What is pain?
This can be difficult to pin a precise definition to because different people experience and perceive pain in very different ways. Consider:
A person’s emotional and psychological state can impact his/her perception of pain, as can memories of previous experiences with pain or even how they were raised as a child. For example, a person in a hysterical state may not even be cognizant of receiving an injury.
Anticipation of and attitudes concerning pain can affect how someone perceives their experience with it. A woman who has undergone Lamaze may be more relaxed and accepting of labor discomfort than a woman who has not, simply because she has been taught healthy and proactive attitudes concerning the pain.
Age, gender, and social or cultural factors can also influence a person’s perception of pain. A five-year-old, for example, may perceive an injury much more intensely than a twenty-five-year-old.
As a doctor of physical therapy for over 16 years now, I have treated people with countless different diagnoses.
It's always interesting to me when someone proclaims their pain tolerance as a preface to their explanation of the intensity of their current pain status. However, it's apparent to me that those who don't feel the necessity to explain their "high" pain tolerance, are in fact usually the ones with the higher tolerance.
Often, I find that men declare this high pain tolerance more frequently and more passionately.
So, let’s backtrack. What is pain?
Let’s say you prick your finger on something sharp. Pain receptors in the skin, AKA nociceptors, are activated by the tissue damage. This sends an electrical signal along the peripheral nerve pathway to the spinal cord. Within the spinal cord, chemical messengers we call neurotransmitters are released. These activate other nerves that transmit signals to the brain. In the brain, these signals pass to the thalamus, which sorts the signals and sends them to the proper location in the brain. Is an emotional response required? The signal goes to the limbic system. A simple sensation? The somatosensory cortex. A thinking response? The frontal cortex.
This—i.e., PAIN—is important because it generates the body’s defensive response to a stimulus. The end result of that stimulus (the finger prick, in this instance) is that you feel the pain in your finger, think “ow!” and most importantly, react. This reaction is reflexive. While it may not be super-important in the case of a finger prick, a pain stimulus for starting to absent-mindedly pick up a hot pan bare-handed, or doing something equally foolish can forestall a terrible accident.
There are several common pains experienced during fitness pursuits that one should be familiar with. To name a few:
1. General fatigue "pain" during exercise – General muscle fatigue during intense exercise is the buildup of lactic acid in the blood stream. It’s temporary and completely normal.
2. Strain/Sprain – There are varying grades of muscle/tendon or ligament failure resulting in a strain or sprain. A strain may start to hurt immediately but pain can be delayed. The area will be tender and may also be swollen and/or bruised. A sprain, on the other hand, will produce immediate pain and swelling.
3. DOMS – DOMS, also known as Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness, is that unpleasant muscle stiffness and soreness after a workout. This is also completely normal, and will normally subside after a day or two.
4. Stretching pain – Only stretch to the point of mild discomfort, rather than pushing for pain. If it hurts, you’re stretching too intensely.
We’re all familiar with the “no pain, no gain” adage, but things are not always that clear cut. Pain can be a necessary and important part of fitness, and it’s important to listen to the pain we experience as train and continue to pursue optimal fitness, performance, and health.
However, it’s equally important to recognize the distinction between “good” pain and “bad” pain. Seeking the good pain and stretching our pain tolerance is integral for health and fitness. Recognizing the “bad” pain that alerts us when we need to pull back or stop altogether is vital for allowing us to understand our limitations.
So…pain. What’s your perception of this vital ingredient in fitness?