Acute pain is your body’s way of waving a red flag for immediate attention, often because of an injury. Chronic pain, on the other hand, is pain that lasts for weeks, months, or years, and it affects more than 76.2 million Americans — more than cancer, diabetes, and heart disease combined. But how much do you really know about it? We’ve gathered up five surprising facts about pain.
- Women Feel More Pain – A man who has witnessed natural childbirth might think that women can tolerate just about anything. In fact, women have more nerve receptors than men, so it actually hurts more. For example, women have 34 nerve fibers per square centimeter of facial skin, whereas men average just 17. In a 2005 study, women were found to report more pain throughout their lifetimes and, compared with men, they feel pain in more areas of the body and for longer durations.
- Pain Is Both Physical and Emotional – Pain, especially chronic pain, affects more than your body. It’s psychologically stressful and can (understandably) lead to emotions like anger and frustration. And pain and stress can be a vicious circle: Pain can increase stress levels, and increased levels of stress can make pain worse. This can cause depression and make it difficult to concentrate.
- Back Pain is the Most Common – All those aching backs! In a survey done by the National Institutes of Health, 27 percent of Americans said low back pain was their most common type of pain, followed by headaches or migraines (15 percent). More than 26 million Americans aged 20 to 64 suffer from back pain, and each year we spend at least $50 billion on back pain relief. What’s the best way to ease chronic back pain? Experts say a combination of gentle, regular stretching and strengthening exercises, as well as reaching and maintaining a healthy body weight, can have a big impact.
- Pain Is Still a Mystery – The American Academy of Pain Medicine defines pain as “an unpleasant sensation and emotional response to that sensation.” Scientifically speaking, pain is felt when electrical signals are sent from nerve endings to your brain, which in turn can release painkillers called endorphins and generate reactions that range from instant and physical to long-term and emotional. Some pain is the result of an obvious injury. Other times, pain results from damaged nerves that are harder to define. Pain is a complex mixture of emotions, culture, experience, spirit and sensation that scientists are still struggling to fully understand.
- Pain Might Shrink Your Brain – Pain can prevent a person from completing routine activities and cause incredible irritability that may seem irrational to most. But that’s not all. The brains of people with chronic backaches are as much as 11 percent smaller than those of non-sufferers, scientists reported in 2004. Researchers still aren’t sure why. They speculate that the neurons become overactive or tired and the stress of living with pain is just too much.