Does Pain Serve a Purpose?

ByABC News
May 9, 2005, 1:01 PM

May 13, 2005 — -- Remember the 1970s television series "Kung Fu"? Each episode opened with scenes of a stoic Shaolin monk, played by David Carradine, enduring excruciating physical challenges -- walking over burning coals and lifting a hot cauldron with his forearms. Pain was portrayed as a critical part of the monk's path to spiritual and personal growth.

To be sure, individuals can gain confidence and pride by pushing themselves to complete marathons or other demanding physical challenges. But enduring pain or stress injuries on a regular basis serves no good purpose for the body or soul, researchers say.

"Good pain is the body's warning system," said Dr. Edward Covington, director of the Cleveland Clinic's Chronic Pain Rehabilitation Program. "Intense nociceptic pain is the good pain. It's the pain that warns you your appendix is about to rupture or someone has stepped on your foot."

While many would consider a life without pain as a blessing, it is anything but that for those who suffer from a rare disorder that leaves them unable to feel pain. The condition -- called congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis, and also known as CIPA -- affects nerve endings. Because sufferers have no ability to sense pain, they are vulnerable to serious cuts, fractures and burns. Covington said this is a particularly difficult disorder to manage and can leave a person seriously compromised by injury by adolescence.

Most people are not disabled by nociceptic pain, which is pain caused by injury or trauma to the body's tissues, but rather by chronic pain, Covington said. Indeed, about 70 million Americans are partially or completely disabled by chronic, debilitating pain, according to the National Pain Foundation. And despite advances in pain treatment, many people encourage themselves to dismiss or ignore pain.

"We have a tendency to think people who don't complain about pain are macho, Clint Eastwood-types, and those who do complain are wimpy," Covington said.

But research suggests otherwise. "There are a number of genetic differences in enzymes and in individuals' opioid receptors that these 'tough guys' may simply not be experiencing pain," Covington said.