I recently wrote a blog about my experience at the Vermont Tough Mudder, a 10 mile challenge at Mt. Snow peppered with 25 military style obstacles. During the run, I cut my finger on one of the obstacles. Luckily no real damage was done, and my fingertip is healing nicely.
The interesting thing is that I didn't notice my cut finger right away. After climbing up the obstacle, I was able to help others up the obstacle, climb down a ladder and hop off. Only then did I start feeling pain in my finger, and this pain signaled me to check out my finger. It was then that I knew my finger was cut.
Shouldn't my finger start to hurt right away? As soon as the cut occurs, the nerve endings in my finger should have sent a signal to my brain. "Danger in the left middle finger!" My brain should have heeded the alarm and caused me to recognize pain right away. But this wasn't the case.
Pain can be a funny thing. The experience of pain is complicated. I'm sure the alarm signal from my finger to my brain worked perfectly. The message from my cut finger got to my brain right away. But at that specific moment in time, my brain was working on a lot of other processes. Climb up this ramp. Help other people. Don't fall down. We should get some water. Do I have to go to the bathroom? Are we almost done? What's for lunch?
These signals are all being thrown around the brain all at once. When the signal from my cut finger reached my brain, so many other things were going on that the message of alarm wasn't translated into pain. Only after I settled down a bit and took stock of my situation was I able to feel the pain and take care of my bleeding finger.
Bottom line: tissue damage, even significant tissue damage, does not guarantee that you feel pain. And it works the other way, too. You can experience pain with no tissue damage. Or you may have injured yourself and continue to feel pain long after the tissues are healed.
If you are in pain and this pain limits your functional mobility, speak with your doctor or physical therapist to see what options are available for managing your pain. Often, your physical therapist can devise a strategy to help you decrease your pain and get back to normal activity and function quickly and safely.