The Purpose of Pain: Why Do We Hurt?

Have you ever wondered why pain exists, what is the purpose of pain, or why pain can be more troublesome for some people than others?

Our nervous system really looks out for us – it’s aim is to protect us. The purpose of pain is to protect and preserve us, that is, to keep us alive. You could even call it a ‘gift’ (though that might be a bit of a push for those that experience it!).

This can be a tricky concept to wrap our heads around if pain is persistent and nasty, but even then we experience pain because our brain has decided that we are threatened or in danger, and is trying to let us know (‘Thanks, Brain!’)

Why Context Matters

Our context is the location, situation and current setting that we find ourselves in, along with our beliefs, values, understanding and knowledge that we bring with us into a situation. We also have our internal context, which refers to our felt sensations within our bodies – this can include pain alongside other physical experiences.

Consider the following examples of how context can influence our pain:

What we believe and where we are

It is more likely that you will develop chronic neck pain after a car accident if the accident was not your fault

An identical finger injury will cause more pain in a violinist than in a dancer, because finger damage poses more of a threat to a violinist

What do you think would hurt more? Injuring your knee after scoring the winning goal in the grand final, or exactly the same injury resulting from an accident at work?

What we think

When people with back pain are shown scans of their backs, and normal age-related changes are described by their condition as ‘degeneration’, it can worsen their back pain

If a very cold metal rod is placed in your hand, seeing a red light at the same time will make it hurt more than seeing a blue light at the same time. What’s more, seeing the red light will make the rod feel hot.

What we know and understand

When you have a worrying pain, helpful information from a trusted source can make you feel better (even before any treatment! – information is powerful).

The more you know about a surgical procedure, the less pain-relieving medication you are likely to need afterwards. The less you understand about your pain, the more it tends to hurt. 

Image Credit: AndreyPopov on iStock

Our Brains and Pain

We will experience pain when our brain concludes that there is more credible evidence of danger related to our body than there is of safety related to our body. This formula might be influenced by factors such as the following examples:

Evidence of Danger:

Evidence of Safety:

In short: we will be in pain when the credible evidence of danger in us is greater than the credible evidence of safety in us. We will not be in pain when the credible evidence of safety in us outweighs the credible evidence of danger in us.

If you need support with pain management, please don’t hesitate to Get In Touch

Reference: G. L. Moseley & D. S. Butler (2015). The Explain Pain Handbook. South Australia: Noigroup Publications.