I guess anyone had seen this before: a hero goes through all kinds of hell and feels no pain but when it’s over and someone (usually an attractive female that ends up being his romantic interest) takes care of his wounds, all that pain comes back to them. Today, I’ll look at this closely.
To start, I should say that not everything on the abovementioned typical scene is wrong – but not all is right, either. While I haven’t been shot, stabbed, thrown off of a helicopter, or run over by a car (and I am glad for that), I have some experience with injuries and remember how they felt. Anyway, I’ll start with a bit of biology…
This is the scenario most likely to happen to any “ordinary” human that suffers a severe injury (or sees something that shakes them to their core, but that’s not the point of this article). As their body and brain struggle to get a full hold of the situation, the person becomes oblivious to almost everything. Including pain.
This is exactly what happened to me in my early teens when I had a nasty fall while roller-blading. I scraped both of my knees (no big deal). Most of the fall was taken by my left elbow – where I had quite a nasty hole (and still have 4×2 cm scar). I was completely oblivious to the scope of my injuries, so I just picked myself up, wrapped a handkerchief around the elbow (again, having no idea about the trues scope of injury) and headed back home. I’ve returned to normal perception of the world only some two hours later!
Unlike the previous one, this is the “movie” cause. Again, it makes sense – when someone is pressed to fight for their life, ignoring minor injuries and continuing the fight gives better chances for surviving than turning to run and inspect them (and thus becoming an easy target). Once the adrenaline rush fades, the pain will get to the forefront of the mind.
Here comes the twist: it’ll not return at the exact moment anyone starts taking care of the wound. Such timing is extremely unlikely. Yes, some kinds of improvisations might be painful (such as using vodka to prevent infection when nothing better is at hand) but simply bandaging a wound won’t likely cause a surge of pain. This exaggeration is a tool to show the hero has emotions but when you see it over and over, it might lose its impact.
A bit of neurology
Different body parts have different sensitivity. The most sensitive areas are closer to the skin surface, which is why scratches are painful despite being insignificant in the long term. Shock plays a role as well – fracturing a bone will trigger shock (and thus is usually perceived as less painful) than a blunt hit with (almost) no actual damage. Burns are extremely painful as they damage the skin over time – and thus the nerve endings are continuously “recording” the fact the skin is being destroyed.
If the injury severs the nerve endings, the victim won’t be able to feel the pain for the simple reasons that the nerve endings that would register it are gone (such as my case with the mentioned elbow injury – until it healed, I felt nothing if I touched that place).
So, to close it off: Yes, it’s possible to not feel pain in the thrill of combat and only notice it later – and it has its reasons. However, when the pain will be felt is not as simple – and not as conveniently timed unless taking care of the injury causes pain by itself (cauterizing, cleaning, or stitching the wound, for example).
I hope this post was helpful and that someone might learn something. Feel free to comment or ask questions.