Why we feel pain

21 August 2023

Understanding why we feel pain

Early this month was National Pain Week which raises awareness of the social isolation that pain can create.

We spoke with Pain Physiotherapist Marty Kelly from the Wesley Pain and Spine Centre to find out what is pain, why do we feel pain and what we can do about it.

Marty explains that pain is an important protective system in our body which lets us know something is wrong.

“Our pain system acts as an alarm system to alert us to tissue damage or even the potential for tissue damage. We experience pain so that the brain will take notice and do something about the situation,” Marty said.


“Some people can feel pain worse than others. Each person's pain is a unique and individual experience. There are many things that contribute to how we experience pain.


“Scientists have discovered that factors such as our thoughts, emotions, knowledge, beliefs, and past experiences will influence our pain experience. Even the environment you are in, or who you are with, will influence how much pain you experience.”


Many people often wonder, what is the worst pain a person can feel? Marty says this is complex question and dependent on the person themselves.


“As discussed, some people can feel pain worse than others and is dependent on many different factors,” Marty said.


“There are many myths and misconceptions when it comes to people's understanding of persistent pain. However, research has shown that the more people understand pain, the less they fear it.


“With that knowledge comes greater confidence for people to remain active and engage in meaningful activities such as work, leisure and exercise.”


Marty said that health professionals have two very broad classifications for pain which is acute pain and chronic pain.


“Acute pain refers to pain that has been present for less than three months. This type of pain is generally associated with tissue damage, like an ankle sprain. Most tissues in the body heal within three months,” Marty said.


“Persistent (or chronic) pain is defined as pain that has been present for more than three months. Approximately 1 in 5 Australians, or 3.2 million people, live with persistent pain every day.

“Persistent pain is typically not an indication of ongoing damage in the body but has more to do with our body's alarm system being too sensitive.  Persistent pain is often complex but there are many ways people can overcome persistent pain and reduce the impact it has on their life.”


When someone is in pain Marty says it can also be complex to classify how much pain they are currently experiencing.


“Pain is a unique and individual experience. It is common for people to experience pain differently from the exact same stimuli,” Marty said.


“Clinicians and researchers use various scales and tools to measure both acute and chronic pain. However, all pain is subjective and individual, and it is not always helpful for people living with pain to compare themselves to others.”


But, what can be done about pain? Marty says there are many ways people living with persistent pain can learn to reduce their pain and relieve the burden it has on their life.


“Clinicians working in pain management typically take a whole person approach to helping their patients. This can broadly be defined as any strategy that is calming or healthy for the nervous system,” Marty said. 


“This includes appropriate exercise, lifestyle modifications such as pacing activities, good sleep hygiene, relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation and breathing, and finding ways to engage in fun activities such as socialising and hobbies.


“It also often helps for people to address things going on in their life such as stress, anxiety, low mood, anger, fear and negative thinking habits. Other habits that can also be looked at and changed are diet, caffeine and alcohol consumption, and sedentary behaviours.”

It is important to understand that more than 68% of Australians living with chronic pain are of working age. Nearly half of working Australians who retire early are doing so because of chronic pain.

In 2020, costs of chronic pain were $144.1 billion. If nothing is done, it is expected to rise to $215.6 billion by 2050.

More information

To find out more about The Wesley Pain and Spine Centre please phone 07 32326190 or visit https://www.wesley.com.au/services/wesley-pain-and-spine-centre


Media Enquiries
General: wesley.media@uchealth.com.au
Urgent or after hours: 0412 674 013

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