In the old days, life often began with an introduction to an unpleasant sensation called pain. A doctor would grab a newborn baby and give the child’s rear end a slap. When the child squealed in response, everyone would hear proof that the lungs were working just fine.
From the first time we experience that “Ouch!” feeling, we spend the rest of our lives trying to avoid it.
But acute pain serves a purpose. It’s supposed to send a warning to our brain that our body is suffering some kind of trauma: “Let go of that hot frying pan before it burns your hand!”
In addition to its physical and emotional toll, pain also carries a steep price tag. From January-October 2017, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina customers filled about 750,000 prescriptions for opioid pain pills at a total cost of around of $35,000,000. That’s serious money.
If we’re going to successfully avoid or treat – and pay for – pain, we should know a few things about it.
The Institute of Medicine estimates about 100 million of US adults – about 40% of all adults – are affected by chronic pain That number is expected to climb as we get older and live longer. A survey by the US Department of Health and Human Services found the most common types of pain for Americans are: lower back pain (27%), headache or a migraine (15%), neck pain (15%), and facial pain (4%).
The human brain doesn’t actually feel pain
It can receive pain signals from other parts of the body, but there are no pain sensors in the brain. That’s why doctors can perform brain mapping surgery while a patient is awake.
Pain is subjective, both physically and psychologically
We all experience pain differently. There are a lot of factors that play a role in how intensely we might feel pain: chemical changes in the brain, levels of inflammation, even our own past experiences with pain.
We can trick our brains by distracting ourselves from some kinds of pain. When we bang our elbow on a door, we might reflexively rub our elbow to override the pain signal being sent to our brain. When we get a bee sting, we can put ice on it to replace the pain sensation with a cold sensation.
The weather can affect pain levels. Scientists at Tufts University found that a 10-degree drop in temperature led to increased pain in people with arthritis. Changes in the barometric pressure – often paired with rain – can also cause some people to feel increased pain in their joints.
The high cost of pain
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that chronic pain costs the US up to $635 billion every year. That’s more than the cost of cancer, heart disease or diabetes. Unrelieved pain results in longer hospital stays increased re-hospitalization rates, more outpatient visits and decreased ability to function at work.
Chronic pain can cause psychological and emotional problems. The American Pain Foundation reported some troubling research findings:
- 77% of people suffering chronic pain reported feelings of depression.
- Nearly 60% said chronic pain was affecting their overall enjoyment of life.
- More than three-quarters of patients (77%) reported feeling depressed.
- 70% have trouble concentrating.
- 74% said their energy level is impacted by their pain.
- 86% aren’t sleeping well.
Pain may be subjective, but it’s very real. And it costs all of us – in dollars, lost productivity, quality of life and heartbreak. Avoid it if you can, but don’t ignore it.