Pain is an odd thing

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Have you ever stopped to think about pain? We only see it as a bad thing, but pain is there to protect us. Without it we would do stupid things, if you do stupid things anyway then I am not talking about you. But pain protects us because without pain stupid actions wouldn’t hurt. We would be unaware when we injure ourselves or cuts go septic. We would strain muscles beyond their capacity or run on broken legs. You only have to observe someone who is drunk to realise the damage they cause themselves and others when they are unaware of pain. The same is true of someone high on illegal drugs, or some legal ones for that matter. So for anyone whose idea of fun on a Friday night is getting blotto and having a fight you won’t get this. The rest of us will understand.

Then there are diseases and medical conditions that affect our sensation, what we feel physically. Leprosy is one of many diseases that destroy the nervous system, I know it also causes other things. But I am focusing on its preventing people from feeling pain. The result is that even a small injury to a foot, hand or eye can become so bad that permanent damage or disability is caused. In diabetes loss of feeling in feet can result in damage to feet. Pain is needed as a protection. Peripheral neuropathy can feel like you are wearing rubber gloves when it affects your hands or socks when it affects your feet. It’s one of the conditions I have and I remember when it first affected my face. I wasn’t sure if I was having a stroke. There was no droop, no problems with speech or left side problems generally. I just felt like I had been to the dentist and had an injection to numb one side of my mouth. You know that sensation you get an hour or so afterwards as it wears off? When the effect spreads to the whole of one side of your face, that tingling numb feeling? That is what it felt and often feels like. I actually tested it by sticking a pin in my face; no sensation at all. As an aside I do get loss of feeling in lots of other areas. But that first time it affected my face and nothing else.

I wrote a blog about losing the sensation in my left arm and calling 111 ‘An unexpected emergency’ after I realised I could stick pins in my left arm and face without feeling it. There’s a common theme here, it sounds like whenever I lose feeling I stick pins in myself. I think it’s because I can’t quite believe the feeling has gone so completely. That’s the problem, we need pain. Without it we can stick needles in our arm, it doesn’t hurt. We don’t know we are injured. There is no warning. If I was stupid I could really have injured myself.

Pain works in two ways. One way is the signal sent from nerves to brain as a result of pain stimulus that could be harmful. A sort of ‘stop doing that’ or ‘slow down your injured’ kind of signal. The other is the nervous system firing off pain signals with little or no stimulation, in this kind the pain is regular and unrelenting. Ironically I find that areas of my body that lose normal sensation can still feel pain from these miss fires. The result is the same, severe pain, the cause is different. I am no medic so don’t take medical advice from me. But from my understanding pain that comes from the nervous system misfiring is not easy to manage with tablets. The reason being that the cause isn’t inflammation or temperature or infection. The pain receptors themselves need cutting off or blocking. I am sure medics reading this are throwing their hands up and saying how I am over simplifying it all. But I like simple, I understand simple.

Migraines are an odd kind of pain. They are unlike other headaches. Many headaches are caused by tension, muscles in the neck or face getting stressed. These respond to exercise and things like ordinary pain killers. I guess because of the cause. But I am told migraines are caused by the blood vessels in your brain constricting then releasing. When they constrict you get all sorts of weird effects, auras, odd smells, visual effects, tastes, loss of feeling in various places. Then when the vessels release you get a thumping, agonising, blinding headache that seems unresponsive to pain killers and makes you susceptible to light. It’s difficult to see purpose in migraines. I am told that everyone can potentially get migraines, but for most people you would need to go without food or sleep for days and be really stressed. For a migraine sufferer a bar of chocolate, glass of red wine, bright sunlight, missed meal, stressful day or poor night sleep can cause it. I guess a migraine is meant to be the body’s protection to over doing it. But for some of us we get migraines too easily. Migraine pain needs a whole special kind of treatment that I am not going into here. I will just say, it’s not just a headache.

Pain is just so strange because, while it’s necessary and a protection to us, it can so dominate our lives that everything else is pushed out. Chronic pain (meaning ongoing, long term) is really hard to cope with. It feels like the body has gone haywire. If the body is so overwhelmed by pain that everything else is drowned out, then it’s hard to see how it is functioning as it’s meant to. For example: if you were going to set up a signalling system of lights on the ground for an airplane to land at and instead you just flood light the whole of an area, how would a pilot know where the airfield was? In the same way if pain is a warning system, but you get pain all the time, how do you know when and what to listen to? Pain only works effectively if you get it occasionally and in one area at a time. Otherwise it’s like the boy who cried wolf, we can end up ignoring it.

I started by saying pain is an odd thing. I stand by that, or in my case sit or lie down by that. Pain is very peculiar. We need it, yet we hate it. We would probably all choose to do away with it. Yet without pain we would be in severe danger. Pain protects us and keeps us safe. But pain can get out of kilter and cause issues. We can end up trying to control it and failing. It can so dominate our lives that we ignore it. One thing is certain we cannot do without it.

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