Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Molly. Molly Wonders, “why do we feel pain?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Molly!

What makes people say, “Ouch!” when they get a paper cut? What makes someone pull their hand back after touching a hot stovetop? Have you ever had either of these experiences? If so, you’ve likely considered today’s Wonder of the Day before. 

Why do people feel pain? The feeling of pain helps the brain protect the body. When a person stubs their toe, the immediate pain tells them that they need to watch where they’re walking. When they’re stung by a bee, pain tells them not to bother bees anymore.

Pain alerts the brain that a person may be sick. A painful throat could mean they caught a cold. Pain in the stomach might turn out to be a stomach bug or another issue. Without these pains, it would be much harder for people to tell when they’re sick.

But how exactly does pain work? When a person pricks their finger on a thorn, how do they feel the pain so quickly? 

When a person encounters something that causes damage to tissue, like a cut or burn, it’s noticed by nerve endings in the skin. These nerve endings then send a message along nerve fibers to the spinal cord. Once the spinal cord gets the message, it sends it to the brain.

Inside the brain, the thalamus sends out information about the pain to different parts of the brain. Once the brain has interpreted the pain and decided what to do about it, it sends that message back to the site of pain. That’s when the person reacts.

As you likely know, all of this happens very quickly. If you’ve ever stubbed a toe or gotten a paper cut, you know the reaction is almost instant. You have your very useful nervous system to thank for that! 

Of course, not all pain is the same. For example, intense pain is usually felt more quickly than milder pain. Sometimes, people also feel pain caused by different parts of the nervous system. This pain means there’s a problem with the nerves, spinal cord, or brain.

Many people also experience chronic pain. Sometimes it’s caused by ongoing conditions, like arthritis. Other times, chronic pain has no clear cause. In these cases, it is a disorder of its own.

On the other hand, some people don’t feel pain at all. This condition, called “congenital insensitivity to pain,” is rare. It’s caused by a genetic disorder that makes it difficult for nerve cells to grow or reproduce. This results in nerve cells that are unable to send pain signals to the brain.

Are you thinking it would be great to never feel pain? It might seem so at first, but it can also lead to serious injury. After all, how would you know to remove your hand from a hot stovetop if you couldn’t feel pain? Situations like that could lead to bad burns. 

While it certainly isn’t pleasant, pain can stop people from badly injuring themselves. It’s an essential function of the body that plays a very important role. So the next time you yell, “Ouch!” remember how hard your nervous system is working to protect you. 

Standards: NGSS.LS1.A, NGSS.LS1.D, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.9, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2, CCRA.R.10

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Tomorrow’s Wonder of the Day could get a bit slippery!