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Does all physical pain indicate something wrong?
June 5, 2006 2:17 PM   Subscribe

Does all physical pain indicate something wrong? Okay, weird question. We all get pains...maybe a quick shooting pain in the arm, maybe a fleeting headache that comes and goes in a flash, maybe an ache in a finger or toe that throbs a few times, then leaves.

I understand that pain generally means something ain't right. But what about random pains that come and go, don't linger, don't repeat, and (seemingly) aren't caused by any action or stimulus?

Is there such thing as a random, "pointless" pain? Or does every pain I experience mean something bad has happened, however small?
posted by Bud Dickman to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Of course there is the possibility that pain does not correspond to ill health but simply corresponds to nerves firing off pain responses.

Then you have such things as the "suicide disease."
posted by geoff. at 2:20 PM on June 5, 2006

Think of eating a vindaloo: intense pain, nothing wrong.

There's a chemical in a chilli that stimulates your nerve endings so as to make you feel pain, and all pain is is your nerve endings complaining.
posted by godawful at 2:20 PM on June 5, 2006

"Or does every pain I experience mean something bad has happened, however small?"

Valerie Hardcastle says Yes.
posted by Gyan at 2:21 PM on June 5, 2006

IANAD. However, I think it's certainly possible for pain to "mean nothing". Ever have a pinched nerve? That's not necessarily damage, but it is painful. In some ways, pain is a warning (so putting your hand in hot water will hurt long before you are damaged). In other ways, it just overreacts (pinched nerve).

How 'bout phantom limb pain for amputees?
posted by spaceman_spiff at 2:22 PM on June 5, 2006

There is a psychological condition that involves having pain but for no physical reason. Freud used to call it hysteria. It is now called conversion disorder, since hysteria has taken on new meanings.

These people are not faking, and the pain is real to them, but there is no biological reason for them to hurt. For example, some people have body parts that go numb, or are even paralyzed for years despite their nerves being perfectly fine. There are instances in which blinded people duck to avoid an oncoming object or paralyzed people are able to run to escape the burning building, etc.

Basically, its said that people internalize their stress and convert them to a physical symptom, most likely because physical illness is more socially accpetable than admitting mental illness or stress.
posted by gilsonal at 2:27 PM on June 5, 2006

Thanks for the answers. But as I said, I'm talking about pain that seems to have no stiumulus. That is, I'm not eating a habanero pepper and then saying "what does that pain mean?"

I'm talking about: you're sitting there, and suddenly your eyebrow area hurts intensely for two seconds and then quits.

Et cetera.

What's that all about?
posted by Bud Dickman at 2:27 PM on June 5, 2006

Well, it seems like there are three sort of classes of pain your talking about:

Pain caused by a physical stimulus (i.e. tissue damage, peppers, etc)
You're not talking about that, since the damage is 'bad' or otherwise explainable.

Then on the other side you have psychological issues, or neurological issues, and you're not talking about those either, since the cause would be the psychological or neurological issue.

You're talking about something else, where it isn't "all in the head" but also not caused by anything observable.

What about cramping?
posted by delmoi at 2:40 PM on June 5, 2006

I've had a few rare (and scary) medical problems in recent years; and I've developed a real paranoia about exactly the thing you're talking about. I'll be lying in bed, trying to sleep, and then suddenly, *bam* pain in my head (or somewhere else) out of nowhere. Then I'll spend the next few hours wondering if I'm about to have a stroke or ... who knows.

The thing is, I'm still alive, so evidently it's nothing too serious. Once you get the idea in your head that you might have something wrong with you, there's a tendency to really notice minor things that you might otherwise ignore. The key is to strike a balance between ignoring real problems and freaking out about random aches and pains. Also, it doesn't hurt to get a checkup from a real doctor periodically anyway. Next time you get one, ask about this stuff. I talked to my doctors, and they basically told me to relax. Based on your description, I'm guessing he'll probably just laugh it off, but if you're worried, it's definitely worth asking.
posted by Humanzee at 3:09 PM on June 5, 2006

I think everybody gets brief, random pains that go away.

They're called twinges.

Sometimes a twinge means something's wrong, sometimes not.
posted by Ilaine at 3:25 PM on June 5, 2006

Pain is based on electrical signals being sent from a nerve to the brain. That being said, the body's nervous system is absurdly complex and the likelyhood that a signal gets crossed or a nerve gets randomly fired is quite probable. Think of the likelihood of having an electric short at any point in a skyscraper covering an entire city block; it is more likely to happen than not. Now, some of those shorts might be caused from overload, physical damage, or other direct causes and may pose a fire risk (this is analogous to legitimate pain based on a cause). But, some of the shorts in the wires might just be caused from natural degradation of the wires and other events that are not "triggered" or discrete (this is analogous to the random pains that might shoot through your body). You feel the pain even though nothing is wrong and there are no obvious causes. The body re-routes the signal through another network of nerves and the short is bypassed (the pain disappears).

** IANAD, but this seems like a likely explanation based on the limited biology I have learned.
posted by galimatias at 3:47 PM on June 5, 2006

I'm talking about pain that seems to have no stiumulus.

Well, there are stimuli that would be beneath your notice. Perhaps a blood vessel experiences a momentary constriction or a muscle goes into spasm. Perhaps you have a point where your fascia has become knotted or stretched in a bad way. Perhaps there's a partially ingrown hair that needs to work itself out a little. There are many, many things that can "just happen" that will trigger pain. And yes, sometimes pain is the *wrong* response for the body to generate. Think of a peanut allergy. Your body goes into all kinds of defense reactions which ultimately kill you. Is the body always smart? No. Most of the time it's damn smart. But responses can misfire.
posted by scarabic at 4:33 PM on June 5, 2006

Pain is interesting to study. One reason is that you cannot remember the sensation of pain. You can remember the fact of pain, but you cannot remember what pain feels like. (Think about it.)

There are no "pain" nerve sensors. It's not a situation where certain nerves detect damage and send signals to the brain. Rather, pain is a neural deduction based on comparing multiple nerves which detect different things.

Nerves can spontaneously fire for no reason. Ever had a situation where one of your fingers twitches for no reason? That's because a motor nerve (a nerve which is connected to a muscle) spontaneously fired without being stimulated to do so.

And it's also possible for sensory nerves to fire spontaneously. One result of that is random itches. Another result can be a brief twinge of pain with no physical cause.

The right thing to do is to say "Ouch" then to go on about your business, unless it's severe or long lasting or repeats.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:16 PM on June 5, 2006

You can remember the fact of pain, but you cannot remember what pain feels like. (Think about it.)

I did. I can. What can this sentence possibly mean?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:01 PM on June 5, 2006

This is a fascinating question, and I think that the answer to it is complex and remains obscure for epistemological reasons.

That said, my best guess to the answer to Is there such thing as a random, "pointless" pain? is Yes. In fact, most headache pain (to pick one example) seems to fall into this category.

Paula Kamen's All in My Head is a wonderfully-written first-person account of trying to deal with a ten-year-long headache that, after careful investigation, did not appear to be related to physical or psychological damage. You might get a kick out of reading it, if such things interest you.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:53 PM on June 5, 2006

i get this weird pain in the middle / side of my back that seems to recur whenever i am folding laundry. something about the particular muscular movements involved in the process seem to just tweak it the right way. also (and this one hasn't happened in quite awhile) sometimes if I sleep on my side in just the right way, i'll wake up with a sharp pain in my chest / diaphragm area that gets worse if i move around, but fades quickly after i'm awake. pinched nerves? pulled muscles? who knows... it is frustrating until it happens enough that you realize that it's probably no big deal though. (or is it?!? =)
posted by idontlikewords at 10:32 PM on June 5, 2006

There are no "pain" nerve sensors. It's not a situation where certain nerves detect damage and send signals to the brain. Rather, pain is a neural deduction based on comparing multiple nerves which detect different things.

This is frankly erroneous. Pain is one of the discrete sensory modalities, being subserved at the skin by unmyelinated type 1C and 1Ad fibers terminating in free nerve-endings. The nervous path is well-described; one, the spinothalamic tract, terminating after two synapses in the ventral posterior nucleus of the thalamus. Other information is conveyed upward by means of the spino-spinal tract, a series of interneurons. The information, well-modulated, makes its way to the supplemental sensorimotor area in the medial part of the posterior frontal lobe.

Read more about it if you care to do so. And eschew the casual issuance of such handwaving explanations in future.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:09 AM on June 6, 2006

By the way, I think I can "remember" the sensation of pain all too well.
posted by macinchik at 11:25 AM on June 7, 2006

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