The World of Pain

Why do some people feel more pain?

This hour long BBC documentary, The Secret World of Pain, seeks to uncover the mystery of why people feel pain differently. It describes the work of scientists and pain experts trying to answer this question through the study of individual pain experiences. Among others, they study family members who do not feel temperature extremes, a woman who feels no pain at all, and an artist who continues to suffer from pain following a stroke.

I was particularly fascinated by research into changes in the brain related to, or even caused by, years of chronic pain. Its exciting to think that in the future we may have a truly effective way to reverse these changes and permanently release people from all the heartache that comes with pain that simply will not go away.

There is one very touching moment where a woman who has been in pain for a long time finally experiences temporary relief and is overwhelmed with emotion. I can imagine how that moment must feel, and all the joy and past sorrow that would be mixed together.

The documentary consists of four segments available on youtube. The content is divided as follows:

1. Genetics of pain
2. Significance of early pain experience in developing greater pain sensitivity
3. Emotional component of the pain experience
4. Chronic Pain

Each section presents personal pain experiences and recent research related to each of these topics. In part three for example, we watch the story of a man who felt little pain while forced to cut off his own arm after it was trapped while cleaning a boiler. Following the story we then learn that scientists are influencing perceptions of pain by eliciting anxiety in research participants. After learning to associate a particular shape with a high level of pain, the participants continue to highly rate their pain even when the pain stimulus is actually low, according to their own previous rating of that stimulus.

This documentary comes from the 2010-2011 BBC series Horizon, which explores various topics in science and their potential future impact.