Why Do We Feel Pain?

Pain is an unpleasant sensation but it does have its uses. Pain serves as an alarm or a warning system designed to prevent injury or further injury. Things feel unpleasantly painful so that the body will quickly take steps to remove the source of the damage. It is just one of many self-protective mechanisms of the body.

For example, a child in the kitchen accidentally puts his hand on the stove that has been left on. Very quickly, the nervous system alerts his brain and he pulls his hand away, avoiding further damage. The lingering pain may also serve to remind him not to do that again.

Beyond the immediate and reflexive warning that pain can provide, pain may give us a protective awareness of our bodies. If some part of your body is in pain, you are more likely to take steps to help it heal, such as resting it or having it looked at by someone else. Pain tells us to pay attention and get something looked after.

Some children, though very few, have a condition that does not allow them to feel pain. Congenital insensitivity to pain, as the condition is called, might at times be imagined as an advantage but in reality, children with this problem frequently injure themselves. If a child who has this condition breaks his arm, he will likely keep using it, causing more damage.

When pain isn’t useful

While pain can serve a useful purpose, there are many instances where pain seems to serve no function. It does not alert us to avoid injury or further injury and is just painful. Of the several different types of pain, most seem to have no protective purpose. That pain can have a very useful purpose at times is little comfort to those suffering from a painful disease or injury. These conditions can persist long after there was an opportunity to escape from the source of injury or take steps to begin healing.

For example, the pain of a bad burn can linger long after the opportunity to take protective action has passed. The pain a child with cancer feels might have motivated him to talk about it with his parents, leading to medical attention, an early diagnosis, and treatment, but after that, the pain serves no purpose. Its value as a protective warning system is over but the pain continues.

Simon Beggs, PhD