Pain is one of those “you know it when you
feel it” kind of sensations. But it’s also a strange phenomenon, when you think
about it. A snowball is cold, and so it feels cold when you touch it. A block
of concrete is rough, so it feels rough when you touch it. But a knife isn’t
painful on its own. Neither is a pot of boiling water or the leg of a table. We
handle these things safely all the time, and experience their mass and
temperature and texture. But pain exists only in the body, and even more
specifically in our minds. But that doesn’t make it less real! So what exactly
is happening when we feel pain, and how do we stop it from negatively impacting
our lives?

How does pain work?

There are three primary types of pain, and
each of them works a slightly different way.

Nociceptive pain (tissue pain)

There are many different kinds of sense
receptors in the body. Some are sensitive to heat or cold, some to touch or
pressure. Others, called free nerve endings, aren’t specialized for any one
type of stimulus. When a significant stimulus triggers these nerve endings,
they send a message through the spinal cord and up to the brain indicating that
something potentially dangerous has happened. The brain then decides whether this
is something to ignore or brush off or if it seems likely that damage has
occurred, and sends this message back down to the affected part of the body.

If the message is “No biggie, ‘tis but a scratch,” then you’ll
most likely shake yourself off and forget the incident even happened. If it’s
“WHOA, THIS SEEMS LIKE A PROBLEM,” then you experience this as pain.

But brains aren’t always correct when it comes
to assessing danger. Lorimer Moseley gives a brilliant example of this in his TEDx talk. What’s the
difference between the pain from a scratch on the leg and the pain from a
nearly-fatal snake bite? Spoiler alert: it’s whatever your brain is expecting.
That’s why you might feel little pain after a bicycle accident, but be in agony
when getting the wound stitched up two hours later. Pain is weird.

Neuropathic pain (nerve pain)

This is pain that results from an issue with
the nervous system itself, rather than surrounding tissues. If you’ve ever
banged your funny bone, you know this feeling well. Common forms of neuropathic
pain include:

Sciatica: pain in the sciatic nerve running
through the hip and down into the leg and foot

Diabetic neuropathy: nerve damage resulting
from fluctuating blood sugar levels

Carpal tunnel syndrome: pain resulting from
the compression of the nerves that run through the wrist into the hand

Less common forms include phantom limb pain
(pain that feels like it originates in an amputated limb) and postherpetic
neuralgia, which occurs as a result of getting shingles.

Neuropathic pain can be especially frustrating
because the normal things we do to reduce pain are often useless when it comes
to pain originating in the nervous system. Moving or not moving our muscles,
applying heat or ice, can have relatively little impact on nerve pain.

What’s more, nerves don’t heal as well as
things like muscles and skin do, which makes nerve pain more likely to become
chronic pain.

Other kinds of pain

Pain is messy, and a lot of it doesn’t fall
into either of the two categories above. Fibromyalgia is a great example of
this. Is it pain resulting from tissue damage? Nope. What about nerve damage?
Not as far as we can tell. It’s caused by the nervous system malfunctioning,
sometimes in horrible ways, but that doesn’t result from actual nerve damage. And the world of medicine is
still trying to figure out why.

So how do we alleviate pain?

There are several different options.

If the pain is caused by some kind of physical injury or stimulus, you
can work on fixing that.
If your hand is being burned
on a lightbulb, you can remove your hand, which will make most of that pain go
away. If you’re experiencing a muscle cramp in your foot, you can flex the foot
(manually, if necessary). If you’re experiencing pain from sitting in the same
position for too long, you can move around and shake out your legs. If the
cause of the pain is inflammation, anti-inflammatories and ice can reduce that.
This is perhaps the ideal form of pain relief.

You can block the messages that tell your brain you’re in pain. This is how many painkillers work. Ice also helps to numb nerve

You can convince your brain that you’re not in any real danger. This is a tough one, because the brain doesn’t just listen when you
tell it things. But it’s well documented that fear,
stress, and anxiety lead to increased pain perception. And of course, pain
leads to stress, which leads to pain … General relaxation techniques—from
meditation to light exercise to getting a massage—can all be helpful in turning
the brain’s pain alarms down a notch. Physical therapy (practicing certain
motions in a way that isn’t painful) can also be useful here too.

How can massage help with pain?

Sometimes the issue is one that massage can
help manage on a physical level. But even more often, massage gives the brain a
chance to let down its guard and experience something non-painful and even
pleasant in the body. And while there’s no silver bullet for pain, that can
mean a lot for people whose pain has defied more straightforward treatments and
whose injuries or illnesses are already healed.

Feeling the hurt yourself? There’s a massage
with your name on it. Book
your next one today