Getting to the Bottom of Common Pain Myths

"No pain, no gain" is a popular -- albeit misguided -- mind-set in sports and fitness, and it's not a smart approach for managing chronic pain either.

And just as you don't need to feel uncomfortable while exercising to get physically stronger, there's no need to view recurring pain as something you should also gut out.

A grin-and-bear-it mentality could lead you to not acknowledge pain when you feel it and delay seeking medical attention.


"There's a reason pain occurs and it's often to make us stop doing something," said Dr. Carmen Green, an associate professor of anesthesiology and director of the pain research division at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor.

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The following are seven other misconceptions about pain that we ran by four experts so they could set the record straight for you.

Myth: Pain in infancy doesn't matter because babies can't remember it.

Even premature babies have the neurological development to experience the adverse physical effects of pain, such as increased stress hormones, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing and poorer outcomes after surgery, pointed out Dr. Lonnie Zeltzer, director of the pediatrics pain program at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.

What's more, significant pain exposure in newborns has the potential to shape the development of the sensory nervous system, which transmits information on pain experience and can make the child more vulnerable to pain later.

In fact, early pain exposure in infancy is one of the risk factors for the development of chronic pain in adulthood -- along with genetics, Zeltzer said. Moreover, if pain is undertreated in newborns and children, it can have long-term consequences, even if the pain episode can't be recalled or is a distant memory.

Studies of kindergartners provide evidence that children's early pain experience can influence the development of their nervous system. In follow-up research of premature infants, scientists have found that by age 4 or 5, these children had more stomachaches as well as general aches and pains that seemed to correlate with the amount of time they spent in a neonatal intensive care unit after birth.

Myth: Men are better at dealing with pain than women.

Neither sex has the edge on pain. And medicine has no definitive pain-o-meter to quantify a person's level of discomfort, explained Green. Consequently, pain is often measured by your perception of it and the way you experience it. Both gender and your cultural experience of pain can influence your coping style.

Research suggests that women are better able to tolerate chronic pain than men; yet they are more sensitive to acute pain, such as touching something hot. Women also appear to be less bothered by lingering discomfort.

And there's some evidence that men's and women's nervous systems act on and process pain information differently.

Men may have been socialized to deny pain and to be stoic if they experience it. But women might be more willing to express their pain and don't view admitting it as a sign of weakness.

According to Green, where a woman is in her menstrual cycle as well as her life cycle (pre- or post-menopause) influences her hormone levels, especially estrogen, and this can make a difference in her response to pain stimuli.

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