If your house caught on fire, would you prefer to find out when the flames come licking at your feet, or to be warned by the smell of smoke? Or better yet, to hear the piercing tone of a smoke detector long before the fire can do any serious damage? That’s one of the main purposes of pain: It’s nature’s smoke detector, signaling us that something is wrong and to take action now! You put your hand on a hot stove or a fire and pain tells you to pull it back. Or you move an arm or leg past its usual range of motion, and it hurts. Pain saves us from experiencing much greater damage or injury. If you’ve ever gone to the dentist, gotten a couple of shots of Novocain, and then bitten your lip severely because you couldn’t feel anything, you have an idea of the value of pain.
Unfortunately, sometimes a smoke detector keeps wailing long after the fire is out, and then the sound itself becomes the problem. The same thing can happen with the human body. As I will explain later, even after the stimulus that caused the pain is gone, pain may continue to course through us. At that point, the pain is no longer the signal but the dilemma we must solve as quickly as we can.
Pain is one of the great human levelers, because everyone experiences it at one time or another no matter what their age, wealth, or status. It is one of the most costly health problems in the United States, resulting in an annual outlay of close to $ 50 billion in direct and indirect expenses. For example, over 80 percent of the population will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Five million Americans are partially disabled by back problems, and another two million are so severely disabled that they cannot work. Lower-back pain accounts for ninety-three million lost workdays and more than $ 5 billion in health care costs each year. Forty million Americans have chronic, recurring headaches and spend $ 4 billion a year on analgesics. Arthritis affects twenty million Americans and costs more than $ 4 billion each year in lost income, lost productivity, and health care. And that’s not counting the instances of other kinds of joint pain, TMJ (temporomandibular joint pain), cancer pain, neuralgia associated with diabetes and other illnesses, damage to the nervous system, and so-called unspecified pain (pain for which there is no apparent cause).
However, pain not only lets us know something is wrong, but it also is closely associated with many physiological responses that are part of the body’s natural healing process. How we experience pain, what happens organically from the first twinge to the last vestige of discomfort, what other biological events occur when we are in pain, and why some pain vanishes quickly while other forms of pain can recur and/ or linger, affecting our lives in many (mostly negative) ways— these are all elements of the story of one of the most important survival tools your body possesses.
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