Is Pain All In Our Head?

As a skateboarder I spend a lot of time on my skateboard which eventually leads to me falling off of my skateboard. Falling is inevitable in skateboarding so it was in my best interest to learn how take the falls without letting them hurt too much. After years of skateboarding most minor scrapes and bumps don’t really bother me too much and I generally keep skateboarding if the injury is not too bad. I’ve also noticed that the pain of an injury is usually worse if I keep thinking about how it hurts, whereas if I tell myself that it doesn’t hurt that bad then it almost immediately starts to feel better. This lead me to the hypothesis that pain we feel after an injury is mostly in our mind and based on how bad we think it hurts. Another example I can think of that I’m sure many of you can relate would be when you hit your shin on a coffee table; While this hurts a lot initially, as long as you didn’t chip or break your shin bone, in theory the pain should subside very shortly after because no major damage was done. But sometimes the pain from hitting your shin feels like it lingers around for another minute or two after it has made contact with the coffee table. Based off my personal observation again, the pain from an incident like this goes away much faster if you think that it doesn’t hurt that bad versus thinking something along the lines of “My shin hurts so bad… This pain won’t go away”. I believe the placebo effect plays a big part in how we perceive pain and how bad an injury hurts.   

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A recent study published in the journal Pain found that patients who knowingly took a placebo pill for their lower back pain saw more improvement in reducing their back pain than those who were given traditional treatment alone. 97 patients suffering from chronic lower back pain were given a 15-minute explanation of what the placebo effect is before they were given their pills so they are well aware of what a placebo pill is. After they were given the explanation the patients were then split randomly into two groups; Treatment-as-usual (TAU) group or open-label placebo (OLP). Participants in both groups were taking anti-inflammatories before this study began and were instructed to keep taking the anti-inflammatories if they regularly take them and not to make any other major lifestyle changes such as starting a new exercise regimen or take a new medication, which could impact their pain levels. The patients in the OLP group were also given a medicine bottle labeled “placebo pills” and were instructed to take two pills per day. The pills contained no active medication for pain relief. After three weeks the OLP group overall reported 30 percent reductions in both usual pain and maximum pain. Usual pain being the amount of pain that is normally felt on a daily basis and maximum pain being the worst amount of pain they feel overall. Those numbers compare well to the TAU group which reported 9 percent reduction for overall pain and 16 percent reduction for maximum pain. The placebo group also saw a 29 percent reduction in pain-related disability whereas the TAU group saw little to no improvement in that category. That is an amazing difference for a pill that does nothing at all to help with pain.

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This experiment strongly correlates with the idea that pain is mostly in our head and we can make it go away with our own thoughts. When patients are being tested and given pills from doctors, it may make the placebo effect even stronger because the patients believe the doctor’s pills and instructions truly will make them feel better. I believe that this was a key part of this experiment working so well. 


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3 thoughts on “Is Pain All In Our Head?

  1. Casey Andrew Schaum

    As a skateboarder myself, I have always wondered the same question. Is the pain just in my head? I also feel the shin pain you briefly mentioned. Shinners are the worst. Over the years I have realized that if I injure myself while trying a particular trick or line (especially while filming), I seem to forget about the pain. It always hurts later on that night and especially the next day but I have always wonder if it is my mind blocking out the pain or if it just takes time to set in. After reading your blog, I was curious to see if I could find out. I found an article on NPR that correlates with your blog. . It talks about a soldier that was wounded by a grenade and shot twice when his unit was under attack. The soldier claims that he felt very little pain and kept on helping other soldiers. The article says that there is an emotional part to pain that determines the pain index. Positive emotions at the time can reduce pain, while negative emotions can make it worse. This could explain why a fall doesn’t hurt that bad when you are in the middle of battle trying to get a certain trick. There is definitely a chance that pain is all in the head but hopefully science will figure out if that is completely true someday.

  2. Michael Gerard Shevlin

    Throughout my life, I’ve gone from one dangerous sport to the next; always getting injured and beating up my body. Over time, I trained myself to ignore most of the pain of these injuries as I became so used to them. I found that if I put my mind elsewhere I could ignore the pain and continue doing what I was doing. I was never sure if this was something specific to me or if anyone could do this, and according to your article, it is in fact possible for anyone. I came across a cool article explaining exactly how to overcome physical pain using your mind

  3. Hannah Marni Stern

    First off, I hope you asked Andrew for that quote or else you’re in for it! Anyways, I strongly agree with this conclusion, as I have never been a big medicine taker. My best friend on the other hand religiously takes Advil, and I never understood. Usually, a slight headache will pass if you just calm down, rest, and stop thinking about it. This article ( addresses people like my best friend who take medicine for the slightest pains. It states that over the counter medicines really don’t do much after the recommended dose, and although it won’t kill you to take for minor pain, it’s not the healthiest option. We must realize that in life, it’s unrealistic to think we can be pain free every minute.

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