Traditionally pain is understood to be an unpleasant experience in the body where a problem exists, and is something to be got rid of as quickly as possible. The so-called ‘biomedical model’ considers which structures require treatment or surgery, stopping at the tissues as the cause of pain. This paradigm has been challenged over the years and rightly so in the light of recent research. Many studies have revealed the underlying physiology within the nervous system, and in particular the brain, and the role of other body systems such as the immune system and endocrine system (hormones) in pain. Understanding that pain is a normal response to a perceived threat has helped mould new treatments and ways of dealing with pain.
The most pertinent discovery and emergent shift in thinking came when it was realised that pain is a brain experience. This came via studies of the brain but also by looking at why phantom limb pain exists and how people present with a range of injuries and such varied levels of reported pain. There are many stories of people suffering severe physical injury yet experience little or no pain at the time.
The fact that we know pain is a brain experience has helped us to understand the many influences upon the pain, especially one’s emotional state. For instance, we know that the danger signals that are sent by the body to the brain via the spinal cord, travel to the emotional centres of the brain to try and give some meaning to the pain. These signals reach the brain and receive scrutiny to work out the level of threat, and this can vary enormously depending upon a range of factors. On activating a widespread group of neurons termed the ’pain matrix’, the output from the brain, a response, can be the pain experience. Knowing that there are many parts of the brain involved has meant that there are now a range of approaches that can tackle the problem of pain.
We are now far more optimistic about treating pain. This is not just with medication, which does have a role when used wisely, but with a range of contemporary treatments, strategies and techniques that address the underpinning mechanisms at a tissue level, spinal cord level and a brain level alongside beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that can be moulded to change the pain. The term used to describe the contemporary approach to pain is ’biopsychosocial’, implying a role for the overlapping biological, psychological and social factors that must be addressed.