Where and how do we feel pain?
We feel pain as a result of “exchanges” between our peripheral nerves, spinal cord, and brain. The peripheral nerves come out from the spinal cord to basically everywhere – our skin, muscles, bones, joints and organs. Those nerves either end with peripheral nerve fiber or nociceptors which detect potential tissue damage. You find the most nociceptors where you’re most likely to hurt yourself – like fingers and toes. You stub your toe and that sends a pain message, an electrical impulse, along the peripheral nerve to your spinal cord and up to your brain.
Inside the spinal cord, the dorsal horn releases chemicals, neurotransmitters, that activate other nerve cells, which then process the information, transmitting it up to the brain. Your brain gets the message in the thalamus, where it’s forwarded to the somatosensory cortex (identifies the pain), limbic system (emotional feelings and suffering), and the frontal cortex (gives it meaning).
Here’s what we know: Pain messages don’t actually take a direct route from pain receptors to your brain. When the message gets to your spinal cord, it’s met with some gatekeepers – specialized nerve cells that filter the pain messages before they get to your brain.
Those gatekeepers make a determination about how quickly to send the message up. When you burn yourself, the gate is wide open and those messages get up to the brain super fast. Smaller injuries don’t get the express treatment.
Nociceptors that transmit touch also interact with the gatekeepers. When you stub your toe and then rub it, it feels better because the touch from the rubbing actually decreases the transmission of pain signals.
Your spinal cord can release chemicals that intensify pain, making the signal louder and messages from your brain can also affect the gate.
Your brain can influence your perception of pain. It can signal nerve cells to release endorphins and enkephalins, which lessen the pain. How you interpret your pain can be affected by your current emotional state, PTSD, how you were raised, how old you are, your belief system, society, your attitude and your expectations.
When it comes to chronic pain, we experience it differently. Sometimes we feel chronic pain in tissue that doesn’t appear to be damaged or long after something has healed. It can be affected by our emotional state. People with mood disorders can be more likely to experience chronic pain and it can sometimes be completely alleviated by treating those mental symptoms.
Why and how does that happen? In studies, the theory is that someone who has chronic pain, feels it amplified. The nervous system is distorting the signal like a stereo speaker turned up too loud. This results in a condition that is severely painful and out of proportion to the original injury or disease. This can be a result of inflammation, which can cause your nociceptors to send out much more intense signals. This can affect all the pain-processing regions in your nervous system including the thinking, feeling and sensing parts. And then you’ve got an addition of emotional and psychological suffering.
The link between our nervous system and our immune response is important here. Cytokines, a type of protein found in the nervous system, are also part of the body’s immune system – the shield for fighting off disease. Cytokines can trigger pain by promoting inflammation, even without an injury.
After a trauma, cytokine levels rise in the brain and spinal cord and in the peripheral nervous system. It’s easy to see how your immune system might be compromised in the event of chronic pain.
It would be wonderful to be able to stimulate a placebo effect to our advantage when we’re experiencing chronic pain. It seems our body is confused about where we hurt and how much it really does hurt. The signals are whacky and the volume is just turned up to 11.
If you’re looking for alternatives to traditional pain killers, or if you’re one of the people they no longer work for, there are things you can do to help you cope.
Some essential oils are natural analgesics and because they aren’t synthetic, your body may respond to them better. Some are even considered natural antidepressants. It’s possible you could use them intentionally for pain relief and lifting your mood. You could also try acupuncture, see a chiropractor, see an energy healer, try hypnosis and meditation and make sure you are doing adequate self-care.
List Something Good
Make a short list of Self-Care activities and do one every day. (Here’s a list of suggestions to get you started.)