Ok, you got me… I admit it. I'm a complete and total nerd. With that, one of my favorite things to do is sit around and philosophize, reflectively think, and find ways to conceptualize complex topics in the form of simple stories and analogies. More often than not, this occurs in relation to consciousness, human behavior, sociology, biases, and experiences like pain.
Over Christmas, I spent a weekend at my in-law's house. We had a great time, and most nights after dinner when my wife and I are there, we pour a beverage of our choosing and marinate in the hot tub out back on their patio. This time was no different. I poured my beverage (Gin and tonic with St. Germaine, lemon, and lime for me this time) and jumped into the tub….and IT BURNED. It was HOT. I reminded myself of the old Loony Tunes cartoons where Bugs slowly sinks down into the pot of water over the fire while Elmer is trying to use him to make some “wabbit stew”. BUT, I just kept exposing myself to the water and ignored the feeling of my skin melting off because I knew the temp was a mere 99 degrees Fahrenheit. In less than a minute, I was bumping the temperature up another degree or two.
Take a moment and think about the feeling of first dipping into a 100-104-degree hot tub or stepping into a steaming hot shower. You know that feeling. The feeling of burning, discomfort, and pain. Yet, you go in anyway and just take the plunge. You know your body will “get used to it”. You focus on the future prospects of warmth and relaxation and before you realize it your skin is no longer painful or burning. You are basking in a relaxing oasis of bubbles and jets on those hard to reach places.
So, what happened? Certainly, the water is still the same temperature, and if anything, your tissues and core temperature still on the rise. Why then did it hurt in the beginning? Yet, those feelings of discomfort passed away even though nothing about your contact with the water has changed?
There are a multitude of amazing processes in the human body to answer this question. It could be that the receptors in your skin have stopped firing messages at your brain as they have become “fatigued” with the hot stimulus of the water. Maybe your spinal cord has dampened the messages going up to your brain using its gatekeeper inter-neurons. Perhaps your brain has realized that this heat is in fact not as dangerous as initially perceived and that it was only startled with the dramatic and rapid change in your skin temperature. Interestingly, your brain could have even told your brain-stem to “shut the gate” in its periaqueductal grey matter or the interneurons in the dorsal horn of your spinal cord in order to no longer allow itself to be bothered by the messages from your skin.
Regardless of which or what combination of these occur, it is evident that you experienced pain from a stimulus that didn't damage any of your tissues or cause you harm. There was simply potential for harm had the temperature been warmer. Your brain in all of its infinite wisdom decided to give you and experience of pain to motivate you to pay attention or consider changing your behavior until it, and its embodiment, came to the conclusion that there was no longer imminent threat.
As you can see, often pain is simply a warning of potential danger and doesn't mean anything is wrong with you! Hopefully reflecting on this helps spark a little “AH HA” moment for you and leads you down the rabbit hole of beginning to reconceptualize pain as more than a simple sensory signal from your body to your brain.