How pain works: 3 things you should know

We all experience pain at some point, and whether you have an aching back, cramping muscles or a stiff neck, it’s always unpleasant. The upside is that pain plays an important role as part of the body’s defence system – it’s your body’s way of alerting you to injury and encouraging protection from further damage.

Despite its protective role, pain can be disruptive – as well as impacting on everyday activities it can cause sleepless nights. Understanding how pain works is the first step to finding effective ways to management and relief.

There are three key things to know about pain.

1. It’s personal

Although everyone experiences pain, each person has their own personal threshold – what may be agonising for one person may be tolerable for someone else. Why do we feel pain differently? Genes, hormones, expectations and emotional state all determine how your brain interprets pain signals from your body.

As pain is such a personal experience, specific ways of managing it may not work for everyone. Often the best strategy for effective relief is to target the source of pain, such as using an over-the-counter analgesic designed to reduce inflammation.

2. It has a mind component

How you feel pain can be affected by your emotions – if you’re anxious or depressed, you’re more likely to be sensitive to pain. Research has shown that even making a person temporarily unhappy, by showing them sad photographs for instance, is enough to lower their pain threshold.

On the flip side, your emotional state can also help with pain relief. Strong emotions such as excitement or fear temporarily distract people from feeling pain. Meditation has also been known to help – the deep state of relaxation it produces can sometimes ease pain by refocusing your thoughts and lessening your perception of pain.

3. It has more than one source

Knowing the nature of your pain is key to effectively relieving it. There are two different types of pain – tissue pain and nerve pain.

Tissue (or nociceptive) pain occurs when the body’s tissues are damaged. When you cut yourself or sprain your ankle, chemicals known as prostaglandins are released from the damaged tissues and they trigger a chain of events resulting in inflammation. The signs of inflammation – heat, pain, redness and swelling – alert your body to repair the damaged tissues. Prostaglandins also make the nerve endings in the tissue (nociceptors) more sensitive to pain, which is why tissue pain hurts.

The second type of pain is nerve (or neuropathic) pain. Nerves are the body’s electric wiring – they constantly send messages, including pain signals, between the brain and the rest of the body. Damage to nerves, or the brain or spinal cord, can change how these pain signals are sent. Certain injuries or diseases such as diabetes can damage nerves and cause nerve pain, which can be experienced as tingling, numbness or sometimes as intense pain.

Knowledge is power

By gaining a deeper understanding of how your pain works, you have a better chance of managing it and working with healthcare professionals on strategies that provide relief and improve the quality of daily life.


This article is for general information only and not intended as a substitute for medical advice. All information presented on these web pages is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. In all health related matters, always consult your healthcare professional.

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