Everybody experiences pain, but what exactly is pain and how do we measure it? Developing a common scale to identify levels of pain is difficult considering that everyone has a slightly different physical response to pain stimuli. Scientists define pain as “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.”1 However, this may be outdated thinking.
Here are a few things you need to know:
- Scientists no longer think of pain as an actual measure of tissue damage.2 Consider deep tissue damage such as a bullet wound, which is often painless, when compared to a superficial cut on the skin, which can be unreasonably painful. Why does this happen? With superficial injuries, the nerve endings are sending loud signals to the brain that something is wrong, whereas with deep injuries these nerve signals can be paralyzed or severed.2
- Pain is so much more than just a sensation or physical manifestation. It is a subjective experience. For instance, on a scale of 0–10 (0 being no pain, 10 being unbearable pain), a paper cut might be rated as 2 for one person and 5 for another. Both individuals are in pain, but their experience is different.
- Psychology plays a part in how the body interprets pain. What about people who are in pain, but have no actual tissue damage? This usually stems from the psychological interpretation of pain signals.3 Based on the subjective recollection alone, it is impossible to distinguish psychological pain from pain due to tissue damage. Even though we most often correlate pain with injury, there are many causes of pain that do not stem from actual tissue damage or pain that persists once the tissue has healed. This does not mean that the pain is not real, rather, it may imply that the pain pathway is continuously being activated in the absence of any damage.
- IASP Taxonomy. International Association of the Study of Pain. 2012. Available at https://www.iasp-pain.org/Taxonomy?navItemNumber=576#Pain. Accessed October 20, 2017.
- Livingston WK. What is pain? Scientific American. 1953;188(3):59-67.
Gatchel RJ, Peng YB, Peters ML, Fuchs PN, Turk DC. The biopsychosocial approach to chronic pain: scientific advances and future directions. Psychological Bulletin. 2007;133(4):581.