What is Pain?

John Miller Physiotherapist

Article by John Miller

What is Pain?


Pain acts as a crucial alert system in your body, signalling when something is amiss. As physiotherapists, we understand pain not just as a symptom, but as a complex experience influenced by various physiological factors. This article, written from a physiotherapist’s perspective, aims to demystify pain and offer insights into its management.

what is pain
What Is Pain? Pain Explained

Understanding Pain Signal Transmission

The journey of a pain signal begins at the site of injury or discomfort. Here, receptor nerve cells, including nociceptors, detect harmful stimuli. These receptors are sensitive to various types of damage, such as thermal (heat), mechanical (pressure or impact), and chemical changes.

Once stimulated, these receptors transmit signals via nerve fibres to the spinal cord and brain. The types of nerve fibres involved are crucial in determining the nature of the pain:

  • A-beta fibres: These large, myelinated fibres rapidly transmit sharp, well-localised pain.
  • A-delta fibres: Smaller but still myelinated, they convey acute pain.
  • C fibres: These small, unmyelinated fibres are responsible for dull, throbbing, and chronic pain sensations.

Nociceptors and Their Role in Pain

Nociceptors are specialised nerve cells that play a key role in pain perception. They are adept at picking up potential damage and efficiently communicating this information to the brain. The brain then interprets these signals, leading to the experience of pain.

Chronic Pain: Understanding the Long-term Impact

Chronic pain, lasting beyond the usual course of acute injury or illness, poses a significant challenge. It often involves complex interactions between physical and psychological factors. Recent research highlights the role of the brain in maintaining chronic pain, even in the absence of an identifiable physical cause.

Related article: Chronic Pain

Myelin Sheath: Speeding Up Pain Signals

The presence of a myelin sheath around a nerve fibre is crucial in determining the speed of pain signal transmission. Myelinated fibres (A-beta and A-delta) allow for faster communication compared to unmyelinated C fibres. This difference in speed can influence the type of pain experienced.

Physiotherapy Techniques for Pain Relief

Physiotherapists employ various methods to manage pain:

  • Manual therapy: Techniques such as massage and joint mobilisation can provide immediate pain relief.
  • Exercise therapy: Tailored exercises help in managing chronic pain by improving muscle strength and flexibility.
  • Pain Education: Understanding the biological, psychological, and social aspects of pain can help individuals manage their pain more effectively.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a psychological intervention that has proven effective in managing chronic pain. It’s based on the concept that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected, and changing negative thought patterns can lead to changes in feelings and behaviors.

What Causes Post-Exercise Muscular Pain?

Muscle soreness after exercise, often felt as a dull, aching pain, is commonly due to microscopic damage to muscle fibres and the surrounding tissues. This is a normal response and part of the muscle strengthening process.

The Brain’s Role in Pain Perception

The brain plays a central role in interpreting pain signals. It integrates information from the body and can modulate the pain experience based on various factors, including emotional and psychological states.


Pain, a complex and subjective experience, involves intricate neurophysiological processes. Understanding these processes is crucial for effective pain management. Physiotherapy offers a range of techniques to alleviate pain, tailored to individual needs.

What to Do? Seeking Professional Advice

If you are experiencing persistent or unexplained pain, consulting a physiotherapist is a vital step. They can provide a comprehensive assessment, guidance, and a tailored treatment plan to manage your pain effectively.

For more detailed information and resources, visit our Pain Management section, a trusted source for physiotherapy insights and treatments.

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