Pain can really be a pain (pardon the pun). But it exists for a reason – pain is designed to protect us. It is our body’s way of telling us that something is up and that we need to change our behavior. If we didn’t feel pain when we damaged our bodies, we wouldn’t have the incentive to change our behavior and allow things to heal.
But does this mean pain always equals damage? Absolutely not.
Stepping on a nail, for example, causes a signal to be sent from your toe, along the spinal cord, and then up to the brain. This signal might be referred to as a danger detector (or nociception). When it reaches the brain, this danger signal is processed to create a response. The brain takes lots of different things into account when processing these messages: potential tissue damage, past experience, beliefs about pain, and many others.
If the brain determines that this signal warrants a pain response, it will send a signal back down the spinal cord to the body. The pain response is generated in order to achieve a particular result – in this case pulling your toe away from the sharp nail that could cause damage to the body.
Also check out this article: What Are the Different Types of Back Pain?
To reinforce just how dependent pain is on context, imagine that you were running for your life away from a predator when you stepped on a nail. In this situation would your brain determine that a pain signal was useful? Likely not, because at that moment your brain would prioritize your survival over the possibility of relatively minor damage to your toe.
Although these may seem like extreme examples, similar concepts can easily be applied to everyday life.
The danger detector mechanism can also be amplified by when other low-level stressors are present. For example, when you’re stressed, have had a night of poor sleep, or have a big meeting with your boss coming up, a (low-level) danger detector message coming from your shoulder is much more likely to be perceived as pain.
Actual tissue damage, such as a torn muscle, can absolutely cause pain, but the reality is that most people are blissfully unaware of all sorts of minor tissue damage (or wrinkles on the inside as I like to call them) present. It’s usually only with the combination of other factors such as stress and poor sleep that the danger detector signal gets amplified to the point of becoming painful.
Pain should be listened to, respected, and acted upon, but it is really important to keep in mind that there are many factors influencing your experience of pain.