Pain is our body's normal response to an uncomfortable stimulus or sensation. I would like to emphasize the word normal because I really want to paint a pretty picture of the sensation of pain. Pain is good for something, it provides us with useful information about what is going on with our body. It allows us to respond to our body to prevent further injury, respond to it in a kind way, to allow healing, tissue repair and for us to feel better. Pain has become something of a nuisance, however, given societies push for ways to alleviate it and get on with living. It’s been treated like something we shouldn’t have to have, instead of being appreciated for what it is. It is a normal, biological part of us. Is it annoying? Of course!!! Pain…..we can ask the question (cue Edwin Starr “War”), what is it good for? Huh….absolutely, nothing! Or, instead is it, absolutely, something?
The good news is, pain is a normal part of our biology. It’s as normal as breathing, emotions and hunger. Pain is a symptom of our brain, alerting our body that something isn’t right and we need to do something about it! It then becomes our choice on how we manage that pain. Pain was designed to be protective, to alert our body that what is happening needs to stop. This can be as simple as taking your hand off a hot pan, to needing to give your body rest and a few ibuprofen after you did too much yard work. Persistent pain can indicate a problem that isn’t resolving, think low back pain that doesn’t get better after rest or a few days from a flare up. It can also indicate tissue damage that does need to heal or seek medical attention, for instance, a broken bone. The lesson is, listen to your pain, and respond to it!
Chronic pain is a whole different beast, yes, I’ll name chronic pain as a beast. The classification of chronic pain is typically reserved for any pain that persists beyond 12 weeks from the initial injury. I will also categorize my patient’s pain as chronic, if they report having ongoing low back pain for several years, but are back in the clinic due to a flare up. In this example, chronic pain doesn’t always have to be debilitating, it can just be a part of who you are. The key to any type of chronic pain is learning how to manage it. Management may result in resolution of the pain, however it may just mean that you a) know how to keep it calmed down b) know how to respond to it when it flares up and c) have a sense of peace about the fact that it exists.
Management of your pain can be broken down into activities that I like to call “symptom management” exercises. These are the stretches, exercises or activities that you know will help you when your specific problem flares up. If you are over the age of 25, you probably have at least one of these spots that you are aware of. You most likely have a few strategies that will help calm things down when needed. Management strategies can also include avoidance of certain activities. For instance, my hip flares up terribly when I do deadlifts. Could it be my form? Possibly, but I have found that not doing deadlifts and doing a different exercise instead help me to avoid the flare up in the first place.
Pain can be influenced by other factors that stimulate your nervous system, specifically your sympathetic nervous system, as well. Just as a reminder, the sympathetic nervous system is the fight or flight response, the one that kicks in when a lion is chasing you. An example of something else that might increase your nervous system could be anxiety. If you’re having a really bad day, feeling overwhelmed, this can also affect your body's response to pain. Another factor is lack of sleep, when you don’t sleep enough or well, this increases your irritability and also decreases your tolerance for pain. These are important factors to keep in mind and address when you just can’t seem to manage your pain.
When your body experiences pain, the most important thing you can do is give that pain attention and decide what needs to be done about it. It is normal for most of us to want to ignore it. While that can be an effective strategy (our minds tend to focus on and intensify what we give attention to), it can be more effective to address it. Let’s use a few examples.
You may realize that there are just certain things your body doesn’t want or like to do, and this keeps aggravating your problems. It’s also important to pay attention to how you are doing things, or what these things are so that you can make adjustments. The problem might not be the exercise or activity, but the number of repetitions or amount of weight. Or, the problem might be how you are lifting, bending, or doing your job and making small ergonomic tweaks can help decrease the tissue irritation.
Pain, what is it good for anyway? Pain is really good at helping you be aware of your body. Being aware of the pain and acting on it, is a way to protect yourself from further injury or harm. By responding to your pain, and hopefully decreasing it, you are actually telling your brain that everything is ok. By not responding to it or calming it down? You are intensifying the response and your brain is not assured that everything is ok. Dealing with pain, anxiety or any other stimulus that increases your nervous system is a way to take care of yourself. Maybe you have been putting off a massage because you can’t justify the time or money. But would that help your pain and allow you to relax? Yes, it probably would. So pain is good for justifying a massage. I’ll be right back…..
The important thing is to pay attention to the pain. Respond to your body with love and gentleness and not frustration that the pain exists. Change what you are doing, add more of what is good, avoid what isn’t so great, and reach out for help if you need it!
Katie Larsen, DPT
Katie is a Physical Therapist, mom and wife who lives in Alpena, MI with her husband and 3 kids.
I am a passionate, adventure-seeking, fitness entrepreneur who loves having fun, my family and friends, a challenge, and creating a positive impact (to name a few :))!