Three Looks at Pain (Part 1)

by Curtis Tait, BSc, MPT, DPT, IMS, Doctorate of Physical Therapy

The goal of this 2 part post is to help you better understand how to stay active while dealing with pain. We will cover the different views of pain, highlight the contemporary view of pain, as well as discuss how to interpret your pain and work with it.

3 views of pain:

The Old View of Pain – In the old view, pain meant damage to a body part. It was thought that the body sent a pain signal to the brain informing it of damage. This can lead to a mentality of “always listening to the pain.” We now know that the body actually does not have any pain receptors or send pain signals to the brain. Instead we have receptors which tell us about potential harm (nociceptors), but these can’t tell the difference between potential and actual harm.

Sport & Performance View of Pain – This is the “No Pain, No Gain” attitude that is commonly found amongst athletes or die-hard exercisers, and is often accompanied by the belief that “pain should be ignored.” However, training to improve performance is always a matter of balancing enough stress to create physical improvement, but not so much that we cause injury.

The Modern View of Pain – We now know that pain is an OUTPUT of the brain. It is a behaviour modifier, meaning that your body and brain are trying to get your attention! As an OUTPUT of the brain, pain is influenced by all our senses, past experiences, and stress/emotional level. As an example, professional violin players will report pain in their pinky finger at a lower temperature and pressure than the rest of us, demonstrating greater sensitivity as their limit finger is vitally important to playing the violin and to them as a whole person (Zamorano et al., 2015).

To put it simply – Pain is complicated! However, this modern view from the pain sciences demonstrates that “pain should be respected, and can be worked with.”

Bottom Line on Pain – Pain is good in that it serves a purpose! It is the messenger that gets your attention, BUT it is just the messenger and not the problem! Pain is your brain and body’s assessment of your own health, and it can be influenced by many things. Your pain should be respected, but it can and should be worked with to help you improve. This is the idea of training and being active intelligently!

Look for Part Two of this post where we dive into Intelligent Training!