Experts are learning more about the science of why things hurt. When you stub your toe or bang your thigh into the edge of your dining room table, you know exactly why you’re aching. But sometimes pain is more mysterious: Why do you get regular headaches, yet your spouse rarely has one? Why do you end up with shin splints so easily while your running partner can ramp up the miles and feels fine afterwards? Why do some people claim to have a high pain threshold, while others wince at the slightest touch? And what’s the deal with pain that has no known cause or that never seems to go away?
Right now there are more questions than answers, but science is starting to catch up. Imaging studies are exposing more about the brain and how it processes pain than ever before, says Jeff Livovich, MD, an anesthesiologist and a medical director and pain expert with Aetna health insurance. Along the way, scientists have amassed some pretty interesting facts about what causes pain and how to make it go away. Read on for 10 of the most surprising findings.
1) Your brain interprets pain but can't actually feel it.
When you sprain your ankle, nerve fibers send a signal to your brain, which recognizes the sensation as pain, explains Josie Znidarsic, DO, a physician in the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. But when something that would otherwise be painful - let’s say, surgery - happens in the brain itself, it’s a different story: Nerve fibers in the brain might send out the same types of signals as for a sore ankle, but there’s nowhere for them to go to be processed. That’s why, creepily, patients are often awake during brain surgery (and not in agony); surgeons can actively stimulate brain areas to make sure the procedure is going as planned without fear of hurting them, says Livovich.
2) Yes, you really can have a high or a low pain tolerance.
Your best friend described natural childbirth as “just a little pressure,” but you were crying for an epidural. What gives? Everyone perceives pain differently, and a multitude of factors play a role. Those include structural and chemical changes in your brain, inflammation levels in your body, and beliefs about pain from previous experiences that color how you react emotionally. “Some people, you can put a drill to their tibia, and they’ll calmly say, ’Hey, can you take that out, please?’ while others will be so sensitive to a small needle to the skin,” says Kenneth K. Hansraj, MD, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine.
3) You can control that threshold with your thoughts.
It might sound a little woo-woo, but more and more evidence shows that meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy, which address underlying thoughts and beliefs, can help mitigate your pain. “Cognitive behavioral therapy gives you tools to frame pain in a different way,” Livovich says. He notes that many people with chronic pain have firm beliefs that may be holding them back from getting better. For example, you might think you’re doomed to ruin your knees if you start running, when in reality a little more activity is exactly what you need to get stronger. Therapy could provide the reality check that helps you move forward.
4) Or you can distract yourself from pain.
The brain has trouble processing more than one sensation at a time. That’s why when you have a mosquito bite and numb it with ice, you suddenly register the sensation of “cold” instead of “itchy.” Along the same lines, focusing on a different stimulus can distract you from the sensation of pain. It’s why Znidarsic teaches patients acupressure, she says, as well as why many of us instinctively start rubbing an area that hurts or try to “shake out” the pain. “We naturally try to override the sensation,” she says.
5) Redheads are more sensitive to pain.
An eye-catching 2009 study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association found that redheads are more likely to fear the dentist. Why? A specific genetic variant that results in their fire-hued hair also makes them resistant to certain anesthetics, so they were more likely to have had painful dental experiences in the past. Other research has confirmed that redheads often need extra anesthesia to numb pain. There may be something unique about that gene variation that makes redheads metabolize painkilling drugs differently, Livovich says, so he keeps hair color in mind when he’s administering anesthesia.
6) Sex can relieve pain.
It's probably the last thing on your mind when you're feeling lousy, but there's a growing body of evidence that doing the deed can alleviate pain. In a 2013 study, 60 percent of migraine sufferers who had sex during an attack said it improved their symptoms. Arousal releases feel-good endorphins in the brain that act as the body's natural painkillers.
7) You’re more sensitive to pain when you’re PMSing or menstruating.
Studies show that women rate their pain higher during the premenstrual and menstrual phases of their cycle than during other times of the month. It seems that when estrogen levels are high, pain sensitivity is low, and when estrogen levels are low, pain sensitivity is high, but the reasons why aren't fully understood, says Znidarsic.
8) Pain is different for men and women.
Are women more prone to pain, or are they simply more likely to complain about it? No one knows for sure. Doctors definitely see more women who describe being in pain, but biologically speaking, research hasn’t pinpointed much difference between the sexes when it comes to processing pain in the brain (although those pesky hormonal changes likely play a role). It’s possible that traditional gender roles shape some men to believe they shouldn’t talk about or seek care for their pain; meanwhile, higher rates of depression and anxiety in women may be in turn be linked to higher reported levels of pain.
9) There’s a rare genetic condition that makes some people unable to feel pain.
It’s so rare, in fact, that only about 20 cases have ever been reported. People with congenital insensitivity to pain, which is caused by specific gene mutations, might be able to tell the difference between hot and cold - but they won’t feel any pain if they burn their hand on the stove. That might sound pretty awesome, but it’s actually really dangerous: Pain is a warning sign; without it, you can end up with third-degree burns instead of the mild blister you would have gotten had you pulled your hand back right away. In fact, repeated injuries often lead to shorter lifespans for people with congenital insensitivity to pain, according to the National Library of Medicine.
10) What you eat for lunch can affect how much pain you feel.
Inflammation - the redness and swelling that in small doses helps your body heal - is a major culprit in chronic pain. And lifestyle choices, like making poor food picks, can fan the flames. Processed foods, fried foods, refined grains and sugars, and overdoing it on alcohol are all out. In? You guessed it: healthy fats, lean proteins, whole grains, and a wide range of colorful produce, which are loaded with anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.
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Source: Runner's World (http://www.runnersworld.com/)