Pain usually works as your body’s alarm system. Sometimes, some sort of injury happens and then the injured tissues heal. But, the pain persists. In the process of strengthening those formerly injured tissues, we can gradually convince your nervous system to re-adjust your pain threshold. The trick here is that there’s often a chance that the road to feeling no pain involves working through some pain. This takes some time and sensitivity. And patience.
Our number one goal as personal trainers is Do No Harm.
That’s followed closely by making sure that we’re doing everything we can to get you where you want to go—ideally in the most enjoyable and fun-filled way possible.
In theory, this creates an incredibly straightforward guideline for us to follow: If it hurts, don’t do it.
Right from the beginning, we tell people, “If an exercise causes pain, please stop and let us know. We’ll come up with an alternative that doesn’t cause pain.”
Pain sucks and that whole No Pain, No Gain thing is a load of hooey.
The underlying rationale for deliberately choosing to steer clear of pain is twofold:
One, pain usually works as your body’s alarm system. If something is causing tissue damage (injury), you’ll feel pain. Ideally, though, your body will respond with pain before any actual damage occurs. This is called your pain threshold—your body’s natural set point for where it sounds the alarm before injury occurs.
It’s a pretty great system that way.
The other reason we steer clear of pain is that pain changes everything.
Pain changes everything.
Pain causes changes in motor recruitment patterns.
…which means, pain changes which muscles fire (or don’t) and when they fire (or don’t) during certain movement patterns.
As an initial response by the body to pain, this is ingenious because it’s basically how you get away from the sabretooth tiger even though you sprained your ankle. Sure, your body is using a weird, adapted movement strategy…but you get away from the sabretooth tiger and live.
Living is the best. Go body!
However, if you were to continue to move with pain, then there is the possibility of that altered muscle recruitment strategy becoming ingrained and (mostly) permanent. In the long run, this isn’t always the best since it can mean some muscles overwork while others underwork…and that can lead to (another) injury.
So, as you can see, steering clear of pain and doing only things that do not cause pain is clearly the most sensible strategy.
Most of the time.
Pain is complicated.
Sometimes, some sort of injury happens and then the injured tissues heal. But, the pain persists.
At the risk of oversimplifying, it’s like the alarm goes off and then the underlying threat (in this case, the tissue damage) goes away, but the alarm system gets stuck.
In this case, your nervous system ends up lowering your pain threshold and it means that you experience pain well before the risk of tissue damage is actually real.
But, pain is pain and pain sucks.
Before we go on, let’s jump back a step:
Why does the pain persist in the first place?
The basics of any injury are that the demand placed upon the injured tissue was greater than the tissue had the capacity for handling.
Demand > Capacity
In the case of injured tissues that continue to feel pain after they’ve healed, sometimes it’s because the injured tissue hasn’t gotten stronger than it was before the original injury occurred.
So, on some level, the body recognizes that and keeps the perceived threat level set higher.
This is where strength training comes in.
If, however, we were to undertake a quest to strengthen the (formerly) injured tissues (along with the surrounding muscles and stuff), we could convince your nervous system to re-adjust your pain threshold.
The trick here is that there’s often a chance that the road to feeling no pain involves working through some pain.
Sometimes, in the beginning, we need to work through a certain amount of pain—the guideline that we use is no more than a 3 out of 10 during or after the exercise—in order to teach your nervous system that you are not really causing any damage and that your joints are, in fact, strong and safe.
This takes some time and sensitivity. And patience. But in the end, the payoff is well worth it because it means living without pain. And that’s quite nice.
I want to highlight that this is an exceptionally nuanced kind of situation and I am NOT advocating for training through pain. I know that if you’re reading this, you’re a sensible sort.
As I said before, pain is complex and highly individual. Navigating the journey takes lots of moment to moment adjusting and tweaking.
And, perhaps most importantly, navigating this journey often asks you to (begin to) change your mindset and beliefs about pain and what it means.
This typically involves gradually learning to re-interpet signals your body has been sending you for some time… which can be quite scary and daunting.
Lorimer Moseley is a rather clever pain scientist. In this video, the cartoon version of Professor Moseley gives a nice overview of things:
The main thing that I want to let you know is that, often, pain doesn’t have to be forever. I know that there are certain circumstances where pain might just be a companion that you’re going to have to accept…but even then, there is often room for mitigating just how much of a companion pain is going to be for you.
And the key is usually functional strength training.
It’s not always exciting or sexy, but strength really does make a lot of things better.
There are multiple variables in the pain equation.
One variable I wanted to mention is that sometimes, certain diseases—such as rheumatoid arthritis—come with pain. In cases such as these, the role of food and nutrition is definitely worth exploring. It can take a bit of work and often works best with some professional guidance, but figuring out which foods do—and do not—contribute to inflammation in your body can be life-changing.
Helping people to navigate nutrition for special health conditions is beyond our scope of practice as nutrition coaches, but we would be happy to connect you with some resources. Just drop us a line and we’ll go from there.
Another variable that can make a big difference in your experience of pain is the quality of sleep you get on a regular basis. Sleep can be a big ol’ bugbear for some and our suggested starting point is here: A Different Kind of Conversation About Sleep.
Pain–especially chronic pain–is a big deal. My hope is that if you’re suffering from chronic pain, you might find some of this helpful for you. Ultimately, my wish for you is that you can be brave and hopeful, because–as Lorimer Moseley says–it is possible to tame the beast.