Pain Lives in the Brain


Pain is a universal concept. It’s understood as the unpleasant (sometimes chronic) sensation that warns against potentially damaging or harmful stimuli found in everyday life. While pain is in fact uncomfortable and unpleasant, it does help us as humans adapt in a way that teaches us to avoid situations that could hurt us. But, have you ever wondered exactly how we interpret pain?

The Perception of Pain

In simplest terms, pain is a complex interaction between sensory nerve cells, the spinal cord, and the brain. When an area of our bodies is injured, certain pain receptors are activated and send signals throughout the peripheral nervous system (PNS) to the central nervous system (CNS), where responses are triggered. The PNS actually houses the nerves that respond to pain (peripheral nerves); these nerves carry messages from skin, muscles, and internal organs to your spinal cord and brain (CNS) in the form of electrical currents and chemical reactions.  

The peripheral nerves are what sense the threatening stimuli, whether it’s a cut, burn, or pressure. In fact, these are the same nerve cells that transmit information from your senses (smell, sight, hearing, taste, and touch). The specialized nerve endings we are referring to are called nociceptors, all found in your skin, bones, joints, muscles, and tissues, and send the pain messages along the peripheral nerve to the spinal cord.

Pain is Multidimensional

Pain is both physical and emotional, involving other psychological aspects, like learning and memory. After life experience in hurting ourselves in the past, we now know that cutting ourselves while dicing onions is painful. Thus, the anticipation of pain has a say in our perception. Often, there’s even an emotional response that comes after we stub our toe or slip and fall, such as frustration with ourselves.  

There are two types of pain: chronic and acute. Chronic pain lasts longer than six months and can be anywhere from just annoying to crippling, while acute pain is onset by a specific injury or disease and usually heals after a certain period of time. Chronic pain, on the other hand, hijacks the brain, causing it to reorganize the white and gray matter into a dys-regulated state. To help with this pain, a person needs psychological and neurological assessment. One way to stop the pain is to change the way the brain reacts to nerve impulses from a dys-regulated state to a regulated state. Biofeedback is a recognized treatment modality for chronic pain.

Emotional Pain Feels Physical

When we have our hearts broken, we often describe this feeling as “heartache.” There is truth to this metaphor, as emotional pain can cause physical reactions, such as certain sensations in our chest. Whether it’s muscle tightness, increased heart rate, nausea, or shortness of breath (a panicky feeling), emotional pain involves the same areas of the brain as that of physical pain.

The anterior cingulate cortex is the area of the brain that regulates emotional reactions. It’s been shown that activity in this region helps to explain how an emotionally stressful situation can trigger a biological response. When dealing with something emotionally stressful, the anterior cingulate cortex increases the activity in what’s called the vagus nerve (which starts in the brain stem and connects to the neck, chest, and abdomen). When overstimulated, the vagus nerve can cause feelings of pain and nausea.

Pain is Different for Everyone

Brain imaging today has confirmed that pain is felt differently by everyone, as some may be more sensitive to pain than others. While one sensation may feel painful by one person, it may simply feel uncomfortable to another. It’s important that, if you are experiencing pain, to seek the appropriate help and advice. You don’t have to live with it.