What Is Pain?

Understanding Your Body

Understanding Your Body provides easy-to-understand explanations of body systems and disease conditions. This material can be used for patient education, life sciences curriculum development, or to enhance public understanding of general health concepts. Permission for such use is not required, but citation as to source is requested. The information provided is derived from Consumer Versions of Clinical Practice Guidelines, sponsored by the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research, from 1992 to 1996.

Pain is an uncomfortable feeling that tells you something may be wrong in your body. Pain is your body's way of sending a warning to your brain. Your spinal cord and nerves provide the pathway for messages to travel to and from your brain and the other parts of your body.

Receptor nerve cells in and beneath your skin sense heat, cold, light, touch, pressure, and pain. You have thousands of these receptor cells, most sense pain and the fewest sense cold. When there is an injury to your body—for example, surgery—these tiny cells send messages along nerves into your spinal cord and then up to your brain. Pain medicine blocks these messages or reduces their effect on your brain.

Sometimes pain may be just a nuisance, like a mild headache. At other times, such as after an operation, pain that doesn't go away—even after you take pain medicine—may be a signal that there is a problem. If you have an operation, your nurses and doctors will ask you about your pain because they want you to be comfortable, but also because they want to know if something is wrong.

Be sure to tell your doctors and nurses when you have pain. They can help you to prevent or control pain so you can get well faster and improve your results after surgery.

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Current as of November 2007
Internet Citation: What Is Pain?: Understanding Your Body. November 2007. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/patients-consumers/prevention/understanding/bodysys/edbody11.html