It’s 2 AM and you wake to the ferocious grumbles of a tummy in need of a snack. On your way to the pantry you stub your toe. I don’t know about you, but when this happens to me, I am immediately faced with several thoughts. One, why do bad things happen to good people. Two, when will my pinky toe ever return to its normal color. And three, my early morning snack was not worth the trouble. While it may not seem like it, but in that moment we are experiencing one of our most important evolutionary adaptations: pain. Pain has been front and center in human society for as long as we have kept records. Today, the use of opiates, drugs that curb pain, is one of the largest healthcare issues we have faced (Collier, 2018). Let’s break down how we experience pain!
Specialized neurons, called nociceptors, send pain signals in response to damaging touch, temperature, or chemicals. These neurons are present all throughout the body and within all of your organs. Once activated, these signals are sent to your spinal cord and up to the thalamus in the brain. The thalamus is tasked to take in these signals, organizes them by type and intensity of pain, and sends them to emotional and sensory processing centers in the cerebral cortex (the outside layer of the brain) to create the experience of pain (Borsook, 2012; Ren & Dorsey, 2014).
This decoding of pain signals is different for every individual. Since the conscious experience of pain requires both sensory and emotional processing, the way each person experiences pain is vastly different from the next (Crofford 2015). Since pain is such a heterogenous thing, it is very difficult to diagnose the causes of many forms of chronic pain. For this reason, it is commonplace for physicians to ignore complaints of pain when the cause is unclear. This can be incredibly invalidating and diminishing to the patient! If you or a loved one feels like a doctor is not taking your chronic issues seriously, it is important that you find a new physician. Your experiences are real and valid and should be treated as such!