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Why Learn How Pain Works? – Seriously Useful Science!

Pain is a frequent topic on this site. Some of you may wonder why. Why should you read this stuff, what does it matter to you?

In my opinion, if you’re going to learn about injury prevention and recovery, or even health and fitness in general, learning how pain works should be considered fundamental knowledge.

Plus, it’s just really super duper mega interesting.

But if you really need to be convinced, read this:

Why learn about pain?

You’ve felt pain before, haven’t you?

Perhaps you’re exceptionally lucky. Maybe you don’t even feel pain (actually, that’s not a good thing). 1 Or maybe the only pain you’ve ever experienced was the one time you stubbed your toe on the kitchen table. What an awful day! Once it was all over, hopefully you treated yourself to something nice, and it’s never crossed your mind since.

If you’re like most people, however, you’re a little more familiar with pain.

As kids, scrapes, bruises and boo-boos we’re a small price to pay for playing outside. If you’re an active individual, you’ve definitely experienced some muscle soreness. If not, it’s probably in your best interest to stop reading this and go outside for some fresh air and exercise.

Most active people have experienced at least one minor injury in their life – like a sprained ankle, or a pulled muscle. And unless you have an exceptionally cold heart, you’ve probably experienced some emotional pain as well. Yeah yeah, you’re too cool to have your heart broken… right.

If there is one thing everyone has in common, it’s that we’ve all experienced pain at some point. This common experience can differ in many ways, varying by cause, type, location, severity, how long it lasts, and more. It’s almost always different and it’s hard to define… but you know it when you feel it!

All of us?

Yup, it’s pretty common. It’s one of the main reasons people go to a doctor 2, 3, and statistics show that up to 80% of the adult U.S. population will have low back pain at some point in their life! 4

Pain is usually temporary. It could last seconds, days, or weeks. Eventually it stops with or without any help. But sometimes, the pain doesn’t go away. In fact, about one in three people have chronic pain lasting six months or longer. 5, 6 Even if you’re one of the lucky people who don’t have persistent pain, it still affects you. It’s estimated that chronic pain costs the U.S. about $635 billion every year in medical costs and time off work. 7 Ouch (no pun intended).

What should we do?

Everywhere you look, people are making big promises. Perhaps it’s a ground-breaking discovery, or maybe a secret of the ancients. Most of the time, these miracle cures are completely bogus, or an elaborate placebo at best. Unfortunately, when people are in pain, they are far more likely to fall for it.

The truth is – despite its enormous impact on all of us – a reliable “cure” for pain has yet to be found. This is true for both ‘acute’ (new) as well as ‘chronic’ (lasting > 3 months) pain, despite the amazing progress of medical science.

In fact, the science of pain is only beginning to make sense. Due to some very exciting scientific progress in such fields as neuroscience and biochemistry, our understanding of pain has increased dramatically over the last few decades.

It turns out that pain is not just a simple signal from damaged tissues letting you know about an injury. And when it doesn’t go away, it’s not because an injury hasn’t healed, or because something is out of place, or because it’s “all in your head”. Many theories about how pain should be treated have been debunked (or at least seriously questioned), and have been replaced by more promising ideas. Unfortunately, many people – even healthcare workers – are unaware of this new research.

Learn about it!

If there is new research out there about what does and does not work, it’s obviously something people should be aware of! But the benefits go beyond simply being informed…

Research also tells us that learning some of this pain science (how pain “works”) can actually decrease pain, and may even help prevent it! 8, 9 In fact, pain education is now considered a legitimate treatment for persistent pain.

It doesn’t matter if you’re not dealing with pain right now – learning this stuff is useful. At the very least, you’ll learn some interesting science about the brain, and a lot of weird things about your body will make more sense. But if you are dealing with pain right now, this information can save you a lot of money, and may finally lead you in the right direction.

So get learning!


Learn about pain because:

  • If you’re not in pain right now, you might be soon (sorry to jinx you).
  • If you work with people who are in pain (therapists), or people who might develop pain (trainers), then you should probably know what you’re talking about.
  • Persistent or “chronic” pain is a big deal, and a drain on the economy.
  • Just like all health and fitness information, there’s a lot of garbage out there.
  • Pain science is actually, like, super duper mega interesting. Seriously.
  • Learning about pain can actually reduce and prevent pain!

There’s probably a lot more reasons than that, but we’ll keep this short.

Want to get started? Check out the Pain Education section of this site!


1. Nagasako EM, Oaklander AL, Dworkin RH. Congenital insensitivity to pain: an update. Pain. 2003 Feb;101(3):213-9. Review. PubMed PMID: 12583863.

2. Mäntyselkä P, Kumpusalo E, Ahonen R, Kumpusalo A, Kauhanen J, Viinamäki H, Halonen P, Takala J. Pain as a reason to visit the doctor: a study in Finnish primary health care. Pain. 2001 Jan;89(2-3):175-80. PubMed PMID: 11166473

3. Hart LG, Deyo RA, Cherkin DC. Physician office visits for low back pain. Frequency, clinical evaluation, and treatment patterns from a U.S. national survey. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1995 Jan 1;20(1):11-9. PubMed PMID: 7709270

4. Frymoyer JW. Back pain and sciatica. N Engl J Med. 1988 Feb 4;318(5):291-300. Review. PubMed PMID: 2961994

5. Johannes CB, Le TK, Zhou X, Johnston JA, Dworkin RH. The prevalence of chronic pain in United States adults: results of an Internet-based survey. J Pain. 2010 Nov;11(11):1230-9. Epub 2010 Aug 25. PubMed PMID: 20797916

6. Ospina M, Harstall C. (2003) Prevalence of chronic pain: an overview, Health Technology Assessment 28 Series A, Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, Edmonton, Alberta.

7. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care, and Education. Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2011. PubMed PMID: 22553896

ResearchBlogging.org8. Louw A, Diener I, Butler DS, & Puentedura EJ (2011). The effect of neuroscience education on pain, disability, anxiety, and stress in chronic musculoskeletal pain. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 92 (12), 2041-56 PMID: 22133255

9. George SZ, Childs JD, Teyhen DS, Wu SS, Wright AC, Dugan JL, Robinson ME.
Brief psychosocial education, not core stabilization, reduced incidence of low
back pain: results from the Prevention of Low Back Pain in the Military (POLM)
cluster randomized trial. BMC Med. 2011 Nov 29;9:128. PubMed PMID: 22126534;
PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3286400

Note: see other articles on this site for more references!

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    4 Responses to Why Learn How Pain Works? – Seriously Useful Science!

    1. Patrick says:

      Nice reminder. It’d be cool to know more about what these new promising theories are? You said we thought pain was simply a signal back then, I think it’s worth knowing more about the new ideas that replaced the old ones.

      Also you say some people think it’s “all in our head”. Isn’t it true to some degree? I’ve heard of mental training to diminish pain. I also remember seeing an episode of MythBusters where people would put their hands in icy water and see if swearing was helping them cope with the pain. The results were kind of proving that it was in fact an effective way of dealing with pain(Versus staying silent). Which would in turn mean there is something mental you can do about it?


      • Tony Ingram says:

        Hey Patrick,

        “It’d be cool to know more about what these new promising theories are? You said we thought pain was simply a signal back then, I think it’s worth knowing more about the new ideas that replaced the old ones.”

        Yup! There’s way more I plan to write! Stay tuned. But for now, my pain section has quite a bit of information – namely two brilliant (not mine) videos, one 5 min, and the other 15 min, that interestingly describe how pain works.

        “Also you say some people think it’s “all in our head”. Isn’t it true to some degree?”

        In a way, in that pain is perceived by your brain – but the statement “all in your head” can be an unhelpful way to describe it. Pain involves your entire nervous system, and is closely tied to numerous other body systems, especially the immune system. Plus, people feel pain at particular locations, so they may find “all in your head” to be a frustrating thing to hear. “All in your head” also implies that it’s stemming from psychological reasons (psychosomatic) rather than physical, and that is also taboo and frustrating to people. Therefore, I am trying to get away from that statement. I’ll explain further in a future post!

        Good points Patrick! Thanks for having me clarify. The swearing study is a great example of the complexity of pain science.


    2. Haneen says:

      Its good to know about pain science , and really it is when we know about the pain science and how it is work that can decrease our sense of pain .. :)

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