Q&A: Adrenaline and Pain

Hi! I dug through your page and found that adrenaline can numb a person’s pain, as I though it might. However, my character is supposed to die of her wounds (a stab into her stomach by blade and into both of her arms, cutting through muscles). It is not like a gunshot wound that could go unnoticed, so do you think adrenaline would be enough? Since adrenaline is a hormone, would it kick in instantly? Or only some time after the wound was inflicted?

rokokokokolores

Adrenaline usually kicks in before the injury is sustained. That will happen sometime before combat starts, when your character realizes they’re in danger. So, technically, yes, there is a delay between when the adrenaline starts pumping and when it kicks in, but it will be up and going before your character’s injured.

Also, the biological half-life is only a couple minutes, so your character will come down from adrenaline pretty quickly once the threat has passed. Strictly speaking, when medically administering adrenaline, the dose only lasts about 5 to 10 minutes, depending on metabolism, when your own body is producing the stuff, the effect can last longer, as it’s regulating the adrenaline.

Once she crashes, she’d feel the pain. Personal experience is that the pain gradually filters in. The intensity doesn’t change, but your ability to ignore it fades. (Michi’s personal experience with a broken leg is the pain kicks in quickly, especially once your body realizes there’s something seriously wrong.) For example, there’s not going to be any ignoring or powering past an arrow piercing through your calf.

Blade and arrow wounds tend to directly impair your body’s ability to move in a way that gunshots, normally, do not. Your muscles form a kind of complex “pulley” system over your skeletal structure. Unless a bullet shatters bone or specifically severs tendons (before someone asks, no your character can’t make a called shot for someone’s tendons with a gun), the system will continue to work, more or less, until something does break.

Blades tend to sever the meat. Meaning they cut through muscle tissue, reducing your ability to use the associated body part. Deep cuts on the arm can impair or prevent use of that limb.

Arrows are a similar story with a slightly different detail. Muscles are layered, and these layers move over one another as you act. When you’re struck by an arrow, it skewers those layers together, which can completely arrest movement in anything controlled by the affected tissue. If you take an arrow to the shoulder that completely immobilizes the upper arm.

So, adrenaline can keep your character from noticing the pain of a sustained injury, but they would probably notice that they couldn’t lift their arm. The gut wound might be something they could overlook for a few minutes, but in that case, the blood loss would slow them down pretty quickly.

Now, one important thing to remember, pain is transmitted to your brain through your nervous system. As with your muscles, nerve damage is more likely when you’re getting carved to pieces. Depending on the nature of the injury, this can result in partial (or complete) paralyzation of the affected limb. In a case like that, severed nerves cannot relay information to the brain, so there would be no sensation whatsoever. Pain or otherwise. However, if the nerve was severed along with a chunk of meat in the upper arm, that’ll hurt.

Another detail worth remembering, adrenaline increases the heart rate, and blood flow through your body, significantly.  This means you will bleed out faster while you’re in an adrenaline rush than if you’re not. This is mostly an academic detail, because if you’re bleeding to death, you’re probably going to be a bit stressed, but it is part of the reason why you’d want to keep someone calm, after they suffered a traumatic injury.

Finally, new detail for the day, since I didn’t know this before I went and double checked my research: It seems that adrenaline increases the intensity of newly formed memories. As you pointed out, it is a naturally occurring hormone, so it should be unsurprising that it has a variety of effects depending on the affected tissue. I have no idea if my inclination to agree with the statement is simply power of suggestion, or if that really does mesh with my own experiences, though I’m inclined to believe the latter.

-Starke

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One thought on “Q&A: Adrenaline and Pain”

  1. Adrenaline doesn’t actually dull pain, that’s a common misconception. Adrenaline- or more precisely epinephrine can actually heighten the sensation of pain. The fight or flight response floods our body with a pretty heavy cocktail of hormones. Adrenaline and cortisol are the two most people focus on because the have the most obvious effects- they drastically improve the bodies ability to convert glucose to energy, utilize energy more effectively, and also boost our response to injury by increasing blood clotting. What dulls the pain is actually a mix of endorphins which are a naturally occurring opiate like morphine just drastically more effective.

    Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. Just someone with a keen interest in human physiology.

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