Every human being throughout history has felt pain sometime in his life. The moment a newborn leaves the womb, he is exposed to his first experiences of light and sound; which is painful compared to the cozy embryonic sac they have become accustomed to. Everyone in the world has felt disappointed or let down, which can also be painful. There are two major types of pain in the world; physical pain and emotional pain, which can be somewhat related at times, and independent of each other at other times.
Physical pain is a widely studied subject amongst todays scientist community. It has not yet been clearly discovered exactly what causes pain, as Don Ranney states on his web page, Pain: Anatomy:
Pain is a perception, not really a sensation, in the same way that vision and hearing are. It involves sensitivity to chemical changes in the tissues and then interpretation that such changes are harmful. This perception is real, whether or not harm has occurred or is occurring. Cognition is involved in the formulation of this perception. There are emotional consequences, and behavioral responses to the cognitive and emotional aspects of pain.
This implies that we can learn pain and control it to a certain degree. It has been discovered that chemical changes in the body send nerve impulses to the brain, which in turn cause a reflex of some kind.
The gate control theory has been one of the most accepted explanations of the chemical processes of pain. Fordyce (16) summarizes gate control as follows:
The theory proposes that (1) the substantia gelatinosa functions as a gate control system that modulates the amount of input transmitted from the peripheral fibers to the dorsal horn transmission (T) cells; (2) the dorsal column and dorsolateral systems of the spinal cord act as a central control trigger, which activates selective brain processes that influence modulating properties of the gate control system; and (3) the T cells activate neural mechanisms that constitute the action system responsible for both response and perception.
Basically, there are gates that are open to chemical changes, such as a change in pH, which allow for nerve impulses to reach the brain. Then the brain does two things; try to close the gate to alleviate the pain, and also send signals to other parts of the body in an attempt to get rid of the pain. However complex the scientific explanation of pain may be, humans can describe pain with one word: unwanted. I dont like pain, but sometimes it is unavoidable, and just happens.
For example, hockey can be a vicious game, as I found out first-hand in October of 1999. In an act of heroism, I used the side of my face to stop the puck from entering our net. The main trouble was that the puck was moving at around 85 miles per hour when it hit my face. The bones in the jaw are not quite strong enough to withstand such a blow, and my left mandible bone broke in two places. From the instant that happened and for the next few days I was in severe pain. For the next few weeks I was in constant pain, although not quite as severe.
Recently I have discovered another way to put my body through the fiery depths. As part of my baseball teams conditioning, we do plyometrics (jumping, sprinting), which both strengthens and conditions the body. I had done this before in my life, but it had been a while. So after the first two days of exercise, every muscle in my legs (including some I didnt know I had), and some of my upper body muscles, was in so much pain that I could hardly use them. Although it was physically painful, it was also funny in a way because my body felt so useless.
Emotional pain is far more complex since it takes place in the brain, and the brain is difficult to study. However, since all pain is a perception, we can perceive that something is wrong and therefore feel pain because of that. We can feel pain even though there is nothing physically happening if the brain decides to feel pain.
A great example of my emotional pain was the pain that I felt when remembering the physical pain described above. More severe emotional pain has come from things that I am passionate about. Ive felt sad about things that havent gone my way. I lost a whole year of hockey due to a back injury, which wasnt that physically painful, but left emotional scars. As stated before, pain is universal. How I (and other people) deal with pain determines how well I will live my life.
Some people can handle pain more than others. The least experience of pain a person can recognize is known as his pain threshold. The greatest level of pain a person is prepared to tolerate is know as his pain tolerance. Studies have demonstrated that the pain threshold level is relatively uniform, while the tolerance or reaction level varies among individuals and within the same individual at different times (Jacox, 148). If a person has a low pain threshold and a high pain tolerance, then he will always be in pain, but will be able to tolerate it. A person with a higher pain tolerance will be able to withstand more pain without it having negative effects on their life. If someone has a low pain threshold, they may think they are injured (and cannot perform) when in reality they are just hurt (and can perform, even though it may be painful). Those with high thresholds often deal with pain better since it takes a lot of pain to affect them. Those with low thresholds need to learn effective ways to deal with, and manage, their pain.
When I was in the hospital with my broken jaw, the nurses gave me what is probably the best way to alleviate physical pain: drugs. From legal drugs like Tylenol, to illegal drugs like morphine, drugs work because they change the chemical processes outlined at the beginning of this paper. The more intense the pain is, the more powerful the drug needs to be. My first night in the hospital was probably the most painful, so I received doses of morphine. As Homer Simpson would say, mmm morphine. Anybody who has ever received morphine knows that it works unbelievably well, except for a few who are not affected at all. When I left the hospital three days later, the pain was not as intense, but still intense enough to give me Tylenol 3 with codeine. These little pills work wonderfully if they dont have to combat very much pain, and they worked well in my case.
Another way to deal with pain involves using the brain to block out the pain. As stated before, pain is a perception. A person can train his brain to perceive pain (the rain in Spain) at different levels, and also to combat pain in less severe ways. For example, if a person tells himself that walking on hot coals is not painful so much that his brain believes it, then he wont perceive pain when we walks across the hot coals. This does not mean that damage in not occurring in the tissues of his feet.
Life is a series of tradeoffs; pain is unwanted but it is also necessary. Pain is the bodys natural defense mechanism. If a behavior that damages tissue, such as walking on hot coals, was not painful, then people would continually damage tissues and the body would fail. Pain control with drugs may alleviate the sensation of pain, but they generally do not speed up the healing process. I felt fairly good in the hospital doped up on morphine with a double fracture, good enough that at times I wanted to leave the hospital, but obviously I was in no physical condition to do so. So what is my definition of pain?
Pain a biologically complex process necessary to live, but what a pain in the neck.
Fordyce, Wilbert E. Behavioral Methods For Chronic Pain And Illness. Saint Louis: The C.V. Mosby Company, 1976.
Jacox, Ada K. Pain: A Source Book for Nurses and other Health Professionals. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977.
Ranney, Don. Pain: Anatomy. 17 March 2000 .