How the Body Feels Pain

Pain PerceptionPain is a complex issue.  Acute pain is usually related to one of the following:

  • Tissue damage
  • Perceived damage
  • Injury

Chronic pain can be associated with chronic damage or a short circuit in the transmission of pain signals.  Treatment of pain depends on the cause. In acute pain, if you treat the cause the pain will normally go away.  However when pain becomes chronic, treatment often does not take away all the symptoms.

Pain Signals & Sensory Stimuli

Chronic pain is generally defined as pain lasting longer than 3 to 6 months.  Often, it outlasts the initial injury.  In some ways it becomes independent of the initial stimulus or cause.  Damage may be ongoing, and there may be a chronic inflammatory response, all causing ongoing sensory stimuli, which are subsequently linked in the spine and brain, to the perception of pain.  Often, non-painful sensory signals then become linked to nerves that previously transmitted pain signals. Normal signals then become perceived as pain.

All sensory signals are processed in the brain at some level.  The brain has an incredible ability to determine the importance of each signal and then form a response.  Depending on the circumstance, the brain can ignore the same signal that would be horrific pain.  For example, we all have heard about soldiers in war who have been shot, but continue fighting with no loss of focus.  Therefore, the real key player in all responses to pain signals is the brain and its interpretation of the signals.

Blocking Pain Signals

The key to treatment of pain then is altering the brain’s ability or desire to interpret sensory signals as pain.  Blocking signals can be done anywhere along the path from the sensory receptor including:

  • The peripheral nerve to the spinal cord
  • Along the spinal cord pathways
  • In the brain itself

Although pain can be treated in multiple ways, all treatments try to prevent transmission and interpretation of sensory signals that are perceived as pain. There is no magic bullet and no one treatment alone that will work for everyone.

The simple reason why there are so many treatments for pain is that there are so many ways to alter signals that are perceived as pain.  Medications have been designed to affect sensory impulses at a variety of locations from the skin and periphery to the spine and brain.  Furthermore, there are a variety of techniques from proper movement, to acupuncture, to psychological training that can effectively treat pain.


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Thomas Cohn, MD

Interventional pain doctor helping Minnesotans manage back, neck, foot, and other pain. Board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional board-certification in pain management from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), the American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians (ABIPP) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (ABPM).

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