Can we feel pain when we dream? The answer will surprise you

When a rock falls on us in a dream, can our body feel pain?

 Woman dreaming (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Woman dreaming
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

A new study has tried to test: When a rock falls on us in a dream, can our body feel pain? If so, what affects the level of pain we can experience from a dream? Here are all the details.

From time to time we have dreams in which we experience pain, but how much of that "dream pain" do we really feel? 

If we shriek in pain in a dream where a rock is crushing us or we're run over by a car, does this feeling remain only in the dream or is our body really able to feel the pain? 

This topic has been thoroughly studied and the general consensus is that we can feel pain in dreams, although the question of whether this pain is triggered by the dream or by something physical happening in our body is a complex neurological minefield.

One reason we feel pain in dreams is that something physically hurts us like a wasp sting. 

This pain can manifest in the dream in different ways and remind us of its existence. This type of pain in dreams was investigated in a 1993 article in which blood pressure cuffs were used to induce pain while participants were in the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep. Pain felt by participants mimicked the real-life pain caused by the tightening sleeve.

Pain from a dream differs from "real" pain in that its source is the content of the dream and not a stimulation from real life. 

For example, someone might dream of torture in a way they’ve never really experienced. However, the trauma in the dream is still recorded as pain, apparently inspired by learned perceptions of painful situations. Pain from a dream usually passes as soon as the dreamer wakes up. 

"I argue that even real pain is a kind of 'everything in my head,'" Erin Wamsley, an assistant professor of psychology at Furman University in South Carolina, told Vice. He added that pain is in a sense a mental experience. When we injure ourselves, the pain is processed in our brain and not in the affected part of the body.

Brain pain appears as the activation of pain-related areas in our cortex triggered by information from pain receptors in the peripheral nervous system. When pain occurs in a dream, our brain probably doesn’t receive pain messages from parts of our body, but draws from memories of past pain.

What affects the level of pain that comes from our dreams

When it comes to our likelihood of experiencing pain at night, it seems that our general health condition plays a role in the frequency and nature of the pain. A 2017 study found that about 1% of healthy people experience pain in dreams compared to about 30% of people who suffer from acute and severe pain.

In patients, painful dreams may be triggered by actual pain whereas for healthy people, painful dreams may be painful memories (pain experienced by themselves and/or watching people getting hurt). 

The study authors state that further research is needed to clarify how pain is processed during sleep. Because patients with chronic pain experience negative-hued dreams, it would be helpful to ask chronic pain patients about their dreams, and perhaps offer specific treatment options like guided imagery therapy.

So, can we feel pain in dreams? 

The answer is yes, yet our general health condition probably predicts whether it’s real or only dream pain.