Despite the millions of people around the world who feel pain every day, most of us know surprisingly little about what pain is and how it works. When your finger touches a hot stove, why does it take a few nanoseconds to pull your hand away? When your neck aches or knees throb while you’re sitting still, what’s really going on? And why does aching pain feel different than sharp or searing pain?
If you’re looking for some answers to related questions, you’ve come to the right place. Here you can explore the nuances to understanding pain and learn about better ways to manage it.
Here’s what we know: pain is an interaction that’s synchronized between your nerves, spine and brain.1 Your nerve cells carry messages from your skin, organs and muscles to your spinal cord and brain in the form of an electrical current.2 This process begins when your nerve endings receive some sort of stimulus—usually not a pleasant one.
Chemical signals are then sent rapidly through the pain pathway—from your nerve endings, up your spine and to your brain. This process alerts your brain that some part of your body is experiencing an issue that needs some urgent attention and love. For example, if your hand rests on a hot stove, it will dispatch signals to various parts of your body, so that you pull your hand away.3
When we talk about arthritis pain, the damaged tissue in the body constantly releases chemicals that interact with the nerves, telling them to send pain signals to the brain. This “always on” feedback loop can cause permanent changes to the nerves in the spinal cord and brain over time, leading to chronic pain conditions.4
Pain may feel bad, but it’s actually your body’s way of alerting you to danger. It might seem like the process of experiencing pain is universal, but in reality, feeling pain is very personal. The sensations you feel and the degree to which you feel them has a lot to do with your memory of past painful events, the source of your pain and your general coping strategies.5 Talk to a doctor who can help pinpoint the root cause of your pain and create a treatment plan customized to your specific situation.6
Chronic pain is one of the most common conditions people experience. Generally, pain enters this category if it persists beyond the expected time of healing—typically more than 12 weeks.7 Ongoing joint pain or conditions like osteoarthritis are examples of chronic pain. Acute pain, on the other hand, is categorized as sudden and severe discomfort. So if you cut your finger with a knife while pretending you’re the next Top Chef, don’t fret—painful injuries like these usually go away within a relatively short period of time.8
The way you handle pain is an ongoing practice that depends on what caused it and how it is affecting you. For chronic pain sufferers, natural ways to ease discomfort may include mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, mild exercise and a healthy diet. In addition to lifestyle modifications, prescription and over-the-counter medications can also help reduce pain. Talk to your doctor about the right arthritis treatment for you.
For better or worse, pain affects all of us at some point in our lives. By understanding what pain is and where it’s coming from, you can stay one step ahead of it.
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