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Understanding Pain: Acute Pain

Why is it important to understand pain?

Well, pain is one of the most complex human experiences felt and in a clinical setting is the most common symptom reported for most conditions. Pain conditions are currently the leading cause of disability globally and these conditions appear to be increasing and worsening as time progresses. The cost of pain is currently more than cardiovascular disease and diabetes combined.

What makes pain interesting is that it is unlike any other condition people have, it affects people of all ages, genders, sporting and sedentary worlds. Currently in Australia, 1 in 5 people experience pain which defies the normal tissue healing process. In simple terms, what this means is many people are experiencing pain even though the injuries they have are healed.

Pain is one of the most complex human experiences. Contrary to belief, we actually don’t have pain nerves or pain fibres! The pain that we feel works as a protective measure to our body. It tells our body that we are in danger and that we need to protect ourselves. An example of this is when you touch a hot plate, as you touch it, you quickly take your hand away and you feel pain in the area that was touching the hot plate. But as you turn your hand around and see that you haven’t burned yourself or caused any harm your pain quickly subsides. Another example is a man who was working on a construction site and stepped on a nail, the nail passed right through his boot and he was in extreme pain. When he presented to the hospital, he was in so much pain they needed to apply an anaesthetic in order to get his boot off. When the surgeons took the boot off, they were amazed. The nail itself hadn’t caused any damage to the worker and had passed between his 1st and 2nd toe. Further examples of this are sporting athletes who play big matches such as grand finals and get injuries such as broken bones or muscle tears and can still play on with minimal pain when their injury is quite severe. So how does this happen?

When an injury occurs our nerves in our tissues such as our organs, bones or muscles detect that something is happening. The nerves then send a message from the tissues towards the spine which is then sent to the brain. Here our brain recognises the situation we are in and what has occurred. Our brain will then tell us that we are in pain and then we will use protective measures to guard the area we are feeling pain. This could be by getting medical treatment, resting or stopping the activity that we are doing to prevent the risk of further injury. By doing this, our body now knows to rest and let the injury heal or to take some form of action. As the injury then heals, our pain levels should then begin to go down and recede. But what makes this even more complicated is 2 people with the same injury could have very different levels of pain! This pain is known as ‘ACUTE PAIN’.

Several factors influence our pain levels. Well, in fact nearly everything can influence it! Our age can influence our pain, our culture our religion and beliefs, our gender. Sometimes being in the same area as our previous injury or even the sense of smell or taste that we had when something traumatic occurred can influence it. Sometimes when people get injured performing actions, even just thinking about what they did can trigger a massive pain response. An example of this is many people will say something like ‘Just the thought of lifting something heavy already hurts my back.’ Or ‘Just thinking about lifting my arm above my head brings on my shoulder pain.’ But these thoughts can also work in a positive way, for example many people complain of toothaches, yet when they are in the waiting rooms at the dentist the toothache they were complaining about is gone, this is because they know they are safe and will be getting the required treatment they need!

As you can see pain is very complex!

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