Ask A Scientist

Why do we feel pain? 

Asked by: Sophia Gottlinsky
School: St. John the Evangelist School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Anu Rai
Hobbies/Interests: Drawing, watching anime
Career Interest: Doctor, teacher, animator

Answer from Erin Pauling

Clinical Assistant Professor of Ambulatory Care

Research area: Anticoagulation, diabetes management, travel medicine Interests/hobbies: Spending time with family and friends, visiting new places, reading, volunteering

Have you ever stubbed your toe, cut your finger or fallen off your bike? Have you ever accidentally touched a hot stove with your hand? Ouch!

Pain is your body’s reaction to an outside event (also known as a stimulus) that is causing, or could cause, damage to your body. For example, if you cut your finger with a knife, the knife would be the stimulus and it causes damage by slicing through the skin and tissue of the finger. If you touch a hot stove, the heat is the stimulus and it causes damage by burning the skin. In both of these instances, you may quickly pull your finger or hand away from the stimulus and perhaps prevent further bodily harm. But how exactly are the knife or hot stove stimuli causing pain?

Painful stimuli turn on or activate the nervous system. You can think about the nervous system like a highway that connects the various parts of the body to the brain. This "highway" is made up of neurons that take in stimuli and tell the brain what is going on around the body, such as sight via the eyes or hearing via the ears. When it comes to pain, the painful stimuli activate pain receptors called nociceptors.  The stimuli then transmit the signal for pain along neurons in the part of the body that is hurt. These neurons meet up with the spinal cord, which runs up and down the back and connects to the brain. Once the message of pain reaches the brain, the injured person thinks, "Ouch, that hurt!"

Even though we don’t like to hurt, pain is very helpful. It is like a built-in warning system for the body. If you didn’t feel pain when touching a hot stove, you probably wouldn’t remove your hand. This would cause a serious burn. If you didn’t feel pain when falling off your bike, you probably wouldn’t learn to ride more safely. Isn’t the body amazing?

Last Updated: 3/1/17