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Pain?! What is it anyway....?

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

So you're experiencing pain, right? I get it. In fact, I can be sure almost every human "gets it".

You have pain but want to know what is causing it? When you have an obvious injury- this can be an easy question to answer BUT most of the time there is no obvious injury or "thing" that is causing your pain. What then?

In this post- you will learn:

  • what pain actually is

  • what purpose it really serves

  • how it is really on your side

  • to change your relationship with pain

  • to understand pain that can not easily be explained.

Let's get started.

A life without pain- good or bad?

Pain is important. How do we know this? Because we can study people that don't experience it.

There are people that are born that don't experience any pain at all. Unfortunately, they don't live long. They burn themselves without noticing. Can bleed from a wound they don't know they have and is generally a very dangerous condition to have. Read more...

The life expectancy of someone who has this disease (congenital insensitivity to pain- CIP) is much shorter than the average person. The reason for this? Because pain is ultimately there to protect us. It is on our side- most of the time!

Understanding pain

I work in the field of pain. People come to me because they are in pain. They have lots of questions. They often want to know the following:

What is causing it?

Why do I have it?

How do I get better?

These are all very important questions and necessary to know for recovery BUT I am yet to meet someone who asks the very simple question "what is pain?" or even better "what is the purpose of this pain I am experiencing?"

You might be reading this and thinking- this is splitting hairs! Why do I need to know the purpose of pain? What difference does it make?

Well, actually... A LOT!

You have many protective systems that help you survive

So we have established that pain is important. We can't live long without it but don't want to live with it!

In order to understand the purpose of pain, let me make a comparison to another uncomfortable sensation that we feel on a regular basis (some more than others!)- HUNGER!

What is the purpose of hunger?

It protects us from starvation! If we never felt the sensation to want to eat- then we wouldn't eat! We would just be getting skinny and tired but have no motivation to search for sustenance.

We need to feel discomfort to create the necessary behaviour change to survive!

Now here is the interesting part. We experience hunger 40 DAYS before likelihood of dying of lack of food. Now that is a pretty good protective system!

So, what does this tell us?

Pain as a protective system

So we have established that hunger is a protective system (that motivates us to eat food) to prevent us from dying from starvation. Hunger kicks in waaaayyyyy before we are in any danger of starvation.

So what? What does this have to do with pain? For the clever ones amongst you, you have probably made the link already.

Pain is an uncomfortable sensation we experience that has the purpose of protecting us from injury.

That means that most people experience pain even when there is minimal damage to the body.

Let's put this into context...!

You have hurt your back. You have been doing a lot of digging in the garden and have woken up with twinges and acute pain in your low back.

If you are like most people- you then probably think- "what have I done?" "what have I injured?"

The mind can run riot with worries and concerns about what you have done.

For those that understand the purpose of pain however- they might think slightly different and say something like the following.

"I am in pain because I have a system that is protecting me from doing any damage by over exerting."

"I have a protective system that is telling me to take it easy for a while"

"I am experiencing something unpleasant for the purpose of protecting me"

Are you in the 10%?

The majority of pains that people experience are due to the body protecting you from the potential of harm!

90% of pain can not be imaged, x-rayed or detected in any way with investigations. Weird right?

This is because only 10% of pain is due to actual injury! The other 90% is due to overload or potentially harmful events on the body that the pain system does not like!

Let's put this in the context of lower back pain.

Only 5-10% of back pain can be detected as injury. the other 95% is "non specific". This "non specificity" can be explained when you understand what pain is and how and why it works (read more)

Stop looking for tangible answers that don't exist

So now we are coming to the crux of why this is so important!

I have seen it a lot in my clinical practice. Patients often go down the rabbit hole of looking for that tangible "thing" that is causing their pain. If you have understood everything this far, then you will know that the majority of pains can only be explained when you understand the phenomenon of pain.

Can you image hunger? Can you find hunger in the body? The answer is no!

Can you identify why you are hungry? Can you look for ways to resolve your hunger? Yes!

Can you image pain? Can you find pain in the body? ....

Can you indentify why you are in pain? Can you look for ways to resolve your pain?...

I am hopeful you know the answer to these questions... :)


We are full of protective mechanisms like hunger, thirst and pain.

They exist to keep us alive and the uncomfortable sensations kick in to protect us from harm.

90% of pain is non- specific which means that it cannot be found through investigations.

Understanding the protective nature of pain will help you ask the right questions to recover and not fall down the rabbit hole of looking for a "thing" that is causing your pain.

Further reading:

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