Updated: Feb 15
Why do we Need Pain?
Imagine not being able to feel pain. Sounds attractive at first, doesn’t it? Especially, I’m sure, if you’re someone who suffers from chronic pain - which is the main complaint in around 20% of visits to the doctor. But pain does have an important function. This was starkly demonstrated by a study of several related Pakistani children who were unable, due to a rare genetic mutation, to feel any pain.
Some of the children were found to have fractured bones without realising. They were covered in cuts and bruises and had injuries to their mouths (such as missing tips of tongues) caused by biting themselves. Even more devastating, one 14-year-old boy jumped to his death from a roof. Sadly, these children had little sense of their own limits. The leader of the study commented: Pain is there for a jolly good reason – it stops us damaging ourselves.
So, pain is there to draw attention to something that is harming us – so that we take appropriate action to remedy the situation. It’s often likened to a warning light on a car dashboard.
I once spilled a boiling cup of tea (fresh from the kettle, no milk) over my lap as I sat down on the settee. Before I realised what was happening, I was screaming and felt intense burning pain. The sensation was enough for me to understand that I needed to remove my jeans sharpish, to escape from the pain. This luckily prevented any permanent skin damage.
In addition to dissuading us from possible outer sources of harm such as burning tea, pain also prevents us from damaging ourselves. If we sprain an ankle, for example, the throbbing pain associated with inflammation reminds us not to walk on it and cause further damage. This way, we know to protect injured parts of ourselves so they can heal properly.
How do We Perceive Pain?
Whilst our 5 senses tell us all about our surroundings; pain alerts us to what’s going on inside of us. Potential harm or actual damage to the body is detected by cells called receptor cells. These relay their information via the nervous system to the brain - which may or may not subsequently register as the feeling of pain. There are different types of receptor for different types of damage so that we can distinguish between, for example, throbbing, sharp, pinching or burning pains.
Not all messages get through to the brain to be registered as an actual feeling of pain. Just like information from the senses, low level stimuli are filtered out - or we would be constantly overstimulated with pain alerts.
Pain biology is complex and not yet fully understood, despite pain control being a billion-dollar industry. Some people are more sensitive to pain than others – and this appears to have around a 50% genetic component. Our ability to tolerate pain also varies in different circumstances and over our lifetimes (as we age our tolerance generally increases). Current understanding suggests that we have a kind of ‘pain memory’ – so that our response to pain adapts according to our history of pain.
Different areas of our bodies are also more sensitive to pain than others – our skin is far more sensitive than our intestines, for example. This means the brain cannot precisely locate pain in the intestines – only the general area – whereas it can, say, in the hands.
Pain can also be referred; meaning it feels like it’s located in a different area of the body than its origin. For example, pain from a heart attack can be felt in the left arm and other areas. This is because the nerves relaying the pain messages from the heart and the left arm converge, drawing information from both areas.
What is Chronic Pain?
Whereas acute pain is a temporary warning of injury or illness, there to get our attention and protect us; chronic pain is longer term – lasting for months or years. One of the major causes of chronic pain is inflammation. This, of course, is our bodily response to injury. Having pain associated with inflammation therefore makes sense. The problem is, when the inflammation is caused by a long term (chronic) condition– like arthritis; this can make life very unpleasant.
Another major cause of chronic pain is damage to the nervous system itself – neuropathy. This can be caused by injury to the nerves (such as from an accident, or after surgery), diseases (like shingles or diabetes) or certain medical drugs (such as some cancer drugs). Neuropathic pain is typically felt as tingling, burning or hypersensitivity.
There are also many types of pain that we still don’t understand at all. Migraines for instance, are not linked to inflammation, nerve injury or acute injury. Pain that is of unknown origin is known as idiopathic and includes conditions such as fibromyalgia, IBS and tinnitus.
Can Homeopathy Help?
Homeopathy can work wonders for acute pain management such as for recent injuries, labour pains or recovery from illnesses or surgery; as well as for chronic pain.
There are a number of research studies indicating that homeopathy is effective in the management of chronic pain. For example, a 2-year long observational study into the effectiveness of homeopathy for chronic lower back pain, involving 129 patients was undertaken. It found there was marked, sustained improvement in the level of back pain, and the need for conventional drugs was significantly reduced. The researchers concluded that classical (individualised) homeopathy is an effective treatment for lower back pain, as well as for other painful conditions patients in the study had.
Another study compared the results of 1153 patients suffering from various musculoskeletal pain disorders, some of whom received conventional medical treatment and others homeopathy. It concluded that homeopathy was just as effective as conventional medicine and that patients in the homeopathy group needed less pain medication and had fewer side effects as a result.
Many of the patients I have treated for pain have approached me because they found themselves in a downward spiral of dependence on ever stronger painkillers, often with worrying side effects. Homeopathy performs really well in these situations because it can work alongside pharmaceutical medication. Patients tend to find that they need less and less pain medication as they continue treatment, allowing those who wish to do so, to gently withdraw.
For patients suffering from pain with an unknown cause, one of the great advantages of homeopathy is that the source of pain doesn’t need to be known. Treatments are matched to the sum or all your symptoms, rather than to any diagnosis.
Chronic pain is also commonly associated with depression and insomnia and as a holistic therapy, treating patients on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual levels combined; homeopathy is well placed to address the entire combination of each patient's symptoms.
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