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Pain and the Brain: A personal story

November 1, 2018


Remember how pain is a sensory experience produced by the brain as a response to perceived danger? So, when you feel pain, your central nervous system has evaluated that you are in danger and alerts you. Pain does not give an accurate account of damage. It just wants to stop you in that moment.


It is a great and entirely necessary system designed to protect us and in most cases it does a great job. You only have to hear about those conditions where people do not have the ability to feel pain to get some insight into where we might all be without this vital response.


However, sometimes, for many and varied reasons (often not well understood) our brains will continue to send ‘danger’ messages i.e. pain, long after the immediate threat has been and gone. This is often the case for chronic pain. Why that might be is a subject for another blog-post but I wanted to give you a small personal example of pain today to show how the brain gets involved.


I’m sure I’ve mentioned my troublesome knee before? There is nothing officially wrong with it but it gives me jip from time to time, especially if it has had enough of running for example. One thing it does not like at all is driving. Whenever I drive any distance – over say, 40 minutes - my knee will turn from a mild ache into a stronger gripping pain. It is throbbing, constant and really quite distracting.


As you can imagine I have tried everything on myself: stretching, consciously relaxing it (practising what I preach!) trying to distract myself with singing or something – depending on who is in the car! Invariably, nothing helps. I stop for a short while and have a bit of a walk before carrying on.


On this one occasion I had been driving along the motorway for a while. The familiar throbbing sensation started and, as usual, it was irritating me. Then, out of the blue, the traffic very suddenly backed up and I had to emergency stop. It was a bit of a shock as it was so unexpected. However, thankfully, nothing else occurred and the traffic started to disperse almost as quickly as it had started.


Relieved, I drove off and it took a few minutes to realise something. My knee pain had completely gone. Absolutely disappeared. I tested it by tightening my muscles a bit but the pain really had gone. This was vastly different to 2 minutes before when the pain was really quite significant.


Odd eh? Good…but odd.


So, why tell you this story and what was going on here? Well, in my view, at that moment when danger was imminent my central nervous system perceived that the greatest danger was the risk of an accident and so it blocked the ‘knee alarm’ (no knee pain for the next few minutes). This allowed me to focus fully on avoiding an accident without distraction. This vital protective measure will always alert us to the greatest danger.


(Sadly, the pain did return about 10 minutes later. It was a brief respite! But long enough for me to notice its remission.)


This was a very minor incident and there are other, far more dramatic examples of the brain inhibiting pain when there is greater threat. For example, it is common to hear of soldiers on the battlefield suffering the most horrific injuries but remaining unaware of them in the moment as the greater priority is to get to a place of safety.


This goes to show that pain is complex, multi-faceted and is always about far more than injury alone. Many factors are involved and this example shows how the brain contributes and how it has the ability to literally turn pain on and off as needed. Clever stuff!


Do you have any strange pain stories? I'd love to hear them. Either post a comment here or email:



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