Why does a kick to the groin hurt so much more than a kick anywhere else?
It’s actually a good example of how the amount of pain doesn’t relate well to the amount of damage. Groin Kicks: pain = extreme; damage = moderate.
Damage to your body tissues does not ’cause’ pain. To clarify:
You can have pain with no tissue damage. The opposite is also true: You can have damaged or degenerated tissues yet experience no pain.
Why? Your brain decides whether or not you feel pain… not your injured body part. Pain is always the product of your nervous system (involving chemicals 1, emotions, memories 2, context, etc.) , with your brain having the final say (without you even being aware of it). 3
Note: this is true not only for persistent (chronic) pain, but also for new (acute) pain!
Don’t believe me? Let’s discuss some interesting examples, like groin kicks, paper cuts, and hanging yourself from the ceiling with hooks.
Then, we will talk about how pain really works.
So is pain always related to tissue damage?
Let’s think about this common assumption using some examples:
- Paper cuts… hurt a ton!
- Yet, you can wake up with a large bruise with no memory of how it got there!
Is tissue damage and pain matching up here? No! A big bruise can indicate a significant amount of tissue damage, but the onset obviously didn’t cause pain, or you probably would have remembered it!
Yet a little paper cut hurts a ton. Why? We can only speculate… is it because it cuts the sensitive nerve endings in your finger, but bruises don’t? Perhaps… but paper cut pain usually lasts only a few seconds to a minute… did the nerve endings heal that fast? I think not!
Perhaps we can think in evolutionary terms: before modern medicine, a cut was a huge infection risk. It could kill you! Perhaps our brains have decided this is tissue damage worth paying attention to… but a bruise is not.
Some people are terrified of needles and complain that they always hurt… yet others don’t even feel them. Great example of the role of context, previous experience, anxiety, and even belief on how people feel or don’t feel pain.
- Your reaction to a little kid falling down
When a little kid falls and bumps their head, if you say “OMG are you okay?!” they start crying… but if you laugh and say “oops! that was funny!” they just get up and laugh too. It’s almost like you decide whether or not they get a boo-boo.
- Kick to the groin
Males cringe at the thought. Yet, it’s really no more tissue damage than receiving a kick anywhere else.
Again… this is an important part of the body! It only makes sense that the brain would decide this is worth paying much more attention to.
A good theory as to why many headaches occur (especially migraines) still doesn’t exist. Some headaches can be explained by stress and tension of neck muscles… But this is speculative; there’s a lot of debate by researchers, and we don’t know for sure.
But it’s a very good example of how excruciating pain can occur with no actual ‘damage’.
- Low back pain
Perhaps the most important example of all.
Bulged (herniated) discs, degenerative disc disease, subluxation, scoliosis, osteoarthritis, pinched nerves, etc. etc. etc. are all things that could go wrong in your lower back. It has been long thought that chronic low back pain is the product of one of these seemingly permanent conditions.
However, x-rays, CT scans, and MRI’s have been used in study after study, consistently showing us that the presence of one or more of these ‘problems’ are completely unrelated to whether someone experiences pain or not 2, 3, 4, 5.
That’s right, you can have a bulged or degenerated spinal disc, maybe even impinging on one of your nerves, and still not have pain.
In fact, people who get MRI’s to investigate their low back pain end up doing no better than people who don’t 6. Interesting!
- That totally random and sharp (but for no apparent reason) type pain
We all get it from time to time. You are walking along (or just sitting on the couch) minding your own business when you suddenly have to grab your foot because some crazy sharp pain just zapped through it. You rub it, angry at the universe, and keep walking. Pain disappears. Then you forget it ever happened.
What the $%*& was that?! Could you have just moved in a funny way and pinched a nerve in your skin, and your brain didn’t know what to make of it so it gave you a frigging panic attack to make sure it was nothing?
Whatever the reason may be, this pain can’t be explained by tissue damage.
- Body Suspension
Extreme body piercing. Wanna try it? Why not? It’s only piercing your skin with hooks and hanging your body from the ceiling. You like a good challenge right?
What’s really interesting is that these people apparently enjoy this. They don’t complain of pain, and even describe feelings of euphoria!
- Anecdotes from war
There are anecdotes from war where men are shot, but end up feeling no pain. Why? Because when you are injured in action, you are taken off the field, and may get to go home.
One minute you are living each moment with the good possibility you may be killed, and the next moment you’re going home. Once they are back to a safe place, they report no pain at the time of the injury… they are just happy to be alive. Perhaps the brain has decided (relative to their previous situation) they are no longer in danger.
The Bottom Line:
The degree of injury is not well related to the degree of pain:
You can have a lot of pain with little to no damage,
you could have a lot of damage with little to no pain.
That does not mean damage isn’t important! If you are clearly injured, painful or not, take care of it. See a physician if you are not sure. disclaimer
What’s important is that you realize that just because you have pain, it doesn’t mean there is any significant damage or degeneration occurring in your body. Learning this can be very relieving for people who are afraid they might have a serious problem.
Why is pain so weird?
Don’t let all of this confuse you.
It’s only confusing if you try to make sense of it all while still believing pain is always caused by some sort of damage.
When you understand that pain is a perception… an opinion formed by your brain to indicate danger, all the weird stuff described above begins to make a lot more sense.
Does this mean it’s “all in your head”? Well, your brain is in your head… but that does not mean it isn’t real. Pain is very real, just as real as seeing colors, being excited or scared at the movies, or being in love. Pain is an important topic, which is why there’s a whole section of this site dedicated to it.
What can I do about pain?
First, learn about it! It won’t take long. And understanding pain can actually lower it.
If you would like to learn more about how pain works and what you can do about it, check out the pain section of this site. For a great overview of how pain works, watch this 5 minute video. For an entertaining and more detailed explanation, watch this 15 minute video.
Hope this article was helpful.