They say pain is relative. But anyone who has ever sliced a finger on a Post-It or stubbed a toe against a door knows that small injuries cause major, and inexplicable, agony. We asked medical experts to explain why these common, everyday injuries produce such extreme pain — and how to dial down the misery faster.
1. Biting Your Tongue
When the plunger cusps (the teeth on the side of your mouth) slam down on your tongue, breaking through the surface of the muscle.
Why it hurts so much: “Three of the strongest muscles in the body are in the mouth,” says Dr. Brian Kantor, cosmetic dentist and partner of Lowenberg, Lituchy and Kantor dental practice in New York City. These “muscles of mastication” include the masseter, the temporalis, and the medial pterygoid. “Research suggests that these muscles can close the teeth with a force of over 50 pounds on the incisor teeth and up to 200 pounds on the back molars,” says Kantor. In worst case-scenarios, the lingual artery in the tongue is severed, which can cause death from blood loss. While most bites are less traumatic, chomping down on sensitive tissue, nerve endings and veins can bring tears to the eyes.
What to do: Apply pressure to stop any bleeding. “Gauze works best but if none is available, push the tongue to the roof of the mouth to create pressure that will cease blood flow,” Kantor says. Then, use ice or an ice pack to reduce inflammation and bleeding. Follow this with a salt-water rinse (one cup warm water mixed with a teaspoon of salt), which will clean out the cut, kill the bacteria and speed the healing process. If you’re still in pain, a dab of over-the-counter tooth pain numbing gel works wonders, too.
2. Getting a Charley Horse
This slang term for a muscle spasm can be caused by a number of issues, including dehydration, fatigue, nerve damage, or an imbalance of electrolytes (magnesium, potassium and calcium).
Why it hurts so much: The involuntary contraction, typically in the calf, “twists up and shortens the muscle, causing it to pull on the tendon junction (where the tendon turns to muscle),” says Aaron Huppert, NYC-based physical therapist.
What to do: Compression is key. Applying firm, direct pressure to the muscle with your hand can help release the contraction in the muscle, so the spasm passes quicker. “Once it stops, you need to stretch the muscle out in the opposite direction so it doesn’t seize up again,” Huppert says. In the calf, try a standing Achilles stretch; in the thigh, lean to one side for a hamstring stretch; and when in the quads, grab the ankle of your hurt leg behind your back for a quad stretch.
3. Hitting the Funny Bone
Banging your elbow produces a tingle-y, electrical-current-like sensation that runs down your forearm, to your hand, and into the pinky finger.
Why it hurts so much: This injury is not actually bone-based. When you whack the elbow, you’re hitting the Ulnar nerve, “one of three main nerves in your arm which travels from the neck down to the hand,” says Dr. Joseph Herrera, physiatrist and assistant professor of rehabilitation at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “It is positioned in the groove of the bones, but when the arm is bent, the nerve pops up and sits flush with only the skin and fat protecting it.”
What to do: Shake it off. Repositioning the arm by straightening-bending-straightening will help release the tension and compression on the nerve.
4. Stubbing Your Toe
A direct hit to the toe — a breathtakingly painful accident — jams the tissue into the bone, then the bone into the joint, which starts the pain signals firing.
Why it hurts so much: The toes are lined with a high concentration of sensory nerves and have little to no fatty tissue or muscle surrounding them. When the tip of the toe jams into an object, “it does not bend and takes the full-force impact from the weight of the leg,” explains Dr. Herrera. “That force is directed into a very small, sensitive area, so the pain is extreme.”
What to do: Trick the toe to halt the hurt. Immediately massage the area, and you create a sensation that will compete with the pain signals firing to your brain. This distracter will help the pain subside faster.
5. Getting a Paper Cut
While paper seems harmless enough, when held stiff, its micro width turns into a knife-sharp object that can slice through the skin.
Why it hurts so much: “Fingertips have more nerve fibers than most parts of the body,” says Dr. Mark A. Moyad, director of Preventative & Alternative Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center. A paper cut slices through the epidermal layer of the skin, exposing the sensitive nerve endings to the air, making them sting. (The same thing happens with a hang nail.)
What to do: Immediately flush the cut with ice-cold water, which will zap the sting and reduce inflammation, and soap it to prevent infection. If it’s deep, apply ice for three minutes to numb the pain, then add a dab of anti-bacterial ointment and cover with a Band-Aid.