Back in 2016, I woke up with so much lower back pain that I couldn’t even bend over to get into my car to drive to the hospital. I took off a week from work at my remote job just to try to find pain relief of some kind. It felt like something in my spinal cord had given out, and all of those nerve fibers finally gave in and said, “Screw it, you’re stuck like this. Deal with it.”
If you’ve ever had pain or painful conditions, you know how much it sucks. Unfortunately, no amount of pain medicine (e.g., nerve blocks) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs seem to help. Pain is often life-changing, debilitating, and depressing.
And yet, here I am, about to tell you how vital pain is and why you shouldn’t try to suppress it but understand it and learn from it.
Note: I realize some people may experience pain from trauma or medical conditions not within their control. Pain is probably not your friend, but I hope you can still take something away from this article.
What Is It?
You already know what pain feels like, but let’s define it so we can make better sense of it.
The International Association for the Study of Pain describes it as, “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with, or resembling that associated with, actual or potential tissue damage.”
Unpleasant seems like an understatement, but nevertheless, it makes sense.
Pain is a sensation that comes after a noxious stimulus (i.e., an event that potentially causes tissue damage). Once that stimulus is present, your body kicks into nociception, a fancy term for how your body (your nervous system) deals with damage. From there, a whole host of things can happen, depending on the noxious stimulus.
For example, if your body is too hot, it will attempt to regulate it via thermoception. And it will do so in conjunction with how extreme the noxious stimulus is. So if you stick your hand in a pot of boiling water (don’t do that), it will react rapidly. On the other hand, if you’re a little hot from being in the sun, it will gently cool you down by making you sweat and increasing your heart rate.
Both scenarios deal with acute noxious stimuli, but pain can surface from repeated exposure to perceived noxious stimuli. For example, if you consistently round your lower back with minimal loads for months and months, it’s possible to build to the point of moderate pain in the lower back. That doesn’t mean it will, but it can.
I know that’s a lot to take in, so the main points are:
- pain can appear or build depending on the flux of the noxious stimulus; and
- nociception is how your body attempts to deal with the perceived noxious stimulus.
It Isn’t Just A Physical Phenomenon.
In 2015, after a bad break-up and a life-altering decision to move to Austin, TX, I ended up in the emergency room with acute pain in my abdominal area. Back then, I was 27 years old and pretty darn healthy, but the doctor’s diagnosed me with visceral hypersensitivity, which sounded scary. I thought I was dying. It turns out I had visceral pain (i.e., organ discomfort) caused by…stress. In other words, I was so anxious that I manifested a severe achiness in my gut.
Nothing was physically wrong, and there was no prescribed treatment plan; they released me from the ER, and I went home to relax. Visceral hypersensitivity is more common than you think, especially for anxiety-prone or depressed individuals. (2)
Pain is often associated with physical trauma, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The biopsychosocial model is the gold standard for pain management because it looks at the whole person rather than just the area causing discomfort.
So, for instance, if someone were to experience cancer pain or neuropathic pain, we wouldn’t simply assess their tissues for damage. Instead, we’d look at:
- biological factors (e.g., hormones, genetics, health status),
- psychological factors (e.g., mood, coping mechanisms), and
- social factors (e.g., gender, ethnicity, health care providers).
People are unique, so taking a holistic approach and looking at every factor that may influence the outcome of someone’s pain is necessary. Further, it’s essential not to glance over things that may exacerbate pain in what may be perceived as unrelated ways (e.g., stress, depression).
Did You Know? Positive psychology aims to bring a positive outlook to studying the human mind because psychology is often viewed as a depressing and somber field. And positive psychology is heavily tied to pain science, specifically as it relates to coping mechanisms. For example, researchers found that if you’re in pain and hope or pray for it to go away, it just might. Conversely, if you feel like you’re stuck in pain forever, it may worsen your condition(s). (2) Having a sense of control of your outcomes, even psychologically, can help with pain management, which is pretty neat.
Why Does It Happen?
As you’re finding out, all of this is highly complex, and writing an article on it won’t do it justice. However, I promise I am getting to the point.
Researchers have concluded over the years that we experience pain for three main reasons. (3) To:
- withdraw from the stimulus causing discomfort.
- protect painful areas while they heal.
- learn from and hopefully avoid further painful situations from arising again.
Think back to when you were a kid, sitting in your kitchen with your parents as they were cooking dinner. Your mom or dad told you not to get too close to the stove because it was dangerous. But, you were five years old and had the best learning tool on earth at your disposal: curiosity.
So, you took your curious hand and touched a pan you shouldn’t have. Then, you probably yelled or cried and recoiled your hand into your arms and clutched it. In doing so, you followed the three reasons above for why we feel pain.
Now, as an adult, you know the repercussions of touching a hot pan, and you do your best to avoid similar situations as often as possible.
And yet, when it comes to moving your body, you often disregard these learning tools altogether.
Motive Training isn’t a clinic for pain management. We love to help people, but we don’t do physical therapy, pain treatments, massage therapy, etc. So, if you’re in desperate need of help, you should absolutely speak to your doctor.
What we do is show people how their bodies are supposed to move. And it’s this awareness of how our clients move (or can’t move) that really goes a long way to helping them fight aches, injuries, and discomfort.
And we’ve finally reached the whole point of this article…
There’s a high likelihood that you experience pain now from repeatedly tuning down your awareness of things in your body that have not worked optimally.
Is your mind blown? Probably not, but that doesn’t take the truth out of the above statement.
Your body has been giving you years of feedback that you’ve likely turned a blind eye to. And the reality is that everyone is busy and stressed, and we collectively don’t make the time for movement and body awareness.
Part of understanding your pain is realizing that you probably caused it, intentionally or not, and that you’re the only one that is going to fix it. So, the aches you feel in your joints but push aside, or the injuries you’re dealing with in the gym that you hope will go away, are not going anywhere.
Make the effort today to change. Start with something simple, like full-body CARs, also called The Daily Routine from the people over at Functional Range Conditioning.
Get your body in motion. Pay attention to what moves smoothly and what doesn’t. Feel for discomfort, muscle strains, aches, or pain. Be present.
And if you still need help, we’ve got you covered.
Learn to move with purpose today, and you’ll mitigate against aches and injuries like you never thought possible. We guarantee it.
Brian Murray, FRSC, FRA
Founder of Motive Training
1) Stress-Induced Chronic Visceral Pain of Gastrointestinal Origin
2) Pain Beliefs and Perceptions and Their Relationship with Coping Strategies, Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Patients with Cancer
3) Pain Processing in the Human Nervous System: A Selective Review of Nociceptive and Biobehavioral Pathways