Why We Need Pain and How to Deal With It

As much as we’d hate to admit it, we need pain. The body uses physical pain to get our attention when something is amiss.

As much as we’d hate to admit it, we need pain. Our bodies use it to say, "Hey! Something's wrong here!" Your throbbing jaw tells you to go the dentist where he discovers and pulls an infected tooth. Your aching abdomen forces you to the doctor so she can diagnose your appendicitis and order you an emergency appendectomy.

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.

When pain is treated without discovering the underlying cause, we’re making a huge mistake. It’s like shutting off the power to a burning building because the sound of the fire alarm is bothering you. You have to put the fire out. So, hold off on the Tylenol and take a moment to really listen to what your pain is trying to tell you.

Pain doesn't exist without a reason. And one of the first steps in finding the problem at the root of the pain is to ask a series of questions: Where does it hurt? Does it radiate? Is it sharp or dull? Shooting? Can you give a number to your pain, with zero being no pain and 10 being the worst pain imaginable?

When the pain alarm is sounding, take the time to listen to that sometimes shrill, unpleasant or shocking sensation. You’ll be glad you did.

Why Is Pain So Important?

Sometimes, the body heals itself and you don't need a doctor. But when pain persists, you have to address the underlying cause to restore balance. The pain serves three main purposes:

1. Pain gets you to identify the damage and deal with it.

As much as we would like to turn off pain, we need that warning sign. You might discover serious illness or injury because of it. What you think might be a headache could be a brain tumor (though hopefully not).

2. Pain reinforces important lessons.

When you get a paper cut, you heal quickly and often with no visible scar. There may be a lesson to learn from this injury, like opening the mail more carefully.

A deep wound, on the other hand, usually stays with you as a scar — a visible indicator of an injury as well as a reminder of the pain so you remember what not to do next time. Like burning yourself on the stove. You'll definitely be more careful next time.

3. Pain helps protect against further damage.

“But why am I in so much pain for months after my injury?” Patients often ask why their pain persists so strongly and for so long after an injury. They’re frustrated at the slow healing process that limits their activity for weeks to months. Pain oftentimes remains to ensure that they’re particularly careful around that part of the body so that it can continue to heal completely.

What to Do About Your Pain

When you find yourself with pain that just won’t go away, don't just suffer through it in silence, hoping it'll go away on its own. Turn the word around (NIAP) and use it as an easy reminder to help you build resilience and to grow from the painful experience. By doing so, you turn your pain from a negative into a positive.

Here are four simple steps that we can use to help us reverse the pain:

  • N: Define the negative experience by identifying the source of the pain.
  • I: Intervene and address the source of the pain.
  • A: Assess the response.
  • P: Attain a positive result.

Let’s walk through the steps of reversing the pain of an ankle sprain:

N: The negative is the pain that results from a sprained ankle. In this example, discovering the cause of the pain is relatively easy, but in other cases, the cause of the pain may not be as apparent. So to fully understand the negative starting point, you may need to visit a doctor for a complete diagnosis.

I: This is the action step! Do something that addressed the cause of the pain. Intervene and ice the ankle to decrease swelling and inflammation. Consider R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and anti-inflammatories. Again, your doctor can help you understand the best course of intervention.

A: Take a step back and assess the results of your intervention. Are you improving? If so, continue with your treatment plan. If not, you may need to see a sports medicine or orthopedic physician for additional options. Or you might need physical therapy.

P: The positive result. Once your ankle is healed and you're back to your normal activities, take time to reflect on what the pain has taught you. Have you learned more about your body’s limitations? Maybe you learned ways to prevent future sprains like exercises to strengthen your ankle or adjusting your stride.

There are no easy answers or quick fixes, but if you try to apply this model the next time you struggle with pain, it’ll help you become better at processing, recovering from and growing from that painful experience.

Pain is a transformative process that we encounter as we go down our chosen path in life. When the pain alarm is sounding, take the time to listen to that sometimes shrill, unpleasant or shocking sensation. You’ll be glad you did.

About the Author

Aneesh Singla, M.D., is medical director of The Rockville Center of National Spine & Pain Centers in Rockville, Maryland. He has published medical literature within the field of pain medicine and currently focuses his practice on minimally invasive options for the treatment of chronic pain. He also serves as a lecturer on the physician faculty at Harvard Medical School. For more information, visit WhyItHurtsBook.com or AneeshSinglaMD.com. Dr. Singla’s new book, “Why It Hurts,” will be available April 2017 on Amazon.