What is pain? What does it feel like? Does it feel different with different experiences? Does it feel different for every person? Is there a difference between discomfort and pain? What is the difference?
Pain is one of the most confusing feelings our bodies can experience. It can be experienced as an emotional loss, it can be experienced as inflammation, it can be experienced from signals the brain receives from an elevated HR, change in blood PH, levels of oxygen in our tissues and higher respiration rates. There are probably even some pain signals our body gets from hormonal releases that aren’t involved in inflammation, lack of serotonin for example could be one. Pain is complicated and experienced in many different ways but are all of these pains signals the same? Are they connected at all? Can we ignore some and not others? This blog post will serve to help you think about these questions and give you some perspective on pain. Keep in mind however, there is no black and white answers when it comes to pain and circumstances will more than likely dictate your actions towards the type of pain you are feeling.
Not all pain signals are the same and they can originate from very different circumstances. In the paragraph above we mention three places pain can originate which can be categorized into Metabolic, Physical, and Emotional.
Metabolic pain is the pain many people have felt during an intense workout. This can be an intense burning feeling in working tissues, respiration rate increases to the point where it feels like you are suffocating (more on this later but this can also be emotional) elevated heart rate to the point where you feel like your heart is going to explode, loss of coordination and loss of ability to contract finite muscles. It’s important to note that this coordination and ability to contract will return after exercise (if it doesn't, that is a different pain). These feelings will feel familiar to an individual who exercise or athletes. There are times where it literally may feel like we are dying. Luckily for us we have a “central governor” that will shut down our exercising unwillingly before we die. It takes a different type of person to get to the point where the central governor will take over, and most people will give into the DISCOMFORT of this metabolic pain well before we reach our physiological limits. As with any individual some people will be able to handle certain signals better than others. A high heart rate might feel like the end of the world to one individual while another can comfortably work at 90% of their max heart rate. You will have to discover what signals you shy away from, and which you can handle. Metabolic pain is more discomfort than anything and, because of our central governor, the pain we feel in workouts will act a stress response to the body and allow us to create adaptations that will allow us to improve and push further in our training before we experience these same signals.
Don’t read that and feel guilty though. If your goals are to stay healthy, to have longevity and have a good physique, there is nothing wrong with giving into this discomfort. Doing this, you may be training to your minimal effective dose but don’t be afraid to push it further every once in a while. The further you dig into that discomfort, the higher your stress response and the more signaling for adaptation your body will send out. If your goals are to compete in the sport of fitness and you have never experienced the metabolic pain described in the paragraphs above, you are either new to the sport or have yet to push yourself hard enough to get to that point. To become your best you will eventually have to push yourself to the point where you touch that central governor. As with anything though, metabolic pain can become bad if we push too hard for too long and bump into that Central Governor threshold day in and day out. This metabolic pain can then start to elicit physical pain.
Physical pain comes in the form of a tissue injury or structural injury. A tear, tight tissues, dislocated joints, broken bones will send a signal to the brain that something isn’t quite right in the body. Things like a dull ache, sharp stinging feeling, loss of muscle coordination at all times, inability to move the body in certain positions or resist against certain pressures are all signs of physical injuries which have the tendency to cause physical pain. These are all markers of negative physical pain. You should stop whatever it is you are doing and consult a physician if you experience any of these. This is where things can get a little tricky though. If you have ever laid on a foam roller or had a deep tissue massage we have felt the pressure applied send pain signals to our brain, BUT if you are able to ignore them and relax the tissue will also relax and, in general, you will achieve a better and new range of motion. This is an example where you have to explore and discover whether this is discomfort or actual physical pain. Figuring out which signals you need to stop for and which signals you should be concerned about.
With physical pain a majority of this can come from tissues being tight and pulling joints or bones out of place. This can result in an inflammation like feeling and often if we find the “log jammed” muscle and massage is out we can trade one pain (discomfort) in massage for another in the relief of tight tissues. More often than not, a lot of competitive athletes are feeling this style of pain, and this is why it is very important to continually and consistently go and get body work if you are looking to push your body to the limits on a regular basis.
Emotional pain often comes in the form in the loss of a relationship, or events that can elicit what is defined as a negative emotion, depression, anxiety, anger, fear etc. These emotions can be painful to use in a way we haven’t really discovered yet, and our best way to verbally relate them is through the physical pain that they cause us. Losing an individual close to us can actually cause us to feel physical pain. You may have experienced heartache after a break up or loss of a loved one or the metabolic pain they can cause us. “I thought about the workout and my anxiety levels rose, and my heart started racing.” As a stand alone these emotional pains can create a negative feedback loop and cause us to get stuck in a pain cycle that we can never get out of. Traumatic events in childhood or in life have a high probability of doing this to an individual.
This once again is where pain gets tricky. Emotional pain can absolutely stem from physical or psychological thought, and as we saw in the last paragraph can create metabolic and physical pain. Anxiety about getting hurt or re-injuring a prior injury. Anxiety or fear of feeling like your heart is about to explode or fear of not being able to breath. These are examples as to how all forms of pain can become interlinked. These examples work visa versa as well, metabolic or physical pain can occur during a workout and all of the sudden we are experiencing emotional pain in the middle of our workout as well. All of these things can raise tension levels in the body. This is where the body is interconnected to extreme levels and our pain can cause our sympathetic nervous system to fire which can cause us even more pain.
Pain is not an easy emotion to understand. It takes time to understand and self reflecting on the things you are feeling, to fully understand it for yourself, and how to distinguish between what pain signal you are feeling. It will also take time to understand the difference between DISCOMFORT and PAIN. It will require you to step out of your comfort zone, and dive head first into things you may have never experienced before or push past that voice in your head telling you to stop. Metabolic pain is closely related to discomfort so start your adventure in exploring pain vs discomfort here in your workouts. Pain is scary, but coming to a better understanding of the different types will help you push when you need to push and back off when you need to back off. In the end, understanding these different types of pain will make you a better athlete/competitor and or keep you healthy and keep your longevity to train for decades.