Can You Feel Pain In Your Dreams?

It's no secret that dreams can be strange and confusing. In fact, they're notorious for being ambiguous and indecipherable. Dreams are often filled with bizarre characters and incoherent plot lines that can be difficult to understand when you wake up (via IFLScience). Exactly what we dream about, however, is also often up to chance. Some people may have pleasant dreams about silly and positive experiences, while others may have nightmares about more painful situations, like being attacked or tortured — but is it possible to actually feel this happening in your dreams?

Although little is known about the nature of pain in dreams, it remains a complex, yet an interesting topic for scientists and researchers alike. While most experts agree that you can feel pain while you are dreaming, whether or not this pain is real or perceived is a different story. The difference between these two, however, comes down to the way the body processes pain.

Research shows it is possible to feel pain in your dreams

While rare, research indicates that it is possible to feel pain in your dreams. According to a 2017 study published in the Open Pain Journal, pain sensations occur in about 1% of healthy people's dreams and in 30% of people with acute and severe pain. In the study, researchers administered a questionnaire to 100 patients with lower back pain and 270 healthy patients without back pain. The respondents with chronic pain self-reported experiencing pain sensations in dreams more frequently than their healthier counterparts and also tended to experience more dreams that were negative in tone. 

Furthermore, the study's results found that patients with chronic back pain reported experiencing dream pain that persisted into their waking state more often than the control group. In the report, the study's authors concluded that feeling pain in your dreams might be a result of experiencing actual physical pain in people with chronic pain, while pain in healthier people's dreams might be a result of remembering painful memories. "Future research should clarify how pain is processed during sleep," the authors wrote.

Is the pain you experience in dreams real?

According to Erin Wamsley, an assistant professor of psychology at Furman University, figuring out if the pain you feel in dreams is real or just in your head is not as simple as you might think. "I would argue that even 'actual' pain is kind of all in your head," Wamsley told Vice. When you're conscious, your experience of pain is tied to neural activity in the areas of your cerebral cortex responsible for pain perception, which is triggered by the activation of pain receptors in your nervous system. This means that if you fall and hurt your leg, the pain you experience from this fall is felt in your brain, not your leg.

When you're dreaming, however, there are no outside stimuli to trigger this feeling of pain, yet it is felt anyway because the sensory regions in your brain are active even in your sleep. "This is why during dreaming you can 'see' without actual visual input to the retina, and 'hear' without actual sound waves hitting the ear," Wamsley continued. In fact, research has found that the neural activity associated with experiencing pain in your dreams can be nearly identical to that associated with wakefulness. The only difference is that you don't experience any physical harm in your dreams unless your body actually sustains an injury while you're asleep.