Let’s say you’re sightseeing at the Grand Canyon. You are with a trusted friend enjoying a scenic overlook when notice your friend is walking a little bit too close to the edge of the cliff.
“Hey, watch out!” you say. You can see that no one else is standing that close to the edge. Your friend keeps going.
“Hey!” you shout. “I think you’re too close!” Your friend still keeps going.
You start to panic. Your pulse races. You’re starting to get a picture, in your mind, of what it would look if your friend actually fell over the edge. “OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” you scream at the top of your lungs.
This is a metaphor that my favorite pain researcher Neil Pearson uses to explain how pain works. Pain is like a friend that’s trying to protect you, and if you ignore it, it will get louder.
As I touched upon in a previous post, pain isn’t always an indicator that something is wrong in your body. Sometimes, your nervous system causes you to feel pain as a warning. For example, maybe you are performing some kind of motion or exercise that is going to hurt you—pain will prevent you from stretching a muscle or a joint past its normal range. You feel pain before you have pushed the stretch too far and actually strained anything.
To come to terms with chronic pain, you must first understand that pain doesn’t necessarily mean that a part of your body is injured. Instead, it means that your body is warning you about something, or that it wants you to change your course of action.
A lot of the pain scientists I cite on this blog offer anecdotes about how pain is not always correlated with a person’s level of injury. This is important to understand, because it can help people with chronic pain and fibromyalgia not to fear the pain so much. I find these stories fascinating, so I will be passing them on as much as I can without feeling like maybe I’m relying too much on someone else’s work (it’s hard, because I honestly just want everyone to know what these guys say!)
But it’s also important to understand that all these stories about how pain doesn’t mean you are necessarily injured do not mean you should ignore pain. That is what I absolutely love about Neil Pearson’s approach. Even though he is all about teaching people not to fear pain so much, he still says that you have to respect it.
Pain is like that overprotective friend. Pain occurs when your nervous system has decided that something you are doing is dangerous. This is true whether an injury has already occurred (for example, you sprained your ankle and now your body is telling you to get the heck off of it!) or whether your body thinks an injury might occur (for example, you’re pushing a stretch too far).
Regardless of whether or not a physical injury has already occurred, if you try to ignore pain and keep doing what you are doing, it will get louder. When you’re doing something that your body thinks is dangerous, your nervous system becomes that friend screaming at you to stop getting so close to the edge of the Grand Canyon. The more you keep going, the louder your nervous system gets because it’s panicking—the same way you would if you saw a beloved friend too close to the edge.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to be crippled by your pain, either. There are basically two ends of the extreme in dealing with pain: one end is to try to be tough and completely ignore it, and the other end is to be terrified of it and let it dictate what you do and don’t do.
When I was a runner in high school, I was far too influenced by the people around me who placed an emphasis on “no pain, no gain.” (There were a lot of things wrong with the running culture at my high school—a subject for another day). The mindset that it was good to block out pain and keep going eventually led me to develop compartment syndrome, the injury that ended my running career, and left me unable to walk or stand up for prolonged amounts of time until I had surgery a few years later.
After developing this injury, I of course went all the way to the opposite end of the spectrum. I blamed myself for not listening to my body, and felt as though my injury could have been preventable. I freaked out every time something hurt, an approach that also ended up being counterproductive. I mean, it’s good to be careful, but now that I understand that I have issues with central sensitization, I realize that not every pain is worth freaking out over.
There is instead a middle way, where you learn to respect your body’s pain without automatically assuming you are injured. This means you respect the pain and don’t try to push through it, but you also know not to freak out because you recognize that your nervous system sometimes gives you false alarms. It’s about being okay with the possibility that maybe you strained something and need to take it easy, while knowing that you probably didn’t.
I will be talking more about other techniques to work with your nervous system in the future, but this metaphor is really the cornerstone to understanding pain. For more information, check out Neil Pearson and his amazing online lectures that I am always trying to get people to watch!
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