A Word On "Pain" - Coach Caity

A WORD ON "PAIN" - Coach Caity

Within my experience over the 5 years I have coached CrossFit, I generally see three types of people, those who fear pain, those who love pain and those who respect pain. Regardless of the type of person, it is commonplace for “pain” or at least discomfort to be a demon that you regularly confront at the studio.Understanding what pain actually is, as well as dissecting the reasons that the body experiences pain, can help give you the mental edge over your performance, as well as keep your body safe and injury free.


           It is no surprise to any of you that all forms of training can be at times “painful”, yet it’s important to understand; What does this pain actually mean? Are you able to distinguish the sensation of discomfort, fatigue or muscle use? Or do you assume everything that hurts is painful, which equates to instant injury? Do you understand the mechanism that is involved with muscle activation, and that exercise is essentially micro trauma to the muscle tissue – hence the reason we repeatedly go on about mobility, stretching and recovery at CrossFit Collingwood– however that within itself is another article.
Clinically, pain is defined as - an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage (Merskey et  al 1986.) The complexity of this definition shows the many elements to pain, and can explain why often as human beings we find these ‘pain signals’ scary, confusing and hard to understand.
Fundamentally, pain is a sensory experience where input from special nerve cells called nociceptors travel from our body to our brain for processing. These nociceptors can react to a myriad of inputs, such as heat, cold, touch/trauma, and chemicals. This crossover between inputs can often explain why really hot and really cold things often elicit the same pain response. The interesting point to understand is that this noxious input needs to be processed, meaning our brain actually will choose whether or not this pain is felt within the body, and to what degree.
When you feel pain within your body, your brain has decided that your body must hurt in a particular way in order for you to make the decision to change your behaviour so you avoid potential injury or tissue damage or discontinue actual injury or tissue damage.
If we break this down further, it’s interesting to note that pain is an ‘experience of the brain’ and does not actually equate to tissue damage.  Pain is rather a warning bell that your brain creates with influence and input from past experience, environment, psychological well-being, physical well-being as well as the noxious input it is receiving.


         Pain serves a purpose in normal physiology – it signals to remove or escape the noxious stimulus, yet it can play a confusing role in strength or metabolic training. Our body is integrally trained to move away from things that hurt yet during training we are often pushing into activities or movements that ‘hurt’, hence the importance of becoming self-aware and being educated around that distinction.
Those of us who train habitually and confront pain on the regular, can be comforted that Pain does not equal damage. Research has shown that in people with low back pain, the actual amount of disc and nerve damage found through imaging and assessment rarely correlates to the pain experienced by the individual. There are countless stories of severe injuries and life threatening grievances that have occurred with the person feeling no pain at the time of injury. It is through these studies that we have come to understand that pain relies on context. The sensory inputs received by the brain need to be evaluated and processed before a “pain” decision or reaction can occur.
External cues can also influence the amount of pain felt, research showing that pairing a painful stimulus with a red light hurts more than when it is paired with a blue light.  As well as this, there are many cases of people undergoing major invasive surgery with no anesthesia, merely hypnosis to a particular part of the brain, yet patients “awake” reporting absolutely no feeling of the surgery or any pain felt during the procedure.
 The take home point is this – pain depends on many factors, and it is the brain that ultimately decides 100% of the time whether something hurts or not. Your history, environment and mental wellbeing can impact whether or not the pain you feel is ‘painful’ or whether you have the capability to train your brain to move past it.
For the typical athlete this is both fantastically liberating but also terrible news. You have the ability to decide that pain is merely an experience, and you can trust yourself to push past greater boundaries and thresholds that once existed as a safety net. Yet this same level of knowledge can work in converse. This safety net, that is biologically designed to keep your body safe may be deemed fickle and ignored when it should also be respected.


          When considering pain, it is important to evaluate your symptoms from a mindset of ‘cause and effect’, enabling you as an individual to begin to widen your understanding of your own pain and whether or not this pain is linked to discomfort, potential injury or an actual existing injury. Pain is designed to work in a way to signal your body to do something differently – in a training enviroment this may mean asking a coach to check your technique as your movement may be incorrect, it may mean taking less load on the barbell or approaching the movement with a different mindset or goal, it may mean something is hurting because it is overloaded, and doing too much work – hence an investigation should go into the weaknesses displayed elsewhere.  These distinctions are hard to understand, and often require an athlete to air on the side of caution as they develop that insight into their own body, with the help and guidance of their coach.

My last point is this, Pain is a normal biological experience and is essentially part of our humanity. Those of us who choose to exercise fast need to not fear pain but definitely respect it. Having a bad knee, or bad shoulder isn’t ‘normal’, just because it’s been there for 10 years does not mean that it is an experience you need to accept and welcome. You can overcome it. With the help of a coach and/or a manual health professional, it is your oppourtunity to investigate your habits, your movement patterns, your environment and your mechanics to identify why something may be causing you pain and create a change in order to move away from that painful experience.