You’re in pain. Something hurts. Maybe it’s your shoulder, or your back or your knee. And you’ve tried strengthening, you’ve tried stretching, you’ve tried ultrasounds, creams, muscle relaxants, pills, you name it, but the pain won’t go away.
Why might that be?
That’s what we’ll discuss in this article. We’ll address:
- What causes pain
- Mistakes when it comes to getting rid of pain
- How to use movement to get rid of pain
And heck, if you just want the shortcut, with none of the theory, you can see if you qualify to work with us by filling out this questionnaire.
What Causes Pain
You would think that this would be a simple answer. Like “injury causes pain.” End of story. But it’s not correct.
Pain is much more complex than that. After all, why is it that certain people who should be feeling pain don’t feel it?
- Example 1: a police officer or soldier who gets shot while fighting doesn’t realize s/he was shot until hours later. And the pain only comes then.
- Example 2: as much as 65-70% of regular folks like you and me walk around every day with herniated/bulging discs (that’s when the fluid between your vertebrae starts to ooze out). But most of them have no idea they have it. No pain, no symptoms.
- Example 3: about 50% of people over 65 have arthritis. But a good chunk of these folks don’t even know they have it. No pain, no stiffness, no limitations in range of motion. Yes, for others, who on X-ray appear just as arthritic, there’s lots of pain, lots of stiffness, and limitations in range of motion.
At the other end of the spectrum, we also have people who feel pain that really shouldn’t. The classic example of this is “phantom limb pain.” This is after a person has had a limb removed, yet they still feel pain in a limb that isn’t there. Or in some cases, an injury has already healed, yet the pain is still there, even though, there’s nothing wrong anymore with the tissue.
So although there’s no real clear answer about what causes pain, there are a few factors:
- Actual injury
- Perceived injury
- Interpretation. If you think you should be in pain, you’ll be in pain. But the other way around doesn’t necessarily work. You usually (but not always) can’t “think the pain away.”
We should also distinguish between acute pain, and chronic pain.
Acute pain is immediate. For instance, you wake up to go to the washroom in the middle of the night, and you hit your baby toe. That’s acute pain. It’s immediate, it’s sharp, and there’s a specific trigger.
Chronic pain, on the other hand is pain that has been going on for 3 months or longer, even when the structural reason for the pain may no longer be there. And the character of the pain is different as well. It may be sharp, or it may not be. It may be continuous, or occasional.
Mistakes When it Comes to Getting Rid of Pain
The two most common responses to pain are:
- Ignore it, and keep doing whatever you’re doing
- Stop doing whatever you’re doing until it goes away
Neither one is correct.
If you ignore it, and keep doing whatever you’re doing, it’ll probably get worse.
If you stop doing whatever you’re doing, hoping it goes away, it’s better than option 1, but not complete. You haven’t addressed the root cause of the pain.
One interesting thing I learned from Z-Health is that your brain has a “map” of your body in space. That map is determined by:
- Your visual system (your eyes)
- Your vestibular system (the sense of balance)
- Your proprioceptive system (sense of position in space)
And if that map isn’t crystal clear, you can develop muscular imbalances. Eventually, those muscular imbalances lead to pain.
How to Get Rid of Pain
So now we know about the causes of pain and the complexity of what pain really is. So what do we do to get rid of it?
Well, we’ve already talked about what not to do. Don’t ignore it. Don’t stop moving, in hopes it goes away.
First of all, you have to identify pain-free ways of accomplishing the same or similar movement. How do you do that? Here are 4 strategies:
- Change the exercise – use a different exercise for the same muscle group
- Change the grip or the stance
- Limit the range of motion
- Use isometrics
I elaborate on these in much greater detail in my article on joint-friendly strength training.
The reason it’s important to keep moving while you’re in pain is to prevent your body from shutting down muscles surrounding the painful joint. That’s not to say that you should be moving through the painful motion. But you should be moving (using the 4 strategies I talked about earlier), in a way that avoids the pain.
If you stop moving completely, your body starts to classify that entire joint and all surrounding musculature as “dysfunctional.” The result: either more pain, or the conversion of acute pain into chronic pain.
But if you continue moving, in a pain-free way, your nervous system only classifies the painful movement as dysfunctional, but it sees that there are other, very similar movements that are perfectly functional. You’re giving your body a different “path” to take to get the same job done (the technical term for this is “creating new neural pathways”). For instance, think about how many different routes there are to get from Pearson Airport to the CN Tower. If one route is “dysfunctional”, you have a million other ways you can take that are perfectly fine.
That’s part 1 of how to get rid of pain. Part 2 is of course identifying the muscular imbalances that led to chronic pain. Although it’s beyond the scope of this article to go into exactly how to identify them, I do cover that in other articles, about how we assessed the cause of Anne’s hip pain, as well as Carole’s hip pain.
And if you need help assessing, and identify the cause of your muscular imbalances, and putting together an exercise program to correct it, you can see if you qualify to work with us by filling out this questionnaire.