Acute pain is your body’s way of waving a red flag for immediate attention, often because of an injury. Chronic pain, on the other hand, is pain that lasts for weeks, months, or years, and it affects more than 76.2 million Americans — more than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease combined. But how much do you really know about it? We've rounded up eight little-known facts about pain.
Pain, especially chronic pain, affects more than your body. It's psychologically stressful and can (understandably) lead to emotions like anger and frustration. And pain and stress can be a vicious circle: Pain can increase stress levels, and increased levels of stress can make pain worse. This can cause depression and make it difficult to concentrate.
Women actually do experience more pain than men over their lifetimes because of conditions and experiences such as menstruation, childbirth, and migraine headaches. Studies also show that women may experience pain differently — often more intensely — than men do. For example, some animal studies show that females require twice as much pain medication to get the same relief as males. However, there's conflicting research on whether women actually have a higher tolerance for pain than men (although millions of women who have gone through childbirth might disagree).
Ouch! When you stub your toe or touch something hot, your body releases chemicals that send pain signals up through the spinal cord to receptors in the brain. The brain then sends the pain message back down to the part of the body that hurts. But although it's the interpreter of pain, the brain itself does not have pain-sensitive nerves. Only the structures that surround the brain feel pain. As a matter of fact, once inside the brain, surgeons can operate on the brain without anesthesia. In one technique known as brain mapping, surgeons probe brain tissue while monitoring reactions like muscle movement and speech — all while the patient is awake.
All those aching backs! In a survey done by the National Institutes of Health, 27 percent of Americans said low back pain was their most common type of pain, followed by headaches or migraines (15 percent). More than 26 million Americans aged 20 to 64 suffer from back pain, and each year we spend at least $50 billion on back pain relief. What's the best way to ease chronic back pain? Experts say a combination of gentle, regular stretching and strengthening exercises, as well as reaching and maintaining a healthy body weight, can make a real difference.
Gout, a painful type of arthritis that affects about 3 million people every year, was once called the disease of kings because it was blamed on too much eating and drinking. Today we know that gout — and the pain associated with it — is caused by the buildup in the blood of a substance called uric acid, which causes sharp crystals to form inside joints. But one "king" who had gout was the king of dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex. Analysis of casts of a forearm from a tyrannosaurus fossil named Sue revealed that the dinosaur had a bad case of gout. Today, the dinosaur's relatives, including birds and all orders of reptiles, can also develop gout.
Osteoarthritis is a type of arthritis that causes chronic pain due to gradual wear and tear on joints. It's also been plaguing humans for a long, long time — in fact, osteoarthritis has been found in human skeletons dating back to the Ice Age (before 8000 BC), and it was also detected during x-ray examinations of Egyptian mummies. But despite the fact that osteoarthritis has been around forever, doctors still do not completely understand the cause.
The belief that rest is the best treatment for a back, neck, or knee that is painful due to osteoarthritis is a pain myth. Experts agree that exercise is an important way to manage and in fact prevent pain due to osteoarthritis. Benefits of exercise include increasing blood supply to cartilage and bone, strengthening the muscles that support joints, and decreasing joint stiffness. Exercise also improves general health and reduces the risk of injury and osteoporosis in people with osteoarthritis. Finally, exercise can improve sleep and help fight depression for people with chronic pain from osteoarthritis.
Studies show that smoking increases your risk for back pain, and it's also been shown to increase chronic pain in people with fibromyalgia and neck pain. Nicotine in cigarette smoke can decrease the blood flow to joints in the back and can delay healing as well as increase the risk for further injury. Also, people who smoke need to take more medication than those who don't to get back pain relief.