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How pain works part 3: Your brain can ignore pain inputs

gi joe knowledge is half the battle

Did you know you are receiving input into your brain from EVERY receptor for EVERY sense ALL THE TIME!! Millions of inputs every minute for your brain to compute and focus on.

We don’t think about it, but it’s impossible for us to be consciously aware of all these things around us all the time, so our brain has to filter most of these inputs so that we only spend our limited focus on things that actually matter. This means that our brain actually ignores most of the inputs it receives.

I’ll give you some excellent examples…

Are you wearing a watch or a ring? Or earrings? I would bet that most of the time you aren’t aware of your watch on your wrist, or your jewellery. Sure, your brain is receiving inputs from those areas that something is touching you all the time, but most of the time your brain ignores it. It’s there all the time, and your brain knows it’s not an important thing to waste precious energy and focus on, so it just writes those inputs off. (But once you focused on them after I asked, you obviously could feel them again).

It’s the same for other senses. We know that we really can’t smell ourselves most of the time. Also we get used to normal smells around us, so we can’t smell them anymore. Most smokers can’t tell that they smell like smoke. We can’t smell our own houses because we are so used to it. (Have you ever come home from a long holiday and thought your house smelled different? Often this is because your brain has gotten out of the habit of ignoring those smells because you haven’t been around for a while, so you notice it again).

Your brain has habits just like we all do. If it is used to ignoring the watch on your wrist, then one day you forget to wear it you feel ‘funny’. People say they feel naked without it. This is because your brain is used to doing one thing (ignoring the input from your watch) but without the watch there it can’t do this anymore. This creates a DIFFERENCE that causes your brain to pay attention.

The same goes for pain… our brains can ignore pain when it wants to or when it needs to (but it’s very hard to do it consciously). We also have a hierarchy of needs, so if the risk of damage from pain isn’t the most important thing then your brain will also ignore it.

Have you ever been sore, but then you had to play sport or something, and once you start the pain seems to disappear? It may warm up, etc, but sometimes you just aren’t focusing on the pain, and your brain deems the activity (playing sport) more important so it diminishes the pain experience.  IF the pain isn’t considered harmful or a risk, it can be ignored.

Sometimes, even despite injury or severe pain, you can ignore the pain. Another extreme example – if you are in a life or death example (like you are being chased by a bear) and you sprain your ankle really badly… Despite the injury, the imminent risk of death far outweighs the risk to you from the ankle sprain, so your brain will generally ignore the ankle so you can run away from the bear.

We hear about this all the time – in war zones soldiers being shot and saying it didn’t hurt at all. Or we hear stories of people breaking bones and not even realising until later on. Sometimes this is described as ‘going into shock’ but often your brain’s hierarchy of needs means it ignores the pain input as that is not the most important thing to worry about. Needing to survive trumps the risk of damaging an injury further.

Understanding that you brain can focus on pain inputs or not based on needs and perceived risk helps people to manage their pain experience. If your brain perceives the thing causing pain as a threat to survival or further damage, you will feel pain. If it decides it’s not dangerous, then you may not. Understanding whether pain is dangerous or not can in many cases even reduce the pain you are experiencing. Sometimes knowledge is half the battle.

Julian Bowen

Julian is the Director and Principal Physiotherapist at EMC Physiotherapy.  He has spent  over a decade working exclusively in private physiotherapy practice, and estimates he would have performed over 40,000 individual treatments in that time. He has worked with everyone from Paralympians, elite athletes, WAFL Footballers, the Defence Forces and weekend warriors; to thousands of everyday people with all manner of issues.  He is passionate about injury prevention and has a special interest in the treatment of headaches, shoulder issues, hypermobility management and exercise rehabilitation for the prevention and treatment of injuries.