We’ve all heard “NO PAIN, NO GAIN”
But is it the best approach and does it really work? I think for some people this saying can be very motivating because it tells them to keep pushing through, even when it hurts. BUT, for all my chronic pain folks out there, it just DOESN'T work. Folks try to ignore the pain, keep working at higher intensities, and surpass their current limits, which usually leads to lots of pain, further injury, and setbacks. We call that in the rehabilitation world the “crash and burn”. How can we change our approach to tackle chronic pain and lead stronger healthier lives?
If you have chronic pain, your nervous system works a little differently than most people’s (unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it).
In this blog post I’ll use the term ’chronic pain’ very generally, as it might be due to an injury, chronic tension and pain from repetitive stress, fibromyalgia, arthritis, or other medical conditions.
When a person with chronic pain has a sensitized nervous system, they respond to certain triggers with a bigger reaction than some other person might.
The best way I feel I can explain is by using my personal experience, having dealt with chronic pain for 13 years following a car accident. I would often get “oh, you’re just so sensitive” from my romantic partners or health team, and a simple workout could send me into a pain flare-up for days or weeks. I would often get the message from my peers to push through because “NO PAIN, NO GAIN”.
This saying materialized for me in many different ways: Running through shin splints and back pain. Ignoring my shoulder tension and discomfort while working, studying. Cracking my neck to relieve tension and pain. Pushing through with my romantic relationships, feeling like I was the broken and “sensitive one” I should just be more like a guy, have less feelings, then everything will be easier.
Oh boy was I ever wrong about that. Stuffing my feelings, ignoring my pain, pushing it all down didn’t really work in the end. The daily pain, tension in my body isn't getting better, and it was just surviving and blaming myself by telling myself that might be something wrong with me. I was crashing and burning all over the place. Pushing myself too hard, then being unable to do anything for days, or getting a new “injury” that I’d need more rehab for.
It wasn’t until my approach changed did my pain start to move in the right direction.
Because of my profession, I was exposed to a concept called “Know Pain, Know Gain”. This was taught in the chronic pain program I worked in as a kinesiologist. That was the start of my introduction to Pain Neurophysiology, and understanding the connection between my emotions, nervous system and pain.
It was such good luck that I worked at this wonderful program that was helping people with chronic pain recover and return to a more functional life. In turn it helped me deal with my chronic pain and tension.
The idea of “know pain, know gain” is a more gentle approach to understanding, and getting to know your pain. What makes it better, worse, what is part of the sensitization, and what is actual fatigue/injury. And getting to know what environmental factors affect our pain, for example stress, poor sleep, processed foods, emotions, anxiety, depression, drinking alcohol, dealing with your narcissistic boss, not moving, exercising too hard, pushing through tension or sensation, beliefs about our abilities, distraction, avoidance.
Fast forward from then to now, it’s been 8 years. And I’m a totally different person. No daily pain, chronic tension is almost not noticeable. I don’t crack my neck in tension any more, I don’t need to stretch to relieve my pain or sore muscles. I don’t need appointments all the time to just feel okay, I don’t need to foam roll every night just to be able to survive, I can sleep well without pain in the night or the morning, I can hike/ski up mountains for 8-11 hours many days in a row. My body and mind are completely transformed.
And you might ask how this happens? A lot of hard work, practice, appointments (physio, acupuncture, kinesiology, chiro, RMT, osteopathy, regular and somatic counselling), tons of exercise, ergonomics, breath-work, meditation, TCM/naturopathic herbs, learning how to rest and relax, hot cold therapy, many sauna sessions, outdoor time in the forest, many hugs and support from family, friends and partners, opening up my mind to the idea that my pain isn’t all physical, but mental and emotional too. A lot of releasing of emotions, learning about how my emotions work. Learning how to be self compassionate.
BUT…the common theme that runs through all that work is “Know Pain, Know Gain”. I was like a curious observer trying to get to know my pain. As I grew to understand that pain is a modulated experience that the brain creates based on many factors of my internal and external environment. I started to be able to understand it, how to be gentle with it, to take control of my pain, and have agency.
I started to see connections between my sleep, emotions, nutrition, pain and beliefs.
I started to challenge my beliefs about pain with the help of my counsellors.
That just because I have pain, that doesn't mean I am going to have pain for the rest of my day, week, month etc.
Just because I have pain, that doesn’t mean I’ve severely injured myself again.
Just because I have pain, doesn’t mean I’m broken.
That made me learn that if I have pain, I can still: walk, hike, backpack, bike, do kitchen work, go to work, rock climb, have a great time with friends, go on a trip, kayak to the broken islands. While still listening to my body of course.
Little by little I got to know my pain, and I started to see my gains. Over time, you can almost say I became a caretaker and loving supporter to my pain. I soothed it, calmed it down, showed it that someone was there, listening, paying attention, understanding it.
This is the journey that I hope to share with you today, and with my clients through my kinesiology work.
In my clinical work, I notice this concept is easy to understand intellectually, but difficult to put into practice. That would be like thinking and learning about exercise. Understanding that lifting weights would make my muscles stronger, and bigger, but never actually doing any of the strength exercises. Your muscles just wouldn’t get bigger. The practice is really when this concept can start helping.
A big part of the journey is practicing and discovering things about yourself, your body, your pain. Looking at the pain with a lens of curiosity. You can’t really know and learn something without being curious about it. So get to know your pain, get curious. Everyone is different, but the journey can have many common threads.
And I hope you can find a supportive team of professionals that can help you in the process of your self discovery and chronic pain journey.