“At its core, pain is just something that hurts or makes you say ouch,” says Karen Davis, a senior scientist at the Krembil Brain Institute in Toronto. “Everything else is the outcome of the pain, how it then impacts your emotions, your feelings, your behaviors.”
The ouch part of pain begins when something — heat, certain chemicals or a mechanical force — activates special nerve endings called nociceptors.
“Once they are activated, they trigger a whole cascade of events with kind of a representation of that signal going through your nerves and into your spinal cord and then all the way up to your brain,” Davis says.
And that’s when things get really complex.
Pain signals interact with many different brain areas, including those involved in physical sensation, thinking and emotion.
All that processing can have benefits, she says, like sometimes allowing us to ignore pain signals.
Say you’re playing hockey and you just got slammed into the boards, Davis says. “If you’re concentrating on that, you’re not going to be able to keep skating. So you need to be able to tune out the pain and deal with it later.”
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