What Pain Is

We may not know much about pain but we sure know what we feel. And that is really what it comes down to. Pain is a feeling that only the person experiencing it can really know.

In this series I’ve attempted to show that pain is the result of complex neurological processes triggered by injury and/or disease and/or factors we don’t understand. In fact, defining pain in a scientifically acceptable fashion was long considered difficult by researchers and clinicians until well into the 20th Century. It is the subjective nature of pain that makes it so hard to define.

A textbook definition from The Management Of Pain by John J Bonica (2nd Edition, 1990 is, “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in terms of such damage.” In light of increased knowledge of how the brain works since 1990, I prefer the following: “Pain is an unpleasant phenomenon of human experience that has sensory, cognitive and emotional dimensions.” This, to me, better takes into account the multi-factorial nature of pain.

There are other definitions but all point to the subjective nature of pain. Any way one defines pain therefore, it remains a feeling. Earlier I discussed so-called real and imaginary (or psychological) pain. It is worth noting that even those researchers who believed that pain could be a purely psychological phenomenon, stated that to the person experiencing such pain, it was as real as the pain from a broken bone.

This underlines the experiential nature of pain and validates the pain of many individuals whose doctors may have told them there was nothing wrong or that their pain was all in their heads. In my opinion the logical responses to such statements include the following. “If nothing is wrong, why do I feel pain?” and “So what if it is all in my head – I still feel it.” Recall that in this series I have pointed out that everyone’s pain is “all in the head”.

The answer to this series’ question is that pain is a sensation like any other sensory experience such as seeing , hearing, or tasting – and just as real. The question of how sensations and perceptions occur in the first place has been studied for years but remains incompletely understood. Pain is an integral part of human nature and like human nature, often mysterious. In future posts I hope to delve into the heart of mystery.