What Is Pain?

Jeremy Steiner gets a devil image touched up on his hand at Empire Ink in Akron, Ohio.
Jeremy Steiner gets a devil image touched up on his hand at Empire Ink in Akron, Ohio.

VOX 1: It felt like the bottom of my spine was being crushed…I thought I was going to die. I literally rolled out of bed, could not stand, thought I was going to die…It’s unrelenting and then it keeps coming back…Vomiting, vomiting to the point that my eyes ruptured…Searing, white-hot, throbbing pain unlike any I’ve ever felt in my life…You can’t escape it, it has its own way…

Pain. It can be crippling; it can come in waves; it can linger.

VOX 2: Well I did something bone-headed. I had built a fire and I wanted to check to see if the coals were still hot and I put my finger directly into the ash pile…I just had a baby on August 3 and going through childbirth is no easy task…It was something to do with my sinuses. It was backing things up to where there was pressure on my brain…I was painting and I bent the wrong way and I threw out my back…My last kidney stone attack was 2006. The one that was embedded in my right kidney was about the size of a golf ball…

Pain comes in all shapes and sizes, as these voices from here in Northeast Ohio attest.

Sometimes it’s a matter of choice.

Jeremy Steiner is getting a tattoo, at Empire Ink in Akron Ohio.

STEINER: (Grunts) Oh man, yeah, down there by the knuckles, it’s a little tender.

Steiner’s no newbie; his body is covered in tattoos.

STEINER: The older I get, the more it hurts.

Today, he’s getting a devil image touched up on his hand. When the gun hits his skin, it engages the body’s red alert system.

Jeffery Janata studies this alert system. He’s the director of the Behavioral Medicine Program at University Hospitals and specializes in pain.

JANATA: It is the signal that our body’s in some sort of trouble.

The body is covered in nerves. They act like an information highway between the body and the brain. Nerves alert the brain to painful stimuli, like tattoo guns.

Pain can be useful. Look at it from an evolutionary perspective, says Janata:

JANATA: It’s really quite adaptive that we have these pain networks so that if we’ve hurt
ourselves, if we’ve hurt ourselves badly, we know about it and we can take some action.

But pain stops being useful when it turns chronic.

Chronic pain is any pain that lasts longer than normal healing time.

Typically pain that lasts longer than 3-6 months is considered chronic.

The pain could be from trauma, injuries or diseases like arthritis and diabetes. It could also have an unknown cause.

In some cases, the brain can become conditioned to feel pain when there’s no reason to.

JANATA: The brain begins to experience pain as almost like a habit.

There’s no good answer as to why this happens.

What we do know is that pain is subjective, individual. Everyone feels it differently.

We also know that pain lights up many regions of the brain. It maps to specific sensory areas that tell you it’s your back throbbing and not your foot.

But it also hits on regions associated with emotion.

JANATA: What this means is that pain really can be experienced as either sensory or emotional. Or both.

The science of pain has come a long way since the days of drilling holes in the skull.

But pain is complex, diverse, and we still don’t know why it lingers.

For people in pain though, there’s no question about its effect: when it grips you, it has its own way.

Support Provided By