A Deeper Diver into Pain

by Mitch Davis

First, I think it is important to understand a few things about pain, that, if we’re being honest, we probably have never really thought of, until now. Pain is not a “thing”. I cannot remove it from your body. Pain is not a cyst or a mass that can be removed through surgery. It does not reside in your bones, tendons, or muscles. Pain is nothing more, nothing less than a sensation.

Just as important, we must understand that because pain is a sensation, it is 100% subjective. We cannot quantify pain, although we certainly try. For those of you who have ever been to physical therapy, a question you might have been asked is: “On a scale of 1 – 10, 10 being the worst, what is your pain level”. Now, we might say that we can quantify pain with a number, but this does not account for an individual’s perceived experiences, or what some of us might refer to as “pain tolerance”. If Jarryd and I both wind up in a physical therapy office with, let’s say, a herniated disc, we might both give similar answers for our pain. After looking at imaging, an assessment from our therapist, and some PT work, it might be suggested by our therapist that Jarryd is actually much worse off than I am. On the other hand, Jarryd might say his perceived pain is only a 2, and I might believe my pain to be a 9, but again, through imaging, we might find out that Jarryd’s back has degenerated quite severely, whereas mine looks like a healthy “normal”, young person’s back.

Now, this isn’t to say that your pain isn’t real, or that if you perceive pain worse than someone else that you are weaker or don’t have a tough mindset. What I am trying to say here is that it is very challenging to quantify pain, other than our own experiences.

So, we know that pain is nothing more than a sensation. What does that matter? Well, in order to understand the importance of pain being a sensation, we have to go a bit deeper into the philosophical discussion.

Pain [a sensation] occurs. What happens next is unique only to humans. Mental processing. The human brain is the only thing on the planet that has named itself. It is responsible for advances in technology, medicine, and in the context of this discussion, a better understanding of the field of exercise science. As great as the human brain is, there are some setbacks. The biggest, in terms of this discussion, is that it cannot not process. When an injury or pain occurs, the brain immediately starts to process: What caused this pain? Was it from deadlifting? Did I go too heavy? Was it from the yard work I did yesterday? We immediately start to draw lines, correlations, and eventually causations as to why we are experiencing this pain. This, in turn, alleviates the anxiety around the injury as we now know the root cause. However, this short-term quelling of anxiety produces, for many of us, fear. We have now attached a negative experience to something that more than likely does not deserve the negative stipulation of “this is dangerous”.

I’ve rambled on for quite some bit now, and haven’t even gotten to any solutions. So, I’ll give one now. One of the easiest things you can do, which, mind you, is also totally free, is to start to learn to simply let experiences happen, without needing to attach causation to them. I am experiencing a sensation. Let the thought enter your mind, then let it leave. This practice takes time, but as we grow, as we become mature in our journey of physical fitness, this process can help with anxiety surrounding your pain and injury. Now, because I don’t want to get sued, this is not your excuse to just ignore pain, especially something that you feel is chronic or could lead to or is an injury.

When pain occurs, our very first instinct is to understand, or to draw correlations. But we never leave it at that. Our second step is usually to fix the pain through one, if not several modalities. These modalities include foam rolling, stretching, chiropractor work, physical therapy, surgery, and so on. It is my attempt to share some information as to how to better approach pain, possibly save you some money, but mostly, save your mental wellbeing and have you spending less time worrying, less time rehabbing, and more time enjoying life.

Part 2 of “A Deeper Dive into Pain” coming soon. Stay tuned!