No pain no gain: Why that torment helps keep you alive

Pain helps medics diagnose a health problem and offer the right treatment.
Pain helps medics diagnose a health problem and offer the right treatment.

Unlike December, the month of January - especially in the second half - shows people as they really are. Gone is the lack of inhibition motivated by the Christmas holiday season, replaced with the reality of what seems a very long month.

We are half way to the point where most people give up on their New Year resolutions. Most resolutions involve behaviour change and are about being a better person revolve around three things: to be healthier, to be rich financially and to be a morally good. The major reason why often people fail in their resolutions is because they fail to take into account the environment around them that nurtured the very behaviour they are trying to change.

They may also not be aware how much effort is needed to overcome the body’s own instinct to remain as it knows well. The pain to change is too much even though it is needed. If you desire to reduce your alcohol intake but must nevertheless see your friends who are only found in a bar environment, then sitting with them sipping water loaded with lots of sugar is but a very temporary situation.

The behaviour change to be effective has to be quite drastic otherwise your will power will be overwhelmed within a short period of time. Human beings do not change when the effort of changing requires a lot of sustained brainpower to effect the change. One of the ways that change does occur at least temporarily is when pain is involved.

Pain is that unpleasant sensory experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage. It is a vital component of the nervous system providing the body with a warning that something is not quite right. Whether there is pain, is one the basic symptoms that a doctor will ask about when a person reports sick.

Yet because pain is subjective, there is usually an emotional component to it and the degree of pain, how it is expressed depends on individual past experiences, the person’s psychological make-up, their mental state, their mood, what they believe in and even their genetic make up. There are different types of pain. Somatic pain is when a muscle is injured. The pain can be sharp, burning or crushing pain.

This is in contrast to visceral pain arising from trouble with an internal organ. Usually that kind of pain, a stomach-ache for example is deep, diffuse kind of ache, which may be associated with other body symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and increase in blood pressure or heart rate. A third type of pain is neuropathic pain where there is damage to the nerve itself either a peripheral nerve or a part of the central nervous system.

This kind of pain is felt like an electric shock or a burning kind of pain.

In most cases where something physical is the underlying cause of pain, there is some inflammation going on in some part of the body.

Inflammation can be acute or chronic, and is mostly good but can also be bad. Acute inflammation is short term and is the way in which the body acts to protect and heal where there is an injury or infection.

There is increased blood flow, white blood cells flock to the area and try to sort out what is trying to invade the body. Chronic inflammation, On the other hand, can be damaging for health. It occurs when the body’s immune system, instead of fighting outsiders, decides to fight itself. There is then a low grade guerrilla fight all the time that is difficult to control because the enemy looks almost exactly the same as the good people fighting.

Diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis are typical of such. Indirectly chronic inflammation is associated with chronic conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Research shows that people who have unhealthy gums have higher risks of having a heart attack later on in life. The link possibly is that bacteria create an inflammatory response that somehow spreads into the arteries.

People with repeated sexually transmitted diseases are at an increased risk of developing cancer of the bladder.

A simple blood test, the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), which measures how quickly red blood cells fall to the bottom of a test tube can in a non-specific way indicate if there is inflammation going on in the body.

Another compound C-reactive protein (CRP) is released by the liver within a few hours of an injury or start of an infection and the amount of CRP is therefore an indicator of an acute inflammation. Such tests are important because pain alone may not tell the doctor how much damage has occurred in the body.

These tests are not for everyone to take, they will not mean much, just like being frisked by security people in shopping malls is an almost pointless exercise; instead for those who are high risk it provides a useful indicator for the doctor to do more to bring things back to normal.