What is Pain?

Pain is often described as an unpleasant physical and emotional experience, which is often connected with actual or possible damage or indication that something is wrong. It is part of the body’s protection system. For example, when we are young, if we touch something hot we pull our hand away, and it teaches us not to do this again. Because of this, pain is actually very important and necessary to keep us safe in our lives.

Pain is also a complicated process involving our nervous system, which includes our nerves, our spinal cord, and our brains. Our nerves are designed to notice what is happening in our body or around us, for example if something is hot or cold, or touching our skin. This information is then sent to via electrical signal to the spinal cord and onwards to the brain. In the past, it was thought that pain travelled one way – from a nerve injury up to the brain.

However, we now know that the brain has the ability to act like a ‘control centre’ that has to make sense of this information. It also controls what messages are received or sent out of it and it can even send messages to block painful sensations in different parts of the body.  For example, some nerves are specialised to respond to danger like something sharp against our skin. Your brain can receive this information, and send a message to take action to protect yourself. It often does this by producing the sensation of ‘pain’. You can think of pain like an ‘alarm system’ in the body, that is designed to protect it when it is under threat.