What is the purpose of pain?

Pain is a universal experience that serves the vital function of triggering avoidance. The pain sensation is a necessary part of being human. Pain sensation is a fact of life. Even the primitive amoeba takes avoiding action in the face of adverse events. In such primitive life-forms, pain avoidance is purely reflex action, as they do not have the complexity of a highly developed brain to feel pain in the sense that humans do: 
  • The unconscious reflex avoidance reaction that is so rapid that it occurs before the actual awareness of the pain sensation (as in all life-forms).
  • The actual experience of the pain sensation (that can only occur in highly complex organisms). This is an important point, as it implies that different parts of the brain are involved in these two consequences of the pain reaction.

Acute pain is protective. This is the pain that lets you know that something is wrong and that you need to get checked out. For example, if you have chest pain when you're having a heart attack, that's a good thing if it makes you go to the hospital. If you touch a hot stove and feel pain, even though it's severe, it's a good thing because it makes you move your hand away. There are people who are born without the ability to feel pain. Unfortunately, these people often suffer terrible injuries because it's hard for them to tell when they are injuring or damaging their bodies.

The biggest challenge for pain researchers today is to figure out how to allow people to feel acute pain (which will protect them) and to stop them from feeling chronic pain (which is the pain that lingers even after the original problem has been taken care of).

Believe it or not, pain can be a good thing. The nervous system triggers a sensation of pain to stop you from doing something that might cause a severe injury and to let you know that something may be wrong. In most cases, if you treat the source of the pain, it will go away.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.