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What is pain?

The word pain can be used in many different ways, so it is probably worth defining exactly we mean by the word pain in the context of this report.

Throughout this report, I am dealing with physical pain as opposed to the kind of general life-encompassing suffering that can make every day a misery. The type of pain we are talking about here does not, for example, include the kind of pain that you might suffer if you have no money or are homeless, emotional desperation brought on by family bereavement and so on

As we have all felt physical pain from time to time, we all know what it is but finding an accurate definition is actually far harder than it might at first appear like it should be.

For example, whilst the International Association for the Study of Pain defines it as ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage’, it is important to understand that pain is actually highly subjective.

What one person might consider an agonising pain could be nothing more than a minor irritant to someone else, and people who suffer from chronic pain every day gradually forget about it to some degree even though the pain does not go away.

For this reason, it is sometimes suggested that the definition provided by a noted pain control expert Margo McCaffrey in 1968 might be viewed as more accurate. She said that ‘pain is whatever the experiencing person says it is, existing whenever he says it does’.

What is certainly indisputable is the fact that almost half of visits to doctors and medical practitioners in the USA every year are as a result of a pain problem that the patient wants solving.

When this happens, your doctor will usually do two things.

Firstly, they will try to characterise the pain itself using various different criteria or descriptions such as intensity, type of pain (throbbing, dull, burning etc), the reason for the pain and bodily location.

After asking these questions, if there is no clear reason for the pain, they will examine you to find out why you are suffering the way you are as there is clearly some underlying reason for your pain of which you are not fully aware.

Generally speaking, the pain will go away with simple treatments such as rest and of course through the use of painkilling analgesic medicines. However, we have already seen that many people suffer chronic pain, a pain that becomes a medical condition in itself and does not go away of its own accord or as a result of simple treatments.

Pain is an essential part of the body’s defence mechanism, a natural reflex reaction telling you to back off from something that has the potential to cause damage to you. Furthermore, it also helps you to change your behaviour so that whatever it was that caused you pain is not repeated, thereby protecting against further physical harm or damage.

Pain is a conscious sensation – sometimes we are too conscious of it, and it can strike anytime, anywhere, either as a result of a traumatic accident or because of the sudden or gradual onset of an unexpected medical problem.

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