Is Pain Real or Purely Mental?

If you think about it, pain does not exist without your brain relaying signals. This leads many to question whether pain is just an emotion relayed by the brain, more specifically the midbrain, or real. It’s both: they are inevitably linked to one another. Every person’s pain is unique to them; people describe and feel pain on different levels and calibers.

However, truth be told, pain does not exist without emotion. For instance, when kids go in for a shot, doctors tend to distract them, making the pain unnoticeable, thus, illustrating that perhaps pain is more bio psychological than previously thought.

Pain can be grouped into two categories: peripheral sensitization and central sensitization. Both feel just as intense as the other.

Peripheral sensitization stems from tissue damage or inflammation. For instance, when you cut your finger, you experience damage to your bodily tissue. During the process, there is a shift in the transduction proteins which carry messages to the receptors on neurons. As your finger is healing, and say hand sanitizer infects the cut, the altered transduction proteins carry electrical signals to your brain. Your brain will then associate such signals to certain emotions inducing pain.

Central sensitization originates from non-bodily damage: this pain can manifest itself without any actual tissue breakage. What occurs is that the neurons in the central nervous system become excited more easily- resulting in feeling pain for longer periods of time and much more easily. The pain that would normally subside lingers leading to chronic pain.

The sole difference between the two is how and where the stimulus originated.

Dr. Shneidman Ph.D of the American Association of Suicidology explains that all pain roots in the body’s craving for help. These needs can range from avoidance of pain, shame, or harm to lust for love, attention or freedom. Such feelings tend to stem from childhood experiences. When a child is exposed to pain frequently, he or she will associate this pain to a negative emotion. Therefore, every time such emotion is brought up the pain will be automatically linked.

Many doctors believe that disorders where the patient has nothing physiologically wrong can be tied back to central sensitization. Dr. Frank of Austin Pain Society revealed that the majority of his chronic pain patients have some back story to their pain. These patients tend to tell recent stories of breakups, divorces, or loss of a loved one.

Such real life stories pinpoint how pain is not just within the body but the mind. How you react to pain is all up to you. It just may be all in your head.

Christina Zhu is a rising senior at Winston Churchill High School. In the past, she has worked at the Clinical Center Branch of Biology Radiation and Cancer at the NIH, and currently, is working at the Children’s National Medical Center Center for Genetic Medicine and Cancer in DC. She hopes to study Cognitive Neuroscience and Global Health Systems in college and go on to become a doctor.

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