How Pain Serves as Your Body's Warning Signal

Armen Hareyan's picture

Pain is like the warning lights on your car's dashboard. It alerts you to something that needs investigation. Pain serves an important function. It's your body's way of saying, "Pay attention."

We all avoid pain. You wouldn't knowingly slam your thumb in the car door or touch a hot stove. It's human nature to avoid situations that cause pain, and we do what we can to rid ourselves of the pain as soon as possible -- such as taking an aspirin for a minor headache.

When your pain is severe enough, or worrisome enough -- or lasts long enough -- you find yourself in your doctor's office. Then, ideally, you and your doctor figure out what's causing the pain and fix the underlying cause. The most satisfying encounters for both you and your doctor occur when the pain points to a clear diagnosis; you're treated and the disease is cured. A good example is a cough and pain in the chest when taking a deep breath leading to the diagnosis of pneumonia that is cured with antibiotics. But not all pain is solved that easily.


Each of us tolerates pain differently -- even pain from the same cause. Surprisingly, the patient who would complain the most bitterly when we injected a local anesthetic that tended to burn a little was not the frail 80-year-old grandmother, it was the strapping 25-year-old body builder who said he "wasn't afraid of nothin." Those are also the patients most likely to faint when blood was taken.

As a surgeon, I did many "lumps and bumps" operations. Depending on the patient's tolerance for pain, I could perform the procedure in my office or in the operating room, where, among other things, sedation was available. It usually was clear whether a procedure could be done in the office or required the support of the operating room staff.

Then there were the judgment calls. It could go either way. If I looked at the top of a patient's head and saw orange or red, the patient would go to the operating room. My experience supports the thinking that redheads are more sensitive to pain.

How do you get pain to move from "pay attention"' to "problem fixed?"

Your doctor needs help from you when your "pain light" flashes on. There is no way your doctor can measure your pain. Sure we can check your heart rate, which tends to beat faster if you are