Health & Wellness Articles

How to Learn from Pain

Listen Closely to Learn what Your Body is Saying

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Pain presents itself in myriad forms: the immediate, throbbing sensation of stubbing a toe; the nagging, stinging burn of a sore throat; the take-your-breath-away feeling when you move your "bad back" in the wrong way; the heaviness of lifting your arms overhead after a challenging workout; and the relentless, deep-in-your-bones pain that accompanies conditions like osteoarthritis or fibromyalgia. In any of these cases, pain can be sharp or dull, chronic or acute, burning or throbbing, mild or severe.
 
And as human beings, we are designed to avoid all kinds of pain. The intensity of pain often renders us unable to rationalize what we're feeling or focus on anything else. When it's there, it's hard to ignore. We want to stop it immediately.
 
But have you ever thought about listening to pain—instead of trying to avoid it? On a physiological level, pain exists for a reason: to alert us that something is amiss with the body. Pain is supposed to feel bad, and it's supposed to hurt because it is a siren, a signal to stop what we're doing, avoid something or make a change.  
 
In many cases, the cause of pain is beyond our control: a herniated disc from whiplash; an autoimmune disease such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis; a torn ACL from a pick-up basketball game. But in other cases, as with many types of back pain and repetitive motion injuries, if we trace our pain back to its source, we discover ways we could have alleviated our discomfort—and perhaps even quell it now or prevent long-term injury or permanent damage.
 
What Pain Taught Me
For the last couple of years, I (like millions of Americans) have been plagued by lower back pain. At times, the pain was so bad that I worked from home, in bed, propped up against a heating pad. I went to a chiropractor, got massages and used a foam roller daily. Finally, my massage therapist, who is also a yoga teacher, pinpointed the problem:  My psoas, a deep core muscle that runs from the lower back and sacral region around to the front of the hip and femur bone, was really tight. She released the muscle with a deep massage of my hip, then showed me some stretches to loosen it at home and suggested I stand more during the day (at a standing workstation). My back pain has greatly diminished, thanks to daily yoga and stretches. If I slack off for even 48 hours, my psoas tightens, and I feel that familiar pain in my lumbar and sacral region
 
We are the sum total of our life experiences, and our bodies bear the scars of everything we do. Eventually the things we do (or don't do) begin to show themselves, as with my back pain. In some cases, as with weight loss, those changes are positive. But other times, as with injuries or chronic pain, they're negative.
 
When Workouts Hurt
Our workouts can leave us in pain, especially if we push beyond our body's capabilities and/or forgo good form in order to get one more rep. We add on a few miles to our run or walk so we can achieve an arbitrary numeric goal. We try to keep up with a friend who's fitter than we are.
                                        
When you're active, aches and pains are not uncommon. Some soreness or achiness is normal. But intense, lasting pain and injuries are not.
 
Subscribing to the "no pain, no gain" philosophy or constantly ignoring your body's cues to slow down can lead to repetitive motion and overuse injuries, including bursitis, tendinitis, and stress fractures. (Learn to spot the signs of overtraining.)
 
When you experience intense, sharp, sudden or throbbing pain in any workout, or in the hours or days following it, consider it a sign. You should never continue or push through sudden pain while exercising. It's your body's way of telling you that something's not right. And while some post-workout soreness is normal, learning to differentiate between reasonable muscle soreness and injury—and respond appropriate—is an important skill that will help you have more pain-free workouts.
 
Injury vs. Soreness: What Your Pain Is Telling You
In many cases, the RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) treatment method or any combination thereof can alleviate discomfort associated with inflammation, some minor injuries and soreness in the joints and muscles. But there are certainly times when even acute pain requires professional input. You should contact your health-care provider if your pain:
  • lasts longer than a couple of days
  • grows more intense
  • doesn't go away with the use of over-the-counter pain relievers
  • interferes with daily activities
  • returns despite your effects to eliminate or lessen the pain
  • wakes you up at night or interferes with your sleep habits.

Coping with Chronic Pain
When pain is a part of your daily life as with degenerative conditions or autoimmune diseases, the aforementioned treatments usually won't work. You can't just rest or stretch the pain away. Chronic pain may lead to depression and weight gain, and it can make everyday life exponentially more difficult. But there is hope.
 
While there is no panacea for coping with chronic pain, there are methods to assuage or temporarily alleviate the pain. Mind-body practices, including yoga, qi gong and meditation, can help calm the mind and divert attention from the pain. Dietary changes can have a positive effect on arthritis and other inflammatory ailments. Exercise, which can seem daunting when you're in pain, can actually help reduce joint pain and stiffness, increase flexibility and release feel-good endorphins.
 
And the thing you can learn from chronic pain is how to be extremely honest with yourself and with others. Often, we don't want to admit that we need help, especially with everyday tasks that we once completed easily like doing laundry or walking the dog. But when a serious condition is causing prolonged pain, the best way to make time to deal with it is to admit you need help and to ask for it. You can't worry about whether your friends or family will think less of you for admitting weakness. If they love you, they won't. At the same time, you can't expect them to understand the amount of pain you're in unless you tell them.
 
How to Learn from Pain
So when life hands us pain, what should we do? We should listen to our bodies. We should rest. We should seek help. We should ignore the ego that tells us to "suck it up" or "push through it." And we should learn from the pain whatever we can. It is there to teach us a lesson, to get us to stop and pay attention—to slow down, to move differently, to find an alternative. While it might not come at the most convenient times (is there ever a convenient time to be ill or injured?), pain does serve a purpose, and if we're willing to listen, we can learn quite a bit from our pain.

From personal experience, most tweaks and twinges that have turned into something more serious could have been prevented if I had just ignored my ego and looked at the bigger picture. Would you rather do less today and tomorrow to feel better or push through and risk being sidelined for a week? Would you rather use lighter weights during a strength session or push through and end up with an injury?

The ego is what tells us to add another two miles to our runs every day this week, even though we know guidelines suggest no more than a 10% increase a week. It's what tells us to mimic the woman next to us in yoga class, rather than modifying a posture based on our own body's limitations and capabilities. And it's what tells us that we've failed if we don't do more, better, faster, longer, stronger—NOW!

There's a fine line between motivating yourself and letting the ego take over. That line is different for every person in every situation, but the more time we spend listening to our bodies, the more time we spend learning about healthy living, and the less time we spend worrying about what everyone else thinks, the better off we'll be.

Listen to your pain. It will often tell you what to do in order to feel better and get back out there to live your life to the fullest. Just remind yourself that taking care of your body doesn't just happen during a workout or when you're ill or injured. It happens before and after, with targeted physical activities, rest, good nutrition and adequate sleep.
 
This article has been reviewed and approved by Nicole Nichols, Certified Personal Trainer. 

Sources
The American Pain Society, "APS Press Room," www.americanpainsociety.org, accessed on April 22, 2013.
 
Hartfiel N, Burton C, Rycroft-Malone J, Clarke G, Havenhand J, Khalsa SB, Edwards RT. "Yoga for Reducing Perceived Stress and Back Pain at Work," Occupational Medicine, 2012 Dec;62(8):606-12.

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Member Comments

  • Wish I had known a LOT Of this when in a very bad car accident in 92. I was in tremendous pain, yet I did NOT listen to my body. PLUS we had no income coming in I "NEEDED" to return to work, but even than, I would of done things very differently.

    At this point I credit yoga with helping me with the severe pain I am in. I can't do a lot of the moves so I change them around to what I CAN DO.

    If you are suddenly feeling a Sharp pain,,,, please LISTEN to your body.
  • Also worth checking out are one of the books by John Sarno. He believes (as many have also found) that much of our pain stems from tension held in our bodies.
  • Excellent article. Thank you so much.
  • THANK YOU for this wonderful article! It was written, it seems, just for me. I've been having aching hip pain (around the top of my thighs) since last Oct '12. About six weeks ago i thought i injured my left glut but finally went to the ortho who said it was that PSOAS muscle that wraps around the top of the leg. I waited so long for treatment that my back has been out for the last week and now i am going to chiro and physical therapy and off my exercise routine. I must learn to listen to my body from now on. thank you again for sharing this. It truly helped me!
  • Love hearing rational, intelligent things like this article.
  • Wonderful article. I suffer from lower back problems and fibromyalgia. I have had tremendous pain and decided I couldn't live this way any longer. I went on the internet looking for solutions and stumbled across a book "Foundations Redefine Your Core, Conquer Back Pain, and Move with Confidence" by Dr. Eric Goodman and Peter Park. I checked it out at the library first and decided it was worth my investment. I'm not going to say that I don't have flare ups now and again, and that it was easy to get into a routine to do the exercises, but I am getting stronger, not having many flare ups, sleeping better and I've gone off all my medicatons. I'm living proof that it does work, but you have to get out of that chair and JUST DO IT and also listen to your body. Just wanted to share this. I hope this book helps someone else.
  • Currently with the fibro flare that I am having (cause unknown at this time), and have had for at least the past 3 weeks, I have just been putting on my happy face and continuing with daily things. Last week hit a point where I broke down crying at work because the added stress was too much. I have to not let it get that bad and let my coworkers know that I am in more pain. It is hard because I do not want them thinking I am just complaining, but the fact that I am at work with the pain should say something.
  • i agree there are positive things to be learned from pain - however in my case and many of the people i know suffering with chronic and often crippling pain - FIBRO AND RA - in my case, you learn too many negative things . they are coping mechanisms to be sure and very necessary to living your life as these diseases let you.
    in a flare up - well - i am one big lump of pain who tries to stay as still as i can. i used to think stretching and walking were the way to go - but i sincerely cannot do that in a flare up. i use a cane - as i protest a walker - and i wear sensible albeit ugly shoes.
    when i feel some what normal again - i do try to move my body.
    i cope with good things INTO MY digestive system - anti inflammatories (drugs, foods and meditation) .
    i notice i will over compensate with other parts of my body - which causes problems else where -
    i still remember those days when none of this was an issue - and i want to forget that because it only makes the comparison so much more painful now.
  • I have had chronic back pain since age 13. I had 6 back surgeries by 26. From 26-45, I had managed to listen to my body. I still needed pain pills for daily living, but was able to stay fit and do things at my pace, taking breaks at my pace.
    In March 2006, I joined SP and became obsessed with getting even fitter, dropping about 30 lbs. Diet and exercise became my priority. I worked out with the Wii EA Fitness 45 min. every other day with those days doing 45 min Just Dance and a 3 mile walk (17 min mile) plus daily life activities. On other days, I did the 3 mile walk and 90 min Wii Just Dance. I lost my weight and became toned. I also did require 1 more pain pill to do this.
    In September 2010, I went to a PT, during the evaluation he gave me an exercise which caused severe pain. Here is where I STOPPED LISTENING TOMY BODY! I couldn't sleep that night due to the pain, but went back and told the PT how bad it had been since I left his office. He didn't care and I went ahead and I'd his day's plan, SEVERE pain never leaving.

    The next morning I awoke and stood up straight and couldn't move either leg. I learned very quickly if I bent my knees and bent forward, I could walk. I wen to my doc that day in tears. He gave me a cortisone shot, said take it easy forv2-3 days then get back to walking. I did this.

    To shorten the story from here,THE ARTICLE IS SO VERY RIGHT, LISTEN TO YOUR BODY especially when it is yelling at you and changing your normal to get things done. I ended up walking in the hunched over position from Sept. to Dec. and for he first week I could walk the 3 miles, quickly my speed and ability deteriorated until my father or mother followed behind me with a wheel chair until my legs gave out. I was determined to do the best I could at exercising and listen to my doctor.

    By not listening, in December, I became wheelchair bound. Finally in Jan. 2012 a gifted surgeon figured out a significant problem that octopus for two years missed. I underwent life and death surgery. Needless to say, I SURVIVED BUT BY NOT LISTENING T...
  • Some articles should be worth way more than three points---this is one of those!! Thank you for having shared it.

About The Author

Stepfanie Romine Stepfanie Romine
A former newspaper reporter, Stepfanie now writes about nutrition, health, fitness and cooking. She is a certified Ashtanga yoga teacher who enjoys running, international travel and all kinds of vegetables. See all of Stepfanie's articles.



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