How pain can be a good thing
Pain is an unpleasant sensation that all of us experience, but it can be a normal, healthy response to a trauma or life stress. Pain is a great teacher, encouraging us not to repeat harmful actions and also to resolve our problems. After an injury, pain (along with its buddy swelling) discourages us from using a damaged body part until it heals. For these reasons pain is a useful feature for the survival of any person or animal. Unfortunately, pain can persist long after an injury seems to be healed. It can also arise without a clear explanation of the cause, as in fibromyalgia. And, pain can be chronic in degenerative diseases like arthritis. Daily pain puts a strain on work, play, and relationships.
What you might not know about pain
I think most of us assume that if we have pain, there must be something wrong with our body, something that we can see or verify with a test. But, pain and "something wrong" do not always go hand in hand. Modern research has shown that some people with arthritis have no pain, and that many people with bulging disks, bone spurs, etc. have no back pain. Those are fairly common in people as they age. And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, many people with pain are unable to find any sure cause. This suggests that just because someone has pain and has a bulging disk, that we cannot be completely sure that the disk deformity is the cause of the pain.
The lack of perfect correspondence between pain and "damage" brings up the question, "What is different about the people that have pain, and those that don’t?" Neurobiology could be uncovering some answers to this question. We now know that our brains don’t simply passively experience pain coming from the body. The brain takes an active role in creating the experience of pain. The brain interprets a range of sensory inputs, assesses them based on past experience, and then makes a decision about whether or not pain is an appropriate response. The brain will create pain whenever it thinks that it is needed. MRIs confirm that the brain can even create physical pain as a response to emotional stress like a romantic break up.
Continue to part 3 of this article on pain to learn about the Chinese Medicine concept of pain.