Imagine a life without pain. No irritating backaches, throbbing migraines, or aching joints. Sounds perfect right? Think again. Some people can’t feel pain, courtesy of a condition called Congenital analgesia. Unfortunately, such individuals are more likely to die young because they are unable to navigate the survival mechanisms that are linked to the perception of pain. This leads to their injuries or illnesses going unnoticed. So I guess it’s fair to say that the ability to feel pain is important for survival. Sounds counterproductive but it’s true!
WHAT IS PAIN?
Pain protects us. It is a kind of perception and a communication tool for our body, similar to our 5 senses, (touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste). The difference is that our 5 senses, tell us what’s happening in the world around us, whilst pain tells us what’s happening in the world within our own bodies.
For instance, If you accidentally touched a hot stove, you’d immediately recoil your finger in pain to prevent a more serious burn. This reflexive behavior caused by the feeling of pain allows the body to react and prevent further tissue damage. We store this information in our brain so that we are less likely to repeat the action of sticking our hands on a hot stove. Lesson learned. Now imagine someone with congenital analgesia in that situation…it wouldn’t make for a ‘happily ever after’ would it.
The most common definition of pain is “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. Pain can be short-term, lasting anything from a couple of seconds to a couple of months. This type of pain is called acute pain. when pain lasts longer than 3 months, it is called Chronic pain. This is where it gets a bit more complex because, with chronic pain, your body can continue to send pain signals to your brain, even after an injury has healed.
When you suffer an injury, your nervous system is in charge of delivering the news to your brain. Imagine that you cut your finger. A network of nerve cells in your finger picks up the signal that something’s wrong. These nerve cells relay this message to the spinal cord, which then shoots the message up to the brain. The brain then translates the message and registers the feeling: ‘Ouch!’ That is an example of actual tissue damage, causing pain.
In the case of chronic pain, there is usually but, (not always) an initial injury. Let’s take the case of the finger cut again. The body continues to send pain signals to the brain, even after the cut heals. These maladaptive and overactive pain signals lower the threshold for pain tolerance and causes damage to the nervous system by changing the perception of pain. This creates a spiral of pain-causing side effects, which cause more pain, such as increased pain sensations from normal things that wouldn’t usually cause pain, trouble sleeping, stress, and fear of movement. This spiral effect is why it is usually harder to treat chronic pain compared to acute pain.
So if you are that individual who is always waiting until your symptoms become so intolerable before seeking professional advice, think twice, before you accidentally turn a simple fixable acute problem into a more chronic one.