An Introduction to Pain Management

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An Introduction to Pain Management

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Pain is something that all of us have had to deal with at one time or another and is generally accepted as a ‘fact of life’. But while we’ve all experienced paper cuts, twisted ankles and bruised arms, it’s those who have to live with chronic pain who really understand just how serious pain can be and how detrimental to your quality of life.

Living with constant pain is something that no one should have to do and that should never be considered ‘normal’. But in order to deal with chronic pain, you need to understand precisely what causes it and what your options are in dealing with it.

Types of Pain

If you bruise your back or sprain your ankle then you’ll experience what is known as ‘acute pain’. This is the type of pain that might last an hour or a few weeks, but that is ultimately the result of tissue damage that will heal on its own. This type of pain is ‘transient’ and as a general rule, it’s bearable because we know it’s not permanent.

On the other hand though, if you have arthritis, cancer, severe migraines or sciatica, then you might experience what is known as ‘chronic pain’. In other cases, there may actually be nothing obviously ‘wrong’ with a patient but they will still continue to experience pain. After 3-6 months, most physical causes of pain should pass – if you still feel pain this might be a ‘false signal’ of some sort. This is indefinite pain that doesn’t have a clear end in sight and which can be incredibly hard for people to live with.

Sadly though, one in four people actually live with one form of chronic pain or another and this becomes more likely as you get older.

Understanding Pain

But what is pain?

Pain is a subjective experience that is created and experienced in two parts of the body. Essentially, pain is generated by the brain, but only when it receives a signal from a ‘nociceptor’ in some of the tissue of the body. Nociceptors are ‘pain receptors’ which are designed specifically to send our bodies warning signs when we are in pain to prevent certain actions. They are not distributed evenly throughout the body however and in fact some parts of your body have no nociceptors.

While it’s your nociceptors that trigger your sensation of pain though, it’s important to recognize that it is the brain that actually generates the sensation of pain by releasing certain chemicals. This means that really, pain is a psychological phenomenon and it is even possible to ‘distract’ someone from experiencing pain. That’s why pain will seemingly get better often when you are socializing and distracted from it.

How to Deal With Pain

With all that in mind, how do you then go about dealing with pain?

The first option and the most preferable is to try and target the precise cause of the pain which will usually be some kind of inflammation that is exciting the nociceptor. This will often mean preventing swelling, for instance by using a cold ice pack or some kind of compress. In many cases pain will just pass over time. In other cases, it can mean using stretching and physiotherapy, or it might require an operation.

Another option is to use an analgesic such as an ibuprofen or paracetamol. These work by interfering with the pain signal in the brain, normally by mimicking the action of the neurotransmitters responsible for the sensation and thereby blocking the ‘signal’. These types of analgesics tend to offer mild short-term relief.

An alternative to traditional analgesics that is becoming more popular among many doctors and patients is the use of marijuana. Medical marijuana works by flooding the brain with a substance called THC which block cannabinoid receptors. These are receptors that are used for communication in certain parts of the brain and which work by receiving a category of substances called cannabinoids. This in turn activates and disrupts many areas of the brain responsible for controlling our attention, memory and emotion. What this does for pain, is to help prevent us from focusing on it or from regarding it as important or forming memories about it. While it might not actually reduce the objective severity of the discomfort then, this can be highly effective in changing the way we feel about the pain – ultimately making it much more bearable by helping us to place less focus on it.

Another option is to try and ‘disrupt’ the signal from the nociceptors. One way to do this is with a cold compress or even an ice bath which numbs the sensation of certain cells thereby ‘overriding’ the pain. Another option is to use something like a tens machine – this is a device that uses small electrical impulses around an affected area in order to create a kind of ‘white noise’ to again disrupt the pain signal.

There are many other options for dealing with acute or chronic pain. While not every case of chronic pain will be curable, you still shouldn’t ‘accept’ pain as normal and you should always look for ways to at least reduce it.

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