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The pain process

  • Four steps

    Your body processes pain through four steps.

    1. First, the nociceptors (little receivers in your body) pick up the pain message once it is strong enough. For example, you cut your finger. 
    2. Next, this message is relayed through your peripheral nerves to your brain.
    3. Then your brain decides where the pain will be felt both physically and emotionally. Physical feelings can include burning, shooting or throbbing pain. Emotional feelings can include anxiety, fear or pleasure.
    4. Finally, your body and brain try to deal with the pain through actions you take to relieve or avoid it. For example, you take pain medicine or try other therapies.

    Acute vs. chronic pain

    Different treatments

    Pain can last less than three to six months (acute) or for a long time (chronic), and can come and go with injury and recovery. Both can be extremely painful.

    Acute pain is triggered in your central nervous system to alert you to possible injury and need to protect yourself. Chronic pain signals can come from the nervous system for weeks, months or even years. There may have been an initial event – sprained back, serious infection, or disease (such as arthritis or cancer).

    But some people suffer chronic pain without any past injury or body damage. Common chronic pain conditions can include headache, low back pain, cancer pain, arthritis pain, or pain resulting from damage to the nerves or central nervous system.

    Pain as the body's messenger

    Positive results

    Although unpleasant, pain alerts you to danger and teaches you survival lessons. For example, as a child, pain taught you not to touch a hot stove.

    Pain can interfere with your everyday life. It can affect eating and sleeping, keep you from going to work or school, and increase your heart and breathing rates.

    But pain can also produce positive results. It can protect (warning you when you start to feel pain), start your thinking processes to help figure out how to reduce or remove the pain, or make you remember past actions that resulted in pain so you will not repeat them.

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