By Chad Seltzer, MS, PES, CES, USAW2, Pn1
Source: Family Guy, 1999
Ok, maybe not to that extreme, but there is something to be said about the power of the mind.
Pain is a funny thing and only exists in the mind. You move a certain way and all of a sudden feel a sharp pain. Shake your leg out and then it’s gone. You only think about it every so often that day to tell your coach or loved one how weird it was. From that day, you don’t talk about it again.
Life is full of aches and pains. Some are due to one wrongful movement, overuse, wear and tear, or trauma. Regardless, all of it is, in a sense, a figment of the imagination and mere signal of the brain to protect the body. The tissues of your body do not feel pain, your brain indicates something may be wrong and you feel pain at or around the site of injury or even somewhere else.
This does not particularly mean you are injured. It can be a signal from the brain to be cautious, rather than stop what you’re doing completely.
Before I continue, it is important to know about the types of pain. I will lay them out as simply as possible. The three types of pain are categorized as nociceptive, neuropathic, or inflammatory.
- Nociceptive pain is categorized by the body’s receptors detecting chemical, mechanical, and thermal stimuli in the tissues and reacting to them with pain signals when a certain threshold is reached. Think about your most common pain caused by outside factors such as burning yourself on a hot coffee mug, pulling/tearing a muscle, getting a paper cut, etc.
- Neuropathic pain is a pathological pain detection where pain is not typically present such as normal touch or even something you wouldn’t expect to be categorized as pain, such as being ticklish. This pain is often correlated with chronic disease such as diabetes, cancer, and other long term disorders.
- Inflammatory pain is a reaction response from the body due to harmful stimuli during a tissue repair process. This is typically following nociceptive or neuropathic pain.
Now that you are aware of the types of pain you feel, we can talk about why pain is based in the mental space and when to ignore the pain or at least work through it, versus seeing a specialist.
Think about a time where you have banged your shin on something. What do you immediately do aside from express verbal expletives? Most would bend over and start rubbing the area. This is an example of diverting your brain’s attention from nociceptive pain by touch. Unless your trauma is severe, this will typically allow the brain and body to move on from the pain of impact and continue on with your day. During the remainder of the healing process, the inflammatory pain felt as the tissues continue the healing process is usually due to touch of the affected area. Without touch or other similar tactile sensations to this affected area, you wouldn’t even remember you bumped your shin just a few days ago.
To relate this to an injury caused during training or wrongful movement, think of a time where you “pulled a muscle.” The pain was pretty bad, especially within the first 36-48 hours, right? How about over the next 4-6 weeks? This is a typical healing time period for muscle and other vascular tissues (tissues with a lot of blood flow, i.e. skin, internal organs, etc.). Other non vascular issues, such as ligaments, tendons, cartilage, take almost twice as long to heal.
When do you see a specialist? Should you just change programming to accommodate your pain? The answer to this question is situational, of course. There is no one indicator that can lead to an absolute. One of the best ways to answer this question is to determine the severity of pain. Everyone feels pain differently and pain is relative to each individual, so you’ll need to take a good outsider’s look at your pain. Is this something everyone would go to the doctor for or would you see someone stick it out and modify programming? If you are debilitated by the injury and literally cannot move a segment of your body or every modification hurts the affected area, you may need to see a specialist. How severe the pain is can also be determined by how long the pain lasts, with no lessening of pain little by little. If the severity comes in waves but seems to get a little better every time you are in a “valley” of pain from healing (as opposed to a peak when pain is high), this is a good indicator that your injury is progressing in the healing process steadily. If a given amount of time has gone by (i.e. 3 weeks) and the injury does not seem to be progressing in a positive direction with modifications to your programming, the time has come to see a specialist.
During the inflammatory phase there is an interesting question to ask when it comes to pain after a pulled muscle: Do you remember the last time it hurt when it was not fully healed? Interestingly, a lot of athletes have pain and work through it, then one day down the line, within weeks of the initial injury, remember that they had the injury in the first place. You’ll discover that during the healing process, when you move the right way through training and your day to day activities, the body is able to successfully work its way through the inflammatory pain process (healing process) and steadily decrease the pain we feel as we move around.
The mind plays a major part in this process when it comes to feeling pain. The brain tells you when to feel pain and when the pain has subsided. I cannot say what percentage of this is purely mental and can be controlled, as opposed to how much of it is based around the chemical, mechanical, and other tactile responses the body has. However, when someone tells you to be mentally tough and ignore the pain, they aren’t necessarily wrong. There is a massive amount of mental capacity to divert or ignore and even push the pain away. This power is learned over time and must be practiced with every injury, ailment, and similar event that involves pain. The following example will show in more detail what I mean:
You’re driving in heavy traffic during your morning commute to school or work and some guy in his nice convertible cuts you off. You lay on the horn and he looks back and smirks and gives you the finger. This really pisses you off, but he speeds up and weaves in and out of traffic to avoid your wrath. You settle down a little after putting on Karma Police and listening to the melody. When you finally get to the parking lot and get out of your car, you’re calm and back to your normal self. You see your best buddy. You run over and say hi, he/she asks how your morning is going and you get enraged again telling the story of the guy who cut you off.
How does this relate to pain? The mind is able to move on from most events regardless of the physical, mental, or emotional pain they may have caused. With pain, in particular, if we continuously bring up the fact that we have pain to our friends, family, significant other, teammates, coach, and the stranger in line at the coffee shop, we will intensify what the mind feels as the healing process is occurring. This is not to say that we should not voice our pain to those that matter such as coaches, spouses, etc. but the appropriate amount of voicing your pain does play a role in the amount of pain you will or will not feel through your mental process of healing and dealing with the pain. Be mentally tough and get smart by modifying your training and be aware of your posture throughout the day, but do your best to decrease your verbal expression of how much pain you’re in on a recurring basis. As I mentioned, this takes practice. Pain is there to remind you there is something potentially wrong or you should be cautious.
To say pain is a figment of the imagination is not entirely accurate but from the aforementioned criteria about pain, you can see that the brain is the only part of you that signals the body to feel pain. Without sense receptors and the signals of the brain telling your body something is physically wrong, you would feel nothing when you bang your shin, bump your head on a barbell during a mistimed snatch, or catch a jerk with a slightly hyperextended wrist. Put your mental resilience to the test whenever an injury occurs and practice the art of mental and physical grit. Stop whining, shake it off, and get tough. “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” -Chesty Puller
Chad Seltzer is the owner of Top My Workout, a Weightlifting gym, in Long Beach, CA. He has competed and coached Olympic Weightlifting for 5 and 3 years and loves the extremely technical aspects of the lifts as well as the additional strength components that go into an athlete’s success in the sport. As a personal trainer and coach for 15 years, his main focus is on body mechanics, proper technique, and sound program design. Chad has participated in a variety of sports but none have caught his eye as much as Weightlifting and the amazing community that surrounds the sport. For more information and additional educational topics, check out his Instagram @TopMyWorkout or the Top My Workout website.