What is Pain?
Pain is a universal human experience, but we know surprisingly little about it. We don’t necessarily know what it is, but we know it when we see it. When we fall it hurts, when we get stung by a bee it hurts, when we go too hard on leg day it hurts. Sometimes things hurt for very long periods of time and that begins to shape our actions, behaviors and even our thoughts. But what are we really feeling when we are in pain? Why can't we just get rid of it?
The history of our theory of pain is long and often wacky. For thousands of years, cultures believed pain (and all disease) was a product of the infestation of spirits, witchcraft, curses or some other supernatural occurrence.
Today, we understand more, but not much. More recently, people began to think that pain is carried in wire-like nerves that lead up to the brain, creating an “output” of pain. Other people believe there must be a single “pain center” in the brain that can be targeted, drugged or cut out to cure people of their pain. On some level, we all know pain is much less tangible than that.
If we define pain a little more clearly, we realize that these old theories of pain don’t make much sense. There are several dominant definitions of pain, but I want to propose one that captures why we should think a little more deeply about pain and what it means, particularly in the context of exercise.
Pain is a protective, avoidance, and sense-making behavior associated with an immediate or perceived threat. Pain is so much more than a “bad sensation”, it is a way that we learn about the world by recognizing danger, avoiding harm and understanding the forces that shape our environment. In this way, pain is first reactive, then predictive, and over time it becomes an incredibly useful but incomplete sense-making tool, capable of making mistakes and sometimes with built-in bugs. Nevertheless, we depend on it to move through the world.
Next time you feel some pain think about how that pain changes the way you act, behave and think. Before you resist it or take action to suppress it, ask yourself, “ What can I learn from this experience so I am more resilient in the future”. For many people, pain doesn’t have to be limiting forever. In some sense, it might be just what you need to adapt and be stronger tomorrow than you were yesterday.