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10 Strange Facts About Pain, Explained
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 weekly headaches, yet your husband rarely has one? 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. (Want to work out more but don't have the time? Then try , the new workout program that only takes 10 minutes a day.)
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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.
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.
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 to empower you to work to change your behavior," 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 break a bone if you exercise, when in reality more activity is exactly what you need to get stronger. Therapy could provide the reality check that helps you move forward.
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.
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.
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.
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