred, and that we need to do something about it. For example, you can stand on something sharp and feel pain, but you may or may not have cut yourself depending on what it was or how hard you stepped.


The “sensory, emotional, cognitive and social component” refers to the various contributing factors that impact someone’s pain experience. These things include stress levels, how someone is feeling emotionally, thoughts about your pain such as fear or worry, sensations related to actual tissue damage… the list goes on. This makes more sense when you know where the pain actually comes from.


Where does pain come from?


The brain!


You have receptors all over your body that detect things like pressure, temperature and stretch in your tissues. When standing on something sharp, for example, the receptors in your foot would detect the high amount of pressure and send that message to your spinal cord. Your spinal cord would likely then send that message up to your brain and its here where things get interesting.


Your brain interprets this signal along with other factors such as where you are, whether you’ve felt this sensation before, your stress levels, and so on (sensory, emotional, cognitive and social components). If it deems that that amount of pressure is dangerous in relation to your entire situation, then the brain makes you feel the sensation of pain under your foot, and you can react.


The purpose of pain is to make you take action, which in this case, would be taking your foot off whatever it is your standing on, to avoid injury.


There are people in the world who have a rare condition that results in them not being able to feel pain when they are hurt, inside or out. This shows how pain often isn’t coming from where you think it is!