I Can Handle the Pain... Part I
I hear my clients say this often in one form or another: “It doesn’t hurt thaaat much.” “It’s not really a pain…” “I’m fine - as long as I don’t move too fast.” Any of these sound familiar? Know someone who uses these mantras? What I want to say is, of course you can handle the pain! You can push through it and modify your life to accommodate your movement limitations. You can grit your teeth, suck it up, and soldier on.
But, really, why should you?
Obviously some injuries and aches resolve themselves after a few days of rest and ibuprofen. These are minor (though I could argue they could use some attention too, but that’ll wait for a different article) and your body can handle them unassisted. It’s the instances where over-the-counter analgesics barely make a dent. The instances where you’ve been hobbling around for weeks trying to not aggravate your knee. The instances where you’ve stopped being able to pick up your kid. The instances where you have to drive hunched over to the right elbows cocked out to the side head twisted in the left to sit “comfortably” behind the wheel. What purpose does it serve for you not to seek help in those instances?
Pain is a complex topic that is minimally understood despite the vast amount of research that analyzes it. It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the nuances and overall coolness of this subject (check out this article if you would like some expansion) but we’ll start with some base assumptions that can be mostly agreed upon. First: it is fairly well established that the only time physical pain is productive is during exercise and that really should be more soreness after the activity not true holy-mother-trucker! pain every time you do a squat. Second: for the most part, pain develops as a response to injury or as a sign that the body can no longer function well within its established movement patterns. Third: it is your body’s way of calling your attention to an area where it needs help returning to balance. Pain in response to injury is readily understood. I’m sure everyone reading this has experienced the agony of a papercut or a stubbed pinky toe. To say that pain develops as a response to impaired function is also at least a little familiar, but I’m going to go into greater detail to make sure we’re all on the same page.
Optimal function and range of motion, neuromuscular strain pattern, compensation pattern. All of these are different ways of saying, “your established, unconscious ways of moving.” We train our muscles and nervous systems to effortlessly move through series of contractions and releases to perform all the mundane tasks in our world – from picking up the Britta to plopping onto the sofa - doing these things the same way all of the time because they have been relegated to autopilot mode to free our brains for more sophisticated thinking. This is a very efficient system. Until it isn’t.
To be cliché, we’ll look at a case of nearly ubiquitous low back pain. One morning you wake up with a tightness clenching your right hip and spreading up toward your ribs. You felt fine when you went to bed the night before, so you brush it off and go about your business. Over the course of the day it gets better, you forget about it, go to sleep. Wake up and the pain is back. This goes on every day for the next month, the pain and tension getting worse as time passes, but you haven’t done anything differently. So what’s wrong? Most people will assume that they have slept wrong and they have just been unable to work out the kink. Well, you might have slept wrong, but that was only the final load that sent your nervous system over the edge. In order to protect ourselves from injury, the brain will transcribe pain onto an area that is overtaxed as a signal for you to change it up and give those muscles a break, like holding a textbook out with one hand keeping your arm straight. If sleeping in a funny positon were the cause of the strain, the several hours you spent upright before laying back down to go to sleep would likely be more than enough to correct the issue. However, it persists because you are continuing to load your back in the same ways as you were before you experienced any pain sensation.
It's Not One Dramatic Cause
It didn’t happen overnight. You didn’t turn too fast. You have been subconsciously stressing these muscles over weeks, or more likely years, and you are continuing to move in those same ways that caused the pain despite the pain. You are doing this because it is a subconscious action wired into your muscles and nerves that cannot be transformed through willpower and mindfulness alone. So how do you change your autopilot settings? How do you learn to move differently when most of those movements are done without conscious input? That’s the next in Part II! What are the reasons you choose to ignore your aches and pains? What keeps you from taking action to allow yourself the opportunity to live life pain-free? Comment below!