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What is pain?

“An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage” (IASP, 2020).

Pain is our brain’s interpretation of threat or danger.

What is the purpose of pain?

To protect us.

Example 1: Consider a broken leg. We experience pain to tell us not to put weight through that leg so it can heal.

Example 2: You place your hand on a hot stove. We experience pain to tell us to move our hand so we don’t get burnt.

Sometimes our pain systems can become over protective. Therefore we experience a level of pain which is not equal to the level of injury or tissue damage.

This is especially relevant with chronic pain, when the initial injury has healed but the pain is still present.

Essential Concepts

  1. The amount of tissue damage is rarely related to the degree of pain experienced

    Pain is not an accurate indicator of tissue health.

  2. Pain is protective and relates to the amount of danger and safety we feel

    You will have pain when there is ‘more credible evidence of danger to your body than credible evidence of safety’ (Moseley and Butler 2015).

  3. Pain involves multiple regions of the brain and nervous system that can be retrained

    The brain has the ability to change and rewire itself through learning and experience.

Complexity of pain

Pain is extremely complex and can be influenced by many factors. Take a look at this graphic which shows how many different factors can contribute to a pain experience.

(Cholewicki et al., 2019)

Want to learn more?

Speak to your Physiotherapist who can provide you with more in-depth information and tailor this education to your specific situation.


Cholewicki, J., Breen, A., Popovich, J. M., Reeves, N. P., Sahrmann, S. A., van Dillen, L. R., … Hodges, P. W. (2019). Can biomechanics research lead to more effective treatment of low back pain? A point-counterpoint debate. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 49(6), 425–436. doi:10.2519/jospt.2019.8825