By Sudi de Winter
Pain is incredibly effective in alerting us to threats and it is an integral survival mechanism . But pain is not always useful or indicative of tissue damage.
A while back I was down the coast and excited to be heading out for a surf. As I stepped out onto the reef, and prepared to jump into the surf, I felt a sharp pain in my left calf. It was intense, but only lasted a few seconds.
I had a good surf – which by my kook standards doesn’t mean much – and forgot about the calf incident.
Later, as I was showering and removing my wetsuit, I noticed a dead spider wash out of the left leg of my wetsuit and down the drain. I put two and two together, but it did not hurt, so I mostly forgot about it.
However, a few days later I noticed my calf was itchy, red and swollen. I went to the doc and he diagnosed it as cellulitis and prescribed antibiotics and topical steroids. The whole thing resolved quickly.
A short time later, I donned the wetsuit again and was walking out along the beach to surf. I was with a mate and we were laughing about something and pumped to be getting into the ocean. Suddenly, I felt another pang of pain in the left calf. ‘Surely not?! What are the odds? Must be a spiders nest in my wetsuit!’ I rolled up the wetsuit leg and could not find anything. There was no spider or evidence of any threat.
This time nothing else eventuated and I was left a bit perplexed. Interestingly, this happened another time surfing, and again, I was not consciously thinking about spiders.
Pain is an unpleasant experience urging us to protect ourselves from a perceived threat (real or not). Mostly it is a helpful response, like if we break a bone. When a spider bites you, pain is also a useful alarm bell. I think that had I actually seen the spider biting me, I would have experienced more ongoing pain at the time. But without that visual input of a scary spider, there was not enough credible evidence for my brain to produce ongoing protective pain.
Yet later my brain associated wetsuit/surfing with danger and the need to protect the left calf. Through some predictive mechanism it produced another protective pain response. Associative memory is used to make future predictions. It’s pretty cool but sometimes it produces unhelpful responses. This time around there was no spider bite, or credible threat, and yet I still experienced pain.
Chronic, or persistent pain, is another example of the body producing unhelpful pain. Although the pain is real and debilitating, it is not necessarily useful because it does not correspond to current tissue damage or a genuine threat.
The causes of chronic pain are complex and not fully understood. However, a better understanding of one’s pain underpins chronic pain management and treatment.
The moral of the story is that pain is weird. And that spiders suck.