What Is Pain?: Understanding Danger Signals

A woman wearing an athletic bra is hunched over. There is a red spot on her back, illustrating pain.
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Pain is more than just a feeling you’re experiencing—pain is caused by the nerve tissue (aptly called pain receptors) in your body sending signals to your brain and causing increased sensitivity in your body.

These signals, also known as Danger Signals, tell your brain and body there is a threat and that a certain action must be performed to stop that threat.

For example, have you ever accidentally touched the handle of a hot pan? If you have, you now know that your pain receptors sent signals to your brain that a) caused you to experience pain and b) influenced you to stop touching the handle. Without these signals, you would’ve kept touching that hot pan until your fingers were blistered.

An illustration showing how pain works in the body. The first image is a hand with a red spot in the center—the red indicates pain or temperature sensation. It shows the pain being traveled to a first-order neuron that runs along the spinal cord. That pain signal is then sent to the second-order neuron that runs from the spinal cord to the brain, and then to the third-order neutron in the brain where the pain is processed.

Also, if you’ve ever felt a sharp pain when standing up after sitting too long, that’s those Danger Signals at work again—your body isn’t broken from sitting; it’s just shocked to be transitioning from doing nothing to moving so quickly. That’s part of the reason why doctors recommend getting up and moving every so often—it helps prevent aches and pains!

Understanding Danger Signals

Generally, there are two types of stimuli that can cause Danger Signals: chemical and mechanical.

Chemical

Chemical stimuli that cause Danger Signals may include pain felt after spraining your ankle, getting a paper cut, or getting a sunburn. These can be relieved with ice, Ibuprofen, and some rest. When we experience true damage to certain areas, the body sends chemical mediators (the cleanup crew) to ensure the area is taped off and the healing can begin.

Mechanical

Mechanical signals are sent after physical changes occur in the body, like suddenly standing up after sitting down for too long. These signals don’t respond to Tylenol or Ibuprofen—even rest doesn’t always kick them away. Mechanical signals tell you that you need to move. That stiffness doesn’t come from moving too much!

Why Should I Care About Danger Signals?

Understanding Danger Signals is important because it shows that pain doesn’t necessarily mean something is severely wrong with you.

Pain does not mean you are broken—pain is more like a smoke alarm. If a smoke alarm goes off, it doesn’t mean there’s a fire in your home—maybe the kitchen cooking just got a little out of hand! What matters is that when you hear it, you pay attention. The smoke (threat) that alerts the alarm (Danger Signals) is the threat to your home (the body). The alarm goes off, you feel the sensation, and you pay attention.

So, let’s say your ankle hurts. Does that automatically mean that your ankle is broken? Well, no, it could be caused by other factors. For example, maybe you’ve recently gotten into fitness and didn’t properly warm up before starting your high-impact workout. All the jumping caused some strain in your ankle/foot, and now your receptors are sending Danger Signals, telling your body to stop all that jumping!

Additionally, your brain can become sensitive to threats, especially if you are stressed, haven’t been sleeping well, generally have negative expectations, or have sustained many injuries in the past. When your brain becomes sensitive to threats, it may sound the alarm, even if there isn’t a lot of smoke in the air.

The Pain “Point” Isn’t As Obvious As It Seems

When your body is in pain, it’s easy to assume where it’s coming from. In reality, the whole building (body) has alarms that go off when smoke (a threat) is detected. This is why when someone is having a heart attack, they can experience pain in their jaw, shoulders, or arms. Although the actual “pain” is in the heart, it is being felt elsewhere in the body.

Never assume where the pain is located—you may be surprised to discover its source.

What Should I Do About My Pain? Is My Pain Worth Attention?

Pain is your response to a perceived threat. Your pain receptors are trying to motivate your body to take some action. The alarm doesn’t always mean the fire is destroying everything—often, it may just be caused by a small bit of smoke.

Still, even if the threat is minor, it doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Pain is pain, and it can be, well, uncomfortable.

Although there are certainly situations where your brain may be overreacting, there are many scenarios where the pain is a response to a real threat.

There are two types of pain: acute and chronic. Acute will often go away on its own in days or weeks, but chronic pain is considered any pain lasting more than three months. Although both types of pain need attention, chronic pain is a sign that something needs to be fixed.

If your pain receptors keep sending Danger Signals to your body, it’s time to see a medical professional.

Schedule a Consultation

Total Health Systems is a multidisciplinary wellness center committed to helping individuals throughout Michigan achieve pain-free living.

Our primary care specialists and chiropractic doctors can help you understand what is causing your pain and determine which treatment plan is right for you.

Don’t let your pain guide your life—contact us today to schedule your first consultation.


References:

Liebenson C, Silvernail J. Rehabilitation of Spine. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Wolters Kluwer; 2020:426-429

Moseley G, Butler D. The Explain Pain Handbook: Protectometer. Adelaide, Australia: Noigroup Publications; 2015:58

Lluch E, Torres R, Nijs J, Van Oosterwick J. Evidence for central sensitization in patients with osteoarthritis pain: a systematic literature review. European Journal of Pain. 2014;18(10):1367-1375.

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