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What is pain?

I have great friends and three in particular came to visit a couple of weeks ago. The problem with friends is that while they support you, they can also ask you some hard questions. This group is one that has always asked those questions and when my definition of pain was requested, I was stumped.

I realized I hadn’t given it much thought except for the fact that I didn’t like the feeling or experience of pain. In the days and weeks following that conversation I have been pondering the question: what is pain?

Part of the problem for me is that pain is an experience. It’s something I feel and I know that for each person that experience will likely be quite different to mine. In my case I’m only dealing with a neck injury – I say only, but it seems huge to me. But I know there are people out in the world that may have the neck injury and diabetes and migraines and fibromyalgia or any combination of these or other chronic illnesses.

It was beyond my brain’s capacity to define pain.

However, there was an official definition of pain put forward by the International Association for the Study of Pain in 1979. It says, “Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.”

Dr. Fernando Cervero, MD, PhD, DSc, Director of the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain, spoke about that definition in, “Chronic pain: Is it all in the brain?” He said that there are three components of pain: the sensory (the ouch), the emotional (the feelings) and the cognitive (the why). But it is the cognitive aspect, or our pain perception, that causes us to suffer. The key is to “separate that perception from the sensory element that produces the pain.”

Therein lies the problem, how do we separate the sensory from the cognitive without having a frontal lobotomy that has been proven to do so? Yikes! Luckily there is a lot of research going on to understand how the brain mechanisms of pain move from acute pain to chronic pain. The good news is that initial research shows that if the transition can be caught early on it is reversible.

In the meantime, drugs are used to manage the components of pain but Dr. Cervero says that the non-pharmacological approaches, such as physiotherapy and psychotherapy, and the self-treatment approaches, such as meditation and exercise, “could be as effective – and even more effective – than drugs.” There is enough scientific evidence to show that these techniques can modify pain perception through influence on brain mechanisms.

While I, and maybe even you, cannot define pain we have hope. We hold the keys to changing the way pain affects us with simple self-healing techniques done consistently and with love. What is your favorite self-treatment? Leave a comment below or send me a message on FB.

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