Pain is the great equalizer. It crosses geography, culture, language, religion, and socioeconomic status. You don't need a PhD to feel the tingling pain of a banged elbow, or the blinding pain of a migraine headache. And while you may say "Ouch, that stings!" or "Ai! Doi demasiado!" words only approximate the experience.
But pain isn't all bad. In fact, it's healthy and necessary. Pain is what keeps a person with a broken leg from walking on it. Pain is the signal that tells someone to pull his hand away from a hot stove. "Pain is so essential to survival that virtually all living organisms, even amoebas, have primitive pain systems," says Anne Louise Oaklander, MD, PhD, a neurologist and director of the Nerve Injury Unit in the Pain Center at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). "Pain is what keeps us out of harm's way."
But sometimes this helpful system goes into overdrive. Pain lingers, instead of disappearing with the injury or disease that produced it. It can persist for months beyond its original cause, taking on a life of its own. Today, doctors consider such chronic, or persistent, pain a disease in its own right. And it's a global problem. In this article, HMI World takes a look at what we are learning about the origins of pain, and what we might be able to do in the future to alleviate it.