If you’ve ever had chronic pain, you know how severely it can derail your life.
Things you used to take for granted, like carrying a laundry basket down the stairs without knee pain that leaves you limping, seem like they happened in a dream world.
When you finally get out of pain, and your knee, back, or whatever else was bothering you feels like it’s finally working the way it’s supposed to again, you’re willing to do whatever it takes not to go back to the way things were before.
That’s why it’s so scary to have pain pop back up again when you thought you were doing everything necessary to stay out of pain.
If that ends up being the case, what do you do to keep yourself from falling back into the cycle of pain?
There are three fundamental principles to remember when you find yourself in a situation like this.
Focus on the controllables
Load vs. capacity
Exercise vs. pain
Let’s break these down individually.
Focus on the controllables
Pain is more than just a physical experience; it has strong mental and emotional components to it as well. You know this intuitively, but it’s even more obvious in children. You’ve seen children fall down and hurt themselves with ZERO reaction until an adult makes a big deal about how painful the scrape on their knee must be.
If pain were only physical, it wouldn’t matter what anyone else said or did; pain would be pain, and it would always feel the same.
For better or worse, that’s not the case, but because we know there’s more to it than just the body, we can leverage that knowledge to our advantage.
When we experience pain, especially during a setback, it’s vital that we focus on the things we can control rather than the things we can’t.
You can’t change your age, the past, or your genes, and dwelling on any of those things will make your experience worse because it feels like the deck is stacked against you.
On the flip side, when you focus on the things you can control, like your diet, sleep hygiene, your movement practice, etc., you put your mind and emotions into an empowered state.
Empowered states reduce the severity of pain symptoms and feelings of anxiety.
Load vs. Capacity
Every injury that’s ever happened in the history of the world happened for one reason the individual’s capacity was exceeded by the load placed upon it.
Now in English.
You’ve heard the phrase “The straw that broke the camel’s back.” This phrase is talking about precisely the same thing.
If you load up a camel maximally and then place just one more thing on top of the load, eventually, the camel gives out and is injured.
Your body and its tissues work the same way.
If you load something up too much, it’ll get injured. Here’s the part most people miss, the “load” isn’t entirely physical. If you’re over-stressed, under-rested, poorly hydrated, and not eating right, your “capacity” decreases, and the likelihood of injury and/or old aches and pains popping back up increases.
This is why lifestyle changes are at the core of addressing chronic pain.
If you’d like to read more about load vs. capacity and how injuries happen, you can do it there HERE.
Exercise vs. Pain
Exercise is one of our most powerful tools for getting out of and managing pain.
It’s not just about helping the tissues heal; it’s much more.
Exercise reduces pain in multiple ways, but we’re only discussing two here.
It activates areas of the brain responsible for interpreting pain- Exercise taps into the brain in the same way that opioids do to turn down the severity of the sensation of pain. It also has some of the same effects as NDMA to increase feelings of well-being.
Exercise retunes your nervous system’s baseline- The longer you’ve been in pain, the more sensitive your nervous system is to pain, meaning it takes less to trigger pain, and the severity of the pain is worse.
Exercise shortcircuits that process and helps to retune the baseline so that your nervous system doesn’t become hyper-sensitive and trigger sensations of pain when it’s not supposed to.
In short, exercise changes the way your brain and nervous system interpret and respond to pain.
When you avoid movement for too long after an injury, you create a feedback loop that tells the nervous system that all discomfort and, by extension, movement is dangerous, making the pain experience more and more overwhelming.
When you mindfully exercise while dealing with pain, the opposite happens.
Pain becomes more manageable, and you build your own escape out of the “pit of pain.”
So if you find yourself in pain AGAIN after you thought you had everything figured out, ask yourself these three questions.
“Am I focusing on the things I can control, or am I getting bogged down in everything else I can’t control?”
“Have I exceeded my capacity? Am I doing too much physically, and am I managing my sleep, diet, and stress effectively?”
“Am I using movement to keep my nervous system properly tuned to avoid becoming overly sensitive?”