Pain: what is it?

Pain: what is it?

When pain doesn’t go away as expected, it can be stressful and debilitating.  Knowing that pain is a complex multi-dimensional experience and that it can be overcome gives hope.

Most people suffer from pain in their lifetime.  Most injuries heal and pain disappears. Pain after an operation usually goes away as the body recovers. We expect not to be in pain.  Sometimes though, pain doesn’t go away despite the injury healing or the surgical procedure going well and so it becomes persistent or chronic.  Some people experience long term pain for no obvious reason. In fact, 20% of adults have persistent pain.  How can this be when medicine and science are so good?  This article attempts to explain the multidimensional complexity of musculoskeletal pain and offers some self-care solutions to help overcome it.

Pain, whether it be acute or chronic, is a mind-body, unpleasant sensory and emotional experience that is unique to everyone.  It can affect how you think, feel, what you do and can take over your life.  It can be overwhelming, threatening, frightening, stressful, uncomfortable to some people in some situations but it can also feel good, exciting, reassuring, helpful and protective to others.  The way that pain is processed depends on the context in which it is experienced.  Pain is an individual experience and is interpreted differently in each of us.  It can, very easily, be misunderstood which is why in so many of us, pain does not always go away.

Most of us assumes that when pain which is experienced in an area of our body there is a problem with the body’s tissues in that area and as soon as the problem is fixed or healed, the pain will resolve.  In most instances this happens.

Rabey & Maloney.

The diagram (right) shows that there are many dimensions to a painful experience – more than body tissues alone – what we think of as physical pain is in fact a whole-body experience.  This experience is modulated by biological factors in the body, psychologically in the brain and socially outside the body.  Pain is a much more complex experience than we might imagine which is why it doesn’t always resolve the way we would expect it to.

The good news is that long term pain can be overcome.  Pain relief can be found through performing daily acts of self-care.  Self-care is about taking a proactive approach to achieving and maintaining the best health you can possibly have.  It is extremely self-empowering, satisfying, and enjoyable!  It isn’t a quick cure and there isn’t just one solution but in finding what works for you, keeping doing it and adapting it, benefits can be seen quickly and with regular practice these benefits will last.

Here are 10 self-care acts that have been scientifically proven to contribute to pain relief that you can do on your own without any professional help.  To be honest I believe that everyone should participate in self-care so get your friends and family involved too!

  1. Educate yourself on pain science – the more you learn about chronic pain, the more able you are to overcome it. Understanding the science behind how the body processes pain gives you knowledge and with neuroplasticity, this can help the brain move away from its unhelpful pain behaviours.
  2. Keep yourself as active as possible – daily activity and exercise helps relieve pain, keeps you fit and helps with other health problems. Try something new, vary what you do and make sure you enjoy it!
  3. Pace yourself – take a break before you need one and don’t feel guilty about it! It might slow you down, but you will get there!  You will achieve what you want with less pain than if you keep going.  This will help you take control of your life rather than letting the pain be in control.
  4. Eat a healthy diet – there is evidence that a Mediterranean diet reduces systemic inflammation and relieves pain in long term painful conditions. A Mediterranean diet includes fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains with meat, fish, dairy and alcohol in low to moderate amounts.
  5. Keep a good sleep routine – healthy sleep habits can reduce chronic pain in some conditions while poor sleep has been shown to increase pain in others. If you feel tired and haven’t been sleeping at night, try not to take a nap.  If you are tired when you go to bed you may have a better night’s sleep.
  6. Find your purpose and set some goals – when you feel unable to do what you used to do due to pain it is quite easy to lose a sense of purpose in life. Consider what is important to you and how it can be achieved is a great way of regaining purpose and living the life that you want.
  7. Perform some form of daily relaxation technique – try taking a few deep breaths, meditation or mindfulness, yoga, tai chi or massage therapy. These reduce sensitivity in the sympathetic nervous system which reduces stress and levels of pain experienced.
  8. Participate in regular social activities with friends and family even if you don’t feel like it.
  9. Create a positive support system and ask for help when you need it. Be open with your friends and family about how you are feeling.  They might not be able to help or know what to say but as the saying goes ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’…
  10. Be kind and compassionate to yourself. It’s not your fault or anyone else’s you are experiencing painful problems.


With reframing pain and carrying out daily self-care you can overcome persistent pain and lead the life that you want to live.

what is pain diagram
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