What is pain and how can we make it go away?
Pain: from the Latin “poena” meaning a fine, a penalty. Pain is mediated by specific nerve fibers that carry the pain impulses to the brain where their conscious appreciation may be modified by many factors.1
When pain is defined as a penalty it shines a shady light on its purpose. Yes, pain has a purpose. All things in this world have a purpose, even if that purpose seems to have a negative connotation. Pain can actually be a guiding light, a sign post to change something, an opportunity to make some positive corrective decisions in a person’s life. Bottom line we still do not understand pain. Most people fear it because it hurts. What would happen if we did not see pain as a penalty but a guide post to a future that is rich in opportunity? An interesting aspect of pain is that not all pain is felt. Consider the pain a PTSD patient suffers, pain that no one understands and all we do is drug the patient out of reality. Depression is very real pain but it is hard to put your finger on the exact spot that hurts.
Pain was originally described by Hippocrates because of swelling around wounds. He described pain as an imbalance in vital fluids. If Hippocrates saw a swollen foot or swelling around any injury it is easy to embrace how he logically suspected fluids. I have read books that this understanding, or at least parts of it, carried clear into the 18th century.2
During the age of enlightenment or renaissance period Rene Descartes described pain as punishment from God; that is close to the definition found in modern dictionaries. Rene Descartes, a world renowned philosopher, began to imagine and record information describing the first idea of an electrical system controlling the human body. He began to describe how pain is a signal from an injury to the brain. The brain then felt the ‘pain’ and forced the body to take defensive action to minimize the sensation.3
In medical school we were taught about the gate control theory of pain. When there is an injury, neurotransmitters will flood the system in an effort to alert the brain of a problem. In theory, if a pharmaceutical can be administered quickly and/or in great enough quantities, the pain will not be recorded and not felt. Some drugs like opiates do not really block the pain just make the patient not care. Serotonin is the feel good neurotransmitter. It is believed that Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI), a very popular anti-depressant, can flood the nervous system not only in the spine but also the brain. The patient is then free of the depression. The pharmaceutical is admittedly a short term fix. Sometimes covering up the problem is not enough.4
Next blog is how to beat pain without drugs.