Understanding pain as your body’s alarm system

pretty fire

In my experience, the key to learning to work with your pain instead of against it is to learn to view pain as your body’s alarm system.

In the developed world, most of us are privileged enough to have very little experience with pain.  As children, we only feel pain when we’re at the doctor’s office getting a shot, or when we fall down and skin our knees.  We come to the conclusion that our bodies are designed for us to come to: that pain means something is wrong. 

The truth is that pain a bit more complicated than that.  What I learned from pain neurophysiology education is that pain is the body’s alarm system.  It not only warns us when something is wrong, but when the body thinks something might go wrong.  To help you better understand this, I’ve collected the following anecdotes:

Pain can stop you from injuring yourself

In his amazing online lectures that I think everyone should watch, Neil Pearson instructs his audience to extend one index finger straight up in the air, and then use the index finger of the other hand to slowly bend the first finger backwards.  It doesn’t take long for this to hurt; however, your finger hasn’t actually been damaged.  The pain is your body’s way of telling you to stop, because if you keep going, it will be damaged.

The body’s protective mechanisms don’t always work perfectly.  Case in point: thirst.

There are many ways that our body can warn us to do something, or not to do something.  Thirst is another example.

Thirst is largely controlled by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus.  This part of the brain has a “thirst center” which measures the ratio of blood cells to water in your blood.  When the percentage of water dips below a certain point, your brain tells you are thirsty.

In his book Painful Yarns, Lorimer Moseley explains how thirst is not as accurate a measure of hydration as we generally believe.  He tells the story of two individuals whose car broke down in the middle of the Australian Outback.  They nearly died of dehydration.  When they were finally rescued, they drank until their stomachs were full of water and then told their rescuers they weren’t thirsty.  In fact, they were still severely dehydrated: most of the water they had consumed was still in their stomachs, not circulating in their bloodstream where it could do them any good.

What had happened is that the act of drinking up all that water had temporarily overridden the thirst signals their brains were sending.  The thirst mechanism is designed to get us to drink, and they had drunk all the water their bodies could handle at that moment.  They were still severely dehydrated, yet they weren’t thirsty.

The essence of what I’m trying to say here is that pain and thirst are mechanisms the body uses to get us to take action in some way.  Neither one is always an accurate indicator of exactly what is happening in the body.  They are a sign that the body wants us to do something.

Your body can block out pain signals when something else is more important.

One last thing to know about the pain alarm system is that your body can override it if your survival is in jeopardy.  If you are caught in a situation where your life is in danger, your nervous system might decide it is more important for you to focus on what’s going on around you than what’s going on inside your body.

Neil Pearson gives a great example of this.  He tells the story of a patient he once treated who had been hit by a drunk driver on the way to work.  He woke up upside down in his burning car, and realized he had lost an arm in the accident.

The man managed to extricate himself from the car, collect his missing arm, and walk back up to the side of the highway all without feeling any pain. 

As Pearson explains, it’s not as if the nerves in his arm weren’t sending his brain any signals; they were sending signals like crazy.  But his brain knew there were more important things to focus on: retrieving the arm, getting away from the fire, and getting help as soon as possible.  Once he was safely in the ambulance, his brain knew his immediate survival was no longer in question and pain signals set in with a vengeance.

In Conclusion

Pain is your body’s alarm system.  It is not there to give you accurate readings, at all times, of what is going in your body. Rather, it has been designed by millions of years of evolution to get you to change your course of action if your body thinks you need to do something differently.

In the case of people with fibromyalgia and chronic pain, this alarm system has begun to malfunction.  When the body goes through a painful, traumatic experience, it can change the way the nervous system works.  The pain alarm system can become overactive, and your nerves start sending you pain signals at odd times, or all the time, even when nothing is physically wrong.

This isn’t an intuitive process.  As I discusses earlier, pain signals are designed to make us think something is wrong.  Our biology leads us to believe that the amount of pain we feel is equal to the amount of physical damage we have incurred.  But when you begin to understand, on a conscious level, that pain doesn’t necessarily mean there is anything wrong, you can begin to break the cycle of chronic pain.  (I’ll be talking about how in subsequent posts).

Sources:

Beautiful fire picture courtesy of Loving Earth on Flickr.


7 thoughts on “Understanding pain as your body’s alarm system

  1. Thanks for dropping by and following my blog. Much appreciated. You make some very interesting points on your site. Good luck with the career choices. From my long experience and mistakes,I say go with the heart. I expect you already know where you’ll be happy but the decision is being set against other’s perspectives. Listen to that little voice that is telling you what you already know.

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