What is Pain?

One of the most difficult questions that I have ever been asked during my 30 plus years of practice is, “What is pain?”
“Why is the pain there?”
“Why does it hurt so much?”
“Why is my body doing this?”

According to the medical dictionary, “Pain is an unpleasant feeling that is conveyed to the brain by sensory neurons. The discomfort signals actual or potential injury to the body. However, pain is more than a sensation, or the physical awareness of pain; it also includes perception, the subjective interpretation of the discomfort. (https://medical-ictionary.thefreedictionary.com/pain)

The International Association for the Study of Pain describes pain as, “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage.”

It has been further simplified by numerous sources as, “acute mental or emotional distress or suffering.”

Today’s health professionals describe pain as a complex and highly sophisticated protective mechanism. In other words, one’s body perceives damage and prevents it from experiencing further pain and suffering.

In my opinion, one of the best descriptions of pain comes from chiropractor Dr. Barry Weinberg.
According to, Dr. Weinberg, pain is nothing more than the experience of separation. If you cut your finger with a knife, the separation of the skin causes pain. If you break a bone, the separation of the bone tissue causes pain. If you break up a relationship or a loved one dies, the separation from that person causes emotional pain.

I totally recall the moment I got the phone call from the hospital that said my father had died. My sister, Linda and I were prepared for the news, but it did not stop the devastating feeling of separation. The voice on the phone stated, that “unfortunately Mr. Smith has passed away.”
I immediately felt my chest being crushed and I found it very difficult to breathe. My logical brain knew that we all die and that Dad had lived a wonderful life. However, at that moment it felt as if Dad had been ripped away. All I felt was crushing pain. I looked over at Linda and her response appeared to be identical. This emotional pain was no different than any type of physical pain I had suffered. Whether pain comes from a severe physical injury or from a broken relationship or the death of a loved one it really hurts and we will all experience it.

All pain is separation.

If the separation continues and becomes great enough, the pain begins to diminish until it is no longer felt. In these circumstances we may feel as if the injury or trauma is “healing” because the pain is going away. In fact, the pain is diminishing because the separation is becoming so great that it grows beyond our level of awareness. Rather than healing (becoming whole) we are merely becoming numb.

We may think, “I’m better! The pain is gone!” Only to find a few weeks, months, or years later, that we re-experience the same pain…only stronger. We take a few ibuprofen or go for a cortisone injection…enhancing our separation. Once again, the pain is gone…for a while. If we lose a loved one or have a break up in relationship, we can choose to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. The pain may go away for a short period of time, but it is still there.

It is like the gas light in the car. Have you ever been driving when suddenly the gas light comes on? You keep driving and the gas light goes off. A few minutes later it comes on a little longer…and again it turns off. Even quicker, the light comes on again — and stays on. If you don’t get gas now, you’ll probably come to a sudden halt. Our bodies, and our pain, function in a similar way. Eventually, if we don’t listen to the signal, all will come to a stop.

When we understand that pain is not the problem, but the signal of a problem, we are more equipped and more responsible to take action and find a solution to the problem rather than just attacking the signal through a pain reliever, alcohol, muscle relaxant, anti-depressant or anti-inflammatory drug. If the fire alarm went off in your house, would you not be annoyed if the fire department came and merely removed the alarm? What about the fire?

So why do things begin to hurt more when you begin to heal?
As you heal, or become more whole, you become more aware of your body and yourself. With this increased awareness, the pain signals are experienced more. It is not that the pain is getting “worse”… you are feeling more. Healing is not about feeling better; it is about being better able to feel.

The more aware we are of the subtle signals of our bodies, minds and spirits, the more able we are to adapt to the changes in our environment. Would you rather hear the lion’s roar miles away…or feel its breath on your neck? When we are more aware of the subtle, we have more room to make decisions. Our bodies give us such signals, but often they are ignored. Over time, the body must get our attention or more severe circumstances will ensue.

We begin to experience pain…if we don’t listen to this more advanced signal, the pain will increase to a point, but then suddenly stop. We have become numb. This part of us will surely die, unless immediate and critical action is taken. As the part, which has become so separate that it is unfelt, begins to become more whole with the body, the pain will return. Often it will be very intense, but as the healing continues it reduces and we begin to enjoy a finer quality of life. In order to heal, that part must be felt. We must be aware of it.

When Dr. Barry first began Chiropractic College, he met a woman who was paralyzed from the waist down, with no feeling or movement in the legs. She told him that a heavy box fell on her when she was five years old, and she had been crippled ever since. Four years later, he ran into her again…literally. She was walking. He was astounded and asked what had happened. She explained that she was under intensive treatment and that over the course of four years; she got her legs back. He asked her what that was like. She said that it was the most painful experience of her life. First her legs began to tingle for about three months…then they began to throb for about six months…for almost ten months after that, she felt constant excruciating pain. Finally, the pain began to subside and she was able to feel her legs pleasantly and walk. He asked her if it was worth all that to get her legs back. She said she would have experienced it twice over to get her legs back.

What are you willing to feel in order to heal?

In closing, I would like to share a technique I learned from Dr. Barry that I use with my clients when they are feeling pain. Rather than trying to make the pain go away (through drugs, therapies or any other means), I recommend feeling it completely. Not just the pain, but the part that is hurting. Sit in a chair or lie down, take nice deep breaths, and just allow yourself to feel the hurt part. Just be aware of it…no judgment…no complaints…no worries…just be aware. As you stay aware of it, realize that the pain is not you. The pain is a signal from you to you alerting you that something is separate. As you stay aware, the pain will become more separate from your experience, but the part of you that is separate will begin to re-unite with yourself and heal.