Why do we hurt?

biomechanics neurology pain psychology trauma May 19, 2021

Why do we hurt?

How come people have varying pain tolerances? How come papercuts hurt more than broken bones? How come we experience physical pain during heartache?

The answer is a complex one.

As you'll soon find out, whether we hurt cannot be solely distilled down to a cause & effect relationship between tissue damage and pain. In fact whether or not we hurt is informed by three overlapping categories (or buckets) of influence that inform and exert influence over one another.

The three categories are: Biological influences, Psychological influences, and Sociological influences.

Before we talk about how these factors influence each other and inform whether we hurt, let's zoom out to 30,000 ft. Let's observe the organism as a whole, as this provides the context upon which all decisions are made.

Take a moment and reflect on the following questions...

  1. How does the body make decisions?
  2. What matters most to the organism?
  3. What do human beings, tadpoles and thermoregulation have in common?

Let's explore this a bit further...

The thing that the organism cares the most about is not whether or not you look good naked. It is not how "in" your haircut is (although this may inform how safe we feel among our peers)...

The organism's primary goal is survival. Its aim is to keep you safe so that you may (if you choose to) spread your genes in the future. All facets of human function are filtered through our survival bias.

We learn from our past experiences, so as to predict what is likely to occur in the future. This cause and effect relationship between experience and learning is at the core of all adaptations including but not limited to the biological, psychological, emotional and spiritual adaptations that we experience.

For example:

Trauma is a supercompensation of mental and spiritual frameworks in response to a painful event, a process of learning where we aim to avoid future pain, the result of survival processing.

Thermoregulation is the adjustment of our internal state in response to warm or cold climates, meant to keep our internal temperature within its optimal zone.

Tadpoles evade dangers and seek safety based on assessments of light and ripples in the water. Even this seemingly unintelligent organism has the capacity to learn from its experience (and that of its ancestors) and interact with the world with the aim of living another day.

All of these responses are hard-wired biologically within our nervous systems as evolutionary strategies that the body can deploy in the presence of perceived threat.

Are you still following me? Let's bring it back to the experience of pain.

What does our survival bias have to do with "whether or not" and "how much" we hurt.
To put it simply, the organism both consciously and unconsciously makes decisions in the same manner: Data is received, analyzed and then interacted with.

Here's an example:

1. While walking in the woods you hear a twig crack and see a shadowed figure in the distance (we receive sense information from the environment - aka. Sensory Input)

2. You analyze the situation (Interpretation & Integration).

You may ask yourself the following questions:

  • "Have I been here before? If so, what do I know about this area? Are there bears around here?"
  • "Based on what I'm seeing, does the shadowed figure look like an animal, a human, or another being that I may recognize? If so, what do I know about it? is it dangerous?"
  • "How competent do I feel? If it's a bear, do I know how to handle myself in this situation? Do I have a gun? or perhaps I learned a special form of jiu-jitsu to deploy in the specific scenario of a bear attack?"

3. You act (Somatosensory Output)

How you respond is dependent on what you experienced, and how it was interpreted.

Your heart may begin to race and your hands may start to get warm & clammy as you analyze the situation - you may be convinced that you're in imminent danger. You're getting ready to fight for your life, and as soon as you take your next step forward you realize that the shadowed figure in the distance is just a weird grouping of branches and foliage, and to top it all off, the sound you heard was nothing more than a cute chipmunk to your right munching away on a piece of fruit from a nearby berry bush.

In the same way that we react in response to the sum of factors in our environment, our nervous system does the same thing at an unconscious level - all the time. In fact, some scientists believe that this process occurs roughly 100x/second with roughly 11million bits of data/second! 🤯🤯🤯


Here's the BIG takeaway that I hope you gain from this.

All types of pain, whether it be from a papercut or a broken bone is something that our body creates. Pain is a behavioural strategy that the organism deploys on the heels of its assessment of perceived threat. Pain is a behaviour. It's an action signal. Pain is not something that happens to you - rather it is but one of many evolutionary strategies that the organism can deploy in the face of credible threat.

As holistic beings (in fact you may even be proud of how complex you are!), whether we feel safe is informed by many factors - those factors being biological, psychological and sociological in nature.

Whether we hurt is complicated and cannot be reduced down to exclusively the presence of tissue damage, and this is a good thing! Because of this complexity and the redundancy of the nervous system we can influence whether or not we hurt through many avenues. We have many ways to heal.

In the next blog post we will be diving a bit deeper into some of the biological, psychological and sociological factors that influence whether or not we hurt.

'Til next time;

The Exercise Mechanic Team.

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