There are a lot of myths and misconceptions out there about what causes pain. There is also a lot we still don’t know about how pain really works. What we do know, however, is that a lot of what we were taught in school and at home about pain is just plain wrong.
This is such a huge topic that people have written entire books on this subject. In an effort to keep this to a manageable length, I’m going to focus on 3 common misconceptions that often impacts a person’s decision to get a massage.
1. Arthritis causes pain – “Be careful around my low back (or knees or hands), I have arthritis.” I hear this and other similar statements all the time in my massage practice. The thing is, some people with tons of arthritis have no pain at all while some people with only a teensy amount have excruciating pain. We don’t know why this is, but there have been research studies that show this to be true.
Many studies show that massage, when done correctly (i.e. not too aggressively), has a positive impact on pain level in people with arthritis, especially in the area around the arthritis. Hmmm… Seems that the muscles around the arthritis can get a bit cheesed off and the nervous system can get a bit hyper-active and over-protective. Good thing massage can relieve muscle tension and calm the nervous system.
2. Disc bulges cause pain – This one’s a bit tricky because if a disc bulges enough in the right direction, it can press on one of the spinal nerves and that will hurt. Like a mother. It will give you radiating pain that’s burning, buzzing, vibrating, prickly, crawling ants, tingling, or even pins & needles. It can also cause you to feel pain from a stimulus that’s not normally painful, like light touch. Researchers have found that most people with bulging discs don’t have one that’s actually pressing on the nerves. So what causes the pain? We don’t really know. But a lot of people have bulging discs that aren’t pressing on nerves and they are able to obtain relief from properly applied massage techniques that lengthen the back muscles and give the disc more space to live between the vertebrae.
3. Degenerated discs cause pain – Discs degenerate as a normal part of the aging process. As we age, blood supply to each disc slowly decreases. By age 40 almost everyone shows evidence of some degree of disc degeneration, yet most of those people don’t have constant pain in the areas where the discs are degenerated. Researchers have shown that twisting, bending, lifting heavy loads, and even working in awkward positions don’t cause discs to degenerate. Those things may, however, cause pain in muscles that don’t have sufficient strength, flexibility, or endurance to handle those tasks.
Lucky for you, there is plenty of evidence that shows that increasing flexibility through massage and increasing strength and endurance though training or physical therapy can significantly decrease back pain in the area around degenerated discs.
I’m telling you this for one important reason: Our beliefs affect our body and our actions. It’s called confirmation bias.
If you believe that bulging discs, degenerated discs, or arthritis will always cause pain, you won’t look for possible ways to ease the pain. In fact, you may reject direct evidence of a cause that could easily be corrected by massage, bodywork, or many other complementary therapies, and will needlessly stay in pain instead of trying a treatment or therapy that might relieve, or at least reduce, that pain.
For the record, clients aren’t the only ones who experience confirmation bias; all healthcare workers are subject to its effects if they’re not on the lookout for it. For them it often manifests as an unwillingness to change a diagnosis or treatment plan even when presented with evidence that it’s wrong or not working. It’s the bane and frustration of both sides of the healthcare coin.
Now it’s your turn. Do you have one of these 3 conditions? Do you have pain? Have you tried any complementary therapies like massage therapy? Did they provide any relief? Tell me about it in the comments below.