On top of its already unpleasant nature, pain can be downright confusing.
If you are experiencing confusion around pain, you’re not alone. The scientific community shares your confusion. In fact, there’s a lot that we don’t know about pain. But there are some things that we do know about pain.
In this article, we will discover 3 simple truths about pain. And we will do this in the laboratory of our own experience. Our discovery will start with running a very simple experiment called The Pinch Experiment.
To run The Pinch Experiment, all you need to do is use the fingernails of your thumb and index finger to pinch the skin on the back of your other hand until you feel pain.
Let’s try it:
Ok great, now let’s put the information you just gained to use!
Truth 1: Pain is protection
If you look at the back of your hand where you pinched, you will (hopefully) find that there is no blood, no wound; no real damage or injury to the hand.
You’ll probably see some dents—and remember what they look like (maybe even take a picture) so that we can check back on them at the end of the experiment—but no cells appear to have been injured in the process of our little experiment.
And the reason for this—that we feel pain before we injure ourselves—is because the purpose of pain is to protect us.
That’s also why we feel pain after we injure ourselves—it’s protecting us by telling us that there’s something that we need to attend to. But if pain always meant injury, we wouldn’t have felt pain until we broke the skin when running our experiment.
So the next time you feel pain, remember that. Remember that the purpose of pain is to protect us.
Truth 2: Pain is contextual
Let’s run The Pinch Experiment again, this time on the other hand. As you pinch, pay attention to how hard you have to pinch before you start to feel pain (10 = as hard as I can, 0 = Not trying).
What number did you come up with? Write it down.
Now see what happens to that number if you pinch different areas of your body.
Let’s start with the back of the forearm. What number is that?
Now try the back of the elbow. How about that?
How hard do you have to pinch your tongue to feel pain?
What you've likely noticed is that different parts of our body are more or less sensitive than others. It’s easier to provoke pain in certain areas (like the tongue) than in others (like the back of the elbow).
But the variability of pain doesn’t stop there.
Think about the following scenarios (or better yet, test them out). If you pinched the back of your hand in each one, what do you think would happen to your number (how hard you have to pinch before you feel pain)?
What if you…
Were sick with the flu?
Were hanging out with someone that you love being around?
Were hanging out with someone that you don’t like being around?
Were relaxing in a bath?
Were told that your skin was fragile and easily wounded?
Were told that your skin was strong and resilient?
Were sleep deprived?
In each of these scenarios, the strength that you need to pinch to provoke pain will be different.
Why? Because the purpose of pain is protection. So the state of our body, our mind, and our environment all influence how much pain we feel.
Pain isn’t just there to protect our body, it’s there to protect all parts of us.
Truth 3: Pain can change
What would happen to your number on our pinch scale if you pinched yourself regularly with sufficient recovery between pinches?
It would probably go up over time, meaning that you would have to pinch yourself harder and harder to elicit pain.
Why? Because you’d get used to it. You (your mind-body complex) would adapt. For example,
You’d develop a pinch callus from the repeated (but not injurious) stress on your skin and connective tissues
You’d become more confident in the strength and resiliency of the skin on the back of your hand as you saw your body change
You’d become less and less concerned that you are going to hurt yourself because you would see repeated evidence that it's safe
Your pinching fingers would also get stronger so that might skew the numbers a little… but hopefully you get the idea
Now, what do you think would happen to your number if you pinched yourself as often as you could remember to do so?
Your number would probably go down, meaning that you wouldn't have to pinch yourself as hard to elicit pain. In other words, the back of your hand would become more sensitive.
Why? Because you (your mind-body complex) would adapt. For example,
Your skin would get weaker from the repeated stress on it without sufficient recovery
You’d become less confident in the strength and resiliency of the skin on the back of your hand as you saw your body change
You’d become more concerned that you are going to hurt yourself because you would see your skin looking worse and worse
Your pinching fingers would still get stronger
We are constantly adapting to the circumstances and stimuli of our lives. And that adaptation can go either way. Importantly, the only difference between scenario 1 and scenario 2 from above is time.
Now check back on the dents. How are they looking?
Although there is much that we don’t know about pain, there is also much that we do know. And many of the practical aspects of pain can be directly observed in the laboratory of our own experience.
I hope these experiments allowed you to think a little deeper about pain. Maybe the next time you feel pain you can thank it for trying to protect you, consider the context in which you’re feeling it, and know that it can change.
Good luck out there,