So you’re in pain, and you’re thinking to yourself, why?! Why would such a thing evolve? That’s just cruel! One suspects that everyone feels like that at some point, but the reality is, without pain, you would be far worse off medically. Let’s explore why.
Why Do We Experience Pain?
If you are ever feeling less than grateful for your ability to experience pain, then you should definitely take a look at people who suffer from leprosy. Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a highly infectious disease caused by bacteria such as Mycobacterium leprae, and results in severe damage to the respiratory tract, the skin, the eyes, but most prominently sensory receptors in the skin, leading to a lack of sensation of touch. One of the side effects of this is that victims of leprosy often lose their ability to feel pain through their skin. Unlike most healthy people they completely fail to notice when they become physically injured, leading to those injuries being sustained or repeated. For example, if you’re cooking something over a fire, and your hand slips too close to the fire, an autonomic reflex occurs, the pain receptors in your hands send signals to the brain, and you pull your hand back out of danger. That unpleasant sensation also reinforces neurological processes, making you behave more careful around fire in the future.
In victims of leprosy, however, this autonomic reflex is compromised due to nerve damage caused by bacteria, and so rather than pulling their hand away, the victim will fail to notice it has even slipped, and continue not to notice until someone else screams at them that their whole arm is on fire. Leprosy, therefore, is an absolutely horrific disease to have, and it is not uncommon for victims of leprosy to loose fingers, noses or even whole limbs as a direct result of not experiencing pain when they’re supposed to.
This, fundamentally, is the purpose of pain; to protect the body from serious physical injury, both in the immediate short term and over our lifetimes by inducing caution.
Ok, But Is ALL This Pain Strictly Necessary?
Not ALL of it no, whilst mild to moderate pain is very useful, severe pain is invariably not, and can be nothing but debilitating. It can result in an individual not being able to live their life in the way they want to and can even impair cognitive functions by the severity of its nature and that usually it results in poor sleep. Moreover, it can be dangerous if it interrupts medical treatment. Luckily, this is where anaesthetics, analgesics and other types of come into effect. These can range from over-the-counter medications like paracetamol and ibuprofen, to opioid medications like codeine or morphine, local and general anaesthetics for surgery, all the way up to stem cell research for those suffering from chronic orthopaedic complications and back pain and who need chronic pain treatment. Temperature reduction is also an effective pain relief, as is alcohol…though be careful with that last one.
In short pain has evolved because it can provide a use for us – it is necessary to know when we are hurt so that further harm is prevented and treatment is sought. However, that does not mean that an individual should live with chronic pain – sometimes it might be fixed by a lifestyle change such as moving more and strengthening muscles, but sometimes stronger treatments might be needed. Often a combination of both is the best way forward.