How to Learn from Pain

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. 

The American Pain Society, "APS Press Room,", 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.