NEW ORLEANS -- Justin Smith, the 49ers' mountain-size defensive lineman, says he's feeling fine.

Maybe his injured left triceps tendon is barely attached to the bone. And, yes, he must wear a bulky brace just to play, with an operating room waiting for him soon after the Super Bowl.

But he's not about to let something as trivial as blinding pain stop him.

"You learn to play with some stuff or you're not going to be playing football long," Smith said. "That's just the way it is. We've got a lot of guys playing with torn stuff right now."

Not to mention sprains, ruptures, breaks or any other brutal damage that can be inflicted upon a human body. The reality is that virtually all the players who take the Superdome field Sunday will be toughing it out with injuries -- including some that would make regular folks curl up in fetal positions and whimper softly for mommy.

In the NFL it's a case of no pain, no game.

"As a football player, Justin probably does feel healthy," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. "But as a normal individual, he probably feels like he needs to be in a hospital. Sometimes I don't know how any of us do it, but a player's pain tolerance is just a lot higher. Little things like bad backs and dislocated shoulders don't bother us."

The physical cost of the game has been perhaps this season's defining story. The concussion issue has exploded as about 4,000 retired players now are suing the NFL, alleging the league was negligent about the long-term risks of brain trauma. Even President Barack Obama weighed in this week, telling The New Republic that if he had a son, he would have to "think long and hard" before letting him play because of the game's violence.

There's no denying the game is basically 60 minutes of bone-rattling collisions, and that America can't get enough of it. More than 110 million people are expected to tune in Sunday. The players aren't whining about the medical toll, either.

"Football is a violent game, and you know that going in," Baltimore Ravens guard Marshal Yanda said. "This is the sport we chose. You understand that you're going to tear up knees and shoulders. I've ripped apart one knee already. But we all play because we love it."

Added 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick: "If I'm worried about my health, I wouldn't be playing football."

Esquire magazine reports that in 2011, the roughly 2,000 players in the NFL suffered a total of nearly 4,500 injuries that kept them out of action for at least two weeks. But even when players aren't battered to the point of being sidelined, fighting through aches and pains is just part of the job description.

49ers tackle Joe Staley said some part of his body has been hurting since Week 1 in early September, and that it's probably the same for all his teammates. It can't be avoided when some of the planet's biggest, strongest, fastest athletes keep hammering into one another with reckless abandon.

"Think about going on a five-mile run, and then smash yourself into a cement wall a few times and then go run again," added Staley, describing what an NFL game is like. "We just get used to it for some reason."

But there's no getting used to Monday mornings.

"I feel like I've been in three car accidents," Whitner said.

"You can hardly walk," star running back Frank Gore added. "I'm just so sore. We live in a different world."

Dr. Mitchel Berger briefly resided there. Long before he became chairman of the Neurological Surgery Department at UC San Francisco, Berger was a linebacker in a Chicago Bears training camp. His football career ended with a knee injury so severe he was taken off the field on a stretcher.

"Fans really don't understand what these guys endure," said Berger, a member of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee. "A player goes down, the TV cuts to a commercial break and you go to the refrigerator. When you get back, the player is gone and the game resumes. But the reality is that player is in a world of hurt."

Pain, Berger added, is important because it's the body's mechanism of letting you know something bad has happened and you need to stop. Only players try to ignore those warning signals, because they know if they're not on the field, someone might take their job. Or they mask the symptoms.

NFL teams have been criticized about the use of painkillers such as the injectable anti-inflammatory Toradol. Jeremy Newberry, a former 49ers and Raiders lineman renowned for his ability to play through pain, went public several years ago with his belief that his post-career kidney problems were the result of the drug.

"When I was playing, half the team would be lined up to get shots before the game," Newberry said last week. "But I've heard that it's drastically changed, and teams are more careful now."

But players are the same -- they'll do anything to play, especially in the Super Bowl. It's a minor miracle that Ravens star linebacker Ray Lewis was able to return from a triceps ailment that cost him much of the season just in time for the playoffs. So did the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Smith, who felt his triceps tendon "pop" in mid-December, causing him to miss the first two games of his football career. Smith, 33, said he had never been seriously hurt "other than sprained ankles or hairline fractures."

That's just football, Smith added. "There are things they can do about the pain," he said. In fact, he has little patience with people who believe the game has become too dangerous.

"We all know the risks involved," Smith said. "I don't think anybody has quit, have they?"

Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745. Follow him at Twitter.com/markedwinemmons.