Why Do We Feel Pain? — RecoverFit
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Why Do We Feel Pain?

Why Do We Feel Pain?

Pain is a complex phenomenon that involves multiple physiological and psychological factors. As Dr. Lorimer Moseley explains, pain is an "unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage," and it involves complex neurophysiological processes that include the activation of nociceptors and the transmission of nociceptive signals to the brain. However, pain is not just a simple reflection of tissue damage, as Dr. David Butler notes that pain is "a protective response by the body to actual or perceived danger or threat." Therefore, pain can be considered a subjective experience that is influenced by a range of biological, psychological, and social factors, as Dr. Kathleen Sluka points out.

Key Factors

The subjective nature of pain means that it can vary widely from person to person, and it can be influenced by a range of psychological factors, including emotions, beliefs, and expectations, as Dr. Joanne Waller explains. The psychological aspects of pain are closely linked to the neurophysiological processes involved in pain perception. Dr. Clifford Woolf notes, pain is what the person experiencing it says it is, which suggests that the subjective experience of pain is shaped by the individual's brain and nervous system. This means that psychological interventions, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, can be effective in treating chronic pain by addressing the psychological factors that contribute to pain perception.

In addition to psychological factors, pain can be influenced by environmental and social factors. According to Dr. Esther Pogatzki-Zahn, pain can be affected by a patient's cultural background, social environment, and interactions with healthcare providers. This highlights the importance of a comprehensive approach to pain management that addresses not only the physical aspects of pain but also the psychological, social, and cultural factors that can influence pain perception.

The Nervous System

The experience of pain involves a complex interplay between various structures and processes in the nervous system, such as the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves (the ones we think of in our fingers and toes). When damage occurs, specialised receptors in the peripheral nerves detect the painful stimuli and send signals along the nerves to the spinal cord, up to the brain, these are processed and integrated into the overall experience of pain.

The somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for processing sensory information from the body, including touch, temperature, and pain, is an important player in our pain experience. As Dr. Moseley explains, "the brain creates the experience of pain in response to input from the body." Other areas of the brain involved in pain processing include the Insula, which plays a role in emotional and affective aspects of pain, and the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, which is involved in attention and decision-making processes related to pain.

Pain is not solely determined by the extent or nature of tissue damage. Rather, as Dr. Woolf notes, "the brain has the ability to modulate the intensity and quality of pain through descending pathways from the brainstem." This means that psychological and social factors, a long with past experiences with pain, can all affect the pain experience.

Cognitive Control

Cognitive control of pain involves the use of cognitive and behavioural strategies to modulate the experience of pain. This approach is based on the recognition that pain is a complex and multidimensional experience that involves not only sensory input but also cognitive and emotional processing.

1. Modulation of attention: One of the primary mechanisms by which cognitive control of pain occurs is through the modulation of attention. Dr. Michael Sullivan, a clinical psychologist and pain researcher, notes that "attention is one of the most powerful tools we have for managing pain." By directing attention away from the pain and toward other stimuli, individuals can reduce the intensity and unpleasantness of their pain experience.

2. Coping Strategies: Another important aspect of cognitive control of pain is the use of coping strategies. Dr. Beverly Thorn, a clinical psychologist and pain researcher, explains that "coping strategies are deliberate efforts to manage pain-related distress." These strategies may involve engaging in activities that distract from the pain, such as listening to music or engaging in hobbies, or using relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.

3. Cognitive Reappraisal: Cognitive control of pain also involves the use of cognitive reappraisal, which involves changing the way one thinks about the pain. Dr. Tamar Pincus, a health psychologist and pain researcher, notes that "reappraisal involves reframing the pain in a more positive light, such as seeing it as a challenge rather than a threat." This approach has been found to be effective in reducing the intensity and unpleasantness of pain.

4. Social Support: Finally, cognitive control of pain can also involve the use of social support. Dr. Steven Linton, a clinical psychologist and pain researcher, explains that "social support involves seeking out help and support from others." This may include talking to family or friends, participating in support groups, or seeking professional help from a healthcare provider.

Overall, cognitive control of pain involves a range of behavioural strategies that can help individuals manage their pain experience. By modulating attention, using coping strategies, engaging in cognitive reappraisal, and seeking social support, individuals can reduce the impact of pain on their daily lives.


Pain is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that involves multiple physiological and psychological factors. By taking a comprehensive approach to pain management that addresses the biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors that can influence pain perception, healthcare providers can help to improve the lives of those who suffer from pain. As Dr. Jeffrey Mogil notes, pain is a significant public health problem that affects millions of people worldwide, and continued research into the mechanisms of pain and the development of new treatments is essential for reducing its impact.  

There have been significant advances in the understanding and treatment of pain in recent years. Dr. Robert Gatchel notes that there are now a wide range of treatments available for pain, including medication, physical therapy, and other non-pharmacological approaches. 

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This article has been written by Adey, 
RecoverFit Physiotherapist.

Adey Saunderson 


Having worked in professional sport for over 10 years, which included the Rugby Premership and The English Football League, Adey has a wealth of experience with dealing with injury and rehabilitation in the sports world. His desire, commitment, people skills and knowledge are why he has a great reputation in the clubs and teams he has been involved with. Alongside working for RecoverFit, Adey also works in the military as a physiotherapist. 

DISCLAIMER: The content provided in these articles is for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice. The advice and tips shared in these articles are not intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in these articles. The author and publisher of this blog are not responsible for any adverse effects or consequences resulting from the use of any suggestions, recommendations, or procedures described in these articles.