Pain is felt as a survival mechanism to encourage you to take action. However, it does not always mean damage has actually occurred.
Consider this example Lorimer Mosley gives: A fractured wrist is often very painful until it is put in a cast. Once casted, the pain is almost always gone quickly thereafter.
The problem with this is that we know that bone will take 6-8 weeks to fully heal (depending on age and other factors). Yet, pain is no longer present, and in some cases instantaneously gone once placed into a cast. So why is this? Very simply, the need for protection is now gone because the cast acts as an external protective device.
In this example the pain is gone but damage is very much still present. The opposite can also be true. The body can be in pain, but no longer damaged.
We must consider other factors such as social influence, past history, fear, future consequences, stress to name a few. All these signals can trigger the body to feel it is under threat and notify you via pain. For this reason you can experience pain with no tissue damage at all. I’m sure you have heard the term phantom limb pain. Even though the limb is gone, the body still has the ability to sense pain in this area. This reinforces the fact that if you can experience pain without a body limb, then tissue damage is not necessarily a prerequisite for pain. Furthermore, just because you are experiencing pain in a particular area does not mean that is in fact the source of the pain. This is why it is important to find a clinician who does not focus solely on the area of pain, but looks for other areas of dysfunction which may contribute to the brains overall perception of threat.
Another possibility is that tissue damage could have very well occurred which initially started the pain cycle. However, because the body is great at healing itself at the cellular level. It is also possible that the tissue may have healed. Yet the brain still has the perception of threat because non-threatening inputs were never sent up to the brain to override the previously painful threats. This may explain why people often feel pain long after normal tissue healing time has passed. This is also why it is important to not treat pain with pain.
Here is some research that backs the theory: tissue damage does not equal pain. Jensen and colleagues performed a study titled: MRI of lumbar Spine in People without Back Pain. They found that 52% of people without back pain had at least one bulging disc or MRI abnormality. Templehof and colleagues performed a study titled: Age-related prevalence of rotator cuff tears in asymptomatic shoulders. The authors found that 23% of people with asymptomatic (non painful) shoulders actually had a rotator cuff tear. These are just two examples. Numerous other studies could be cited to help support that tissue damage does not have to cause pain.
So the next time you experience pain, please understand that there may be a number of contributing factors. Remember that pain is perfectly normal, it’s your body’s alarm system. Pain can be present with or without tissue damage. Providing the body with novel non-threatening stimulus's to remove the body’s need to produce a protective response is a great place to start if you are currently experiencing pain.
Let's take the example of elbow pain, lateral epicondylitis a.k.a tennis elbow. It's not uncommon for lifters to experience elbow pain. I have noticed it becoming more prevalent now as people spend more time on their tablets using their fingers instead of a mouse.