The Science of Pain


Understanding pain starts with learning about its relationship with the brain.

Pain stems from the brain. Scientists now know that pain doesn’t originate from bodily tissues, as we once thought. It only exists if the brain interprets signals from the body as “painful.”

Everyone experiences pain differently. Some people will feel more pain than others during a similar experience.

External factors can influence pain. Psychological factors (such as anxiety or depression) and social circumstances (like stress at work) can worsen the perception of pain.

Education can help. Studies show that being knowledgeable about pain can decrease the need to seek care.

How the Brain Perceives Pain

The perception of pain is regulated by different types of nerve cells, or neurons. These nerves carry information from special receptors in the skin to spinal cord, where the signals are sent to the brain. The brain perceives these signals as pain sensations and reacts accordingly.

For example, let’s look at the process of pain transmission from minor foot pain

  1.  A pain sensation is picked up by a nerve fiber. Different nerve fibers pick up different sensation from skin receptors.

  2.  The nerve fiber carries the signal to the spinal cord, stimulating another neuron to continue the transmission.

  3.  The signal is carried up the spinal cord to the brain, where the brain receives and processes the signal

  4.  The brain interprets the signal as pain. And you feel pain in your foot.

Understanding Muscle and Joint Pain

Muscle and joint pain can come in different forms. A strong, sharp pain is often a signal to stop what you’re doing immediately, like with a pulled muscle or twisted ankle. Short-term soreness may signify overworking, like an aching back or a tender muscle after strenuous exercise. Or, it may be more persistent, like the chronic pain of arthritis.

For minor aches and pains of muscles and joints, topical analgesics paired with professional health care can provide long-lasting relief.