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Why Does Pain Happen?

When we experience pain, sometimes it's easy to forget we aren't just feeling it in our bodies. A sprained ankle makes the foot hurt, but the root of that pain is actually coming from the brain. Pain is simply
our brains processing the fact that our bodies have been damaged. Because our brains all process information differently, we all feel pain differently too. Here are some factors that can increase the amount of pain we feel, how long we feel it or how intense it is:

  • Stress
  • Poor mental health
  • Anxiousness
  • Worrying
  • Anger
  • Poor emotional health
  • Focusing on the pain
  • Boredom

Why we feel pain

We already have a good idea of how pain travels through the body. If you burn your finger, the nerves in your finger send a message from the hand up to the brain, making a few stops along the way, and let it know it's been hurt. The brain then gives us the physical sensation of pain.

The journey of pain

  • When you injure yourself, like stubbing your toe, nerve receptors in the skin, muscles, bone and blood vessels in your foot sense there is danger. They trigger an electrical signal bound for the brain to alert it.
  • A connection of nerves communicate to keep moving the electrical signal up your body, with the next stop being the spinal cord. Many experts believe that this process is affected by stress. Stressed or anxious moods can leave "gates" open to allow pain messages through to the brain. Reducing stress helps close the gates and lessens the amount of pain that makes it past this point.
  • The pain messages reach the spinal cord. There, your body releases a chemical to set off signals in the brain. At this point, your spinal cord sends signals for your muscles to contract and move your foot away from the pain.
  • When the pain message reaches your brain, it's sent to different regions that control the physical and emotional responses. Poor emotional health could mean you're in for a bad reaction, and might trigger the fight-or-flight response in your limbic system (emotional response).

Gate Control Theory

One idea, called the Gate Control Theory, says we can change our brain's reaction to pain messages from the body and sometimes not even receive them. It says that when the nerves start to talk to the brain, they have to pass through "nerve gates" at every stop they make. If these gates are open, we feel pain more easily. If they're closed, we can keep the pain at bay.

Why gates open

Gates can fly open when we get injured. The more severe the injury or harm, the more likely they are to open. But our emotional health is just as important when it comes to opening the gates. Often the worse we feel emotionally, the more intense our pain is. Here are are few mental factors that can let even the most trivial pain fly to the brain.

  • Stress – A tough day at work could cause a minor injury that doesn't normally even hurt to feel terrible.
  • Anxiousness – Being nervous about an injury or something else makes it harder for our gates to close and almost impossible to get over our pain.
  • Depression – Chronic pain can lead to depression, keeping those gates open and making an awful cycle of pain and poor mental health.

Why gates close

With chronic pain, closing the gates can be difficult. But it can be done. Close the gates through:

  • Self-calming/relaxation
  • Distraction
  • Exercise

You may find additional help through:

  • Medicine – When our knee hurts, pain medication recommended by the doctor can close the gates and curb the pain.
  • Rubbing – Gently rubbing where the pain is coming from. If the signal your brain gets from the touch is stronger than the pain signal, it blunts the pain.


Learn more – how to overcome pain

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