How do animals and humans survive extreme physical pain and physical assault?
September 18, 2012 6:17 PM   Subscribe

How do animals and humans survive extreme physical pain and physical assault?

I saw a story today about a dog who was injured, losing the whole top part of her jaw. What remained included an exposed tongue and bottom jaw. The dog miraculously survived without medical attention and is now being sent to the United States to receive reconstructive surgery. I have read many other stories of not just accidental injury, but of blatant torture where the animal has survived as well (and sometimes, not).

I cannot fathom how that must have felt. I have felt physical pain that I thought really hurt, but I can't imagine that I could survive such pain. Is there a threshold for pain? How can an animal or human be injured in such an extreme way and be able to tolerate/endure it?
posted by DeltaForce to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Pain, in and of itself, isn't deadly or even especially dangerous. It's the cause of and reaction ti pain that kills.

Say you're this dog and your upper jaw is removed. As long as you don't die of blood loss or shock or, possibly, a heart attack from the pain/terror, there's nothing else in that scenario which I can think of offhand that would be deadly. In the long term, complications from the injury could kill you. But pain's just a feeling warning you that somwthingbis wrong; it's not a condition per se.
posted by windykites at 6:23 PM on September 18, 2012

Sorry for all those typos!
posted by windykites at 6:23 PM on September 18, 2012

How can an animal or human be injured in such an extreme way and be able to tolerate/endure it?

It sounds like you're assigning pain a major power. In the end, it's just a sensation, like an itch, sunlight on your skin or feeling hungry. Pain can be ignored, or at least assigned a lesser priority if need be.

If can also be a simple matter of being no other choice. You have to endure that terrible pain if you want to survive, to continue living. Some beings will always fight to survive, they seem to have something inside them that just refuses to give up.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:06 PM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm sure that many have wished that excruciating pain would actually kill them, but unfortunately that's just not physiologically possible.

Some of the most excruciating pains known to man, in fact, are caused by rather medically benign conditions: herniated discs, kidney stones, tic douleureux/trigeminal neuralgia, endometriosis/ruptured ovarian cyst, migraine headache, for example. Some of these can be associated with serious complications, but on their own they are unlikely to cause anything even approaching death. There are plenty of painful conditions that can kill you, too, but pain and lethality are not necessarily related.

Compare this to other, more dramatic sounding complaints, like having an open-fracture dislocation of your ankle - that's when you break a bone so badly it's sticking out of your leg. Or getting shot in the face. Because there's a lot of blood and gore, you might think that these people would always rate their pain "10" on a scale from one to 10 (as many of the sufferers of the prior list of complaints often do) - but actually I've seen people come in with these complaints who are calm and aren't outwardly in any distress.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:22 PM on September 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

Also, another reason can be your sympathetic nervous system, a.k.a. your "fight or flight" response. It's probably part of the reason why people with serious trauma like those I described above seem to have a blunted pain response from what you would expect (although either way, the pain itself wouldn't be the dangerous part of their injuries).
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:37 PM on September 18, 2012

For pet-type animals, like cats and dogs, they don't (apparently) have a very good sense of the past or the future. They can fear a specific person or thing, but they don't really fear things in the abstract -- like the idea of pain. So for a cat or a dog, once the pain is over, it's over. They don't dwell on it or fear it returning. (Unlike humans, who can be psychologically tortured with just the idea of pain.)

I have a cat who was pretty seriously injured and still healing when I adopted him as a kitten. He'd already forgotten about the injury happening before it was even healed. It's never given him a second thought in 10 years. When he's had to have painful things done at the vet, he's been mad about it for an hour or two but then he forgets and goes back to normal. He totally freaks out when we go to the vet, because once he can smell it he knows it's the hurty place, but it's not like he worries about the vet for three day in advance and is upset about it for three days after.

It's interesting, with babies and all the shots they get, I could tell at what doctor's appointment each of my kids started being able to remember that they'd just had a shot, because babies calm down as soon as the shot is over and you manage to distract them, but I remember my first, when he was twelve months old, would calm down, then start to think, remember the shot, and start wailing again. It took a couple hours for him to forget that he was mad about it. Now that he's three he cries about the shot but as soon as he's sure it's over, he's capable of calming down because he knows the pain is done with and not going to happen again.

If you read stories of wartime captives who are tortured, thinking about the pain eventually ending is one way a lot of them get through it, or thinking about how they can manage it so they can survive for their family or whatever. But you also don't have a whole lot of choice about it. I'm sure that wanting to survive matters, but pain itself doesn't really kill you.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:17 PM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some of the most excruciating pains known to man, in fact, are caused by rather medically benign conditions: herniated discs

Hi, that's me. I spent a pretty good chunk of this summer with my spinal column under direct pain stimulation every time I moved any muscle below my shoulders. My own personal gom jabbar.

It was a good opportunity to study exactly what true pain feels like, because as long as I held perfectly absolutely still I was in almost no pain at all, but if I moved at all (or, a terrifying prospect, sneezed) I'd get to spend at least the next half hour or so trying to get the spasms under control and feeling all over again exactly what it would feel like to be snapped in half. So I got to do a lot of comparing between those two states this summer.

The boring but true answer to your question is that you survive it because what the hell else are you supposed to do. You are stuck in that body whether it is broken or not, and you are going to feel what it feels. You don't "tolerate" or "endure" it: you just continue to exist until the point in time at which it is not happening anymore.
posted by ook at 8:32 PM on September 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

There is no threshold for pain, though chronic pain (i.e constant, long term, the slipped disc, as oppose to acute pain like cutting a toe off or something) certainly brings with it a raft of negative health effects that range from depression, to high blood pressure, to poor memory formation and other cognitive issues, to digestive issues and I've even seen seen some work suggesting it increases the rate of cancer (I'm not knowledgeable enough to judge the merits of that).

I have an illnesses that at one time gave me significant levels of chronic pain, and it certainly does change both your perceptions and thoughts about the world in general. There may not be a biological threshold but wishing or wanting to die, or trying to is not unheard of. Additionally, when you are under pain you are likely to neglect your health in ways as simple as ignoring a balanced diet, to being clumsier because of distraction etc.
posted by smoke at 8:39 PM on September 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was on life support for a few months due to a situation that almost killed me, so I can tell you firsthand - pain is just a sensation. It is your body's way of telling you there is a problem and if the sensation is ignored, eventually you just get desensitized to it and it takes a higher pain threshold to trigger that same response. I literally had a hernia operation a few years ago with only local anaesthetic because I thought it would be cool to stay awake and take pictures. (Before you get impressed, I should admit that I did pass out halfway through it.) This was not me being a tough guy - it's just that the life support experience had desensitized me to pain to such a large degree that by comparison this was relatively minor. I've also seen other people who were in terrible pain report similar feelings so I'm pretty sure it's not just me.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 9:34 PM on September 18, 2012

My grandpa slipped in a wet sidewalk and ended up with the kind of open fracture dislocation of the ankle described by treehorn+bunny above. He army-crawled back across the street to his truck, dragged himself inside, and drove to the hospital, where he had emergency surgery. Apparently he never thought to call for help, because why would you bother someone else when you're perfectly capable of helping yourself?

I think some people are just better at thinking about what they need to do to make the pain stop and then doing it, instead of thinking about how much it hurts.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 9:35 PM on September 18, 2012

As a kid I discovered that if part of me was cold--say I forgot my gloves or hat-- I could find the part of me that was most comfortable, concentrate on that area, and then almost spread my perception of that good feeling all around my body until it enveloped and eradicated the cold part. As it turns out, this technique works for pain too. YMMV.
posted by carmicha at 11:26 PM on September 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Some of the most excruciating pains known to man, in fact, are caused by rather medically benign conditions: [...] endometriosis/ruptured ovarian cyst [...]. Some of these can be associated with serious complications, but on their own they are unlikely to cause anything even approaching death.

I have endometriosis, and nearly died from a burst torsioned ovarian cyst. The above information is, and I'm saying this factually, dangerously misleading. Throughout my childhood I had been led to believe by my parents – not my doctor – that the recurring pain that caused me to be unable to walk or stand up (I would pass out when I did) one or two days every two to two and a half weeks (oh yeah, it's irregular too, and often accelerated) was "benign" and as such did not "deserve" the treatment that hormones (the Pill) would have afforded me. My doctor tried insisting, but as I was a minor, all my parents had to do was refuse and keep badgering me with misinformation and threats so that I didn't go to a Planned Parenthood clinic to get the Pill in secret.

Pain itself is a signal. Had I continued to think it "benign", I would have died at age 21. Thankfully, I identified the piercing, screaming pain of what turned out to be a burst cyst as abnormally severe and walked myself to an ER, where I was operated a couple of hours later. It was so life-threatening that they put me under general anesthesia in spite of having eaten dinner before walking to the ER; that had been when the pain wallopped me. Do not ignore abnormal pain just because someone else has told you it's "benign". You know yourself better than anyone else can; listen to your body.

So, how do you deal with debilitating pain: you just do. As mentioned earlier, I did have a threshold in that I would sometimes pass out when it got to be too much. Honestly, that should have been a signal to get me to a doctor, and although I asked my family to do so, they instead showered me with invective; I survived that too. Luckily. Not through strength, but through sheer luck that none of those cases involved something that could indeed have killed me.

Knowing there was a potential solution also helped, as another commenter mentioned. Thankfully it (the Pill) ended up relieving most of the worst of it. It's not the case for all women with endometriosis. But at least now it's only a matter of a few hours of pain, and not several days. When you've been through the severe stuff, it's a paradoxical relief to feel milder pain. "Gosh this is nice, I can still function! I remember when it was so much worse!"
posted by fraula at 11:53 PM on September 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

When I was recovering from surgery, I did something similar to what Carmicha described. I imagined the pain was not really a part of me but was some separate thing visiting my body, and I was therefore able to somehow mentally separate it from me. It didn't make it go away entirely, it just helped me kind of isolate and contain it in an imaginary little box. So that was just some sort of mental trick I did to deal with pain (too bad I wasn't offered morphine, that probably would have worked better).

I've also had an extremely painful cortisone injection into inflamed tissue (trigger finger) and I've been moved on an x-ray table with shattered, splintered bones inside my arm, and in both cases the way of dealing with it was to scream (although involuntarily - the type of situation where you hear someone screaming and then you realize it's you who is screaming).
posted by Dansaman at 1:53 AM on September 19, 2012

Like others said, pain is a signal sent from the brain to indicate something is wrong. Generally, pain is associated with a trauma and it triggers a fight or flight instinct. In those cases you may have so much adrenaline running through you that you don't think of pain. I assume animals may have the same sort of thing.
posted by Danithegirl at 8:41 AM on September 19, 2012

We had a cat growing up that went through some severe trauma (lost an eye, broken jaw and femur), and she coped, but there was definitely a difference in her personality afterward. She became much testier--you never knew when what seemed like benign petting would send her into Dr. Claw mode.
posted by benbenson at 11:44 AM on September 19, 2012

You have no choice.

There have been times where I wished some great celestial force would cut my head off as I was jamming a pencil into the space where my skull meets the neck while rocking back and forth in the middle of my kitchen at 2AM because the head pain I was enduring was excruciating vs. other times where I've been in a similar amount of pain yet able to take my mind off of it for awhile, sleep through it even. So some of it has to do with where you put your focus like others have said, but there is way more to it than that.

Is there a threshold for pain?

I think part of the problem is you're trying to quantify something that is objectively unquantifiable because much about a pain has everything to do with the animal (us included!) experiencing it and the environment they find themselves in. There are so many layers to this answer; what kind of mood were they in? Are they getting any emotional, or physical support from friends/family? Do they have any coping mechanisms to help them get through it? Have they been in pain before and how was that treated? Is the pain they're in acute, or chronic? And more.
posted by squeak at 2:15 PM on September 20, 2012

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