I'm wondering about the effects of different durations and intensities of pain on the body. So the two can be compared, let's say that the cause of pain is the same in both cases, but in one the duration is shorter although the pain is more severe, and vice versa. Also, by effects, I mean biological but also psychological (which is probably more interesting), but the latter might be out of the scope of this site, so forgive me if it is.

For the sake of a (rather grim) example, if someone is exposed to a painful stimulus such as a mid-voltage shock for a long duration, and if someone else is exposed to a much higher voltage shock for a much shorter duration of time, which would produce worse effects on the body's normal functioning? (Somewhat morbidly, I should say to assume that they both live and do not die on the spot.) Since the answer very well might depend on the type of harmful stimulus, I'll give another example of a burn. If one is repeatedly subjected to a first-degree burn for a while and another is subjected to a third-degree burn only once, which is worse?

Upon pondering the question, it seems that the psychological effects would be more interesting since they should be roughly the same regardless of the type of stimulus, but biologically the effects obviously differ.

Thank you for your time, and any responses or thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated.

Edit: Obviously most experiments to test this would be subjective and unethical, especially in the case of psychological effects, so just an opinion from someone more knowledgeable in biology is more than fine.

  • $\begingroup$ The psychological answer will very much depend on how the individual copes with pain and not be the same for all individuals. This said, I think you should use a more abstract example, because the ways you are right now causing the different types of pain are also harmful in other ways than just causing pain and so also influence the biological answer with the fact that for example a high voltage shock is more damaging. $\endgroup$
    – skymningen
    Commented Aug 21, 2014 at 6:13

1 Answer 1


The biological part of the answer to your question depends on the thing causing the pain. Burning for example, a large burn can be very life threatening biologically but small burns are not as harmful comparatively. But the psychological harm they would cause is phenomenal. This is because large burns open up the body to infections, dehydration and a lot of other harm.

Let's take stabbing as another cause of pain. One stab in a less dangerous place missing all important structures may be not that harmful but may be painful. However multiple small stabs into important structures like arteries or spinal cord could be horribly destructive.

Then let's look at headaches or nerve pain. Here it is only the pain and usually there isn't any destructive or harmful process. Most individuals would take one really, really bad headache followed by never having a headache then chronic daily "tension" headaches. Psychologically though usually the chronic daily pain is the worst. Particularly as without adequate pain management from the start, it is less responsive to painkillers (analgesia). It frequently adds to depression if it does not cause it itself and can lead to suicide. Also painkillers themselves may cause chronic pain which does not help.

In summary, acute severe pain suggests something is seriously wrong and needs to be dealt with immediately biologically as there is likely a damaging process underlying it. However if this event is survived, it may be linked with high disability from any biological process that underpinned the pain. Chronic daily pain suggests a long continuing process. The cause of this may be life threatening, such as cancers, but is usually less dangerous at least compared to acute severe pain biologically. However the psychological aspects of this pain are seriously important as they can be particularly detrimental.

  • $\begingroup$ Frankly, I don't see how this answers the question. "The biological part of the answer to your question depends on the thing causing the pain." I would have interpreted the question as to mean exactly the opposite => what long-term bodily harm does the pain itself cause? It is clear that whatever causes the pain can be inherently harmful (or not, as in your headache example). But what additonal harm does the pain itself cause? It clearly makes the sufferer unhappy, unless they learn to ignore it through meditation etc.; but does it, e.g., restructure neurons in the brain, etc.? $\endgroup$
    – AnoE
    Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 11:50

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