What Is Pain?

What Is Pain?

Molly Coeling > Blog > Reiki and Therapeutic Massage > What Is Pain?

People seek out massage services for various reasons, but as you might guess, pain is generally a key factor. So needless to say, a big focus of my work is to address, mitigate, and – ideally – relieve pain.

We have all felt pain, and unfortunately many of you are likely experiencing some form of pain as you read this. While pain is a universal human experience, it is also a very personal and subjective experience and can therefore be difficult to define, describe, pin down, and track. In addition, pain can be very elusive, coming and going seemingly at random, and sometimes disappearing only to be replaced by new aches and pains.

There are a lot of ways to define and describe pain, but the common denominator is that pain is a feeling. Intuitively we all know this, and the concept is reinforced when we hear someone say “I have a high threshold for pain” or “I have a low pain tolerance.” Because pain is a feeling and therefore subjective, two people who both just experienced an injury in the exact same way with the exact same physical repercussions may experience very different levels and qualities of pain or discomfort.

Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, pain is also in the eye of the beholder.

So why is this, exactly? According to Stanford’s Pain Management Center, “Pain is the way your brain interprets information about a particular sensation that your body is experiencing. Information (or ‘signals’) about this painful sensation are sent via nerve pathways to your brain. The way in which your brain interprets these signals as ‘pain’ can be affected by many outside factors.”

So then, pain is simply a symptom. In my work as a massage therapist and Reiki practitioner, I use verbal clues, visual clues, and feeling clues to solve the mystery of why you are experiencing pain and how it can be addressed, whether through massage, energy work, self-care, or seeking out other health care practitioners and resources.

One interesting phenomenon is that as you begin to address and make some headway in a chronic pain situation, you may begin to experience new pain(s) popping up seemingly out of nowhere. One of the reasons our bodies respond to pain relief with a “new” pain is that the nervous system can only pay attention to so much at one time, can only prioritize and relay so much information at once, and so your pain response is based on what takes priority at any given moment.

Let me share a recent example that is pretty typical for massage clients. I have a client – we’ll call her Lucy – who has suffered from pain in her right hip for upwards of three decades. As we’ve been addressing that pain together, Lucy has begun to notice pain in her left hip that she hadn’t previously experienced. In reality, the underlying causal factors for this “new” pain in her left hip were likely present the whole time, and in fact I was always aware that the left side of Lucy’s body was actually holding more tension than the right, even from our first session together. However she had always felt more pain in the right hip, which is an example of one of the mysteries and wonders of the nervous system and the human body in general. That is, now that we are making progress on addressing the holding patterns that were leading to Lucy’s experience of pain in the right hip, her nervous system is finally beginning to pay attention to the left side of her body and the chronic tension she’s been holding there. The right hip is no longer in experiencing some relief, and so the nervous system is moving down the line to the next area that could use a little bit more care.

It can be helpful to think of this phenomenon as a result of your nervous system’s triage system. So let’s just say you’re someone who has suffered from low back pain for years, and it is something that is pretty much always there, that you are used to feeling at all times. Then one day you burn your hand pretty badly. Are you aware of that nagging low back pain in that specific moment? No, absolutely not. And why is that? Because your nervous system says “Ouch! Whatever you just did seems pretty dangerous, and it’s my job to use pain to alert you to the fact that you’d better pay full attention, address this immediate issue, and don’t burn your hand to a crisp. I need you to focus only on your burnt hand at this particular moment. Everything else can wait, including your low back pain.”

You can see how this example translates into situations where perhaps there are multiple areas of your body that are chronically compromised, but your nervous system keeps you focused on the one that is of the highest priority. So when new pains pop out of seemingly nowhere, it may just be that you’re making progress on the primary issue(s) and thus freeing up space in your nervous system (i.e., your body’s alarm system) to help you become more aware of what is going on in your body.

In your heightened body awareness, you can continue to make strides toward a healthier body, mind, and spirit, with the ultimate goal of living experiencing your body more fully and with as little pain as possible.








The folks over at dictionary.com do a pretty good job putting the experience of pain into words; here are the first three definitions offered:


  1. physical suffering or distress, as due to injury, illness, etc.
  2. a distressing sensationin a particular part of the body
  3. mental or emotional suffering or torment