Does the Brain Feel Pain?

What the latest scientific research says about why and how we feel pain.

By 
Dr. Lara Birk, Ph.D.
Reviewed by 
Dr. Abigail Hirsch, Ph.D.
January 5, 2022
6
 min. read

Who feels like ice cream? Have you ever had a moment when you were eating ice cream and cut your lip on the plastic spoon? In an instant, you go from joy to “Ouch, that hurt!” Or maybe you were eating too fast and got “brain freeze”? Either way, when you think about ice cream, do you think about pain? Probably not. But your brain knows it’s a possibility because it’s happened before.

So let’s break down what happened in each of these scenarios to explore whether the brain feels pain.

What Happens to Your Brain When You’re in Pain?

In the case of your lip, first: sorry, that must’ve hurt! When your lip was cut, special nerves in your skin called nocireceptors, responsible for noting pain or injury, send a signal up your spinal cord to your brain that says tissue’s been damaged. Your brain takes that signal and assesses your threat level. Is this a fight-or-flight scenario? Do I need to retract a limb from danger? In this case, you probably winced and touched a finger to your lip to see if you were bleeding. But because it wasn’t a prolonged pain, and c’mon, ice cream, you returned to enjoying that sundae.

Your brain did all that in a matter of milliseconds, because that’s one of its jobs. But does your brain actually feel that pain in your lip? Simply put, no. Your brain doesn’t have nerve endings like nocireceptors. Those are found in your skin, muscles, joints, bones, and internal organs, but not on or inside your brain. Your brain merely interprets the pain signals sent to it and catalogues them for future reference (though hopefully your lips will be safe next time).

In the case of the brain freeze, the situation is actually similar. It’s not actually your brain freezing, or even your brain hurting. Your brain has been sent a signal that something very cold is quickly invading your system, so it responds by trying to warm the area. Your body warms itself by expanding blood vessels to allow for more blood flow. That rapid change in vessel size is what causes the pain (and why you feel better quickly after pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth).

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The Basics of Pain and Your Brain

Not all pain is the same (more on that in a second), but the mechanics of what happens in your body and brain is seen across all types of pain. When your body senses pain, your brain:

  • Translates the signals sent from your nerve endings
  • Assesses your risk of danger
  • Determines the appropriate reaction
  • Sends signals to your body to respond (move your hand away, stay still, close your eyelid, etc.)
  • Makes a note of the pain
  • Associates that pain with an action (eating ice cream), object (crappy plastic spoons), or emotion (if you were eating ice cream because you were sad, for instance)

Did You Know There Are Different Types of Pain?

Sprained your ankle, got a papercut, met a mean bee? These common pains are called “nociceptive.” Nociceptive pain is caused by inflammation: bruises, cuts, sprains, and the like. This also extends to the pain of arthritis and cancer, when our joints or organs are inflamed. Nociceptive pain tends to be temporary, with relief coming from rest, healing, an over-the-counter pain reliever, or if necessary, a medical intervention.

If you’ve suffered damage to your nervous system, that produces a different kind of pain called “neuropathic” pain. The damage could occur because of an injury–like a pinched nerve in your foot– or from a disease like diabetes or MS, even as a result of chemotherapy. Since nerves don’t always heal properly, neuropathic pain is often at the heart of chronic pain.

The third kind of pain that we now know about is called “nociplastic” pain. Simply put, nociplastic pain comes down to sensory processing–think of it like wires getting crossed. Your body experiences pain, producing an emotion or tied to one you’re already in, then repeats a cycle of emotion-pain-emotion-pain.

Maybe you’ve been there. Your pain is very real, but a doctor says they have trouble finding the source. This pain may not stem from a specific disease or injury, or maybe your pain level doesn’t quite match up to the extent of an injury. But your brain is sending and receiving pain signals. Conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic lower back pain are common sources for nociplastic pain because of the widespread, chronic aches.

Nociplastic pain can also be related to central sensitization syndrome, where your brain tells your body to overreact to stimuli. So putting on a soft sweater might actually cause intense pain, because your pain receptors are hypersensitive.

What part of the brain feels pain?

There isn’t just one pain area in your brain. Several parts are involved in working out the body’s different responses to stimuli. First, the signal from your nerve endings goes to the thalamus, which you can think of as a kind of command center. Areas in the cortex sort out the source of your pain, recall if you’ve experienced this before, and compare this pain to any of those previous experiences.

Then the thalamus sends the signal to your limbic system, which processes and stores memories and emotions, and controls your appetite, body temperature, even your heartbeat. Now go back to those ice cream experiences: maybe you're making a memory with your daughter, your heart raced a little when you cut your lip, your brain tried to fix your mouth’s temperature really quickly. See how those all come together in the limbic system? Now your brain is storing a pain memory with a happy memory.

Over time, when your brain continually makes these kinds of associations, it can sometimes send out the wrong message: “This hurts so much!” It’s those crossed wires or hypersensitivity. Because your body experienced pain when you had that ice cream. Now think if you cut your lip or got brain freeze every time; your brain would start to assume ice cream equals pain.

Now add another brain-processing layer: you were having ice cream with your daughter to try to mend a rocky patch in your relationship. You were feeling nervous and frightened that your talk that day might not be enough. Your limbic system was processing those painful emotions at the same time as your physical pain. You can see how your brain might sort a pain and an emotion into the same bucket.

So Is That It? I Have to Live With This Pain?

Absolutely not. It’s why we started Lin in the first place–to help people try to put an end to cycles of chronic pain. We know that pain and the brain go hand-in-hand, and that some pain signals from the brain are our brains’ best responses to perceived dangers.

And while we’re not saying that “the pain is all in your head,” or that if you think really hard, you can cure yourself, we do have resources that can help. To try to rewire, if you will. Because how we sense pain, and what our brains do in response, does not have to remain the same forever. If you can learn a new language or song at any age, you can train your brain to lessen previous pain associations. You don’t have to try to manage your pain alone. You can connect with a compassionate health coach today when you sign up with Lin.

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