The phrase “no pain, no gain” would probably be the leading misconception about pain that I hear – live by this slogan at your own risk. Why? Because first and foremost, pain is a protector. Pain is a wonderful and fascinating perception that helps to keep us out of danger. I can certainly sympathise that when you’re experiencing persistent or intense pain, its hard to see it as “wonderful” or “fascinating” but it truly is a remarkable defence mechanism that we possess.
When you step on a nail, twist your knee or tweak your back, what comes to your defence first? The simple answer is pain. It’s your first warning of actual or even potential tissue damage. Yes, that’s correct – “potential” tissue damage, meaning your body is smart enough to tell you to withdraw from danger before the damage is done. Wow! When tissue damage does occur, such as a strained ligament, tendon or muscle, your body sends all its best healing products to the area in the form of ‘inflammation’. The brilliance of inflammation is that it increases the sensitivity of the danger detectors (receptors) in the damaged area, which send more danger messages to the brain where they are processed and a pain experience can result. What do you think of that? Essentially, your body doesn’t just heal you with inflammation but it also tells you about it through the feeling of pain as a way of changing your behavior, allowing the area to rest and heal more effectively.
If you understand that the experience of pain is a critical response when the body feels threatened or in danger, then you will see how the slogan “no pain, no gain” will quickly lead you astray. Instead, us ‘pain geeks’ like to encourage the slogan – “know pain or no gain”, meaning that if you understand why you are experiencing pain and what it means, you are more likely to adopt the appropriate behaviour to encourage recovery.
The story of pain can get rather complex but equally as fascinating. Like any of our body systems, our defence systems can sometimes get a bit carried away and malfunction. This is often the case in the event of persistent pain – a story that will have to wait for another time. Until then, remember “know pain or no gain”.
Nick Black is a registered Physiotherapist at Sun City Physiotherapy Winfield.